POLSON — Learning a new language can be a difficult task for high school students, even with the guidance of a teacher. For Tamara Fisher’s middle school advanced studies class, it can be tricky, too. But that’s because some of those students are learning Italian, Swedish and Arabic... on their own.
For 30 years, Polson middle and high schools have had the Gifted and Talented Program challenging the bright minds of tomorrow, today. The program offers students the opportunity to complete a project of their choosing, based on several factors, including their personal interest and motivation. Students this semester are achieving a wide range of objectives, from designing a ventriloquism dummy, to learning ventriloquism to writing and publishing their own books.
Fisher, K-12 Gifted Education Specialist in the Polson School District, has been overseeing the program for the last 16 years. She has a master’s degree in gifted education from the University of Connecticut and has been involved with the Gifted and Talented Program in some capacity since she was a kid, always knowing she wanted to be a teacher.
At Polson, and with the help of the district, she’s made tremendous strides with the program, including implementing the first advanced studies program, which has been replicated at other schools.
“The district afforded me the opportunities to not only access professional development and to become more knowledgeable but also the creative freedom and flexibility to try what I knew to be best and to improve and tweak it,” Fisher said.
The advanced studies class is an elective option for grades 7-12 and gives students the chance to direct themselves in a project that is intellectually and inspirationally demanding. One look at the program today opens eyes as to what is happening in the district. In addition to the aforementioned projects students are working on this semester, others are learning about Google SketchUp, building marshmallow guns or engineering entertainment centers.
“These kids often have very unique interests that often don’t fit into a regular school curriculum or they wouldn’t have a chance to encounter it until many years down the road,” Fisher said. “By having this class, they have the chance to encounter some of those things at a time when they’re ready, but sooner than they would otherwise get it.”
Those projects, done by the middle school class, allow students to direct themselves to complete their goal, but according to Fisher, as important as the goal, if not more so, is the creative process the students encounter along the way. Some of the concepts include illumination, observation and innovation, though the students may also run into irritation throughout the process. Fisher said an important thing to realize is that because the students are so advanced, they may not be used to encountering failure, which is a good thing, as long as they learn to handle it in a positive fashion.
“So often, things are so easy, they don’t need to try more than three times, so they’re specifically put in situations where they have to try 10, 20 or 30 times,” Fisher said.
“It’s about a lot more than just academics,” she added. “Obviously, I’m here to support their academic growth and make sure they’re intellectually challenged, but giftedness comes with its own set of issues. That’s probably, if anything, the more challenging aspect of my job because that’s the least understood by the rest of the world. The rest of the world thinks ‘these are perfect kids who don’t have any worries and if you’re a parent of one of these kids, you’ve got it made’ and the reality is quite different.”
As easy as most subjects come to the gifted and talented students, which constitute roughly 10 percent of the student body, that isn’t always the case, especially in the advanced studies class. The concepts that some of these students deal with are heavy, especially for people their age. Some struggle with what Fisher called existential depression, or in lay terms, a mid-life crisis at just 13 or 14 years old where kids start asking themselves “Why am I here? or “Why haven’t I accomplished anything yet?”and they don’t yet have the life experience to handle it.
Fisher works hard with these students to help them deal with these issues from a psychological perspective, having discussions to talk about the problems and how to approach them. When students get frustrated, there are several ways to handle it, according to Fisher. One of the focal points of the class is to identify the positive ways to cope with that feeling rather than resorting to goofing off, cheating or giving up.
Fisher doesn’t give students the easy way out when the going gets tough, but is always there to help out when it’s necessary.
“I don’t let them drown, but I put it on their shoulders,” Fisher said. “I help them head off problems, but also help them deal with them when they arise.”
So how does a student become involved with the gifted and talented program? Well, there are a variety of factors that play into it, beginning in kindergarten.
At least a dozen times per year, Fisher goes into each kindergarten classroom to conduct thinking skills-based activities not just to observe how the children respond to the challenge, but to expose all students to that level of thinking. Teachers also do formal research-based observations to determine which students might be suited for the program and test scores, both in class and standardized, are also taken into account. Some students in grades 1-5 are pulled out of class once a week to meet with Fisher for further analysis to work on thinking, advocacy and social skills.
The advocacy of opportunities for gifted students has been a hot topic recently, something Fisher believes falls on both schools and parents. Two parents published a letter at the beginning of March, expressing their frustration with the school district’s lack of support and resources provided to those who need additional enrichment.
“I do know that our schools are in the process of looking at ‘what else can we do,’” Fisher said. “‘Are there other ways we can structure our day, arrange our schedule, group kids, etc. Those conversations have been in place and are continuing.”
Fisher isn’t surprised that parents not just here but everywhere are clamoring for schools that better fit their kids.
“I am and always have been a believer that parents should advocate for their kids,” Fisher added. “I have always encouraged parents of my students to advocate for them, in addition to kids, myself and teachers advocating for them. It’s disappointing to know those conversations have already been in place and the letter gives the impression that that kind of stuff isn’t already happening, when it is. It’s disappointing having the community thinking ‘what’s going on’ when behind the scenes, I know there’s stuff happening to see what else we can do.”
While schools look to provide the best opportunity possible for students, Fisher is doing her best to ensure that the students who pass through her doors have every opportunity to succeed not just as pupils, but as people as well, and she is quite gifted in her own right in seeing that through.