Defining Success

Recently, I reread Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (2008) and I was struck by how he viewed success in the United States.  We forget that much of individual success is built on hard work, with a focus on what we enjoy doing. We see successful people and call them lucky. Gladwell explains that many factors go into becoming a successful person, and Gladwell’s various stories and theories about success impacted me as an educator. In fact, it made me reflect deeply about how schools could increase the access and provide additional opportunities for all students to begin their work toward becoming an expert in an area of strength, talent, or interest.

One of our talented trades students at Westside High School

As educators, we can and should play a role in supporting students and their success.

Yes, talent, commitment, hard work, opportunity, and when you are born does make a difference. My father was born in 1920.  As it turned out, we all know where young men born at that time were in 1941-1945. They were fighting World War II. Gladwell also provides examples of successful hockey and baseball players who are given better opportunities to grow, along with access to better coaching, partly because of when they were born.

Photo courtesy Siena Gailloux for Westside Wired

Additionally, the titans of Silicon Valley were born in 1954-1955.  The examples of Bill Joy and Bill Gates show that they were afforded opportunities to try new things and to learn from failure:  Bill Joy at the University of Michigan and Bill Gates at his private school in Seattle. They explored and spent time learning how to code and try out their theories in ways that other young bright people were not able to do at that time.  Fortunately for them, they were living at a time and working in areas where they could spend hours on a computer due to time-sharing capabilities found in Ann Arbor and Seattle. Granted, they also worked very hard and learned from failure. But more importantly, they began to accumulate the 10,000 hours needed to become an expert in an area of interest that became a passion.

While Bill Gates and Bill Joy enjoyed opportunities to grow and to develop their talents, many of our students do not. As public educators, we understand that many minorities and disadvantaged students, due to underachieving schools, uninspiring teaching, and poor financial circumstances, do not have access nor are they provided opportunity to begin the necessary work toward becoming an expert.  I recently read an article by Renzulli and Brandon (2017) that outlined an approach to solving the under-representation of minorities and low income students in gifted and enrichment programs found in America’s public schools. It is critical to identify and instruct all students in ways that reveal their potential to their teachers and, more importantly, to themselves. We cannot wait until they are graduates before starting to work on the 10,000 hours needed to become an expert.

Learners at Westbrook Elementary

Much like Sir Kenneth Robinson (2009) states in his book The Element, understanding that you have a talent and an aptitude for something leads to success. It is not just luck or when you were born; all generations have unique opportunities.  However, having access and opportunity to nurture that talent and aptitude is just as important to possessing that innate talent and turning it into a strength. In our school district, we use the Gallup Explorer with our learners so they may begin, at an early age, to understand themselves and turn their talents into strengths, taking advantage of the opportunities that may come along in their lifetimes.

Award-winning educator Kristeen Shabram mentoring Westside STEM students at Nebraska GeoCyber Camp

I have learned through my experience as a superintendent and as an elementary and middle school principal that programs such as the Renzulli and Reis (1997) Schoolwide Enrichment Model (SEM) and Renzulli’s (2001) Academies of Inquiry and Talent Development (AITD) are essential for our youngest learners to begin their journey of becoming an expert.  

I implemented both approaches in schools where I served as principal and superintendent.  As the principal of John Bullen Middle School, I observed increases in attendance, positive behavior and, most importantly, student achievement. In fact, the cohort of African American students that transition to Bradford High School in Kenosha, Wisconsin saw the highest ACT scores among black students that school had seen in many years.  

Why? We changed the mindset of those students by identifying them for gifted and enrichment programs and activities.  Our faculty recognized our learners’ many talents and high potential and then nurtured students through SEM and AITD programs.  These students realized that they could aspire to college, community college, or earn certifications that put them on a positive pathway to a career.  They had begun the accumulation of 10,000 hours and felt very good about where they were heading. My most vivid memory is about a sixth grade student who became the “school meteorologist.”  His focus and dedication to the field he loved led to a college degree in this area and he is now an associate researcher working on weather satellite systems at the University of Wisconsin.

KETV Chief Meteorologist Bill Randy teaching Oakdale Elementary students about weather through science

Today, at Westside Community Schools we extend learning for many students through internships, dual credit opportunities, and our Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS)  in the areas of Information Technology, STEM education, and health sciences, creating opportunities for students to work closely with Omaha businesses.

I see the value of personalized learning for all students through the implementation of SEM and AITD. My colleagues and I see a relationship between personalized learning and gifted education. Working with Joe Renzulli, we continue to expand our definition of gifted and talented identification. In our district, we also talk about students with high potential so that we can provide access to robust academic programming and opportunities to become an expert.

I am able to connect personalized learning, gifted education, and  the PLC movement by using gifted strategies to extend learning for all students. While this includes identified gifted students, a teacher is able to serve many more students who demonstrate task commitment, creativity, and high potential.  By knowing our students well, we gain a better understanding of what they enjoy learning about and we help them to do their best work on a daily basis. It helps teachers to nurture their strengths, talents and interests.

In my experience, SEM and AITD are the springboards for a school district to extend and personalize learning for all students and to combat the under-representation of underprivileged children who are often overlooked for gifted and enrichment programs. It is time to fully see all students and their individual talents so we may support them in their journey toward expert status.  We do not want to miss the next generation of people like Bill Gates and Bill Joy.


Honoring A Hero Through Kindness

As Americans prepared to head to the polls for the 2008 Presidential Election, both candidates, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, held town halls across the country. At one campaign event, a woman told Senator McCain, “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him, and he’s not, he’s not — he’s an Arab.” Senator McCain shook his head, took the microphone from that woman and responded, “No ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.” John McCain lived his values and beliefs not to campaign negatively, but to maintain a discourse that was respectful and focused on the key issues of the presidential campaign. Click here to watch more.

Photo courtesy CNN

Senator McCain died August 25th, and President Obama was one of the many, on both sides of aisle, who shared respectful tributes to this American hero, patriot, and kind human being. John McCain exemplified that, while we can choose to be anything in this life, we can all choose to be kind. As I listened to the many comments made about Senator McCain, I was struck both by his kindness and his gratitude; his grace in facing a terminal diagnosis and speaking about how grateful he was for his life; the many opportunities he was afforded to serve his country and to meet his fellow Americans along the way; and to build a family, all in the greatest country in the world. Yes, Senator McCain could disagree and he could argue with his colleagues, but he maintained a certain decorum, a certain respect.  My father taught all four of his children that everyone should be treated with respect and dignity no matter how we might be treated. I have kept that lesson close to me throughout my life.

Earlier this month, the #BeKind campaign kicked off at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. #BeKind is our theme this year, not just at Westside Community Schools, but at dozens of school districts across the state of Nebraska. In addition, local government officials, including boards of education, city governments and mayors, and many statewide educational organizations, passed and signed resolutions to support our #BeKind initiative.

We are already seeing powerful displays of goodwill, generosity and love from our students, staff members, and community. Public education is not solely about facts and classroom lessons; we want to nurture and teach our learners to use their talents and strengths as they grow and mature into the best people they can be, in all facets of their lives. #BeKind isn’t just a slogan, it’s a movement that is constantly reminding all of us to be better – to others and to ourselves – to make our world a better place.


Senator McCain is remembered for many things: as a courageous prisoner of war; as a maverick leader who always fought for the person who needed his help; for his strong beliefs; and as a senator who was known for his integrity as much as for his position. President George W. Bush, who was asked to speak at the Senator’s funeral, said: “Some lives are so vivid, it is difficult to imagine them ended. Some voices are so vibrant, it is hard to think of them stilled. John McCain was a man of deep conviction and a patriot of the highest order. He was a public servant in the finest traditions of our country. And to me, he was a friend whom I’ll deeply miss.”

John McCain’s belief in and gratitude for our democracy is something that, as a social studies teacher, I worked to instill in my students. We do live in a great country and we should be grateful for all of those who came before us to create this republic.  Granted, it is not perfect, but as Winston Churchill once said, “Indeed it has been said, democracy is the worst form of government except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time……”

Like John McCain, please Be vivid. Be vibrant. Be a friend. #BeKind.