#9 How to Challenge Gifted Students: An Interview with Dr. Arianna Shirk

A key challenge at Mount Vernon (and every school I have worked in) is how to challenge those students who score 100 on everything. Often, the teacher’s energy and focus goes to the “lower performing” students. The high achievers often do not receive the challenge they deserve because teachers think, “Oh, they’re fine. They’ve already got it. They get everything. They can help tutor the others.” This is a myth in need of busting. All students deserve and need to be challenge beyond their current ability, including and especially the ‘gifted’ students.

A key approach to solving challenges at Mount Vernon is Design Thinking. One important component of design thinking is learning to empathize with people who are or have experienced the challenge you are trying to solve first hand. In my attempt to gain empathy for the gifted, yet unchallenged students in our middle school as we seek to design better and more challenging programs, I have interviewed my sister-in-law, Dr. Arianna Shirk.

 shirk family

Dr. Shirk is family and she is extremely intelligent, motivated, creative, and high-achieving. Allow me to brag about her for a moment. She earned scholarships to high school in NC, Furman University for undergrad, and Wake Forest University for Medical School. At Furman, she was allowed to make up her own major as part of their Engaged Learning initiative and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Perspectives on Poverty and Health. She studied the interaction of eastern and western medicine for a year as a Luce Scholar in Taiwan. She scored a 1580 on SAT, twenty points shy of perfect. Currently, she is a Pediatric Emergency Medicine Fellow at University Alabama at Birmingham and plans to move to Tanzania to help build one of the first free standing children’s hospitals in Eastern Africa.

How old were you when you first became aware of your need to be challenged beyond the typical classroom?

I was pulled out for enrichment learning classes in 1st grade where I wrote a play, learned chess, and did science field trips.

What most challenged you in middle school?
They gave me creative challenges with room for creativity.  A term paper on the Japanese Industrial Revolution. Special projects –  We did an election notebook in 7th grade 1992. We had to volunteer for the party of our choice. We wrote a report on a candidate at every level (county, state, and national) of government and studied the election process. We created a piece of election propaganda. I was assigned to be the debate coach which included watching the debates and prepping a fellow student candidate for a mock election. And I was a spelling bee nerd – I spent a few too many hours study Webster’s dictionary and running words with my parents.

What bored you the most?

When I had to regurgitate the book. I disliked one of my freshman high school classes because we never covered anything in class that wasn’t in the book. I did my homework and was bored to tears in class because nothing was new in class – I could memorize but wanted to learn to see it in a new way I couldn’t figure out myself.

What advice do you have for gifted students who want to be challenged?

If you have an idea, ask your teacher if you can do it. I’m still doing it – working on adapting my fellowship next year and plan to prepare myself better to practice medicine and maneuver the healthcare system in Africa.  If possible, choose writing topics that are more complex and require more research to write so you have the chance to learn more.  Figure out what you love and figure out how to make it part of your education every step of the way.

What advice do you have for educators who seek to differentiate for gifted students?

Show interest in them as people. Treat them as more than just students. Know more about them than just their grades or their ability to memorize things. My teachers that became mentors  made me feel confident and that I could do more than people expected middle schoolers to do.

Students rise to the challenge when they have ownership – when it engages passion or imagination. If they are doing something to check a box or get a grade it can limit their potential. I’m very good at checking boxes, but I had mentors along the way that made me create my own boxes.


Thank you Dr. Shirk!

For the readers, what strategies do you recommend for challenging the students who need a bit more?

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