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A Gift for Education

July 28, 2010

“Your energy comes from your passion,” explained Dorothy (Denning ’58) Sisk when asked about how she can possibly manage to find the time to do all that she does to educate children and teachers around the world. “My passion is being a facilitator of developing talents and gifts in both children and adults worldwide.”

Dorothy, a member of the Mount Union Board of Trustees, serves as the Conn Chair for Gifted Education at Lamar University’s College of Education and Human Development in Lamar, TX.

And this is how this teacher of teachers is spending her summer.

“Summer is a particularly busy time for me since I have three research programs going on,” she said. “I run a Texas Governor's School (one of four sponsored by the state) and a Quality Teacher Program in Science in Earth Science Explorations as well as a Success Express program sponsored by Exxon Mobil for four and five year old minority economically-disadvantaged children.”

For the past 20 years, 100 16-year old gifted children have been chosen to attend the Texas Governor’s School, thanks to Dorothy. This school for the gifted began in August of 1989 when Dorothy first joined the faculty at Lamar. “I had worked for the government prior to that, so when the commissioner came to Lamar, I asked him how I could help. He was very surprised and asked me to start a Texas Governor’s School. He told me that there would be a match for the money I could raise to start the program and I set about right away to get it accomplished.”

The students move into the dormitory at Lamar for three weeks – and Dorothy moves right in with them. In addition, 10 students from each of the previous two classes are brought back to mentor and stay with the students in the dormitory as well. These students learn Chinese (Mandarin) and get to experience other accelerated programs that impact them for a lifetime.

“I was recently contacted by a student from that very first class in 1990,” said Dorothy. “He now holds a Ph.D. in economics and said he has vivid memories of the time he spent at the Texas Governor’s School.”

Success Express is a two-week session designed for at-risk four and five year olds that integrates algebraic thinking and reading through stories using the theme of animals, both from the farm and the zoo. This program incorporates an integrated approach to strengthen the ideas of students and involves the families in the learning process to lay the foundation for their future success. Classes are set up as learning centers and there is total integration. Even the snacks are planned as part of the educational theme.  “These children are so excited about learning that there are never any discipline problems,” said Dorothy. “We keep them too busy.”

In June, she also traveled to Athens, Greece for the International Center for Innovative Education (ICIE), an international conference on education and innovation where she presented a keynote address on developing global awareness in gifted students. Inspired by the conference, she has returned to Texas determined to build a satellite ICIE center in Lamar.

 “I want to bring more exposure to diversity to the area,” said Dorothy. “This would include bringing in international speakers and more diversity to enrich the lives of those in the area. When you come face-to-face with a new culture, you become aware of both the differences and the similarities and you grow to uphold the values of difference.”

Another result of her trip is a new relationship with educators from Israel whose passion to start a satellite ICIE program was also ignited in Greece. “Two post-doctoral students from Israel are coming to shadow me,” said Dorothy. And what a tall shadow she casts. Her energy is contagious and she is always taking on new and exciting projects with the energy and gusto of a recent graduate poised to educate the world.

Dorothy also has a proposal in to Corwin Press, her publisher, to write about caring classrooms, which recognizes the need for gifted students to learn in an environment that values them. “Gifted children experience both intellectual and emotional highs and are often looked upon as immature,” she explained. These children need to learn in an environment that makes them feel welcome and respected and addresses their individual gifts. Dorothy emphasizes teaching through learning communities and is currently teaching 25 teachers to become a part of professional learning community. “The classroom should be a place where everyone feels a sense of belonging,” said Dorothy.

As an executive for People to People, Dorothy took a group of 50 educators to Cuba 15 years ago. This coming January she plans to make another visit with a group of teachers. This will be her second trip there. “They are doing everything right with nothing,” she said about the teachers and students there. “We are doing next to nothing with everything.” In Cuba, Dorothy and her group found that the impoverished students “were actually teaching us. They were enamored with the fact that we were doing our best to speak Spanish with them. We were the first group to do so.”

And, if that isn’t more than enough for this self-proclaimed whirling dervish, Dorothy is also researching an article on leadership for the Roeper Review, a journal that publishes informative articles that address philosophical, psychological, moral and academic issues affecting the lives and experiences of gifted and talented individuals of all ages. “Leadership is a special type of giftedness,” she said.

And Dorothy is certainly a special type of gifted leader and educator.

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