Book Review-Tyler Moon

Gifted at Risk: Poetic PortraitsJean Sunde Peterson, Ph.D.

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In this work, Dr. Peterson presents roughly sixty poems that she has written over her career as a counselor and educator to gifted students that depict the various problems that these students face, paying specific attention to gifted underachievers. Each poem is accompanied with one page narratives that add more detail and context to the poetic portraits. I interpreted this piece of literature as a more human examination of underachievement, meaning that the experiences of the students depicted in these poetic portraits are rarely examined through statistical analysis but are rather reflective of the human condition, specifically as experienced by those who are gifted and underachieving. The fact that empirical research is scantly present in this work might prove problematic to some, and I readily admit that at some places an addition of scholarly work might have been helpful; however, I feel that the first hand accounts of these gifted at risk students are compelling in and of themselves.

I interpret the culminating theme of this book as being that gifted underachievement is largely developmental, meaning that social and emotional factors such as personal and family trauma, the not knowing of individual purpose or interests, and the inability to socially fit in, prohibits students from performing to their academic potential due to the fact that they either are simply not developmentally ready or are “stuck” in these areas. Dr. Peterson states this explicitly when explaining why in her opinion a certain student was failing to academically succeed: “I believe then, as I do now, that underachievement in gifted kids is largely developmental” (23). She goes on to recall that in the gifted counseling groups that she led that gifted underachievers were largely “more expressive about social and emotional development” (23). Placing development as the core reason for underachievement leads to two essential points in regards to gifted underachievers, or at least two that I recognized in this work. The first point is that developmental change is inevitable and the second being that this change must be largely brought on by the student and cannot be accomplished through external forces.

This first point, that change will necessarily occur, is intuitively implied by Dr. Peterson by the simply fact that nothing is static in the nature of human events and this certainly holds true for gifted underachievers and the realities that surrounds them. Dr. Peterson states quite plainly that “if underachievement is sometimes simply (and complexly) developmental, then adults can communicate hope to low performers that multi-level change is not only possible, but inevitable. Nothing, bad or good, stays exactly the same. Situations change, people change, and kids grow up” (37). I feel that this notion of believing that positive change is possible for every gifted underachiever, or every underachiever for that matter, regardless of the individual student or the circumstances that surround him or her is very encouraging indeed.

After explaining that the reason for gifted underachievement is largely developmental making positive change always possible, Dr. Peterson then moves to explain how this change must come about. She suggests that change to produce academic achievement must come from within the underachieving student. She stresses this point when recalling how a “low motivation gifted junior reported in his group that his mother had said, few times in recent years, that she trusted that ‘he’d figure it out’ himself sometime—although she didn’t know if it would be next week or 10 years down the road” and how she thought that this sentiment was a valuable insight (37). She does not imply that gifted educators and counselors should take a hands off approach in light of the subjective way that developmental change must occur, because steps can be taken to accommodate these students in light of the problems that they face, which can make the process of changing both easier and quicker. It is for this reason that she calls for greater awareness on the part of educators for what kind of challenges gifted students might face and for actions such as helping students find ways to engage with academic material that is interesting to them.

I would highly recommend Dr. Peterson’s book for any interested in learning more about how to approach gifted underachievers and the various problems that they face. As someone who is new to gifted education and education in general, I found Dr. Peterson’s book very informative and helpful. I thought her notion and reasoning for why change is possible for every gifted underachiever was very encouraging; however, the subjective nature of how this change must come about is somewhat troubling due to seemingly lack of control the teacher or counselor has upon the process. However, upon further reflection, I find this to be no different from what I have gained to be the nature of teaching in general, in that the ability of the teacher to do what his or her profession calls for, to teach, almost exclusively lies with the willingness of the student to engage with the learning process, which as Dr Peterson suggests could be stalled by developmental factors.

Peterson, Jean (2009). Gifted at Risk: Poetic Portraits. Scottsale: Great Potential Press, Inc.