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Making a Difference in One Gifted Student: The Starfish Story

Posted by Categories: Gifted Education, Gifted Students, Teachers

The Starfish Story from Loren Eiseley’s essay entitled The Star Thrower, published in 1969 in The Unexpected Universe, has become a very popular and meaningful story since its publication.  Of course, as we are all things gifted here at NSGT, I naturally see it as a story that can help us as educators save the lives of gifted students. Here’s the story for those who need a refresher.

A young man is walking along the ocean and sees a beach on which thousands and thousands of starfish have washed ashore. Further along he sees an old man, walking slowly and stooping often, picking up one starfish after another and tossing each one gently into the ocean.

“Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” he asks.

“Because the sun is up and the tide is going out and if I don’t throw them further in they will die.”

“But, old man, don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it! You can’t possibly save them all, you can’t even save one-tenth of them. In fact, even if you work all day, your efforts won’t make any difference at all.”

The old man listened calmly and then bent down to pick up another starfish and threw it into the sea. “It made a difference to that one.”

When working with teachers, I often find them understandably overwhelmed with the tasks expected of them, which would include the expectation that they can differentiate and individualize all their curriculum to meet the learning needs of the diverse group of individuals facing them each day in their classrooms. So, often I would say, start with just one strategy or just one student and build on that achievement. Such an approach often feels doable to teachers.

For example, today, try to compact your math lesson so that those who already know that math can use that time for something more productive for them. Today, create some challenging questions that have no one right answer. Today, allow one student to research a topic of personal interest to her. Today, find one mentor who can work individually with one student who has an interest or skills beyond what can be provided in the classroom to develop that interest or talent. And so on. Just keep doing that one thing that makes a difference to that one person and before you know it, you have made a difference to many young people.

This story reminds us of the power within us to change the world, one starfish, one student, or one strategy at a time. You never know—you may not just be changing a life, you may be saving a life. If you are an educator who has tried a one-at-a-time approach to gifted and talented education challenges, please share your successes, or frustrations, with us so that we can all continue to grow together.

All the best,

Barbara Swicord, Ed.D.
CEO, National Society for the Gifted and Talented (NSGT)
President, Summer Institute for the Gifted (SIG)

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