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Save a Starfish and Rescue Yourself

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Sorcha Hyland
Lara Mann
Deb Griswold
Elizabeth Kozleski

By Barbara A. Kerr. Williamson Family Distinguished Professor of Counseling Psychology, University of Kansas (KU) School of Education.


Teachers, you know the old story. A guy is walking along the beach where a tsunami has swept thousands of starfish ashore. He is throwing one starfish at a time back into the sea. Another guy walks up to him and says, “So many thousands of dying starfish. What do you accomplish by throwing one back in the sea? What does it matter?” The first guy says, as he throws another one, “Mattered to him.”

Sometimes, I am sure you feel like you are surrounded by struggling starfish. Decades of reduced funding, blaming teachers for students’ failure to meet test goals, and school closings mean that teachers, students, principals are demoralized by the long siege of the “reformers”. You’re tired of building seawalls against the tsunami… writing letters, organizing, going to meetings, speaking out… and I know that sometimes you just want to quit.


Before you quit teaching, let me have a word. I want to implore you to save a starfish. I want to encourage you to find ONE creative kid. Wait – I heard your train of thought: Creative = gifted = elitism = one white kid from a middle-class family. Just stop. I’m not talking about that. Forget the labels and the complex identification procedures for gifted education that so often favor more privileged students who have been exposed to the kinds of experiences and opportunities that are often assessed as part of the formal processes for determining/labeling who is gifted who is not.


Creative students who have potential to become innovators in the arts, sciences, social vocations and entrepreneurship are some of our most neglected students. Creative kids are everywhere. In fact, creativity knows no boundaries of race, class, gender, disability or any other category devised to divide us. For example, a number of great inventors came from low-income families that had to make do, to fix things, and to tinker with an engine or a recipe until a solution is found that works.  Some eminent women writers were considered at-risk.


All kids are curious, engaged in their own learning adventures, and in love with ideas. It might be the girl or boy who reads alone at recess or insinuates his or herself into the basketball game, or spends more time drawing the four square court than playing the game. It might be the kid who doodles no matter what. It might be the kid who knows everything there is to know about videogames but doesn’t do his homework. Curiosity and creativity is part of human experience.  For some students, creativity trumps all other preoccupations.  Writing, building, coding, drawing, and emoting make school livable.


Find that kid. Teachers are good at finding creative kids – yes, my research says so – look it up. (“Finding Tomorrow’s Innovators: Profiling Creative Adolescents”) Using your intuition and your knowledge will help you recognize the creative kids around you. You can look up our five categories of traits: Verbal and linguistic skills, mathematics and science, spatial and visual skills, interpersonal and emotional skills, and music and dance (Kerr & McKay, 2013).

Screen Shot 2017-10-25 at 9.15.15 AM

Photograph courtesy of Sorcha Hyland

I think you already know what a future inventor, artist, writer, or leader looks like. Curious, quirky, independent, single-minded, nonconforming, and sometimes a little weird – find that kid. Ask, “What are you drawing…that looks amazing!” “Tell me about that book you’re hiding in your lap. What’s it about? What do you like about it?” “How did you figure out how to make that – it works great!” That’s how the conversation starts. Then find out what he or she wants to know about that topic, and give the gift of knowledge. Slip her a book to read. Tell him where he can find an animation software program. Show him an article on Japanese cultural influences on early Nintendo games. Now keep the conversation going, every day. Share your enthusiasm for the student’s passions with the parents. Find a friend who knows something about that kid’s interest, and introduce that person to the family—that’s social capital. Look for after-school programs or a summer camp that fits, and find a local library, museum, or college where that child has never been – and get him or her there – that’s cultural capital. Find and raise scholarship money for those programs – that’s capital. Talk about careers, and help the kid develop their own agency to pursue their goals.  Finally, follow up, even after the school year is over. “What are you doing now? What’s your latest project? I’d love to see it!”


Michael #145973. Inkjet print by artist Rick Ashley, 2014. Photographed on exhibit at the Smithsonian  American Art Museum, D.C.

Pretend you’re in the post-apocalyptic scenario that has seized the imagination of a generation, and find one kid to hold safely in your hands. Keep that child safe, shelter that child from the storm. One day, he or she will find, with your help, the creative community where ideas and new enterprises can thrive. Be an advocate for that creative child until that day comes when you can throw your starfish into the sheltering sea of like souls.


Sherlock. Colored pencil illustration by Aoife Sidener, 2016. Age: 10 years. Grade: 5th.

Maybe you will discover what I did. When you find one kid, when you see her or him, when you authentically collaborate with one kid, you learn something about yourself. Perhaps you will re-awaken your love for teaching. Perhaps you awaken your own curiosity and passion for learning and new ideas. When we acknowledge the mysterious human gifts of exploration and creation in others, we find it in ourselves. To rescue starfish is to rescue ourselves.


Alison Bechdel. Charcoal, mixed media and 3-D collage by Riva Lehrer, 2011. Photographed on exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, D.C. 


Kerr, B. A., & McKay, R. (2014). Smart girls in the 21st century: Understanding talented girls and women. Tucson AZ: Great Potential Press.

Kerr, B. A., Cohn, S. J. (2001). Smart boys: Talent, manhood and the search for meaning. Scottsdale AZ: Great Potential Press.

Kerr, B. & McKay, R., (2013). Searching for tomorrow’s innovators: Profiling creative adolescents. Creativity Research Journal, 25(1). 21-32. DOI: 10.1080/10400419.2013.752180


Barbara Kerr, Ph.D. holds an endowed chair as Distinguished Professor of Counseling Psychology at the University of Kansas and is an American Psychological Association Fellow. Her M.A. from the Ohio State University and her Ph.D. from the University of Missouri are both in counseling psychology. Her research has focused on the development of talent, creativity, and optimal states, while training psychologists and counselors to be talent scouts who provide positive, strengths-based services. She founded the Guidance Laboratory for Gifted and Talented at the University of Nebraska; was Associate Director of the Belin-Blank National Center for Gifted and Talented at the University of Iowa; and co-director of the National Science Foundation projects for talented at risk girls at Arizona State University. She is editor of the recent Encyclopedia of Giftedness, Creativity, and Talent Development, and author of Smart Girls: A New Psychology of Girls, Women, and Giftedness; A Handbook for Counseling Gifted and Talented; co-author of Smart Boys: Talent, Masculinity, and the Search for Meaning, Counseling Girls and Women and over one hundred articles, chapters, and papers in the area of giftedness, talent, and creativity. She currently directs the Counseling Laboratory for the Exploration of Optimal States (CLEOS) at the University of Kansas, a research through service program that identifies and guides creative adolescents. With Karen Multon, she has co-directed the NSF Project, Milestones and Danger Zones for STEM Women. Barbara Kerr specializes in optimal human development and positive psychology, counseling of gifted and creative people, gender issues in counseling, and spirituality. Web site: http://cleos.ku.edu/

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