Life's Early Lessons Taught Neag Chair
How to Help Kids Learn
January 31, 2000
t's hard to imagine how a scrappy kid from Oakhurst, N.J., who bullied children on the playground and periodically got kicked out of class, would end up as one of this country's renowned educators.
That kid, seemingly headed for a troubled adulthood, was Joseph Renzulli, Neag Professor for Gifted Education and Talent Development and director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented. But those titles don't begin to tell the story of the man who has devoted more than 35 years to making public schools a better place for children.
"He has a dream and a vision for developing and nurturing the love of learning in all students," says Richard Schwab, dean of the Neag School of Education. "At first he was an army of one at UConn and through his relentless work and devotion he - along with the bright, talented people he hired to work with him - built the gifted program into one of national prominence."
The major thrust of Renzulli's research is the identification of gifted and talented students and the development of programming models for both gifted education and general school improvement. He believes that schools should be places for talent development and that students - no matter what their IQ or achievement test scores - should be "provided with opportunities, resources and encouragement to aspire to the highest possible level of talent development."
"Change in education happens school by school," asserts Renzulli, "For lasting improvement it has to come from within the classroom. Improvements will not result from state-level testing programs or the drill-and-kill approach to teaching, aimed at increasing those scores."
Creative Concepts, Practical Plans
Despite the creative terminology used to describe his educational contributions, what Renzulli is trying to do is make learning exciting for all students by turning them into independent, engaged students.
"The first question I ask my two daughters when they step off the school bus each day is, did they have any fun. It's not what they did in school, it's did they have fun learning," he says. "From diapers to doctorate, learning should be fun, because that's when it becomes efficient and effective."
Richard Olenchak, who heads the gifted education program at the University of Houston, and who earned his doctorate 13 years ago while studying with Renzulli, says "Joe's impact on gifted and public education has been remarkable. He's very centered on the needs of people and has a great ability for projecting what those needs might be."
But Renzulli's efforts don't end there, says Olenchak. He credits his mentor for following through on his theories and research by designing the mechanisms that enable educators and support personnel to provide students with the kind of stimulus they need.
That is usually the only way a school reform proposal can be successful, says Renzulli. "It's not good enough to be a theorist, without having practical strategies to follow up," he says. "There are lots of good ideas out there, but getting them into practice is as important as the ideas themselves."
Inspiration From Others
That's critical, he says, "because no one has all the answers."
A large portion of that support and collegiality comes from his wife, Sally Reis, professor of educational psychology and lead researcher at the Neag Center. Her passion for teaching, mentoring and research equal her husband's.
"It's a rare and wonderful occurrence to have the love of your life be your best friend and a colleague," says Renzulli. "We never run out of things to talk about."
And there are at least three other women whose influence put Renzulli on the path that would lead to professional and personal triumph. His mother, Ida, instilled in him the value of hard work. He was eight years old when his father died, leaving a wife to bring up three young boys.
"She found a way to make it work. She scrubbed floors just to keep her three sons alive. If I wanted something, I had to earn it myself. That's where I learned you can't sit around and wait for someone else to do it," he says.
From two of his school teachers he learned that he had the potential to make something of himself. In seventh grade, teacher Elise Kent saw beyond the troublesome antics of her student and steered his energy into writing and editing for a school newspaper. It turned out to be a perfect match, and he stuck with it through high school.
It was during those high school years that Roberta Mamula showed him, once again, what a difference a teacher can make. While his high school guidance counselor was advising him to prepare for a trade like linotype operator, Mamula encouraged him to aim higher and take a college preparatory course.
"She was a great influence in my life. Knowing my family had no money to send me to college, she persuaded me that I could find a way to make it work," reminisces Renzulli. "It wasn't easy, but I made it with the help of a small scholarship, work study and summer jobs."
Reaching All Students
The next major turning point in his career came after Russia launched the first satellite into space. Sputnik sparked fear in Washington that America was no longer the world's leader in science, so $1 billion in federal aid was allocated to train teachers and revolutionize math and science instruction. Renzulli was asked to establish a program for gifted students at a school in New Jersey.
"There was no curriculum, no didactic model. It turned out to be what I'd always hoped teaching would be," he says. "I was not an administrator of a textbook. I had the academic freedom to use the classroom as a laboratory. From that experience I realized that the major goal of learning should be that it is fun."
After earning his master's degree and doctorate, Renzulli arrived at UConn and continued his focus on developing better methods for teaching. One of his first doctoral students was Alexinia Baldwin, now a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University. It makes her chuckle to remember her first meeting with her advisor.
"I was an experienced teacher from the South," she says, 'but when I walked into his office, there he was, a young-looking dude with long hair, sitting slouched in his chair and feet up on the desk. My first impression was, 'My God, I'm putting my life in his hands.'"
Those hands guided her well over the years. "He was a fantastic mentor," says Baldwin. "He is supportive and never forgets the students who've been with him. That makes all the difference in the world for a young professional."
It's a sentiment echoed over and over by the more than 30 doctoral graduates whom he has advised and who now hold leadership positions across the country.