Knack for giftedness

National award-winning teacher inspires high-achieving children’s choir on Standing Rock Indian Reservation

Edwin Edpalina

Edwin Edpalina stands next to his poster presentation at the NAGC’s 64th Annual Convention in Charlottesville, NC. In auditioning the entire elementary school, he discovered about 20 percent of children had fully developed tonal perception. Image courtesy of Edwin Edpalina.

When Edwin Edpalina started his gifted and talented education endorsement at UND, he felt like he was starting all over again.

He’s taught for more than 30 years in schools across the globe, speaks a handful of languages, holds two master’s degrees and has the ability to lead any musical group — regardless of age or skill.

With all that, and despite possessing a strong special education background, Edpalina was challenged by a 17-credit non-degree program from UND’s College of Education & Human Development.

Edaplina, currently a teacher on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, was more than up for the challenge. Now he’s using the skills gained from the program to grow into a nationally recognized educator and researcher.

Recently named a 2017-18 Javits-Frasier Teacher Scholar for his work at Standing Rock Community Elementary School in Fort Yates, N.D., he’s one of only 12 nationally-selected educators to receive the prestigious scholarship.

Edpalina was recognized for advances in research in “tonal perception” among gifted children, leading to the development of a children’s choir at his reservation elementary school.

He picked up his scholarship award in November at the National Association for Gifted Children’s 64th Annual Convention in Charlottesville, N.C.

“I was amazed, impressed and wondering why I’m here,” Edpalina said. “I’ve taken these courses for a year (at UND), but looking at other scholars and seeing their experiences — I’m thinking, ‘wow!’”

Standing Rock Elementary choir

Members of Edwin Edpalina’s choir stand outside of Standing Rock Community Elementary School in Fort Yates, ND. The youngsters have performed around the region and Edpalina hopes they can perform at next year’s NAGC conference in Minneapolis, Minn. Image courtesy of Edwin Edpalina.

Midwest arrival

At first, Edpalina says, he was stymied when he arrived in Fort Yates, the tribal headquarters of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which straddles the North Dakota-South Dakota border.

“It was hard to get through to people when it came to (choral) music and singing,” he said. “When I came to the elementary, I started a choir after hours and volunteered to start a camp during the summer.”

Edpalina’s past includes studying music in Hungary and teaching at private and international schools in his native Philippines as well as Japan, China and Hong Kong.

While he originally came to America and Syracuse University for a graduate degree in conducting, he ended up getting a master’s in Inclusive Special Education.

At the recommendation of a friend, he started looking for positions in North Dakota.

“When I applied at Standing Rock, the high school didn’t have a position for special education, but they said the “Gifted & Talented” teacher just retired,” Edpalina recalled. “They said they would offer me an interview if I was interested.”

Gifted & Talented (GT) teachers tend to the needs of students showing exceptional abilities for their age group.

Edwin Edpalina and Yee Han Chu

2018 Javits-Frasier Teacher Scholar Edwin Edpalina stands alongside his instructor and mentor, Dr. Yee Han Chu of UND’s Education and Human Development Department, as he presents his research at the NAGC’s 64th annual conference in Charlottesville, NC. Dr. Chu was instrumental in encouraging Edpalina to pursue both the scholarship as well as his extra-curricular research with the children’s choir. Image courtesy of Lesli Riskey.

UND endorsement

Soon he was hired and told he must complete a GT endorsement courses to keep his position. That decision established his link to UND, as well as his connection with Yee Han Chu, an instructor with UND’s Special Education program who took him under her wing.

“He’s willing to take risks,” Chu said of Edpalina’s outstanding qualities. “When I present an opportunity, he says, ‘Let’s go – let’s try it.’ Risk-taking is fundamental to being a creative person, so I would say that he models the principles he should be teaching in the classroom.”

One risk took form when Edpalina transferred his GT position from Standing Rock High School to the elementary school a year later. He explained that he transferred because of his desire to establish a children’s choir. In other words, doing what he knows best.

Edpalina also realized it was the perfect opportunity to research tonal perception — a potential measure of giftedness in children — among the Dakota/Lakota youth.

Standing Rock Elementary Choir

Javits-Frasier Teacher Scholar Edwin Edpalina leads his children’s choir in practice at Standing Rock Community Elementary School in Fort Yates, ND. He first started the choir by working after hours and establishing a summer music camp. Image courtesy of Yee Han Chu.

Musical discovery

Edpalina auditioned the entire elementary school, almost 400 kids, to see at what level they could perceive tone and sound. And what he discovered confirmed what he’d observed in the past.

“About 20 percent of the kids had fully developed ears,” he said. “I can relate that to my experiences in international schools. Out of 20 kids, there would be five or so in the more advanced and highly developed stages.”

Edpalina presented his research at the national conference in Charlottesville. Chu accompanied him as his mentor.

“What he’s doing for the field is broadening our understanding of what giftedness means,” Chu said. “We’re moving beyond the traditional model that’s purely academic and test performances.”

Chu added that Edaplina is busting stereotypes about American Indian kids — “(That) you need to pull for the gifts they have.” He’s also showing that giftedness is present in kids with emotional vulnerabilities, Chu said.

Edpalina’s research shows that regardless of status, children are capable of high levels of giftedness in tonal perception and singing if they have access to the tools they need.

Edpalina continues to work with his children’s choir at Standing Rock, taking it around the region to perform. He has ambitions for the 40-member choir to sing at next year’s Gifted and Talented national conference when it meets in Minneapolis.

For now, though, Edpalina aims to keep making chain reactions of impact at Standing Rock

“The education system (on the reservation) is very different, and we’re trying to figure out how to break stereotypes and cycles,” he said. “My association with the choir is important because it’s making a difference and inspiring more. If I can inspire one, it can lead to another.”