TAGT 2012 Conference Write-Up

Background – As I mentioned in a previous entry, I recently interviewed the Texas Association for the Gifted‘s associate director, Tracy Weinberg.  I loved my conversation with him and through it I learned about their annual conference, which took place in Dallas last weekend.  I attended as an advocate, observer, and all-around interested party.  A big thank you to the conference organizers, as they offer a significant student discount which made it easier for me to participate.

This year, the conference marked TAGT’s 35th anniversary.  The theme for this year was “Building Connections”, and the conference’s purpose is to bring together parents, educators, administrators, advocates, and vendors for training and networking.  You can see the official page for it here.  Although I have attended academic and writing conferences, this was my first experience partaking in an event like this one.  Due to the scope of the conference, my experience represents a very small subset of the sessions that took place, and I was only there for two of the three days.

General Notes – I was amazed at the size of the event.  At the most heavily attended session I was around for, Thursday morning’s keynote speech, I’d estimate there were 800+ people in the audience.  Given TAGT is headquartered out of a five person office, the sheer amount of work provided by those five people and volunteers is breathtakingly impressive.

Planning in general just seemed to be stellar.  Of all the sessions I went to, none were big enough to run out of chairs, yet none were uncomfortably under-attended either.  Each time-period for choosing particular sections had a great variety.  Only minor technology snafus, etc.

The Dallas Sheraton was a mixed-bag for location.  On one hand, it’s very conveniently located, and while it’s relatively expensive for my budget, it was easy to find a nice, cheaper alternative within walking distance.  On the other hand, the lack of free wi-fi really hurt, given how big a role Twitter is beginning to play in this part of the conference.  I know providing wi-fi to 800 people is no easy matter, but $25 for a day worth of wi-fi is awful.  I guess with cell-phone technology progressing the way it is, it’s a moot point.  More devastatingly, their coffeeshop was not good!

Speakers – While every speaker I observed was a skilled orator, there was definitely a difference in how appropriate their talks were for educators.  Some appeared to be aimed at people with no previous interactions with gifted education, while others delved very deeply into the theoretical and felt very removed from the issues the teachers in the audience might face.  Overall though, I learned a great deal and didn’t find my mind wandering, which is a big step up from the academic conferences I’ve been privy to.

Dr. Jeff Turner, Coppell ISD Superintendent, TAGT Friend of the Gifted Award Recipient – Turner started his speech by “blaming” his success on being lucky enough to be surrounded by good teachers, smart move in front of an audience of teachers!  Used his time for a very energetic, impassioned argument against standardized testing and for differentiation, although I particularly appreciated him noting that it’s hard to take differentiation seriously with 35 student classrooms.  He’s involved with an effort to significantly move Texas Education away from standardized testing through the organization Transform Texas.  He has proposed a really cool idea – allowing five schools to stop requiring standardized testing and see how they perform on other metrics instead.  The idea being that they will beat the other schools within a few years, due to not needing to teach the tests.

Nakia Douglas and Dalton Sherman, Keynote – Principal and student of the Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy in Dallas.  Sherman, 14, is a ball of charismatic energy, and he gave an emotional, inspirational speech that felt very appropriate for motivating a day of sessions on gifted education.  Douglas was not quite as engaging as his younger counterpart, but his content was much more grounded and applicable, showing how the Academy he represents has made some small but significant changes to their approach to educating and has achieved significant results.  Two biggest takeaways: Have higher expectations and you will get higher results.  Being more holistic is very realistic, the Academy has a longer school day and school year that includes required extracurricular activities, community service, and academic counseling.

Dr. Todd Kettler, UNT Educational Psychology, “Gifted Program Options at Middle and High School” – I chose this session for two reasons: 1) Gifted education failed for me personally starting in middle school and I wanted to hear about some of the ways it could succeed instead, and 2) I wanted to hear about the Texas Academy of Math and Science at UNT.  Kettler received an award for being TAGT’s 2012 State Advocate for the Gifted, and it’s not hard to understand why.  He quickly lays out a no-nonsense presentation of which gifted services have been proven to work, which haven’t, and demonstrates how our education system regularly hampers the ones that work.  He hammers on acceleration, bringing up the fact that because of weighted GPA, students are essentially punished for testing out of classes.  Biggest thing is flexibility, learning through independent study or summer programming or correspondence should be viable and accepted, not penalized.  He decried differentiation, saying basically that it might be effective but that no teachers actually do it.  Favorite comment, paraphrased – “If you ever want to know how good a high school’s gifted education program is, ask them how many people asked to test into it last year.  Most of the time the answer will be zero.  Think about what that means.”  He ended by saying he doesn’t think there’s such a thing as a gifted strategy, because everything he discussed really applies to all students.  This becomes a common theme throughout the talks I attended.  Kettler was by far my favorite content talk.

Dr. Richard Courtright, Gifted Education Research Specialist for Duke Talent Identification Program, “Pulling it All Together: A Synthesis Model for Differentiated Curriculum for the Gifted” – As a child, I was a “member” of TIP, but I don’t remember this doing anything for me other than going to an awards ceremony, so I wanted to hear more about the organization and thought that hearing a pro-differentiation talk would be an interesting counterpoint to the first talk I attended.  However, Courtright’s talk was slightly disappointing.  It was very big picture about gifted education as a whole, and very theoretical.  It felt like it would have been much better aimed at education students, not educators.  He did have some good soundbytes though (some taken from other sources) – “Reading isn’t anymore of a hobby than breathing,” “We’re doing a great job of preparing our students for the 20th century,” and “Differentiation – ‘Find out what they don’t know and don’t teach it.”  Most of his recommendations for differentiation were systemic, not things the educators in the audience could do in their classroom.  Again, his strategies could have applied to any student, not just gifted, but if they were applied gifted would benefit since currently not being taught to at all.

Dr. James Webb, Great Potential Press, “Motivation and Underachievement” – Right off the bat, you could tell Webb’s talk was going to be good.  His talk was the highest attended breakout session I saw.  His first few minutes were used to a) Plug SENG, a great organization (Quick note here, of all the big name organizations I’m familiar with, the Davidson Institute was the only one I didn’t see/hear.  Not familiar enough with the politics of gifted ed organizations to comment on this.) and b) State that the problem of gifted motivation is imaginary, instead the problem is gifted students being motivated in different directions from where schools/teachers want to be.  Webb is the best presenter I saw, and while his content was mostly stuff that I would hope was repetitive for the audience, he had some strong gems about using strengths to supplement weaknesses (example – interest in spiders leads to writing professional letter to scientist) and about watching for dietary/health contributions to problems in classroom.  Said he used to be anti-homeschooling, now very for it, because the social argument against it doesn’t make sense – gifted students’ friends are often outside their age group anyway.  Great, pragmatic connections between Dabrowski’s overexcitabilities and classroom management.

Lisa Conrad, TAGT, “Why You Should #gtchat on Twitter” – I was sad that this talk wasn’t well attended, because I think Twitter could be a great tool for providing some of the same networking and resource sharing that conferences like this provide, but 24/7 and for free.  I was also concerned about being able to articulate why Twitter is good for educators in a presentation, but Conrad did a great job of giving tangible examples of the benefits, as well as showing the connections to other social media sites. She also did a good job of showing how professional networking can carry over into personal or hobbyist networking, which is a valuable motivator for this kind of work.  Additional note here, this was the first conference I’ve been at where I followed along on Twitter, and it was definitely cool to get a sense of some of the sessions I wasn’t able to attend in real-time, as well as be able to comment and discuss the talks as they were progressing.

Dr. Patricia Gatto-Walden, Psychologist Specializing in the Gifted, Keynote, “The Heart of the Matter” – While I felt this went on a little long and was a little specific for a big audience keynote speech, I do think it was a good choice for the day focused on gifted parents.  Talk does a good job of laying out how emotional needs of gifted can be unmet by their academic structure.  Favorite part was discussing how gifted children often only have their intellectual selves valued, and other aspects of their being are ignored.  Was not a fan of how binary she presents giftedness, instead of presenting it as the huge range that it is.  Definitely a talented speaker, great job of using visual metaphors to drive points.

Dr. Michael Sayler, UNT Education Department, “Gifted and Thriving: A Deeper Understanding of the Meaning of G/T” – Good, philosophy challenging introduction discussing what we expect out of “achievement”.  Gives examples of highly gifted going into rodeo work or becoming a stay at home parent and that still being success.  This talk provided a good balance to the keynote speech, showed very practically why expectations can alter emotional well-being.  Lots of good stuff on the research of happiness and its connection to gifted education.  Toward the end, as he moved away from research and into his own musings on the dangers of gaming and the need for spirituality, he started to lose me.

Conclusion – Definitely glad I attended, gave me yet another fresh perspective on my work, and provided me with ideas for future research on organizations and individual people.  The biggest takeaway is how much of this stuff is connected to our education system as a whole and to all students, which makes articulating the specific needs of the gifted more difficult, but raises the value of meeting those needs.

For your outside content perusal, a thread from Reddit discussing men in education.  I was thinking about this theme a lot at the conference, where the M:F ratio was maybe 1:30.  Warning, the thread is from Reddit, so it probably has awful language and opinions somewhere in there.

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