In the past couple of weeks I’ve received a few messages from people who have read my piece, “A Gifted Education,” in the Harvard Educational Review. It’s been quite a trip to hear from strangers who read my work, and I’m absolutely honored by being able to get my story out there and have it make an emotional impact on its audience.
A couple of the messages have asked the basic question, “If I’m a parent in a similar situation that your parents were in, what should I do?”
Quick summary for those who are unable to access the article since it’s behind a pay wall: I spent my school years weaving in and out of public and private institutions in small towns in Kentucky. Although I found some amazing summer programming courtesy of the Center for Gifted Studies at Western Kentucky University, my typical curriculum bored me to an extreme. This boiled over during high school and manifested itself in drug use, self-destructive behaviors, and disciplinary problems at school. My parents sought a solution within the system but were unable to find one. I ended up dropping out of high school after my sophomore year and attending college at 16 (this solution didn’t ultimately work out, but that’s another story).
The truth is I don’t have an answer. I can tell you that going to an academically rigorous four year college at 16 years old was not the best decision for me, as I was not ready socially or academically. I hadn’t ever needed to study, or really spend time on homework, up until that first year of college, and trying to learn how to do that while simultaneously learning to live without the comfort of family or familiar friends and being known as the 16 year old in college (word got out somehow, always) was too much for me. For my specific situation, I think going to community college for a year or two would’ve been a better solution. I might have been bored during classes, but I would’ve learned how to better manage my time while still having the safety net of home and local friends behind.
But, obviously, a solution should’ve been put in place before 16. I could list a ton of organizations that might’ve helped me–some didn’t exist when I was younger, some did but I was unaware of them, and some my family and I knew of but didn’t offer services appropriate to my situation–but that serves little purpose as there will always be a situation where the programs and support offered by those organizations can’t be of assistance. The truth is, like with many things, that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. My advice to parents would be to think locally, regionally, and nationally (this, of course, relies on the parents having the time to do that, but what else can you do?).
Find allies within the school system. Sympathetic teachers or staff can make a huge difference in terms of advocacy and opening doors. Even if they’re unable to do much within the system, having an oasis for your child within an otherwise oppressive school environment can make a big difference. For me, there was a substitute teacher who really made a difference by being available for conversations and for the occasional unsanctioned field trip.
Consider “internships” in your child’s interest. Obviously, it takes a special situation for this to happen, and a special mentor for it to be meaningful, but finding a focus like this can help alleviate your child’s lack of outlets in school. This could include shadowing someone at work, or volunteering somewhere. Possible venues: newspapers, libraries, animal shelters. Also consider contacting professors at a local university. If you get 20 “no’s” and 1 “yes,” it’s still worth it.
Most states have a state-level organization that will be indispensable in helping you find resources. For Kentucky, I linked WKU’s office above. For Texas, there’s TAGT. If you’re having a hard time finding one for your state/region, contact one of the national agencies below.
I previously mentioned summer programming – similar camps and classes are offered across the country. Scholarships are often available as well. Sometimes national level organizations offer versatile scholarships to programs across the country.
After school programming exists as well, although this will be fairly limited geographically.
In addition to summer programming, there are also full-time academies and magnet programs. Again, this limits you with financial, geographic, and other factors, but you should be aware of them. Three that come to my mind are the Gatton School at Western Kentucky University, the Robinson Center for Young Scholars at the University of Washington, and the Texas Academy for Math and Science at the University of North Texas. Growing up, I was always very jealous of my friends who got to attend schools like duPont Manual. Recently I got to check out the science projects of a neat private school here in Austin – the ACE Academy.
(Note: I hate feeling like I always make this disclaimer, but yes, I agree, there are problems with magnet schools and academies and their admission processes and selection methodology. I also agree that programs like the ones I’ve endorsed above have the potential to create segregation, especially class-based, due to the requirements in order to attend. However, I don’t think that discredits them entirely from being a possibility, and I think there are a lot of organizations out there that are doing a great job. In absence of perfect solutions or a perfect world I urge you to make use of and become a participant and an agent of change in the existing, imperfect system.)
A quick laundry list, each with its own programs and resources, in no particular order.
SENG – Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted
Hoagies – Collection of resources
Duke TIP – Talent Identification Program
NAGC – National Association for Gifted Children
IEA – Institute for Educational Advancement
Davidson Gifted – Offers scholarships and resources
Prufrock Press – Publishes a ton of gifted-related stuff
I apologize for not being familiar with agencies outside the US. I’d appreciate other links being sent to me. I hope this helps, although by simply doing enough research to read this post you’re already doing a great job for your child.
Outside content for today – A PDF of David Foster Wallace’s short story, “Good Old Neon,” which I wish someone had made me read when I was going through some of the stuff discussed above.
As promised from last entry, I plan on using this entry to go through some of the things I learned at this year’s Aspen Summer Words Festival workshop, and how those learnins’ have shone through in my recent edits. First, though, a quick brain dump on gifted stuff.
My article, “A Gifted Education,” was published last week by the Harvard Educational Review. That’s been a long, long process and I am so thankful for the person who suggested I send it to Harvard, as I never would’ve considered that venue without them. I have to say, the oddest part of the process (beyond the several rounds of serious edits) was reading this abstract written for an article database:
“A personal narrative is presented about the author’s experience in gifted education programs, focusing on his self-destructive behavior while in school, including substance abuse, and his psychological healing at summer camps run through Western Kentucky University’s Center for Gifted Students.”
No idea who wrote it, no idea if it’s someone I communicated with in the process. I know it’s not the first time, but it feels like the first time someone has read my writing for a reason other than being obliged to due to personal or educational connections. It’s fantastic.
THAT SAID – Rereading the piece and talking to people about it has of course gotten me to go through recent news articles for gifted education, which includes the usual handful of articles about identification (New York, Miami), the laments over lack of funding/resources and cutbacks (Chicago, and separately Illinois). However, hidden among these are a few crumbs of good news, and one especially stood out – the Center for Gifted Studies, the organization which made my childhood orders of magnitude better through their programs, has a nice article about their hosting of the World Conference for the World Council of Gifted and Talented Children. Very exciting!
No seriously, this entry was going to be about revising. I made the title “Post-Process” for a reason!
So I’ve been involved in several writing workshops. For the uninitiated, there’s a few flavors of this type of gathering, with significant overlap between. Critique groups are groups of writers who meet together on a regular basis for an extended amount of time, and generally don’t have a leader. Some workshops (usually referred to as retreats or classes) are oriented toward inspiration, and do a variety of brainstorming exercises to start writing, and are less heavy on reviewing each others’ works. College workshops generally have a good amount of teaching between reviewing the students’ pieces. Most workshops, though, have a significant segment where the goal is to read one of the participants’ piece and go around the room talking about what it did well and what it didn’t do well. A common problem with more informal gatherings is that no one wants to give or receive negative opinions on pieces, but a good workshop leader will keep people focused on the writing and limit the interjections of the writer.
In the past year, I’ve been a part of three significantly different workshops. Two five-day sessions in Aspen, the 2012 one led by author William Loizeaux and the 2013 one led by David Lipsky. The third was a semester-long class at Texas State led by Tom Grimes. All three were focused on narrative/creative/memoir nonfiction.
Loizeaux is the teacher I want to be when I lead creative writing workshops. He obviously reads and rereads the pieces multiple times, and does a great job of having students show off their own writing by inviting them to open the session with their reading out loud. He differed from the other two workshop leaders in that he very, very rarely referred to outside sources–if he wanted to point to an example of something being done right, he used someone’s piece in the class. Most of his edits and suggestions were focused on taking the best parts of the piece and making them shine even stronger.
Grimes had a lot more time to work with, and he used it by having us read a wide selection of short nonfiction pieces, most culled from the Best American Essays collections. He referred to the essays often while leading the workshop of the students’ works. Most of his edits revolved around removing segments of the workshopped pieces that weren’t working or were tangential to the story – and he removed a lot. He was often concerned with the tension of the piece, with the motivating of readers to continue on. One of my favorite mini-lessons from him (which was also featured in his memoir Mentor) was the idea of setting a clock so your reader has a sense of where the story is going, when the story is going to end. He gave the examples of The Great Gatsby (early on we know it takes place over a summer), The Catcher in the Rye (Holden has ~3 days after being kicked out of school until the winter break begins and he has to go home), and Stop-Time (the opening scene is set in the same day that the book ends).
Lipsky was much much different than the other two in that he cared very little about big picture stuff. A common suggestion in workshops is to “go into scene more” meaning to show something happening instead of summarizing the event. Another very common suggestion is to do more dialogue, or less, or to move an event around to make the story have more tension. Lipsky did little to none of this, instead he was almost entirely concerned with the individual sentence-level stuff going on. He showed us the minute edits from a galley of David Foster Wallace’s essay “Shipping Out” which makes changes as small as flipping a noun from plural to singular in order to reduce the repetition of a sound. The majority of Lipsky’s technique involved reading sentences out loud multiple times and to trust the tongue to trip up (the alliteration I just wrote might be guilty of this problem, or might be an example of something working right) where there’s a problem. We had extended discussions on how different a dash, semi-colon, or parentheses can feel.
In the end, I feel very grateful to have been involved in these three very different experiences. I feel like I have a peanut gallery of voices to listen to in doing my own edits, and it’s obvious that each contributes to my changes.
Question for you: What workshop style experiences have worked best, in your experience?
Outside content: I just discovered how to access my highlighted text from my Kindle on my PC, so some quotes from The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne.
“—Go—says he, one day at dinner, to an over-grown one which had buzzed about his nose, and tormented him cruelly all dinner-time,—and which after infinite attempts, he had caught at last, as it flew by him;—I’ll not hurt thee, says my uncle Toby, rising from his chair, and going across the room, with the fly in his hand,—I’ll not hurt a hair of thy head:—Go, says he, lifting up the sash, and opening his hand as he spoke, to let it escape;—go, poor devil, get thee gone, why should I hurt thee?—This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me.”
“Shall we for ever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring only out of one vessel into another?”
“It is a great inconvenience to a man in a haste, that there are three distinct roads between Calais and Paris, in behalf of which there is so much to be said by the several deputies from the towns which lie along them, that half a day is easily lost in settling which you’ll take. First, the road by Lisle and Arras, which is the most about—but most interesting, and instructing. The second, that by Amiens, which you may go, if you would see Chantilly— And that by Beauvais, which you may go, if you will. For this reason a great many chuse to go by Beauvais.”
“—Every thing is good for something, quoth I.”
“That of all the several ways of beginning a book which are now in practice throughout the known world, I am confident my own way of doing it is the best—I’m sure it is the most religious—for I begin with writing the first sentence—and trusting to Almighty God for the second.”
“It would so; said my uncle Toby. Why then, an’ please your honour, is a black wench to be used worse than a white one? I can give no reason, said my uncle Toby— —Only, cried the corporal, shaking his head, because she has no one to stand up for her— —’Tis that very thing, Trim, quoth my uncle Toby,—which recommends her to protection—and her brethren with her; ’tis the fortune of war which has put the whip into our hands now—where it may be hereafter, heaven knows!—but be it where it will, the brave, Trim! will not use it unkindly.”
“Rub your hands thrice across your foreheads—blow your noses—cleanse your emunctories—sneeze, my good people!—God bless you—”
Yes, you should read the rest.
I apologize for my last entry, in which I sat down to write a blog entry on the impetus that I hadn’t written a blog entry in a while, instead of the impetus of having something to say.
I have something to say, this time!
I’m about to finish the book Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy, which is a fantastic memoir based around her discovering she had cancer in the jaw at 10 years old, and the subsequent experience with operations, chemo, and radiation. (Side note here, one day I want to teach a class entirely around the illness memoir. This book, Reynolds Price’s A Whole New Life, and William Loizeaux’s Anna are just so, so good. Also, Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story might be one of my favorite books ever, if you wanted to go that route.) One of the big parts of this book is her beginning to identify herself as her illness, as her ugliness, as her disfigurement.
“This singularity of meaning–I was my face, I was ugliness–though sometimes unbearable, also offered a possible point of escape. It became the launching pad from which to lift off, the one immediately recognizable place to point to when asked what was wrong with my life. Everything led to it, everything receded from it–my face as personal vanishing point.”
One of the things that makes a memoir remarkable is the ability to take the foreign experience and distill it into a universal. In this case, the foreign is having this cancer, specifically at such a young age. The universal is that most, if not all, of us have had something in our life that has become our own “personal vanishing point.” That could be something as mundane as acne, as reflective as children, or as capitalist as our jobs. Some small aspect of our identity, of who we are as people that actually becomes our entire idea of self.
For me, in middle and high school, my identity felt dangerously intertwined with being “the smart kid”. A lot of times I felt like that was the only thing people associated with “Graham”. I pushed back against this, sometimes in self-destructive ways, but ultimately one of the best things for the problem was summer camp. At the time, I wrote (paraphrasing) that gifted summer programming gave me an environment where everyone was “the smart kid” so I could be known for something more. (Quick note, as I mentioned last entry, NSGT has some scholarships available for summer camp. I went to ones through the Center for Gifted Studies out of WKU, but you can find similar programs across the country. Duke TIP is probably one of the best places to look for info.)
A dozen years and a lot of life experience later, I no longer have that same level of identification. Sometimes there’s still echoes of it though, and yesterday in class was one of those days. We were discussing what should be taught in college freshman composition classrooms, and we were being critical of the current practice of basing performance metrics entirely on the academic, majority culture discourse. Basically, we define success in the classroom largely based on standards made by old white men. I agree, this is a bad thing, but I think we have to be very careful about how we go about solving this problem. As an example, another student in the class responded to the proposal of having an optional, concurrent remedial course by saying that if a large group of students need a review of the topic sentence, it should be just be taught during the normal classroom.
I got emotional at this, and I tried to respond, but I did a bad job because I wasn’t able to articulate the thoughts that this idea raises in me. What this idea suggests, to me, is the basic philosophy that can be used to justify policies like NCLB. The idea that because we don’t want to do tracking, because all tracking is inherently bad, we should therefore teach everything to everyone. In a perfect world, this makes sense, because in a perfect world the instructor works on the individual level, and the overall coursework is not as important as the growth of each student. As we all know, though, no teacher has the time to realistically do that, so by shifting the content downward, we are simply excluding a different group of students. (Two side notes: This is essentially why I dropped out of high school, and raising expectations typically leads to improved results.)
Now, the typical rebuttal to this idea is to again question the standards we are attempting to “raise the bar” on, and whose standards and values those reflect. And I agree, we do need to question those values and standards. But in the process of questioning them, we need to keep in mind this question: What do we seek to accomplish by teaching a class? By the educational process? Unless you want to work off the assumption that it’s realistic to envision a world without grades, and therefore without some sort of graduation process, then I’m going to assume that we, as educators, seek to accomplish eliciting growth and effort within and from our students. If that’s the case, we need to keep that in relation to how we are going to measure that growth, that effort. By necessity, that’s going to require some kind of goals, standards, objectives, whatever you want to call them. Now, universal standards are not the right answer–most people can agree with that. But in the process of you, personally, figuring out what those standards should be–whether it be for your classroom, your children, or whatever–beware of rejecting the current model without having a well thought-out one to replace it.
For your external content, I highly recommend checking out this Youtube video which does a great job visualizing some math concepts in a way that makes them insanely interesting, even for little old English major me. If you check out the creator’s channel, there’s a lot more in the same vein.
Let me open with a quick news round-up from Gifted Education:
2013 doesn’t look good for the return of federal funding for Gifted Education. Refunding the Javits Act is not included in Obama’s new budget, and the TALENT act is still in limbo in Congress. Please consider calling your representative in the House of Representatives and asking them to support the TALENT act. For more information on these and other legislative issues related to Gifted Education, check out the NAGC page on the topic.
January 12, the New York Times published another in a long line of articles about race disparity in gifted classrooms. I liked this article because it dug in really deep and tried to identify some of the reasons why the identification process is flawed, but I wish it hadn’t stopped short of saying that a lot of the identification measures are skewed toward not just the class/race majority, but also toward achievers and teacher pleasers, not academically gifted fast learners.
January 22, CNET writes that Jim Parsons of “The Big Bang Theory” is set to produce a TV show entitled “Prodigies”, which would look at young geniuses (the initial list in the article is STEM oriented, but the associated Youtube channel includes creative/athletic prodigies as well). I’m curious to see how this turns out, as it could lead to a heightened awareness of the needs of the academically gifted and the difficulty for a lot of people to fulfill those needs, or it could emphasize stereotypes and lead to a “child beauty pageant”-like side-show effect. Given the current state of reality television, I don’t have high hopes.
Finally, the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children has announced its 2013 conference will be held in Louisville, KY August 10-14. I’m especially excited about it, as Dr. Julia Roberts is one of my personal heroes and I’m glad to see her heavily involved with this. If you’re interested in applying to present, the deadline is May 25. Bonus – the keynote speaker is Dr. Joseph Renzulli, and if you’ve done any research at all in Gifted Education, I’m sure you’re familiar with his name.
In my world, a new year also begins a new semester of graduate school. This spring I’m spending an entire class looking at creative nonfiction, both memoirs and essays, taught by author Tom Grimes. In one of the first pieces we read this semester, Adam Gopnik’s introduction to The Best American Essays of 2008, he describes the three types of essays: the review essay, the memoir essay, and the odd-object essay. The first two are simple, a review of a book, an event, a place, or something else; and a personal experience with broader meaning. The last one, however, struck my interest the most. Gopnik describes odd-object essays as using small objects to talk about large subjects, the same way that Atul Gawande uses dental health to segue into our current societal attitudes to end-of-life finances and medical care in one of the first essays of the book, “The Way We Age Now”. The more I think about this idea, of zooming in on something and then panning out to gain meaning and relation, the more I think this applies to every essay, even if the odd-object is instead an event, a person, or a completely normal object. After all, aren’t many reviews of creative works used to comment on the genre or medium as a whole? I’m thinking specifically of the recent reviews of The Hobbit which became a critique of the–apparently–too realistic quality of 48 FPS and 3D on a huge screen. And, are personal essays meaningful/valuable if they don’t connect on a more global level with people’s experiences that are not the same? Another example from this book, Bernard Cooper’s essay “The Constant Gardener”, describes caring for his HIV infected partner, an experience that I haven’t come anywhere close to. Yet the questions this essay addresses: What will we do for those we love? How will we measure up in the face of overwhelming life events? What qualities do we bring to a relationship, and what qualities do we need in a successful one? all pertain to my life, and are all questions I’ve pondered in some form before.
“The essay begins with an ordinary object–a goldfish dies–and ends, the essayist hopes, with an unexpected subject: what is death?” -Gopnik, xviii
Likewise, in my writing that I’ve discussed in this blog, I seek to draw a line in the reader’s mind between my grade school experiences and gifted education as a whole. It is also possible to look at gifted education specifically and use it as a perspective on our culture’s attitudes toward education and academic achievement on a broader scale. What Gopnik describes in naming the odd-object essay isn’t reserved for good essays, but for good writing in general.
Last minute shoppers rejoice?
With the holiday season here, I’ve been spending a lot more time than usual around young people, and for me that means reading is pushed to the front of my head. What books should I read out loud to my niece? What books should I recommend to friends with older children? This train of thought led me to some list making, and I came up with ten books I would recommend to academically gifted students. Note, I left out a lot of GREAT books in favor of ones that have a specific appeal to kids who are a little different from their peers–maybe they’re a little more clever, and maybe they have a little harder time fitting in. The following ten books are what I came up with, and they appear in roughly the order of their age appropriateness.
Being able to look at ideas from new perspectives is an important skill, and in this case, it’s hilarious. The fact that these target very traditional stories makes them extra appealing. I list these together since they’re by the same creator, and based on the same concept.
E. L. Konigsburg gets two entries on this list for being awesome. This book begins with the premise of a child running away to a museum, which should be enough in and of itself, but the rest of the story is full of cleverness and inquiry.
The movie is pretty good, but Dahl’s book is the real deal (in no small part due to Quentin Blake’s illustrations). Matilda goes up against an evil school headmaster and some pretty awful parents using her intelligence and a few small superpowers.
This book, also by Konigsburg, is the very first one I thought of when I envisioned this list. The plot centers around the four members of an Academic Bowl (Quiz Bowl) team, and the life experiences that have led them to come together and be able to do win the academic competitions. My description isn’t doing the book justice… I read it a dozen or so times as a child, and I think any child, especially those with a connection to this type of team, will fall in love with it as well.
The only book on this list to have adult protagonists, The Westing Game is a fantastic puzzle of a book. I remember rereading it multiple times once I knew the “answer” to see the clues leading up to the ending.
Despite having a pretty wonderful home life, I still often fantasized about running away, convinced I could make it on my own. This book was a great way to live out that fantasy, while still being reminded that it wasn’t as simple of an idea as it sounded in my head.
7) Ender’s Game
Although Card’s later works got a little… weird, this book is still an intense sci-fi story about being the best of the best, and about how alienating a “gift” can be. You can see a lot of the inspiration for the Hunger Games series here.
I was very sad when the movie for this ended up not doing well, especially because I think they did an amazing job with the casting. I love, love, love this trilogy, but the first book is by far the best, and Lyra is a fascinating protagonist. Parts of the plot depend on her being able to quickly persuade adults into believing her, both by logic and by lies. Plus, it has bears in armor. Also, this book probably belongs in the Middle School section, but the 2nd and 3rd books in the series are a slight step up.
I left out Catcher in the Rye from this list, because I think it should be on everyone’s list, and because I think A Separate Piece and the last book on this list fill its role for an academically gifted teenager just as well, if not better. A Separate Piece is the best portrayal of the kind of intense friendships that anyone can develop, but tend to pop up among the academically gifted due to their lack of connection to the majority of their peers: when they find someone they can connect with, they latch on with a passion.
The reason I prefer Perks to Catcher for this particular list is that Catcher‘s Caulfield is on his own throughout most of the book–this book delves into the same isolating personality that Caulfield has, but shows what that looks like in a more modern, more realistic life. I’m not a huge fan of the ending, but c’est la vie. This book is pretty explicit in material, but my recommendation is, of course, that reading it and having a conversation about it is a better path than trying to censor it.
A few posts back, I was worried about what to write on for my final paper in a course on using narratives in academic writing. My first two papers had been on gifted education, so I knew my last one would as well, but I didn’t have a solid direction on it.
My final product ended up being a piece on why academically gifted students need a counternarrative. A counternarrative is a story that goes against what is common knowledge. In this case, the “official” narrative (which has also been expressed as myths about gifted students – see here and here) that I addressed was that academically gifted students will be fine without extra services because of their abilities, with some attention paid to the related narrative, that gifted education services are elitist.
I would like to say up front that of course, some gifted education services are elitist, and some are unneeded, but that’s due to flaws within the system, not due to the concept of gifted education. At my high school, classes aimed at the academically advanced (Honors/AP classes) appeared to serve primarily as a racially/class segregating tool, not to implement any kind of meaningful curriculum differentiation. I also believe that the label itself, “gifted,” serves to further reinforce the narrative that the programs are elitist/extra, but that’s not a battle I’m up for fighting.
Instead, what I wrote about was my belief that gifted education would be best served by showing specific cases of how a lack of gifted education hurts via storytelling, as the research is already on “our” side and it hasn’t done much for us. I gave my own high school experience as an example–I dropped out of high school at sixteen due to a lack of options–and used it to springboard to an argument I’m still wrestling with: gifted education should be treated like special education and/or academically gifted students should have access to the same types of resources as the athletically gifted. I especially like the athletic metaphor because academically gifted students vary as much in what they’re skilled in as athletes vary between sports, but the special education comparison is also valid, as academically gifted students vary as much from the norm in terms of IQ scores as students in need of special education do. (Big note, not advocating IQ as a meaningful measurement here, just as a quantifiable example).
What writing this paper (and continuing this blog) showed me is that I’m constantly learning more, and even my interpretation of what I’ve read/experienced has changed from the first paper I wrote in this class to the most recent one. Probably the most significant shift would be giving up on meaningful differentiated education within a mainstreamed classroom, but that’s a topic for another entry.
I think it all comes back to Dr. Kettler’s talk at the TAGT conference – the most important strategy in gifted education and in education at large is to be flexible. Both mainstream education and gifted education have to fight against the notion that a one-size-fits-all solution exists, and we do a disservice by trying to make that nonexistent solution appear.
Your link of the day – Radio has emerged as an awesome vehicle for storytelling as advocacy, here’s just one example of some powerful stories that can shift public opinion on crucial issues.
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.
As I mentioned last entry, I was lucky enough to have a memoir-essay accepted for publication about my experience as a gifted student that ended up dropping out of high school to attend college early. It’s not a happy story; I didn’t do well in college and the problems that led to that decision were fairly severe. However, it’s one of the first things I’ve written where I felt I had a lot more to say on the subject, and that it was within my ability to continue saying it.
This semester, as part of my graduate program in Rhetoric and Composition, I’m taking a course entitled “Narrative Ways of Knowing”. The assignments in that class have allowed me to continue following this strand of work.
For the first assignment, which asked us to think critically about a teaching, learning, or writing experience, I elaborated on a bit of cognitive dissonance in my own thinking. As a student of education and the liberal arts in general, I nod my head vigorously in class when we talk about the dominant culture imposing its will subconsciously via culturally biased testing and evaluations. I know that it’s very common for students to be labeled as needing special education because they are English language learners, or because their learning style doesn’t match up with the classroom setting, or because of home life factors outside of their control. I know that tracking is often used as a modern-day segregation, and that it typically uses outdated methodology, and that there’s little accountability for revisiting these categorizations later in the child’s career. I know that these biased actions hurt the child and the system overall, and that this casts doubt on any program, aimed at top or bottom, that doesn’t promote mainstreaming and least restrictive environments.
Despite “knowing” all of this, I look back on my own education and feel that the parts I benefited from the most, and the parts that I advocate strongest for to others, are the parts that were as far from mainstreaming as you can get. Primarily, summer camps that required standardized testing scores for access, and pullout GT classes.
My conclusion for the paper was that in theory, mainstreaming is the way. But, once you consider how poorly teachers are paid, how little training the average teacher has in gifted OR special education, how large the class sizes are, and how fast school budgets are shrinking, it’s hard to imagine mainstreaming as being a realistic possibility. It’s because of that, that I fall back on well thought out pull-out programs (including super cool initiatives like college early entrance academies – see TAMS in Texas, the Gatton School in Kentucky, as well as a slew of others). Ultimately, I believe that we need to keep as many options on the table as possible, from grade-skipping to dual-credit high school classes, as every student’s needs are different. But, at the same time, we need to be pragmatic about the availability of the resources for such services.
In our second assignment, we were asked to interview someone else and reflect critically on a particular experience they shared in the interview. I ended up interviewing Tracy Weinberg, Associate Director of the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented. We had a wonderful talk and spoke very broadly about gifted education, and I ended up writing a paper delving into a few of his anecdotes and comparing them to the experiences I went through, as well as those of my friends.
For our final paper, we need to extend these lines of thoughts and incorporate scholarly sources into the fold. I have a few ideas, but am unsure of how to proceed:
- Identification sucking the air out of the room. Discussion of gifted education is often so dominated by the identification topic that little attention gets paid to the fact that services for those that do get identified are lacking or nonexistent. Con: Unsure of good way to weave scholarly sources in.
- Dissonance in how we treat students gifted athletically versus students gifted academically. Tons of scholarly material depicting both processes, and at least one article looking at this discrepancy in particular. Con: Difficult to make coherent connection to my first two papers. (As an example, imagine reshaping this article to be about an academically gifted student.)
- Same as second idea, but comparing approaches to special versus gifted education in a similar way. Same con.
- Something else riffing on the debate over mainstreaming or not.
Your help would be appreciated! What topics that are related to our culture’s treatment of gifted education interest you?
For your outside perusal today, a recent article on the lack of meaningful, widely available gifted education – Young, Gifted, and Neglected