First Person

Parent blog: Gifted convention covers diverse topics

Kathee Jones, mother of three and board member of the Colorado Association for Gifted and Talented, offers highlights from the national gifted education convention in Denver.

I had the privilege of attending the 59th annual convention of the National Association for Gifted Children earlier this month in Denver. The 2012 convention held Nov. 15-18 attracted more than 3,000 attendees, including 1,000 from Colorado. There were educators, administrators, counselors, researchers and a growing number of parents.

Loveland-based Anatomy in Clay Learning System set up a booth at the National Association for Gifted Children conference in Denver.

The theme was “Reaching Beyond the Summit: Educating with Altitude.” In keeping with Colorado’s independent and motivated outlook, the convention featured challenging sessions, opportunities to dialogue with leaders in the field, time to network and collaborate, wonderful student entertainment and enthusiastic volunteers.

“Talent development” was a recurring topic, generating much discussion. It became clear through the course of the convention that the definition of talent development is, itself, in development. The importance of matching individual student interests to projects, thereby promoting engagement and achievement, seem unanimously supported. And there is urgency about reaching the many students whose abilities go unrecognized and unsupported due to economic and cultural barriers.

I heard firm commitment to a strong general education base. Yet concern arose that strict focus on demonstrating high achievement will leave some gifted students without vital support. What about students who aren’t highly motivated, who are unable to perform due to disability or who don’t find internal motivation in conforming to educational norms?

In several sessions, attendees asked if highly gifted or twice-exceptional children – those who are gifted and also have a disability – are represented by statistics or policies.

Gifted convention speaker highlights

The leadership forum preceded the convention, bringing together school district and community leaders to discuss unleashing the potential of gifted students in varied local circumstances.

This forum included an inspiring presentation by Ron Berger, author of An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students. He spoke about using project-based learning to engage students with real-world problems. This kind of problem-solving gives students a sense of themselves as they do purposeful hands-on work as part of a team.

Berger shared a website where the projects are available as models already linked to Common Core standards. Speakers from the Denver Art Museum, the Cherry Creek Institute for Science and Technology and the Center for Bright Kids also shared examples of how educators can use assets in the community to inspire and support gifted and talented students. CAGT, the Colorado Department of Education and NAGC are to be commended for co-sponsoring this unique collaborative event.

U.S. Dept of Education Assistant Secretary Deb Delisle spoke at an evening reception of the Global Awareness Network. Delisle has worked as a gifted specialist, principal, district and Ohio state superintendent. She noted that children depend on us to model leadership, that “every decision we make tells students what it is we value.” She spoke against false proxies we’ve created in learning – finishing a course isn’t achievement, listening to a lecture isn’t understanding and getting a high score on a standardized test isn’t proficiency. And she ended her presentation with a reminder that “behind every piece of data, every number, is the heart and soul of a child wanting to achieve.”

Throughout the convention, there were many reflections on the work of Annemarie Roeper, a foundational figure in gifted education who passed away in May. An active and compassionate educator for more than 70 years, Roper founded a school and wrote extensively. Her philosophy is tied to the child’s developing worldview and on valuing self-actualization and interconnectedness. It recognizes intellectual ability but also the importance of nurturing the unusual creativity and deep concern for ethics found in gifted children. Educational decisions that neglect or quash the gifted child’s “self,” including a constricted definition of achievement, won’t ultimately benefit the child or the world.

The dynamic closing speaker Jonathon Mooney was also particularly memorable. Mooney, who has dyslexia and ADHD, spoke of how he overcame predictions of failure, difficult learning environments and narrow ideas of intelligence. He stressed that normality is contextual and that the context of schools can make unusual children feel “broken” when what they need is advocacy and motivation. He shared that it would be valuable for children to ask, “How am I smart?” instead of “How smart am I?”

The last NAGC convention in Denver was in 2002. My husband and I attended that convention together when we were only beginning to grasp the needs of our gifted children. A decade later, I was even more appreciative of the many high quality sessions, glad of the creative and liberating uses of new technologies and also a bit discouraged that some foundational lessons have not yet been taken to heart. But this is why we meet. For the children’s sake, it is so important that ideas are aired, philosophies examined and that those who work with gifted children have a place to find resources to strengthen and refresh their work.

Experience with my own children’s struggles over the years has certainly not diminished my sense of urgency regarding appropriately meeting the needs of gifted students. There is intertwined global and individual importance to empowering children to hear and value their inner call to care, engage, learn and create. And so it was meaningful to see people from so many places and personal and professional backgrounds sharing and learning together in support of gifted children. How wonderful to connect with others who already realize that parenting, educating and (most important) being a gifted child are often achingly complex and challenging. I could use more days where this kind of understanding was already the norm.

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.