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

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.