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.