Author: Siamak Vahidi

Get Hooked on Math at Confratute


Rachel McAnallen aka Ms. Math

Many years ago I was invited to present a strand at a conference called Confratute being held at the University of Connecticut. I met teachers and presenters who were not afraid to teach creatively. These were the teachers who believed in doing what was best for the student in the long run; they were the outliers of the education profession. My life was changed.

Over the years, I have taught two strands at Confratute.

In the strand Creative Mathematics, Is Not an Oxymoron, the participants will learn that naked worksheets, memorization without understanding, first and fast math are the neutron bombs of mathematical creativity and are some of the main causes of math anxiety. Conceptual knowledge (know why) will be presented in order to understand the algorithms and procedures (know how) that are commonly taught under the present system of outrageous and pressurized testing. This is a hands-on math strand using real fake money and polyhedral dice as the main learning tools. Laughter is a must in this strand.

Geometry Beyond the Textbook is designed for the art lover and the teacher who wants to go beyond the arithmetic part of mathematics. This is a “make and take” strand where the participants will leave with math models that become “kid catchers” when displayed in their classrooms. If as a teacher, you have students that have been turned off by the math and enter your classroom with a bad attitude about the subject then this is a way to get them to change their minds about this beautiful subject. Get hooked on geometry is the motto in this strand and a sense of humor is a requirement when entering the room.

Rachel R. McAnallen

Renzulli Academies


Sally Reis and Joe Renzulli

Confratute is our favorite professional development opportunity of the year as each summer we meet such interesting and committed professionals from across the world. Joe and I are very excited about the SEM strand because we hope that more schools and districts will implement talent development programs based on the SEM after attending Confratute. SEM can be implemented as a gifted or enrichment programs, as a magnet or theme schools, or as a part of a general education classroom or school. One new outgrowth of SEM has been the development of Renzulli Academies, either schools within schools, or separate schools using all components of SEM.

During the last decade, over 45 Renzulli Academies have been developed in the United States and other countries, focusing on using SEM pedagogy for high potential students and these schools have been successful at ensuring high academic achievement as well as creating many opportunities for student and teacher creative productivity.

Renzulli Academies incorporate all components of the SEM and are designed for students who are passionate about learning and capable of advanced and creative performance in school. Students who attend academies are academically talented, task-committed, and curious. Especially important are recruiting original thinkers and students who are open to discovering their talents in a creative educational and those who are interested in innovation and creativity. We will be discussing new components of the SEM in our strand, including Renzulli Academies, and hope some of you can join us in the strand to learn about the SEM and how to apply it. Please check out the website for the Hartford CT Renzulli Academy below:

SEM and AITD as Springboards to Extend and Personalize Learning


Blane K. McCann, Ph.D.
Superintendent, Westside Community Schools

Recently, I reread Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers (2008) and I was struck by how he viewed success in the United States. We forget that much of individual success is built on hard work, with a focus on what we enjoy doing. We see successful people and call them lucky. Gladwell explains that many factors go into becoming a successful person, and Gladwell’s various stories and theories about success impacted me as an educator. In fact, it made me reflect deeply about how schools could increase the access and provide additional opportunities for all students to begin their work toward becoming an expert in an area of strength, talent, or interest.

As educators, we can and should play a role in supporting students and their success.

Yes, talent, commitment, hard work, opportunity, and when you are born does make a difference. My father was born in 1920. As it turned out, we all know where young men born at that time were in 1941-1945. They were fighting World War II. Gladwell also provides examples of successful hockey and baseball players who are given better opportunities to grow, along with access to better coaching, partly because of when they were born.

Additionally, the titans of Silicon Valley were born in 1954-1955. The examples of Bill Joy and Bill Gates show that they were afforded opportunities to try new things and to learn from failure: Bill Joy at the University of Michigan and Bill Gates at his private school in Seattle. They explored and spent time learning how to code and try out their theories in ways that other young bright people were not able to do at that time. Fortunately for them, they were living at a time and working in areas where they could spend hours on a computer due to time-sharing capabilities found in Ann Arbor and Seattle. Granted, they also worked very hard and learned from failure. But more importantly, they began to accumulate the 10,000 hours needed to become an expert in an area of interest that became a passion.

While Bill Gates and Bill Joy enjoyed opportunities to grow and to develop their talents, many of our students do not. As public educators, we understand that many minorities and disadvantaged students, due to underachieving schools, uninspiring teaching, and poor financial circumstances, do not have access nor are they provided opportunity to begin the necessary work toward becoming an expert. I recently read an article by Renzulli and Brandon (2017) that outlined an approach to solving the underrepresentation of minorities and low income students in gifted and enrichment programs found in America’s public schools. It is critical to identify and instruct all students in ways that reveal their potential to their teachers and, more importantly, to themselves. We cannot wait until they are graduates before starting to work on the 10,000 hours needed to become an expert.

Much like Sir Kenneth Robinson (2009) states in his book The Element, understanding that you have a talent and an aptitude for something leads to success. It is not just luck or when you were born; all generations have unique opportunities. However, having access and opportunity to nurture that talent and aptitude is just as important to possessing that innate talent and turning it into a strength. In our school district, we use the Gallup Explorer with our learners so they may begin, at an early age, to understand themselves and turn their talents into strengths, taking advantage of the opportunities that may come along in their lifetimes.

I have learned through my experience as a superintendent and as an elementary and middle school principal that programs such as the Renzulli and Reis (1997) Schoolwide Enrichment Model (SEM) and Renzulli’s (2001) Academies of Inquiry and Talent Development (AITD) are essential for our youngest learners to begin their journey of becoming an expert.

I implemented both approaches in schools where I served as principal and superintendent. As the principal of John Bullen Middle School, I observed increases in attendance, positive behavior and, most importantly, student achievement. In fact, the cohort of African American students that transition to Bradford High School in Kenosha, Wisconsin saw the highest ACT scores among black students that school had seen in many years.

Why? We changed the mindset of those students by identifying them for gifted and enrichment programs and activities. Our faculty recognized our learners’ many talents and high potential and then nurtured students through SEM and AITD programs. These students realized that they could aspire to college, community college, or earn certifications that put them on a positive pathway to a career. They had begun the accumulation of 10,000 hours and felt very good about where they were heading. My most vivid memory is about a sixth grade student who became the "school meteorologist." His focus and dedication to the field he loved led to a college degree in this area and he is now an associate researcher working on weather satellite systems at the University of Wisconsin.

Today, at Westside Community Schools we extend learning for many students through internships, dual credit opportunities, and our Nebraska Furniture Mart School of Entrepreneurial Thinking (SET) in the areas of Information Technology, STEM education, and health sciences, creating opportunities for students to work closely with Omaha businesses.

I see the value of personalized learning for all students through the implementation of SEM and AITD. My colleagues and I see a relationship between personalized learning and gifted education. Working with Joe Renzulli, we continue to expand our definition of gifted and talented identification. In our district, we also talk about students with high potential so that we can provide access to robust academic programming and opportunities to become an expert.

I am able to connect personalized learning, gifted education, and the PLC movement by using gifted strategies to extend learning for all students. While this includes identified gifted students, a teacher is able to serve many more students who demonstrate task commitment, creativity, and high potential. By knowing our students well, we gain a better understanding of what they enjoy learning about and we help them to do their best work on a daily basis. It helps teachers to nurture their strengths, talents, and interests. In my strand, I will share an approach and my story on how to build a school and district culture that embraces Schoolwide Enrichment along with the use of a variety of gifted strategies that allow educators to personalize learning with all students.

In closing, I see SEM and AITD as the springboards for a school district to extend and personalize learning for all students and to combat the underrepresentation of underprivileged children who are often overlooked for gifted and enrichment programs. It is time to fully see all students and their individual talents so we may support them in their journey toward expert status. We do not want to miss the next generation of people like Bill Gates and Bill Joy.

Motivating Young People


Jann Leppien, Ph.D.

Hello, my name is Jann Leppien, and I look forward to attending Confratute this summer. I have been presenting for many years in the areas of designing effective curriculum to advance learner potential and creating classroom environments that promote student thinking to bring about student agency and change. In my strand, Learning to Think, Thinking to Learn: Strategies to Empower Students participants will explore the use of instructional strategies, routines, and practices that can be used to motivate young people to take an active processing role in the learning process. Some of these tools might be the use of Visible Thinking Routines from the Cultures of Thinking Project: .

In the strand, Quality Curriculum and Instruction for Advanced Learners: A Look at Essential Elements, we will explore what is possible when curriculum is designed more flexibly to provide multiple pathways for students to construct meaning around disciplinary concepts. During this strand, participants will examine how to take a curricular unit and make it more conceptually driven and inquiry based in nature to create a culture of thinking that invites students to see connections, contradictions, alternative perspectives, and different ways of thinking. Then as translators of theory into practice, educators who attend this strand will take a unit of study they already teach and redesign it based on essential elements that can help structure student inquiry toward the pursuit of exploring big ideas that matter.

I look forward to meeting you this summer, as we explore the nature of thinking, student engagement, and promoting student agency in learning.

Confratute in General


Joe Renzulli

I think our time has come! Endless reports about what business and industry are looking for in young people to get on the fast track for top level jobs are exactly the kinds of things we have been talking about at Confratute for the past four decades. With dramatic changes in technology advancing at an astonishing pace, tomorrow's workplace will be unrecognizable and constantly changing. Learning-how-to-learn is going to be a lifelong requirement for our most successful young people who are prepared with the tools our workplaces are looking for such as: creativity, thinking skills, entrepreneurship, communication, innovation, collaboration, planning, optimism, empathy, and other executive function skills. Most important, it is not just learning these skills, but providing young people with opportunities to apply these skills to real world problems in their areas of passion and interest that makes the biggest impact. Our focus at Confratute is showing how our "brand" of learning differs from the test-prep approaches that other school reformers are talking about. We hope you can join us to learn about this brand, focused on developing the gifts and talents of all students and providing talent development opportunities in all schools.

Creating Positive Social Emotional Environments for Smart Kids


Tom Hébert

I am looking forward to presenting Creating Positive Social Emotional Environments for Smart Kids, a new strand for Confratute 42.

In this strand we explore guidance strategies to support the social and emotional development of bright students. One of my favorite strategies is using photography to explore identity development.

I ask my students to respond to the following simple prompt: "Using your cell phone camera, shoot 5 pictures that represent your identity as a talented individual." I've had a lot of fun facilitating this strategy with a wide variety of populations. Below are three photos from “Susan” a high school senior who captured her identity creatively.

Susan's 1st Picture-Ladder

Susan included a photo of a tall ladder pointing toward a high ceiling and explained, "I took a picture of a ladder because I’m very hard on myself. I want to go very far and high. This photo is of the bottom of the ladder. I feel that you can always strive to climb higher."

A favorite photo of Susan’s was of the trunk of her car, which was jam-packed. She wrote: "This picture of the trunk of my car represents just how much I pack into each and every day."

Susan's 2nd Picture-Car Trunk

Susan's third photo was accompanied by this explanation: "A woman juggling multiple items. I like being involved in everything, to have a say in everything, and to have the last word in everything."

Susan's 3rd Picture-Juggler

In sharing this photography technique with educators I have discovered that teachers and counselors are enthusiastic about curricular and counseling possibilities in using this approach. Teachers have shared with me how they have infused photography into creative writing and well as crafting autobiographies with their students. Others see many different ways in which to infuse this strategy into instructional units that focus on celebrating individual differences, talents, diversity, and even career development. Many comment on how much rich information they acquire about their students through this technique enabling them to develop more supportive relationships. School counselors also note the value of this technique as they work individually with talented kids on personal development issues.

This is one strategy that we will enjoy in the strand. They are quite a few more that I look forward to sharing with you. See you at Confratute 42!

Tom Hébert
University of South Carolina

A Yeti at Confratute


Kathy Gavin

Confratute is without a doubt the best professional development activity I am engaged in all year! So once again I am excited to work with teachers in my strand, Mentoring Mathematical Minds: Teaching Math to Talented Elementary Students. The investigations we explore come from the Project M3, an NAGC award-winning series of curriculum units, for mathematically talented elementary students. I have found that the best way for me to understand students' thought processes as they engage in an activity and learn how they come to know the mathematics is to do the activity myself. In this strand, you will immerse yourself in several investigations and explore how your students think and act like mathematicians as they work with engaging and advanced mathematics.

For example, in one investigation students are the mathematicians on a Himalayan expedition out to discover the Yeti. They find a very large footprint that they determine must be from this creature. Unfortunately, all their measuring tools were lost when their backpack fell through a crevasse during a blinding snowstorm! They only have an unsharpened pencil and use it to figure out that the footprint measures two pencil lengths. They (and you) are now back in the lab and must create a life-size Yeti with this information. Each small group is given some paper and supplies and assigned a particular body part (right leg, left hand, etc.) to sketch and cut out. They must work together to figure out how to do this using math problem solving skills and creativity. They record their steps. Finally, they present their findings to the class and we tape together the body parts to create a complete Yeti.

Here is a sample of one our Confratute Yeti's!


Our motto for all our curriculum investigations is "The math begins when the game ends." So we now discuss how the creature looks. Why is the right leg much fatter than the left leg? How come the left hand is short and stubby compared to the right hand? Besides using critical thinking to analyze their measurement process, students are engaged in proportional reasoning, an advanced math concept, and put it to use to rectify the design.

I look forward to creating a Yeti with you this summer along with many more math investigations that promote the 3 E’s of Confratute (Enjoyment, Engagement and Enthusiasm for Learning) while nurturing math talent in your students.

Kathy Gavin
University of Connecticut

The FINAL FOUR . . . months until Confratute


Benjamin Lacina

It's been almost 10 years (nine years and 49 weeks to be exact) since I first heard Mo Willems articulate an idea in the adult world that has powerful transfer to the kid world. Perhaps it is even more coincidental that the Final Four is taking place in the Twin Cities this weekend.

You can find his original sentiment on National Public Radio in 2009, when Willems was their Resident Radio Cartoonist, and again in 2013 when speaking with CNN. "There is a day in everybody's life when they realize that they're not going to be a professional basketball player and they're not going to be a professional cartoonist. It's usually the same week," he said. "But people keep playing basketball. And they stop drawing. And I just think that that's such a waste."

Why is this still timely? Because kids and families are still asking for the arts and creativity to be alive and well in the classrooms of 2019. When we take away the opportunity to practice those skills and work those creative muscles, they atrophy, just like in an activity like basketball.

As the new Supervisor for Talent Development and Acceleration Services in Saint Paul Public Schools this fall, I have engaged with more families over more hours than I can count of one-on-one phone conversations about children's test results and portfolio review results. (Beyond universal CogAT screening of kindergarten and second grade students, Saint Paul's identification process also includes a portfolio review that allows teachers and families to submit artifacts or evidence of a particular child’s exceptional talents, skills, and abilities, that may not show up on a CogAT.)

Reflecting back on these phone calls with families, two things struck me: a) kids’ artistic and creative production are major indicators to the adults around them of out-of-the-ordinary thinking and exceptionality; and b) opportunities for students (identified or not) to “show up” in the classroom and engage those parts of their brain continue to take a back seat to skills-based mindsets in education—and families are searching for these opportunities for their kids.

In my Confratute strand, I'm excited to engage participants in thinking about creativity in new ways, starting with their own talent development and using that mindset when developing learning environments for students. We will work with tools that integrate perception, reflection, and inquiry (all while slowing down the pace of the world around us) to "go slow to go fast." As a bonus, these tools are great for staff rooms and classrooms alike, so instructional leaders outside the classroom may be interested in attending as well.

We need strategies for engaging our creative brain, and these need not be impeded by our lack of identifying as "creative" or "artistic" ourselves. Skills are often just new vocabulary—kinesthetic practices for our muscles, thinking strategies for our brains. This means practicing seeing, hearing, drawing, rhyming, moving—and more. We will practice these to expand our skill set—our toolkit—so that more aspects of teaching and learning will honor the creativity that our students automatically bring with them to our classrooms—and those (sometimes) dormant energies that lie beneath the surface of ourselves.

And, as an additional bonus, I'm also excited to back directing the ConfraChorus, when I get to be your personal trainer!

A Messy Problem


Brian Housand

Now that spring has officially arrived, summer is just around the corner, and that means one thing: Confratute can not be far away! Ever since my very first Confratute in 2003, each summer I have looked forward to making the trek to Storrs, Connecticut for a week filled with learning, laughter, and connecting with old friends and making new ones. I have had the opportunity to be a part of numerous professional learning events, but quite honestly, none compare to the transformational experience that is Confratute.

This year to heighten the anticipation for Confratute 42, strand coordinators have been invited to contribute to the Confra-Blog an idea or strategy from their strand. Since this was partly my idea, I have been asked to compose the first post.

I am excited to present Using the Schoolwide Enrichment Model with Technology along with Angela Housand. This session is based on the book by the same name that Angela and I wrote along with Joe Renzulli. In our strand, we reexamine the Enrichment Triad and how today's technology tools can be meaningfully integrated with the model. As a part of the strand, we share a variety of Google Drive templates and thinking activities designed to prompt curiosity and deepen thinking that were developed in conjunction with the book.

One of my favorite activities that Angela and I developed is based on the concept of examples and non-examples. We combine this concept with what we refer to as a "messy problem" that has multiple correct answers. This is an idea that we borrowed in part from Sesame Street called One of These Things Is Not Like the Other. Students are given a prompt with four images that are all related but slightly different. The challenge is to examine the relationship between the images and determine how they are all alike and how they might all be different.

While the activity as it presented does begin to encourage students to push their thinking in new directions, the real thinking comes not in responding or consuming prompts that have already been created for them, but instead in creating their own. To help facilitate this, we have created Google Drive templates for you and your students to utilize.

To view the Google Drawings version go to
To make a copy go to
To view the Google Slides version go to
To make a copy go to

I have written more extensively about this strategy and how to use it in your classroom on my blog at There you can also find over 100 teacher created examples for you to use in your classroom if you so desire.

In additional to this strand, I am thrilled to teach a brand new strand this year entitled Utilizing Technology to Promote Creative Productive Giftedness. Together, we will confront a new technological challenge each day and work to transform it into an opportunity for creative productivity. Along the way we will examine ways to meaningful integrate a curated collection of tools designed to specifically reduce distractions, track progress toward goals, increase productivity, be more creative, and basically get stuff done. I hope you will join me in this exciting and new journey.

While it is only March, I anxiously look forward to being reunited with my Confratute family this summer and welcoming new members into this dynamic community of educators. I will see you all soon.

Brian Housand
University of North Carolina Wilmington