Monday, January 12, 2015

Cultivating Mushrooms

In 1981, I planned a field trip to Phillip's Mushroom Place in Kennett Square, PA.  It was an assignment for an education class taught by Scott Dunlap.  It's odd to me that I can remember the name of the professor and not the title of the course, but that's probably because he graded with smiley faces in the margins, (yes, on college papers), and proclaimed "Such an unusual place, and EDUCATIONALLY SIGNIFICANT!"  

Given that I don't recall having to justify the reason for the field trip, nor were there standards to rationalize the reason for such a trip, I suspect his enthusiasm stemmed from the fact that he had graded two full classes full of field trip plans for Brandywine Battlefield or Valley Forge.

Sadly, the museum and gift shop closed in 2003, leaving no chance for the execution of my field trip plan today.

The Te@chthought blog prompt for today:  How did your initial teacher training prepare you?  What would you like Teacher Ed. programs to provide now?

Wow.  As I've mentioned before, there was a seventeen year gap between my graduation and my first official teaching assignment.  Immediately after graduation, I substituted for a couple of years -- and NO, my teacher training did NOT prepare me for that!  If there is an unsung population, it is the population of people who agree to go into classrooms, with no advanced notice or preparation of the material or the students, and try to keep chaos from ensuing.  I found myself taking the phone off the hook by Thursday each week so that the sub service couldn't reach me, allowing me a long weekend to regain my sanity for the following week.  

After a four year stint settling insurance claims, and the rest of the time as a stay at home mom with my three kids, I accepted a half-time position as the Teacher of the Gifted, which almost overlapped, time-wise, with the schedule of my half-day kindergartener.  Aside from the fact that our schedules nearly overlapped, requiring very little childcare, I was not prepared for that position.

Being a parent of gifted children does not, in any way, qualify you to be a teacher of the gifted.  Sure, you may have some ways to address the quirks that you know exist in your own kid, but it isn't until you get a caseload full of them that you realize that there is a darned good reason for those Gifted Individualized Education Plans.  Like snowflakes, there are no two alike.  When I was in college, and even today, the training for teachers in the area of gifted and special education was minimal.  Special Education was its own major, so general education teachers didn't get more than a single course in understanding special educational needs -- and I don't remember gifted ever being mentioned.

Fast forward to present day.  One thing that NCLB did succeed in doing was improving the teacher preparation for Special Education.  In addition to the increased special education requirements for actual teacher certification at the undergraduate level, there are specific continuing education courses required for all teachers, as well as in-depth in-service training refreshers on the needs of specific populations.  High-stakes testing and teacher observation improvements shine a light to increase awareness of specialization for differentiation and accommodations for struggling learners as well.

The same can not be said for Gifted Education.  The assumption is often that gifted kids have the innate ability to "make it over" the proverbial bar, and that teacher energies are best focused on the struggling learners.  When I first started teaching gifted, I didn't immediately pursue a masters degree for my permanent certification credits.  I took classes to fill identified voids in my job.  Curriculum design, differentiation strategies, classroom management, and the like, helped me to focus specifically on one area of improvement while scrutinizing through the gifted lens.

Since that time, I've completed a Leadership Certificate in Gifted Education through the University of Pennsylvania and a Masters in Educational Psychology (focusing on the Gifted) at the University of Connecticut.  When I think back on all I did NOT know when I first started to teach, I want to go back and apologize to the kids in the classes those first years for letting them down.

I'm sure it's expected that I will make some sort of joke or reference to the cultivation of mushrooms in Kennett Square, all those years ago.   While the museum is no longer open, production continues.  The same can be said for gifted education.  Through the examination of longitudinal data, districts are realizing that their gifted and talented students are not growing academically at a rate commensurate with their abilities, due to the focus shift to the struggling populations.  There are amazing advocates working behind the scenes in Pennsylvania, and in other states, to increase awareness of the needs of the gifted, with changes in gifted awareness happening within districts and states.  For example, one of my cohort members, Carrie, is now a gifted guru on Bainbridge Island, outside of Seattle.  That district is in the process of refocusing and creating an entire program for high-ability learners. 

In December, I was invited to be part of a panel of individuals who worked to identify and design a list of competencies for Pennsylvania universities to offer a first-ever Endorsement that can be added to a teaching certificate in Pennsylvania.  And while it isn't a requirement for every teacher-candidate, it is certainly a step in the right direction in preparing teachers to work with high-ability students, should they choose the additional area of specialization.

Think of it as a way to create a more rich and fertilized soil  for growing our gifted students -- by shining a light on an area of education that has been "underground" for much too long.