Student Spotlight - MA in Special Education (Gifted and Talented Certification)

Ashley Williams Followed Her Dream to Become a Gifted Teacher

Ashley WilliamsAs someone who was identified as gifted herself, Ashley Williams knew when she decided to become a teacher that she wanted to work with gifted and talented students.

"When I was in school I was identified as gifted, so when I decided that I wanted to be a teacher, I knew that's what I wanted to teach. Gifted kids are sometimes overlooked because everyone focuses on children with disabilities. They don't focus as much on the gifted kids, and they need just as much attention,” she said.

Williams, a native of Birmingham, received a Bachelor of Science in Education from The University of Alabama, and then immediately enrolled in the Special Education Gifted and Talented program. She is excited to have a classroom of her own and eager to apply what she has learned through the program's required internship - the Summer Enrichment Workshop.

“SEW has given me a taste of what it's like to run my own classroom. I plan to use the expectations that I set for my students this summer in my own classroom as a part of my classroom management system because it seems to work well. They love not having formal rules,” she said.

At SEW Williams taught students between the ages of 9-11 about culture.

“We are learning about different education systems around the world. Especially about how girls in some countries aren't allowed to get an education, which is mind-blowing for these students. We talk about government and religious policies that keep these girls from going to school. The students ask, ‘Why? Why can I go to school and they can't go to school?' Later we will talk about some intercultural misconceptions, such as racism and sexism that often put barriers in the way of us trying to help one another.”

“The students are so smart,” she continued. “That is one thing that continues to blow me away everyday - that they are so smart. They are creative, intuitive and often very mature.

However, at the end of the day, the students aren't the only ones learning.

“SEW is so fast paced! With my undergraduate degree we learned a lot about teaching the basic subjects and learning to accommodate for students at all different levels. With gifted students, however, it's very different because they are always on top of everything. I am learning how to move at a faster pace in order to keep them engaged and on task as well as learning to ask those probing questions to get them to dig deeper. Those tools are going to be immensely helpful when I have my own classroom, because the whole point of the Gifted program is to broaden their horizons in a way that they might not get in the regular classroom.”

Williams accepted a job offer to teach gifted students at two elementary schools in Tuscaloosa. She will be teaching roughly the same age group that she taught while enrolled in SEW. Williams plans to use what she learned through her internship not only in her classroom, but also to help her reach her professional goals.

“Professionally, my students are helping me tremendously! One day I hope to be the principal of a school that uses Garner's Multiple Intelligence Theory as a basis for the structure of the school. So right now my students are working on creating hypothetical schools for highly intelligent students. It's helpful to me in that I get to see what's important to them at this age and how that could translate into my classroom and into the school that I envision creating one day.”

Emily Waymire Learned to Effectively Engage All Students in her Classroom

Emily WaymireEmily Waymire is a former graduate of The University of Alabama College of Education's Special Education Multiple Abilities Program, an integrated program that leads to dual certification in collaborative special education (K-6) and elementary education (K-6). Waymire has been working as a general education teacher at the elementary school level in Hoover, AL for two years.

As a former MAP student, Waymire participated in the Summer Enrichment Workshop. That was her only exposure to gifted students, that is, until she began her teaching career. Some of Waymire's students have been identified as gifted, and although they receive pull out services twice a week, she wanted to be able to effectively engage them at other times. Earning her master's degree in Special Education with Gifted and Talented teacher certification was the solution.

"I teach general education. My degree is in elementary and special education, so I really did not have a lot of experience working with gifted students, which was one of the reasons I enrolled in the Special Education Gifted and Talented program. I knew how to effectively teach kids who were struggling. I didn't know how to enrich the students in my general classroom who were above average," she explained. “It was the one area that I felt I needed more training for me to become a high quality teacher of all students.”

Waymire feels that one of the ways this program is preparing her to succeed in her career is through the Summer Enrichment Workshop, a key feature of the UA Special Education Gifted and Talented program. SEW allows student interns to lead a classroom full of gifted students on fun and interesting topics that the student might not see in the general education classroom. Waymire teaches a class about advertising.

“SEW is a true hands-on field experience where you get the opportunity to put into practice all of the theoretical ideas discussed in class,” said Waymire. “The environment is very nurturing and allows you to try new teaching techniques that you haven't used before.”

While in SEW, student interns like Waymire receive immediate feedback from professors and seasoned teachers called master teachers.

“Participating in SEW has helped me learn to effectively implement critical thinking and problem solving strategies, and develop curriculum units that can enrich students' general academic knowledge. For some teachers at SEW, like myself, this is the first time that we have been able to work with a homogenous group of gifted students in a setting that is not constricted by the typical school setting such as scheduling and testing.”

Waymire graduated in December 2014 and plans to continue teaching in the general education classroom. In the future, she would like to be a gifted teacher.

Teresa Harris Wanted to Advance Her Career

Teresa HarrisTeresa Harris, a teacher who has been teaching for 19 years, had already earned two graduate degrees when she became interested in The University of Alabama Special Education Gifted and Talented program. Harris, a resident of Oxford, Alabama, a mother, a wife, a full-time teacher and a UA graduate was approached by her principal about teaching in the areas of gifted and English as a second language.

Harris, who has two gifted children of her own, said that she has always been fascinated by gifted students and the way they learn and produce work, so it was an opportunity she wanted to pursue.

However, despite her advanced education, Harris did not have any formal training in the area of gifted and talented, so she began researching programs that offered her the education she needed. She considered UA's Special Education Gifted and Talented program which included a month-long stay in Tuscaloosa in the summer, and she considered another completely online program where she would be observed in the classroom.

"The Summer Enrichment Workshop sold me on The University of Alabama. I am able to teach for three weeks at an elementary school, and get to know other people and students I would never have had the opportunity to meet. I also am able to receive immediate feedback versus someone just observing me in my classroom,” she said.

The Summer Enrichment Workshop is a month-long intensive internship for students enrolled in the MA in Special Education Gifted and Talented program. They lead elementary classrooms composed of gifted students and introduce them to topics such as culture, advertising, oceanography, space and photography. Professors and master teachers observe the graduate students and offer immediate feedback.

During SEW, students live on the Tuscaloosa campus in suite-style dormitories. The dorm rooms consist of a living area, a kitchenette, two bathrooms and four bedrooms. Students are allowed to bring their families, and many do. Harris brought her daughter, while her husband and other child stayed at home.

"I have really missed my family; however this experience has been smooth and I have had so much support from my classmates and the faculty.”

Through SEW, Harris has been able to connect with both her classmates and her professors.

"I have built so many friendships. I think that we will continue our friendships and stay in touch,” she said.

One of the best things about living in the dorms, she mentioned, was being able to collaborate with her classmates from down the hall. After the students leave the SEW classroom, they go back to the dorms where they work on their coursework. Harris mentioned the convenience of being able to help each other and work so closely together.

To Harris, the other aspect of the program that stands out is the professors.

"Dr. Newman is phenomenal. If I need her, she is right there. I'll email her, and she emails me right back. She doesn't mind if we call. She has built relationships with us and that's the most important thing that we do as teachers. We build relationships with our students and she most definitely has done that,” she continued.

She also mentioned Dr. Besnoy:

“Dr. Kevin Besnoy has been very insightful throughout my courses. He is very involved and goes the extra mile to ensure we are learning the content.”

Harris graduated in August 2014. She said this degree has helped her to meet the needs of her gifted learners. She said it has also prepared her to identify those learners.

Kelly Wright Took Bama By Distance Around the World and Back

Kelly WrightPhrases like “Take classes from anywhere” and “Flexible courses designed to meet your schedule” typically describe the distance learning programs offered through The University of Alabama; however, most students don't take us as literally as Tuscaloosa native Kelly Wright. Wright, who recently graduated from the Master of Arts in Special Education Gifted and Talented program, was able to complete her coursework while teaching elementary school in Singapore.

“I love how creative this program has made me as a teacher - it truly helps me to think outside the box. Many of my students are gifted with strengths in the areas of cultural knowledge and vocabulary. Through this program I have learned that giftedness crosses many domains.”

Wright began UA's Gifted and Talented program shortly after earning her bachelor's degree in Elementary Education. It was then that she received her first international teaching opportunity in Nairobi, Kenya, but due to the poor technology in the area she was not able to participate in the online courses. She resumed coursework after moving to Singapore for her next teaching assignment.

"The professors were able to use Facetime with me while I was in Singapore. We communicated a lot through email, and the projects were completed through Blackboard. For many of the assignments I used screen casting which was very helpful,” she said.

This year will mark her third year at International Community School in Singapore. She is appreciative of the UA professors who went out of their way to make the program manageable despite the long distance.

“They were very flexible and great to work with as a staff.  They all care about me, so I think that helps when the professors care. You can tell they are passionate about teaching."

Even with the help of her professors,Wright said that she had to learn to be more disciplined when it came to completing assignments given the 13-hour time difference.

Despite the cultural difference, Wright is able to use what she is learning to help her students.

“I plan to incorporate what I learned through my coursework into my lesson plans.  Hopefully, I can help develop the gifted program at my school since we currently do not have one.”

When Wright started the Gifted and Talented program, she was teaching kindergarten.

"The hardest thing about teaching kindergarten in Singapore is that the children are told to think in a box. That is sometimes very challenging - trying to help the kids think outside the box without infringing on their cultural beliefs and what they learn at home.”

Another difficulty she faced as a teacher is that many of the students are what Wright calls “third culture kids" - students who move around continuously. 

“Many of the children I taught in Singapore moved from place-to-place so they tended to close themselves off to a lot of people. They don't ever get to make decisions on their own. The decision-making talent I learned in class helped me teach these kids that although we don't always get to control things, we can protect ourselves.  It helps them feel like they have some control over their lives since, oftentimes, they are moved from place to place which diminishes the feeling of belonging somewhere."

The Summer Enrichment Workshop made her internship possible.

The summer enrichment workshop (SEW) is a month-long stay on UA's campus in Tuscaloosa giving students enrolled in the master's degree program in Gifted and Talented the opportunity to complete the program's internship requirement. We spoke to Wright while she was on campus participating in the workshop teaching a class on cultures.

“SEW is definitely challenging me to differentiate instruction in a short time frame.  Other internships are usually spanned over two or three months.  Because this is a one-month obligation, I'm pushed to be thoughtful in my lesson planning and really open to the needs of the students.”

"I think the biggest advantage of SEW for me is being able to see all of the different lesson plans designed by my classmates come to life in the classroom and then being able to incorporate those ideas into my classroom. The kids come in and they want to learn. One aspect of teaching that I have struggled with is challenging my students without losing them. Through SEW I have gained experience in developing activities that allow students to be problem solvers. I think as teachers we often want to make it easy for our students to find the answers. Through SEW I'm learning that I have to let my students problem solve. One thing I really want them to understand is personal uniqueness and how we are each unique. My experience with SEW has helped me understand the importance of teaching my students to appreciate cultural differences that abound in the great big world while at the same time understand their unique place in that world."