The following is the summative reflection of my practicum teaching experience. Reflection has been a large part of my education here at William and Mary, and this reflective piece is a great example of that.

Summative Course Reflections: The Practicum Experience

This practicum has been a unique experience for me. There has certainly been a high degree of déjà vu involved in going back to the classroom as a practicum student. Writing out long, detailed lesson plans, reflecting on my lessons in writing, and being observed by a more critical eye than the average principal are all things that I thought I’d left behind when I ended my student teaching in May of 2003. Something else I thought I had left behind was working within the routines and curriculum of another teacher. All of these experiences, however, proved to be quite valuable.

While I find that many things have changed since the spring of 2003, I think the biggest changes I see are in myself. I am far more comfortable in front of the classroom, for one thing. I am also far less concerned about whether the students like me and far more concerned about whether they are learning. I’m a much more flexible teacher who is better able to change a lesson midstream to suit the needs of the students at the time. I am also much less timid about classroom discipline than I was then, although I did find it challenging to maintain order while working within another person’s system— this reiterated in my own mind how much I need an explicit set of rules and consequences in order to maintain classroom discipline in a fair way. I depend on a well-structured system to keep me from making capricious judgments about student misbehavior and what sort of consequences various actions merit. Finally, I have a much wider repertoire of skills and strategies to draw from when I sit down to plan a lesson as well as the experience to know which strategies are likely to be successful in which situations.

The other major difference in this practicum experience, of course, is that I am no longer trying to acclimate myself to a regular classroom but a gifted resource room. My two years working in the Advanced Academic center at Great Falls Elementary School gave me a good idea about what to expect from gifted kids, but the task of taking in all new textbooks and curriculum materials while attending as much training as I could manage on the nature and needs of the gifted (not to mention planning, teaching, grading, and communicating with parents) left little time for the kind of careful planning and reflection that I have been able to do this semester.

In addition, while it is often frustrating to only teach isolated lessons here and there rather than creating coherent units of study, doing so has narrowed my focus on crafting carefully made stand-alone lessons. This exercise has been incredibly helpful in allowing me to focus on the individual lessons in a way that I am not able to do when full-time teaching. I can’t remember the last time I considered individual lessons in such a careful way— examining the goals and objectives, the differentiation options, the assessment of learning, and strategies to maximize student engagement and learning. I regularly consider these things when unit planning, but rarely do I take that much care with individual lessons. There’s just not the time when one is teaching all-day every day. I am hoping that when I go back to the classroom I will remain in the habit of carefully considering these components of lessons on an individual as well as a unit-wide level.

I have also had the opportunity to put into practice many of the approaches and strategies I have learned in my gifted coursework in the program here at William and Mary. For example, I crafted and taught my first bibliotherapy lesson plan during this practicum. I didn’t even know what bibliotherapy was before I started this program! It was very empowering to address affective concerns in that way. Previously, I have known about the affective needs of gifted learners but I didn’t have a good idea of what I could do as a teacher to help address these needs in a classroom context. Another focus of my teaching during this practicum has been fostering critical and creative thinking skills. In the regular classroom, these skills are rarely, if ever, addressed. It was wonderful to have the chance to integrate opportunities for these types of thinking as well as questioning that facilitated these types of thinking into my lessons. I see now that I could have used many of these strategies with my mixed-ability classroom as well. I was just too focused on the SOL objectives to see where these things would fit in. I also used curriculum compacting for the first time. That’s something else that I didn’t know the term for before beginning this program and I was incredibly excited when the occasion presented itself to use the strategy. I was able to compact the entire class out of several topics. One example was in fifth grade Algebra. I created a pre-test for the Algebra unit and gave it to students. When scoring it, I realized that the entire class, with the exception of two or three students, had already mastered several of the SOL objectives associated with the unit. I had wanted to use the time that compacting could buy us to create some in-depth algebra lessons that would allow students to create their own equations to describe events and would also involve students in beginning to graph equations. In the end, these lessons didn’t happen because my cooperating teacher and I decided that it was more beneficial to students to use the extra time compacting afforded us to introduce probability. This way, students would have the advantage on the upcoming sixth grade math placement test of having learned all of the objectives taught in sixth grade math. I agreed that giving students a better shot at making it into advanced courses in middle school would be more beneficial in the long-term than going more in-depth into algebra topics. I was rather disappointed that I didn’t get to design that unit, though. Regardless, I can now clearly see the benefits of pretesting and actually looking at one’s pretest results and allowing that to inform instruction. While it may feel like it takes time, it actually saves time by making instruction more tailored to student needs. As a person who learns far more by doing than anything else, the simple act of writing and teaching a lesson plan that incorporates a strategy I have learned is going to cement that strategy into my memory more firmly than reading or taking notes about it in class. Thus, curriculum compacting, questioning to facilitate critical and creative thinking, and using bibliotherapy to address affective needs are now strategies that are securely placed in my repertoire.

Finally, experiencing first-hand the day-to-day responsibilities of a resource teacher has been invaluable to me in considering my future career options. I was able to get a sense of the kind of planning that must happen in order to serve different grade levels as well as what it looks like to construct a program that serves children over the course of several years. I also had the opportunity to observe some of the testing process to see what is involved in being in charge of identification for a school. I learned first hand how much the resource teacher is a slave to the clock! When students leave the room at the end of the lesson, there is no time for going a little longer or taking time from another subject to finish things up. While teaching I had to be much more aware of the time that I did with my own homeroom. I also observed some of the unfortunate parts of being a GT resource teacher. Since the gifted program is not always valued as necessary and important, the VISIONS class is often the first one to be relocated or cancelled for the sake of assemblies, testing, or other events. These kinds of disruptions often came with little notice and no apology. My cooperating teacher showed incredible composure and flexibility in light of these things and still managed to keep providing quality services for students. I hope to handle these situations with as much grace as she does.

When considering my own future in gifted education, this practicum will most likely prove to be a crystallizing experience for me. I have become comfortable using several strategies specific to the needs of gifted learners and have, through observation, seen where many more would easily fit into lessons. These things should prove to have a very positive impact on my own teaching in the future. In addition, I realized how a resource person in a school has the opportunity to have a greater influence on other teachers than someone in a center-based position, like I was last year. My cooperating teacher works with students at a variety of grade levels and is the face of gifted education in that building. If I were in a similar role, I would relish the opportunity to work to empower other teachers, particularly teachers with a cluster of gifted students, to effectively differentiate instruction for gifted students. In this way, what started as a pull-out program, which addresses a full-time need with a part-time solution, could facilitate a more full-time solution for gifted kids. Before I began this practicum experience, I was unsure whether or not I would want to work with teachers at all, but after seeing the deep need for cluster-group teacher training in addition to having expert teachers working with gifted students, I feel that this kind of job would be one that could positively impact a great number of students while allowing me to stay close to gifted kids, which is the reason I started down this path in the first place.