Golden Apple Award: A special award for a special teacher

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TOWNSHEND — Bruce Whitman swears there is nothing special about him.

The Leland & Gray science teacher was given the Golden Apple Award last spring by the Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators.

The award is given to an individual and team that advocates for students with disabilities.

"This is not an award for me," Whitman said. "It's an award for Leland & Gray, especially our special education department."

Whitman, like all the Leland & Gray teachers, has students with disabilities integrated into his other classes. He works with the Educational Support Services staff, to accommodate for each student.

"I'm not sure I do anything different than what any other teacher does with SPED [special education]," he said. "I don't think teachers look at kids as being special Ed. or regular Ed. students."

Every student who walks through the door has challenges, he said. His goal is to help students go as far as they can in their education and to push them, without pushing them too hard.

The SPED program has all students in a mainstream learning environment. SPED students have some accommodations built into the curriculum — though Whitman said the accommodations don't mean the curriculum is watered down — and students often have support systems built into their education.

Whitman said his accommodations are individualized. He might have an assignment that has both a term paper and project component. For one student he might lessen the term paper component and have them focus more on the project because he knows that's where their strengths are. He'd also allow a socially anxious student to present only to him.

Whitman and the ESS staff come up with these individualized plans for students and talk about what sorts of things they can do to help students learn best.

"First thing is that you've got to know your students," he said. "You've got to know who they are and where they are academically."

Once you know how to accommodate to each individual student you can start thinking about how to, "gently push them out of their comfort zone." That, he said, is the key to teaching any student. But, he said, teachers also need to know when to back off because they're in danger of pushing too far; otherwise, they might cause some sort of breaking point or meltdown within the student.

If you're looking at students individually, Whitman said, the question then turns to how to assess them. You could grade students based on academic ability, or you could measure them by growth. Whitman tries to do the latter, he thinks that's what most Leland & Gray teachers do.

Measuring students by their growth, he said, is a better way to determine how much a student is actually learning.

In terms of accommodations, Whitman said, It's all about figuring out how the student learns best.

"That's such a great part of our special Ed. department," he said. "They really know their kids," Whitman said. The department staff isn't afraid to come to teachers and tell them what they can do better and how to work with students. The process, he said, is really collaborative.

In general, Whitman also tries to meet everyone's different learning styles.

"You have to," he said. "Gone are the days where the teacher just sits up front and just talks forever." His class blocks are 80 minutes per class. Not only does he think it would be impossible to talk that long, he also thinks his students wouldn't learn anything. So he works hard to break up the monotony by employing different activities for students.

"You need to get some movement, get some hands-on stuff, build some stuff," he said.

The recognition he's received from VCSEA makes him feel odd. "I'm just doing my job," he said.

Harmony Birch can be reached at hbirch@reformer.com, at @Birchharmony on Twitter and 802-254-2311, Ext. 153.


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