An interview with Joel McIntosh: reflections on gifted education and the history of JOAA.
McIntosh: I was a high school English teacher in a little rural community about one hundred miles from here. We were implementing some gifted education classes in the high school. This was before advanced placement (AP) started to supplant gifted programs, so these were truly "gifted education classes," and we were given the opportunity to think about programs from the ground up: If you had gifted kids in a classroom at the high school, what would that curriculum look like. We were given the opportunity over a summer to conceptualize the classes, to look at the learners that we were attracting to the classes, and to build curriculum based on that. I took a gifted education curriculum development class at the University of Texas under Susan Johnsen, which was really eye opening. As a traditional high school English teacher, my idea of how to teach English was staid and very traditional. It was similar to what you might experience in a college freshman composition class or a college freshman literature class--just pushed down to the high school level. The thinking in gifted education about how you could construct curriculum in a different way that met the needs of the learner in a better way was really exciting. I came back and was able to test a lot of different kinds of curriculum with those kids. We were building interdisciplinary thematic curriculum. We started some team teaching with the social studies classes, so we were doing some interdisciplinary humanities kinds of curriculum. We were integrating a lot of creative problem solving into the curriculum, so there were thinking strategies with creative problem solving. That was how we were building the content for the kids, and in many cases, because there was independent work for the kids, the kids were driving some of the topics in the curriculum as well. This was a rich, interesting opportunity for me, and I just found it incredibly exciting. I think at the end of doing that for 3.5 years, I had reached the point where I felt that I had to know more if I were going to do a better job with the gifted kids. So I quit teaching to go back to graduate school with the intention that I would come back to the classroom when I finished a master's in gifted education under Susan Johnsen, who had taken a position at Baylor University. I never got back to the classroom.
JOAA: How did you go from the master's degree at Baylor to becoming the publishing mogul you are today?
McIntosh: Mini mogul! During this period of time (the 3.5 years that I was teaching), I and the other teachers who were building this gifted program were looking for materials and ideas that worked with secondary kids. During the 1970s and 1980s, gifted education had traditionally placed a lot of emphasis on what was happening at the elementary level. When we started looking at what were good quality research-based curriculum strategies or practices for the secondary classroom, we just couldn't find anything in any variety that we could draw from. However, I noticed that when I went to the gifted education conferences, there were tons of secondary teachers who were doing presentations, particularly at state conferences, with lot of neat ideas and innovative classroom practices. I thought there really needs to be a publication that pulls these ideas together and publishes them. The last year and a half that I was teaching, I launched what was originally going to be a newsletter called the Prufrock Journal. The initial idea was to create a subscription-based newsletter for secondary teachers. I found that was difficult because there just wasn't a good model for selling a newsletter to teachers. I thought maybe I could carry advertising, so I moved from the model of a newsletter to a magazine, and we came out with the Prufrock Journal, which was this funny little publication that was designed to essentially publish teaching practices that were working with secondary gifted kids. These were innovative practices that were based on research and that were very practical. I basically wrote letters to anyone who was presenting good practices at the state conferences and asked if they would write an article for us. We started publishing it on a shoestring budget. I was a high school teacher, and I wasn't making any money doing this. I took a loan at the teachers' credit union to get it started. I ended up mailing the first issue for free to about 5,000 teachers. I did not have the money to buy a postal permit, so I had to buy 5,000 stamps and had to lick every one of them and put them on the back of those magazines. It was a fun time, and I still philosophically believe this was a fantastic idea--basically an idea exchange for teachers who had editors supervising the publication. We did not want to put anything in that did not have a sound conceptual foundation or sound research foundation. They needed to be practical things teachers could do in a classroom such as a creative problem-solving unit or interdisciplinary units such as doing local history or oral history. We had a lot of kids doing a lot of hands-on learning that was true to a discipline. If students were planning to do history, they would not read history; they would conduct historical studies. They would do oral interviews. They were going to graveyards and studying why there were a large number of people who died in a certain year. They were doing primary source research. The idea was great, and it was a really exciting time. Unfortunately, and this is just my personal peeve, the wave of that kind of classroom at the secondary level was supplanted within the next 10 years with AP programs. AP became a much bigger force in gifted, and a lot of those innovative gifted programs at the high school level dwindled as the AP programs replaced them as the "services for gifted" at the high school.
JOAA: How did you select Prufrock as the name?
McIntosh: It is a poem. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is a poem by T. S.
Elliot. It is not necessarily my favorite, but I had picked that poem for a lot of reasons. There are a lot of interpretations of this poem. Probably the biggest has to do with someone who is paralyzed by his own indecision. For me, what I was picking up from the poem was the sense of isolation; the feeling that other people were talking about other things that you really did not care about, that seemed frivolous, and you wanted the opportunity to roll the world in a ball and have people understand what you were talking about. It is a sense of isolation that sometimes I would see, not with all gifted kids but with some gifted kids. They just felt misunderstood, and it was something that resonated with me, so I picked that poem. Susan Johnsen and I used to put on an interdisciplinary problem-solving conference at Baylor for high school kids. They would come, and we would give them a complex messy situation that they would work on in teams. They would solve these problems using the creative problem-solving process. It was a 2-day conference, and these kids would come from all over the state of Texas. Over and over again the response that came back, particularly from the rural kids, was "This is the first time I have had the opportunity to work with kids that are like me, who think like me, and I feel like I am not alone." It was such a powerful response to get back from kids that I latched onto it as one of the important things we can do with gifted education. We can help kids get an understanding of their talent, but it is also important to help kids find their peers, feel part of a team, and work together with people with whom they feel a sense of oneness. It's that feeling of not being isolated that I thought was such an important part of what we were doing.
JOAA: You are obviously a gifted individual. How much did your experiences as a student play into the idea of education?
McIntosh: You know, I don't know if I am gifted or not. I wrote a blog about this, which was really touching. I think a lot of people read it. I got a lot of feedback about it. I had grown up in a family with four boys and one sister, and every one of the boys had some form, in varying degrees, of a learning disability. Because there were three older boys, then my sister, and I came next, about halfway through the first three boys my mother went back to earn her doctorate in educational psychology because she was so frustrated. She couldn't figure out why these kids of hers, who she knew were bright, had so much trouble in school. The doctorate was in special education, and I can remember as a kid very early on being kind of her guinea pig. I had this whole study area with all of the alternative learning materials. I was doing skywriting and listening to books on audiotapes. She was hell bent for leather that I would not have the same struggles that my brothers had. I do feel that because of her hard work I developed a lot of coping skills for getting over the learning disabilities that I had.
Throughout my academic career, I was always attracted to teachers who were doing the interesting challenging things. I can remember teachers who, instead of teaching out of the government textbook, would bring in the writings of Plato, and we would talk about the writing of Plato. I was in a school outside of Washington, D.C. I had the opportunity to participate in a Model United Nations in New York. It was wonderful. I struggled with the whole reading part, and that was very difficult. Over the years through practice, practice, and more practice, I have reached a point that is not as big a struggle as it was in high school. When I was in college, they did not know a lot about how to accommodate a kid with a learning disability; you just learned. I can remember taking a Shakespeare course, and I just couldn't read the Shakespeare. I would go to the library, and I would listen to old LPs, the records. I would listen to a record of a Shakespeare play being read and read along with the actors. It would take tons of these records to get through a whole play. I would read the play along with the record every night. At that time, you learned how to compensate for your disability on your own. You had to be your own advocate and find your own way of doing things. I was certainly never a stellar student. I did pretty well, but it did not come easily to me.
JOAA: What happened with the Prufrock Journal?
McIntosh: Eventually it became harder and harder to continue publication because of one of the things I said earlier. AP programs, and to a lesser degree the International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, were replacing gifted programs. A lot of districts, if they did not have AP, were going ahead with honors programs instead of gifted programs. To my mind, AP and honors programs were very traditional in terms of their approach to curriculum. You were just doing more of, and faster, the same curriculum that you would do in a traditional English classroom. General education class would read one chapter from Moby Dick as an example of Melville's work; you read the whole book in the honors classroom. With the original gifted programs, in my mind, we were looking at how curriculum could be different--given the needs of the learner and the way the learner was thinking and how he or she approached the content. I think that became less and less the trend. I started thinking, "What if we could change the Prufrock Journal, which originally was a way of publishing ideas, lessons, units, and the sort of things that went the way of gifted model? What if we changed the focus and make it a peer-reviewed journal that would look at issues and practices that are actually working effectively with gifted kids in secondary programs--what curriculum does? " In other words, instead of trying to produce research-based lessons and units, the goal was to publish the research on what was working with those kids.
That was when I approached Tracy Cross, who was at Ball State at the time and asked him to take over as the editor of the Prufrock Journal, and we changed the journal's name to the Journal of Secondary Gifted Education (JSGE). It was a philosophical change from being a truly practitioner magazine of ideas and lessons to a journal that tried to keep the practical focus of trying to publish articles about innovative practices. The tenor changed a bit when we moved to the peer-reviewed journal format. The authorship changed. We moved, and again I'm overgeneralizing, from teachers who were writers authoring articles to university professors who were talking about practices that they were observing or studying in the classrooms.
It was in the JSGE form for many years until you guys came around, and we made this last change. Gifted education at the secondary level has been a tough go because it has been supplanted by AP programs and IB programs, and in some cases honors programs. What I was seeing was instead of having a secondary gifted coordinator, a district would have an advanced academic coordinator. That person was involved in thinking about gifted education as a menu of services. The menu of services includes AP programs, honors programs, Destination Imagination programs, and so on. It could be a whole menu of services that the coordinator was conceptualizing and then delivering. I thought maybe the title of JSGE was a little passe, and together we conceptualized this idea of the Journal of Advanced Academics (JOAA) as a way of addressing this bigger picture of advanced academic programs and services for kids.
JOAA: In effect, the evolution of the journal seems to have mirrored the evolution of gifted education at the secondary level.
McIntosh: Absolutely. I think that's absolutely true. Unfortunately we are always lagging a couple of years behind.
JOAA: You traced the history of what you thought had been happening in gifted education in the last 20 years. What do you think is next, especially for gifted education at the secondary level?
McIntosh: It is a great question. I am feeling a little pessimistic about the question, and I think I was pausing because I was hoping I could find a better spin for this. What I see is more of the same--at least in the near future. As I watch what is happening with the common core standards and the degree to which those things align almost point for point with what we are testing on scholastic aptitude tests (SATs) and the degree to which SAT is really a predictor of success in college, I don't see a lot of innovative thinking about what's happening at the curricular level. I think we are letting traditional content, which has traditionally been taught at the college level, drive what's happening at the secondary level. Why are we teaching classic literature in high school? Why aren't we teaching kids to be sophisticated readers of modern writing? The answer almost always comes back to, "Well that's what they're going to hit on the AP test" or "that's what they're going to hit when they get to college is this classic literature, so that is why we teach it at the high school level." It is a lot of tail wagging the dog. We end up having a very traditional, classic kind of content being taught for our advanced-level students in particular. It mimics what is happening at the college level. My feeling is, we're going to get more content shoved down kids' throats that mimics what's happening at the college. We are trying to get them through faster and make sure they will do well on an AP exam, so they can score highly and get out of course work at the college level. You can hardly blame school districts or parents for pushing for this because if you can get your kid out of several freshman or sophomore courses at the college level, particularly at the freshman level, that is a big savings of money. Why not let the AP test drive the content that gets taught so kids do well on the test, and they can get out of those courses? It seems to me that it is a very staid and static approach to how we conceptualize what gets taught at the secondary level. Unfortunately, I don't see that changing in the near future. In fact, I think it's going more in that direction.
JOAA: This is the last issue of JOAA that you are the official publisher. Do you have any comments about the journal or gifted education that you would like to share, as we are letting you have the "last word."
McIntosh: Well, I think there are a lot of people who have believed in this. The journal has been a cause for the 20 years. Nobody ever became rich doing this journal. From its past editor such as Tracy Cross to Rena Subotnik to Paula Olszewski-Kubilius to Bonnie Cramond to you guys, all of the people who along the way have carried this ball believed that there needed to be a place where there could be a forum for thinking about what we're doing at the secondary level. Despite my earlier pessimism in this interview, I think we are at a particular stage in a trend. I am already seeing talk about creativity and the importance of creativity in schools. It is just bubbling up again. I'm certainly listening to some of the things Jonathan Plucker is talking about. I feel like we may be seeing a trend bubbling up. It will not hit for a few more years where it makes some practical impact. I don't think the more staid and static approach to how we are teaching academics at the secondary level will continue forever. I believe that JOAA, JSGE, and the Prufrock Journal have always been a place where we could talk about where we were headed. We could be an incubator for the ideas for the future, if not today. I think all of us believe this. It is part of the reason we were publishing articles that profile schools in far-reaching places in the world. They were doing something innovative in a class, and we wanted to get that out to a larger audience. We will have more innovative thinking and thinking about creativity in the classroom. JOAA and JSGE, and Prufrock Journal, were always the place we could talk about what could happen next and what works. All of the people I listed earlier were important parts of that process. They are the ones I want to embrace and say, "Thank you for carrying this ball because it's an important ball to have on the field and in play."
Editors' Note: Joel McIntosh is the publisher at Prufrock Press, whose publications reach more than 50,000 individuals and libraries. With more than 400 titles supporting gifted education, Prufrock acts as the nation's leading publisher supporting gifted and advanced learners and was recently named by "Publishers Weekly" as one of America's fastest growing independent publishers. Joel started Prufrock in 1988 with a vision of making a powerful difference in the lives of gifted and talented children by striving to provide quality materials and cutting-edge research that meets the unique and ever-changing needs of this population. He is a tireless advocate for gifted education through his publishing efforts and his support of the nation's gifted organizations. For many years, he acted as the publisher of the Journal for the Education of the Gifted, the Journal of Advanced Academics, and Gifted Child Today. A former high school English teacher, Mr. McIntosh received his master's degree in gifted education from Baylor University. There, he acted as project director for Project Mustard Seed, a joint effort of Baylor's School of Education and Texas A&M University funded through the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Act. In 2008, he received the National Association for Gifted Children's President's Award. Contact information: Prufrock Press Inc., 5926 Balcones Dr., Ste. 220, Austin, TX 78731; email@example.com
Del Siegle (1) and D. Betsy McCoach (1)
(1) University of Connecticut, Storrs, USA
Del Siegle, 2131 Hillside Rd., Unit 3007, Storrs, CT 06269-3007, USA
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|Title Annotation:||The Last Word|
|Author:||Siegle, Del; McCoach, D. Betsy|
|Publication:||Journal of Advanced Academics|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2011|
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