by Richard Olenchak, Ph.D. Purdue University
Recently I agreed to consult in the process of formulating a revised Individualized Education Program (IEP) for a fourth-grader at a sizable elementary school serving a middle class neighborhood. Having worked as a volunteer reading tutor with several students at the school, I had come to know Tasha very well; the school had thought my insight might be beneficial in developing her educational program. Whether or not my contributions to that process were useful, the experience served as a reminder to me that schools – at least this one — continue to be driven by an operational philosophy of “find it and fix it.”
Replete with goals, benchmarks, program modifications, and assessments all designed to address Tasha’s previously diagnosed reading problems, the draft IEP document looked much like others I had seen before. Adherence to federally mandated educational accommodations for students with disabilities decidedly was the driving force behind not only creating such a document but also in determining its content. The Tasha I had come to know could have been most any child her age who was experiencing problems in decoding and comprehending words if one used this IEP as the predominant description.
Absent were any references to Tasha’s keen sense of humor, the reality that her mathematical skills were at least three grade levels beyond her school placement, and her penchant for viewing the world holistically and then manipulating situations she encountered through an innately innovative process. She is a natural brainstormer, and her facility for generating numerous responses regardless of the stimulus had become one of the strategies on which I relied in my tutorial work with her. Not only did stimulating creativity reduce if not eliminate the potential agony of tutoring, but it enabled Tasha to feel relaxed and to appear to have fun despite the reasons behind my work with her.
Often, I watched Tasha as we were laboriously reading. She would appear to daze off into never-never-land, yet when queried, she invariably not only understood what had been read but had begun transforming and extrapolating the content. “I bet that the boy in the story really wishes to begin building his own treehouse instead of just helping with the errands at home.” “The animals of Australia are so unusual that they interest me. I would like to explore Australia and become a vet there.” “What if we could go to Antarctica, study the problems, and make a formula for slowing down the melting (of glaciers)?” Any one of these and scads of other ideas crossed Tasha’s mind as we read, and she frequently would come back the next week with a design or plan she had orchestrated to begin bringing her ideas to fruition.
The cut and dried IEP draft provided no glimpse of this Twice Exceptional child who is prewired for creativity. Instead, the document seemed to be crafted around a bent toward formulaic resolution of her reading difficulties – almost akin to a medical prescription for a physical ailment. While this may seem fitting, all special education law, from the original Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975 to today’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, focuses on providing students with disabilities free educational accommodations that are appropriate in the least restrictive environment. Given that Tasha displays proclivities that adjust what “appropriate” and “least restrictive” mean for her, the IEP document screamed out for a revision to the revision.
By joining with Tasha’s parent as an advocate and relying on the inherent influence I have as a valued school volunteer, I produced a new IEP draft that embraced not only accommodations for Tasha’s reading struggles but also for her strengths. Although some IEPs do indeed acknowledge students’ strengths, seldom do those strengths become integral features that adjust how the disabilities are addressed. In reviewing the newest draft, I shared information with the school’s IEP team that led the members to understand that Tasha represents the Twice Exceptional student population – having both disabilities and gifts/talents. Thereafter, I was able to convince the group of professionals that to be appropriate and least restrictive, Tasha’s education program had to reflect her need for growth in mathematics and, most critically, her native inclination toward creativity – that her ingenuity warranted specific attention through creative development embedded in activities throughout her educational program.
That all took place over a year ago. Today, Tasha’s IEP includes explicit activities aimed at linking her quizzical, creative mind with most of her curriculum and instruction. By the end of last year, she had worked with her teacher to found a “creative math club” in which students work with mentors to engage in innovative, exciting math applications. One project Tasha herself completed applied mathematical calculations to address construction of a wild bird feeding station, wedding her apparent math interests with those in animals. And along the way, Tasha’s reading dilemmas have improved to the point that her direct services for disabilities will be reduced in the upcoming academic year.
To overlook creative development in students who are Twice Exceptional is to deny them the necessary educational provisions they not only need but also deserve. To do otherwise is to reduce learning to an exercise in remediation wherein only the disabilities seem to matter while areas of giftedness and talent are marginalized if not completely disregarded. Such an educational program is negligent and certainly shortsighted, and both the child as s/he matures and the larger society lose out.