Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Facets of Gifted Education: Joel McIntosh, Prufrock Press

Joining us today is Joel McIntosh, the publisher of Prufrock Press. Prufrock is "the nation's leading resource for special needs, advanced and gifted learners" and for years has been producing classroom materials and books that deal with the issues we talk about here at Gifted Exchange. McIntosh discusses his work, and current trends in education.

GE: Why does the world need a publisher focused on gifted issues?

McIntosh: Twenty years ago, I taught gifted students in a small town in Texas. I began attending gifted education conferences in the mid-1980s and discovered wonderfully creative teachers who were willing to share their lessons, units, and projects, and scholars who were willing to share their research findings. I remember thinking, "Why isn't someone publishing these great ideas?" It wasn't long before I decided that someone should be me.

The reason we need a publisher focused on gifted education is that large publishers see the field as too small for heavy investments. Without a publishing house like Prufrock Press, the field would have little access to materials that have undergone the kind of vetting, editorial controls, and content improvement that ours do. I think that's an important distinction between what we publish and what a teacher or parent might find by simply searching the Internet for resources. Prufrock Press has a senior advisory group composed of the top scholars in the field of gifted education, all of our editors have graduate degrees in gifted education or children's literature, and we all have classroom experience. In essence, when a customer picks up our catalog, he or she knows that the resources he or she finds there will be research-based and reflect agreed-upon best practices in the field of gifted education.

GE: Who is the audience for your products? How much of what you do is parenting books vs. classroom materials, tests, etc?

McIntosh: A majority of our buyers are teachers who serve gifted children in their classrooms. We also serve university professors and graduate students. The rest of our customers are parents looking for information and resources that challenge their children. Typically, we reach educators through our gifted education catalogs. Parents, on the other hand, quite often find us via the Web. Our Web site is a fantastic resource. In addition to our online catalog, we provide free information about teaching and parenting gifted kids, blogs that focus on important topics in the field, and plenty of online articles that offer practical advice about gifted children.

We do publish a handful of parenting books. Our most recent parenting release, Raising a Gifted Child: A Parenting Success Handbook by Carol Fertig, has been wildly successful because it is the best, most up-to-date resource on parenting strategies, resources, organizations, and tips for parenting a gifted child. The Web resources listed in this book would, by themselves, justify the purchase price of this book.

However, the vast majority of our products are designed as teaching resources or professional development materials. Whether being used in a classroom or at home, these materials are innovative, fun, and research-based. For example, we publish an entire line of guides for teaching philosophy to kids, interdisciplinary curriculum, an entire advanced reading skills program, challenging and fun mathematics resources ... the list of innovative teaching tools that we publish is nearly endless.

I'll tell you something I'm very proud of: our teaching resources are substantial, based on sound research, and assume a sophistication on the part of our customers. Drop by any teacher supply store and look at some of the teaching materials available from big publishers. You'll find book after book of unchallenging, basic-skills, fill-in-the-blank worksheets. Look at our materials and you'll discover an extraordinarily different kind of product. For example, our award-winning curriculum units developed by he Center for Gifted Education at the College of William and Mary feature advanced topics ranging from spatial reasoning to molecular physics.

You should sit in on one of editorial meetings as we sort through the new product proposals we receive from authors. About 95% of the products we reject would probably be acceptable to the larger publishers, but we reject them. We're looking for the real jewels that sparkle. The kinds of proposals that we accept make you want to say, "How cool! I would have loved to teach with this idea. The kids would have loved it."

GE: What current/upcoming titles or products are you most excited about?

Increasingly, schools are moving toward inclusive, mixed-ability classrooms. Teachers are craving practical tools that will help them creatively teach and challenge all of the students in a classroom. We've been working with some of our most popular authors to help address this need.

I'm thrilled about our new middle school series, Differentiating Instruction With Menus. This series offers teachers everything they need to create an inclusive, student-centered learning environment based on choice. These books (one for each of the core content areas) provide a number of fun, different menus that middle school students can use to manage their learning and the exciting, creative products they develop to show the content and skills they have mastered. We released the elementary-level series of menus books 2 years ago, and our customers have loved them. I know our middle school customers will be happy to get their hands of this new version of the series (available in April 2009).

Just this month, we released Differentiation Made Simple: Timesaving Tools for Teachers. This book is like a ready-to-use education toolbox for helping classroom teachers overcome time constraints and other obstacles to differentiation by providing a wealth of ready-made and generic tools they can employ right away.

On a personal note, I am honored to be the publisher of Leading Change in Gifted Education: The Festschrift of Dr. Joyce VanTassel-Baska (available in late March 2009). Few individuals have had such a lifelong and profound impact on the education of gifted children as Dr. VanTassel-Baska. This book traces this important thinker and her impact on gifted education. It includes major strands of work central to defining the field of gifted education and discusses relevant trends and issues that have shaped or will shape the field. This book is sure to be an invaluable resource for policymakers, scholars, researchers, and practitioners who are interested in research-based practices to better serve gifted students. We are proud to have been chosen as the book's publisher.

GE: Have you noticed any big changes in education in 20 years of being involved in these issues?

McIntosh: Absolutely. Twenty years ago, many gifted programs lacked academic rigor and substance. Gifted classes had a lot of fluff (the term we used for activities that seemed fun, but frivolous). Walk into a gifted pull-out program in that day, for example, and you might see kids painting a hand-held shield that featured icons representing different parts of the child's personality. Although fun and possessing some exploratory value, such activities couldn't really be justified as a expenditure of valuable educational resources, especially learning time for students.

Things changed because of many education leaders such as Dr. Joyce VanTassel-Baska at the Center for Gifted Education at The College of William and Mary and Dr. Julian Stanley at the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University. These leaders built programs that started with the premise that talented kids ought to be able to have learning opportunities that truly challenge the child in his or her area of talent. Such programs began promoting a kind of education focused on substantial and valuable academic learning experiences for gifted children. It was a real shift in thinking. People like Dr. VanTassel-Baska and Dr. Stanley challenged us to think of an educational environment as having the purpose of challenging every child to the extent of his or her abilities. Every child in any classroom deserves to be challenged with valuable learning experiences, regardless of his or her ability.

Unfortunately, there are many people who see the purpose of education as being nothing more than a guarantee that a set of agreed-upon skills should be mastered by every child. According to this kind of thinking, a gifted child who has already mastered these skills has little purpose in a school. In fact, this has been the driving philosophy behind the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.

The last 8 years have been tough for gifted education programs and children. NCLB has had a devastating effect on gifted education. The act forced schools to channel funding and other resources toward children who were not reaching NCLB achievement benchmarks. This change of focus and dollars drained resources from gifted child education. The stories of schools, districts, and even entire states dropping funding from gifted education over the last 8 years were common.

I do, however, think that with a change in leadership in Washington, this trend will shift. I expect to see a renewal of interest in gifted education with change in the current administration.


Terry said...

Thanks for sharing this.

Jen said...

Very interesting reading! I'm a parent who is only beginning on the journey with my profoundly gifted five year old and feel very at sea. I feel a bit better already...