Collaborative Peña project provides teacher-centered space for special educators

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Collaborative Peña project
provides teacher-centered space for special educators

Faculty and students with UW–Madison’s Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education are partnering with colleagues within the School of Education and across the Madison area in establishing a group dedicated to supporting the intellectual and creative spirit of special educators.

This unique and collaborative community of practice is called Peña for Special Educators.

Pena art event
In addition to discussions centering on special education, the Peña
for Special Educators group has gotten together for a painting
workshop, among other events. The idea is to allow teachers to
celebrate the creativity of their craft.
“Peñas are historically rooted as Latin American social gatherings that combined art and social activism,” says UW–Madison’s Taucia Gonzalez, an assistant professor with the Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education (RPSE). “We wanted to create a teacher-centered space that allows teachers to celebrate the creativity of their craft while drawing from collaborative expertise to address challenges related to their profession.”

The Peña group came about following discussions between the School of Education’s Partner School Network (PSN) and special education faculty members about how to best foster and support both current special education teachers, as well as UW–Madison students in the process of becoming special education teachers.

Faculty members within the group are able to provide research-based knowledge and expertise in developing highly qualified and certified special educators, while PSN brings to the table its skill in building cooperative relationships among area teachers, schools and people within the School of Education.

The group caters to teachers and administrators with the Madison Metropolitan School District, among others, who can provide the insider knowledge about priorities, data and what is — or isn’t — working in schools today.

“I think what teachers in the classroom bring to the table is a perspective on reality,” says Lauren Wuchte, a regular at the Peña meetings who is in her third year as a sixth grade special education teacher at Madison’s Sennett Middle School. “When you’re learning to become a teacher you are idealistic and know what all the best practices are and how things should be going. But in a high-needs, low-income school not everything is going to go like you were taught in a textbook. So I think it’s interesting for the professors, too, to hear about what it’s like to be in schools in this moment.”

The Peña for Special Educators group meets for yoga.
Peña for Special Educators started a-year-and-a-half ago, and today meets every other month, with roughly a dozen people attending each meeting. In addition to discussions centering on special education, the group has gotten together for a painting workshop, done yoga together, and met out for food and drinks.

“More so than a professional development opportunity, our top priority with the Peña meetings is to make them fun and spirit enriching,” says UW–Madison’s Rebekka Olsen, who is pursuing her Ph.D. in special education and was part of the team that came up with the idea for the group. “Being a special educator in schools today can be very challenging and isolating, so it’s very helpful to get together and have this outlet to talk about topics with other special educators, while also making the meeting fun and creative.”

And when the group does discuss special education, those involved with Peña for Special Educators say it’s great to have a range of people with different backgrounds sharing ideas.

“It’s interesting for me to learn through the perspective of special education teachers,” says Gonzalez, who helped lay the groundwork for Peña with RPSE faculty members Bonnie Doren and Andrea Ruppar, and PSN Director Molly Carroll. “It’s important to hear about what issues constrain their practice, what they are able to do despite those constraints, and what gives them joy in their practice. Having this understanding allows me to think about how my research is connected to these issues and can hopefully contribute to addressing issues rooted in local practice.”