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Nicole Fenty, assistant professor, Graduate School of EducationAssistant Professor Nicole Fenty

Assistant Professor Nicole Fenty is one of the newest faculty members at the Graduate School of Education. Her focus is special education and literacy. Fenty holds a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Florida and both master's and doctoral degrees in special education from the University of Florida. Keep reading to find out more about her, including her teaching and research interests.

Where were you before you joined the Graduate School of Education?

I was working as an assistant professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Louisville [Kentucky].

Why did you decide to leave there and come to Binghamton University?

When I was in the graduate program at the University of Florida, I worked on a grant with a cohort of folks who all had similar interests. We had all these collaborative kinds of projects going on and I was able to get so much done. I thought the whole world was that way, but I found out it isn't. When I went to the University of Louisville, the faculty there had different interests and I was kind of an island unto myself. They were great people...nice people, but it is very difficult to get things done in this profession by yourself. That was the main reason I started looking for another position.

What was it about the position at the GSE that interested you?

I read the job ad for the faculty position here and they were looking for someone interested in literacy and behavior. I thought that was interesting because I'm a literacy person and I bring in some of the behavior aspects. One of the things I am interested in is how does struggling with behavior affect literacy or how does struggling with literacy affect behavior?

I did some research on the faculty members before I applied and saw folks like Erin [Washburn], Lucky [Mason-Williams] and Candi [Mulcahy], who have similar interests to mine. I thought, wow, this seems like an awesome place. Then I had a good Skype interview followed by a really nice in-person visit. It felt like a good fit. All those things together led to an offer that I had to seriously consider because I wasn't the only person involved in the decision. I have a husband who is also in higher education; we both worked at the University of Louisville.

Obviously you accepted the offer! Did your husband also join the faculty?

Yes! Sean is in the Writing Center. S.G. [S.G. Grant, dean of the Graduate School of Education] was very supportive of us both finding positions. In fact, that was one of the indicators to us of the kind of support that would be here if we were to choose Binghamton. It all came together nicely and we moved here in August.

What are your initial impressions of the campus and the people you've met so far?

The campus seems like a manageable campus to navigate, but the people are the number one factor in me taking the job here. I've found the people to be very welcoming and open.

What are your areas of interest and what do you hope to accomplish at Binghamton?

Great things! With populations of students who have been classified with a disability, best practice shows that you want to make contexts and connections as explicit as possible for them. So, content literacy is where I am focused...making explicit connections between literacy, which is a foundational aspect of all other concepts, and content areas. I would love for the GSE to be known for having a center that focuses on professional development, pre-service teacher preparation and interventions in this area. I would like us to have high-quality professional development focused on literacy and how it's connected to content or literacy across the content areas.

Can you tell us a little about your research...what you've done in the past and what you hope to do here at Binghamton?

I had a couple of grants at the University of Louisville that focused on professional development. My first grant focused on ELA [English language arts] teachers and helping them realize how they can help students, especially those who struggle with literacy. Let's say you're an ELA teacher and you want to focus on comprehension, the concept of cause and effect for example. You can use a narrative piece or a story piece to illustrate the concept, but you can also use a science piece. In fact, why not find out what the science teacher is focusing on and use that in the context of your course? You're still teaching cause and effect, but you're also making these explicit contextual connections for your students. They're hearing about something in science and they're hearing about it in your class and that just doubles their exposure without them even being aware of it. This helps them, especially the students who are struggling.

The second grant, which I left with someone else but am still somewhat involved in, focuses on helping content area teachers incorporate literacy into their subjects. We've found that the content teacher group is really responsive to incorporating the literacy aspect into their content areas.

Here at Binghamton, Erin, Candi and I are getting ready to submit a similar kind of proposal to the Spencer Foundation. The project we're proposing would help content area teachers incorporate requirements from the Common Core into their classrooms. We plan to train the teachers in the new Common Core Standards as they relate to literacy and their specific content area(s).

Let's move on to teaching. What courses are you teaching this semester?

I'm teaching Introduction to Special Education and Instructional Approaches for the Inclusive Elementary Classroom, which are both similar to courses I've taught before!

What are your impressions of your students so far?

I had high expectations for the students, higher than I probably would have if I hadn't heard how selective Binghamton is before I came here. So far, they're good students, very responsive to explicit directions and expectations. They're very thoughtful. I pose provocative questions to get students talking and I have had no problem doing that with the groups I have.

What about the other students you've met on campus?

The other day I was walking over to Einstein's [Einstein Bros. Bagels] to get something to eat and a group of people asked if I wanted to sign up to vote. That group was just one of several different student groups with tables set up along the walkway. The students here are very actively involved in student associations. It's not about sports here, there's involvement in causes here. That is what should be happening on college campuses, students should be heavily involved in causes that make them excited.

What do you believe is the greatest challenge facing new teachers today?

The heavy focus on standards and standards-based reform is the common answer you'll get to this question, and it's a complicated situation. I can't disagree with the importance of something like the Common Core Standards, but I think from the standards comes the pressure of assessment of student mastery of the standards.

Today, every student is expected to master the standards, so teachers not only have to work with the general population of students and make sure they're achieving benchmark standards, but also they have to make sure they're doing the same with students with disabilities. And, it's not just typical students with disabilities who you would expect to be included in the general education classroom like those with learning disabilities and behavior disorders, but we're talking about kids with severe disabilities who are expected to meet the minimum standards of the curriculum. For special educators it has become a challenge to make sure they're meeting the needs of every student in schools. This is a positive thing, but it's also definitely a challenge.

How do you help your students prepare for this?

When I was trained as a special educator, the focus was on instructional strategies for special education and how to provide support to a general education teacher. Today, there's more of a shift to make sure special educators have a foundation in the content areas. Every teacher in the school needs to support students in both content and literacy standards in order for the student to demonstrate that they have satisfactory understanding of the standards. The expectation is that special education teachers can support students across class settings. That's a huge challenge for the teacher to be able to do that.

What we're trying to do across teacher education is to make sure that our curriculum requirements are structured in such a way that they're getting as much as they possibly can from us. I also think that schools of education are realizing that pre-service programs probably aren't enough, so we're going back out and providing professional development support to those teachers.

You mentioned that you started as a special education teacher. Can you tell us more about that?

I taught special education at the elementary level. I was a resource teacher, which means I pulled kids out of their general classroom to provide instruction. This was for kindergarten through fourth grade in a public school in Gainesville, Fla. Also, at the University of Florida's lab school, I was also an inclusive teacher, which means I went into first- and second-grade classes to work with students in their general education classrooms. When I was a resource teacher I taught every subject; when I was an inclusive teacher my position focused on working with students struggling in the areas of reading and writing.

What prompted you to go into the field of special education?

I was in my last year of high school when my brother, Kemuel, was born. At that time, my plan was to become a developmental psychologist. But, he was born at only 6 months and was in the hospital for 3 months and had a lot of complications. When he got into school he was diagnosed with an intellectual disability. I chose to go into some of his preschool classrooms and do observations there for some of my assignments. That experience led me to change my major to special education.

Do you have any advice for students considering teaching as a profession?

Teaching may seem like something you should do or can do, but it's more than a should or a can, it really is a want. Education is in a place now where you really have to be passionate about doing it to stick with it because there are just so many complexities. There are so many different kinds of students you're going to have to work with. There are so many different ways that you'll have to demonstrate that you're a good teacher. There are so many different obligations that you have to your students to be a good teacher. You really have to want to be a teacher to be a teacher.

Let's change direction, what about you would people find most surprising?

As strange as it may seem, I think I was born to be about 60 or 65 years old! I would like to live in a retirement community where things are quiet all the time. I like things that typically appeal more to a generation or two above my current generation. I watch very old shows like The Andy Griffith Show.

Last question: So, what is your favorite TV show?

Murder, She Wrote. I also read the Murder, She Wrote books, which most people probably don't even know exist!

Last Updated: 3/20/14