Ding-Ay Tadena believes in "teaching outside the box." It's a concept that she learned in UC Irvine Extension's Gifted and Talented Education, or GATE, program and that she uses to help students reach their full potential in her Hawthorne High classroom as well as in her native Philippines. And on a personal level, with her own son.
The youngest of six children, Tadena lost her mother in a plane crash when she was just 1 year old and was sent to live with an aunt in northern Philippines. After completing her bachelor's degree in secondary education, she moved to Manila and taught high school and college-level math.
Meanwhile, she was pursuing three different master's degree programs — in mathematics education, English language and literature — as well as a degree in education management when she was hired as a high school math teacher in California.
It was while teaching in Hawthorne that Tadena first heard about UCI Extension's GATE program and decided to enroll. Now an alumnus, she describes the program as "outstanding" and has recommended it to other teachers. "The professors were great," she recalled, pointing to award-winning educational consultant and trainer David Ghoogasian, as "one of the most engaging and thorough instructors that I've ever had."
Tadena feels that the most useful part of the training was learning to understand the different needs of students at all levels, gifted and otherwise, and the teaching strategies to address those needs. The ability to teach and motivate children who have difficulty learning holds special meaning for Tadena, whose son has Noonan Syndrome.
"Ben was diagnosed to have at least some mental retardation and multi-organ systems malfunctioning," she explained. "I knew that I could not reverse any of his physiological problems. But as a teacher, I knew that I might be able to do something with his mental conditioning. So I raised him understanding his physical limitations but having boundless cognitive ability."
She said the GATE program made her realize that some characteristics of gifted children paralleled those of her son. "During the first day of school with Ghoogasian, I came to understand my son's needs with respect to his 'giftedness.' I started focusing more on his abilities instead of his weaknesses."
Now 15 years old, Ben finished middle school with a 3.87 GPA and just started 10th grade at El Segundo High.
Tadena also brings the skills learned at UCI Extension into her Hawthorne High classroom, even though it doesn't have a GATE program. "The strategies that I have learned have equipped me to reach out to each of my students, differentiate my lessons and give these students who are in an at-risk community some sense as to what they can do, to dream and to start realizing their dreams through good teaching.
"I discovered that the strategies that I learned in teaching the GATE students worked really well with a lot of my students who are struggling academically in most of their classes. This to me was the most important skill that I developed from the GATE program."
Blending her own personal experience and knowledge gained from the UCI Extension program, Tadena created a teaching strategy that she calls the SHE Approach (significant human experience). It focuses not just on the content being taught but also on the "humanness" of that content.
"It's about 'concretizing' the abstract content in terms of the student's needs and interests," Tadena said. "[That's what] makes any lesson real, relevant and significant. It's about breaking the walls that isolate mathematics or science or languages as a discipline. It's about an interdisciplinary way of teaching that fuses the child's linguistic, analytic, artistic, scientific and mathematical abilities using one material yet achieving multi-level learning."
Tadena's tweaking of this strategy over many years has resulted in a fun and engaging classroom for her students at Hawthorne High.
But over the years, she has not forgotten her homeland and has traveled to the Philippines many times to impart her knowledge to local teachers. This past summer, Tadena launched the SHE approach in the islands and trained teachers, math coordinators and college professors on how to use it. The program, she modestly said, has been well received.
And Tadena never forgets where her teaching methods were truly born, crediting the GATE program with opening her mind to a whole different way of teaching and learning.
"It switched on the creative side of me as a teacher," she said. "It made me teach outside the box and led me to focus more on how a student learns best instead of how I teach my subject matter. I'm very grateful with UCI Extension because of what I've become — not just as a teacher, but also as a mom."