Morgridge College of Education graduate Dr. Jennie Mizrahi (EdD ’18) has been awarded the John Laska Dissertation Award in Curriculum from the American Association of Teaching and Curriculum (AATC). According to the AATC, each year it recognizes two outstanding dissertations in teaching and curriculum that best represent its mission and founder, Dr. John Laska. Laska earned his doctoral degree from Teachers College and was a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at The University of Texas at Austin from 1967 until his death in 1995.

Mizrahi’s award-winning dissertation, Underachievement of Creatively Gifted High School Students, tackles why under achievement is a common issue with gifted students, specifically creatively gifted students who may be at greater risk because of personality traits, lack of challenge in strength areas, a mismatch between school environment and student needs, low status associated with creative achievements and behaviors in the school system, and other factors.

“I am humbled by the honor,” Mizrahi said, “and hope that this will give me an opportunity to help raise awareness of the issues faced by creative underachievers so that we as educators may better meet their needs.”

Her research focused on “…six creatively gifted, underachieving high school students from an urban-cluster area in the western United States. A hermeneutic phenomenological approach was used to gather data in the form of interviews with underachieving, creatively gifted students, their parents, and teachers; observation of classrooms; and creative artifacts to uncover the essence of the experience of underachievement for these stakeholders. These data groups were then compared to each other and existing literature to help generate recommendations for changes in school programming and practice for helping this student population.”

According to Dr. Norma Hafenstein, Daniel L. Ritchie Endowed Chair in Gifted Education at the University of Denver and Mizrahi’s academic advisor, Mizrahi’s conclusions “focus and elaborate on the themes of emotionality, learning versus achievement, shaping the student self, motivation and power, and student creativity in crises.”

Mizrahi’s results saw creative high school students, their parents, and their teachers experience underachievement in many ways. According to her, several major themes emerged; the first was the interaction of creativity and underachievement, which included differences in priorities and contradictory goals for various participants in various contexts. The second was motivation. Participants tended to discount or undervalue intrinsic motivation for creative tasks and experienced lack of motivation for school tasks (often seen as “hoop jumping”) as a character flaw on the part of the student, who was often viewed as having a poor work ethic. Participants had little understanding and no tools for increasing motivation. The third theme was the student self. All three sets of participants had similar perceptions of the student self, but the conflict between student needs and student perceived self, and the values and expectations at school and at home placed students sense of self under threat. The fourth theme was power. While a sense of student autonomy is key for creativity and academic success, when students underachieved, parents and teachers tended to exert types of power which undermined student autonomy, sometimes triggering reactance (rebellion against the attempted power influence) in an attempt to protect student autonomy and sense of self.

Mizrahi recommended separate support groups be formed for parents and students, a review of grading policy and goals at the school site, and the formation of a gifted and talented program at the site to help advocate for students and train teachers in differentiated curriculum and the needs of gifted students. The gifted and talented program would also provide extension and exploration opportunities for students.

“Dr. Mizrahi was an exceptional graduate student, a leader in her cohort and a meticulous and thorough researcher,” Hafenstein added. “Simultaneously, her passion for the arts and for a special population of gifted students created the context in which this extraordinary project occurred.”

Part of her award includes a one-year membership to AATC, a conference fee waiver to the annual AATC meeting where the award will be presented, and an invitation to present the dissertation at an AATC conference session. Mizrahi will accept her award and present in person at the 25th AATC annual meeting in Dallas, Texas in October 2018.

Laura Finkelstein (PhD ’14), has been keeping very busy since graduating from Morgridge College of Education at the University of Denver (DU). She spent the first year of her post-graduate professional career as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of North Carolina – Wilmington. She then accepted a position as a staff psychologist at the University of Texas Dallas (UTD) Counseling Center until she was promoted to Outreach Coordinator. In her roles at UTD, she provided individual counseling for students dealing with a broad range of concerns, from adjustment issues to the emergence of more severe mental health symptoms. She ran several groups, including an Expressive Arts Therapy Group, a Men’s Issues Group, and a Self-Compassion group. She also oversaw outreach training, coordination, and provision for UTD students and staff.

More recently, Laura moved back to Washington, DC to be closer to family and has since opened her own private practice where she sees adults with a range of concerns and symptoms.  She focuses on trauma, relationship issues, men’s issues, and expressive art therapy, and she just recently accepted a position as the Director of the Counseling Center at Marymount University.

Laura remembers her time at DU and Morgridge fondly, particularly the relationships she built with faculty and instructors.

“They embodied the type of compassionate, curious psychologists I wanted to be, and in many ways continue to be important examples to me,” Finkelstein said. She also appreciated the broad scope of experiences and counseling skills that were a part of both the MA and PhD programs, which prepared her well for an assortment of challenges she has faced professionally.

Finkelstein was initially drawn to the field of counseling based on her fascination with people’s stories; their childhood, relationships to self and others, and construction of narratives. Before entering the field as a student and eventually a professional, Laura wrote for a fashion magazine but found that she was more interested in how individuals functioned psychologically in the industry than she was the fashion itself.

“I applied to the MA program to see if these interests would fit for me as a career,” she said. “Absolutely loving it from day one, I knew I wanted to continue through a PhD program and make a professional life out of psychology.”

“DU first came on my radar because I had a lot of friends from the East Coast, where I grew up, who had recently moved to Denver and loved the lifestyle. Through my research of the program and my interview, I was excited by the breadth of learning and experiences offered by the counseling program. The people in the program, my cohort and professors, kept me going and feeling inspired professionally.”

In the future, Finkelstein is open to different roles as a psychologist, including further work in counseling centers, either in a teaching or administrative capacity. In whichever direction her career in the field of counseling moves, she feels very prepared for a wide array of positions, which is one of things she appreciates most about having her degrees in Counseling Psychology.

“The path of a counseling psychology student, especially a Ph.D. candidate, was not always smooth,” she said. “There were many challenges and I definitely had moments where I questioned if I could do it. I have so much admiration and respect for students in these programs. To them I want to say, this can be such a rewarding and meaningful path, and it does get easier!”

On September 30, Educational Leadership and Policy Studies gradate Fernando Branch (Education Administration, Secondary School Leadership, ’12) was honored by the City and County of Denver at the My Brother’s Keeper 25 luncheon at the Park Hill Golf Course. Originally an initiative of the office of the president in 2014, My Brother’s Keeper honors those working tirelessly  to make the American Dream available to all boys and young men of color by eliminating gaps in their opportunities and outcomes.


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