Thursday, April 27, 2017

"Extraordinary people have singular issues and needs."

I confess that when I went to a screening of the new film, Gifted, last week, I expected to be frustrated and disappointed. Gifted kids are often portrayed in TV and movies as either social misfits to be laughed at or mini adults and phenoms to perform for our amazement and amusement. Stories about gifted kids tend to be simplistic. "Gifted schools" have nerdy kids with thick glasses, no recess and chess clubs as the only activity. Putting them at a regular school with "normal" kids is the way to make gifted kids "normal."

Gifted took a nuanced look at the challenges of raising a profoundly gifted child, exploring the idea of how you provide a childhood to a gifted kid.  What does "normal" really mean?   Mary's caring Uncle Frank wants her to be a kid. He doesn't deny that she has extraordinary intellectual gifts.  In fact, he continually challenges her intellect, engaging in philosophical discussions and supporting her passion and ability to learn increasingly advanced mathematics. He recognizes that that learning is her joy. But he also understands that she is a kid. He wants her to run, play and ride a bike and do all the things that kids do. He tries sending her to first grade, where her age would place her. It is immediately obvious that she doesn't fit in. She is incredulous that the other 7 year olds are learning simple one-digit addition. She calls them "aliens" because their way of seeing the world is so different from hers. 

Her grandmother, on the other hand, believes her enormous potential is a responsibility. Her family owes it to the world to develop her immense mathematical potential. If that means she has to forgo being a child to get serious about her studies so be it.  It's the sacrifice she has to make because of the gifts she's been given.

Dr. James Delisle, scholar and leader in gifted education notes that gifted kids, "...are normal – they just aren't typical."  Often, however, when students enter school, the fact that they aren't typical can make them believe they are not normal.  Or that in order to fit in, they have to give up learning new things at school and to focus on making social connections.  Unfortunately, this often leads to kids who find, like the girl in the film, that they don't fit in academically or socially.  They either have to hide what they are truly capable of, or look to teachers and other adults to be their friends. 

This is a choice families shouldn't have to make for their gifted kids.  And, frankly, it is the reason Seabury exists. Not all 7 year olds are the same, and not all need the same things at the same time. In specialized programs for intellectually advanced youngsters, kids can be kids and can reach their potential at the same time.  Bright 4 year olds can have deep conversations about whether Pluto should be a planet as they play with blocks and learn to share.  Kids who lose sleep over climate change can laugh with their friends at the exploits of Captain Underpants.  Teachers don't shut a student down who has a different way of doing the project that has been assigned. Kids who have a million questions are with peers who inspire a million more. 

In gifted education, we call this asynchronous development – kids who are developing intellectually, socially, emotionally and physically out of sync. They are many ages at the same time. An 8 year old might do math like a 12 year old, read like a high school student, have the physical coordination of a 9 year old, and have the imagination of a much younger child.  Because gifted students have the tendency to be highly sensitive and intuitive, when they are in an environment, like Seabury,  where other students and teachers understand them, they feel safe asking tough questions and revealing their sensitivities. As educators and parents who want our kids to become all they are capable of becoming, we need to pay attention to all these ages and stages of development.  We need to provide supports where they are needed, and remove the artificial ceilings in the areas where youngsters are ready to fly. 

Parents shouldn't be forced to choose between social happiness and academic
challenge. At Seabury, students don't have to choose between being intellectually challenged and being in a social environment that works for them.  They can be normal, even when they aren't typical. 

I encourage parents of gifted children to see the film. Because it's Hollywood, young Mary possesses gifts that are extreme. Most gifted students are not doing differential equations at 7 years old. But they are doing things beyond the reach of typically developing kids their age. Notice how the child struggles to make sense of a first-grade curriculum that covers material she's known as long as she can remember. Bring tissues, it's not easy to watch the little girl understand for the first time how different she is, or her uncle as he agonizes over the best choices for her.

Over the years, Seabury parents have frequently expressed – sometimes in tears – how grateful they've been to have their children in an educational setting where they can still be kids and also experience work that challenges them. 

Seabury exists to allow for children to be fully who they are – intellectually, physically, socially and emotionally – 100 percent of the time.

– Sandi Wollum

(Movie photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Bridges – A new program for 5th graders at Seabury aims to create leaders, citizens

A student in Seabury’s fifth grade is hoping to plan a service project to help Tacoma Community House, which has a department that provides services for immigrants.

“My mom and dad are citizens now, but they were originally immigrants,” he says.”

Another fifth grader’s intentions will come as no surprise to anyone who’s known the animal lover for more than five minutes.

“I want to help the humane society,” she says. “But first I’m going to ask them what they need the most. Like if they need more dog food, I’ll do a big drive for dog food. If they need blankets, I’ll do a big drive for that.”

These ideas aren’t coming out of nowhere. They are the beginnings of culminating projects required for the fifth graders at Seabury School. These fifth graders have been the beneficiaries of Bridges, an innovative program the school introduced this year.

Our downtown middle school was founded on the belief that intellectually advanced students learn and grow most deeply when they are engaged in projects that are relevant, engaging, challenging and meaningful. Hence, the community is our classroom.

Bridges – in its pilot year – takes off on what our middle school has so successfully nurtured. Designed to be a transition from elementary to middle school, Bridges aims to give our fifth graders something that researchers have found missing in education today  – civics education that teaches young people how to become vital members of society.

The fifth graders and their teachers take the Seabury bus downtown on Thursdays. With the middle school campus as their base, they head out each week to learn about the people and organizations that make our city and community work.

In the fall, they visited police headquarters, met with a Tacoma city councilman, interviewed the director of Tacoma’s farmers markets, toured the bustling Pierce County Election
headquarters just a few days before Nov. 8 – and more.

If you ask the kids which visits made an impression, the answers aren't always what you'd expect.

"The Economic Development Department," a fifth grade girl says. "We found out what kind of buildings they want to build. They want to make a place with apartments for artists to live in and charge them smaller rent. That appeals to me because I'm planning to be an artist and they don't always make a lot of money."

Sometimes, the lessons are exactly what Seabury is going for.

"I see what's going on in the community – and I see I can make a difference," says a fifth grade boy.

As they learn from community leaders, fifth graders get opportunities throughout the year to develop their leadership skills and to become more independent. They run the school store, an enterprise that involves ordering inventory, managing operations and accounting for sales. They mentor younger students throughout the year, helping with STEAM projects, buddy reading and partnering during other classroom activities and field trips.

After winter break, they turned their attentions in the community to nonprofits and community-nonprofit partnerships. Their visits included the Tacoma-Pierce County Humane Society, Multicare, Center for Urban Waters, and they helped out at Tacoma Rescue Mission and FISH Food Bank. They also heard from the director of the YWCA. And last week, Pierce County Council member Connie Ladenburg talked with the students about advocacy.

Now the students will research a nonprofit and create an action plan for a community service project.  They will speak to people in the organization they choose to help and those directly impacted by their service project. They will find statistics about the organization and the number who benefit from it. Once they’ve done the research, they will put together a presentation (video, PowerPoint, Prezi are possibilities) to be presented to the Seabury community – and to people outside of the school, asking for donations. They will present their donations to the organization and write thank you notes to contributors. Then they’ll decide if their presentation is something that should be presented to a government official for additional support.

Along with this awesome preparation for becoming successful middle school students, leaders – and citizens, BRIDGES, is integrated into everything else that makes a Seabury education just right for gifted kids. Combined, it’s unlike anything bright fifth graders can get anywhere in the state – maybe anywhere, period.

The pilot year has gone so well that we are making Bridges a permanent part of Seabury's curriculum sequence. You can find more information on the Bridges page on our website. You can also email us if you have questions or if you would you like your fourth grader to experience a Thursday downtown with our fifth graders. And note – We are offering additional non need-based financial aid for the 2017-18 Bridges school year!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Why Seabury?

Our favorite definition of giftedness comes from Annemarie Roeper, founder of the Roeper School.

It’s “a greater awareness, a greater sensitivity, and a greater ability to understand and transform perceptions into intellectual and emotional experiences.

If you have a child described in the above quote, you probably realized early on that you’ve had to be on your toes, ready to provide deeper experiences and more complex answers to questions than you ever thought you would.

It follows that when it comes to schooling, gifted students think and learn differently than typically developing peers. We often get the question, “Why Seabury?” It’s phrased in different ways, but people wonder why choose this small, independent school over the other options for youngsters in the South Puget Sound area – public schools, parochial schools, private schools – even the new charter schools?

Seabury School, which serves students in prekindergarten through eighth grade, is unique among schools in the south Puget Sound because its program is specifically designed for gifted learners. Seabury's program is designed around research based on best practices in gifted education.

Here are a few things that research has taught us about how gifted children learn and grow, paired with how we address these needs at Seabury.

Gifted children are often intense and are best served when parents and teachers understand this. Their intensity – or sensitivity – can cause them to be misunderstood or even misdiagnosed. Teachers in public and private schools typically have not had training in recognizing or providing support for the unique learning needs of gifted children. At Seabury, gifted youngsters are supported by teachers who understand them.

Gifted students are typically not equally gifted in all areas. Seabury tailors instruction and expectations to the needs of each individual student. The goal is to provide appropriate challenge in areas of giftedness and support in areas of growth. By individualizing instruction and expectations, teachers can appropriately challenge each child every single day.

Gifted children learn quickly and retain information easily, especially in their areas of giftedness. Too much rote repetition of material they have mastered will decrease achievement levels. Seabury teachers work closely with individual students and adjust the amount of practice with new information according to the needs of the individual student, with the goal of providing enough practice to master the skill but not repetition that is meaningless or unnecessary.

Gifted students understand abstractions at an earlier age than typically developing students, and seek complexity in work and play. They tend to be "whole to part" learners, preferring to start with the big picture or a big idea, and then deconstructing it into its component parts. Seabury's curriculum is developed around integrated, project-based units of study. Because students learn factual information easily, the bulk of our time is spent on higher level thinking and problem-solving.

Gifted students show greater academic and social-emotional growth when grouped with other gifted students. Gifted children, like all children, need peers they can connect with to learn how to make friends, collaborate, and develop self-confidence. Grouping students with intellectual peers provides a rich learning environment, but also an environment where gifted students feel like they fit, can learn the give and take of working with others, and feel safe trying new things.

Research into the success of gifted adults, shows that intellectual intelligence is most likely to lead to success in life and career if it is coupled with emotional intelligence the ability to communicate clearly and navigate socially. Understanding and supporting the social-emotional development of gifted children is as vital at Seabury as academic challenge.

Learn more about giftedness on our website –

– Sandi Wollum
Head of School

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The "G" word

I heard it again just this week. "I don't believe in gifted education. I believe all children are gifted."

Of course, all children have gifts. All children are capable of learning new things at school and showing growth in a variety of ways each day. But this statement makes me bristle because I also know that not all children have the same gifts. To treat them if as if they do, denies them the chance to be the unique individuals they are.

Many of us who specialize in gifted education are uncomfortable being saddled with the term “gifted” for the children we are passionate about serving. There is often an assumption that the label "gifted" is an honor or achievement, and programs for gifted kids can be accused of being elitist for that reason. But, for better or worse, it is the term applied to the students that we serve, first by the field of psychology and then by education. It's important that we understand what it means when we use it – also what it does NOT mean.

This is how the Federal Government defines gifted students. 
“The term ‘gifted and talented' … means students, children, or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities."

At Seabury, we particularly like this definition of giftedness by the great Annemarie Roeper, a pioneer in gifted education.

“Giftedness is a greater awareness, a greater sensitivity, and a greater ability to understand and transform perceptions into intellectual and emotional experiences."

Society has no trouble recognizing gifts such as athletic ability or musical talent. It is generally agreed that that children who show exceptional ability in these areas need different kinds of training and experiences if they are to fully develop their gifts. Children as young as 4 or 5 who show advanced skill in sports are offered opportunities for more challenging play and different coaching than peers who are still learning the basics. Early music education is a no-brainer for a child who begins picking out tunes on the piano at age 3. Anyone would agree these children need an appropriate level of challenge to continue to grow. But something else seems to come into play when we are talking about intellectual ability.

When a child is speaking in sentences at 12 months old, or forming complex patterns with blocks at 2, or counting to 1,000 at 5, many people assume that the parents are pushing her. When a 3-year-old who is obsessed with learning everything there is to know about planets points out errors in nonfiction books on astronomy and can name the moons of Jupiter, his parents feel alone because talking to friends about their child’s intellectual prowess is seen as boasting. And where will they find teachers who understand him?

Parents and educators often struggle with the idea that these are indicators that children like this need something different than the one-size-fits-all-education program we increasingly have in our schools.

Why does our society struggle with the fact that not all kids learn in the same way – that some kids need more time to learn basic skills, while others the same age learn quickly and need opportunities to think deeply and to ask more complicated questions? This doesn't make one child better than the other, just different, each with their own set of talents and areas for growth.

I have a passion for gifted education because I believe strongly that ALL children deserve to learn something new at school every day. I cannot bear to tell our gifted children that their job in school is to read a book and wait for the others to "catch up." Of course the other children have their own gifts, but they are no more likely to "catch up" to those extraordinary minds than I am to catch up to Felix Hernandez in my pitching ability. Does that make Felix better than me? Better at baseball – yes. Better as a person – no. Just different.

Gifted kids are not the "good kids" or the "easy kids" as many teaching colleagues over the years have told me. In fact, gifted kids often have challenges that are unrecognized. The ability to conceive of things that your body and hands are not yet ready to make or do is frustrating when you are little. Having questions that are often unanswerable – like "What is the meaning of life?" – can be difficult and is the reason many gifted young people experience existential depression. The strong sense of justice and fairness, and high degree of sensitivity that many gifted children carry can make them targets or can cause stress as they worry over the suffering of others. There can be a profound sense of aloneness when a child is seeing things and asking questions that other kids their age aren't ready for yet.

Gifted education is not perfect. We struggle to find all the students who would benefit from the services we offer. We hurt our own cause when we are too rigid with assessments or when the label "gifted" becomes a burden or is treated like an achievement. But when we are at our best, we can provide a safe space for highly capable children to be themselves at school.

Gifted students are not better than other children. But, they, like all children, deserve the chance to learn joyfully, to grow at their own pace, and to be understood and appreciated. That is why Seabury exists. That is why gifted education is my passion. That is why we need to continue to work to make sure ALL students, gifted or not, get to learn something new at school every day.

- Sandi Wollum
Head of school

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Big Ideas – Little People: Early Learning at Seabury

What do you do with a 4-year-old who asks, in all sincerity, whether you think Pluto should be considered a planet, and can back up with scientific arguments the view that it should? How do you support a kindergarten child who has the fluency to read a 300-page chapter book*, but not the stamina to manage that long of a novel or life experience to grasp the content of books aimed at fourth or fifth graders. What constitutes an appropriate challenge for the 4-year-old who has been building elaborate LEGO structures for as long as you can remember, but struggles to hold a pencil?

Serving young gifted students is complicated, in large part because of their asynchronous development. All gifted children develop asynchronously their intellectual development is out of sync with their social, emotional, and physical development. In the early years, the differences in their development are especially apparent. Young gifted children often talk like little adults. You hear the word "actually" a lot as they correct your mistaken understandings about everything from LEGOS to planetary science to why ice cream before dinner is a perfectly valid idea. But they are still young, so after a rational discussion of the pros and cons of pets in families, can throw a beautiful, screaming temper tantrum because you said no to getting a puppy. They have big questions about life and death, but are young and want you as the parent to have clear and concrete answers to the unanswerable.

At school, this asynchronous development can lead to frustration in typical classroom settings. At writing time, the 4-year-old who has a complex and fanciful story in his head, but who still struggles to form letters, might decide to give up on writing because it is too frustrating. Parents and teachers might be misled by the child's articulate speech and big vocabulary, and set expectations for work and behavior that is beyond her maturity level and ability to be successful. Early readers can become bored with books for their age. Yet, books that sync with their reading levels might not sync with attention span or emotional maturity.

At Seabury, our early learning program is designed specifically to meet the needs of these asynchronous learners. The prekindergarten and kindergarten classrooms are full of blocks, toys, craft supplies, books and materials that support play and imagination, and are developmentally appropriate for young learners. You won't see kids sitting at desks filling out worksheets. Worksheets are usually looking for the short, correct answer. We want our kids to be thinking about big ideas and creating possibilities. Young learners need to learn with their whole bodies.

In a Seabury early learning classroom, you will witness kids engrossed in deep conversations as they build complicated block structures. You will see them using the language of scientific inquiry as they study concepts of interest to them, creating hypotheses and testing theories through experiments and research quests. When it's math time, you might see some students physically solving addition and subtraction problems by moving along a huge number line on the floor while others are developing number sense using a variety of manipulatives and activities that allow them to explore complex ideas in age-appropriate ways. At writing time, you will see some students writing independently and others dictating their big ideas to teachers. Then they may copy some or all of what they dictated so that they can experience the joy of getting their ideas on paper, while working on developing the physical skill of handwriting.

Individualized instruction in skills such as reading, writing and math allow teachers to tailor instruction to the skill level and the developmental level of students. An early sight reader may need to go back and learn some missed phonics rules to recognize word patterns and be a more effective speller. A later reader who is bright and intuitive might need instruction in sounding out simple words, and also to be part of a reading group doing high level analytical comprehension activities with Junior Great Books stories that have been read aloud. Instruction for bright young students needs to address both strengths and areas for growth as students' intellectual, social and emotional development all move forward at their own pace.

I once read a quote by a parent who said that she wished her gifted child had a digital readout on his forehead that said what age child she was dealing with at any given moment. Seabury's early learning program, like all of Seabury's programs, addresses all of the many ages our early learners represent the 4-year-old pre-k student who is more like an 8-year-old in math, a 6-year-old in reading and a 3-year-old when it comes to sharing toys. This allows students to develop their strengths, address their weaknesses, and grow as a whole person at a pace and in a way that is tailored to exactly what that student needs. And, just as importantly, to do so in the company of other bright kids who "get" them and teachers who can support and nurture their unique learning needs.

*A note about early reading: Only about 50 percent of gifted children are early readers. The rest begin to read when their brain is developmentally ready and often at the same time as other, more typically developing children. For a small percentage of gifted children, reading is difficult because they are both gifted and have a learning disability in reading (check out "stealth dyslexia"). Don't assume your preschool child isn't gifted just because s/he isn't reading early. Pay attention to other indicators of giftedness a large vocabulary for his/her age, a passion for complexity, a more sophisticated sense of humor than most age peers, a powerful memory, etc.) Research indicates that parents are good judges of their child's development and of whether or not their child may need more than a typical preschool or school program offers. For more information about identification of gifted children, read What We Have Learned About Gifted Children at the Gifted Development Center. 

– Sandi Wollum
Head of School