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

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Is Seabury a Montessori Program?

Parents who visit our early learning program often ask us whether our program is a Montessori program. Like Montessori classrooms, they see students engaged in a variety of tasks and making choices about the activities they are participating in. They see an emphasis on learning with the whole body through hands-on activities and sensory experiences. They see developmentally appropriate materials and a focus on students learning skills of independence.

But Seabury's early learning program is not a Montessori program. Montessori schools are developed around the philosophy and practice of Dr. Maria Montessori, a physician and education innovator who lived in Italy in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Seabury's early learning program is a program developed specifically for gifted learners – students who have unique characteristics and who benefit from practices designed to meet their intellectual, social and emotional needs. Gifted students learn quickly in their areas of giftedness, and young gifted students can often be identified by having moved through many of their developmental milestones early (talking, walking, etc.). Their large vocabulary, intellectual curiosity, incessant need to know why – and to crave concrete, complex accurate answers to their million questions often makes them appear older than they are. But they are still young and have the developmental and social needs that all young students have – the need to learn with their whole bodies, the need to move frequently, the need to learn to share and be independent and take turns.

Seabury's program combines what research has told us about how gifted children learn with the best of experiential learning programs for young children to provide a program that is intellectually stimulating, creatively engaging, and developmentally appropriate. Like in a Montessori classroom, students learn at their own pace using a wide range of hands-on materials and activities. Like in Waldorf programs, students have opportunities for creative expression through art and play and movement. Like in Reggio Emilia, we emphasize open-ended questions and student-led exploration.

All of this, fused with a deep understanding of the way gifted children learn, create Seabury’s program, which is specifically designed to meet the needs of gifted kids beginning in the early learning years.

– Sandi Wollum
Head of school

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Let's hear it for the girls

It happens this time of year every year. Parents come to my office to inquire about enrollment for their son. He is bored in school, getting in trouble often, having difficulty sitting still, and generally frustrated. We talk about why Seabury might benefit him. We would challenge him and give him a group of peers he could relate to. We would place him with teachers who understand his needs and would be patient and positive about his incessant questions and his need to move.

Often these parents also have a daughter. When I ask whether they might also be looking for a placement for her, I am often met with this response: "Oh no, not her." She loves her teachers. She has friends. She gets along with everyone. She's happy. When I ask if they have considered having her tested alongside her brother, I am often met with resistance. But statistically, siblings typically have IQs that are within 5 to 10 points of each other unless there is a developmental disability. So I know that there is a good chance that if the family has one gifted child, they probably have two gifted children. If I can talk the parents into testing their daughter, they are often shocked to find that her IQ is as high or higher than her brother's.

I worry about gifted girls who are doing "fine" in regular classrooms. I was one of them. When I was in elementary school, if you had asked my parents whether I needed a different kind of educational setting, they would have said no. If you had asked me, I would have said the same thing. With my limited experience, I didn't know that school could be an engaging place filled with deep thought and interesting investigations. I thought it was a place where you did what you were told and all was well as long as you made the teacher happy. As an introvert, I was happy with my few close friends. It wasn't until junior high when I was placed in a gifted program classroom that I finally understood what school could be. It changed my life.

What fascinating discussions we had – discussions that spilled over into lunch and left me thinking about possibilities long after school was over. We considered questions I had never encountered. I was given the opportunity to really think and work that was challenging and not just tedious. 

My own school experience led me to the field of gifted education. I want all kids to have the experience of being challenged at school – of getting to wrestle with difficult questions and intriguing possibilities. I worry about our gifted girls who, research says, are more likely to go underground with their abilities than boys. I worry about those little girls who figure out at an early age just what to do so that they don't stand out from the others in their class. They wonder "how many times can I answer questions before the others decide I'm a know-it-all?" 

When gifted girls who've learned to fly under the radar get straight A's without needing to work hard (maybe long, but not hard), what do they learn about how to deal with challenges? How do they understand what their true abilities are? If they expect that everything to come easily, what happens when they hit college, and it isn't easy any more? Will they doubt themselves and their previous successes ("imposter syndrome.")

Parents often struggle to find right educational placement for their child. When their girls have friends and get good grades, parents believe they are ok. In a sense, they are. But is ok enough for our gifted girls? 

Be on the lookout for gifted girls. Let's give them the chance to be stretched and challenged every day – to see that school is more than slumber party invitations and turning in the paper with the neatest handwriting. Let's give them the chance to see that they can think hard and ask incredible questions. Being in a gifted program changed my life. I am committed to giving today's gifted girls the same amazing experience.

– Sandi Wollum 

(For another personal perspective, read this powerful piece by Erin Brooks, the mom of one of our Jellybean students. It appears here in Crushing Tall Poppies, a blog focusing on gifted education.)

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Differentiated Instruction: Q&A with Head of School Sandi Wollum

Differentiated instruction – teaching tailored to students’ different learning styles and levels – is an educational concept that has been around for decades. It is a concept that’s embraced by most schools in theory – and varying degrees of practice.

Because it is essential for gifted children to have a program designed to address their individual characteristics, needs, abilities, and interests, differentiating curriculum so that each child is appropriately challenged is at the core of Seabury School’s mission.

Learn more about differentiated instruction at Seabury in this Q&A with Head of School Sandi Wollum.

How do you define differentiated instruction?

I would say it goes back to the fundamental philosophy that every child gets to learn something new at school every day. Giving every child equal access to education means you need to do different things for different children.

Isn’t that just common sense?

Not always. Some systems in schools are set up to say that every kid should hit the same academic milestones in same way at the same time. We don’t expect children to hit growth charts like that. We don’t expect their T-ball skills to develop like that. Why do we expect their reading or math or other academic skills to develop like that?

How do we ensure differentiation happens at Seabury?

At Seabury, we have small classes and highly trained teachers in order to be able to appropriately challenge every single child, every single day. Most gifted kids are not equally gifted in every area. They have strengths and weaknesses like everyone else. Although our classes are small, the range of needs is extremely wide.

What might that look like in one of our classes?

In a first grade class, we might find students whose reading hasn’t really clicked yet, where they’re still struggling to sound out words, but who also have highly advanced comprehension skills when they hear a story read.  Other children might be reading chapter books meant for fifth or sixth graders, and yet only have five or six years of life experience so while they “understand” what they are reading, they don’t comprehend like an older student would. It makes the range of abilities in any class wide.  And they’re all still gifted.

How does a teacher address this?

What it means in a first-grade reading class is that kids who are not decoding well need to be stretched in decoding, while still being offered materials that allow them continue to stretch their already high level of comprehension.

With the early readers, Seabury teachers know that they usually start reading spontaneously without relying on phonics, so the teachers work with them to notice things like patterns that they haven’t been exposed to. They don’t need phonics to be able to sound out words, but understanding word patterns will help with spelling and vocabulary development.

How can this apply in math?

You might have kids who are gifted in one facet of math because they have had some previous exposure to it and learned it quickly. But in other areas, they may have had little or no exposure and be totally new to the concept being taught.  Teachers need to be able to assess what kids have mastered already and skip that material in order to spend time on concepts they haven’t yet mastered.  They need to sort out whether kids really understand concepts, or have just memorized a series of steps for solving a problem.  And they need to adjust the pace of instruction to match the child’s learning.  Gifted kids need fewer repetitions to master new material, so teachers need to be keen observers and able to adjust the pace of instruction as needed.

How do our teachers find out what children know?

We do a lot of pre-testing and post-testing, and assessments all year long. Our teachers have to know our students really well. They are keen observers every day, constantly monitoring the pace and depth and amount of practice that kids need.

It sounds complicated.

It means really complex scheduling. Students are loosely grouped. But teachers are constantly observing and readjusting. Who’s ready to go faster? Who needs more practice? Who’s ready to move on?   It might mean giving out three different homework assignments for five kids. Or at the middle school, a math teacher with a dozen students might need to create five different finals. Recently a college professor looked at some papers done by our middle school students and commented that the writing was better than much of the work turned in by his students. Every one of our middle school students gets one-on-one time with a teacher on those papers. Our teachers are good at asking things like, “I wonder what would happen if you do this?”

Could we do what we do if we had 25 kids in a class?

Not to the extent that we do. Not with the day-to-day adjustments we do. No human teacher I’ve met could do it. There’s another layer on top of the academic ­– the social-emotional stuff. Our teachers also know that this kid really loves this; or this kid is having a rough time in his family; or this kid is a perfectionist. If you’d asked me when I was a public school teacher, I would have told you I knew all the kids in my class, but it wasn’t the same. When I came here, I thought with 15 kids this is going to be so easy. I spent so much more time with each kid. I knew them so much better. At the same time I was working so much harder because the adjustments were so much more nuanced.

Differentiation was originally devised so teachers could move away from tracking groups of kids. How do we at Seabury avoid having children making comparisons or feeling labeled if they know they’re in a less advanced, math group, for example?

Our overall focus is always on everyone getting what they need. We focus on kids’ strengths. After they’ve been here for a little while, they should be very aware of their strengths. This is also one of the reasons it’s important to have gifted kids with other gifted kids.  In a class of more typically developing kids, if they find that they’re always picking up on things before everyone else, they don’t get a sense of their strengths – or weaknesses. They either get a sense that everything should be easy and shy away from challenge,  or they develop a fear that the first time they don’t know something, there’s something really wrong. We want them to understand that they don’t have to be good at everything, and at the same time help them develop the work ethic and grit that comes from taking on challenges and being confident that the effort is worth it. 

What else is important to know about differentiating for gifted kids?

The vast majority of teachers have zero training in gifted kids. That means that despite their good intentions for our kids, they’re often operating on myths that are just not true.  For example, more work is not better work.  Rigor is not measured in hours of homework per night and, in fact, more work for the sake of adding work can be detrimental to the growth of gifted kids.  Research shows that gifted kids’ achievement goes down with excessive practice beyond what is needed to master the skill they are learning. Gifted kids learn quickly in their areas of giftedness, so need less time practice time to master a skill and more time to apply it in new and more complex ways. 

Seabury’s teachers understand gifted kids – how they learn, what the research says about their intellectual, social and emotional development, and how to both support and challenge them.  Our approach really goes back to that basic philosophy that EVERY child deserves to learn something new EVERY day.  Including gifted kids.

Further reading on myths about giftedkids