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!