Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Distance Learning – Seabury Style: Meeting the Needs of Gifted Learners

Seabury School’s educational program is designed for the specific needs of gifted learners. So much of what we do has always relied on daily face-to-face, individual contact with our students so that we can ensure they get their learning needs met in every subject, every day.

But now, we find ourselves in a global pandemic. Our students are learning in their own homes, scattered across the Puget Sound Region. They are working alongside younger and older siblings and adults. Some of their parents are still working outside the home in essential jobs. Some have their own computers or tablets. Some families share one computer. Some students work at desks in their bedroom, at kitchen tables, snuggled with the family dog, on the backyard deck – or all of the above. How do Seabury’s teachers meet the needs of their gifted students in this time of distance learning? How do we address not only their unique learning needs, but also their unique circumstances?

Lessons Learned About Educating the Gifted and Talented: A Synthesis of the Research on Educational Practice, by Dr. Karen Rogers, is a synthesis of 150 years of research. The study recommends five key practices for the effective education of gifted learners. These practices are fundamental to our regular program at Seabury.

So what about Distance Learning – Seabury Style? How do those practices apply now?

Gifted and talented learners need daily challenge in their specific areas of talent. We want our students to learn something new every day at school. Our kids come to us with various interests and abilities. In fact, it’s common for gifted students to have varying levels of abilities in different subjects. A child might be exceptionally gifted in math and less so in reading, or vice versa. Some of our students are also twice-exceptional, meaning they are gifted, but also have a learning difference such as ADHD or dyslexia that impacts how they learn. Our teachers make adjustments in the pace of learning and expectations for each student based on that student’s readiness. Even when the teacher gives every child the same assignment or project, their expectations for the outcome vary – some are asked to do more, and others might complete the work in a different way. The goal is for everyone to be challenged, but not overwhelmed. In distance learning, our goal is the same. During distance learning, teachers teachers can’t observe children during a lesson or while they are working, so they are finding creative ways to get this information by conferencing with students on their work, and through Zoom meetings and tutoring sessions. But they depend on students (or their parents if they are young) for feedback on whether work is too hard, too easy, too little, too much or if it needs to be done differently.
What Families Can Do: If children are old enough, have the child reach out to the teacher if an assignment needs adjusting. For younger children, adults working with them at home should reach out. Our teachers differentiate, or individualize, every day and want to make sure that school is meaningful and provides appropriate challenge for every child.

Opportunities should be provided on a regular basis for gifted learners to be unique and work independently in their areas of passion and talent. At school, we have many opportunities for this each week through Genius Hour in the MakerSpace, project choices, art, creative writing, passion projects, electives, free choice times – and more. At home, there are also many opportunities for kids to explore their passions and find new interests. Teachers are providing optional assignments for students who want a deep dive into the subjects they are studying. Teachers also recognize while our children are learning at home with parents and other family members as partners, it can be a time to explore interests that might not be possible at school. Baking with a parent or grandparent is an opportunity to learn about fractions and equivalence, as well as nutrition and hygiene. Working in a garden can become lessons in botany, entomology and geology. A neighborhood walk can test powers of observation and accomplish fitness goals. Just as teachers give our kids space to explore interests and passions at Seabury’s campuses, the school-home distance learning partnership will provide those opportunities as well.
What families can do: When children ask questions, encourage exploration. That’s exactly what Seabury teachers do every day. The inquiry process means not only looking for the answer, but exploring the possibility that there might be many answers, and that those answers might lead to more questions. From pre-k to eighth grade, our kids practice the inquiry process every day, and you will see it in our distance learning program. Encourage children to pursue interests outside of assigned schoolwork as well as optional assignments of interest. And encourage children to share what they learn with their teachers. Seabury teachers not only love to know more about their students’ interests, but are then able to incorporate those interests into future school activities. 

Provide various forms of subject-based and grade-based acceleration to gifted learners as their educational needs require: At the middle school this year, we have three grade levels, 20 students and six math levels that range from sixth grade math through algebra two. In pre-k, we have students who are working on reading simple Bob books and students who read chapter books. Children working at home also need greater acceleration in some subjects. Our teachers use pre-assessments to determine what children are ready for each time they start a new unit of study, especially in math. Our students learn quickly. But they haven’t necessarily been exposed to everything equally so even as we accelerate students, we also find gaps in their learning. Add developmental readiness to that. Just because a second grader can read at a sixth grade level doesn’t mean that child comprehends in the same way a sixth grader would. It becomes a complicated proposition to figure out what a highly capable child needs, how fast the child can move through new concepts, and what they need next. Our teachers are experts at working with gifted kids on many levels at the same time and make sure children keep moving at a pace that is right. At school, our teachers have the advantage of being in the room as students are working. At home, as mentioned earlier, they need to rely on work turned in as well as questions raised to get that “just right” fit.
What families can do: This is another reason it is important to communicate with the teacher when things are too easy, too hard or need to be done differently. It is also important to remember that a child might move more quickly in some subjects or in some units of study than others. Just like a child’s growth in height doesn’t follow a steady, predictable pattern, a child’s academic growth also goes in spurts. Additionally, at this time of heightened stress for everyone, a child’s progress might slow or their attention wander. It’s ok. We’re there to support all of our children and families through this. And when the students are ready to pick up their normal pace – and that time WILL come – our teachers will be ready for that, too.

Provide opportunities for gifted learners to socialize and to learn with like ability peers. This is one of the biggest benefits of being at Seabury. The chance to learn and grow with kids who “get” you. You have probably seen how important this is to our kids if you have listened in on any of your child’s Zoom class meetings. Our children connect on a deep level and inspire each other. In the classroom, they spark ideas in each other and support each other. When kids come to us from other schools, it is often one of the first things they notice – they can be themselves at Seabury in a way they can’t anywhere else. This is vital as they develop their sense of self-confidence and self-esteem. It is in learning to navigate these early friendships with intellectual peers that they gain the skills they’ll need learn to work and learn with all kinds of people. As we moved to distance learning, we recognized how important Zoom meetings would be for kids to be able to make these connections with each other. Hanging out, sharing ideas, laughing at each others’ jokes is important for their social-emotional learning and mental health. Tools like Flipgrid and programs such as advisory, as well as individual and small group check ins with teachers and virtual play dates are all important ways of keeping our kids connected with each other. You can see the joy in their faces when they connect with friends online.
What families can do: This is a difficult time as we face an unprecedented global crisis. No matter the age of your child, they feel the stress and uncertainty. It may show up in worry, but it could also show up as silliness, inattention, lack of interest in schoolwork, irritability, etc. Classroom Zoom meetings, advisories, and other real time connections with classmates are as important as academic work in order to help kids feel connected. Adults who have watched classroom Zoom meetings might wonder why teachers take time for silliness or sharing. It’s because because our kids crave these connections. Adults help support their Seabury kids’ social-emotional growth by getting them to as many of these meetings as possible. They can also help set up virtual playdates with friends. We have heard about kids playing Adventure Academy, Roblox or other games together, practicing ukulele together and hanging out on FaceTime. Older kids know how to do this on their own, but might need oversight. Younger kids may need more adult assistance to connect – and also need oversight. 

For specific curriculum areas, instructional delivery must be differentiated in pace, amount of review and practice, and organization of content presentation: Seabury’s program includes inquiry learning, multi-disciplinary studies and projects. These are all instructional approaches that are best practice for gifted children. Because our kids learn information quickly, we don’t use a lot of repetitive drills. Rather we take learning and apply it to promote complex, higher level thinking. In distance learning, you may notice that teachers start with a big picture overview of a new unit. Gifted students are more likely to be “whole to part” learners. In distance learning, teachers adjust the pace not only to students’ learning needs, but also to family needs. That’s why teachers are providing a combination of basic work and optional work so that the pace and depth can not only be adjusted to what the child is ready for, but also to what works for the family, especially with younger students who need more help from adults.
What families can do: Our teachers know how to deliver content to our children and know lots about how each of their students learn. What they learn more about each day is how individual children are doing in this stressful environment, how much help (and wifi bandwidth) is available at home so they can determine what are reasonable expectations. Knowing that what is reasonable will change over time. They are ready to adjust expectations and projects as kids get into the groove of working from home. When a teacher gives a big picture overview of what is coming next, nobody should panic; not all the work has to be done at once. It’s a preview, so the child has context for their learning, because this is how gifted kids learn best.

As you can see, Seabury’s program both at school and from a distance is grounded in meeting the needs of our unique kids. We have always treated learning as a partnership with families, and we are experiencing that now more than ever. Shifting to distance learning has been a huge learning curve for our faculty and staff. But the fundamentals of our program have not changed. We know gifted kids. We know our kids. And we will walk through this time supporting their academic and social-emotional needs together.

      Sandi Wollum

Source: Lessons Learned About Educating the Gifted and Talented:
A Synthesis of the Research on Educational Practice
Karen B. Rogers
University of New South Wales
Gifted Child Quarterly

Volume 51 Number 4 Fall 2007 382-396 © 2007 National Association for Gifted Children 10.1177/0016986207306324 hosted at

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