The Teachers’ Roundtable is a panel of teachers spanning various subjects at Bridges Academy, a school dedicated to educating twice-exceptional students. Each month, the panel answers one submitted question. This month’s question is: What strategies or tips can you provide for integrating social skills and understanding into units, activities and daily routines of your classroom?
Jim Berkowitz (Economics & Government): Getting teenagers to listen to each other is a daunting task, and when you add the twice-exceptional nature of our kids into the mix, the task gets especially tricky. So how do you get the students to talk with each other, as opposed to over each other or at each other?
Getting kids to take turns talking is easy – the old school method of “Please raise your hand” works wonders, but when you’ve got the gifted in front of you, you need to make it clear why they ought to be listening in the first place. I’ve found the best way to do that is to develop exercises and assignments based on interpreting different points of view other than the students’ own. In the Economics & Government class, we do a lot of work with comparative critical reading of news stories to discover the ways in which language can be used to trigger emotions or persuade. When students must write about controversial issues of the day, such as school vouchers or health care reform, by analyzing the arguments of opposite political sides, they learn to put themselves into the shoes of people who see things very differently than they do. They most often discover how people who have vastly different ideas on a given subject are often in pursuit of the same goal. Being 2e kids, they automatically try to concoct an outside-the-box idea superior to either argument, but in doing so, they develop the skill of seeing things through another’s viewpoint. And hopefully they will bring that skill to bear outside the classroom, whenever they encounter someone bringing a different perspective to the mix than their own.
Sally Anne Rosenberg (Math): There are a myriad of ways of integrating social skills and social understanding into a classroom. In the whole class some methods include:
As students feel more secure, they can begin to work on projects together, but we break up the first projects such that student A is assigned part A and student B assigned part B. Eventually the students themselves can work together to break up the project into individual parts to work on.
When dealing with an individual, I tend to speak with the student outside of the classroom about appropriate behavior and what the student needs from me. Does the student need a fidget? Earphones? To sit next to the board? If the student tends to speak too loudly, talk too much, or irritate another student unconsciously during class, I ask if he wants me to say something out loud to signal him about his behavior, or if he would prefer a non-verbal signal. After class, I try to compliment students who have done well. For some students, I often find complimenting them in public is really appreciated. Plus it has the advantage that the other students begin to see that progress is being made.
Irwin Shubert (English): In English we deal primarily with fictional characters engaging in a multitude of activities in many different settings. Part of the exploration of any fictional text is to figure out why characters act the way they do, how they came to act they way they do, and the consequences (both good and bad) resulting from the way they act.
The exploration of these character traits/behaviors is easily turned into a constructive lesson on applicable social skills that are easily recognizable in the characters (and by extension ourselves) and, conversely, the lack of social skills that invariably land the characters in situations that most of us would like to avoid. Recognizing desirable traits and behaviors in fictional characters provides a solid framework for detecting and implementing proper social skills in a real-world setting.
Laura Bahr & Ken Moore (Math): We begin each class with a low-key check in with the students around round tables and a time to do warm-up activities. We provide projects and group-based activities where we facilitate social interaction and teamwork. We encourage students to both practice leadership and know when to participate as an ensemble.
Some of our most successful strategies include our peer critique of projects. Students present projects, ask appropriate questions, and then students each create a rubric and provide constructive criticism of each other’s projects based on approved criteria. Students are guided and prompted to understand the importance of being able to present their ideas and work, leading to dialogue with others.
Nadine Eisenkolb (Science): One of the most important things students learn when they come to Bridges is that taking breaks outside the classroom when they are not available for learning does not get them into trouble! Students are asked to take a break from a situation that is upsetting or frustrating to them. They can re-enter the classroom when they feel ready to act appropriately.
Students are also led to find appropriate ways in which they can articulate how they feel. They are encouraged to share what is frustrating or hard to them at appropriate times and in appropriate words. Teaching them to say “I am anxious,” “I am frustrated with this task,” or “I feel unsafe,” will help them tell the teacher and each other what it is that bothers them rather than having them act out in a situation that causes these feelings. The feelings can then also be addressed in a better way and the environment can be improved to make the student feel more comfortable.
When social conflict arises, I lead the kids to come up with a solution on their own in appropriate ways before they may do a desired task (i.e. who gets to use the hole puncher first before they leave – neither will leave unless they can come up with who will get to use it). I also ask them to “rewind” and express themselves appropriately, or help them come up with something they could have said instead of the words or actions they chose. If appropriate, I ask them to apologize to staff or one another and in the apology name their incorrect behavior.
Brad Sparks (Computer Programming): In Computer Programming, I show the power of collaboration and teamwork through a project the entire class works on in real time. I present a problem to the class, then I “live code” on the Smartboard as the students tell me what needs to happen to solve the problem. It fosters a feeling of camaraderie and accomplishment among the members of the class.
Sharon Greene and Chuck Neddermeyer (Humanities): From day one, we make our classroom expectations very clear to the 7th graders. We meet them outside to discuss the plan for the class. This preview eliminates anxieties some of the students might have surrounding activities that may veer from the standard routine. Once in the classroom, students are encouraged to advocate for their individual needs. For example, the 7th grade Humanities class homework policy states if students are unable to complete an assignment, they must email us the night before to explain the situation and offer a solution for turning in the assignment. Another approach we use in the Humanities class is if/when a student does not connect to the literature we are reading, they can suggest another novel within the unit we are exploring. This system allows a student to not only state the problem but also to offer a solution going forward.
For each unit, we incorporate issues that relate to universal humanistic development. For example, during our China unit, we discuss human rights and censorship issues. During the India unit, students explore the caste system and are motivated to raise funds to be donated to the International Heifer Foundation. While exploring the ancient/medieval civilizations, students learn to connect the past with the present through both the Social Studies and Literature aspects of the Humanities class, so a sense of relevancy can be established and therefore a greater appreciation for the content.
With each assignment, students are expected to use professional presentation skills (eye contact, appropriate pacing, posture, maturity, fielding audience questions, and incorporating appropriate humor). In many cases we work 1:1 with students to repeatedly demonstrate how to interact with the faculty and their peers. By the end of their 7th grade year, students are equipped with deeper humanistic understanding, confidence, and poise.
The Teachers’ Roundtable is a panel of teachers spanning various subjects at Bridges Academy, a school dedicated to educating twice-exceptional students. Each month, the panel answers one submitted question. This month’s question is: What subject do you teach, and what is one strategy you use to engage a student or students for whom your subject area proves challenging?
Greg Kaczynski: I teach 7th grade theater. It’s an interesting class in that performing in front of others isn’t always everyone’s favorite or preferred thing to do. For students who have issues with this discipline, I never force them, first of all. I do let it be known that some level of involvement is required, but I usually leave it at that. I also reinforce the notion of the class being an experimental forum, one where there is no judgment, a space to try new things without fear of criticism or ridicule. Quite often, after watching a few successful scenes, the student will offer to jump in. There are still some students who have troubles beyond that, and in those few cases, I encourage them to try new things and to just have fun. Again, there is never forcing. It is of the utmost importance for the student to feel like they made the choice to be involved.
Gregory Zlotin: I teach ancient history in the 9th grade, and one of the strategies that proved to be very effective was the use of art to convey ideas and to develop abstract thinking skills. Examining Greek and Roman sculpture, to name just one example, has allowed us to discuss the subject of complex human emotions, the Roman worldview, and the aesthetic and political ideas of the ancients.
Ryan Siebrasse: When I am working with a student in Science, I introduce the concepts through experiences and engage the student through the use of the Scientific Method: Make an Observation, Ask a Question, State a Hypothesis, etc. Experiential learning is personal learning and through personal learning I am able to incorporate the relevant concepts based upon the students’ authentic questions.
When I am working with a student in Acting, I make the abstract act of performing concrete, focusing on using our body, voice, and soul as a communication tool. Students need varying degrees of structure to discover their true potential and through each communication exercise I provide each student with a specialized set of instructions that should provide them with the support to discover their hidden talents.
Ben James: Humanities. This year I have a number of students with high verbal skills and slow processing speed. As result these students have challenges with written production. I approach these students by offering one-one instruction, scribing and graphic organizers. The one-one instruction offers students the encouragement and the immediate feedback they need to progress through the assignment. The scribing eliminates the mechanical difficulty of expression so they can access the curriculum on a level commensurate with their abilities. The graphic organizer allows the student to see a visual breakdown of the component parts of the writing process. The teacher can modify the graphic organizers to hone in on a specific skill that requires remediation and differentiation.
Oscar Alvarez: I teach Fitness, both Middle School and High School. I want to be able to make an informed choice, therefore I need information from my student. It behooves me to know his/her preferences in the world of physical fitness. Once armed with this knowledge, I can better formulate a lesson plan that plays to his/her strengths.
Yoko Miyamoto: Japanese. I let them know the purpose of what we do, repeat the activity, and make things simple.
Stuart Matranga: Eighth Grade Humanities: I reveal that the real object of our study is “you.” Before the Zombie Apocalypse, I was a journalist and one day I interviewed Ben Kingsley about playing Gandhi—did he do a lot of historical research, how did he get into that particular person’s mind, etc. He said, “Dear boy, don’t you know the secret? All acting is autobiography. All history is autobiography. All everything is autobiography. Now get out of my room.” I took that to heart (maybe not the last part) and now let the students in on the secret. It isn’t too hard to see that everything we happen to study in the class—the exploitation of the Indians, the African slave market, Habeas Corpus, the Civil War, the struggle for human rights—it’s all really about “you.” “You put the u in Humanities.”
Laura Bahr: I teach mathematics. Students that struggle with computation or pencil or paper work may have an easier time with project-based work. Project-based work also allows students to work from areas of interest to deepen and enrich their understanding of a concept. Differentiating for preference of media, students can display their understanding with video projects, power-points, and manipulatives.
Jim Berkowitz: History & film – different students have been challenged over the years for different reasons. One strategy that works is to allow for different forms of product, gauging an area of strength from a particular student & then allowing them to produce academic work in that venue, whether it be something creative, a powerpoint presentation, building something, or a traditional essay – demonstrating their analysis and understanding of the assignment’s goals.
In the spring of 2009, Bridges Academy initiated a conversation with the members of the National Research Center on Gifted and Talented and the Association for the Education of Gifted Underachieving Students (AEGUS) about a pervasive, ongoing unwillingness to accept the notion that students can be both gifted and learning disabled at the same time (twice-exceptional, or 2e). Not only is the 2e population at risk of remaining under-identified, but also these youngsters rarely receive the comprehensive services required for them to develop optimally.
Understanding the gravity of the situation, the three organizations agreed to invite a cadre of national researchers, psychologists, teachers, and administrators with both theoretical and practical expertise in twice-exceptionality to participate in a symposium. The objectives of the symposium were to develop a working definition of twice-exceptionality, examine current research, and formulate policies for identification, intervention, and best practices.
This cadre of 2e experts agreed to establish the Joint Commission on Twice-Exceptional Education. Its first task was to develop a working definition of Twice-Exceptional in order to legitimize the field of twice-exceptionality. Their work resulted in the following definition:
Twice-exceptional learners are students who have evidence of the potential for high achievement capability in areas such as specific academics; general intellectual ability; creativity; leadership; and/or visual, spatial, or performing arts AND also have evidence of one or more disabilities as defined by federal or state eligibility criteria such as specific learning disabilities; speech and language disorders; emotional/behavioral disorders; physical disabilities; autism spectrum; or other health impairments, such as ADHD.
Identification of twice-exceptional students requires comprehensive assessment in both the areas of giftedness and disability, as one does not preclude the other. Educational services must address both the high achievement potential as well as the deficits of this population of students.
Twice-exceptional students require differentiated instruction, accommodations andor modifications, direct services, specialized instruction, acceleration options, and opportunities for talent development. Twice-exceptional students require an individual education plan (IEP) or a 504 accommodation plan, complete with goals and strategies that enable them to achieve growth at a level commensurate with their abilities, develop their gifts and talents, and learn compensation skills and strategies to address their disabilities. This comprehensive education plan must include talent development goals.
This definition, later endorsed by the National Association of Gifted Children’s Special Interest Group on 2e, provides a foundation for research, identification and program development to meet the unique needs of this special population.
I’d like to share some ideas and strategies for teaching studio art to our Twice-Exceptional student population. Accessing our students’ giftedness can be very challenging, because often their overall classroom abilities are so asymmetrical.
I find that the projects I bring to the class are most successful when they engage the students’ creativity, curiosity, sense of humor, as well as challenge them on an unusually high intellectual level. I often gather material for my lessons from very academically advanced and conceptually sophisticated sources— college textbooks, scholarly journals, artist lectures, and real-world problems and stories. I try to find things that may be outside the traditional discipline of art, but are rich examples of creative work and craftsmanship. The high intellectual level of these sources stimulates and challenges our students’ giftedness, and often provides the extra motivational push that they need in order to produce work.
A recent success story started when I was reading through Cabinet Magazine, a scholarly journal that focuses on Contemporary Art and culture. An article titled, “How to Make Anything Signify Anything” described the fascinating story behind the art of cryptography. The history of creating secret codes, ciphers, and the amazing individuals who devoted their lives to this practice immediately inspired an art project.
I began the class by projecting an old black and white photo on the board. This immediately got the students’ attention, because it was an impressive panorama of a group of stiff, military-dressed men, with a smaller group of black-clad women seated in the center. Some of the more perceptive students quickly noticed that one man on the far right was standing in his under-shorts, despite being fully clad from the waist up. The mystery and humor of this photo already had most of the class intrigued, but when I announced that there was a secret message hidden inside this photo, everyone set to work studying it and guessing wildly about who these people were and what the message could be.
The direction (left, right, or centered) to which these men and women face imparts the coded message “Knowledge is Power,” using Sir Francis Bacon’s bilateral cipher. The fellow in the shorts, an “incomplete” uniform, signifies the fact that the last word is incomplete– There were not enough individuals to complete the message in full. (The message actually reads “Knowledge is Powe”)
The class discussion that followed covered topics as varied as mathematics, digital/ computer coding, history, music, Shakespeare, conspiracy theories, and also… art. We looked at other examples of artworks, music, and writing that contain encrypted messages. Every single student was engaged, coming from their own unique fields of interest and giftedness, and when I launched their assignment, to create an art piece that uses a coded message, they were off and running. The students whose giftedness was more on the analytical side really identified with the mathematical challenge of this assignment. This was where their work really displayed a high level of creativity and production quality. Other students who were perhaps more gifted artistically, were able to choose from some simple and pre-existing cipher systems to create a message, and then turn it into a richly-illustrated art piece.
When the assignment was finished, the students challenged each other to decipher their hidden messages—difficult for some, but an exciting and addictive puzzle for others. Many of the artworks these students produced are simply creative, unusual, aesthetic objects, and along the way, the students learned a number of vocabulary terms as well as the unique history of the field of cryptography.
The Teachers’ Roundtable is a panel of teachers spanning various subjects at Bridges Academy, a school dedicated to educating twice-exceptional students. Each month, the panel answers one submitted question.
This month’s question is: What is one piece of advice you would give to the parents of a frustrated 2e child?
Ryan Siebrasse (Science & Performing Arts): Although this is easier said than done: parents need to take one day at a time, especially when setting goals and envisioning the future for your 2e child. Comparing anyone’s development to a ‘normal’ progression is wrought with anxiety, and measuring a 2e child with any type of standard is inappropriate. Take them as they are and take each day as it comes. They will find their own path and set their own pace and someday you will sit back and bask in the glory of their journey.
Oscar Alvarez (Fitness): Approach problems from as many different angles as possible. We tend to only look at problems one way, and when offered a new, or different perspective, the answer may come into focus more easily.
Gregory Zlotin (History): My advice is to observe the child carefully and patiently, without preconceived notions, looking for subtle hints communicated both verbally and non-verbally. The child will tell you what she needs, whether it is involvement or personal space, peace and quiet or structure and supervision. In determining the best activities and strategies for educating a child it is important to proceed from the child’s own personality and not from the parent’s wishes, dreams or plans for the child’s future. Remember that our children are separate, distinct individuals, not extensions of ourselves.
Ben James (Humanities): Check in every day with your student and stay in the struggle. Constantly model appropriate responses to frustration for your 2e student.
Greg Kaczynski (Performing Arts): Listen. Even though your 2e child can sometimes be frustrated, angry, and act out, the fact of the matter is that they just want to be heard. There is no substitution for communication, and when your child is frustrated, the best thing is sometimes to give him or her space to blow off some steam (in a respectful way, of course), then when the storm has passed, find some time to talk out what’s happening or what happened. It’s best to do this in a neutral space (i.e. not their bedroom and not somewhere that’s associated with punishment), and it’s often best to just listen, not say a word. Ask for their side, for why they’re feeling frustrated, and let them speak without judgment.
Jim Berkowitz (History & Film): Be patient! Recognize the child’s strengths and play to those, with “what” and “how” questions. Over time, learn to use those strengths as a path towards building skills across other areas, all the while helping your child to recognize the process as it happens.
Stuart Matranga (Humanities): Let them lead you into their world, to see what they value, and to share with them what you value.
Laura Bahr (Mathematics): Take some time to listen to your child. Ask them about their interests, their passions, what they are seeking. They are changing so quickly, and who they are now may not be who they are for long. Take the time to appreciate who they are now, and to appreciate the struggle of who they are becoming.