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Second Graders as Superheroes

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How two teachers helped their students celebrate their unique brain strengths

By Zalika Gardner '90 and Herb Jahncke

From the Winter 2010-11 Caller

See 16-minute video below for more

For most people, classroom learning means reading, writing, math, and social studies— skills and facts. It’s easy to overlook some of the more fundamental questions bouncing around in a student’s mind: Am I good? Who is better? Will I be strong in math? Will I ever learn to spell? And the all-important: Am I smart?
We saw how our 2nd grade students were already thinking about their own thinking, wondering how they fit into the classroom community, discovering their strengths, and worrying about their weaknesses. We began to wonder: what would it be like if the students learned about themselves in a way that celebrates who they are, and accepts them, imperfections and all? What would it be like if a major focus of learning allowed students to learn about themselves and how their brains work?
When we consider the development of the brains in our boys and girls, we have an overall idea of what to expect when they enter the classroom. As we get to know our 2nd graders, we are able to more specifically identify their unique brain strengths and challenges. We know who needs some extra time to think about a concept before being able to apply what he or she learned. We know who works more successfully with a pair of headphones in a quiet spot. We know who needs to move around in order to listen and learn. We know who thinks deeply and makes connections that many others will miss. We know our students and we help them to know themselves. When they are able to identify what they need to help them learn best, they are empowered to take responsibility for their own learning.
While everyone has a unique perspective on the world, we all have some basic commonalities in the way our brains function when we learn. The All Kinds of Minds approach, led by a national nonprofit institute, helps break these commonalities into specific, observable phenomena that are most relevant for learning and help us better understand the infinite diversity of individual profiles. All Kinds of Minds provides a neurodevelopmental framework that allows us to observe and identify the unique strengths and challenges present in each child’s mind.
When we explain to the students what we see about how they approach tasks, this helps them learn about their own learning. When we infuse them with optimism about their unique ways of thinking, we help demystify how their brains work. We replace the worry and misinformation children tend to attach to their challenges with specific information and observation, supportive recognition, and tailored intervention. When learners are clear on their strengths and recognized for their affinities, they are much better able to sustain effort and identify growth.
What does that look like in the classroom? In 2nd grade we want the students to recognize that everyone is different, and that’s actually a really great thing. Some students can think numerically and solve math problems quickly. Others in the class may be challenged by writing. Some may be reading challenging chapter books. Our goal is to help them understand who they are and how they learn. We also want them to learn who the other individuals are in the classroom and how they learn. Our journey towards learning about the individuals in our community begins with the work of Howard Gardner, who proposed the existence of multiple intelligences. We all know that people seem to possess particular affinities and strengths. After all, adult careers generally are not “be good at everything” endeavors but rather the practical application of specific strengths. There is a reason we are teachers rather than accountants or electricians or astronauts. While certainly “nurture” or the combination of people, events, and experiences in our environment play a role in our adult successes and choices, clearly “nature” provides different brains with innate strengths that affect our school success, from academics to relationships.
Theorists have further refined this thinking by adding to the idea of intelligences evidences of different styles of learning. Some learn best by hearing, some by seeing, and many by doing. Some learn best in quiet and some with a little background noise. Some learn easily through pictures and diagrams, some learn well by words and explanations, and some will remember best when given the opportunity to move or doodle. In our pursuit of best teaching practices we tackled readings on attention, memory, social skills, and learning, and all continued to raise the question: What if we not only acknowledged the unique composition of learning strengths in our classrooms but actually taught children to recognize the presence of these differences as the “norm?” What would it mean to help children look at their strengths as a means to contribute to their community, and their challenges as opportunities to grow?
Metacognition, thinking about your thinking, is a novel concept to most 7- and 8-year-olds. Yet we’ve found that they are ready to start thinking about themselves, their brain strengths, and areas for growth. As we were thinking about how to teach these ideas to the students, we pooled our collective brain strengths to plan and design a project that would help them better understand themselves and how they learn.
It’s OK (cool even) to be different. This was the big idea that we started with in 2nd grade in our exploration of ourselves. We looked at our outsides, including the colors of our skin, eyes, and hair, recognizing that we are all a mix of dark and light shades of brown. We also looked at the globe and discovered that skin color, along with the rest of our outside features, comes from our ancestors and where our families are from in the world. As we studied ourselves we also considered that there is so much to know about people that you “just can’t tell by looking!”
We can tell how different everyone is with one look around the classroom. Some students are reading curled up in a corner, and some are most comfortable working at their desk. Some writers find that words fairly leap onto the paper, while others work very hard to fill the page. Some mathematicians like numbers and calculations, while others enjoy geometric shapes. Some kids live for soccer at recess, while others prefer to gather in the library around a board game.
Since our main objective in the classroom is to learn, we want the students to think about how they learn best. Taking ideas from Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, and the principles from All Kinds of Minds, we work with students to discover ways our brains are wired for thinking and understanding the world. For example, one person may have a “words and language” brain strength which makes reading a pleasure, and an activity sought out during quiet times. Another individual may have a “numbers and logic” brain that loves to solve puzzles, play with numbers, and think mathematically. Other strengths we explore include problem solving and creative thinking, friendship, music, nature, body movement, and drawing, design, and construction. We all have these brain strengths to some degree, though one or two tend to be super strengths for us.
Our students, after considering this list of brain strengths, identified their own super brain strength, their super power. Of course, when you have a super power, you really need a superhero identity. And a cape (you really need a cape when you have a super power!). The students created their superhero identities based upon their brain strength, designed their superhero logos on capes, and illustrated comics about their superhero identities. Taking what they learned about physical features, affinities and brain strengths, we invited families and friends to join us in celebration of a lot of hard work and learning. Everybody in 2nd grade loves this project. It’s fun, it’s active, and it involves some serious thinking.
Now the students are able to use their strengths to help others, and to get help when working with a brain strength that presents more challenges for them. They are beginning to find their place within our community, and understand that there is strength in differences and in knowing who we are. We are strong as individuals, but together we are stronger.
Having explored the idea of differences, affinities, strengths, and challenges, we hope the answers to those internally asked questions sound something like this: “So what if I can’t do everything brilliantly? I have brain strengths that I know and can use to help negotiate my weaknesses. I can engage with and give to my community while both acknowledging and working on the shortfalls that bring me pause. I am free to hold both wild successes and repeated failures in the palm of my hand knowing that of course, my journey will look different from others and yes, I am smart.”  

How 'Study Space' can affect student learning

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Flip that study space

Could the design of your child's homework area hold the key to success?

By Susan M. Rundle

Try this: (1) turn the TV to a news station, (2) put your hands on your head, and (3) stand on one foot and listen for 60 seconds. Was this comfortable? How much did you remember? What were you thinking while you were standing on one foot with your hands on your head? If it was uncomfortable, then you have just experienced what it is like for children when their individual learning styles are not met.

Every human has a learning style regardless of IQ, achievement level, or socioeconomic status. Although researchers define the concept differently, learning style is essentially the conditions under which a person begins to concentrate on, absorb, process, and retain new information and skills. Psychobiologists (Dunn and Dunn, 1969-2009) have identified which elements you’re born with and which develop as an outgrowth of individual life experiences. In fact, it has been determined that three-fifths of learning style is biologically imposed (Restak, 1979, and Thies, 1979, 1999-2000).

One thing research has shown is that when an at-risk student’s learning style is considered and accommodated, the student’s achievement increases, and attitudes toward learning improve. And sometimes simply redesigning the classroom or home study space can accommodate that learning style.

On the homefront

One mother we interviewed in Australia assumed that her daughter's learning style would be similar to her own. She quickly found out that trying to force her learning style on her child was simply not working, and was, in fact, making home life difficult.  “My daughter’s learning-style profile identified the cause behind the friction — we simply had different ways of learning," she says. "While I need absolute silence, soft background music is not a distraction to her. While I need a small, cozy place, she prefers an open area. While I have a preference for soft lighting, she prefers natural light. These are all important things to consider now that we are setting up a new study area in our home.”

If this story sounds like life at your house, you are not alone. Incidentally, husbands and wives tend to have many elements of learning style that are different from each other. Children's styles do not necessarily reflect their parents', and siblings' styles appear to be more different from each other than similar.

To find out what your child prefers when studying or doing homework, ask the following questions:

  • Do you prefer bright light or soft lighting in the room?
  • Do you prefer the room to be quiet (no music, TV, or talking), or do you prefer to have some background noise such as music or people talking?
  • Do you prefer to sit at the kitchen table or a desk, or do you prefer to sit on the couch, lie on your bed, or sit on the floor?
  • Which would you prefer: that the room be warm (not hot) or cool (not cold)?

These are the environmental elements of learning that impact the effectiveness of how one learns. These elements are biological, which means children don't necessarily have control over how they react when the room in which they are studying or doing homework does not match their needs. Remember the outcome of standing on one foot with your hands on your head? That is how children feel when they are not allowed to study in a room that matches their needs. They can work for a while, but over time they will lose the ability to concentrate on what they are doing, fidget, or simply lose interest.

Rethinking the traditional classroom

Allowing students to sit on the floor in the classroom doesn’t always go over big with teachers, because they are afraid the kids will have a hard time focusing. In fact, teachers are finding that the opposite is happening. Kids who need an informal design pay more attention, behave better, and learn more when they are permitted to sit informally — but quietly. Other teachers intuitively know that some students learn better out of their chairs than in them. Those educators have always gone out of their way to help youngsters who need an extra bit of assistance to succeed.

Parents in New York's Lakeland Central School District donated couches, easy chairs, and carpet squares to allow a more casual classroom. At a school in Turkey, where these kinds of accessories are not available, children have the option of sitting wherever they wish in the room — as long as their grades reflect their improved learning. While much research has been conducted, one study in
particular concluded that responding to students' environmental needs tends to produce increased achievement within a six-month period (Dunn, Dunn, & Freeley, 1984).

The relationship between space and learning is critical if our goal is to ensure optimal outcomes for our children. It's no surprise that we each are as unique as our thumbprint and that one size doesn't fit all.



 Susan M. Rundle is CEO of Performance Concepts International and director of the International Learning Styles Network. She is also the author of the 2003 study "Effective Environments Inspire Minds to Dream More and Become More."

How Do I Learn?

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At the Learning Center, students learn how they learn--and how to advocate for themselves
From the Fall 2009 Caller

By Ann Fyfield

The Learning Center during finals week last May was a busy place—and it showed well what we do there and why we do it. The seven quiet study rooms and one large table were filled to capacity. Students were studying alone or in small groups, making tea at the counter, or discussing upcoming plans for their summer. My coworker Kathy Qualman and I were busy that week too, talking with teachers and parents about student transitions for the next year, and passing along test-taking strategies to students just before their finals.
Most emblematically, some students came to tell us that they had spoken with their teachers about finals. They asked if they could take some of their exams in a quiet space in the Learning Center, without the distractions that can so often deter their test-taking performance. They knew how they learned best, knew the way to articulate their needs, knew with whom they could communicate, and knew where they could go.
This self knowledge and ability to self-advocate is essential to learning at any stage in life, essential to all students—whether they are faced with learning challenges or not. The key lies in knowing how they struggle and how they shine. Helping guide Catlin Gabel students in finding this path towards self-advocacy is one way in which teachers and the Learning Center work together to ensure that the student is the “unit of consideration.”
As we work together with teachers and students to understand a child’s learning strengths and needs, we work towards building trust. This in turn helps a student identify personal goals and strategies, and fosters an ability to communicate with teachers without fear of reprisal or failure. It doesn’t happen right away; in fact the process can take many years. What can start with a student’s frustration that causes her or him to avoid teachers or classwork— for many different reasons—often ends in that student becoming a successful partner with teachers and parents in his or her own learning.
Over the years, Catlin Gabel has developed a number of approaches to helping students learn about their learning. Foremost, we value the school’s generosity towards professional development, which has encouraged countless teachers to benefit from brain research conferences and training in the All Kinds of Minds initiative. This allows teachers and learning specialists to use and understand consistent concepts and vocabulary needed to discuss and track students and their learning. Above and beyond that, the learning specialists, including Sue Sacks in the Lower School, have been trained to administer the Woodcock Johnson tests of cognition and achievement, which reveal student strengths and weaknesses. We use the test results to create a learning profile for each student and as a springboard for discussions with students, teachers, and parents about the most efficient and productive ways to build on individual strengths in a classroom setting. We work from this profile to help the student set personal goals and study strategies that can lead them to success in school. Sometimes we refer a student out for further testing, but mostly we use the information to help teachers, parents, and students understand and value the student’s learning strengths.
Depending on the student’s own passion for learning and perseverance, sometimes this testing helps the student get immediate results, while for others it may take a while to bear fruit. We often find that as students mature and take on a more active role in their own learning, the ability to use what they have learned from the tests increases. Sometimes a student will knock on the door and say, “Hey, can we look at my profile again?” We will then sit down to see what has changed and talk about additional strategies to use based on increasing demands as they go through their years at school.
The point at which a child begins to understand and use the information from a profile is joyous, for both us and them. A 6th grader who came to me early this year began her testing reluctant to participate and fearful of the findings. As she came to grasp the reasons why she sometimes had a hard time in class, her fear of the unknown lessened, and she was able to freely talk about what tripped her up and where she felt confident. We came up with goals and strategies that built on her strengths. By the end of the year, I was receiving emails from her with her own ideas about preparation, what worked and didn’t work for her learning. She had taken on the challenge of her own success. What was once a fear of a retake test became an opportunity to refine her study efforts. She learned to advocate for herself, confidently talking with teachers about ways she could better understand the classwork.
Catlin Gabel is best at building relationships between students and teachers. As a support system outside the classroom, we also value our role in helping students identify and build one-on-one relationships with trusted mentors and advocates. We have built a network of peer and adult tutors who can help a student and a teacher manage time and workload. We facilitate the Middle School study hall, where students can get help from Upper School students who have “been there and done that.” The older students often help the younger ones navigate their way through homework assignments or show them that they can talk about homework with teachers. When parents, teachers, and students meet after outside testing, students grasp that their teachers are allies who are eager to understand how they learn and what helps build success for them. This is another step towards a student becoming a partner and self-advocate for learning.
Kathy and I always end our year with a walk to the senior awards assembly. We remind ourselves that more than 80 percent of Catlin Gabel students use the learning services of the Lower, Middle, or Upper Schools at some point in their school career. We nudge each other as student after student takes that walk to receive an award for academic or community achievement. These are the students we worked with. Sitting right alongside their parents, having seen these students grow in self-confidence from children to strong young adults, we are with them in awe of this transformation and proud to have played a small part in their support.
Learning specialist Ann Fyfield has been at Catlin Gabel since 1989. Her roles have included teaching Japanese, and this year she also teaches 6th grade humanities.