Using the Arts to Reach Twice-exceptional Learners

By Wendy Hirsch Weiner, Ed.D.

July, 2016

At 33 years old, I was in the midst of working on a doctorate, studying curriculum and instruction, and deciding on my topic for a dissertation. Others in my cohort wanted to investigate ways in which education could change the world. I wanted to understand why I had struggled during my teenage years in school while the kid in the back of the class spent his time throwing spit balls and getting high marks on all his tests. Little did I know at the time that my research would turn into a strategy for teaching twice-exceptional (2e) learners.

In the Classroom as a Student

As a child I loved art, animals, music, and theater. I was able to make connections that others could not. I excelled in planning out my artwork, memorizing the steps to a dance, or reciting lines from a play. However, when I made comments in class that I felt were well thought out, introspective, and accurate, they were often met with a quizzical look from teachers and classmates. My answers were generally considered wrong and a bit odd. I had difficulty staying focused and organized in the classroom, and I rarely understood what was actually expected of me from my teachers. Although I eventually learned how to study for a test and give the expected answers, doing so never came as easily to me as it did for the student who mastered throwing spit balls.
As I began my dissertation, I had to open up old wounds. I needed to remember how I felt when I didn’t understand and how I felt different, but also where I excelled. I made a list and realized that organization, visual processing, and losing focus were issues for me when I did work copying out of a textbook or work sheets. However, these issues disappeared when I was involved with the arts, when there was visual and sensory integration. I realized that I thrived on solving problems from what to do with 500 people at a carnival when it suddenly starts raining, to tackling world conflicts. I enjoyed doing the research, getting the ideas flowing, and then coming up with new ways to solve a problem.

In the Classroom as a Teacher

After finishing my doctorate, I began working with gifted students with learning issues. They often did well in elementary school until fourth grade; then the downward spiral began. Often, they were told that boredom or laziness was the reason they were not performing well.

What I found with these students was that much of the time they had an undiagnosed learning disability and/or high anxiety. I also found that these twice-exceptional students did not have a place in the school system. The classes for learning disabilities were associated with low functioning and focused on repetition and worksheets. The gifted track generally meant high achievers. Where many of the twice-exceptional students found refuge was in the arts, Model United Nations programs, leadership opportunities, and spending time on their own reading, building, and creating.

I was not aware of the term twice-exceptional at that time, 20 years ago. I just knew that these students were suffering as I had, and I wanted to develop a curriculum for them. I started with the arts, infusing all types into the curriculum. Then, because arts-integration strategies primarily address the learning difficulties and not necessarily the gifted side of our twice-exceptional students, I added problem-based learning to challenge them intellectually and enable them to develop higher-order thinking skills.

Twice-exceptional individuals have a great deal to contribute to society. By fostering their strengths through critical thinking and developing their weaknesses through the arts, twice-exceptional students can be productive, talented individuals who learn to celebrate their own unique gifts and passions.

Dr. Wendy Hirsch Weiner is the founder and principal of Conservatory Prep Schools in Davie, Florida.     

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