Update from the 2e Center for Research and Professional Development

2e Center News

May/June, 2017

About this Column

The 2e Center is located on the campus of Bridges Academy in Studio City, California. In this column, we share what’s happening at our center and report research findings, teaching ideas, and parenting suggestions we have found to be successful in helping 2e kids thrive.
— SB

By Susan Baum

As part of a professional development initiative, we at the 2e Center are working with a team of teachers to identify those strategies most effective in meeting the needs of 2e learners. This past year we have been meeting several times a month to study the idea of celebrating neurodiversity. Using book discussions, film, observations, and general discussions, we isolated key elements of how the combination of giftedness with learning disabilities creates unique learning profiles for students that require strategies aimed at attending to the students’ comprehensive needs. This column focuses on describing the best strategies at Bridges Academy designed to help bright students circumvent their specific learning disabilities in the 2e-friendly classroom.

Creating a 2e-friendly Classroom

By Susan Baum, Laura Bahr, Caroline Maxwell, Will Sherman,
Carmen Sevilla, and Kim Vargas

To understand how the learning process can be difficult for 2e students, we must first understand how cognition typically takes place. Cognition encompasses the mental processes of attending to a stimulus, interpreting the information received, organizing it into long-term memory, being able to retrieve information, and then communicating what is learned. Bright students with learning disabilities may experience these issues in the cognitive process:

  • Difficulty paying attention because the material to be learned is not interesting or novel, presented in a way they are unable to decode or interpret, or presented in an environment with too many distractions for them to be able to focus and attend
  • Problems processing information because they are unable to mentally manipulate the information required when attempting to follow directions, organize facts or ideas, take notes, or even remember how to add fractions (For many of these youngsters, skills that they have had at their fingertips are not automatic for them. When you don’t know your math facts, for example, mental math becomes difficult.)
  • Difficulty retrieving information from long-term memory. It may be due to their difficulty in making connections among concepts; or it may be because they have so much knowledge, they find it difficult to respond to the specific assignment, distinguishing between what is relevant and what is not.
  • Difficulty communicating what they know because so many assignments require organization and writing. When asked to write, instant fear can block any attempts at clear communication.

Affecting these issues are a student’s ability to process information in a timely fashion and the degree to which the student has good executive functioning skills (organization, self-motivation, self-regulation, and problem solving). Even more important is whether the student is emotionally available for learning or too anxious to engage in the learning process.

Research shows that anxiety has an impact on learning — especially on memory. This effect stems from the relationship that exists between the two areas of the brain described below.

Area of
the Brain

 Function

 Effect on Learning

Amygdala

Responsible for rapidly surveying sensory stimuli for potential threats

Fear is the primary emotional experience derived from the amygdala’s instantaneous calculations. It alerts us to possible dangers, kick-starting the brain into the “fight or flight” survival mode.

Hippocampus

Absorbs stimuli for longer-term processing, the means by which lasting memories are built and stored

Studies suggest that emotional distress (issuing from the amygdala) disrupts working memory and stymies episodic memory consolidation in the hippocampus, a function necessary for learning concepts and relating new material to existing schema.

High stress levels block neural pathways and stimulate the rise of cortisol, an adrenal hormone known colloquially as the “stress hormone.” The result is a severe impact on both memory storage and executive functioning. Learning ceases and the brain switches into survival mode (www.edudemic.com/stress-affects-brain-learning, 2017).

Based on years of academic and social failure and frustration, twice-exceptional learners are particularly vulnerable to feelings of extreme anxiety. When they perceive a situation to be difficult or threatening, they may fall victim to this negative feedback loop in which stress responses are repeated, strengthening neural pathways conducive to fight-or-flight functions. Expecting that good learning can take place when students are in survival mode is counterproductive. What is essential is for these students to feel psychologically safe.

In our experience at Bridges Academy, we see that some students are particularly sensitive when challenged emotionally, socially, or academically. Emma, an eleventh-grader highly talented in the humanities and social sciences, “shuts down,” so to speak, when confronted with social-emotional challenges. For instance, when she feels challenged, disrespected, or dismissed by another student or a teacher, she physically and mentally withdraws from activities. Her thoughts become inchoate, her responses are replete with long pauses, and we see her become noticeably agitated. Likewise, when Ramona, a tenth-grader, is asked to answer a question aloud or recall a particular detail in a one-on-one situation, she may experience a sudden onset of anxiety. Instead of being able to process information, she begins to fidget intensely and act out verbally. She may also have emotional outbursts — crying, withdrawing physically from the classroom activity by placing her head on the desk or table, or actually destroying school materials (such as pencils and books).

Bridges teachers have developed strategies to provide support for these roadblocks to learning. In the following scenarios, we step into several Bridges Academy classrooms to look at how the environment and aspects of lessons are designed to minimize the types of learning difficulties just described. At the end of each scenario, we discuss some of what our teachers do to help their students with poor working memory, slow processing speed, poor production, and high anxiety levels. Finally, we summarize strategies all teachers can use in helping to make their classrooms “2e friendly.”

Lower Grades: Phoenix Program

In Phoenix, fourth through sixth grades, all classes have daily routines established at the start of the school year; so regardless of the day’s agenda the starting exercises are consistent and known by all the students. The Phoenix classroom doubles as a functioning laboratory, with black-top tables, stools, and authentic scientific equipment available as needed, ready to go to work. The day’s agenda, written on the central board, shows that students have been studying genetics. Today’s lesson focuses on bioengineering, and its goal is to construct arguments for and against genetically modified organisms.

The teacher gives a brief overview of the day’s activity, offers the choice of working in pairs or alone, and describes the three steps that will be involved along with the intended goal. The teacher also uses a PowerPoint slide to project this information on the board. To review what they have learned so far, the teacher shares a variety of pictures that show examples of dramatic evolutionary processes, provocative images to prompt the thinking process.

Some of the students will create a creature or food product that has undergone genetic modification. Their task is to develop a presentation designed to “sell” their innovative product to other students who will assume the role of “investor.” The teacher offers a variety of presentation choices and explains each. Once the students decide on their presentations, the teacher describes two elements that each must include: where their product will be available for purchase and how much it will cost.

Students learn that, after the presentations, the class investors will have to decide if the creative products are the results of selective breeding or genetic engineering. It will be the teacher’s role to take questions and provide references using the visual prompts written on the board.

For those students who need it, a checklist is available with step-by-step directions that enable them to complete their work independently. The lab environment offers rocking chairs for anyone who needs to move while working and thinking. Students also have the option to stand or walk around to help processing, and they are encouraged to do so to stay on task.

Two of the students choose to work alone. They are given their own working space and the teaching assistant divides her support between them. The teacher roams among the groups, providing prompts to facilitate student thought processes and giving direct feedback. She uses technically sophisticated scientific language intermixed with simple explanations to appeal to all levels of understanding. To accommodate those students who produce rapidly and are ready for more in-depth, complex work, the teacher offers activities or projects related to the current topic but on a grander scale. Students can use the science classroom’s exploration station to complete them. 

Middle Grades

In the middle school (seventh and eighth grades), “The American Experience” humanities class looks like a unique mash-up of a traditional classroom and a spacious living room. In addition to the typical desks one would expect, there are a long comfortable couch with an end-table and lamp, a large powder-blue area rug, and full bookshelves lining the room. Along with a full assortment of both popular and academically oriented books (like Roots, The Life of Pi, Huckleberry Finn, and the textbook The American Odyssey), the shelves contain a variety of student-created Civil War dioramas. A whiteboard displays both the daily agenda and clearly written expectations of the students’ work for the day.

Students enter and begin working at their individual desks, trying to figure out the linguistic riddle projected on the screen. The students are so excited about the riddle that they keep jumping out of their seats to quietly whisper in their teacher’s ear to see if they have the answer. Most do not, and they receive cryptic clues to ponder as they write down their reasoning and predictions.

After about ten minutes, the teacher invites a discussion about the word that’s the key to solving the riddle; and the answer becomes apparent. The animated students share what they had figured out and how, along with the creative thinking they did. They conclude by recording their quick reflections in their daily journal, used for recording everything from the word of the day to anagrams.

Next, the teacher explains that they will continue work on their final projects. Students take out their materials and begin. The teacher checks in individually with the students, listening while they explain their progress towards completing the project. These projects range from websites, to newspaper articles, to a poster series, to a short film. With their teacher’s help, students amend their goals each day, based on the previous day’s progress. Together, students and teacher decide on a task to complete that would be reasonable and attainable, but still challenging. Meanwhile, the humanities teaching assistant engages with any students struggling with self-direction, giving them one-on-one help and explicitly chunking project tasks.

Among the students in the room, there is a sense of both calm and action created by the combination of a highly structured curriculum and expertly executed teaching. The variety of offered choices allows every learning profile and personality accessibility in an area of strength, enabling all students to experience success, working in a medium they find interesting and meaningful. The very anxious student can engage, without fear, in routine activities like the riddle; and he or she can be assured of receiving help when needed in making steps toward self-direction and accountability. 

The easy dialogue the students have with the teacher is based on mutual respect. Students clearly are comfortable with and rely on the teacher’s expertise. In turn, the teacher shows acceptance of individual student’s process and way of thinking as they engage with each other in the course of their work.

High School

As high school students (ninth through twelfth grades) arrive at their integrated science class, they pick up an article from a pile of photocopied reading materials on a central table. They take their seats and begin reading with little prompting from the teacher. Clearly, this is a routine activity and all students understand what to do when they enter the room. The classroom lights are off, but natural light is filtering through the trees outside the windows, the fish aquarium trickles water, and the teacher quietly goes about the room feeding the other animals, checking the terrariums, and shifting in-progress science projects to make room for the incoming class.
The students are reading a hefty scientific journal article written by a team of scientists. Packed with extensive data, it’s a perfect example of an exhaustively thorough, peer-reviewed piece of scientific writing. Students are reminded from time to time to jot down their thoughts in the margins or on their laptops. Occasionally, students blurt out a reaction to what they’re reading — a criticism or an “a-ha” sort of connection to something they’ve learned. Sometimes, an impromptu conversation begins among the students, moderated by the teacher who usually finishes by telling them, “That’s an interesting question. Write it in your notes,” or “That’s a good observation. Maybe you should email the author to get clarification on that point.”   

When the class completes the article, the group discussion resumes with more student-led inquiry and exploration. The teacher then introduces a second article, one that’s quick and easy to read, and students finish it in minutes. The second article is essentially internet news clickbait that reports on the same scientific study they just read, only in far more simplistic and occasionally hyperbolic terms. The students immediately begin comparing the articles, touching on a range of critical issues, including the differences between scientific and journalistic writing, bias by omission, and bias for financial profit. The class concludes with students taking some time to write in a shared Google document a reflection of what they learned as well as what questions they still have.  

On the surface, this appears to be a simple and smoothly running class, an effect achieved through many carefully curated elements along the way. The classroom environment sets the stage. Students prone to high anxiety are relaxed by the fact that they know the expectations when they enter class each day. The daily reading and notetaking activities provide routine and structure. The low, natural light and soft sounds of water are calming, yet the science projects, animals, books and notes that fill the walls and spaces are stimulating to the creative and inquisitive minds of these young scientists. The teacher is constantly reinforcing good questioning — where not knowing isn’t a bad thing, just an opportunity to discover something more.
Students in this classroom, whether novice or expert, are validated for their participation in the process. Those who struggle with reading comprehension and processing speed receive the articles in advance to give them a head start on each day’s reading; or they get a video to watch instead. Students who struggle with writing and work production get credit for sharing their insights verbally, and they receive extra support to be sure they write their valuable thoughts down. In the spirit of scientific collaboration, the Google document that they create as a group provides a valuable scaffold for students who struggle with memory. It also serves as a platform for students to express what they’ve learned in written form when they may be reluctant to speak up or engage socially in class.

What Elements Make for a 2e-friendly Classroom?

Clearly established routines, apparent in each of the preceding examples, create an environment that opens the mind for learning. Because of the trusting relationship between students and teacher, the students know what to expect on arriving at the classroom. Routines include: how to enter the room, reviewing the agenda, and doing a focusing activity.

Given that technology is a strength for many twice-exceptional students, the 2e-friendly classroom employs technology-based strategies. For example, teachers incorporate the use of an online calendar for planning long term-projects. They use word processing programs for organization of thoughts and presentation software for visual guides.

Teachers also use specific strategies aimed at helping twice-exceptional students overcome their learning challenges. See the table on the preceding  page for a list of recommended strategies.

All of us at Bridges Academy firmly believe that there are effective ways of maximizing the learning efficiency of a student’s processing speed, working memory, and production while reducing student anxiety. They are:

  • Positive teacher/student relationships
  • Intellectually stimulating curriculum that embeds authentic language of the content area or discipline into conversation
  • Strength-based choices for accessing information
  • Communicating ideas and understandings through strength-based options.

Strategies to Support Learning Differences

The table below sums up the strategies used in the classroom examples in this article as well as others we have found to be helpful. In the left column are the areas of challenge for students: attention, anxiety, working memory, processing speed, and production. In the right column are the associated classroom strategies used to positively assist students to overcome them.

Area Affected

Classroom Strategies

Attention

  • New information to meet the brain’s need for novelty.
  • Sophisticated content to engage students’ advanced abilities
  • Sensory stimulation limited to avoid over stimulation
  • Small-group instruction and scaffolding after whole-group lessons
  • Provocative topics and probing questions
  • Opportunities to move around
  • Multiple resources to access information

Anxiety Reduction

  • Clear directions
  • Positive relationships and mutual respect among teachers and students
  • Opportunities for strength- and interest-based choices within lessons and units of study
  • Acceptance of others’ ideas and points of view
  • Safety zones, a quiet corner where students can regroup when overly anxious

Working Memory

  • Consistent class routine
  • Visual daily agenda
  • Guided imagery (having students close their eyes and visualize verbal information)
  • Mnemonic devices to help encode vocabulary associated with the content area or discipline
  • Chunked information with breaks for students to process each piece (e.g., by sharing it in their own words with a peer)
  • Subject-specific notebooks or class notes (to facilitate making connections with previously learned material)
  • Reviews of previously learned material before introducing new information
  • Positive reinforcement by teachers during the learning process
  • Written directions that accompany verbal information
  • Brief directions that are clear and linear

Processing Speed

  • Graphic organizers
  • Short verbal directions
  • Extra time to process visual information
  • Extra time to process auditory information
  • Collaborative environment where students coach or prompt each other
  • Guided discussion for those who process orally
  • Lesson topics provided to students 24 hours ahead of class
  • Patience for the unique pace of each student, including using wait time (a pause of 30 seconds or more for a student to respond) and informing the student ahead of time of the question that he/she will be required to discuss
  • Movement options such as walking or rocking on furniture (because for some students, movement while thinking and planning improves processing speed)

Production

  • Inviting environment with minimal visual and auditory distractions
  • Direct, immediate cues or formative feedback as students are working
  • One-on-one instruction
  • Daily goals and checkpoints for students to have on their desks and check off when completed
  • Mind maps
  • Teacher flexibility in helping students overcome obstacles and adjust their ideas
  • Student reflection about what kinds of production works best for them
  • Use of exit cards or verbal response to sum up a lesson at the end of class (These help teachers check understanding and help students reinforce the day’s objectives.)
  • Giving students choices for final products and whether to work alone or with others

(Adapted from Baum, Schader, & Owen, 2017)

Reference

Baum, S., Shader, R., & Owen, S. (2017) To be gifted and learning disabled: Strength-based strategies for helping twice exceptional students with LD, ADHD, ASD and more (3rd ed.). Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

 

Susan Baum, Ph.D., is the director of the 2e Center for Research and Professional Development at Bridges Academy. She has been conducting research and advocating for bright students with learning differences for over 30 years.
Kim Vargas is a specialist in both special education and education of the gifted and talented. Her many roles at Bridges Academy encompass admissions, outreach, and student support. In addition, she serves as associate administrator of the 2e Center for Research and Professional Development.
Laura Bahr has been a teacher at Bridges Academy since 2007, teaching everything from mathematics to performing arts. A published author, film producer, and actor, she loves literature, film, theater, music, and is a full-time student of life. Will Sherman teaches high-school humanities and Spanish language, in addition to advising tenth-graders and students in the Badges Program (an individualized in-depth inquiry program). The focus of his academic interests are social theory, language, and psychoanalysis. 
Caroline Maxwell teaches studio art, photography, and art history to middle school, high school, and college students.  She is also a practicing artist and has exhibited her work internationally. She spends her days at Bridges Academy, her evenings at Rio Hondo College, and her weekends on a soccer field. Carmen Sevilla has been a teacher at Bridges Academy and is now director of the middle school. She has many areas of interest, including a specialty in technology and instruction. When not at Bridges, she enjoys time with her three sons.  

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