With some PVC pipes, sheets, and a large rubber band, a group of five students at Vanguard Gifted Academy, located in Batavia, constructed a teepee. They weren’t given a set of instructions; instead, they used math skills, knowledge of Native Americans, and teamwork to create this structure — and the outcome was incredible.
“It’s amazing to watch them using the knowledge they are acquiring in their own way to fulfill a need,” says Elizabeth Blaetz, head of school at Vanguard Gifted Academy who also teaches students in kindergarten through second grade. “It’s also amazing to see the confidence and pride they develop when they have worked and accomplished their goal.”
This kind of project-based learning, part of the school’s S.T.R.E.A.M. — science, technology, research, engineering, art, and math — learning module, is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to educating gifted kids.
Here, Blaetz breaks down Vanguard’s approach to helping gifted students soar academically and emotionally.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to educating gifted students who, while intellectually advanced in some areas, are not at that same level social-emotionally. This is top of mind at Vanguard.
“When you’re teaching gifted children, one of the things that you have to be aware of is their asynchronous development,” she says. “They are 5, 6 or 7 years old emotionally, but intellectually they are talking about advanced topics which makes them seem older. It is this gap that causes internal frustration for these kids.”
It can be challenging for an educator to teach a student higher-level concepts and work with the social-emotional level that is age-appropriate. That’s where the Vanguard Model comes in.
“One of the aspects of our school that is very innovative is that the gifted students are in multiple groups throughout the day so that intellectually they are working with peers that think like them,” Blaetz explains, “and social-emotionally they are working with peers who are at the same developmental level.”
“Part of personalized learning is meeting children where they are at. For example, a child in kindergarten may be gifted in mathematics and working at a third-grade math level, so that child will meet with other students of different ages to learn about long division. After the lesson, each child has a different assignment based on their developmental level,” Blaetz notes.
To further enhance learning and engage students, every afternoon includes hands-on projects, simulations, and problem-solving — much like the task of building a tepee. “The other part of our program linked in with the S.T.R.E.A.M. is the arts, which offers a broad range of creative expression and makes a huge difference with gifted kids,” she says. “Part of the arts integration includes drama, and in the drama, they learn how to present what they have learned. So, they’ve learned about the Native American cultures across the U.S. They have to decide how to present that to others. At the end of every quarter, we hold a showcase night.”
Families, community members and more attend this showcase night, which allows each one of the gifted students to share his or her knowledge individually as well as with their group. Students decide how to share the important information using displays, interactives, and presentations. For the unit on Native Americans, they decided to display their individual reports, the teepee, and a floor-to-ceiling totem pole they made together and to present regional native customs and dancing. After the presentation, they taught one of the dances to visitors.
“All of these higher-level conceptual learning activities, when combined with coaching and foundational skills, offer the gifted child intellectual challenges that are also appropriate for their social-emotional level. It gives them a higher interest in learning developmental skills, offers them a way to share what they know in a positive way, and develops their confidence,” Blaetz says.
Having opportunities to engage with fellow students and the community is important to a child’s social-emotional development. “Vanguard’s model incorporates community-minded leadership where students learn how to communicate, collaborate and come to consensus through shared responsibility for their school community, social activities, and learning materials,” Blaetz says.
Inside the school, everything is shared and available to all students as they need it, which means that students are responsible for maintaining all the items available and their own learning space. On Fridays, students come together to clean the school. There isn’t a janitor on staff. Why? “It’s their community, and they treat it better when they are involved in maintaining it,” she explains.
It’s important to not only build a school community but to teach students to help the community outside of the school building, too. That’s why, even when Vanguard was doing distant learning, their students took part in community service, completing more than 50 deeds that helped the earth, from picking up trash to building composters, on Earth Day. “It is important to us to teach children how to build our school community and also be an active part of their community outside of the school,” Blaetz adds.