From the November 2015 issue

Empowering Kids to Learn Their Way

A teacher from The Roeper School talks about how a customized learning approach for kids is the key to better learning.

Imagine a classroom where students are taking charge of their own learning, choosing their own projects and following their own curiosity. Instead of being expected to produce the same work as everyone else in the class to show what they’ve learned, one child might make a poster about a topic the class is studying, while another is writing a script for a skit on the same topic, and still another is drafting an essay.

This kind of learning happens at The Roeper School. One of the core philosophies at the school is empowering students in their learning. This means students get to choose the classes they take, the projects they will do to complete assignments and the topics within the curricula that they address. Because gifted students’ brains can be wired somewhat differently from other kids, that empowering approach is especially necessary, says Elise Lind, a fourth and fifth grade teacher at the school. “Often times, gifted children have unique perspectives and ways of learning,” she says. “They need to be allowed to demonstrate their knowledge in personal and untraditional ways.”

Rather than be held to a proscribed curriculum, teachers at Roeper are expected to find materials and activities that reflect the interests and needs of the students they are teaching. For example, when a fourth grade class was studying the Civil War they noticed that many of the figures had mustaches, so that became a theme in the ways students approached writing about the war, understanding the geography of the time and demonstrating what they had learned in a presentation.

Allowing that kind of freedom to let students go where their curiosity and intellect take them reiterates teachers’ belief in their ability to shape not only their learning, but their world. “It is a tangible act that conveys to our students that we value their voice, and signifies that we are in this together,” Lind says.

The relationships teachers and students build in this atmosphere are trusting, respectful and unique, since teachers respond to each individual students’ interests and abilities. Most importantly, it allows students to take risks and make mistakes; for gifted children, they thrive with freedom to try things that don’t work instead of feeling pressured to always be the kid who has the right answer.

This freedom to learn the best way for them gives them the confidence and tools to make an impact in the real world, Lind says. “Empowering students tells them that we trust their thinking, appreciate their ideas, and value their individuality. Empowerment is important because we know that our students will go on to shape the world, and we want them to believe in their ability to do so.”

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