Students Who Know Their Own Minds: Choosing the Nontraditional Path

Students with learning differences learn to excel in an alternative school setting.

Students with learning differences learn to excel in an alternative school setting.

Knowing How You Learn

Credit: Edutopia

As Patrick Morse remembers it, it all started in first grade.

"My teacher would give us assignments," recounts the recent San Francisco Bay Area high school graduate, "and I'd just draw circles on them. And then I'd take all these papers and stuff them in my desk."

Testing at the time labeled Morse as dyslexic and indicated that he suffered from attention deficit disorder. Every day for the rest of elementary school, he was taken from class to go to the school's learning center, to the scorn of his classmates.

Middle school was much the same. "I couldn't focus in class, and I was getting pulled out. The school tried to make a class where I would go instead, and it really wasn't working very well for me. People called it the 'Stupid Center' and the 'Retard Class.'"

Near the end of middle school, Morse's mother persuaded him to try Dexedrine, an amphetamine often used to treat ADD, to help him focus. It worked, and with his new clarity, he realized that his school environment was wrong for him.

"In school, I started paying attention," he says. "I actually studied for a test, which I never did before because I couldn't get myself to sit down. And when I finally started doing much better, I also realized that the atmosphere in middle school just wasn't that great."

Middle school graduation marked the opportunity for a fresh start. Morse went to an open house for Gateway High School, a 400-student charter school in San Francisco. Immediately, says the current freshman at Cornell University's School of Engineering, he felt at home. Not because everyone was exactly like him, but because everyone was different -- and nobody thought that was a bad thing.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Gateway was founded in 1998 by a group of parents whose children had learning differences and who felt that traditional public school education was cheating their kids. The high school's philosophy is inspired by the nonprofit All Kinds Of Minds Institute, which espouses the belief that students need to become aware of their individual learning styles.

The New York City Board of Education began training the city's public school teachers with the organization's professional-development workshops, called Schools Attuned, after the idea that schools must be better attuned to students' individual thought processes in order to help them. The course familiarizes teachers with eight brain functions and systems that directly affect students' learning, such as memory and spatial ordering, and offers suggestions for addressing problems with these functions.

Oklahoma and North Carolina have state-funded initiatives that allow teachers to take the Schools Attuned courses free, subsidizing the $1,200 fee. Community nonprofit organizations, such as the Health Trust, in Santa Clara County, California, are bringing the program into their local classrooms.

At Gateway, the Learning Center is where these theories are applied in practice. The center keeps information about each child's learning style, such as whether the student has problems with attention or strengths in long-term memory, in a document called a learning profile. (Download a PDF of a sample learning profile.) Teachers use this information to personalize instruction for Gateway's diverse student body. Students come to the school from more than one hundred middle schools, and the school's demographics reflect those of San Francisco: 13 percent African American, 24 percent Latino, 15 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, 40 percent Caucasian, and 3 percent other. One out of four Gateway students have identified learning difficulties.

Foundation Classes Teach Acceptance

emotional intelligence

In Learning Center classes, students bring their learning styles into their work. Here, kinesthetic learner Morse Morse gives a presentation on juggling that incorporates movement.

Credit: Edutopia

In Gateway's first year, Learning Center director Ashley Hager worked with school board members to bring the Schools Attuned emphasis on brain function into Gateway's curriculum. One of the results is a series of required foundation classes designated as "Learning Center classes," which help students examine how they learn.

Psychology I, which all freshmen take, sets the stage for accepting learning differences by working with issues of identity and learning styles. (Download a PDF of the Psychology Syllabus and of Learning Styles Classroom Exercises.) Morse says that the culture-building aspect of Psychology I shaped his Gateway experience. "Psychology was probably the best class for me because it not only taught me how I learned and what I need, it also taught other people how I learn and what I need," he says.

Students also set goals in Psychology I, such as improving short-term memory, and they develop strategies to help them achieve those goals. Belen, a freshman, found strategies for paying attention. "Before I begin paying attention, I try to filter out distraction," he says. "Another thing I do is plan the outcome of my assignment. For instance, every time I have to write an essay in Humanities, I begin to write and select what I think is well written. I then have a picture of what the outcome will probably look like. Finally, whenever I am doing something dull, my resolve isn't as strong, so I reward myself each time I complete a task." (Download a PDF of the Student Goals and Strategies Essay.)

Support for Students, Parents, Teachers

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The Learning Center provides a place for teachers to discuss questions of learning styles with peers and with resource specialists.

Credit: Edutopia

The Learning Center serves as a support system for students, teachers, and parents. Resource specialists in the center work with students who are having trouble identifying their learning styles, for example, or who are at a loss for ways to manage their particular difference.

Having such a resource open to students takes the burden off the teachers to solve every problem during class time. Teachers can gather there to gain insight from peers on dealing with classroom problems. And parents pitch in, too: More than thirty-five parent volunteers participate in the Learning Center's after-school tutoring program to help students struggling with subject material.

One of the most important skills Gateway teaches students is how to advocate for themselves. If a student determines, with the help of a resource specialist, that he or she has difficulties with reading, that student is responsible for requesting an accommodation such as extra time on a reading-comprehension test. Other accommodations might take the form of multiple assessments. Students with difficulties writing might use portable AlphaSmart keyboards to type essay answers; some students turn in reports on videotape.

Working for Equity

Technology helps Gateway retain a community feel as well as giving students different ways to learn and to demonstrate mastery. The school has wireless Internet connections throughout the building, and students are allowed to check out laptops, which they can take with them during the school day. Students can also check out AlphaSmarts and substitute audio books for bound books if they have trouble reading. Parents and students can access assignments and teacher pages through the school's site, and each student has a password-protected account on the server for academic project storage.

emotional intelligence

Technology, in the form of desktop and laptop computers, portable keyboarding devices, and online class assignments, helps make Gateway High School accessible for all of its students.

Credit: Edutopia

During Project Week in January, students take mini-courses such as The Art of the Trial, Gateway Gastronomics, and The Physics of Sledding; selected projects are then posted on the school Web site for others to view. Student films, slide shows, and audio clips of student stories are among the featured works.

Gateway executive director Peter Thorp is quick to point out that "this is a school that doesn't make its mark based on its facilities, but rather by creating an educational community." Thorp is no stranger to expensive, state-of-the-art facilities -- he is a formerly headmaster at the exclusive Cate School, outside of Santa Barbara, California. With the move to Gateway, he wanted to devote himself to equal educational opportunity for all types of learners from all walks of life.

"I really wanted to attack the socioeconomic discrepancies in postsecondary education," Thorp says. "Kids and families with greater resources have greater access to a wider range of options. One of the great satisfactions that I have gotten out of being here at Gateway is in our first graduating class, 30 percent of the kids were the first person in their family to go on to postsecondary education. That's fabulous. I can be run over by a bus tomorrow and feel great."

Pushing the Limits

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Once-reluctant students thrive in this atmosphere of acceptance; many go on to top colleges.

Credit: Edutopia

Indicators are indeed positive that Gateway's approach is working. Of Gateway's first senior class, the class of 2002, 99 percent went on to college. Students gain acceptance to such prestigious schools as Yale University and the University of California at Berkeley. Gateway was recently recognized as a California Distinguished School, its Academic Performance Index growth for 2001 and 2002 exceeded the state's targets, and won it a Governor's Award.

"The one thing that's really neat about Gateway is that every year, they're adding stuff, they're trying new things," says Morse. He is still amazed at how different his high school experience was from all that came before. "From getting straight D's in middle school to getting almost all A's and a few B's in high school, and then being able to really work at a NASA summer internship and get into Cornell University -- it still boggles my mind how I got from there to here. And I can't wait to push myself even further and see how far I can really go."

Ashley Ball is a former staff writer at The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

This article originally published on 12/16/2003

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Comments (15)

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College Instructor in Human Services and Sociology.

As a college instructor I

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As a college instructor I tell my students that they are living and learning in the Age of the Brain. So much new information is exploding and multiplying around us about how the brain works and it is finally making its way to teacher training and school decisions. I am very excited to see the evidence of this in the above postings. It gives me hope for our future students.

College Instructor in Human Services and Sociology.

the brain age

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I teach college and give trainings on working with students who are non-traditional learners. I tell my students that they are growing up in the age of the brain, where new information is coming out every day that will inform our lives and our teaching. I am very excited to see the evidence of this in all the above postings. Teachers are now being trained with brain based understanding of students due to the explosion of information out there. It gives me hope for our future students.

Deborah McCann (not verified)

Mersina, We need a means of

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Mersina, We need a means of getting into the hearts of our students and of their families if we are going to change things. Contact Deborah..

velbrasmith (not verified)

Gateway

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I am a secondary special education instructor at a rural school in Mississippi and I share your comments about both the inspiration and frustration levels I felt after having read the articles about Gateway. I am thoroughly motivated to know that there are programs like that are already being implemented in our vast field of education,but I am also frustrated because so many students do not have access to programs like Gateway! Just think about how many students have graduated and/or dropped out of school without having been given the opprtunity to achieve their true potential. As you stated so eloquently, school district personnel offer 'lip service', but we still are not being provided with adequate materials, resources,courses,etc. wo work with in order to sleep better at night in knowing we (educators) have exhausted all means humanly possible in aiding our students to achieve high self esteem and to be able to function on a more competitive level as they enter their post-secondary status in life.

velbrasmith (not verified)

Gateway

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0

I am a secondary special education instructor at a rural school in Mississippi and I share your comments about both the inspiration and frustration levels I felt after having read the articles about Gateway. I am thoroughly motivated to know that there are programs like that are already being implemented in our vast field of education,but I am also frustrated because so many students do not have access to programs like Gateway! Just think about how many students have graduated and/or dropped out of school without having been given the opprtunity to achieve their true potential. As you stated so eloquently, school district personnel offer 'lip service', but we still are not being provided with adequate materials, resources,courses,etc. wo work with in order to sleep better at night in knowing we (educators) have exhausted all means humanly possible in aiding our students to achieve high self esteem and to be able to function on a more competitive level as they enter their post-secondary status in life.

Mersina Kopatsis (not verified)

Students who know their own intelligences

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I have been teaching middle school and high school special education students for many years.I was impressed with the Patrick Morse story and especially with the fact that Gateway was available to him. I would say that many of my students would benefit as well from a program like Gateway. As I read the aforementioned messages I got the impression that all teachers are feeling in some shape or form the frustration of not having programs such as Gateway or similar ones at their disposal. The financial issues definitely have severely impacted the classrooms of our special needs students. Many students are not getting the needed technology due to financing, programs that address vocational as opposed to solely academic achievement are a thing of the past and students who can't achieve standard grades are falling through the cracks and dropping out by the time they reach 10th grade. I have accepted much of this, but, I do try to achieve diversity, incorporate technology and be creative!

Lisa M (not verified)

Learning Styles

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I am also a working toward a master's degree in curriculum and instruction. I am a special education teacher and becoming interested in brain research and strategies to assist my students with learning disabilities. I liked the idea of the Psychology I class. Not only do the students get an understanding of themselves, but also of each other. I like how the students are learning to help themselves and taking an active role/responsibility in their education.

Rachel Kane-Kirkpatrick (not verified)

Brain Research

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As a high school teacher in a rural school system in western Maryland, I become both inspired and frustrated by articles like this one. I am inspired because I know the value of differentiating instruction based on individual student needs. I am frustrated because while the school system pays lip service to this research it does not provide time, material, or training resources to help teachers implement research based best practices like the ones mentioned in the article.

Laurie G. (not verified)

Brain research shows that education is NOT one size fits all

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I am also a master's student with a blogging assignment. Brain research is one of our topics at the moment, and I have long been interested in the subject.

I love the quote "One size does not fit all." As I have found in the kindergarten classroom, not all students learn in the same way. We are constantly challenged to meet the needs of all learners.

Arnold Marque (not verified)

Students with learning differences learn to excel

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We are very proud of Jane. She is doing a great job.
Whatever learning difficulties she has(d) she overcomes
with disciplined and goal oriented hard work.

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