Every child has competencies, and we should start from where those competencies are and continue to grow and challenge them.
A runaway, metal rod clinks onto the brown linoleum floor as 10th graders build robots for an upcoming inter-class competition. “Start thinking: How high are you going to build the next one?” their teacher encourages.
In a nearby building, middle-schoolers crowd around their instructor as he holds a yellow dodgeball and helps them estimate the height of the floors in the building. Just down the hall, older mathematicians try to create their own theories under the watch of a school district math coach.
Snippets of podcasts played for a class lead the students into discussing what keeps them listening. A chalkboard list keeps track of their preferences: mystery, rich setting, relatability and so on.
These are just a few of the scenes scattered about the University of Washington campus as 750 middle- and high-schoolers attend the summer programs offered by the Robinson Center for Young Scholars.
Although the center offers enrichment and early entrance programs to young pre-college and college students year round, Summer Challenge (5th-6th grade) and Summer Stretch (7th-10th grade) allow students throughout the Seattle area to delve deeper into areas of interest in month-long intensives.
“It’s not like being in school year-round in their traditional learning environment,” Alex Goodell (MIT ‘12, PhD ‘18), program operations specialist and director of the center’s outreach programs, said. “They’re taking classes that they may not be exposed to in their general curriculum. Mock trial and urban planning and economics and things like that that are different.”
Those who are more excited about math or chemistry have the opportunity to move through the material at a pace they’re ready for—a pace not necessarily possible in a regular classroom.
But it’s not just about acceleration.
“Only some of our classes, I would consider, are straight acceleration like an Algebra 2 class that they’re going to do in five weeks,” said Nancy Hertzog, Robinson Center director and professor of education. “The other classes may dig deeper into something. Imagine talking about, like right now, the supreme court justice [nomination]. This is a huge issue, and imagine being able to, in a mock trial class, to really unpack that and think about ‘What are those court cases?’ and really dig into that at a level where these kids would be highly interested; they don’t have time for that in school.”
Hertzog says the summer classes empower students to explore their interests at their own level as they ask their own questions. They’re pursuing their interests within a context. She says this concept, while important for all kids, is especially important for those who are ready for it.
What constitutes readiness, though?
Traditionally, qualification for gifted education includes test scores or identification by a school district as “highly capable.” For the Robinson Center, teacher recommendations or completion of one of the center’s Saturday programs can also open the door of opportunity.
“We want to provide services for those kids who have demonstrated talents and need to be challenged,” Hertzog said. “But we also want to be a place where we can see that this kind of pedagogy can be given to all students in their classroom and that teachers can mind-shift so that it’s not about labeling, it’s about ‘If I do these kinds of activities, what talents will emerge in my children, in my students?’”
Among the Robinson Center’s goals, according to Goodell, is working against the elite status associated with gifted education.
Hertzog has her own approach to the stereotypes.
“What I say is, ‘Yes, I am for challenging children. Wherever they are’,” she said. “Every child has competencies, and we should start from where those competencies are and continue to grow and challenge them.”
In Hertzog’s mind, a lot of stigma lies in expectations of children. She tries not to take a deficit approach with any child and doesn’t assume that a population that hasn’t been identified as highly capable can’t do what those with privilege and academic scores can.
“I’m an early childhood focus person, so when they come to me in preschool and kindergarten, I think they all have potential, and I look at that as the starting point for how we have classrooms that build that environmental context where children can grow to their potential,” Hertzog said. “In other words, not assuming that certain students can’t read above grade level or write. Given opportunities, those things can occur and develop, but they need the right contexts.”
Concurrent with the summer programs, the Robinson Center hosts teacher training and professional development workshops. These summer sessions focus on equipping teachers with context-building tools and techniques to incorporate into their own classes. The timing allows teachers to also observe the ideal type of instruction as it’s modeled through the summer programs. In addition to serving students and their families, the summer programs demonstrate ideals of optimal challenge and wholistic learning. When teachers statewide and beyond start designing their own classrooms to challenge students, the doors of opportunity are widened.
To its leaders, the Robinson Center is a context where a lot of growth and development occurs because it’s built around project-based learning, inquiry and student choice, in combination with guidance and support for kids’ ideas. The summer instructors try to value and build on what students bring to the center.
“If this is the kind of environment that can be challenging, then this is what we need in more contexts,” Hertzog said. “It doesn’t mean we don’t need to keep challenging. It’s the uniqueness of the children that we’re trying to address.”
Story by Olivia Madewell, marketing and communications student aide.
Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications