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Why a Skills-Based Curriculum is a Game-changer for DVFS Lower & Middle School Students
An interview with Lower & Middle School Director Jason Seggern
As the director of our younger divisions, Jason is a member of our regular Admissions Information Session panel of faculty and administrators. We asked Jason to comment on some of the most frequently asked questions from families interested in our Middle School program. See those questions and his responses below:
What drives the DVFS Middle School Curriculum?
DVFS’ Middle School emphasizes a skills based curriculum. We make no assumptions about where a student is with their academic skills and we understand that we may have to go back and fine tune some or many of those skills -- whether that means remediation in reading or math or how to take notes from text. Those are the drivers of our curriculum, not content.
The anxiety that some parents have about content when their student enters our middle school program often comes from their student’s experience in mainstream educational settings and their own experiences in school - where so much is driven by content, often in preparation for some type of standardized test.
Certainly we need to develop a student’s intellectual abilities in a way that is reflective of the benchmarks in the Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards. We have deep, meaningful engagement with grade-appropriate content, but in order to get there, our students need the supporting skills for that to happen. We may not read 20 novels in an English class; we may only read 2, but our students will be developing the skills to access that content on a grade-appropriate level. The pace at which we move through content is driven by the need for skill work, which means that we have to stop and get the foundational skills in place so that students can engage with the content richly and meaningfully.
What differentiates DVFS is that our priority is building the skills that our students need to be able to successfully interact with and access challenging content - now and in the future, which is ultimately the engine that drives successful learning.
How can you differentiate skills instruction while keeping the content at grade level?
We develop a student’s instruction and expectations for that student around their specific learning challenge or challenges. If you are a struggling reader, then that remediation is going to focus on reading skills, and then understanding when you would need to use your accommodations specifically around assistive technology such as text to speech. For someone else who may be a grade-appropriate reader, but having a hard time with their expository writing, then we need to develop our instruction and expectation for them around improving their writing skills. For these two students, the content is the same, but the skill instruction is differentiated.
In science and social studies, a key skill is the ability to navigate a piece of text and distinguish essential from non-essential information. Our Read Underline Notate (R.U.N.) system addresses the development of those skills.
When a student has multiple areas of challenge, more scaffolding is put in place - whether that’s providing them with more writing prompts, completed notes instead of notes they have to take themselves, or something else that is specific and appropriate to an individual student’s areas of strength and challenge. Our teachers understand the different learning challenges in their classroom and routinely present both directions and content in a multisensory format, which allows them to individualize while also keeping students together in regular classes.
Are your students at a disadvantage because you are not covering “rigorous” college preparatory content?
Parents coming from mainstream schools often worry that their son or daughter will be “behind” his or her peers in a curriculum where skills are emphasized over covering a required amount of content. What I usually ask those parents is, “Is this content-driven approach working for your student now?” The answer is usually no. At DV, the ultimate goal is for our students to acquire strong academic skills that provide support for their learning differences, because in a setting that is not explicitly teaching those skills they can’t engage in the curriculum like their peers can. Skills unlock the ability of the student to access and engage with content. Our skills-based education is leverageable education - and is a distinctive advantage our students can use and apply over and over again throughout their time in school, later in college, and even in their careers.
We hear a lot about educating the “whole child.” How does DV address this for an LD student?
One of the things we have to recognize when a student enters the building is that only a certain percentage of who they are is a person with a learning difference -- and that’s a minor part of their identity. The majority is still a 12, 13, 14 year old adolescent who needs a developmentally appropriate curriculum and needs school experiences with their peers that are appropriate for their age level. That’s why we emphasize the arts, health, physical education, and why we are at grade level with the content. We know that some of our students are very creative, have great visual and tactile abilities and talents, so our arts rotation provides those moments where they can demonstrate those strengths.
Equally important is a strong sense of school community where students feel accepted and comfortable interacting with each other socially. Our schedule incorporates a Community Period each day where students can participate in clubs, service projects, tinker in our Makerspace, and interact socially in more unstructured ways based on their individual interests. Our middle school is also part of our full school community with opportunities to develop friendships and mentoring relationships with our older high school students when appropriate.
Many of our after-school activities incorporate students across both middle and upper school. Our athletic teams, spring musical, and many of our student government run social activities such as movie screenings, holiday festivals, and off campus chaperoned meet-ups for hayrides, ice skating, trampoline jumping, etc., are great ways for our kids to just be kids.
When my son or daughter is completely shut down and they come here, how do you get them out of that shell?
Research tells us that kids want to experience two things in school: 1) they want to have happy, positive peer relationships, and 2) they want to experience academic success. When students come to us, most often, it is the academic success piece that is lacking - and sometimes that has had an effect on their peer relationships as well. Because we design our curriculum around skills that allow students to access academic information, they find that they are now able to be active participants in the classroom. They can answer a question, maybe they can read something out loud or they can write something they were not able to write before. Those little micro-successes that didn’t exist before start to build and build and break down that social emotional barrier to learning that has been put up because of their lack of success in a previous environment. You see students start to become self-confident, available learners. On the social side, where the students have an environment of shared experiences, that creates a catalyst for interaction and a connection with your peers. When students come to DV, they discover they are not alone. Everyone here has some kind of learning difference. Students feel less isolated, more connected with both their teachers and peers, and often those shared experiences create meaningful friendships.
Lower & Middle School Director
Jason Seggern is our Lower & Middle School Director. He has worked in the field of education for the past 15 years as a cognitive therapist, classroom teacher and administrator. He holds a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership from Drexel University and he has earned graduate credits from Rosemont College’s Mid-Level education program.
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