Middle School News

Catching Up with . . . Sarah Powell
Judith Worrall, middle school writing teacher & communications team member

We sat down with Sarah Powell, middle school student support specialist, to hear about her passion for supporting gifted students, particularly during this challenging time. In the interview below, Sarah shares how she helps to create pathways for students’ academic development, and she provides insight into the importance of relationships between parents, teachers, and students—and superpowers!—in our middle school support program at Nueva.  

Judith Worrall: I am amazed by how many programs, technologies, and people were available to support our students in their learning. With all of these things going on, what do you think is the most important aspect of your role at Nueva?

Sarah Powell: The most important aspect of my job is removing barriers to learning. I do this in three specific ways: teacher consultation, parent consultation, and consideration and consultation on each student’s specific situation in order to fit with the school’s mission to offer robust services for the diverse needs of the gifted.

My aim is to help students get into the curriculum, showing teachers, parents, and students multiple entry points. No one way has to fit all learners—and it is not a flaw if an initial approach to an idea does not work for an individual child. For example, teachers might have designed a project to work in a specific way. However, for a particular student, there might be a barrier, and I can help all parties to remove these barriers through the use of the programs, technologies, and people you mention.

The aim is to employ a universal design lens for learning (UDL) that allows us to create a flexible educational environment that can support a wide variation of learning in the classroom. Recently, we have employed this lens to modify work in the Zoom room, to allow every student to have as much engagement with the curriculum as possible. We aim to give our students many different ways of accessing information, expressing their learning, and engaging with their learning, drawing on their interests, talents, and passions to motivate them— even online.

JW: Can you talk more about how students can access information to support their learning at Nueva?

SP: We have a wide range of assistive technology to support students. These include giving students tools that allow them to not only use their laptops, but to do so in specific ways that assist them in particular subject areas.

To assist with reading, for example, we have Snap&Read Universal, which is a browser extension on the iOS platform. This can do a number of things to allow for easier access to information. One of its most important functions is to read aloud any text from a variety of documents, from PDFs to websites.

We also gather information for students on all of the most significant middle school books, articles, and short stories in Reading Audio Materials (accessible to students as a spreadsheet), where we find the best program from Audible, Bookshare, or Learning Ally to make text available to students who might  struggle to decode text, perhaps because of vision or other issues. 

JW: Part of the Nueva experience is the relationships our students have with the adults around them. What are some of the ways that professionals at Nueva and outside Nueva support students to engage with their learning?

SP: When there are multiple questions about a child’s learning profile and how best to meet the needs of a particular learner, we refer to a range of outside practitioners. These are people we have worked with regularly and built relationships, so that they can tune into the specialized needs of our gifted
population quickly. Among these referrals are ones to neuropsychologists, who are requested specifically to help us understand how the different areas and systems of a particular child’s brain are working and how these areas and systems affect behavior.

We then suggest a range of strategies for our regular tutors who work with our students’ neurodiversity to follow the recommendations of our neuropsychologists. To clarify, neurodiversity is a viewpoint that brain differences are not deficits, but rather are part of the natural variation in the human genome. We are keen to persuade our community that these differences are normal. The idea of neurodiversity can have benefits for kids with learning and thinking differences. This concept can help to reduce the stigma around these differences, especially for the kids themselves.

We also refer to clinical psychologists, who mainly focus on children’s behaviors and emotions, and suggest therapy for any concerns. Other people who quickly come into play are our executive function coaches, who offer executive function coaching. This is intensive training that helps students to learn and improve their executive function skills. This goes hand-in-hand with the concept of a synchronous development. For gifted learners, sometimes there are huge differences between the way they operate in one area compared to another.  Part of my role, therefore, is to help faculty, parents, and students understand neurodiversity—that one child can be gifted and have learning challenges. So, children might be highly intelligent, but still forget where they have put their books, homework, and even shoes! Executive function coaching can help to overcome these challenges, and helps us to put in place systems such as the work tracker, so that advisorsanother important piece of the puzzle— can gently support our students toward a more independent approach to organizing their work. Finally there is the teachers, whose positive and flexible approach to all learners is crucial in helping Nueva students learn.

JW: You talked of working with the students’ interests and passions to remove barriers. How does this personal piece help them with their learning? 

SP: This is a crucial part of the education process. Instead of looking at deficits and problems, I support the students, parents, and teachers in finding an individual’s strengths. Then we leverage these strengths to support areas that are more challenging—in other words, what is a particular child’s superpower?

Once the superpower is identified,  students can use this to develop their gifts and positive self-image. We have a lot of students who run at a different speed, both physically and mentally. They are good at spotting the places where there is the potential for the most negative feedback. Things can often come to the gifted learner naturally, so when things don’t, they can get frustrated. What they need to do is to develop over time and apply what they have learned to their academics. So, we need to work on finding the positives, building muscles, so that they know where their strengths lie and can draw on these for the more challenging aspects of their learning. Learning to learn is like learning a sport or art. It needs practice over time.



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Catching Up with . . . Cliff Burke

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