What can a small school for students with learning differences teach the rest of us about differentiated, student-owned learning? Perhaps a lot. I visited Noble Academy in Greensboro, N.C. today, a K-12 school with about 175 students, all of whom have one or a combination of learning differences. I did not even realize their specialization until 30 minutes into my tour; it looks and feels like any other small school, but there are fewer desks in each classroom.
Halloween is a wild day to visit any school! After the morning costume contests (Head Linda Hale was Cruela d’Ville and she had about a dozen faculty Dalmatians) the students were released to complete their FedEx Day projects, just two hours to imagine design, build, and “pitch” something, either solo or in a group. We wandered the halls in this flurry of finishing activity as the students got ready to “ship” their projects: “better headphones”, “a jacket with bells so someone can find you in the dark”, a hand lotion dispenser converted from a hand wash station, the “Land Swimmer” fish tank on wheels, a prototype elevating car, and a bed that wakes you up with gentle shaking…and so many more.
This maker-type work is not new to Noble. Every Friday morning is Genius Half-hour when students can work on anything, either alone or in groups. For 25 minutes every day they take time out for “skill building”, some of which are specific to their respective learning differences, and some of which would be great learning for any group of students. In the lower grades students are flexibly grouped according to their functional level in particular subjects and tasks, not by age. And the day is apportioned in large blocks of time to allow for this more flexible dynamic that is responsive to individual needs. I asked what they did NOT do during these times that a traditional school might be doing, and the teachers could not think of anything. In other words, they trimmed a few minutes here and there, converted some advisory time, and have created time during the day for what they see as mission critical to student-led learning.
I am not an expert by any stretch on special needs education, but I do look for common elements of great learning, and it seems to me, and to the teachers at Noble Academy, that they are doing the same things that are termed “innovative” at traditional schools…and the processes are exactly the same. I urged them to think about what in their approach could be scaled to classes of 15-35 students and to share those out with others who may have overlooked these lessons when we incorrectly think of schools like Noble as “different” from our own.