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An Interview with Sylvan Taylor of The Downtown School, Winston-Salem

By Teagan Taylor

Sylvan Taylor is the AIG Teacher and Enrichment Coordinator at The Downtown School in Winston-Salem, NC, an urban magnet school within a public school district. Sylvan will be sharing her expertise in two special presentations at NCAGT’s conference this March, both of which include field trips to The Downtown School itself! As a sneak peek, we spoke with Sylvan about her unique position and her vision for how teachers can incorporate play-based principles, the Schoolwide Enrichment Model, and other important learning experiences into their own school environments. In our conversation, it was evident how passionate Sylvan is about exposing students to authentic, exploratory opportunities based on their own interests and forms of expression, and it makes us so excited to attend her presentations this spring!

Sylvan’s journey in education began through her own experience as a gifted learner, particularly as a twice-exceptional learner (ADHD with “a little anxiety thrown in for spice as I like to say”, she exclaims). Identified in kindergarten, she attended a rural school environment that was project-based and “definitely shaped me and went on to influence me as an educator”, she says. Starting her career in education as a classroom teacher mainly in the upper elementary grades, Sylvan then took a few years off from the traditional school setting, which gave her the opportunity to open up a “play-based preschool for kids” out of her home. One outcome from this important time in her life was earning her certification in gifted education, which she said was always something “that always spoke to” her, something she wanted to do. At the beginning of her career Sylvan worked at The Downtown School, so when she returned to the classroom setting years later and saw that the school had an open position as the enrichment coordinator, Sylvan was offered the opportunity. She states, “this was my dream job and was a combination of…a lifelong interest, passion, doing the preparation, and …falling into the right position for me”. And she has been teaching there ever since!

Having worked in public school for a year and noticing that it was not the best fit, as well as realizing she needed to spend more time with her young family while her husband was in school, Sylvan opened up her home to a small cohort of preschool aged kids, including her own. She states that the play-based preschool was “an intersection of my philosophy as a parent and as a teacher”. Sylvan realized that what kids really need at that age is meaningful and exploratory experiences. The students interacted with a butterfly garden, went on field trips, they could dig and discover; it was a play-based, “literacy rich environment” reminiscent of childhood in generations past. Through this time in her life, Sylvan entered the world of “playwork”, which is not a very well known area of study in the United States, but has been tapped into by other countries, such as the UK. Learning as much as she could about Playwork theory, loose parts play, and how to scale that for the kids she was working with, Sylvan recognized this as an essential part of education students were missing. Play-based learning incorporates so many important elements educators look for: cognitive, social emotional, physical, and “there is so much research to support it”, Sylvan states. “When I came back to more traditional education, I am carrying with me these very out there, renegade experiences that benefited my own children and [cohort] of kids”, she says. Now back in the classroom setting at The Downtown School, Sylvan uses this concept with older students (who need it too), and recognizes how student-led learning, the Schoolwide Enrichment Model, and other gifted best practices, fit nicely together with play-based learning.

The Downtown School (DTS) is a lottery-based PreK-8th grade magnet school in the Winston-Salem area, with no other requirements to apply, thus representing a “nice cross section of the county demographically….our diversity is really valuable for everyone here”, Sylvan remarks. DTS just celebrated their 30 year anniversary last year. DTS is a “Next Century School”, one of about hundred schools nation-wide at the time to receive a grant for doing innovative learning. They did not have a lot of restrictions from the onset, and could shape their school around the idea of “what could education be?”. DTS’s charter included progressive educational components such as the Schoolwide Enrichment Model and experiential learning, that other schools “could look to as an example”, Sylvan says. She mentions that over the last 30 years there has been a lot of change in education (for example, with No Child Left Behind) and that it “has been a dance to keep the core of who we are'' to make sure DTS is best serving their kids. Classes at DTS are kept small and teachers loop with the students in the lower grades, making “relationships a huge part of what we do”, she states. DTS uses the Schoolwide Enrichment Model and “Loose Parts Play”. Sylvan is the Schoolwide Enrichment teacher, along with being the AIG Catalyst teacher, meaning she conducts gifted testing and identification as well. At DTS she wears many hats! Her classes are typically a part of the specials rotation, where she works with students once a week or every other week depending on the grade level. Being able to create her own curriculum, Sylvan incorporates a plethora of different content and skills such as creative writing, STEM labs, Makerspace, inquiry based learning and more. She says “that is amazing what they are able to do” when students have freedom to come in and make and do what they are interested in. In addition, she handles the gifted services at DTS in which she pulls groups to extend beyond the normal curriculum, providing enrichment on top of what the general education teachers teach. Many of the teachers at DTS are gifted certified and “this brings strength to classroom differentiation”, Sylvan states. Furthermore, Sylvan coordinates something called “Mini Course”, which is a mixed aged course offered a few times a quarter, structured around topics students are interested in. Topics are interdisciplinary and range from poetry workshops, to coding video games, to cultural architecture, to cooking and more. We all know how busy the life of any teacher is, and while Sylvan is focusing on her many responsibilities and the general education teachers are focusing on theirs, she finds the time to have important conversations with them to see what students need more support and/or more challenge. Being a small school, having such conversations and working collaboratively comes naturally, she says. “The core of what makes us special and different is the focus on students as individuals, building relationships, and seeing kids for their talents and their passions.”, Sylvan exclaims.

One of The Downtown School’s main pillars is Joseph Renzulli’s Schoolwide Enrichment Model (SEM). SEM is so complex, Sylvan mentions, that it can be hard to “find the elevator pitch” that perfectly captures the research and the structure behind the model. But she states, that “at its core, the focus is on students, [and their] gifts and talents and passions versus deficits”, which is so important when thinking of our students who need the push and the additional challenge, but also for students who come with struggles, to find that area of passion as well. It’s great for everybody, coming from the belief “that we all operate better when we are able to have some choice and voice and when we are seen for our talents and strengths”, Sylvan exclaims. This philosophy is also shown meaningfully through Renzulli’s 3 E’s: “enjoyment which leads to engagement which leads to enthusiasm for learning” (and oftentimes then leads to achievement), Sylvan states. With SEM, different types of giftedness are more easily recognized, especially “twice-exceptional, which I was”, she says. Renzulli’s Three-Ring Conception of Giftedness plays nicely into SEM as well, where “above-average ability intersects with creativity which intersects with task commitment”, so that the areas in which students are passionate about and have a “spark or inspiration” for can result in amazing productivity for every student, even those who have “been overlooked”, Sylvan explains. She extends on this, saying that SEM especially provides more meaningful motivation for our high ability students beyond a score on a test, and allows them to find joy in learning. As Sylvan exclaims, we must see students as “more than a data point…because we are not raising test takers, we want to raise kids who say ‘oh my goodness, this is the thing I love and this is what I am going to do with it!”. With SEM, schools utilize essential gifted best practices such as cluster grouping and curriculum compacting, and the model provides “a different way of looking at learning and a different way of looking at the learners”, Sylvan states. At DTS, they make sure to keep returning to the language of SEM by “renewing [their] vows”, using the model more intentionally through ongoing staff training, and striving to stay true to the essence of who they are as a school for the benefit of their students. SEM, and particularly play-based learning, can seem intuitive, but we live in a world where “kids get less of that at home for a variety of reasons”, Sylvan says. She reflects on a time when she attended a presentation where the speaker explained that his brother was an engineer for NASA, and “that the engineers at NASA were lamenting that the younger group of engineers did not have the ingenuity and the ability to pivot and think on their feet'' like the older engineers. The older generation in their time as kids “were taking things apart to see what was inside, and [they were] building, and kids do not have these opportunities as much now, Sylvan states. And “if NASA is saying it, then this is what we need!”, she exclaims.

We asked Sylvan if through using the Schoolwide Enrichment Model and focusing on the strengths students naturally possess, if she has found that she has been able to better identify gifted learners. “Absolutely!” Sylvan states. She says, “ the more you are able to give students opportunities outside of textbook learning” the more you are going to recognize “the quirky kids, the twice-exceptional kids, the kids who have not had these opportunities before”. We tend to identify students that come from more privileged backgrounds, but through SEM we can identify the students who are more creative beyond the standard tests we give, she extends. We can present students' products as evidence and “can say ‘hey look, he created this’, and with more open-ended opportunities and more opportunities for choice, the more they can show you what they are capable of when we stop setting the parameters and the ceilings”, Sylvan says.

For educators and administrators who wish to bring SEM to their school, or even “renew their vows” with SEM, Sylvan suggests several important things. First of all, “there has to be a level of comfort with administration” so that they understand the purpose behind SEM. Administrators, teachers, staff all need the training in SEM, ideally from presenters who have been to Confratute (UCONN’s summer teacher institute for gifted education, the longest running institute for enrichment learning) and to understand the core principles behind the Schoolwide Enrichment Model, Sylvan states. She mentions that it is helpful to have staff who are “comfortable with messiness, literal and figurative”, that they really need to allow kids to lead, because “that is what enrichment clusters should be and that should start infusing itself into the classroom”. Teachers need to be able to trust and be patient with SEM because they might not see huge results right away, she remarks. It is a long term implementation process with checks and balances, and there will be a learning curve for staff and students alike; that it will take time for students to adjust and find the right enrichment clusters for them, she says. There is a need to be okay with “what success looks like broadly”, Sylvan states. If the enrichment cluster is music, students may not be composing perfect scores; if the cluster is drama, students may not be Shakesphere-level. But the point is that they are growing. SEM involves more qualitative observation of student growth in an interactive (often louder) environment, and that does take getting used to, Sylvan states. But she encourages teachers to offer students grace as they get to know SEM and they will see them become more open to this unique style of learning!

Sylvan has two special presentations at NCAGT’s conference this March. One presentation, which will be on Thursday, March 2nd, will be focused on the Schoolwide Enrichment Model, enrichment clusters, the pedagogy behind them and how to implement these systems. The other presentation, which will be on Friday, March 3rd, will be focused on play-based learning, partially “loose parts play” and how this type of learning is valuable to all students and their cognitive skills, and especially their social development (self-regulation, social cues, perfectionism coping strategies etc.). Both presentations will be accompanied by a field trip! Since The Downtown School is right near the conference area, presentation attendees will get the opportunity to tour the school and see the methods Sylvan is speaking to, “live and in person”, she says. Sylvan mentions that attendees will have the opportunity to see how SEM and play-based learning works in the younger grades all the way up through 8th grade, so as to get a real sense of how the learning is differentiated depending on the student group and need. Attendees will gain different perspectives by “getting a chance to talk to some of the staff about their journey, to see that mind shift of letting the kids lead….where (as a teacher) you think you know where it’s going to go [but] the kids think it’s going to go in a different direction”, Sylvan says. Attendees of Sylvan's presentations will receive a rich and layered experience: one part pedagogy and method talk, one part field study, and one part debrief and reflection!

Sylvan expresses that she loves what she does and “wants to keep doing what I’m doing, I can't really see myself doing anything else. I welcome opportunities to talk to others about what I have done and what we are doing at The Downtown School. I think that what we are doing is great for our own kids, but I also think that because we do something special and we believe in it, we have a certain responsibility to share that with others.” She looks forward to sharing her knowledge and her unique experiences with NCAGT conference attendees this March!

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