Pat Sciortino

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Pat Sciortino
646.544.7447

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pat@enterlaughing.com

 

 



Defining the gifted and talented self...After school

The school day was a disaster for me. There was not one single educator over the first twelve years of my education who found a way to engage me, encourage me or tap into my considerable curiosity about others as a means of engagement. My schoolday classroom was simply a place I bided my time until my real learning could begin, after school.

Thankfully, my mother recognized my talent for dance and considered it her responsibility to give me the time and place to immerse myself in this area of strength. Within a year of starting dance class at nine years of age, I was dancing six days a week, three hours each weekday after school, four hours on Saturday mornings, and continued to do so throughout my teenage years. It was at the dance studio that I learned, beyond the basic skills of dance, about myself, the world and the disposition of an artist. The high standards and encouragement of my mentor, my dance teacher, now 95 and still a formidable presence, continue to echo over forty years later.

I began my teaching career at a school for middle and high school students with language-based learning differences. These students, labeled as underachieving, were challenged by reading and writing tasks and remediated at their levels of disability. From my own experience as a learner, I wondered why no one was tapping into their strengths, their interests, talents and passions. These were highly creative learners and I intended to make use of it! The result was a simple homework assignment that resonated with my literature class and moved them into a collaborative, original playwriting process to a schoolwide drama production. I guided the process, yes, but the movement forward was student directed. I simply opened the door to opportunity where each one could find a way to express themselves through their areas of strength and motivated them to read and write along the way (the challenge) to meet their creative potential (the gifts). Underachieving? Hardly.

My educational philosophy led me to Bridges Academy in Los Angeles, where teaching to the strengths of Twice-exceptional (2e) middle and high school students is de rigeuer...a given. I had only to say what a student needed as an opportunity for success and the powers that be arranged for it to happen. Can you imagine? Granted, we had classrooms with only eight students...but even that small group might demand eight ways for a teacher to differentiate curriculum to allow each student access through his or her area of strength.

These reasons for my own successful learning and, ultimately, teaching are what compel me as an educational consultant and learning specialist to create learning experiences within the academics, the arts and technology that offer in-depth study and provide highly motivated learners the opportunity for boosting self esteem, along with learning the skills and dispositions of their chosen disciplines. As anyone working in their area of ability knows, when we already have the skills necessary for problem solving, problems become welcome challenges and their solutions markers of our success.

 

 

Follow The Fear

 

It is a rare opportunity when educators get to experience firsthand the same challenges their students face during the learning process. Ironically, this opportunity was given me as a winner of the Center Theater Group Theater Education Fellowship. I chose to use the financial reward to research my theory that incorporating humor into the writing process would motivate reluctant Twice-exceptional (2e) writers to persevere through this area of weakness. I enrolled myself in a 3-week, intensive comedy writing workshop in New York City. I am funny; I can write; Success was imminent.

A funny thing happened on the way...

Stretching across the back of the theater where the writing workshop took place, was a banner stating “FOLLOW THE FEAR.” I wasn’t sure what it meant in terms of sketch writing. What scary monsters could possibly arise out of comedy writing? It wasn’t long before the meaning of the directive became all too clear. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t seem to produce a comedy sketch that met the expectations of the teacher, was equal to many of my peers’ sketches, and defined me as “able.” Where I began as an eager, motivated learner, I ended in rationalizing task avoidance as a means of saving face and assuaging my fears of failure.

Each morning, I had to brace myself to enter a classroom where I did not shine. Once a strong contributor to class discussions, my class participation began to diminish. I was reluctant to offer constructive criticisms to my peers...If I couldn’t write a perfect sketch myself, why in the world would they trust my opinions about their sketches? Though I didn’t seem to be honing my sketch writing skills as expected, I did learn something very valuable as an educator: You cannot separate the emotional self from the process of learning.

Their own high expectations and those put on 2e learners by parents and teachers can result in “...paralyzing anxiety, self-criticism and fear of failure.” (Parenting for High Potential, National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) March 2006).  No matter how often I told my students, “Mistakes are opportunities for learning,” they weren’t buying it. They are too smart to fall for neatly packaged aphorisms. After my own emotional roller coaster ride in sketch writing, I can see the importance of teaching all learners, most especially, 2e learners, the specific emotional pitfalls that will probably occur when beginning and learning any new task, and explicitly identify the emotional strengths necessary to navigate this challenging road between “I can’t now” and “Now, I can.”

So, how do we encourage sensitive, 2e perfectionists to “Follow the fear” and allow for the probability of missteps as a matter of course in skill mastery? How do we convince our learners, our children, that the ability to follow their fears is the one-way forward to meeting their potential? The answers to these questions are actually quite simple and follow the same 2e instructional approaches and strategies for teaching cognitive and social skills development.

Since language has the ability to trigger powerful emotions, I would remove the word “mistake” (which sounds so final) from our students’ performance vocabulary and introduce “misstep,” a word that minimizes error and is invocative of recovery. To boldly say, “FOLLOW THE FEAR” tells the learner that fear exists within everyone trying to learn a new task. So, let’s do that...let’s present following our fear as the only possible choice.

The performance rubric of each classroom assignment or piece of work is a wonderfully visual way to explicitly identify the emotional pitfalls and skills necessary to push through them. The rubric would help students preview and identify emotional challenges that could surface during the performance process. Preparing students for the levels of potential missteps should be as explicitly identified as the levels of potential achievement. From an emotional perspective there are five points of breakdown in learning task mastery: Expectation, task initiation, task commitment, recovery and followthrough. 

Expectations, our own and those of others, can bring any opportunity for learning to a halt before it even begins. Well, what if teachers present missteps as part of the learning process? In my research to find ways to encourage learners to “follow the fear,” I found the article, “Making Mistakes on Purpose,” a strategy used for strengthening the skills of...wait for it... table tennis players, who, as a part of their training, make mistakes on purpose in order to practice recovering from those errors. We, as educators, so focused on helping learners find success, just might see there is an advantage to helping them focus on error. We can help them develop the emotional mindset that effort is not over because a mistake, excuse me, misstep has been made.

“Because the player is expecting the mistake, he can decide in advance
what to do next, allowing him to test out several different methods of
recovering from the mistake, in order to find which work best for him.”

Http://tabletennis.about.com/od/TwoMinuteTips/a/Making-Mistakes-On Purpose.htm

Asking learners to think about and create their own steps for recovery during challenging skill development, may help grow the self-acceptance vital to dealing with missteps that would otherwise send them reeling into task avoidance and feelings of failure. It would promote the positive coping strategies necessary for task commitment and followthrough. An explicit breakdown of expectations, task initiation, recovery and followthrough as part of the performance rubric can use the same point system that represents skill achievement. They can see the rewards earned for their perseverence, rewards for following the fear
.

 


  Skill Development through Improvisational Play 

To be truly motivated, all learners, not just the Gifted/LD, must embrace the goals they are asked to meet, know explicitly what is at stake and actually buy into the promised rewards for achieving those goals. (Video games have this psychology down pat). Theater games, the basis of improvisational play, and their short-term goals provide authentic contexts that are urgent and clear because the dramatic problems and solutions originate out of the players own imaginations. Two dynamic elements essential to authentic social learning are: unplanned collaboration and incremental problem solving. Sharing reality during improvisational play compels players to collaborate while problem solving moment to moment. The potential to be successful based on the mastery of collaboration aspires learners to be social. The consistency of skill development in improvisational play provides opportunity for the eventual synthesis of learned social behaviors and the natural disposition of the learner.

The philosophy of play as a vehicle for social, emotional and even cognitive development is not a new idea to early childhood education. Piaget’s cognitive development theory, Erikson’s psycho-social theory and Vygotsky’s socio cultural theory all focus on the relationship between play and cognitive, social, and emotional skill development. But it is thanks to Viola Spolin, theater educator and internationally acclaimed originator of theater games, that play began to be used as the means of building social behavior in school-aged children. Spolin believed that children would feel more invested in the outcome of this social meeting of minds by presenting their own ideas as opposed to ideas dictated by a supervising adult. Social thinking is inherent in Spolin’s theater games and in all creative structures and tasks. A perk of improvisational play is learning social thinking from two perspectives, that of the player and that of the audience member.

The skills developed through improvisational play are life skills necessary to becoming a well-rounded social, emotional, thinking human being. It provides a stage for players of all learning styles to flourish. Its creative process provides an outlet for kinesthetic learners to use activity as a means of creating and driving their story.  Players with strong verbal skills use their individual and broad based knowledge to create and drive their stories, and visualizing strengths can be put to use when giving substance to imaginary objects created within their stories. Improvisational play invites 2e perfectionists to embrace their many gifts while focusing on strengthening lagging skills.

The main tenet of improvisational play is accepting every offer given by your playing partner.  “No creative thought or created thing grows out of a negative impulse” (Psychology Today 1996), and no improvisational story can build out of a shared reality when other’s ideas are negated. So the first challenge novice players will face is the mandate to accept ideas that are not their own…or at least, give the ideas of others a chance. The late Steve Jobs even saw this social skill as vital to creating a productive business model. He provided improvisational play as professional development for his creative staff, focusing on the spirit  of “Yes, and then...” for more productive story meetings. The same idea applies to more productive social interaction. Accepting another’s ideas means you are prepared to exchange information, the give and take of dialogue that is conversation.

The overwhelmingly magical feeling of meeting the goals of the theater games through collaboration and problem solving, and getting laughs to boot, is positive reinforcement for social thinking development. These new social thinkers will soon seek a larger playing field outside their improvisational play to reap the rewards of being social.