Wow! Ed: Newsletter from the Center for Educational Improvment
Creating Optimal 21st Century Instructional Environments
October 2016
In This Issue

$500 Teacher Stipends Applications Due October 31
Deadline Extended
Quick & Easy to Complete


Dear Educator

What is an optimal 21st Century instructional environment? In this month's Wow!, 
we tune into three samples from the microcosm of possibilities: Addressing children's basic needs, considering environmental features, and reflecting on the needs of a unique population, students who are twice exceptional. In essence, we are saying that if kids are hungry ( see our Stipends announcement in the left column - deadline extended to Oct. 31), it will be hard to focus on learning; that it is not only what is put into environments that counts--it is also what is left out; and that what works for one child, may not work for all. Having said that one size doesn't fit all, however, we live by the principle of paying attention to a child's strengths. 

In recent years there has been little focus on children who are gifted. As we implement ESSA, perhaps now is a very good time to look once again at the needs of our most brilliant and talented students, including those students who may also struggle with traditional academic curricula.
Answers to Hunger and Food Insecurity in the US and Globally
By Brogan Murphy, CEI Intern 
How many students in your school are in free and reduced lunch programs? Did you know that in some schools, the percent reaches to 90-100%? Did you know that some schools have had the foresight and compassion to provide students with sack lunches to provide them meals on holidays or other days when school is not open? Or that some schools operate a lunch program year round, even when school is not in session?

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines undernourishment as a person not being able to acquire enough food to meet the daily minimum dietary energy requirements over a period of one year.
  • Unsurprisingly, the areas of the world with the largest populations of people in poverty also have the highest percentage of people who fall into this category.
  • Based on FAO's data, the most countries that had this problem at a severe level (35% or more of the population undernourished) are largely found in Africa , such as Central African Republic, Zambia, and Namibia.
  • However, countries like North Korea and Haiti also fall into this category, the latter coming out higher than any other country with 53.4% of the population going hungry.
Hunger and Food Insecurity

While the percentage of the total population undernourished in countries such as the United States is below 5%, a much higher portion of the country suffers form something called Food Insecurity. Food Insecurity is defined by Feeding America as a lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. According to Feeding America, 15.4% of people in the U.S fall into this category, which is tens of millions of people.

The statistics for children are even higher. About 20.9% of the children that live in the United States do not live in a food secure environment. This means that around 1 in every 5 children in the U.S is potentially at risk for all the physical and mental health complications that come with malnourishment, and one of the most noticeable things these cognitive deficits can effect is their school performance.

The impact of malnutrition. The severity of the problem should not be measured in percentage of total population alone though. Even something as seemingly minor as 9.3% of the population being undernourished can, in a place like China, still equate to over 130 million people. And this is even more troubling when we take into account the effect this issue can have on children. Aside from the short-term physical implications of malnutrition for a young and developing individual, such as immune and growth deficiencies, malnutrition can also have long-term effects on the brain. Over the course of a child's neural development, an inadequate supply of nutrients can cause a wide range of cognitive deficiencies that can affect them for the rest of their lives. A deficiency in iron, for example, has been associated with lower cognitive scores, slower speed of processing, and even altered socioemotional behaviors.

Breakfast is Vital for Children

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day - this is something that many of us have grown up hearing time and time again. While this claim has definitely been challenged in recent years, the importance of adequate nutrition for day to day functioning has not. Unfortunately, knowledge of what is good for you isn't the main issue that needs to be overcome to address the main obstacle to undernourishment around the world: it's a lack of access to resources.

While breakfast might not be the most important meal of the day from a purely nutritional standpoint, it can be a vital service for a school to offer its students that might have no other means of getting the daily nutrients they need. The School Breakfast Program is one program that provides such a service, sometimes in conjunction with the National School Lunch Program. By providing families in need with reduced-price (or sometimes even free) meals, our school systems can help create lasting changes for these children's futures.

How Schools Can Address Hunger and Food Insecurity

Schools offer programs that can and do get results. Just this year, Massachusetts schools received the Healthy Start Awards from the Eos Foundation for reaching a breakfast participation rate of 80% or higher through their school programs.

Some programs have also tried some additional modifications to make their breakfast programs even more effective. For example, the Breakfast in the Classroom program in New York allows students to eat their morning meals even if they don't manage to come in before classes start.

Feeding America has a School Pantry Program that helps food pantries connect with local school campuses to not only combine resources and keep students fed, but also allow these resources to be provided after school hours, in some cases. The School Pantry Program even has a Summer Food Service Program that allows students to have access to nutritious meals and snacks even when school is not in session.

How CEI is Involved

CEI is partnering on a project to promote youth problem-solving around issues related to hunger, food insecurity, waste, and water quality. We have helped to develop a 4-6 week curriculum (16 lessons) for 6th-8th grade students. CEI is currently awarding $500 stipends for teachers who want to implement this and are willing to provide us some basic feedback on the program ( applications are due by Oct. 31).  The Food Insecurity Curriculum: From Our Farms to Our Communities to Our Tables is a highly engaging curriculum that will be useful in helping student understand philanthropy and private, public, and civic responsibility. The Curriculum, including implementation guidelines and handouts is available at the CEI website

Sound-Conscious Learning Environments
By Amber Nicole Dilger, CEI Intern
Consider the "Sounds of Silence." What does silence sound like? Is it a stillness? Or a void? How do you feel when you are surrounded with silence? Are you at peace or on edge? Are you more aware of your breath? More mindful of yourself or others? Paul Simon describes how he composed The Sounds of Silence, which was written 3 months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. "I used to go off in the bathroom, because the bathroom had tiles, so it was a slight echo chamber. I'd turn on the faucet so that water would run (I like that sound, it's very soothing to me) and I'd play. In the dark. 'Hello darkness, my old friend / I've come to talk with you again'." Those first few strains speak volumes.

What is the role of silence in learning? We know that exercise, sleep, and healthy bodies are crucial to the optimum development of our brains. We also know that we can work to train our minds to be focused and mindful in a variety of situations. Educators seek to create spaces where the best learning can occur and will benefit by considering the role of silence, including the potential to plan for and enhance classroom experiences with silence.

The Neuroscience Behind Silence

In our daily lives we are so bombarded with sounds that we tend to tune out most of them on a conscious level. It can be detrimental to imagine that we're not affected subconsciously by it all, though. Studies show that engaging in silence can lead to the development of new brain cells as well as allow the default mode network of the brain to be activated. This allows the brain to empathize with others and make meaning from experiences, including engaging in creative thought and problem solving. Studies also show that utilizing the restorative properties of silence is more powerful than using relaxing music. When life starts to feel overwhelming, or if thinking needs to be shaken up, allowing the brain to have a slight shift in auditory environments is highly useful. Silence, especially in instances like these, is golden.

Incorporating Silence in Classrooms and Schools

Teachers and school administrators have a myriad of ways to plan for and incorporate silence in schools. These range from considering silence in hallways, to having silent zones in classrooms and libraries. Silence can be infused to meet the needs of individual children or as a group practice. Here are a few ideas to help guide your practice:

Modifying Public Areas
Mitigating sound in traditionally noisy and echo-filled areas, such as large hallways, cafeterias, and gymnasiums, is an important consideration when controlling volume levels in learning environments. Also, adjusting the sound levels of classroom spaces is something that can contribute greatly to better learning. Modifying the level of ambient sounds and reverberations doesn't need to be an expensive undertaking, although with a larger budget more aesthetic choices will be possible. Acoustical foam can be easily installed on walls and comes in a variety of colors. Baffles made with cloth and other soft materials can be integrated as art installations. School tapestries and group quilts can be assembled and hung to celebrate notable accomplishments.

Quiet Spaces in Classrooms
Creating a quiet space for students to use within each classroom 
is a simple and effective way to encourage a personally directed sense of self-care and self-control. Having an area set aside that provides a safe "brain break" can be utilized with students of all ages. Helping students learn how to recognize the feeling of being overwhelmed and providing the powerful tool of a calm space to immediately work through the feeling is a valuable tool set to help in all aspects of life.

Quiet Rooms in the School
On a slightly larger scale, spaces can be created where sound seems to disappear. Acoustic design can be integrated into a special room so that most sound waves are quickly absorbed and very few are left to activate the ear. Anyone needing a respite from perceived chaos would benefit from access to this spellbinding otherness of true quiet. This is also the perfect environment to lure the brain out of a pattern of rumination. A genuinely quiet space is an ideal place to practice mindfulness and redirecting awareness. Such extreme quiet doesn't exist in nature, and the attention shift is palpable as the brain becomes acutely aware of the distinction.

It is important to consider the amount of noise that might enter through gaps around doors, and be aware of exceptionally noisy areas directly connected to the space. Also, utilizing a space that is large enough to feel physically comfortable is important. Many people will feel claustrophobic in a very small area, so a closet, for example, would not be a good choice. Libraries are logical places to co-adopt a special quiet space, and the music department could also be a compelling area of the school to create a soundless room.

Silence Caveat

Is it possible to go too far with creating silence? Yes, but it's unlikely with a limited budget. Our brains function best with some sound input and going to the extent of an extreme anechoic chamber like Microsoft's 2015 Guinness World Record Quietest Place
, can actually do more harm than good. Overall, being aware of the interplay of sound and silence throughout the learning environment can have a considerable impact on the effectiveness of our schools.

Integrating Music

It is worth noting in our discussion of silence, that its relative... the organized sounds and silence of music... can also be an effective tool in our learning environments. Music is a proven way to affect both mood and the immune system, and choosing background music or songs the students sing to accompany transition periods can have a powerful influence on the atmosphere of the school.  In the classroom, it can also be a highly effective tool to test and increase memory retention and retrieval (See the CEI blog article: Rhythm in Your Classroom)
, but it is important that it is used intentionally and not as the default environment if at all possible. All music is a potential distraction and should be used in a thoughtful manner.

Steps You Can Take Today

The best first step for you to take is literally to walk through your school. During the busy, noisy times of transition, plant yourself in an inconspicuous spot and notice everything you can. How does the sound make you feel? Then visit rooms where classes are underway, especially when there's activity in nearby areas. Are there lots of distracting sounds? Is it hard to hear the teacher? If everything sounds good, look for clues in the room set-up that help manage the sound in that space. Are they things that can be easily replicated in other rooms that might have more sound issues? When you integrate silence you may find that students, just like Paul Simon, are better able to reflect, consider, and even create. Perhaps part of the magic is in the balance of sound with silence. The ideal ratio or pacing and addition of moments of silence may vary for each individual, however, adding moments of silence can add a critical dimension to further reflection, self-knowledge, awareness of others, and learning.

Other CEI articles that you might find helpful relating to this topic include:
Music and Brain Science
Twice Exceptional Children: Guidance on Identification and Stimulating Thinking
By Mahnaz Ahrary, CEI Intern and Christine Mason 
Fewer Schools Are Implementing Programs for Gifted Students

In the last two decades, even with the focus on higher academic achievement and critical thinking, gifted education has been virtually ignored. The prevalent thinking has been to prepare all students to higher levels rather than focus on tracks such as the IB (International Baccalaureate) track for a small percentage of students. A report from a summit conducted by the National Association of Gifted Education (Olszewski-Kubilius & Clarenbach, 2012), describes "a tenuous commitment to gifted education in the US," with no federal law requiring districts to provide services to gifted students, and widely varying policies and programs. In 2010-2011, only four states fully funded services for gifted education; between 2011-2014, 14 states reduced funding for these programs.

Students in Poverty are Under-represented in Gifted Ed. According to NACG summit participant, students living in poverty, including students from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds, often are underserved in gifted education. Several barriers stand in the way of providing services to these students including:
  • Failure to use multiple assessments (tests and portfolios) that are holistic and consider
  • Reliance on nominations from teachers who have no training gifted education
  • A conceptualization of giftedness as already achieved outcomes rather than viewing potential. (Olszewki-Kublius & Clarenbach, 2012)
Students who are Twice Exceptional. A related concern in serving gifted students, and the primary focus of this article involves students who are twice exceptional. Students who are twice exceptional (gifted with a disability) also have unique needs that are often not addressed in traditional programs. The reasons for this are varied; however, sometimes the disability masks giftedness. Sometimes the disability is identified first, and teachers and others have lower expectations of a child. However, sometimes the giftedness is recognized first and then children are not provided services since they are not living up to their potential. In either case, there are certain factors that suggest that a child might be twice exceptional:
  • Propensity for advanced-level content,
  • a desire to create original products,
  • a facility with enjoyment of abstract concepts,
  • nonlinear learning styles,
  • task commitment in areas of talent and interest,
  • a heightened sensitivity to failure or injustice. (Baum et al., 2009)
Baum and his colleagues (2009) described four students who were twice exceptional. For example, Debbie who did not read well, was able to demonstrate what she learned was still able about life in the colonial times by using her acting ability. Tim, who could not sit still, conducted a long-term experiment using graphs and charts to learn about plant growth. 

Characteristics & Curriculum Suggestions

The dilemma is not simply how to identify students' potential, but how to design classroom experiences that motivate a child or help the child to develop that potential.
  • Imagine the impact on the self-esteem of a child who has lived the last few years of his life being told that he does not have the capacity to complete any assignments, but realizes that in learning about the anatomy of a frog, he is suddenly motivated to delve deeper and deeper into biological processes, despite his difficulties in mathematics.
  • Alternatively, imagine a student who despises writing but continues to demonstrate intellect by participating in philosophical class discussions to share her thought provoking ideas
In any school day, teachers see many examples of students with identified learning disabilities displaying not only interest but proclivity towards certain subjects or projects. Accompanying this proclivity may even be an adeptness in handling certain subject matter or activities. However, sometimes gifted students may also demonstrate difficulties with learning. This could include deficits in reading or math, difficulty with spelling and handwriting, a hard time expressing themselves, lack of organization, an inability to focus and sustain attention, ineptness with social interaction, or last but not least, the lack of self-confidence or issues with self-esteem. Though the needs of such students are paradoxical and complex in nature, they can be met through infusing the specific curricular modifications for each category of weaknesses and strengths. For example,
  • A student who has limited math and reading skills, may simultaneously have a desire for advanced-level content, which will require an alternate means to access information (technology-based perhaps).
  • Or if a student has difficulty with spelling and handwriting, the student may require alternate ways to express ideas and create products.
  • Students with inappropriate social interaction have a need to identify with others that share talents or interests and therefore will benefit from being grouped with those they identify with (based on talent or ability).
  • Students with low self-esteem are usually very sensitive to failure and need to be consistently recognized for their accomplishments, whereas those with inability to focus have specific need for intellectual challenges based on their individual interests and require interest-based curriculum.
  • Some gifted students also display language deficits in verbal communication and conceptualization because they prefer the facility of abstract concepts. These students may benefit from visual and kinesthetic experiences to convey those abstract ideas.
  • Students with attention deficits sometimes display poor organization; however a twice exceptional student with attention deficits might display creative nonlinear styles of thinking and learning, and benefit from using visual organization schemes like time lines, and flow charts. (Baum et al., 2009)

Through the Lens of Innovators & Contributors

With the intent to discover potential, the "Famous Five" exercise was introduced by Jarvis (2009) to help educators think about curriculum as a response to diverse profiles of twice exceptional students. The idea is to view your students against the profiles of distinguished and prominent individuals who have contributed to many different fields. Jarvis believes that through biographical research that such characters can be understood. Some of the figures referred to are Leonardi DaVinci, Niels Bohr, and Albert Einstein.

The "Famous Five" exercise suggests that the teacher base his/her curriculum on how a set of prominent figures (past or present) would react to the current instruction and make modifications as necessary. The end goal is developing a change in perception that will lead to a change in approach and instruction for each individual student. Envisioning pioneers, thinkers, and innovators will help teachers better understand the potential of the of twice exceptional students in their classroom. 

The basic steps follow:
  1. Select five prominent figures (past or present) who have contributed significantly to a field related to the discipline for which the curriculum has been developed, keeping diversity in mind, and list their strengths and weaknesses, level of engagement in school, outside school experiences, and cultural and socioeconomic background.
  2. Construct a short narrative or list of each individual's strengths, characteristics, and needs for each age level for which the curriculum is designed, not worrying so much about biographical accuracy (due to the difficulty in finding accounts of individuals' early school experiences)
  3. Systematic "test" the curriculum against the five "student" profiles. Evaluate the curriculum and address the questions: a) Would the curriculum provide sufficient challenge to allow the individual to progress in his or her areas of evident advanced ability? b) Would the curriculum address the individual's areas of strength (based on his or her later accomplishments) that might not be evident at this time? c) Does the curriculum provide him or her with the opportunity to work in an area of interest that is likely to ignite a passion for one or more aspects of the field? d) What supports should be provided for this student to allow him or her to perform at the highest possible level? e) What modifications to the curriculum are indicated by the responses to (a)-(d)?
This process should be followed for each one of the five individuals selected. Jarvis states that the result should be a curriculum that works more effectively to challenge advanced students to perform at higher levels and provide the opportunities needed for the development of diverse potential while providing the right support. Of course no profile can ever fully substitute knowing each individual student, but it can help with how children who are categorized by teachers only for their disability, are perceived as far as existing potential. 

Creating Optimal Learning Conditions

Each child is indeed a phenomenon in his/her own right. To create optimal learning conditions for twice exceptional children involves not only identifying strengths and gifts as well as areas of difficulties, but also considering ways to approach curriculum instruction so that the child's gifts and strengths drive learning. Such an approach may help to keep students motivated and enthusiastic about learning, as well as fulfill a mission to further learning for each individual student.


Baum, S. M., Cooper, C. R., & Neu, T. W. (2001). Dual differentiation: An approach for meeting
the curricular needs of gifted students with learning disabilities. Psychol. Schs. Psychology in the Schools, 38(5), 477-490. doi:10.1002/pits.1036

Jarvis, J. M. (2009). Planning to unmask potential through responsive curriculum: The "Famous
Five" exercise. Roeper Review, 31(4), 234-241. doi:10.1080/02783190903177606

Olszewski-Kubilius, P. & Clarenbach, J. (2012). Unlocking emergent talent. Washington, DC: National Association for Gifted Education.

Brain-based Environments

In this article of Wow!, we suggested that there is more to 21st century instruction than science and technology, and more to brain-based learning than instructional games. Some of what we are learning from neuroscience simply confirms common knowledge and thinking. If children are hungry, there are long-term implications for learning, health, and well-being and there is a cumulative impact of malnutrition. If students are bombarded with stimuli, as they are today, perhaps the role of silence in the classroom is increasing in importance. If students are likely to think outside the box, they are also likely to need access to some outside the box curricula and instruction.

What is your school doing to provide a double-check on creating optimal learning? Our three examples are representative of three domains: basic health and security, the surrounding environment, and individual student capabilities, aptitudes, and interests - three broad domains to check when planning for optimal instruction and learning.


Christine Mason
Center for Educational Improvement