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This blog explores, from multiple perspectives, gifted education in general and The Avery Coonley School experience in particular. Welcome to the conversation!


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Un Voyage d'une Vie

Posted By Christopher Portman, Tuesday, October 18, 2016
Updated: Tuesday, October 18, 2016

What is it like to be immersed in another culture?

Four members of the ACS Class of 2017 found out this summer as they travelled to Toulouse, France, for a true immersion experience. The students stayed with French families and experienced daily life with them, including attending classes at the Collège Privé Joseph Niel in Muret (a parochial K-9 school near Toulouse). The trip, which is open to ACS students in the summer following Seventh Group, is part of an ongoing relationship that our French teachers Denise Clivaz and Elizabeth Roberts have established with the French school.

The relationship is reciprocal – each October the ACS community hosts students and teachers from the Joseph Niel school and introduces them to life in the U.S. This year’s visit is drawing to a close. Our visitors return to France today after a ten-day experience that included a walking tour of Chicago, a scavenger hunt throughout Downers Grove, a field trip to Naper Settlement, visits to beaches and pumpkin farms and soccer practices, and much, much more. The French students also spent parts of several days at ACS, attending classes with their American buddies. Thank you to the host families for making this experience possible!

Here are some of our students’ reflections from their trip to France in June:

Cette été, j’ai visité Muret, un banlieue de Toulouse.  It was a great experience and I learned a lot.  C’etait amusant quand on est allé au Toulouse.  We visited a cathedral, saw the Airbus Museum, and walked around downtown.  À la maison de mon ami français Estelle, j’ai joué beaucoup avec Estelle et sa petit soeur, qui s’appelle Blandine.  Blandine, Estelle and I picked cherries, jumped rope, played in the garden, and ate lots of French bread!  Pour les diners, la mère d’Estelle a cuisine les fruits de mer, les viandes, les legumes, et beaucoup d’autre choses et c’etait très delicieux.  The whole family ate together.  Avec Estelle, Blandine, moi, et la mère d’Estelle, aussi il y avait Olivier, le frère d’Estelle, et le père d’Estelle.  I had a great time in France, living the life of Estelle and learning new words every day! (Grace)

 Bonjour.  Je m’appelle Henri.  My French trip was an incredible experience and I feel that I learned a great deal about the French culture over the course of the trip.  One of my favorite memories was going to the aviation museum and walking around in downtown Toulouse.  C’est trés amusement!  Another enjoyable experience was when my French host family took me to Carcassonne and we toured the fortress and the grounds. J’aime ça!  Overall, I had an amazing experience and I am really glad that I participated in this student exchange.  I look forward to hosting my French friend soon!  Au Revoir! (Henry)

Going to France as an exchange student was the experience of a lifetime.  It was better than any vacation - I got to be French for the time I was there.  In Toulouse, the city where I stayed, we went on ropes courses, visited French markets, enjoyed French cheeses, and much more!  I ate delicious food.  My favorite was the pain au chocolate, or chocolatine, and I learned new foods like mimolette, the best cheese ever!. I even helped make crème brûlée - we blowtorched the top of it to melt the caramel on the top. On the first night I was in France, we watched the first fütball game of the Euro, a fütball tournament for Europe that was held in France this year. Touring Toulouse, we got to see many notable buildings and ate lunch on benches near the banks of the river flowing under the enormous, or tres grand, bridge.  It was very exciting seeing French classes and playing French games.  On the last day I was in the French school, we had American Day! Every trip has to end, but I made sure to get my French buddy’s phone number. I guess you could say this was un voyage d'une vie, a trip of a lifetime.  (Saurav)

Here’s a video overview of some of the many things that our French friends experienced during their time with us.



Tags:  French exchange; diversity; multiculturalisim 

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Crossing Borders

Posted By Administration, Friday, October 7, 2016

“What three words come to mind when you think of modern Germany?”  I was asked this summer.  Typical answers include Hitler; World War II; maybe the Berlin Wall.  These … are not exactly wrong answers, but limited ones.  As the cultural institute of Germany, The Goethe-Institut seeks to broaden people’s understanding of German politics and society beyond these notions, through programs that “encourage intercultural dialogue and enable cultural involvement”.   

To this end, the Goethe Institute runs the Transatlantic Outreach Program (TOP), which supports teachers’ efforts to globalize their own curricula.  It sends almost one hundred educators to Germany each summer on a series of two-week study tours.  I was chosen to be a 2016 TOP Fellow, and departed for Germany soon after graduation in June.  Each cohort follows a rigorous schedule, which is loosely organized around a particular theme; ours was the power of borders.  Along the way we visited schools, met with government and non-profit leaders, and toured prominent sites.

The former border between East and West Germany casts a long shadow; we sensed it everywhere.  Mid-way through our trip we stopped in Geisa, a village far off the tourist path, but whose proximity to the East-West border places it firmly in the throes of the Cold War.  A mere mile and a half west of its cobblestoned square lies Point Alpha: one of the likeliest spots for a Soviet invasion of Western Germany, should it have happened.  Here, across a border of barbed wire rigged with an automatic firing system (on the East German side), U.S. Army and Soviet troops sat and watched each other, forbidden to speak because the consequences of a misunderstanding were far too high. 

While the global ramifications of this border were huge, the immediate impact on the local communities was devastating.  The vagaries of the ways in which they drew the border meant that one local family’s house was even split in two – they were required to choose which side of the house – and thus, which country – to live in, and wall off their own access to the other side.  Friends and families everywhere were split from each other for decades, and those who chose to cross illegally faced imprisonment and, possibly, death.  Walking along Point Alpha’s reconstructed “anti-fascist protective border,” as it was called in East Germany, I felt the power of such an arbitrary division in ways I never had internalized through years of study.

Twenty-four hours later, we disembarked in Friedland.  Another little known town, it too has sat in the epicenter of modern European history, as it contains the longest continuously-running refugee camp in Germany: the Friedland Transit Camp.  Following World War II, it was set up to manage the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people throughout Germany.  During the Cold War, it was often the first stopping point for ethnic-Germans fleeing other communist countries; today, it houses Syrian, Afghani, and North African refugees awaiting their permanent settlements elsewhere in Germany. 

The day before, we had walked in the footsteps of those who risked their lives trying to escape East Germany to West.  In Friedland, we had the chance to tour the first stopping point for families who took similar risks to find a new life, away from violence and repression in their home countries.  A fellow teacher had come prepared with German language-learning coloring books; I had coincidentally gone to Germany with a box of ACS colored pencils, not knowing to whom I might give them.  We handed these out to kids who continued to emerge from the housing units until we ran out, and we desperately wished we had thought to bring more. 

This too was a theme: the desire to do more; to see more; to learn more.  Like all investigations and good research projects, we each came away with more questions than answers.  How do you rebuild a country, devastated by war and fascism?  How do you dissolve a border between two countries that have developed on such separate political and economic paths for decades?  How can a country maintain its cultural traditions while welcoming those with such different traditions and points of view?  There are no easy answers. 

Instead, my mind is drawn to the Friedland Migration Museum, and one particularly poignant exhibit on the post-World War II German Red Cross’s efforts to reunite missing children with their families, before the era of digital databases.  In one of the few successful efforts to work across the pernicious East-West border, with persistence and hard work, thousands were ultimately brought back together. 

And so I leave you with my final “first three words” from the end of the trip: problem-solving; forward-thinking; humane.  Germany has a deep and troubling history, and still has many faults, but in recent decades it has chosen to look at its own challenges squarely and thoughtfully, to identify solutions, and then to take action.

by Alice Brown, Social Studies Teacher & Department Chair


Karen Krzystof Bansley and I, with a few of the children at the Friedland Camp.

 Attached Thumbnails:

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My Boarding School Journey

Posted By Yaseen Ahmed '15, Sunday, October 2, 2016

When I was in Lower School at ACS, I remember hearing classmates’ conversations about boarding school and being perplexed. I couldn’t grasp why anybody would ever willingly leave home before they had to and was looking forward to attending my local high school, Naperville North, with my cousins and family friends. While a few extended family members had gone to boarding school, it really didn’t seem like something my immediate family would ever even consider.

As the end of Sixth Group approached, I started receiving mailings from various high schools both nearby and from all over the country, and would casually leaf through them when I was cleaning off my desk, although I never actually considered applying anywhere. But when I received a packet of information from Phillips Exeter, I perked up when I read how socioeconomically diverse its student body was, and read the catchphrase “Imagine a school where it’s cool to be smart” as an indicator that it would be a natural progression from ACS. Included in the packet was a personalized invitation to an intimate reception at a Chicago public library. After wolfing down the school’s brochures instead of working on homework, I brought the reception up to my parents and asked if we could attend and learn more about this foreign world, although the three of us acknowledged that it wasn’t necessarily a serious consideration. When we got to the reception, we were lucky to be among only five prospective students and their parents, all of whom seemed rather new to the boarding school bubble. As we chatted, the admissions officer painted a vivid picture of the school’s environment and the education I could potentially receive, answering any questions we could dream up. In the two hours that we were there, I drew closer and closer to the idea that one day it was possible, although likely improbable, for me to experience a school like this for myself.

One grueling application process and two visits to the Exeter campus made going to school there seem that much more of a reality, although I still was unsure of whether or not I’d even get in when I clicked the “Submit” button on my application. I’d decided to not let myself get my hopes up, so I was ecstatic to find an email on my phone two months later as we drove past a Portillo’s on a Teacher Institute Monday. My finger hovered over my phone for a second in hesitation before taking a nosedive onto my screen. Upon seeing a big red “Congratulations,” a “Mom” formed through my grin.

Six months later, I finally stepped out of the car on Elliot Street, right behind Webster Hall, where I would be spending the next four years. That day was filled with waves of new faces, names, and jargon being thrown my way. Looming over me was a tsunami of uncertainty. Uncertainty as to how I’d do in class, uncertainty as to whether I’d make friends, but above all, uncertainty as to whether I should even be there. My thoughts on boarding school reverted to what they had been when I was a little kid. I missed my teachers and classmates from ACS, I missed the environment of a small school, but above all, I missed my family. While overcoming apprehension and striking up conversations with classmates, however, I started to make friends through my dorm, classes, and mutual acquaintances. As the year passed, the friendships I’d made strengthened exponentially, and I gradually started to get to know more of the campus’s population. By the end of a month, I felt more confident than ever and was psyched for the rest of the year.

As I start my 10th Grade year and see my younger siblings off to their respective schools, I am looking forward to another great year at Exeter. It has been an amazing journey!

~ Yaseen Ahmed, ACS Class of 2015



Tags:  boarding school  secondary school placement 

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The Maple Avenue Address

Posted By Christopher Portman, Friday, September 30, 2016
Updated: Friday, September 30, 2016

Four score and seven years ago, Queene Ferry Coonley brought forth on this forest preserve a new school, conceived in literacy, and dedicated to the proposition that all children are naturally curious learners.

Now we are engaged in a great mission committed to the talents and needs of gifted students. It is a cause built squarely upon our founder’s principles and dreams.

We honor today Mrs. Coonley and all those who came before us, those women and men who have worked so hard and the children whose energy and love have made ACS so special. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot, we should not, we must not simply glorify the past. Our predecessors brought forth a living, evolving entity called The Avery Coonley School. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the present and the future members of the ACS family, to be dedicated to the ongoing work which has thus far been so nobly advanced. That we here highly resolve that our forebears shall not have toiled in vain, that The Avery Coonley School will remain a garden of happy memories, a home away from home, a transformative foundation, a place unlike any other, a child’s world.

~ September 30, 2016

(Thank you to Blake Glidden ’87 and Erin Portman ’07 for help with the text.)

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The Importance of Early Academics

Posted By Administration, Monday, September 26, 2016

When one hears the word preschooler it connotes the idea that children are involved in activities prior to school or outside of a school setting.  As a society, we question the necessity of sending our youngest learners to school rather than to a daycare environment.  The thought exists that education for three- and four-year-olds is “just play.”  How can a person justify the time and money for an academic preschool program when higher education costs are so expensive? 

Let’s view education as analogous to a construction project.  Consider the building of a house.  Early educational experiences serve as the foundation for the building.  Without a solid base, the structure crumbles partway through and needs to be remediated to progress further.  Though it takes a significant amount of time to complete the foundation, it is imperative to the overall integrity of the structure.  If the builder cuts corners or tries to skip steps, there is typically a negative consequence. As it is with education:  without laying the groundwork with plentiful multi-sensory, hands-on experiences, learning desire and even competency can falter.  

As adults, we often view education in content areas, so let’s look at different curricular areas to see how preschool programs support and enhance each subject.   Scientific inquiry begins with noticing and questioning.  At ACS, a walk through the forest with a collection basket brings a multitude of science into the classroom.  The scientific method is simplified to “ask, do, and record,” which builds the pathway for future scientific discovery.  Math concepts also mature on a developmental timeline.  The concept of number begins with using concrete objects that can be manipulated to gain a solid understanding of more, less, and equal.  The concrete stage is followed by the connecting level (objects plus written numerals) and progresses to the symbolic level, which we typically think of as solving equations. Experiencing math is much different than memorizing math facts and builds a strong basis for higher level math reasoning. Likewise, the early childhood experiences of telling stories, hearing and creating rhymes, and playing with sounds in music and poetry all lead children down the path of literacy development and help to “crack the code” of reading. In preschool, children also foster the growth of written communication skills by drawing pictures, dictating descriptions, and connecting sounds with letters to tell stories. The ACS preschool program places a high priority on literacy and mathematics by providing center activities, small group instruction, individualized conferencing, and developmentally appropriate lessons to target foundational skills such as observation, articulation, and interpretation.

Beyond gaining this essential academic foundation, early childhood education programs cultivate a myriad of other “soft” cognitive skills.  Because preschool furnishes the opportunity for children to explore, investigate, and delve into situations with peers, children can experience learning as an adventure.  Developing flexibility of thought and appropriate responses to conflict occur naturally when interacting with peers. When children have preschool experience, they build the ability to take risks as learners and to learn from their struggles.  For three- and four-year-old children, playtime is the most beneficial time of the day.  It is not a break from learning but rather learning itself.  Experts are in place who know when to scaffold and when to step back, so that through dramatic play situations, children can practice conflict resolution, compromise, and delayed gratification.  Moreover, play allows them to see cause-effect relationships, develop sequencing strategies, and categorize objects and thoughts. 

The vast majority of early childhood education is experiential.  Through multi-sensory activities, children attach meaning to abstract ideas, relate prior knowledge to new concepts or events, make connections and generalizations, analyze their environment, and synthesize information – all with the teachers’ guidance and support.  To help illustrate this point, we can examine some core components of the ACS Junior Kindergarten program.  The structure of the day is designed to provide security and a safe learning environment that bolsters risk-taking and increases communication between students and teachers.  The children begin the day at the “Welcome Mat.”  Choice is built into this social interaction as the children select a greeting of a hug, handshake, wave, or high-five to start the day.  In a non-threatening and supportive environment, the children individually read through the daily sign-in sentence and place their name card in the corresponding graphing chart.  Although the exchange is brief, this scaffolded approach to learning builds foundational academic skills such as word boundaries, one-to-one correspondence, and graph interpretation.  A second part to the daily routine boosts executive function skills.  With the teacher, children outline a play plan.  Students choose to attend featured activities during a 45- to 60-minute time block.  The activities highlight varying learning modalities (artistic, musical, dramatic, kinesthetic, tactile, construction, large motor, mathematical, linguistic, and strategic).  In order to support the growth of planning, sequencing, and follow-through, the children pick which centers they want to attend and move their picture card on a chart that tracks their choices.  At the conclusion of center time, the teachers conference with each child to review the activities; this allows them to learn about the student’s preferred learning styles and guide future growth.  Through scaffolded social interactions such as these, the students develop skills of cooperation, self-regulation, and resilience that have impacts far beyond early childhood. 

There may be a temptation to believe higher education is more important that preschool education because there is a tangible measure of success upon completion—the diploma.  Nevertheless, this final accomplishment is set in motion by preschool education.  Engaging in meaningful learning with peers at a young age sets the stage for investigative mindsets, perseverant attitudes, and collaborative problem-solving abilities.  Children learn about their world and develop character by interacting and engaging in preschool activities.  Robert Fulghum’s book All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten could easily be re-titled Preschool Made Me Who I Am Today. 

Lisa Wiltz
ACS Early School Co-Coordinator and Junior Kindergarten Teacher

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Gifted Education - What, How, and Why

Posted By Administration, Friday, September 16, 2016

On its surface, the expression of our mission sounds quite simple – to provide an appropriate learning environment for gifted learners. The complexity arises, of course, when we look more deeply at what exactly this means, how we go about doing it and, perhaps most importantly of all, why it matters.

I am very excited that we will be spending much of our collective energy this year asking – and, I hope – answering those questions.

This summer, our entire faculty and staff read Christine Fonseca’s Emotional Intensity in Gifted Students, and we are using her work as a focal point for discussions. We are also encouraging our parents to join this “big read” as well, and our Home and School Association will host a parent discussion on the book in November. There will be a number of other conversations throughout the year, involving all of our constituencies, on the special talents and needs of gifted students. All of this will enable us to become even better at fostering those talents and meeting those needs.

We are especially excited to welcome Linda Silverman, a renowned expert on gifted education, to campus on February 2, 2017, for an evening presentation to our community; she will also lead a staff workshop the following day.  Mark your calendars now! As you can see from Ms. Silverman’s own blog, it will be a highly informative and thought-provoking visit. It was clear to me at our opening meetings this year that our faculty and staff are excited to commence the school year and are eager to continue their own educational journeys around the delivery of our mission. With the launching of a new year, and our new blog, I share the excitement and anticipation of another great year on Maple Avenue!

Paul Druzinsky, Head of School

Tags:  gifted education 

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"A Learning Space" Debuts

Posted By Christopher Portman, Thursday, September 8, 2016

Welcome to “A Learning Space,” the new Avery Coonley School blog!

The name, of course, is a nod to our Third Group learning spaces, which have been an iconic part of our campus landscape since their construction in 1970. But the name also speaks to the goals of the blog – to create a virtual space in and through which we can all share thoughts, ideas, and insights and, by doing so, learn from each other.

At a recent meeting of ACS faculty and staff, Anna Lenhardt, our beloved Middle School Head, quoted Stephen Covey and reminded us that “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Our “main thing,” of course, is to foster the talents and meet the needs of gifted students in the best and most effective ways possible. The how and why behind that are broad, multi-faceted questions and are worthy, we believe, of an ongoing dialogue among all interested parties.

This “Learning Space” will be one forum for this conversation. The blog will feature a wide variety of voices, both through posts and, we hope, comments by readers – the more perspectives we share, the greater our collective wisdom. Not all posts will relate directly to gifted education, but all will comment in some way on the ACS experience and will thereby illuminate, in ways small or big, our main thing.

For nearly fifty years, in both form and function, our Third Group learning spaces have been a beehive of activity. Let us emulate that success in this virtual learning space!





Tags:  ACS  Avery Coonley School  gifted education  learning space 

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