During a lesson on Dante, Dr. Matthew McConnell asked his humanities students what they imagined hell was like. The children described features and characteristics typically associated with hell — darkness, fire, and heat — until one of them said, "It's like my previous school." Some of the students laughed, others didn't, but all of them nodded in understanding.
I too couldn't help but nod. My middle school years were the most difficult, pointless, and painful time of my childhood. The lessons were boring, the teachers were indifferent, and the students were bullies. I did well academically, but it felt impossible for me to connect with others.
That was 40 years ago — long before people were familiar with concepts like twice-exceptionality. There were no nuances to explain my situation: Adults considered me a clever boy and my classmates thought I was odd.
These childhood experiences inspired me to found Le Sallay International Academy in Central France, a place where twice-exceptional middle school children from all over the world come and thrive.
Before opening Le Sallay, I ran an an educational summer camp called Marabou, which began with a math focus and expanded into a full range of educational offerings for 150-200 campers each year.
Many students came from expensive private schools that, according to their parents, failed to provide the supportive environment of our summer camp.
"Our child is unhappy," they said "But in your camp they feel great. In school they don't get along with classmates, but in your camp they make friends. In school they're bored, but your camp is exciting for them."
Over the years these complaints have become a common refrain among parents of 2e students. Their children feel unchallenged by middle school curriculum and they become bored, restless, and unhappy.
In our program, high school teachers and college professors teach the classes with only slightly adapted material, not to simplify the notions, but to avoid specialized terminology. We also use play-based and gamified methods. For instance, when children solve math problems, they get to make an extra move in a game.
We also invent activities that allow kids to participate directly in the class. For instance, instead of passively listening to a lecture on the French Revolution, students organize a mock parliament where they divide into factions and argue the same issues Jacobins and Girondins debated at the end of the 18th century.
As a result, our students become very involved in the educational process. Learning becomes more complex, but also more interesting and rewarding. When learning is exciting, they feel more capable and learn to love what their doing.
The approach at Le Sallay was derived in part from our successes with Marabou. We made our curriculum as rich and stimulating as possible while also keeping it personalized. Our children study in multi-age groups, so one student might end up doing math with older kids and literature with younger kids, or vice versa.
Though our school is open to all children, our 2e population in particular thrives in an environment where we set goals to help them develop an understanding of their capacities and needs. Our camp counselors and psychologists — led by school co-founder Ekaterina Kadieva, who has published many articles on 2e kids and their parents — undergo specialized training to bring about the aims of our program.
The great work of the counselors is a chief driver of student engagement. They create games that are specifically designed to introduce the children to each other so that no one feels like an outsider. The games also seek to highlight each child's strengths while giving them a chance to unwind through active play. Other students may choose a role that gives them some peace and quiet while still being a part of a team. This isn't an easy dynamic to maintain. Teachers quickly realize how these essential functions help 2e students feel included and involved, as they discover the possibility of connecting with others. Over the years we've helped many kids overcome the horrible feeling of exclusion which I remember so well from my own time in middle school.
For one student, a young woman with autism who was homeschooled due to social anxiety, our camp program afforded an opportunity to gain confidence. Over time she developed the ability to speak passionately about her interests to her peers. Her parents said she expressed the desire to be around other kids more, including going to school — if the school was like Marabou.
But the camp atmosphere, where children are together from morning until night, affords more opportunities for resources and support than a day school. Boarding schools are somewhat well equipped to maintain atmospheres conducive to psychological growth, but most of them are traditional programs geared for neurotypical students. Moreover, students who came to Marabou, who were in their pre-teens, shouldn't be separated from their families for extended periods of time.
We found the perfect solution in a blended learning model. Students alternate between in-person and online learning over three trimesters. Each trimester begins with a three-week educational camp in France, then students continue their studies online in small groups that comprise the same teachers and classmates they met in person. At the end of the year, students return to Le Sallay to conclude the academic cycle.
This model enables us to hire the best teachers from all over the world, including those who specialize in working with 2e students. Unlike a regular or a boarding school, we don't need to relocate the teachers to the campus.
Of course, we had many concerns, primarily about the online component. Will the children attend classes regularly? Might they experience computer fatigue? Will they feel lonely from only seeing their classmates online?
We have found that most children adapt readily to online classes. Many of our 2e students, especially those with sensory issues, excel in this format because they have more control over the stimuli in their environment. For instance, if they want to hum a tune while solving a math problem, they can switch off their mic as to not disturb the others. Or if they feel like moving or sitting in an unusual position, they can do so without potentially distracting others in the class.
Hearing our students share their experiences always reminds me of how much our program has done for our students.
"In my previous school I used to get tired because I was very bored," one student told me. "Here I get tired because it's so interesting."
I vividly remember the joy of escaping my hellish middle school and getting into a high school that was genuinely interesting and stimulating. If for some of our students middle school doesn't seem like a waste of time to them, we will consider our efforts to be successful.