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CTD Director Reflects on a Year of Change

by Ross Middleton

When school doors began to close across the country last spring, CTD was actively enrolling students for its Summer Programs, which typically offer classes and a residential experience on the Evanston campus of Northwestern University. This meant CTD needed to rapidly adjust to offer its wide range of programming without interruption. CTD’s Director Dr. Paula Olszewski-Kubilius acknowledges that although the process was difficult at times, moving all of its classes online resulted in new insights into student learning and educational strategies for the future.

“It was definitely challenging to try to pivot,” Olszewski-Kubilius says when recounting the past year at CTD. “The staff had to rethink everything,” she explains, “and they had to work even more collaboratively to do that.” They needed to work creatively as well, and Olszewski-Kubilius says the urgency and unpredictability of the 2020–2021 academic year offered opportunities for innovation. CTD quickly developed new online programming for all ages and expanded the Online Family Program, which received a notable increase in interest and participation. Administrators created at-home activities designed to replicate aspects of the Summer Program’s residential option. CTD launched the Encounters at Home program to give students a preview of unique topics in a condensed format. Moving local weekend experiences online expanded an existing community, providing learning experiences to new students around the country and the world. CTD also took an agile approach to its work with programs for students from historically marginalized populations, and these successful adjustments gave rise to new school partnerships. “In finding a way to deliver services that we wanted to deliver—especially to some of our more vulnerable populations—we’ve opened up new ways of doing things through collaboration,” Olszewski-Kubilius says.

Though all programs were conducted remotely, Olszewski-Kubilius clarifies that instruction “wasn’t distant.” CTD was able to apply tools and strategies from its established online programs, and Olszewski-Kubilius says instructors who were prepared to lead classes in person readily adapted to teaching online. She commends CTD staff and teachers for working together to deliver “interactive, discussion-focused” classes, and notes that online environments gave educators a chance to learn more about their students’ needs. “The key to good talent development is good instructional practice,” she explains, noting potential for hybrid learning at CTD and adding that year-round schools may increasingly turn to online resources to address the needs of advanced students.

Some of the strategies used in the past year may inform future educational practices, and pandemic conditions highlighted areas for improvement in the field of gifted education. Olszewski-Kubilius shares that while some schools were able to implement new approaches to talent identification, many methods of assessment are designed for physical classrooms rather than online environments. Though developing at-home testing and other alternatives will take time, she points out that this could be beneficial to advanced learners as a whole by increasing access to assessments. CTD has utilized remote assessment and is now implementing an expanded set of assessments, consulting services, and talent development resources for the coming year. Olszewski-Kubilius says differentiated instruction may have also been challenging for schools, and families may seek supplemental education from resources like CTD to address students’ strengths and interest areas or concerns about learning loss.

Despite the changes to CTD’s planned programming, Olszewski-Kubilius says most students and parents expressed positive feelings about last year’s classes. Much of this is due to the interconnectedness of the CTD community, and Olszewski-Kubilius credits Northwestern University and the School of Education and Social Policy with helping CTD continue to serve families in a turbulent year. “Growth occurs when there’s challenge plus support,” she explains. “Intellectual growth results from those two things: having to struggle, but also having the support—including people who believe in you and self-confidence—to engage in that struggle. And that’s the same thing that occurred over the past year and a half: we had challenge and support.” Because of this, Olszewski-Kubilius says, the CTD community persevered and emerged “with new learning, new understanding, and new appreciation.”

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