Experience Based Learning Targets Students with Learning Disabilities
With a password and secret hand signal, all who enter Tom Waitzman’s classroom gain passage to the Middle Ages.
Once inside, Max Lentz, dressed in a white cloak, no longer is a fourth grader at the AIM Academy in Whitemarsh Township, Montgomery County, but “William, duke of Normandy.” Sitting nearby are classmates “Charlemagne, king of the Franks,” and “Eric the Red.”
“Why are the Vikings leaving Scandinavia?” asked Waitzman, whose classroom incarnation is “Merlin the wise.”
“Overpopulation,” Max, 10, said. “Good word,” Waitzman told him.
Waitzman’s lesson – and its theatrical trappings – is no one-time exercise. It is part of an intricate methodology to educate students with dyslexia and other learning challenges.
AIM Academy, a private independent school for college-prep students with learning differences, uses an unusual arts-based approach that includes costumes, games, activities, and classrooms decorated as medieval castles and prehistoric caves.
“I’m not just going to give a quiz or a work sheet or have them remember a lecture,” Waitzman said. “It doesn’t work with students with language-based differences.”
What works at the 217-student academy is the philosophy “live it and learn it,” said Patricia Roberts, the executive director, CEO, and cofounder of the K-12 school.
As part of that approach, students in grades one to eight are members of “cultural clubs,” each centered on a period in history.
Fifth graders, who are in the Renaissance Club, learn geometry and math by building a model of an Italian cathedral. First graders in the Cave Club – who wear something resembling animal skins – learn science and geography via lessons involving dinosaurs and continent formation.
In the Upper School, where classes become more traditional, students can join the Start-up Club, in which they develop their own businesses.
The technique is partly designed to keep students curious and engaged at a time when frustration with their reading skills has the potential to overwhelm.
Sophomore Insaf Sydnor of University City knows that feeling well.
“You see the word the, I see go,” Sydnor, 15, said of the years before she enrolled in AIM. “You see bat, I see hit.”
The experience left her feeling lost and frustrated.