Rachel Stohler is wrapping up her first semester as the new Advanced Learning (AL) Specialist at Toki and Jefferson Middle Schools; yet she has unintentionally been preparing for the role her entire life.
Stohler herself was a part of AL programs while growing up in Racine, Wisconsin, where she attended talented and gifted elementary and middle schools. She became an English teacher, instructing Advanced Placement and inclusive special education courses before teaching sixth grade gifted humanities. Her multifaceted experiences in AL only grew once she became a mom to gifted children, one of which is on the autism spectrum, and struggled to find a positive environment during middle school.
“I can be a little bit of a light in that darkness for those kids, you know, and help them find their people, I think that's really important,” Stohler said.
Inclusion is one of the many “layers” of the field, according to Stohler. While AL offers students higher level courses in the more traditional sense, it’s also a crucial tool in recognizing, supporting and developing academic talent across diverse school communities.
When Stohler worked at a school with a predominantly Black student population in St. Louis, Missouri, she heard people claim there were no AL learners in the building.
“I told them, ‘no, you have lots of gifted students, you have students who have lived in poverty and have not had educational opportunities,’” Stohler said. “I want true equity, where, for example, we're creating programs for Black students that excite, inspire, and engage them.”
As of winter break, almost 100 Toki students participated in an AL small group, where a small handful of students at a time can focus on skills like close reading, annotating text, literary analysis, and creative writing. Scholars do not have to be formally enrolled in AL to participate. Instead, Stohler works with teachers to identify students’ strengths that may not be captured by a Lexile score, who would benefit from discussion groups.
“I have a lot of students who say, ‘Why am I here? Why am I in this group?’ And I'm like, ‘listen to yourself! You are so smart. And you definitely need to be here,’” Stohler said. “I'm trying to give scholars those skills so that they can take the honors courses, and take AP classes.”
In addition to higher level courses and small group meetings, AL also offers students a wide array of experiences:
- The Children’s Theater of Madison playwriting workshop to prepare students for the Young Playwrights for Change competition
- The National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenge to write a 5,000+ word novel
- Intensive humanities courses through the Center for Advanced Academics (CAA) for seventh and eighth grade scholars
- Submissions to the Greater Dane Project, with a chance to have student work published in the Greater Dane Anthology
- Project A, a talent development program for sixth and seventh grade students, especially students of color, to prepare them for future CAA or AP courses
“You don't want a kid to come to school and lose their spark because they have never found a way to ignite it.” Stohler said. “You just want to help all kids find themselves and explore who they are.”