Today host Lori Boll speaks with Samuel Young the founder of Scholars Academy, a strength-based, talent-focused virtual enrichment center that supports twice-exceptional students and their families. Sam is a neurodivergent educator who has ADHD. As an ADHD learner, he has a tremendous understanding of, experience in, and respect for all things related to neurodiverse education. Today, Sam and I talk about our 2E students and how using a strength-based and talent focused approach is so beneficial for them.
Resources Mentioned in Today’s Podcast:
Samuel Young, MEd, is a growth-minded, two-time Fulbright Scholar and Director of Young Scholars Academy, a strength-based, talent-focused virtual enrichment center that supports twice-exceptional students and their families. Samuel is a neurodivergent educator who has ADHD. As an ADHD learner, he has a tremendous understanding of, experience in, and respect for all things related to neurodiverse education.
Transcribed by Kanako Suwa
[ Introduction music plays ]
Welcome to the SENIA Happy Hour with your host, Lori Boll. We know you’re busy so we bring you 1 hours worth of content in under thirty minutes, leaving you with time for a true happy hour.
Lori: Hi everyone, today I have the pleasure of speaking with Samuel Young, or Mr.Sam. Sam has quite the background – he’s a two time Fullbright scholar and director of Young Scholars Academy, which is a strength based, talent focused, virtual enrichment centre that supports twice exceptional students and their families. Sam’s a neurodivergent educator who has ADHD. As an ADHD learner, he has a tremendous understanding of experiences and a respect for all things related to neurodiverse education. Today Sam and I talk about our 2E students and how strength based and talent focused approach is so beneficial for them. So now, onto the show. Well, hi Sam and welcome to the podcast.
Sam: Hi Lori, thank you so much for having me.
Lori: You bet. So you’ve created a virtual enrichment center for twice exceptional students. Would you mind just telling us who twice exceptional students are and what twice exceptional actually means?
Sam: Yeah, that’s a really good question and I find that I always say that my dream is if I can not tell people that, you know, when I get… when I say “I teach twice exceptional students” for someone to say “way to go!”
Sam: Twice exceptional is one of the least known terms but one of those that people go “Oh, I know someone like that”. The idea is that… I’m a very visual person so I think of it in terms of the bell curve. So the idea is that someone has dual exceptionalities – they have an exceptional gift or a strength area to the right of the bell curve, the above average ability or strength, and then they have an exceptional difference, difficulty, or challenge area and that would be to the left of the bell curve. So the way that I like to describe it is that 2E people are always straddling the bell curve – they always have a foot in the exceptional strength and a foot in the exceptional difficulty. And then to make things a little more complicated, because if that wasn’t already complicated enough, sometimes, one’s gift can overshadow, or what we call mask, one’s difference or difficulty and the same is true the opposite direction – sometimes someone’s difference depending on the context can mask, so if someone like a a Simone Biles, an incredible gymnast, has ADHD may have struggled, I don’t know her whole story, but may have struggled in the classroom… context dependent, you might see her as someone who only struggled or you only see her in the gym as someone who only thrived and so the idea is that, you know, twice exceptional people are always both things. It’s just not always clear… that one half exists, if that makes sense.
Lori: Yep. I really love that visual. I do. Um, just yesterday my husband and I were having this conversation about someone that we know who, my husband described, this man, is on the Autism spectrum and my husband described him as “high-functioning”. And I said “yes, AND that’s the spectrum looks different now, rather than it being linear, it’s more of a circle spectrum where they have very high talents in certain areas and then others might be very low”. So that was just another visual that has come out lately where you know, they’ve got the high, they’ve got the low, and how do we help and support them in the lows and the highs, right?
Sam: Exactly. How can we… the idea is that how can we dual-differentiate. How can we accommodate someone in their strength area and how can we also accommodate someone in the areas they struggle. And you know, in the autism community, there is, there is some push-back, there’s concern around some of the language that’s been used, like the ableism language?
Lori: Yeah, exactly.
Sam: Like, high – functioning, low – functioning because of the inherent assumptions people make around that so that’s definitely something that’s used a lot and I think also now a movement away from that sort of language to see everyone take a strength based perspective instead. Like, what is this person as a human, rather than being like an autistic person being like a person who has autism…
Lori: Right, yeah.
Sam: and what is this person, like, who are they? What do they do? What are they passionate about?
Lori: Well, and just as an aside, it does get a little tricky because there are individuals in the autism community who do want to be known as Autistic, that’s their identity.
Lori: So it’s, um, it’s something that we’re all learning and what members of the community have asked of me, is that we just ask. Ask them, what do you want your identity to be. Do you want autistic individual or an individual with autism.
Sam: Yeah no I think that’s great. I think just in life, the thing about race, gender, pronouns…
Lori: Yeah. Just ask.
Sam: Yeah, just ask. And that’s one of the things that’s most uncomfortable to do but it’s usually the best thing we can do.
Lori: Mm-hmm. Well, how did you get involved in this field in the first place?
Sam: It’s… well, so I grew up, so my dad’s an artist and always very visibly had strengths and struggle areas so he’s dylexic and has ADHD and he’s almost 75 now so he grew up in a time when that wasn’t really a thing. So if you had ADHD and couldn’t really pay attention, you went to military school. Or some other place. So kinda growing up watching him and seeing that in myself, I also have ADHD and maybe undiagnosed dyslexia so seeing that constant negative reinforcement of things that I’m not good at, very early on, I think 4th grade I was diagnosed with ADHD and I had like, learning support tutors and… but I was really strong at conversing with people and leading people. My dad always jokes that my kindergarten teacher said “If I wanted the class to do something, I just need to convince Sam!” you know, so I had these interpersonal skills but it wasn’t something I was cognizant of because it didn’t really seem to matter in school, like the reports like “Sam’s struggling to read” or struggling with phonics or can’t stay in the seat… removing, I always sat next to the teacher, my desk was touching the teacher’s desk…
Lori: Preferential seating!
Sam: Exactly, yeah.
Lori: Preferred for who…? Hahaha
Sam: So I had a pretty loving, great experience, but I think as I got older, and I got more and more into education, I knew I wanted to serve people with learning differences and I wanted to serve people who had strengths that were not being tapped into. And then fast forward a couple years, I discovered Bridges Academy in Los Angeles, at a career fair, which I could go on about forever, it’s a pretty cool story… and fell in love with Bridges. I learnt about twice exceptional, they flew me down to Los Angeles, I was actually living in San Francisco at the time and the rest is history. I developed a research center and got involved there, did all the graduate school, I attended the graduate school and got my degree there so.
Lori: Well, why don’t you tell us a little bit about Bridges Academy, just for people who are not…
Sam: Yeah! So Bridges is really kind of the first spin, the flagbearer of the twice exceptional space. They started 20 years ago now and it was just started as a very small cohort that grew and they were one of the first programmes that were looking to educate twice exceptional students and take a strength based approach. So looking at student strength and rather than bringing out the bottom and focusing on the deficits, and helping them get by, it was like developing talent, you know?
Sam: Just focusing on the higher parts. And so they slowly but surely grew from a small cohort into an office into a school. And they’re really kind of the flagship to the programme there. The school has grown, they have a school in Los Angeles, and there’s actually one up in Seattle now, and they’ve just opened an online school… I mean, they have. It’s a conglomerate of research centers and… they’re massive.
Sam: And so you know, being in the center of it all, being in the laboratory school, I got to really see a different approach to education and I really immersed myself in it and explored all kinds of teaching and models. You know, teaching students who may be struggled to write, having them be on a state – recognised debate team or working on taking students who aren’t necessary schoolhouse strong and I’d have a 1950 Chevy pick up truck and I’d be like “hey why don’t we just rebuild this at school?”
Lori: Ahhh I love it.
Sam: Yeah so just kind of trying different things and seeing what works?
Lori: Oh, that sounds amazing!
Lori: Cool – and you’ve got so many individuals that I’ve worked with in the past that like… “oh I need to tell them about this place!”
Sam: Yeah, it’s a great place. And then when the pandemic hit, I thought this is incredible what we’re doing and we’re just embracing the internet but I had families who I had worked with who had friends who didn’t live in Los Angeles and people just started tapping me and saying “hey would you do what you did but for younger kids online? You know, we have a friend who’s got a 10 year old and they would love your crypto class or… the entrepreneurship class or… we have a friend in New York City or Chicago or whatever…” and so I just sort of kinda slowly started and I realised, “holy cow, there’s something here.” I could create like a virtual Bridges of sorts.
Sam: And so… I did. I created Young Scholars Academy and then I left Bridges and that’s been really kind of the mission – take twice exceptional students and neurodivergent students from all over the world and bringing them together.
Lori: That’s great! And so that was going to be one of my questions later on
Sam: Oh! I can talk more about it.
Lori: No, let’s ask now. So let us know more about Young Scholars Academy.
Sam: Sure, and I’m happy by the way, to talk more about it later. Okay, so yeah, the vision of Young Scholars Academy, it’s a virtual after school programme that offers after school classes and the idea is just giving students who might be bullied or in a system that doesn’t see their strengths or just feeling isolated or longing for friends… you know, it’s difficult for these students because they’re asynchronous. You might have an 11 year old who might be reading at a college or a graduate school level and then has maybe the social emotional challenges of someone who’s maybe 7. And so taking that asynchrony, they struggle with their peers, they struggle with older students or younger students, and so they really need one another and so I wanted to create a place, like a virtual village. I wanted to create a virtual ecosystem where students could come together and take courses that align with their strengths and interests, and just make them feel good. Make them feel like they’re not alone and intellectually stimulated and socially connected.
So we do that by offering intimate classes with, you know, neurodivergent mentors. I really believe, and I can talk more about that too, I believe that students need to look up at someone who’s like them and look over at people who’s like them. And we do that by offering stuff that you can’t find anywhere else. Yeah, cryptocurrency, entrepreneurship, investing, speech & debate for young kids, Dungeons and Dragons club… you name it.
Lori: Awesome. Yeah. And how old are the students that come to your academy?
Sam: So, I use the word laboratory, we’re always trying… new things. But right now, it’s 7 to 20. So we sort of have 4 cohorts, 7 to 10, 11 to 14, and 15 to 18ish, and there’s a college cohort.
Lori: Okay, perfect! So you’ll just keep growing as long as…
Sam: Yeah, I hope so! For the younger kids, the asynchronies are more pronounced and so parents are often in kind of more of a crisis so although I’m more, I’m a high school teacher at heart, originally, and now I think that the lion’s share of kids that I work with are under 10. So it’s been a radical change and I really enjoy that after teaching high school for 10 years. My days are all over the place. I’ll be helping college freshmen build, you know, like comprehensive task management systems and then working with 7-10 year olds on understanding logos, pathos, and egos or something…
Lori: Well, let me ask you a scenario, just thinking about one individual who knows everything there is to know about airplanes. Military airplanes, all airplanes. This individual would love to go into the military but is struggling ebceause they do not take individuals with special needs, from what we researched. So, how, what could you do at your academy to build on that strength?
Sam: So that’s a good question. So I have a programme, it’s not currently running right now but I try to bring interests and I’m gonna answer to it. I try to bring interest to all my class so if it’s, let’s say, entrepreneurship or a camp we’re running right now after we meet today is called content creators. So it’s about taking students who have a deep seated passion and they want to become a YouTuber or a TikToker or a vlogger. So I try to put interest at the center of things and then scaffold all the things we want, like so what do these parents want? I imagine all them are like “I want my kids to learn about disabilities or be more organized or meet deadlines” or come out of the trance of ideation, and so taking that, putting it at the center, and in a creative way, adding a lot of the other things that we look for.
The other way, oh by the way, I think really fast so if I’m all over the place, let me know. I have a lot of incomplete thoughts… umm, the other way that we do this is, I have a class actually called Young Scholars, Young Scholarship, and the idea is that the students are having a space in which they can have scaffolded support in exploring their interests. So how can we take what you love and turn it into a project that’s deliverable or something like that. So there’s sort of two way to do it. But to that kiddo and to that family, I would say, go deep. He’s a specialist. Schools and professionals don’t have the same values, as a culture. I think the Western world values specialists but in schools what we value, I mean, this is controversial, but mediocracy. You know. You want someone… like “you’re obsessed with airplanes! But you need to be able to solve these problems in math class” or whatever. But he might grow up to be the foremost expert, you know…
Lori: Yes! Exactly!
Sam: For NASA or on Boeing… and like, no one cares. There’s, Joseph Renzulli, my favourite educational psychologist, who said “no one cares about Einstein’s ability to paint or Picasso’s scientific or mathematical skills”.
Lori: So true.
Sam: That’s really relevant – we have kids who are like super strong with deep seated interests.
Lori: Yeah, yeah, and you just give them the space to explore those interests, even if…
Sam: So I hope I answered your question, you know…
Lori: You did! Yeah.
Lori: And I just threw that out at you so thanks for being flexible.
Sam: I loved it!!
Lori: So, you know… so I think you’ve answered this. You’re a strong proponent for strength based and talent focused education. Why do you feel this is so important?
Sam: Yeah, I think we exist in, like, a… just from my own experience, a deficit, medical model. You know? You’re NOT doing this. You don’t do this well. And… that sucks. I mean, it does. I’m not gonna… can I say sucks?
Lori: Yea, it does suck!
Sam: Yea, and you go through school with a learning specialist who helps you do what you can’t do and it’s like you know… maybe if you go to a certain school, it’s like, so and so is behind, let’s take away their electives so they can catch up, you know?
Lori: Ugh, that’s the worst!
Sam: Yeah, so I think… and again, I’ve been on both sides of this. As an educator, I get it? Sometimes I’m like.. But they have to be able to write! But I also think like, god, it sucks to be told to do something you struggle with all day. So I realised, the goal really is to be strength based and talent focused, if you can figure out what someone is interested in and what they’re strong at, you can teach them what you want, you just have to do it in that way. Like, I’ve… when you ask people often what you need, they’re usually reciting things they’ve been told they struggle with? But they don’t always need, or want that. They wanna go… humans are dopamine chasers. We go where it feels good. We want love, safety, affection, and so if you say I have a social skills class… that’s not fun. But if you say hold on, I have a speech and debate class and I need you to pay attention because we need to ask questions but you also can’t interrupt until the person is done speaking. Oh okay, this is high stakes, I’m interested, you know? There’s just a difference, I think that if we flip the script and instead of this medical deficit model, like “you can’t pay attention” or “you can’t write”, instead, we can say “okay, when you’re doing this you’re in the zone, let’s get more of this in your life. What does that feel like?”, you know? Alright, now what are we gonna do with that? I think that that’s a more wholesome way to educate.
Lori: Yeah, and it’s… people can’t see this but I can see your smile and it’s just… we can tell you’re so passionate about it and that’s how I’m sure the individuals you work with feel as well, when they’re in these situations where they can just “be them” and explore their passions and enjoy the experience rather than be stressed the entire time.
Sam: I hope so. Yeah, that’s the goal. Being able to have a space, yeah, like someone was asking the other day, like “so what do you do?” and I was like “oh I have a virtual school where kids can be happy an hour a week” and I’ve gotten tired of explaining what I do so I’ve just said that and you know, they were like “oh that’s awesome!”
Lori: haha yeah!
Sam: We gotta speak in terms people understand. But you’re right, that’s the goal. And we all need that. I benefit from that and you know, I had that at home. I would struggle at school and then I would come home and my dad and mom will have records on and we’d have fire in the fireplace and we’d paint or like go outside and weld, you know. And I was just like, this is awesome! And that’s how I would feel good every day and refill me so I could go back to school and sit with a book… So that’s what I wanna do for people.
Lori: Well, it reminds me so much of Dr. Ross Green’s work where he says kids do well if they can do well and if they’re not doing well, it’s because of unsolved problem or lagging skill, an you know, so many times, I have this conversations with teachers or administrators where they’re saying “well this kid won’t do this” or “they’re angry all the time” and I’m like.. Well, if you think of it this way, when I get in a situation where I’m not good at something, I’m miserable. And I’m not happy until I’ve kinda got the system down and I can figure, you know, I’ve figured it out. But so many of our students are put in this position every single day and then like, middle school, high school, it’s every single class that they take. And they might have one class that they enjoy and that’s the only time that you see them flourishing, and the rest of the time, they’re just in this space. Existing.
Sam: No, yeah! There’s this guy, Dr. Rick Orenchuk, he was one of my professors, and I interviewed him, I have a little show that I do once a month called Illuminating Interviews where I bring in, kinda like what you do, bringing in sometimes students or alumni or specialists or parents and ask different questions about twice exceptionality and life and he, I was talking about strength based education and he said “the best way to put it is taking a creative writer and making them work at the DMV all day”. They don’t thrive there, and that’s what we’re doing a lot with schools is we’re just taking someone and putting them in an environment where they’re just struggling and asking them to do things that just don’t align with their strengths and saying “why aren’t you doing this”.
Lori: You’re so smart! That’s what they always say. You’re so smart, it’s not that you can’t…. You know. But you can’t. Really.
Sam: Yeah, yeah, exactly!!
Lori: Yeah, exactly. So, I can’t remember if this is on the Child Nexis podcast or your article in 2E News or your blog… about the salt and pepper of meaningful learning for twice exceptional kids. Would you share what the salt and pepper are?
Sam: Yeah, so that’s kind of what I was getting at with the X and Y axis. I always say, people are like “well, what makes the Young Scholars Academy unique?” and I have really quirky teachers and quirky kids and it works. The idea is that the salt and pepper are… students need two things. They need to look up at a neurodivergent mentor and they need to say “I took a very unconventional path and I’ve made it” and then look over and say “oh my goodness, this guy is obsessed with Roblox and he’s a chess genius and speedcuber and she’s a speed reader and he has tons of energy”, whatever they may be… and just be understood. I say the salt and pepper because those are the social elements of learning, you know, it’s important to remember this. The reason I use salt and pepper is because they’re foundational ingredients, um, and we have all the fancy stuff but these are the things that we often notice are missing the most. And you know, humans, one of my other favourite guests that came on my show, Dr.Lin Lin Go said humans are an emotional creature who think, not thinking creatures who emote. And so, social first. The affective filter and our frontal cortexes are emotional – if we’re unhappy, we’re not gonna take notes. If we’re sad, if we’re lonely, we’re not gonna be able to pay attention to the lecture. It may not be that there’s a problem with our executive functioning skills, it’s just that the affect isn’t there that… we’re sad, we’re upset, we’re lonely.
So the two things that we really try to bake into each class is, you can see I’ve had a field day with this metaphor, baking and all… but well, clearly I don’t bake much… I don’t know if you put pepper in baking so I take that back… but um, I think you know, those are the two core ingredients. That we need to make sure our students feel they have a connection and that they have friends. Because a lot of them feel like they don’t, because there’s someone like me but older. And they can be understood.
Lori: That’s… yeah. I don’t need to say anything else, you’ve said it all. Very impressive though. So, what are you working on right now in the field that’s exciting to you?
Sam: So, I’m working on… you know, we’re getting ready for the fall right now so our courses are gonna launch on the 15th of August and we’re just really kinda scrambling to put together really amazing courses this year, so that’s been the main thing that I’m working on.
But I’m really dreaming up some big things – actually this would be kind of my first time I’ve shared sort of speak, but I wanna create a space where students can get everything that we offer in our classes and then everything else that they get, excuse me, in a school. So the thing I think is missing from online education is a lot of the hallway, out of the class stuff. So really working on creating a space where people can come together and do the things they don’t do in class, like have a space to interact. Have a space for office hours drop ins. And also do kind of, like, the electives? Create like a virtual robotics programme, um, have a space where students can show & tell, like a museum night or a student showcase, so really working on hitting a lot of needs for families who do again, feel isolated. We do have students in a bunch of… we’re still very small. Actually, someone told me we were the best kept secret, and I was like “I don’t wanna be that!” haha but um yeah, trying to meet a lot of those needs that aren’t being met. Sort of outside the classroom but school needs, still? And create a space for that.
And then the other thing is just bringing more awareness to twice exceptionality because I think a lot of people think in a very binary way, like you’re either gifted or learning disabled? And bringing more awareness that in all reality, a lot of people are I think both, at the same time, all the time?
Sam: If that makes sense?
Lori: Absolutely. Yes.
Sam: One of my other favourite people, Dr.Susan Baum, she was one of the first people to ever talk about twice exceptionality, and she wrote a book called “To Be Gifted and Learning Disabled”, before there even was a term for twice exceptional. And she uses colour to describe it. So she says like, there’s yellow and blue which can represent like your strength area or gift, and your difference or struggle, and then they combine and make green. And the student is always green. They’re always both of the things. And that’s important to keep in mind, that’s actually where my logo came from. Blue border with a yellow border, and the circle in the border that says Young Scholars Academy, is green.
Lori: Ahhhh gotcha! That makes sense – another great visual.
Sam: I’m clearly a visual.. I’ve got so many sticky notes.
Lori: Ahaha so am I.
Sam: Sticky notes in here would make you scared, Lori.
Lori: Alright, well, if parents want to learn more about what you’re doing, where can they go to find that information?
Sam: Yes so, the best place to go is youngscholarsacademy.org and that would be the number 1 place to go.
Lori: And we’ll have that in our shownotes.
Sam: Thank you! We have a Facebook too, which is YSA Enrichment, but the best place is our site. If you wanna hop on our mailing list, I like, pre-release stuff. Last week, we had Seth Parlor on, one of the executive dysfunction, if anyone hasn’t heard of him, he’s amazing, you should check him out, he’s very hard to get a hold of… and um, he came and spoke live to our audience so there’s a lot of benefits of being a part of Young Scholars. And we also do monthly wine nights, we just get parents together and just share what’s working and what’s not, and it’s a virtual event, obviously, everything we do is 100% virtual, but then we also release, you know, resources and then create enrollment for our classes. Because classes are all capped at 6-8 students so they’re very intimate and they often fill out quickly. So you know, being on the list is great because you get that kind of information as well.
Lori: Sure. Yeah. And wine night!
Sam: Yeah, who doesn’t want that, right?! We’ve got people from all over and you never know where it’s gonna go. Some nights it’s tears, other nights it’s laughs and some nights it’s curiosity. It’s great.
Lori: Well, I know as a parent of a man with autism, having a community of support is so essential, just having others who understand where you are and what you’ve been through. So I’m sure they love it.
Sam: I think… you’d probably better answer that last question than I did. I think that’s what I’m going for, is community. Community for students and community for parents. I probably could’ve decreased a lot of airtime if I just said that…
Lori: haha no, you know, it’s all about that wine! I keep coming back to that. I know it’s only 8 in the morning but…
Sam: It’s 5 o’clock somewhere… and it’s Friday! So two reasons. And I hope you’ll join us at the next wine night.
Lori: That would be fun. Well, thanks so much, Sam! I really appreciate you spending some time with us today.
Sam: This is awesome, Lori, and thank you and thank you to your audience and thank you for curating this space because this is… your show, your energy, I mean, again, you radiate this kind of warmth and acceptance and uh, you have this incredible demeanor about you so thanks for letting me hang out with you and thank you for creating such an important space for your community.
Lori: oh my gosh, I’m blushing! Thank you.
Sam: Well, it’s what you said. It’s community. And it’s amazing! And this kind of work is really amazing and if I connect with one person and help one family and you did that, then that’s on you because you took the time to do this.
Lori: Ahahah thank you!
Sam: Sorry if that was too intense, my emotions run high in the morning!
Lori: No, it was amazing. Thank you!
Thank you for joining us for today’s show. For more information including how to subscribe and show notes, please head to our website. That’s SENIAinternational.org/podcast. Until next time, cheers.