Because of NCLB and initiatives like First to the Top, there is a heavy focus on raising standardized test scores. And with this focus, much of our funds, energy, and time are directed at our lowest performing students, often ELL and low socioeconomic students. So, what happens to our very brightest students, the ones with the most potential? Or, to put it a better way, what would our very brightest students look like if they became the primary focus? With one in five high school dropouts testing in the gifted range, and only two cents of every 100 federal education dollars aimed at the gifted, I can't help but worry that we are leaving out an entire population. The truth is, we often deny students the opportunity to reach their full potential. Read on to see how you can help make a change.
Image: Did you know that gifted programming and funding is not mandated in many states? How does your state rank on gifted rights and opportunities? Find out with the interactive version of the map above at DavidsonGifted.org. Copyright © 2011 Davidson Institute for Talent Development.
In this post, I'm going to focus on resources and tips that can help you teach the GT students in your classroom. The resources below have made a significant impact on what we do in the classroom at my school — I hope they'll help you as well.
Several years ago, a teaching peer suggested I read the book Genius Denied by Jan and Bob Davidson. The impact it had on me, paired with my own experience of being identified as GT, led me to teach at a public school for gifted and high achieving students. Luckily, my district affords several opportunities for students that need an academic challenge. Your district may not. Regardless, I would highly recommend this book for any teacher. It will leave a footprint on how you teach and think in the classroom.
Bob and Jan Davidson run an extensive site by the same title that offers resources for students, educators, and parents, as well as information on the funding and legislation of gifted and talented programs. Their list of what teachers can do is a great place to start, and I encourage you to take some time to browse through the site. After reading the book, I think I clicked on every link. You won't regret a visit.
University of Connecticut: Confratute
Even a little research on best practices for gifted and talented students will undoubtedly bring up the names Dr. Joseph Renzulli and Dr. Sally Reis. This husband-spouse duo are the leading experts in the field and have paved the way for GT students through their research and teaching at the University of Connecticut. UConn is both nationally and internationally known for its gifted research and resources, and luckily, those resources all come together for one week in the summer at a conference called Confratute. I attended Confratute for two years in a row, and absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt, those two weeks of study have provided me the richest professional development. Confratute has deeply impacted my pedagogy to the benefit of our students with the most challenging academic needs. Sessions are offered from the early morning hours until late evening, yet the atmosphere is laid-back with a family vibe.
This will be the first year I am not attending as I will be accompanying some students on a trip. However, you still have time to register and sign up. The dates are July 10–15, and housing and food are included in the cost.
Another key resource is the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) site. There you can find local and national conferences that will help you better work with this population. A staple in many of our classes, including mine, is the Gifted Bill of Rights, published by a former NAGC president. Each right has been carefully considered in our school, leading us to use curriculum compacting, a form of differentiation, and enrichment clusters, which offer students the opportunity to work with multiple peer groups and make a variety of friends.
You have a right . . .
2007–2009 NAGC President
Tips for Working With Gifted, Talented, and High Achieving Students
I work with an entire classroom of high-achieving and gifted students (just imagine all of the IEP meetings I have to attend during my planning time!). Here are five tips that will help you work with your brightest students in the classroom:
1. Let Them Be Obsessive
Many GT students will narrow in on one area of study. They will, if you allow them, talk about this topic for hours on end. They will want to research it in depth, find the latest book on it, and so forth. As a teacher, you might notice that this passion, fueled by a strength in science, for instance, means that one subject gets all their attention and another gets very little. Resist the temptation to stop their energy by redirecting it to their weakness.
2. Recognize That Social Problems Do Exist
There is a wonderful short story by Sandra Cisneros titled “Eleven,” in which a young girl who just turned 11 has a quick but dramatic encounter with her teacher. In that scene, Cisneros plays with the concept of how emotions associated with certain ages remain a part of you throughout life:
Like some days you might say something stupid, and that's the part of
you that's still ten. Or maybe some days you might need to sit on your
mama's lap because you're scared, and that's the part of you that's five.
And maybe one day when you're all grown up maybe you will need to cry like
if you're three, and that's okay. That's what I tell Mama when she's sad and
needs to cry. Maybe she's feeling three.
This passage sums up what it is like working with GT students. Their emotional development often feels out of sync with their age. It might appear you are working with a 10-year-old, but they behave like a 6-year-old and think like a 15-year-old. Last year, for example, I had a parent tell me that their child struggled with this feeling of being "different ages" in kindergarten. The child ranks in the superior gifted range and still struggles with social and emotional issues.
I don’t have a clear solution except to say that it has been a tremendous help for our GT students to work with like-minded peers. Some of our popular students would not fare well in a traditional setting, and unfortunately, this has been discovered after a move to another school.
3. Know That It's an Emotional Roller Coaster
When people say that it is easier working with gifted and high-achieving students, I could not disagree more vigorously. My most challenging years teaching have been with this population. From perfectionism, neurotic tendencies, over-sensitivity, depression, and the fear of failure — just to name a few — teachers really have their work cut out for them. Our school counselor, thank goodness, helps out with small group sessions that deal with these issues. One group, for example, is called the “Chill Pills,” and it helps perfectionist students. Other groups target students who worry and/or obsess. Some research suggests that GT students have higher rates of depression and suicide, so this is particularly important. You might investigate the possibility of working with a counselor if you see any of these traits in your GT students.
4. Stay in the Struggle
Some labels you might hear applied to GT students include "overachiever" or "perfectionist." For many students, this applies. On the other hand, we miss just as many underachievers. This is a larger issue that can result from an unchallenging curriculum or one that focuses on the needs of struggling learners.
For those students who are overachievers or perfectionists, the phrase “stay in the struggle” is an important one. GT students typically become frustrated the moment they struggle with a concept or idea. They often want to quit and may even shed a few tears. Letting your students know that it is perfectly okay to struggle, and they have the right to make mistakes, is the first step. More importantly, I let students know that each time they experience a struggle, they are actually feeling themselves grow academically.
5. Differentiated Instruction Through Enrichment Clusters: The Power of Research and Collaboration
In our school, enrichment clusters help address some of the items on the NAGC Bill of Rights. Enrichment clusters allow students to work with peers outside of their grade level in an area of interest for an extended period of time. Utilizing every living body in the building, we create small groups that meet once a week for nine weeks.
What’s nice about enrichment clusters is that they are nongraded, multigrade, and student-led, and they allow students to delve deeper into their areas of passion.
Here are some of the sessions going on in our school right now. You can view details about each cluster by opening up the Spring Clusters PowerPoint Slide Show we used for student ranking. You will notice that teacher names are missing. This way, we can assure that selections are based on interest, not teachers or friends.
~ Explore the Ocean
~ Make Your Own Shoes
~ Guilty or Not? (Mock Trial)
~ Amazing Architecture
~ Explore Careers in Science
~ Yoga and Pilates
~ Stop Motion Animation (my cluster)
~ Camera Obscura
~ Insectigations (pictured above)
Although whole-school enrichment clusters may not be feasible for your school, you can allow students the time and opportunity to research and work on independent projects. If a student shows mastery of a unit of study in a pretest, instead of having him sit through the study unit, sit down with the parent and student to determine an appropriate research project.
That's Just a Start . . .
And really it is. GT students' needs are just as diverse as other students in your classroom. Don't assume, for example, that they can easily learn all material. GT students don't have to be gifted in all areas and often aren't. Things like Gardner's Multiple Intelligence Theory are just as important with this population as with any other. GT students often look at the world differently and need new material presented to them in a way that fits their learning style as well.
With this said, we need more opportunities for our brightest students to truly shine and grow. And for the record, tutoring another student is not that opportunity. It doesn't help students learn the material "even more." That would be like telling a five-minute pace runner to work with a ten-minute pace runner because it will help them run better. It doesn't make sense. And really, the setup of money allocations for GT programs and resources is embarrassing. I have often wondered where our modern Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are. Could they be in our classroom right now, where we have created an invisible ceiling that limits how high they can go? I hope not and think the resources listed above can help.
To learn more about our room, visit us anytime.
"Most public schools are practicing a deficit model. . . . We're so concerned with diagnosing what the child can't do that we spend . . . the year beating him or her to death with it." —Dr. Joseph Renzulli.
Photo: Two years ago, at Confratute, with Dr. Renzulli and Dr. Reis.