“Mrs. Perry, I’m finished.”
“I need you to take your time and check your work.”
“I did, look.”
*I check work and find it completed perfectly.*
“Good job! Uh… pick three more problems to do while the rest of the class finishes up. Or read.”
As you might have guessed, the above scenario is a true story. Actually, a narrative that repeated itself in my classroom more times than I care to admit. As teachers, we always have a range of readiness levels in our classrooms. On occasion, however, we teach students who are gifted or highly capable learners.
The State of Washington uses the following definition of highly capable:
“Highly capable students are students who perform or show potential for performing at significantly advanced academic levels when compared with others of their age, experiences, or environments. Outstanding abilities are seen within students’ general intellectual aptitudes, specific academic abilities, and/or creative productivities within a specific domain. These students are present not only in the general populace, but are present within all protected classes.”
School districts often have a process for identifying students as highly capable or gifted. In my district, families can take advantage of a program that offers the opportunity for those identified students to forego transferring to a self-contained gifted classroom, in what is more than likely a different school, and instead be served in their home school with a Clustered Enrichment program. In this model, students at each grade level are grouped with other highly capable students and placed in a general-ed classroom with a teacher trained in how to best meet the needs of highly capable learners.
When we began offering this program to students in my building, I became that teacher. As my story at the beginning of this post illustrates, I had much to learn. Over the past few years, I have taken advantage of various professional learning opportunities and developed a better understanding of the characteristics of gifted students and how they think and learn. Here are a few do’s and don’ts that I’ve picked up along the way:
- DON’T give them more of the same. As you think about learning activities to challenge your highly capable students, what should not be an option is simply assigning more of the same work. I understand that one of our biggest challenges as teachers is time, however, there are many extension activities, such as personal interest projects, that students can do individually or in a cluster group that only require a quick launch and regular monitoring from you. Some examples of student projects from Susan Winebrenner’s book, Teaching Gifted Kids in Today’s Classroom, might be to create a podcast, write a script for a play or reader’s theater, or create an invention to fill a personal or social need. Are these activities only appropriate for highly capable learners? Absolutely not. I urge you to consider how you might offer such opportunities to every student in your class.
- DO know your students. Students in our classroom bring different experiences and strengths to the table. Each one of them is unique and highly capable learners are no different. Sure, you’ll find research, articles, and lists that discuss common characteristics of gifted students, but it’s never one-size-fits-all. Talk to your students. Ask them what they’re interested in, what passions they have, what problems they want to solve. Learn everything you can about them so that you can create learning experiences that are engaging, challenging, and stimulating. (Hint: this is a good rule of thumb for all of your students).
- DON’T forget about social emotional needs. As an elementary teacher in a high-impact school, social-emotional learning is right up there on my priority list with literacy and math. We know that our students are individuals who think, feel, and act in ways that are unique to them. This is absolutely true for our gifted learners as well. Some of these students might experience overwhelming pressure to maintain an image of academic perfection or that things are always easy to them (even when they’re not!). Perhaps they have difficulty relating to peers because they prefer conversations with adults or have spent a significant amount of time out of their class to receive services. Some students might be easily frustrated with peers or structures within a typical school environment and react unfavorably. No child, highly capable or not, is immune to the social-emotional challenges that come along with growing up; no matter how mature they may seem or act.
- DO continue to learn what you can about highly capable learners. It is crucial to continue to build your capacity when it comes to best meeting the needs of the students in your class; highly capable learners included. Check in with the highly capable program coordinator in your district to learn about professional development opportunities. Connect with other teachers of highly capable students on Twitter or read books or articles about best practice in this area of education. This great website offers a perfect place to start if you’re not sure of the first step.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to teaching gifted students. However, aside from a few resources, if there is one thing I want you to walk away with after reading this post, it’s the understanding that no child learns the same way, no matter how they are characterized or identified. Take time to know your kids and do everything you can to provide the learning environment they need. I once heard someone say that every child deserves to come to school and learn something new each day. Our responsibility is to ensure that happens.
“Mrs. Perry, I’m finished. I completed the hardest three problems first just like you asked.”
“Great! Let’s take a look.”
*I check work and find it completed perfectly.*
“I can tell from your work that you understand this new skill. Go ahead and use this time to work on your personal interest project. I’ll check in on you in 10 minutes.”