Don’t be too jealous when I tell you this, but I spent the first two days of my summer vacation…..in a professional development class! It was maybe not the best timing in the entire world, but I am definitely glad that I was able to learn about differentiating instruction for highly-capable students because at the end of the day, the strategies we learned are benefical for all kids!
Here’s a little background information for you. My school district has a variety of self-contained classrooms for highly-capable or “gifted,” students. Based on specific assessment scores, students can be identified as highly-capable. If opted in by the parent, students who are identified as highly-capable can transfer to an elementary school that offers self-contained programs. Kent Schools are continuing with these programs, but are also adding a highly-capable cluster model throughout the district at the elementary level. This gives students who have been identified as highly-capable the opportunity to stay in their home school, and still receive the instruction that they need and will benefit most from. Highly-capable students from each grade level will be grouped together (or clustered) in one class within that grade level (each grade has its own cluster), and that teacher (cue me) will receive additional training on differentiating for those students. A colleague of mine said it best, “differentiating for the highly-capable cluster is just plain old good teaching.” We differentiate for ALL of our students; however, the class I went to last week introduced an awesome technique that I thought worthy of sharing!
Student Choice Menus
This is probably one of my favorite concepts! I experimented with providing more opportunity for student choice this past school year and experienced great results! When I gave my students more options, I saw them rise to the occasion when they felt more in charge of their learning. My students were empowered, and challenged themselves because of it.
At this training, we learned about differentiated learning menus. They are basically lists of a variety of activities available for students to pick to demonstrate their learning and thinking. The great thing about menus is that you can create them yourself to be very specific based on the topic of your lesson/unit or you can use very general menus that work with wide varieties of units. See examples of both below:
Mary Vagenas, a teacher featured on The Teaching Channel, discussed the way she uses themed menus in her middle school social studies class. Her students pick an appetizer, then entrée to complete before tackling the dessert, which is usually a culminating project that requires students to demonstrate their learning from the entire unit. Check out her video here to see her learning menus in action.
Although the concept of learning menus was introduced to me at a training regarding instruction for highly-capable students, they are a useful tool for all learners. You could easily include a wide range of options with varying levels of rigor on your learning menu, and guide students in their choices to find a “just-right fit,” or a challenge that is just within their grasp. It also allows for students to work independently, especially your highly-capable students, which frees you up to work with small groups or even individuals. Today’s classrooms are filled with a huge variety of learners. It’s our job to meet the needs of those learners, and provide a quality education for all. That is what our children need and deserve. Differentiation can be a challenge; therefore we must have as many effective tools as possible in our teaching strategy tool boxes!