The student ducks her head after scanning the rest of the class, anxious not to be called on. She isn’t sure what answer the teacher is looking for. She fears the inevitable teasing that comes when she makes a mistake. It gives her a stomach ache and reminds her of how little she fits in. So instead of listening to the teacher, she allows herself to daydream, to think about the movie she saw last night, the book she was reading hurriedly this morning, the computer game she wishes her parents would let her play more often, the incident in the lunchroom, the art book she started at home, the run she is going to do after school…. She is abruptly shaken out of her reverie by the teacher calling her name. By the look on her teacher’s face, she can tell the teacher had been calling her name more than once. She sees students snickering around her. There is an expectancy for something. The teacher must have asked her the question she wasn’t sure about, but now she can’t remember what was asked because there is a well of terror sitting solidly in her chest, forcing her heart to thump and disrupting her ability to catch her breath. The teacher sighs audibly and points out, with the class listening in, that her completely empty worksheet doesn’t even have her name on it, again.
Why is she unengaged?
This student, like so many others, struggles in school. The difference for her is that the school work isn’t too difficult, it’s too easy. Yet, she is certain everyone expects her to know everything, and that they also hate when she knows it all. It’s hard to make friends. School sometimes feels like torture.
I recently heard a teacher I highly respect dismiss the needs of those identified as highly capable. His reasoning was that they just weren’t as deserving of help from a teacher as the numerous students who struggle to learn. He suggested, like so many others before him, that students who learn easily have an advantage and should be expected to work independently and diligently, on their own. It seems these students could make teachers’ lives a whole lot easier if they would just be compliant teacher helpers, complete their work quickly and assist other students. If they don’t, the implication is that there is something wrong with them: They are lazy, entitled, obstinate little snobs.
Many educators see some sort of arrogant elitism in supporting high ability students in achieving academic and personal excellence.
We would be rightly appalled and offended if this line of thinking was applied to English Language Learners or Special Education students. Imagine if we determined they were undeserving because they didn’t measure up to other students: lazy, stupid, disruptive little dullards.
Equity means the right fit for each individual
Most educators recognize that for equity’s sake alone, we must support all students in achieving academic and personal excellence.
Labeling students needs to stop. Identifying underlying needs must be a continuous process.
For students identified as highly capable, academic and personal excellence looks different than it does for other students. Therefore, their goals, their school work, and their products must often be different as well.
In 2011, Washington State did something unusual that sets it apart from other states. They decided that meeting the needs of highly capable students should be a requirement in much the same way Special Education is a right for students who qualify as a result of their specialized needs. The Legislature placed “programs for highly capable students” in “the instructional program of basic education provided by each school district.” Therefore, Washington schools are required to provide for the needs of highly capable students because “for highly capable students, access to accelerated learning and enhanced instruction is access to basic education.” Also, “access to accelerated learning and enhanced instruction through the program for highly capable students does not constitute an individual entitlement for any particular student.” All school districts are required to offer and report on services for the identified Highly Capable students in their district, but each district is free to create their own local program.
Creating a Highly Capable friendly classroom
Often, when educators think of a Highly Capable program, they imagine that it must be a stand alone, a separate class or computer assisted environment populated with similar ability peers working complex tasks. Although this is certainly a viable option, and in many cases desirable at varying scales, there are ways for classroom teachers to create a classroom environment that encourages ability appropriate learning fo all students. For example, integrated classroom activities provide challenge and deep learning, allowing each student to access learning where they are, with scaffolded support for each individual’s unique needs. This is where differentiated instruction meets the reality of large and diverse classrooms.
Students identified as “gifted” suggested the following ways teachers can support them:
- Encourage creativity
- Encourage independent learning
- Help smart kids not to feel alone
- Make academics equally important as sports
- Eliminate the “nerd” attitude
- Respect students’ learning abilities
- Push students to reach their limits
- Allow students to learn at their own paces
Teachers must use strategies that bring out academic and personal excellence for each and every student. Nevertheless, advanced learners often require changes in the pace and level of curriculum, just as struggling learners do.
Strategies for differentiation are interdependent. Effective strategies such as curriculum compacting, flexible grouping, learning centers, project based learning, research and independent study, passion projects, inquiry-based learning and tiered instruction can be imbedded in class structures. Nevertheless, each of these differentiation strategies require regular assessment to identify individual needs and thus individualized support.
Using assessments for planning instruction that meets individuals’ needs
Smarter Balanced assessments can be used strategically, especially at the start of each school year to identify levels and learning gaps for groups of unfamiliar students. These assessments measure skills like problem solving and critical thinking, and are a tool for teachers to determine where additional help is needed or when to accelerate learning opportunities. Summative assessments like the Smarter Balanced assessments, along with a multitude of formative assessments, provide valuable information about student preparation for their future lives, particularly career and college readiness.
To protect teacher time (and thus, sanity,) assessments can be brief and informal, such as exit tickets and student self-assessments. The data garnered from formative assessments, help us see which students are better served moving forward with new material and which would best be served to receive additional support on what has previously been taught but not yet mastered. Interim assessments provide insight in how students are meeting standards in a similar test situation to end of year testing and often bring a high level of challenge, supporting high expectations for all students. Teacher created assessments in formats like Google forms or Canvas can be given as self-scoring pre and post tests that can also help build motivation as students see the progress they have made from one test to the other. For all students, including those identified as highly capable, they can allow a student to “test out” of instruction in an area they have mastered. Additionally, interest surveys help provide opportunities to customize learning and build on student strengths.
Social Emotional challenges
Because many students who have demonstrated advanced skills display greater maturity in certain domains, they may be at high risk for social emotional difficulties if their needs are not met. These struggles often include one or more of the following: heightened awareness and understanding when others are critical, emotional sensitivity and intensity, anxiety and depression, perfectionism, stress, disorganization, inability to focus effectively, issues with peer relationships, and confusion over identity and fitting in.
Helping those to help themselves
Educators can strengthen and lift all of their students through patient, understanding efforts to bring out personal and academic excellence, identifying underlying needs and supporting each child at the level required. We may not always get it perfectly right, but it definitely helps us to know accurately what we’re dealing with.
Involving parents as partners, and avoiding feeling threatened when parents advocate for their child, may be difficult, but it’s important. Parents often struggle with knowing how to meet the needs of their children and turn to teachers as the experts. However, their intimate knowledge can help teachers understand a student’s unique characteristics, as well as any underlying factors in a child’s classroom behavior.
Additionally, teachers should recognize that many minority students who would qualify for highly capable identification go unreported because teachers fail to recognize these students’ challenges for what they are.
When we have a seemingly underachieving daydreamer in our classes, sometimes, the right questions are not, “Why weren’t you paying attention!? Why aren’t you finishing your work?” but instead, “How are you feeling about what you are learning, and how can we help you be more successful?”
Renzulli Center for Creativity, Gifted Education and Talent Development: National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented https://nrcgt.uconn.edu/research-based_resources/#educator
Davidson Institute Strategies for Educators http://www.davidsongifted.org/Search-Database/topic/105152/entryType/2
National Association for Gifted Children https://www.nagc.org/resources-publications/resources-educators
Rakow, Susan. Educating Gifted Students in Middle School: a Practical Guide. Prufrock Press, Inc., 2005.
Herrell, Adrienne and Jordan, Michael. 50 Strategies for Teaching English Language Learners. 3rd ed. Pearson/Merrill/Prentice Hall. 2008.
Rankin, Jenny Grant, “Gifted Programs’ Embarrassing Secret,” Psychology Today, Aug. 10 2016
Kingore, Bertie. Differentiation: Simplified, Realistic, and Effective. Professional Associates Publishing. 2004.
Fonseca, Christine. Emotional Intensity in Gifted Students: Helping Kids Cope with Explosive Feelings. 2nd ed. Prufrock Press, Inc., 2015.