Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A Case for Self-Contained, Highly-Gifted Classrooms

Wow. I am tremendously humbled and thankful for all who took time to read my previous post 9 Things I Wish People Knew About Highly Gifted Children. As I was posting it a little over a week ago, I was sitting in my pajamas on my couch at home with a thermometer in my mouth, fighting a sinus infection, and mumbling to my husband, "This will probably be my least read post in a while." Ha!

It turns out that the topic of gifted and talented education is a hot one. And I would even venture to say that the topic of individualized, differentiated education for all is an even hotter one. I know that sounds so idealistic, and we live in such a realist society- often causing us to feel trapped by the system- and even though I have been a public school teacher for 5 years and have done all that I can to spin the system in a positive way and not put it down, I think that the system largely has failed the outliers. (Outliers further explained below in my bell curve examples)

However, instead of complaining about the pitfalls of the education system of our country, I want to share with you what my school district is doing. I work for Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District in Texas, and this is my first year in the district (5th year of teaching overall). They are doing incredible things because they are redefining education for our students. There is NO one-size-fits-all in education. Different students = different areas of passion and interest and ability = different opportunities for education available. The ASPIRE Academy for the Highly Gifted is only one of many programs in our district being built to better meet the needs and gifts of our students. You should've seen my jaw drop in disbelief several times when I went through our district new-hire orientation. I couldn't believe the opportunities that this district creates for its children! To check out more about what GCISD is doing, go here or here or here.

What I teach for is the district's ASPIRE Academy, which is a school within a school for the highly gifted. Our academy is in its second year of existence, and our first and fifth grade classes are in its first year of existence in the program. Students from all over the district can apply, and if they are accepted they are bused in from their home campuses to our home school where our academy is housed. They spend their instructional time in a classroom together, but our specials/enrichment classes and recesses are mixed with the other grade level classes at our school. Students can also apply from out-of-district and be accepted into our program, and all they have to do is pay tuition for being out-of-district (which, compared to other private schools in the area, is extremely low). A lot of people often worry that moving schools or being bused from a home school is too hard on a gifted child, but for my personal class, I have not experienced that yet. Our kids are so excited to be at school, and they create new friendships so quickly with their peers that it almost goes by unnoticed.

Instead of our highly gifted population getting pulled out by a gifted specialist for 2 hours a week (side-note: I am not advocating that these specialist positions do not need to exist, nor am I communicating that their job or role in a school is unnecessary)- our highly gifted population is housed within classrooms that compact curriculum, accelerate content, individualize learning goals, and teach with the gifted child in mind, incorporating gifted instructional strategies and activities that stimulate and challenge the brain while moving up the ladder of higher level thinking in Bloom's Taxonomy. We do it all- we teach the state standards while simultaneously approaching them through a gifted lens, pacing through them as needed. We use Thinking Hats, we use FFOE, we teach and discuss Intellectual Traits, we use choice menus and boards and incorporate independent study into our daily routine, we use Depth and Complexity Icons and learning strategies...we are doing the best we can to infuse the structures and strategies best used for teaching gifted children while at the same time making sure they leave us knowing what they need to do as decided by the state. Whew!

We don't typically keep our kids in lower-levels of thinking, reporting or telling information, but have them take the things they learn or discover to higher levels, by applying it, synthesizing it, evaluating or creating something new to show their learning and gifts and strengths. Self-led and student-driven, our students take ownership of their learning, and work at a pace that fits their needs. We move quickly, we go deeper, we stretch wider with more complexity, and we cut out all of the fluff stuff. We do things that matter, especially to them- things that intrigue them and play on their interests, things that progress them to the next level of thinking, things that they don't groan about or say "I already know this." If we ever get to something they have already mastered, we assess that and quickly move on- we don't expect them to stay there. The freedom we are given to do these things in our classroom keeps our students engaged, learning at new levels and learning new content, and I am excited to say that none of my students have ever told me that they are bored in our room.

GCISD has recognized the need for a specialized program and classroom like this, and they didn't stop at it just being an idea- they gave that idea life. And now, because of people who gave it life, we are serving about 90 highly gifted students in our academy whose needs are daily being met.

It's not about being elitist- sometimes people think that putting gifted children in their own category or in their own room can be, but think of it this way. A bell curve measuring general intellectual ability (GIA) has a mean/average score of 100, scores within the average range being that of 85-115. A child with a learning disability typically falls below the 70-85 range, two standard deviations below the mean or greater. These children are served in ways that aide them in learning alongside of their disability, with best fit practices and specialists and classrooms and curriculum designed for their needs.

On the other side of the bell curve, two standard deviations away from the mean, are gifted children. A gifted child typically has a GIA of 130 or higher, and a highly gifted child has a GIA of 140+. This highly gifted population is who our academy serves. These are the children that are already designing airports in foreign countries and researching issues about cancer and leukemia and playing the piano like a college student. These are the children who encompass that list of 9 attributes in my previous post so fiercely that it begs a separate classroom for them to thrive in. It begs a separate classroom for them to learn alongside their intellectual peers, challenge one another, and not be forgotten or underserved because of all the other needs in the classroom.

I would know- I taught regular first grade for four years. With all of the needs thrown into a single classroom, and with students in your room on every point of the bell curve explained above, the task of differentiation and individualization is one of near impossibility. You do the best you can, but at some point during the day, every day, there is at least 1 child whose needs aren't being met. There is at least 1 child who isn't being challenged enough, who isn't being helped or scaffolded enough, who isn't being motivated enough, and so on. It's just...the truth. You can work yourself blue in the face, stay until 10pm every night, but you will nearly kill yourself trying. (I have.) It's because of this sad reality that gifted children are often not getting their needs met. They usually are given the same work, assignments, tasks, readings, etc. as other children (and respond to these things in different ways- obediently or begrudgingly, yet the reality that they remain unchallenged still exists), sit through the same lessons as everyone else, and maybe they might have some small project on the side or a bumped up math workshop game, but the bulk of their instructional day is not on their intellectual level. I know this because I've been there. I'm not judging other teachers in the regular classroom and picking at them, writing about what they are and aren't doing well, because I know they do all that they can. I don't blame them- it would be like blaming a stay-at-home-mom for not seeing one child getting into all of the art supplies and drawing on the walls because she was in the other room changing another child's diaper. Sometimes you just can't be everything, and things happen. I just know this to be the case because I've been in that place, and it's just an impossible task to challenge a gifted child all day long, in content, process, and product- not just one of those, but in all three. Not to mention, some state laws of response to intervention (RtI) say that a teacher with struggling students must work with those students individually or in a small group 30 minutes per day at least 4 days per week (sometimes more) that is outside of the normal small group reading or math time- and state laws mostly adhere to spending additional time with those struggling with content, not excelling beyond it. There aren't laws in place for X amount of time spent per week challenging a gifted child. And, because our gifted children are seen as "okay" and the ones not struggling, they get less of our teacher time. Struggling students receive the most of a teacher's time in any given day, and it's not that they don't need it- but what about the rest? (Side note: Sometimes our gifted children are also struggling students in various content areas. Remember, giftedness does not equal high achieving. However, even a struggling gifted child has different ways their needs could be met, and it does not mean that they struggle in every academic area.)

Imagine how much farther, deeper, wider a gifted child could go if they received 30 minutes of individual or small group instruction on their academic/cognitive level per day- outside of normal small group reading or math time- just to focus on their individual needs as a gifted child. And that's just 30 minutes per day! Now imagine how much farther, deeper, and wider a gifted child could go if they received their entire instructional day on their academic and cognitive, intellectual level with peers on their similar level so that a teacher can move them all along at an accelerated, exciting pace. That's what my colleagues and I get to do everyday for our students. 

The reason I write this is because many of the comments pulled at my heartstrings and lit a fire within me- and I do feel like God has given me more of a platform to speak out due to the unusual and rare nature of what I am getting to do in this specialized classroom. Programs like ours just don't really exist in a widespread way. You can find a few here and there- in North Texas, we've located 3- and my hope is that hearing about our program lights a fire within you to make a change in your local district or school, or present it as an idea that also could be given life. I pray that more programs like ours can exist to better serve the needs of our gifted thinkers.

In the meantime...what do we do? I know of gifted specialists that work tirelessly to meet the needs of the gifted children at their campuses. I know that it isn't necessarily enough for these children, but it is a gift that they are there to serve students in whatever way they can. I also know that many enrichment programs and opportunities for learning outside of the regular school day exist in many districts. Yes, it's still not enough...it doesn't solve the problem...and I wish I had a better answer beyond that. I also know that there is a long way to go for all types of learners- there is no argument here on that point- but since I teach gifted children, I am focusing my writing on them. I bet that many out there teach in specialized settings or programs that better serve dyslexia or learning disabilities, or that have thoughts on how it could be better. I encourage you to write or speak out, too- start designing and dreaming and putting your ideas out there to others who alongside of you will breathe life into them.

I plan on writing more posts in response to the many comments received on my last post, not to mention writing more about exciting things going on in my classroom and life- that is still very important to me, because really this blog started as a reflection tool for my teaching and personal life, and I don't want to stray too far away from that. But now that I have received many thoughtful questions and insight from others across the globe, one thing is for certain- I need to keep writing about gifted education. I invite you to continue to tune in, but to kindly remember that I do not claim to be an expert on any of this, nor do I claim to know how it all works. This is only my first year on this journey of being an exclusive teacher of the gifted (and it sure has been a new + exciting one!), but I do not claim to know all of the answers. So-- if you would like to travel alongside me on this path-- please accept that I am a broken, imperfect woman who is working on dying to myself everyday instead of striving to be perfect; who is trying to be faithful with what God has given me; who is trying to be a voice advocating for this misunderstood group of humankind.

If you teach for or know of a program like ours, reach out to me in the comments below. We are dying to collaborate and communicate with teachers teaching in exclusive gifted academies or schools. If you just would like to add to the conversation, continue to post. My students blog in our classroom and they love the thrill of receiving a comment- it means that their voice was heard, and someone took the time to read what they have to say and is sharing back. I shamelessly admit to the same thrill. It's not a self-defining thing, as if I define a post's worth on the amount of comments it receives, but it is an exhilarating thing to communicate globally about global ideas and learn from others around the world. I learned so much and was able to reflect greatly on giftedness thanks to the input of others!


Now it is time for me to get ready for tomorrow's day of learning. We only have a half day due to student-led conferences in the afternoon, but I am super excited for what we have in store this week and next. I will tell you about one thing the students and I are pumped about and then I will go- we are spending the next two weeks on a Dr. Seuss Book Challonge Tournament (yes, "Challonge" is spelled correctly- that's the name of the web site; it's a strategy I heard about from Ian Byrd at the TAGT conference and tweaked to fit our study). We created a bracket of 8 Dr. Seuss books and are having them compete against one another until the students determine a final winner. Students have to respond to each match-up and write a statement of which book should win and why, using reasoning and text evidence. As books advance to the semi-finals, the statements written by the children will get longer as they defend their choices, and for the final match-up, their argument of why they chose their particular winner will be done in one of an array of writing choices, such as a dice poem or acrostic or couplets or important-book style (help with ideas from my campus gifted specialist). Also, whatever book wins in their individual bracket they will then go deeper with as they choose from a tic-tac-toe menu of Depth and Complexity higher-level activities I created. They will also construct a life-size painting of one of the book's characters to go in the hall for our first grade Dr. Seuss Parade at the school. Whew! We also are learning about public officials currently in social studies and researching their different roles and responsibilities, comparing and contrasting them and then picking one office to run for- the students are designing their own individual campaigns that will explain why you would vote for them, what they would do while in office, and how they would change their city/state/country for the better.

Okay- I know I just wrote about two things instead of one- but there are lots of fun things buzzing around here in ASPIRE! Once again, I am thankful for the days I get to spend with these children, I am thankful for the gift of children, I am thankful for education, and I am thankful for a district who thought "outside-the-box" for its students to redefine what education looks like.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

9 Things I Wish People Knew About Highly-Gifted Children

This year I embarked on a new journey, a first of its kind in many ways- to teach a self-contained class of identified highly-gifted and talented first graders. They don't get pulled out by a gifted specialist 2 hours a week- they spend all of their school days, Monday-Friday, in a classroom together, homogeneously grouped and challenged with their highly-gifted peers. In this little class of 11 students, we learn, we challenge ourselves, and we grow. Here are a few things I have learned over the years of teaching pockets of gifted children, but things that I have more clearly defined opinions about since I started teaching this unique demographic this year.

1. They often feel misunderstood...and they often don't even understand themselves.

2. Their development is asynchronous- meaning that just because their cognitive and intellectual development is off the charts, that doesn't mean that other parts of their development (social, emotional) have caught up.

3. That being said, they are more emotional than most children their age- meaning, that they feel things, think things, and experience things much more deeply, differently, than a child their age should. They internalize everything, connect everything, and are quick to remember- slow to forget.

4. They have very specific areas of interest and passion, and love when others cultivate those things in them rather than try to drive or squish it out of them. And, if you can connect anything they do to their interests or passions, chances are, they will enjoy it more and be more willing to do it. (For example, my student doesn't want to write an Eric Carle pattern book? Well, what if it was about Minecraft? Sea animals? Argentina? Bingo- now they are writing, because you tapped into their interest.)

5. They don't need to be told, "You are so smart!" They need to be encouraged for the process they take to get somewhere, for their effort and perseverance through a task, for their ability to view mistakes as learning opportunities rather than extreme failure and loss. When they are told their whole lives how smart they are, the moment they struggle with something it is an identity crisis for them- they utterly break down and are so hard on themselves, because since they are smart, they should be able to do it, right? No...they struggle like anyone else, and they don't know everything- so the more we do to help them understand the value of effort, endurance, patience, and growth- the better.

6. When they say things kind of off-hand and bluntly, or interrupt you when you are telling them about something, or are honest to the point of brutal- they really aren't trying to be mean or disrespectful. They are just honest and extremely literal, can be quick-witted due to the constant connections they are making in their brains, and love sharing the world inside said brain with you. So the next time one catches you off-guard with a brunt of a comment or correction or observation, breathe, count to 3, and address them patiently. They really weren't trying to upset you or overstep your authority- they are just expressing their little creative, wheel-turning minds. This is something I've learned through experience this year with my students, that they aren't often trying to cross boundaries but rather are just wanting to share.

7. They have their own amazing ideas- and they would love the freedom to use, share, implement, and try them out. Sometimes these children can feel caged in by being told what they have to do to achieve a goal or show their learning, and often they have their own ideas of how they want to show you what they know! That's why student choice is so important. Sometimes I can barely let the learning standard or "I Can" statement leave my mouth before they have ideas flowing about how they want to work towards said standard. The thing is, highly-gifted children have their own ideas and innovative ways about how they want to explore and experience the world around them- and they need to be able to have the choice and voice to do so. Within boundaries of course, but these kids need the freedom to work towards a goal or a learning standard in a way that works best for them, or a path that they themselves pave.

For example: (first grade learning standards- origins of holidays and celebrations of Thanksgiving, reading fluency, listening/speaking skills)
Me: We are going to read a Reader's Theatre about the First Thanksgiving. I've already highlighted your parts for you to make it easier to see when it's your turn to read.
Students: *do a first read through of their parts*
Students: *glance around at one another quietly*
Student: "This...isn't a very long play. We don't have many lines."
Other students: "Yeah, we agree. Can we write two new scenes to the play and create props, costumes, and sets for it to perform for our parents?"
...and thus, a play was born. AND they were amazing.

Or, take this example:
Student: "Mrs. Rubinson, on Read-and-Roll I rolled a 6, and it says to write a review of the book or chapter after I'm done...can I create a catchy advertisement for the book on my iPad using PicCollage that reviews the book and tells others why they should read it?"

8. Just because they are highly-gifted doesn't necessarily mean they are high-achieving. It just means they think and see the world differently- mostly through making connections.

9. They still need their parents, teachers, coaches, friends...they may be capable of much, but they still need leaders in their life to facilitate, scaffold, love, and guide them. A more open-minded and creative approach ought to be used when dealing with highly-gifted children in order for their creativity and ideas and dreams to bloom and grow, and, like #1 up there says, they often feel misunderstood and don't often understand themselves- so they need the people in their lives to be their biggest fans.

I love that I get the opportunity to teach, love, shape, instruct, guide, mold, influence, and develop first grade highly-gifted children. I love what they have taught me so far about their little worlds and minds, and I love getting to share it with you.