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"You’re gifted. You should be able to do that without my help!"

Have you heard or used those words before? Many teachers believe that a gifted child should be able to do everything well, should need little assistance with skill development, and should work with other less gifted children to assist them in their learning. These are myths that come from not understanding the needs of these children. The goal for teaching gifted students is the same as the goal for teaching all students: "the independent, confident, competent, lifelong learner who functions well alone or with others."1

Yet gifted students usually learn less new material than any other group in an academic year. Contributing to this problem are a lack of curriculum modification, a lack of exposure to higher level thinking skills, and lowered expectations. My aim here is to show beginning teachers how to identify and understand gifted children, to suggest ways that they can meet the needs of these students, and to provide resources to help them differentiate instruction

Identifying gifted learners

In Chatham County, where I taught for many years, we defined academically or intellectually gifted students as those who performed or showed potential for performing at high levels of achievement when compared with others of their age, experience, or environment. We found these outstanding abilities in students from all cultural groups, across all economic strata, and in all areas of human endeavor.

Beyond this simple definition, a teacher will notice a variety of differences between gifted children and high-achieving children that are merely "bright." Gifted students differ from their classmates in the interests they hold, the speed at which they learn, and the depth of their understanding. Janice Szabos researched and compared gifted learners to bright children in regular classrooms and identified several such distinctions. A bright child, she suggests, knows the answers, but it is the gifted child who asks the questions. Whereas a bright child will enjoy his or her peers, a gifted child will have similar interests to those of an adult. A bright child enjoys school and understands ideas, while a gifted child enjoys learning and constructs abstractions. A bright child is a good memorizer; a gifted child is a good guesser. A bright child will work hard while a gifted child plays around, yet tests well. A bright child may need six to eight repetitions for mastery but a gifted child will only need one or two repetitions. A bright child is a technician; a gifted child is an inventor. A bright child is pleased with his or her own learning, while a gifted child may be highly self-critical. The complete checklist comparing gifted learners with bright children can help you to determine if you indeed have gifted learners in your classroom.

Regular classroom teachers often become frustrated that when high-ability students complete curriculum material faster than other students, they may have "nothing constructive to do." In order to provide academic and intellectual depth for these students, teachers must make some curriculum modifications. Start by focusing your efforts on creating differentiated activities in either reading or math — choose the area you like to teach best — and slowly expand upon these ideas as time permits. Become familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy of Thinking if you are not already. Benjamin Bloom divided thinking into six sequential levels. The lowest levels, Knowledge and Comprehension, require little more than basic recall from students. Next on the hierarchy are Application and Analysis, which require more intricate involvement from both the teacher and the student. Evaluation and Synthesis, at the top of the hierarchy, demand the most complex levels of mental engagement.

Strategies for teaching the gifted

Research has shown that one of the most important things for gifted children is to be with other gifted children, the more often the better. This entails having cluster groups within a grade level, in which the gifted children are grouped together in the areas of their strengths (reading and/or math) while the rest of the grade-level students are grouped heterogeneously. This may sound elitist, but it is not. It merely provides the gifted students with the same learning challenges that other students have.

Where possible, I would recommend that teachers as early as the third grade recombine their classes for reading and/or math. (Always keep in mind that a student is not gifted in all subject areas, just as an athlete is not gifted in all sports.) This type of homogeneous subject grouping makes it easier for teachers to avoid giving gifted students "more of the same" type of problems, reviewing things they already know, expecting them to help less able students. It also allows the teacher to give gifted students greater depth at their own cognitive level rather than simply having them "work ahead" with lessons or resources designed for older students.

Other techniques that are helpful when planning and executing lessons for the high ability students include curriculum compacting, creating learning contracts, designing independent study contracts, and evaluating the work of gifted students. Susan Winebrenner, in Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom, clearly defines, and demonstrates with specific examples, each of these approaches to teaching. I especially found peace of mind when I read the chapter on evaluation. She offers many non-traditional types of scoring options to use when evaluating and grading products. My favorite is for the student to have a list of product options at the onset of a project and the letter grade they are working toward when they choose a particular option. This way, the student decides on the level of complexity toward which he or she wishes to work.

Finding resources

I found Susan Winebrenner’s book Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom to be an excellent resource. She clearly defines the uniqueness of each thinking category. and then she lays the foundation for you to design instructional activities and products which will give all students, but particularly gifted students, experience developing the competencies they need. She reminds us that "gifted students can learn the basic information independently and apply it by spending almost all of their learning time with activities designed around the higher levels of any critical thinking model."2

Engine-Uity has an inexpensive pamphlet based on Bloom’s Taxonomy that is a quick reference guide for teachers to use when planning independent assignments for students. It includes the verbs associated with each type of thinking at each of the six levels and provides a grocery list of more than a hundred ideas for students to demonstrate results of their independent research.

Mark Twain once pointed out that "the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug." I purchased one of Susan’s Winebrenner’s recommended resources, "Super Sentences" (available from Creative Learning Press), to use with my fifth-grade reading cluster group, because I wanted to encourage my gifted students to expand their usable vocabulary. The students and I had lots of positive experiences using the "Super Sentences." I gave the students one sentence a week to complete. Each sentence followed a theme and was composed of a dozen "mystery words." Learning how to pronounce the word and choose the correct definition, then having to "translate" the sentence into simpler terms, forced the students to use the dictionary to a greater depth than they had ever been required to do. Additionally, these "mystery" words presented wonderful opportunities for creative writing stories.

For math, I think that a Marcy Cook math workshop is a must. After seven hours of continued hands-on experiences, and with money to purchase some of her materials, you are set for a year of thought-provoking activities. I used different types of her recommended activities for the cluster groups than I did for the heterogeneous groups, but the results were the same. Lots of energized learning took place.

I would like to close with a reminder that the parents of gifted children and resource teachers are often your best allies. Be sure that parents know the guidelines of the special project on which their child is working. A letter sent home explaining the assignment and its parameters and requesting their signature at the bottom is usually all that is needed. And get friendly with your media specialist! There are many print materials whose articles and activities would benefit lots of teachers. (I found that photocopying the answer sheet to accompany each activity will save you lots of time in the future). And besides, your media specialist probably has a bigger budget than you do

References

1 Dr. Lois F. Roets, Modifying Standard Curriculum and Instructional Strategies for High Ability Students, 4th ed. (Des Moines, Iowa: Leadership Publishers, Inc., 1993).

2 Susan Winebrenner, Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom: Strategies and Techniques Every Teacher Can Use to Meet the Academic Needs of the Gifted and Talented (Minneapolis, Minn.: Free Spirit Publications, 1992), p. 75.