Teach It Like They’re Gifted

The picture is from an immigration unit I did with students a few years back. It was the first time I realized that ELL and Honors could both work on deep-thinking, creative projects. Language didn’t have to marginalize. 

When I went to the gifted training, they promoted a framework that had the following characteristics (this is from memory and by no means exhaustive)

  • A respect of student autonomy. Students could customize the projects, using choice menus, student interest surveys, and developing their own essential questions. 
  • Thematic units. Not simply topical themes, but big themes. Students were given the opportunity to wrestle with a “man versus machine” concept, for example. There was a strong emphasis on students making web-like connections between topics and subjects rather than treating learning like a set of silos.
  • Inquiry-based: Students were encouraged to begin with inquiry and “follow their passions.” They had the permission to geek out and go deep in answering their own critical thinking questions.
  • Project-based: Learning didn’t need to be a set of assignments. It could be a larger, integrated project where the learning fits into a context. 
  • Reflection: There was a strong emphasis on letting students reflect on not only what they learned but on why they were learning it.
  • They got to play: Whether it was an in-depth simulation or a short game of Set, students had the chance to play together.
  • Tech-Integration: Students got a chance to use blogs, Google docs, videos and podcasts. 
  • Creativity: Students got to make things and improve things. They were encouraged to think differently and to solve problems. 
  • Critical Thinking: Students were asked to analyze facts, think divergently, see new perspectives, hold onto paradox, synthesize information, curate sources, and evaluate information. And often this fit into things like debates and mock trials where they could hash ideas out in a specific context. 
So, when I had the class with the small group of gifted students, I ran with it. This was my permission to do what I already believed in. And yet . . . I had students who had just left the ELL program and a few who were still ELL. I quickly found that they thrived in this same framework.
What if the authentic, project-based education we promote for gifted students is good for every student?
This year, I have all English Language Learners. I have a four-block constraint to work within (an hour of grammar, hour of reading, hour of oral conversation/vocabulary and an hour of writing). I know that I will need to add scaffolding, such as sentence stems, front-load additional vocabulary and explicitly teach grammar.

However, I want to teach within the same authentic, project-based framework that I used last time I taught self-contained (all subjects).  I want to view my students as having unique gifts that allow them to be deep thinkers. I want to see them wrestle with hard concepts, tackle some difficult texts and express a voice of confidence. I want them to see that any well-intentioned teachers who said, “these poor kids . . .” were unable to see their potential.

I think maybe I’ll tell them that they are honor students who just need a little work on their language acquisition.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

More about John

11 responses

  1. This is both a shallow and a dangerous view of gifted education. Would you suggest that we teach all students as if they were MIMR? How about autistic? Gifted education is special education. It's there for a reason.

    1. Since John is doing everything badly, I hope you soon start your own blog so that I can learn how to do everything properly.

      Actually, as a human who is probably "shallow," I would probably have to shoot for the middle between your lofty approach and John's approach because I could not meet your standards.

      By the way, I can see why combining critical thinking with play might be dangerous. Who knows what could happen if students used Sun Tzu's principles to get out of doing homework?

    2. Thanks, LK. I laughed aloud at the Sun Tzu reference. Very nice.

  2. All education should differentiate for the learner. To this extent the anonymous comment has a point. I think it speaks to our systemic economy and pragmatism though. Educational resources are "limited", we need to exploit economies of scale: large classrooms, mass media, standardized assessment, uniformity, time management. Give most learners their limited share of the available resources, then allocate additional resources that those who "really need it." We are triaging our students, and when you have to do that, your perceptions and expectations of each group are affected.

    I see it so clearly. When I taught in a small rural school with two-three grade splits and enrolements as low as twelve students in a class, and rarely more than eighteen, autonomy was essential. It seemed natural to listen to individuals and negotiate differentiation and individualization. I miss those years. I think I have carried that approach with me down the years. I teach in an urban school with a single grade at the moment, but treating each student as someone with gifts and self directed interests remains important to me. When the year ends, many of them have just not gotten it together. That is okay, they all had some moment when it did feel autonomous and uniquely appreciated.

    1. You're right. It really is about differentiation and freedom. Triaging. I hadn't thought much about it, but I think that's the right term. I love the notion of negotiating individualization and differentiation. Hopefully, I can pull that off this year.

  3. I heartily agree with your approach. You aren't talking about teaching them exactly the same as your gifted students, just using some of the same approaches with differentiation for the needs of the ELL students. I am an ELL teacher (and a graduate school instructor of future ELL teachers) and all of the ideas you talked about fall under best practices for ELL students. Adjustments will, of course, need to be made for the individual language levels of your students, but in a good ELL classroom, there lots of differentiation with the ELL population. Deep thinking is often neglected with ELL students, and they need it desperately. In addition, many ELL students are, in fact, gifted. Every year I have recently exited ELL students from my classes get tested for our school's gifted program and qualify.

    The individualization helps students connect what they're learning with their background knowledge and culture. This is often neglected in a traditional classroom, and this leads to identity problems and a disconnect between their lives and school. In addition, ELL students are often behind other students on technology due to language barrier and financial hardship. Giving them the opportunity to master technology is especially important for them.

    Some things I think might help are differentiated sentence frames (depending on the levels of the students) and frequent and varied cooperative structures with more language support. You will need to do in-depth vocabulary instruction. I like the Frayer Model for that, myself.

    I am looking forward to hearing how your teaching goes this year. Excellent post.

    1. Thanks. I really do believe in using language-sensitive approaches. I'm just suggesting that ELL kids be given some of the same opportunities as gifted kids.

  4. The one thing I was perpetually frustrated with in my teaching when I was in AZ, was the assumption that if a student's reading level was low, that their ability to critically think was also low. Sometimes there was a correlation, but certainly not always. Recognizing that students of all abilities need to be engaged in relevant, interesting and compelling learning opportunities … is wonderful. Love it.

    1. You're right. That assumption is pervasive and the system needs a paradigm shift. The attitude of "these poor kids" goes alongside it. We need to see their potential and help them work toward that.

  5. I love this. I teach physical science to 9th graders and I get most of the spec ed kids. This is how I teach. Expect more and they will deliver. Dixie

  6. I was in gifted & talented programs back in 1970s in New Jersey. Great programs that were just like what you describe above. They were pedagogically advanced for their day…. I am so thankful now to have had those experiences then and try to give my students opportunities like what you describe (and what I lived) whenever appropriate. ~Robin @rgmontgomery

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