Monthly Archives: March 2018

Meeting the complex needs of gifted learners…one student at a time

In January the Loveland Gifted Team sent a survey out to parents asking for feedback on What topics, questions or information would you be interested in hearing more about and discussed during the parent information night” in the spring. As I was looking carefully at the responses, there were many questions and points that came up that I know I address as a Gifted Intervention Specialist and an ELA teacher. I would like to devote this blog post to sharing what I do to meet these needs, why I use specific instructional approaches, and how I ensure I am not only meeting academic needs but unique learner needs.

First, why do I serve students in ELA only? Well let me start with explaining that the state of Ohio only mandates that school districts identify gifted students; there is no mandate for service or funding for services. The fact that we strive to meet gifted needs without the extra support from the state to as many students as we can says a great deal. This year I see 78 students a day. That is 78 8-10 year olds to get to know and meet diverse needs of. I work with more children than ANY OTHER teacher at LES. Therefore in order to do the best I can, my academic focus has to be narrowed. In fact, I am technically only focusing on 19 reading standards, although I integrate so much more. I am held accountable however for 100% of the ELA growth for 63 students. I get “one hour” on paper a day (in reality it doesn’t always work out that way…) Then for another 15 children I provide enrichment support through computer science/coding activities. As much as I would like to support/service more students in more areas, this is the reality. So again, why “reading only”? Reading is essential for all other content areas and so it is the area that I can have the greatest reach and impact.  (Note that we are working to meet math needs as well at LES, but that could be a whole separate post…)

Now “how do gifted classes differ from regular classes?” While I cannot speak for our other gifted specialists and how they run their classroom, I think I can say that one big difference is that we also incorporate gifted standards. For example, I know that I focus heavily on the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) and the standards they set. There are six programming standards outlined for meeting gifted needs specifically. In the area of “learning environments” alone, take a look at these few and how I address them:  

  • 4.1.1 “Educators maintain high expectations for all students with gifts and talents as evidenced in meaningful and challenging activities.” Expectations are key. I set a VERY high bar so that students have something to WORK TOWARDS. Everything is connected to a “life skill” as well. If students are easily meeting an expectation, then they need the bar raised. My students need work to push them outside of their comfort zone and tasks that diversify their learning “reportoire”.
  • 4.1.3 “Educators create environments that support trust among diverse learners.” Giving our gifted children time to be around like minded peers for a small part of their day helps ensure a “safe place” where they realize they aren’t the “big fish” and they learn they are “not alone”. I work on so many social skills through monitoring their interactions and practicing alternative ways to communicate with peers. They learn empathy for others as I design situations to interact so that I can model ways to respond.
  • 4.1.4 “Educators provide feedback that focuses on effort, on evidence of potential to meet high standards, and on mistakes as learning opportunities.” Feedback is essential and it needs to be constructive. I tell my 3rd graders first thing “I will not put a smiley face and ‘great job’ on work because that does NOT help you grow.” I will point out ways they can keep improving and I always find ways to point out my errors or how I am cultivating a growth mindset myself. Feedback is about working to a higher expectation; over time, my learners appreciate the way we grow over time and will always confess there is still more they can do to continue growing. I try to intentionally create moments for students to make mistakes because I can also be a safe learning environment. One motto is “own it and move on”. When tasks are “easy” or focus on a “cute or flashy” product, there is really not much opportunity for growth. We make learning a PROCESS that never stops.
  • 4.1.5 “Educators provide examples of positive coping skills and opportunities to apply them.” This is critical. I have to set high expectations to help students learn to cope with them. I cannot tell them how to cope; I have to put them into situations that will FORCE them to cope and then I work through it with them. They cannot apply skills without the opportunities to practice them authentically. This means I HAVE to design an environment to make them frustrated and uncomfortable so that I can help them deal with these feelings and cultivate strategies for success.
  • 4.2.1 “Educators understand the needs of students with gifts and talents for both solitude and social interaction.” I learn quickly who prefers to cuddle in a corner and work independently and who thrives on chatting it up. Therefore my routines incorporate and reinforce opportunities for doing what they prefer and how to do what isn’t ‘comfortable’. Routines like regular discussions of texts ensure that we practice and reinforce how to have real conversations because this is a skill needed for life.
  • 4.2.2 “Educators provide opportunities for interaction with intellectual and artistic/creative peers as well as with chronological-age peers.” This is what makes pull out into a specific “gifted class” so key. When I consult with the teachers I share students with it helps me coordinate to meet varied social needs. Often kids open up around intellectually similar peers so my room is a haven for them; however they also need to learn to interact successfully with chronological-age peers as a ‘real-life’ skill. This is why I work so much on discourse strategies for life.

Of course am I not only working to deliver the grade level curriculum to students, but I am doing so at an advanced/accelerated pace AND I am mindful of these needs. Sometimes my focus isn’t always academic. There are days that I do more social/emotional coaching than language arts goals. Overall, this is how I try to plan intentionally to meet the two…

I use 2 very specific instructional approaches to set the stage for meeting hundreds of needs. They each center around a predictable, structured routine. They each integrate a homework component as well. I have written many a blog post on my homework views which I believe are age appropriate and clearly outline what I would expect. I am also reasonable about working with children and families to ensure this expectation stays age appropriate and reasonable. Homework expectations give me an opportunity to extend situations for parents  to continue helping their child work through needs. While this may not be “easy” or “comfortable”, the primary goal is to work as your partner to help your child take personal responsibility and let me guide them to build skills for independence and self-reliance. Therefore, I’ll address why my routines incorporating homework help meet these unique needs: anxiety, perfectionism, low self-esteem, motivation, organization, risk-taking, feelings of frustration or being overwhelmed.

Again, the best way to help a child learn to cope with issues is to put them into situations that force them to face these issues. They cannot apply strategies or learn them without authentic real-problems. Therefore I create some “stress” by having a high expectation that I help students work towards meeting. I will create a sense of being overwhelmed by outlining what I expect, which for 3rd and 4th graders ends up being the writing of a response to reading letter each week and assigned reading from a novel with the preparing of notes to come to class to discuss. The key to this is that it is a consistent expectation that I help children develop OVER TIME. In short, I scaffold to meet their needs and each week they build stamina and fluency. Think of it as training for a marathon…I tell them how “far” they are going to eventually be expected to run. Then we take small steps to get there. I ask parents to trust in this process because over the past 5 years the growth and progress children make is phenomenal. They see it when we self-assess and reflect; and look of pride in their faces is worth every hurdle they feel along the way!

What might this look like? Well it always depends on the child, but here’s a general idea by some common issues I see:

Anxious children will flip out because they will think they CANNOT do it. I will reassure them and offer to help at school. I will take whatever effort they give and provide small bits of feedback to steadily grow. How a parent can help: reassure their child that Mrs. Weber is not asking anything of them she didn’t think they could do. Remind them that they can and should ask Mrs. Weber for help. Tell them you will email me if they still can’t seem to handle it and let it go at home; I always email back telling you to tell them we will work it out together. I haven’t lost an anxious child yet!

Perfectionist children often either take excessive time or they procrastinate and put their expectation off. We’ve got that covered here too. First I reinforce that I will honor any effort they give me and they learn really quick that no matter how “perfect” something is, we all have room to grow. They will ask for constant reassurance “is this right?” My answer “well what do you think?” or I work them through the idea that most of what we do is objective, so there isn’t a right or wrong answer or way. Perfectionists need time to learn to trust me.  If they lean on the procrastinating end, then let them “fail” here and show up unprepared. They learn I am not mad. I work through it with them and we talk about what they can do differently for next time. Perfectionists need to experience “failure” more than anyone else so they can learn that the world will still turn and life will go on. Perfectionists need the homework expectation to help them learn how to “relax” and how to realize that in real life they are going to have obligations that they will just do their best to meet and sometimes they will “crush it”, sometimes they won’t, but always they will come out fine. I love my perfectionists because I get to help them embrace the ‘imperfections’ we all have. So for the parents of these perfectionists, let your child try and fail with me because nothing I would ever ask them to do is out of their reach. If necessary, set a timer and tell them they go with what they have in that time frame. We will navigate through it.

Low self-esteem children learn that over time they grow when they use and apply feedback. It is so exciting to pull out a child’s very first attempt at something and let them marvel in how much progress they have made. The best defense against an “I can’t do it” attitude is to prove it wrong. These are the children that I will provide small goals through feedback to build confidence. These are the children that will need to feel validation for any effort or contribution they make. Self-assessment and peer assessment are especially difficult for these children so I find that I spend more time building confidence through setting small goals together.

Motivation… this is tricky. For most children holding them accountable is motivating enough. I typically only give a few “oops” I forgot or “I didn’t because…” excuse moments before I put consequences in place. This is where life expectations come in. I share regularly how if I pay my electric bill late, I still owe a fee; and I don’t get rewarded for doing what is expected of me (“when is the last time your mom or dad got pulled over for stopping at a red light like they were supposed to?”) I’m that teacher. I do not reward students for doing what I expect. In life our motivation to come to time to work is that we want/need to keep our jobs. Homework to me is their job, and so I will hold them accountable and point out when they come unprepared. Usually it means we work out why that happened and how we can plan to make sure we correct it for the next week. Don’t like it? Well I don’t like paying my taxes. I hate filling out the forms…but I do it because I value what my tax contribution means to myself and society and I do it because it is the law. I try to show each child how the assignments I give translate into some skill for life therefore I find that motivation isn’t usually too much of a problem. For the few that it becomes an issue for… then they start to lose privileges in my classroom, which also relates into how not doing what is expected causes a loss of “privileges” in the real world.  (On a side note, my oldest child is/was gifted and UNMOTIVATED, so parents, I feel your pain! She’s 25 now and is starting to get that her lack of motivation has caused her grief. The hardest thing I have ever had to do is not give in and enable her for her decisions to not do what was expected of her.)

Organization skills are hard to teach because I could set a system up for students and it work for about ⅓. Therefore I help students learn ways to be organized that work for them. Furthermore, the best way to get students to learn to cultivate a system that works for them is to give them real reasons to be organized. Traveling between my room to a homeroom to a home means they have to keep many things straight. One of the biggest reasons why I give “homework” is so they can have some practical application here. I count on and expect “oops” moments. My children learn over time to find ways to make sure they bring the book or paper I ask of them. I keep my system simple: everything due on Friday. They can always turn in early, but by Friday they know I am looking. I hold them accountable and will call them out if they are “unprepared”, but it is never to embarrass. Usually it goes like this… “I didn’t do my letter because I was really busy last night.” I answer “well you knew about it Wednesday, and Tuesday, and Monday… hmmm… how might you make sure this doesn’t happen next week?” And then we talk about a plan.  My favorite… “I don’t have my letter/book because my mom didn’t put it in my backpack.” This gets a quick “It is not your mom’s job…it is yours. You need to make sure it gets into your backpack.” We work through the excuses and usually it comes down to executive functioning needs for those who are most in need of extra help. I’m always willing to help a child here, but find that most of the time they just need to be expected to have something to be responsible for outside of class and then accountability for when they “fail” to help them work on systems they can use. Usually when a child is part of developing the system they take more ownership in it and they are much more successful with it. The key is to keep the expectations high and the accountability in place, as well as make the accountability reasonable…relate this to real life too. I’ve been caught many times not having what I needed when I needed it. These lessons have stuck with me more than any other. These years are perfect for letting your child make mistakes and learn. They realize that I will be disappointed, but never mad and always, ALWAYS willing to help them figure out how to make it better next time.  

Risk taking occurs when the reluctant child starts to see that the small steps we take pay off. I give focused, specific feedback to get the process started and then gradually release the supports so that these types of children no longer seek the reassurance they needed initially. When getting the opportunity to work with children for two years, I find that once they trust the feedback I give, the more confident they become. I also see students start to really take risks in the discussions we have weekly on the texts they read outside of class. Shy, quiet students start to shine through the practice and routine over time.

Frustration/feeling overwhelmed is something I intentionally create. I make this happen so that children can experience this with me and I can help them work through it. Learning to cope with a high expectation in a safe environment helps prepare them for the challenges they will face later in life. Dealing with not meeting an expectation lets them experience disappointment that we can easily overcome through talking about feelings and “re-prioritizing” what is really important. We work through lots of tears! Tears now help create stronger, more resilient souls. However, I depend on parents to help me adjust and gage the level of frustration their child goes through. If it feels like too much, we communicate to adapt. A quick email lets me know how a child is responding at home and I can then customize to meet that child’s needs.

These are just some of the ways more common needs are met through my expectations to extend learning beyond the classroom through homework. As a reminder, I NEVER expect more than 10 minutes per grade level (30 for 3rd; 40 for 4th) TOTAL for all subjects. I advocate working to fit family needs and even suggest things like setting a timer to ensure a healthy balance.

The next big routine involves social skills. I ask that my students read select novels outside of class and prepare for a weekly discussion (preparation depends on the text and the current standards we are working on in class). Every Friday we have small group discussion about the assigned text portion for the week. The goal is to have a common reading experience to build discourse around. I explicitly teach skills for reciprocal conversation (like eye contact, active listening, taking turns, respectfully disagreeing). Students become very skilled at collaboration, which is especially important for gifted children who need structured practice with how to relate to peers appropriately and effectively. This occurs over time with practice, feedback, and more practice. I hold the children accountable to themselves and each other by recording conversations so that I can review later when needed for students to listen to and reflect upon.

Through embedding discussion systematically and routinely, students get a chance to practice effective communication skills in a safe environment. This too addresses the unique social needs because again I create a situation where children have to develop and expand coping skills.

Clearly what I do in my classroom is way more than provide “ELA” instruction. Through ELA standards, I am growing gifted learners. I am meeting their unique needs using two core instructional practices that enable me to customize and differentiate learning. Furthermore these two practices build communication and critical thinking skills for life.

Tools or toys? Ensuring that our young tigers learn to use digital access safely and responsibly

Parents of students I serve know that I harness the instructional power of digital tools. Sometimes heavily. With safety and security being on everyone’s minds these days, now is a good time to review what, why, and how digital access can and should be used in any classroom.

First and foremost, digital safety and responsibility is taught and instilled. When students log in, they are entering a new environment. We wouldn’t take our children to the store and say “see you in an hour”. We wouldn’t drop them off at the park and say “have fun while I run an errand”. Therefore we shouldn’t let them log in without ensuring we see their screens and monitor their use. They are 8-10 and will make mistakes. They are curious and will open a tab or initiate a search. It is our jobs as teachers and parents to be there when those moments happen. Of course we work to reduce them, but they can and will happen. Therefore, we teach children that navigating the Internet is just like going out into the real world. There are wonderful things to discover, but safety and security is always number one.

We are prepared to monitor. In my classroom, my children learn quickly that I will check their history, their digital footprint, and I will hold them accountable. Something as simple as giving into the temptation of a “game” will cost them access in my room because I stress that my devices are tools and are privileges. I am prepared to reinforce a consequence for using a Chromebook in an “off task” way just as I would take away a pencil if it were used in a way other than to write. This is a non-negotiable.

What do I have my students use digital tools for? Well where do I start? First are productivity tools like gSuite applications to demonstrate learning and “create” products for others to learn from us. While fancy fonts and flashy images are fun, it is always about the quality of content. We use digital tools to access up-to-date and current information. This then leads to the WHY? As we read, we come across words we don’t know and honestly a quick online search of a definition is much faster and efficient than grabbing a dictionary. We look up a word in question and get back to the discussion or task at hand. Often a discussion leads us to wanting to know more about a related topic, so we search that too. It is about adopting the mindset that our Chromebooks, iPads, whatever are TOOLS. The reality is that we want our learning energy to be focused on thinking and problem solving; on collaborating and communicating. Digital tools help us get the information we need and share the thinking we have in ways that transcend how we learned as children.

Now how to ensure… well it is easy to let a device pull us off task. I fall victim myself. So I teach children about self-regulating and monitoring. At least once an hour I am asking… is that an on task choice? Children can get distracted with a chromebook or a piece of paper. There really is no difference. What is different is they can hide their “distractions” easier when online, so I make it clear that I can and will access their screens anytime. Until they earn some trust, I have them sit where I can see their screens. It is that simple. Once they earn trust, I still walk around the room and take their Chromebook for inspection. They learn quickly that a misstep carries a big consequence.

This leads me to my attitudes on “controls”. I am 100% in support of filters to help with safe searching. Even with these filters inevitably my curious learners might get a hit on something we didn’t expect that may not be fully age appropriate and so I teach them how to navigate away. I see no difference between steering a child away from a bulletin board or ad in public that I do not feel is “kid-appropriate”. Our kids are going to experience and see content we wish they wouldn’t so we have to teach them to responsibly navigate away from it. I want to shelter my students but I also know that they are going to need life skills to know how to cope or handle something when I am not there to do it for them.

Then there are the “temptations”. When I was in school, we passed notes. Our curious kids today can send a doc to each other or an email. Same curiosities and ways to be “off task”… the tools and delivery have changed. When I was in school we made up games to distract ourselves in class. Ever sit in class and play tic-tac-toe with a classmate on paper? Well today we can open a new tab and play a math game.  Again, same desire to lose focus but different way to do it. So is the answer taking the device or blocking sites? I don’t think so. I think we teach kids to self-regulate and monitor; recognize they are letting themselves get distracted and how to get back on track. This too is a life skill…

So with letting our kids harness the power of digital tools, we also have to help them be responsible and we have to monitor for safety. It is really that simple. It takes time, energy, and effort on our part but in doing so we are helping our children learn to be the learners and citizens they need to be. For parents of students I serve, know that I am doing everything I can to ensure your children are using devices responsibly and safely when they are with me but also to instill those lessons for life.