Why Aren’t My Students Completing Challenge Assignments?

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Whether through remote learning or in the classroom, it can be frustrating when our most capable students do not embrace the challenge and enrichment activities that teachers assign. What is holding these students back, and how can teachers provide additional support to help students achieve their potentials? 

Re-energizing students to embrace both in-school and remote learning challenges starts with reflecting upon and addressing issues that may underlie three, sigh-wrapped excuses sometimes overheard from advanced learners:

Student Excuse #1: “This Challenge Work is Boring.”

Potential Issues and Suggestions for Teachers…

Issue: My “extra challenge” work generally engages students in my classroom. But with remote learning, even my advanced students seem disinterested.

Suggestion: Because your assignment works well in the classroom, the problem may exist within the lesson delivery. Try creating a motivating “hook” by providing different contexts to introduce learning such as online chats, videos, podcasts, or snail mail.

Issue: The inquiry project I provided centered around engaging video clips and current events, but the advanced students didn’t even click the links.

Suggestion: Do students feel that these assignments matter? Is the assignment personally and culturally relevant to students in the classroom? Try centering the project around a topic that directly impacts the student and/or the student’s community. Students can create a presentation, solution, or opinion letter to share with other students in a school display, in the local news, or with a panel of stakeholders. At the outset of a project, motivate students by letting them know the “audience” with whom they will have the opportunity to share purposeful work.

Issue: I chose an engaging enrichment project for students about oceans; surprisingly, my advanced students didn’t dive in.

Suggestion: Perhaps it is time to provide students with more choice. For limited choice, try challenging your students to come up with questions about oceans–such as questions that cannot be answered with a single “Google search.” To provide even more choice, allow students to choose a topic of interest and then come up with several questions about that topic. From their own lists, students can evaluate questions and choose the most provocative one to explore. 

Issue: My student was initially interested in the biographical research project about famous women in STEM but never turned in the poster.

Suggestion: Students may stay engaged with projects that challenge them to create something new, so think of some fresh ways for students to show what they have learned. The possibilities for new products are limitless… a student-written “page” from a diary that talks about an important day in the subject’s life and why it mattered, a drawing of three “gifts” that would have been most appreciated by the subject, a movie clip about the life of the subject, a mobile featuring several symbols that represent the subject with a written rationale for each symbol…

Student Excuse #2: “This Challenge Work is too Difficult!”

Potential Issues and Suggestions for Teachers…

Issue: I know the work is not too difficult for my student. If he would just read the directions… 

Suggestion: Sometimes it is tempting to assign challenge work to advanced learners with the assumption that they can embark on their own. However, sorting through directions, especially with a multi-step, challenge assignment can be daunting, even for capable learners. Try setting aside time to meet with students to read and talk through directions together.  If enrichment is being offered to the entire class, take a moment to fully explain the project and the directions during a weekly or daily “enrichment project highlight.” Another idea–ask students to outline or repeat the directions to you before starting the project.

Issue: My student seemed enthusiastic about solving this multi-step math problem, but as soon as she came to the tricky part, she gave up.

Suggestion: Advanced learners may shut down when challenges arise because they are used to completing them with ease. Moreover, because some advanced learners become accustomed to knowing the answers and receiving recognition for achievement, they may fear that making mistakes or failing might indicate that they “are not smart enough.” In order to help these students develop a more positive, growth mindset, educators need to help them understand that struggles and mistakes are a part of learning. Like all learners, they need tools and strategies to confront challenges when they arise. Try working with your student to create an “action plan” for meeting challenges when assignments get difficult and help is not immediately available. Strategies may include:

    • When the answer to a question or problem is not immediately apparent, focus on trying the problem for 5-10 minutes. If after that time, a solution is not clear, write a specific question about the problem and/or what is not understood to submit to the teacher.
    • Step away from the problem to do another activity. Return to the assignment later with fresh eyes.
    • Create a list of online/text resources and references that may provide hints or guidance.
    • If computation is the challenge, substitute “easy numbers” and try the problem again.

Issue: My advanced student usually completes enrichment work at school but often does not even finish grade level work at home during remote learning.

Suggestion: Unique challenges can arise during remote learning when teachers are unable to personally observe students. In this case, try reaching out to the student to touch base about the learning experience at home. Be mindful that access, skills with, or preferences for technology can impact learning. Especially for younger students, this may also be an appropriate time to collaborate with a student’s parents or caregivers. In addition to informing you about issues or events happening at home that are impacting student learning, parents can provide valuable insights by sharing observations. A few questions that you might ask parents include the following:

    • Does your child show more sustained attention/interest in certain subjects?
    • Are there activities that your child is especially motivated to complete (e.g., problem-solving, writing projects, videos)?
    • What teacher-assigned challenge/enrichment activities engage your child?
    • Are there activities that your child tends to finish quickly and/or appears to have already mastered?
    • In what subjects does your child struggle or show frustration?
    • Are there patterns that you observe (e.g., times of day, surroundings) in which your child seems more engaged in learning?
    • How does your child respond when challenged? (e.g., Does your child ask questions or try multiple strategies to find a solution? Does your child tend to avoid difficult or unfamiliar learning tasks?

Student Excuse #3: “I Don’t Have Time to Do This Challenge Work.”

Potential Issues and Suggestions for Teachers…

Issue: My advanced students earn 100% on the practice math problems and reading comprehension questions that I assign, but they never take the extra time to do challenge work. 

Suggestion: Although advanced learners may enjoy school work, they may prefer to fill their “extra time” with other interests, friends, or hobbies. So how can teachers encourage them to make time for a more meaningful, deeper project? It may be unnecessary for advanced learners to complete that page of practice problems or a list of reading comprehension questions assigned to students who are working at grade level. Instead, try assigning two or three of the more difficult problems/questions from the grade-level assignment, and replace practice problems and lower level questions with an enrichment activity.

Issue: My student seemed excited about the assigned enrichment project and indicated that she would complete it, but she never turned it in.

Suggestion: Advanced students may not excel in every area, and sometimes executive functioning skills need special focus. Distracted by other time commitments, interests, and misplaced papers or assignments, advanced learners may struggle to follow through with assignments. The following supports may help your students follow through on assignments and increase student ownership:

    • Provide an online or written “checklist” of the components of an assignment that need to be completed during the day/week.
    • When the project is assigned, ask your student to estimate how much time each component will take and create a schedule indicating the days/times reserved for work on the assignment. (It is helpful to have the student approve this schedule with both the teacher and the parent. Encouraging communication between parents and students may help to avoid family scheduling conflicts that can impact progress, especially with respect to long-term assignments.)
    • Sometimes advanced learners have many ideas and find it difficult to settle on one topic or choice for inquiry and research projects, or to settle on a strategy for problem solving. This can be overwhelming for some students and may make it difficult for them to get started. Try front-loading the activity with time set aside for students (1) to engage in divergent thinking and brainstorming, and (2) to evaluate options and choose a question or strategy to explore.

Issue: I give up on coming up with projects for my advanced learners. I have no idea what my students do with all of their time when they could be learning.

Suggestion: We may not be certain about how advanced and gifted students spend their time, but most assuredly their intellectual energy goes somewhere. Asking students about their interests and hobbies can be a great start for understanding conflicts that may impact learning. Even better, it can fuel ideas for individual or small-group interest-based learning projects. Start by asking students to write a “how to” or create a lesson to teach an aspect of their favorite activity.  For students who have intense interests, learning models, such as “Genius Hour,” where students can explore their own passions, provide an engaging springboard to motivate student learning and invention. Try seeing where the journey takes your advanced learners when you give them the reins.



Seeking Enriching Summer Outings for your Children? Travel Back in Time

58448745890__2DE2966D-E3DB-44D4-84A0-3E1132798812Do your summer family plans include visiting a United States historic site with your children? If not, perhaps it is time to rediscover a less-trodden path.

Although history presents a treasure trove of knowledge, visits to historical sites in the United States are decreasing. In fact, a study reported by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2016 found that “The percentage of people reporting at least one [historic site visitation] in the previous year fell by more than a third from 1982 to 2012, with declines across most age groups.[1]

Statistics also show that the number of students pursuing a history major has declined more than for any other major. [2] Perhaps this to some extent reflects public education’s  focus on encouraging Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (“STEM”) skills to prepare learners for the 21st Century job market. Moreover, over the past several years state testing has focused primarily on assessing mathematics and reading skills.  

Although the study of History may seem to be on the educational “back burner” these days, it remains critical that today’s children — tomorrow’s leaders — have a deep understanding of their past and learn from the lessons it teaches. Visiting historic sites is an engaging way for parents to nurture our children’s appreciation and understanding of the past, as well as the experiences and perspectives of those from different cultural backgrounds. 

If you are traveling “back in time” this summer, here are 8 suggestions to enrich your child’s understanding of history by maximizing your visits to historic places:

1). Explore the Website: Before visiting a historic site, check the website to find information about tours, maps, and special events that may be happening on the day of your visit. If pictures are available, take a virtual tour of the site with your child and ask him or her to identify points of interest for the visit. (See, for example, the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site – Collinsville, Illinois)

2). Visit the Library: Before your visit, shop the library for books about the site(s) you plan to explore on your adventure. Display the books in your home where your child can access them and read about the site. (Be creative and look for books from multiple genres: non-fiction, poems, fiction, and picture books that may talk about the place you are visiting.)

3). Bring Background Music: What music did the people who inhabited your site at the place and time enjoy/create? To enrich the experience, bring some relevant music along for the car ride!

4). Choose/Map Specific Points of Interest: Before visiting, show your child a map, book, or website about the site.  Your child should pick 2-3 points of special interest to him/her. If there is a site map, be sure to ask your child to locate points of interest and use the map to find it when you are at the site.  

5). Talk About Perspectives/Points of View: Frequently, a historic site will present events from a variety of perspectives/viewpoints that represent different cultures, roles, and socio-economic groups. Challenge your child to identify different perspectives represented at the site (for example child vs. adult; minority perspectives; socio-economic). Role play by having each family member take 30 minutes to view the site “in the shoes” of another person-(e.g. a woman who lived at the time, an indigenous inhabitant, a government leader, a child, an immigrant). Respectfully share your thoughts, revelations, and questions; this may open additional questions for your family/child to explore and research after the visit. 

6). Encourage Questions: Have your child brainstorm several questions he/she may have about the historical site and choose 2-3 questions to answer on the visit. Your child should record these questions and look for the answers during your tour. With your supervision (and as appropriate), encourage your child to ask questions of tour guides/volunteers as needed to direct them to answers and/or collect additional information.

7). Try a Recipe: Research recipes from the time period and/or region of the historic site. (Sometimes recipes are available on site-for example in a pioneer village.) Try a recipe in your kitchen at home.

8).  Keep a Travel Journal: Keep a family scrapbook of the historical sites that you have visited.  Include maps of the sites, pictures, and notes about observations made on your visit. In the back of the journal, create a page of sites that are on your list to explore in the future.   


*For historical sites to visit in Illinois, explore the Illinois Office of Tourism Website-Historic Sites in Illinois


[1 ]”Humanities Indicators,” American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Feb. 2016. Retrieved at https://www.humanitiesindicators.org/content/indicatordoc.aspx?i=101

[2] Schmidt, Benjamin, M.“The History BA Since the Great Recession.” Perspectives on History. The American Historical Association. November 26, 2018. Retrieved at: https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/december-2018/the-history-ba-since-the-great-recession-the-2018-aha-majors-report


“Fudging It” — So Much for the Easy Way…

The following is a summary of this morning’s attempt to make “easy” holiday fudge

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(1).  While mixing ingredients, I discovered that I bought “evaporated milk” instead“sweetened condensed milk.”

(2). While trying to substitute “evaporated milk” for “sweetened condensed milk” by boiling the evaporated milk with sugar, I observed as the concoction overflowed over the stove and onto the floor–a very sticky mess!

(3). While cleaning up the mess, I noticed that I melted the wrong kind of chocolate chips in the microwave.

(4).  While pouring the whole, sad mixture into the pan to refrigerate anyway, I realized that I forgot to spray the pan with non-stick coating as the recipe required.

It was a clear disaster, but I’m gearing up to try it again…  

Why not just pan the whole thing?  What could possibly make me want to try again when something that is clearly “easy” for others is so difficult for me? Perhaps I am energized by a few boosts that teachers may find particularly helpful when supporting struggling students:

  • A yummy looking picture of completed fudge: A clear goal in mind about what I am trying to achieve.
  • My desire to include the fudge with a box of cookies that I am mailing to my brother: An authentic, personally relevant context.
  • A walk to the store today, in which I will focus on purchasing the correct type of chocolate chips and a can of the correct “sweetened condensed milk”: A chance to segment the task into smaller, more manageable sections.
  • Stepping away from the fudge disaster to write a blog post: A break to recharge and to rebuild confidence.
  • Per my husband’s suggestion, thinking about heating up my creation to make splendid hot fudge sundaes. An opportunity to engage in creativity and high level thinking skills regardless of learning level.

Perhaps the most impactful way to gain perspective about how to help students to overcome learning challenges is to reflect upon what keeps us going when we “fudge it.”


Ideas for Keeping Discussion Flowing in Reading/Language Arts

20170414_1208091.jpgWith a drought of instructional time, how can teachers support rich, deep whole-group discussion?  Here are a few tips to help purposeful, student-centered discussion flow when class time is limited:

  • Have students choose an engaging, high level question that students may work to answer as a group.  Try providing a short list of teacher-written/textbook questions or student-written questions from which the group can choose.  For example:
    • How would you describe the character in the story as a person?
    • What were the true causes of the event?
    • What is the best evidence that the character made the right choice?
    • What is the most important lesson in this story/chapter?
    • Why do two characters have a different point of view?
  • Once a question is selected for exploration, decide on a time-frame for the group to find the best possible answer.  (Example: We have 8 minutes to find the best answer/textual support for this question. Let’s listen, focus, and build on each other’s ideas for 8 minutes and see what answer we find in that time!
  • Step out of the middle of the discussion; so that students can call on each other.  One student speaks at a time, and students who wish to contribute raise their hands when the student who is speaking has finished his/her thought.  Then, the student who finished speaking should call on the next student. Having students call on each other enables the teacher to monitor the discussion, taking notes on who is participating.  Or, the teacher may wish to record student points and evidence on the board as students engage in discussion.
  • Challenge some/all students to take notes during the conversation and to share the group’s conclusions. (Another idea is for half of the class to discuss one question for a few minutes while the other students take notes/synthesize the discussion.  Then, the roles can be reversed.)
  • Require students to keep books open while discussing text and cite evidence/page numbers to support their ideas.

Be mindful when turning on the the conversation faucet. With a bit of practice and commitment, student-centered discussions may gush out of just a few minutes of dedicated class time.

The “Gifted Identification Trap”

IMG_3252As a former gifted teacher and gifted program coordinator, I recognize the importance of identifying gifted and high-ability students for accelerated and/or enriched classes to meet learning needs. Nevertheless, educators in districts fortunate enough to have gifted programming must not imprison themselves and their students in the “Gifted Identification Trap.” This trap is sprung when high level differentiation and knowledge of gifted pedagogy is undervalued for grade level classrooms because identified students leave the classroom for accelerated/gifted instruction.

For example, let’s take the case of a fourth grade classroom teacher—we’ll call her “Ms. Solo.” As Ms. Solo begins the school year, she glances at her class list with highlighted names of five students identified for the “gifted program.” At 9:57 a.m. she chirps, “Time to switch classes for math!” Five students scoop up their newly polished pencil cases and leave to meet with the “gifted teacher.” Now, Ms. Solo is free to focus on meeting the needs of the rest of the students.

…that is, if she can dislodge herself and the students seated in front of her from the tentacles of the “Gifted Identification Trap.”

Let’s meet some of the rest of the students:

  • Melinda just missed the gifted program by a point on her testing. Although they may have appealed, her parents decided not to do so.
  • Jimmy has lived in the United States for three years after arriving from Mexico. At the time of his arrival, he knew no English and Spanish is spoken at home. He has already obtained average scores on his reading tests, and his math performance is above-average. He has a passion for writing stories.
  • Tina is an African American student with a single parent who is a manager at a local restaurant franchise. Tina scores above average in mathematics and loves to write her own math problems. She taught her third grade classmates to design and build model cities out of cardboard.
  • Tom can tell the class anything about birds. He has read every bird book in the library and has memorized 70 bird calls. He loves to solve equations and does so at a sixth grade level. However, he is slow at solving fact problems and his inconsistent scores did not place him in the gifted program.

Given the opportunity, could Melinda, Jimmy, Tina, and Tom also thrive in accelerated or enriched classes? If grade level instruction best meets their current needs, what differentiation support would be appropriate?

As this scenario suggests, “giftedness” includes so many facets and definitions that establishing equitable, defensible measures to identify them creates a complex and sometimes sticky web. In fact, despite years of research and debates about the best ways to identify gifted students, too many children with high potential are “missed.” A persisting “Excellence Gap,”–a difference in high level academic achievement between subgroups, such as low-income/high-income is one compelling manifestation of this reality. [1]

Fortunately, the story of Ms. Solo and her students has a happy ending because they steer clear of the “Gifted Identification Trap.” This is because administrators and teachers in Ms. Solo’s district reserve resources and energy to move beyond the “identification” protocol for developing talent and meeting learning needs. In addition to establishing an equitable identification process based on multiple measures, Ms. Solo’s district does the following:

  • Professional Development: The district requires professional development for all teachers that focuses on identifying and meeting the needs of gifted learners including those with twice special needs and those from underserved populations [2].
  • “Watch List” for Students Who Demonstrate Potential: With professional training, teachers like Ms. Solo are encouraged to look for students who exhibit gifted characteristics, achievement, and/or learning potential that may not be demonstrated through their test scores. The teachers might refer these students to the gifted program and/or put their names on a “watch list” for classroom differentiation and encouraged participation in school enrichment opportunities.
  • High Level Instruction: For students of all learning levels, teachers have resources, participate in book studies, and engage in professional development to provide instruction that builds critical thinking skills, engages students in high-level questioning, discussion, and problem-solving.
  • Enrichment Opportunities: The district provides an after school enrichment program for all students, including those in the primary grades, to interview adult “mentors” in STEM and other professional careers, participate in hands-on mathematics problem-solving and science experiences, and develop creative interests.
  • Parent Outreach: As part of its outreach, the school offers a parent coffee, evening program, and a newsletter that provides information about enrichment opportunities through libraries, museums, corporations, and the local park district. Any scholarship or transportation options are also presented to assist with practical considerations. Notification is translated as appropriate for families who do not speak English.
  • Student Growth Monitoring: The district monitors the growth of all students, including those in the gifted program, and regularly re-assesses and develops accelerated programming to insure that instruction continues to match student learning needs.

Although the story of Ms. Solo and her district is fiction, the implications are real. As we struggle to meet the needs of diverse high ability learners, we must avoid sinking into the “identification trap” quicksand. Let’s not miss any opportunity to grasp a low-hanging branch and unleash the amazing potential in all of our students.


[1] See Plucker, Jonathan A. and Peters, Scott J. Excellence Gaps in Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press (2016).

[2] The Every Student Succeeds Act (“ESSA”) requires that training to meet the needs of gifted students is addressed in district and state plans. Title I funds may also be used to identify and serve gifted and talented students. Title IV funds also available for providing enriched opportunities for students in underrepresented subgroups. Illinois Association for Gifted Children (“IAGC”) Website, https://www.iagcgifted.org/Every-Child-Succeeds-Act.


A Little Magic: Up-level Lessons in a Blink

UntitledOne of the challenges we may face when teaching high ability learners is that sometimes we underestimate how quickly they may complete and master a lesson.

In these situations, many teachers have an alternative bag of tricks to keep students engaged. However, these activities can require unnecessary planning, transition time, and may even reinforce a student’s perception that school lessons are “too easy” and not intended for him/her. Before moving on to other things, teachers should consider whether simply nudging the lesson up a notch might better serve students’ needs.

No illusions. Here’s a little magic I’ve seen to up-level common grade school lessons in a blink…


1). Spellbinding Spelling

  • Assignment: Put each of your spelling words in a sentence.
  • Challenge: Choose five of your spelling words and write each word in a sentence. Every word in your sentence must begin with the same letter as your spelling word. Your sentence must make sense.

2). Zen for the Venn Diagram

  • Assignment: Use a Venn Diagram to compare and contrast two subjects in your reading.
  • Challenge: Explain why this comparison is interesting or important.

3). Character Trait Transformation:

  • Assignment: Identify the character traits of the main character, using evidence from the text to support your answer.
  • Challenge: Your character is moving and packing a suitcase. If your character could only pack three things, what would they be? Draw/describe these items and explain why each would be chosen. Use evidence from the text.

4). Levitating Main Idea/Details

  • Assignment: Identify the main idea and key supporting details.
  • Challenge: Write an 8-line poem that expresses emotions or feelings about the main idea.

5). Conjuring Context Clues:

  • Assignment: Guess the definition of the underlined word using the context clues in the sentence . (Context clues are words in a sentence that help readers to infer the meaning of a word by providing a definition or explanation of the underlined word, a synonym, or an antonym. )
  • Challenge: Write a sentence using the underlined word that provides a context clue about its meaning. Identify your context clue and how it helps the reader to infer the word’s meaning. (Note: The teacher may assign a challenge vocabulary word from a student’s reading or a list.)



1). Computation Capers

  • Assignment: Add/subtract all of the multi-digit numbers. Check your work using inverse operations.
  • Challenge: Choose one or two problems. Arrange the digits to create a new problem with the largest/smallest possible sum/difference. Solve that problem. Explain how you know that you have found the largest sum/difference.

2). Word Problems Presto-Chango

  • Assignment: Solve the word problem.
  • Challenge: Look at the word problem that you just solved. Create a new problem that (1) requires the solver to solve two more math problems in order to find the answer; or (2) contains different numbers, but has the same answer.

3).  Area/Perimeter Transformation

  • Assignment: Find the Area/Perimeter of all of the shapes on the worksheet.
  • Challenge: Find the total area/perimeter of all of the shapes on the worksheet. Create a drawing that has the total area/perimeter as the shapes on the page. (Your drawing does/does not have to be to scale.)

4). Fraction Flip

  • Assignment: Solve the problems that use fractions.
  • Challenge: Create a lesson that teaches a student how to solve one of the fraction problems in this assignment. Make sure that you explain why the student should do each step. Now “flip” roles—become the teacher and teach your lesson to a group of students.

5).  Astounding Rounding

  • Assignment: Round the numbers to the nearest _____.
  • Challenge: Choose three of the problems you solved. When would you need to round numbers like this in your everyday life? For three of the problems, create an example from real life when rounding the numbers in the problem may make things astoundingly easier!


(They say a good magician never reveals his tricks. But sometimes differentiating for high ability learners requires just a nudge, and no magic at all.)

On The Course to Success: Putting Learning In Perspective


This summer, I have been working on my golf game. Putting looks so simple; the ball should simply roll along and plop right in the hole. But it’s not that easy.

Similarly, parents and educators seeking the right strokes to put high ability children on the course to success may struggle putting the learning journey into perspective: What if we can’t afford the summer enrichment program? What if my child chooses skateboarding over piano? What if he is not in the accelerated class? What if she’d rather play with friends than do the robot-making competition? Is my child achieving enough?

 How do we lower our handicap?

Lately, in an effort to improve my putting, I’ve been reading Putting Out of Your Mind by Dr. Bob Rotella[1], an esteemed sports psychologist and golf expert, and the bestselling author of Golf is Not a Game of Perfect. And for parents of high ability children, three of his putting tips are especially on par:

“There is no such thing as perfect putting mechanics. There is no perfect way to roll the ball.”

 Dr. Rotella asserts that there are, not one, but many ways to putt a ball so that it lands in the hole. He observes:

Golfers today are inundated with information and pseudo-information about the mechanics of putting. The implication of much of it is that a perfect stroke exists and that if you could only attain it, you would putt perfectly…So we have many players in hot pursuit of the perfect putting stroke. The more putts they miss, the more convinced they become that their stroke is to blame. The more information they get about the stroke, the more lost they become in thoughts of mechanics. (129-130)

Just as there are many ways to putt, there are many ways to learn and excel. Although every child needs fundamental skills, a method or “stroke” that works to inspire one child may not be the best for another. Some children may love spending time on computers. Others relish current events discussions and debates, or visiting the library, or building forts, or hiking in the woods. There are countless ways to help our children become lifelong learners when we recognize and build upon their passions. Rotella advises, “Fall in love with the stroke you have. It’s more than good enough to get the ball into the hole.” (136).

“To gain control, give up control”

When it comes to putting, Dr. Rotella advises that “trying too hard” can actually impede success. He observes:

…[T]he main reason trying too hard doesn’t work is that it invariably diminishes the chances of making a good stroke. It introduces doubt to the mind. It tightens the muscles. It robs the player of his natural talent and destroys his rhythm and flow. (51)

Rotella asserts that when it comes to putting, golfers need to relax, focus on the target, and stroke the ball. He explains that “giving up control” does not mean to stop caring, but to avoid becoming too consumed with the importance of the result.

Similarly, learners falter when focused too much on insuring that every stroke toward academic excellence results in success. Misses are part of any challenging game; we learn from them, grow, and move on. Like good putters, children need to relax and embrace the process of learning, practicing and performing.

 “You’ll make your best stroke and hole the most putts if you think only of your target.”

 When putting, Dr. Rotello advises that players focus on the target – a simple and natural method for sinking a ball into a hole.

Like golf, learning is a course dotted with beautiful, inspiring targets, some of which are close, and some of which are off in the distance. Solving a unique problem. Creating a beautiful composition. Mastering an art. Discovering new knowledge. Making the world a better place.

Yet, unlike on the golf course, these targets are not marked with tall poles and brightly colored flags. Putting learning in perspective requires helping our children not to get caught up in the strokes, but to develop a life-long love of learning, envisioning meaningful targets, and continually taking aim.

[1] Rotella, Robert J., and Robert Cullen. Putting Out of Your Mind. London: Pocket, 2005.

10 Vocabulary Enrichment Ideas for the “Classroom Wardrobe”

“Few activities are as delightful as learning new vocabulary.”
Tim Gunn: A Guide to Quality, Taste, and Style [1,2]


Gifted students have the ability to acquire extensive vocabulary, and they often delight in “trying on new words for size.”

Acquiring new vocabulary should feel like donning a new outfit and gliding down the runway. We should take words home, cut off the scratchy tags, and add them to ourselves. Yet in the classroom, vocabulary study is sometimes more akin to taking inventory — leaving behind a pile of charts, lists, and workbooks.

For the classroom wardrobe, here are ten “accessories” I’ve collected to enrich and enliven vocabulary instruction…

(Language Arts)

1). Vocabulary Skits: Students create and perform 2-3 minute skits that use and show the meaning of a vocabulary word.

2). Creative Writing: Students choose 6-10 interesting words from a text they read and use them to create an original poem, song, or comic strip.

3). Vocabulary Rainbow: Students discuss how colors can be associated with different emotions. (For example, they may associate “yellow” with joy or “green” with peace.) Then, students collect several descriptive words from a text and group the words according to what “color” they bring to mind. Create a rainbow depicting words in “color.” Make a key for the rainbow that explains what mood/emotion each color represents.

4). Anaphora: Students create a poem by repeating a vocabulary word several times and defining it in an original way. (For example, “Diligence is…Diligence is…Diligence is…”

5). Vacation (?) Brochure: Students list several words that describe the setting of a story or poem. Then, they create a “vacation brochure” that uses these words to advertise the setting as a favorite vacation spot . (They can also create a humorous brochure about a destination that is not so inviting…)


6). In Other Words: Rewrite a partner’s problem-solving strategy using “math words” (domain-specific language).

7). Heard in the Classroom: When students are discussing problems in small groups, challenge a few students to be detectives and listen/note the context in which math vocabulary is used. Student “detectives” can share their findings on a “Heard in the Classroom” poster.

8). Be the Teacher: Challenge students to teach a math word. Students can create games and word problems to teach/model the assigned word.

9). Create A Problem: The teacher gives students a list of 4-6 math vocabulary words. Students create a word problem and present the solution. The steps for the solution must use all of the math words on the list.

10). Build Something: Build a model/create a design that applies or represents 10 math vocabulary words. Create a key with the list of words and how they are used to accompany the project.

[1] Gunn, Tim, and Kate Moloney. A Guide to Quality, Taste & Style. New York: Abrams Image, 2007. Print.

[2] Tim Gunn is a fashion expert and author known by many for his role in the reality television series, Fashion Runway

Gifted MisBehaviors: A View Through Two Lenses

img_2497Now that I am approaching fifty, my eyes are changing and I have two pairs of glasses. My “close” glasses are for reading. My “far” glasses are for watching plays from the balcony. It is easy to get these lenses mixed up, but I can’t bring myself to do the bifocal thing because, let’s face it, it’s difficult to adjust to two lenses.

Like with my glasses situation, I use two “educational lenses” in my roles this year as both an elementary school assistant principal and a district-wide K-8 gifted coordinator.

As a gifted program coordinator, I see that teachers and parents readily refer children for programming based upon “gifted behaviors,” such as insatiable curiosity, intensity, and the ability to ask and understand complex questions.

As an assistant principal who manages much of the school’s discipline, children are referred for different reasons–most which involve a failure to follow school norms.   As with my mixed up glasses, I sometimes find myself looking at misbehavior through a “gifted” lens, and a variety of referral questions emerge…

Misbehavior Referral? Student doesn’t stop activities when it’s time to stop, and has difficulty transitioning from one activity to the other. Gifted Referral? Why is the student so engrossed in activities? Gifted students can find it difficult to stop an activity when their minds are engaged. Is the student exploring them in depth? Could it be difficult for this student to leave certain activities and subjects behind? Would this student benefit from some uninterrupted time to work on a passion project?

 Misbehavior Referral? Student pushes humor too far and is therefore disrespectful. This was not a time for jokes. Gifted Referral? Verbally gifted students find plays on words, figurative language, and humor to be irresistible. Is there an opportunity that would help this child to explore humor and figurative language in a positive way?

Misbehavior Referral? Student’s responses do not match the situation; the student gets upset or angry over insignificant things and acts out. Gifted Referral? Gifted students can be sensitive and emotionally intense. Some are perfectionists. Why was this student so upset? Could perfectionism or an acute sense of justice have triggered the behavior? Would this student benefit from an opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue about these ideals?

 Misbehavior Referral? Student keeps talking out of turn when asked to be quiet. Gifted Referral? For a gifted student, the ability to use advanced vocabulary and to express oneself eloquently may be a source of self esteem and pride. Although this student needs to listen and show respect for others, how could we make sure that this need for challenge and expression in the area of language arts is met in the classroom?

Misbehavior Referral? Student appears to have no respect for the rules and questions everything. Gifted Referral? Does this student understand the reasons for the rules? When it comes to students with a profound sense of justice, the reasons behind the rules matter.   Creatively gifted students may challenge the rules and prefer to try “their own way.” Could this student who “bumps up against the rules” be a strong candidate for gifted programming?

Of course we cannot presume that misbehavior is related to giftedness, nor can we ignore it for that reason. All children, including gifted ones, need limits; in schools, we need consistent, respectful discipline, and appropriate consequences for misbehavior. “Turning a blind eye” to misbehavior by calling it “giftedness” would not only be unsafe, it would cast aside our responsibility as educators.

However, as we see and respond to misbehavior, taking a glance through the “gifted” lens could produce a revelation. Among the discipline referrals, might we catch a glimpse of a gifted student who is paradoxically being overlooked because of “gifted misbehavior”?

For me, switching spectacles back and forth may work in the short term, but for the long term, it may be time to adjust to one pair of glasses through which I can see “close” and “far.”

Likewise with gifted misbehaviors; time to put on the bifocals.

Meeting the Needs of Gifted Learners in the Core Classroom? Try Sitting in Their Seats


As we begin the year, how often do we educators see things through the eyes of the diverse, gifted learners in our classrooms?

Perhaps the best way to start is by putting ourselves in their chairs.

As summer days come to an end, a useful ritual is to check out the view from each student’s perspective by sitting in each of their places. How easily can each student see the projector screen? A talkative friend? A view of the playground?

Considering what students “see” can help teachers eliminate distractions and physical obstructions to learning; it can also help us find new ways to motivate high potential, gifted learners.

The National Association of Gifted Students defines “giftedness” as follows:

Gifted individuals are those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude (defined as an exceptional ability to reason and learn) or competence (documented performance or achievement in top 10% or rarer) in one or more domains. Domains include any structured area of activity with its own symbol system (e.g., mathematics, music, language) and/or set of sensorimotor skills (e.g., painting, dance, sports). [1]

Regardless of what “definition,” most of us educators believe that gifted learners exist and expect to encounter them. So, when setting up a classroom, why not take a few moments to “take a seat” as a gifted child at the beginning of the new school year? Here are some focal points to consider:

(1). Role Models and Vision: Can I see a picture of an inspiring adult role model who shares my gender, culture, and/or race—a depiction that celebrates his or her contributions and achievements? What does that picture communicate to me about my future possibilities and potential?

(2). High Level Questions: Is there a provocative, deep question that captures my attention and curiosity? Is there a question that I find fascinating to discuss with my friends at school and my family at home?   How could the themes or topics we explore in the classroom this year be important or relevant to my life?[2]

(3). Rich Vocabulary: Is there a new, rich vocabulary word presented that would be fun to learn and use? How might it relate to math, science, or the world around me?

(4). Personal Interests: Is there any place in this classroom for my own “learning agenda?” Does this classroom have a place for me to explore and share what I love to learn? Do I see something that shows me that the teacher or any other students might want to  hear and talk about my interests and passions?

If answers to the above questions are difficult to spot, some simple changes to the classroom landscape could positively impact instruction to meet the needs of gifted students.

And once we consider the view from the students’ seats, our classrooms may provide a better vantage point to “see” more gifted students than we ever expected.




[1] National Association for Gifted Children website: http://www.nagc.org/resources-publications/resources/definitions-giftedness


[2] For question examples, see “Essential Questions.” Essential Questions. Authentic Education, 2013. Web. 24 July 2016. <http://essentialquestions.org/random_questions.lasso&gt;.


Packing Up My Classroom: What I’m Taking With Me

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Last week, I packed up my classroom after ten years of teaching to begin a new chapter in my career as an elementary school assistant principal/gifted coordinator.   Perhaps because these years have been so full, I was surprised that the boxes and bags I packed fit so easily into the trunk of my car.

What am I taking from my teaching experience to my new role as an administrator? I prefer to travel light, so I’ll condense it down to one item – respect for this beautiful, challenging, and impactful profession.

Whether making a U-Turn or simply changing lanes, it can be difficult to take a new road in life. Years ago, when I “packed up” my career as a lawyer to follow my dream of becoming an elementary school teacher, I worried that others would think I “failed in the law.” When I shared this concern with my education program advisor, his wise response emboldened me: “Yes, they will…Do it anyway.”

So I did it anyway. And over the last ten years, I have developed a profound respect for teaching. A teacher’s work is never done, and there is always more to learn.

As a teacher, I’ve learned that a positive classroom community that welcomes diversity and builds trust is essential for learning. Without such a community, instruction is like dancing on air, and it can’t last very long.

Moreover, I’ve discovered that when students come to school, teachers cannot always “see” their joys and sorrows.   We do not see all of our students’ interactions with others, and we may even have difficulty seeing their talents, struggles, and obstacles that they have already overcome. When working with students, I have learned to acknowledge these sight limitations.

But despite such challenges, I’ve found that teachers can and do make a difference, and it is the wonderful relationships we build with students, families, parents and colleagues that make it all happen.

As I pack up my classroom, I am bringing along a respect for teachers everywhere.

I don’t have many boxes or bags, but my heart is full to bursting.

An “Old Thought” for 21st Century Learning

IMG_1608Despite the advantages of teaching in the information age, I sometimes wistfully imagine myself teaching in a “one-room schoolhouse” surrounded by wildflowers, shuffling slate pencils and McGuffey readers.

Why not get lost in a little imagining now and then? In our 21st Century elementary schools, teaching is so complicated. There’s always something for teachers to implement–new technology, new curriculum, new instruction techniques.

Our heads are overflowing as we “facilitate instruction.” It seems we barely have room to grasp what truly makes school a place of ideas–the ideas, themselves.

This year, my sixth graders read and discussed “A Bouquet of Wildflowers,” by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In this essay, Wilder asserts that manufactured “improvements” cannot take the place of “simple things” that are true and natural. She explains:

We heap up all around us things that we do not need as the crow makes piles of glittering pebbles…we chase after this new idea and that; we take on an old thought and dress it out in so many words that the thought itself is lost in its clothing like a slim woman in a barrel skirt and we exclaim, “Lo, the wonderful new thought I have found![1]

Although she wrote for a larger audience, Wilder’s words resonate for educators. If elementary schools are to be places of ideas, we teachers need to take a moment and cycle back.  We need to pause, enjoy, and engage in an “old thought” — learning.

We educators need to pursue our own academic interests and share them with students and colleagues. Students need to see teachers engaging in academic discussions just for fun. They need to hear us sharing thoughts about the books and articles we read. They need to catch us being curious, asking questions, and trying online searches “just to find out.”  Children have grown to expect energy and engagement from coaches and fans on the athletic fields.  Similarly, teachers (and parents) need to share a genuine passion for the “game” of academics if we want our children to keep playing.

As elementary school teachers, we need to reach beyond facilitating an engaged learning community.   We need to be one.



[1]Laura Ingalls Wilder, “A Bouquet of Wildflowers” (1917) – Center for Gifted Education Staff,  Mary Pleiss, contributor. Patterns of Change: Student Literature. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 2003. Print.

Teaching From A Bag Springs Training


During my first year of teaching, I did not have a classroom space of my own.  Instead, as many teachers do, I put my materials in a bag that I carried from room to room. Although “covering the bases” in this way presented challenges, the experience provided some of the best teacher “spring training” ever.

This month in my Language Arts classes, the students have been studying and writing poetry.  I wrote a sonnet about “teaching from a bag” to add to our collection:

Spring Training



Spring Break Learning: A Nugget from The Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon, AZ

What approach works best when helping learners to overcome academic challenges? As educators, it can be helpful to reflect on our own learning struggles. In fact, hiking in the Grand Canyon over this Spring Break, I experienced a memorable learning challenge at the edge of a magnificent precipice.

Though I wanted to continue down the path at the start of the Grandview Trail, I was uncertain about how to approach it, and my knees were shaking with apprehension. Before barely descending, I returned to the top, defeated. But a little later, with the help of our guide, I tried again and made it far enough to enjoy some incredible views of the canyon.

My journey on this historical mining trail uncovered some valuable nuggets for struggling students (like me):

  • Students are most likely to persist if the goal is personally relevant and meaningful to them. The reason I overcame the challenge is because I really wanted to explore the canyon.
  • Students must recognize that “trying again” is part of the learning process. When I first climbed back out of the canyon, I would have been finished with this trail had I not understood that “trying again” was a ready option.
  • Students must feel comfortable asking for help. As I hiker, I was thankful to have a knowledgeable, friendly guide who kindly helped me on this trail.
  • Sometimes a student’s difficulty may be based more upon self perceptions of ability, rather than actual ability. Teachers need to express their confidence in their student’s ability to meet challenges. Hearing that others were confident in my ability helped me immensely on this trail.
  • Sometimes students need the opportunity to work through challenges slowly. Accomplishing my goal at a speed that was manageable for me brought success.  I’m glad I wasn’t being timed on this one.
  • Laughter is key. When hiking in new terrain, a laugh and a little humor helped to make learning fun and to keep difficulties in perspective.  Laughter in the face of challenge is empowering.
  • It really works to break down challenging tasks, set individual student goals, and celebrate success. Catching up to the rest of the group was not going to happen for me on this hike. However, I left feeling that I accomplished a great deal. My guide helped me adjust my goal to meet my learning needs—even if this was just to navigate the first leg of the journey. When the other hikers returned from their longer journey, I still had my own accomplishment to celebrate. I left the canyon wanting more…
Hardened Grand Canyon Hiker

Instant Grit? A Recipe for Teaching Perseverance

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“Instant Grits.” I smile to myself when I see them on the store shelf, because as a Chicagoan, I always associate grits with vacation ease in a warmer climate. Grits are supposed to take time—you sit down and savor them with honey and biscuits.

As an alternative to instant grits, a “grit” I’ve encountered in professional development sessions has potential:

In the education arena, psychologist Angela Duckworth asserts “Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint”[1] According to Duckworth’s research, “grit” is an essential ingredient for success—even beyond I.Q.

So, as teachers we may ask, “Can grit be taught? If so, what is the recipe?…Can we just add water?”

For some, grit seems to be about prolonged attention span and perseverance even when activities are not immediately rewarding. This idea of “grit” sounds akin to pitting cherries, shelling peas, or husking bushels of corn. The world is full of mundane tasks for “teaching” grit in this way.

Yet, in the classroom, it does seem more palatable to teach students to develop grit by striving and persevering for their own goals, rather than chasing unfulfilling ones. In light of this, some educators suggest that “grit” can be naturally fostered by having children identify their own passions or engage in project based learning.

I do believe that passion projects bring joy to learning, and even students who otherwise lack “grit” may choose to stick with projects that are authentic and meaningful to them. But passion projects are unlikely to guarantee instant grit. Deciding what one’s passion is in the first place requires a respectable bit of perseverance for some students. Moreover, on the road to pursue passions, some students “fall out of love” with their projects when challenges arise. Perhaps in order to prepare students to achieve excellence in any subject, we need to make “developing grit” a more intentional part of our daily routine.

One suggestion I have heard during discussions about teaching “grit” is the idea that “children need to fail.” Rather than being coddled and protected from failure, children need to learn to scrape themselves off the ground and try again.

Although I will never know the complete recipe for “grit,” from what I have tasted, I find that the essential ingredient is not found in failure, but in student success.

Teaching grit means helping students to see the connection between individual effort and excellence, and this can apply to any subject. As teachers, the challenge is to teach “grit” everyday. Celebrating effort and realizing the results – even incremental results – again and again is what motivates students to develop the habit of striving.

Given this reality, the secret ingredient for teaching and learning “grit” may be time.

…time to develop and create thoughtful work products.

…time to revise work to achieve excellence.

…time to break tasks down and master each part of a skill

…time to practice each skill until it comes easily

…time to recognize progress

…time to celebrate success

…time to reflect on what could have been done differently

…time to change direction

…time to try again

…time to ask questions

…time to come up with new ideas

We may need to make time from scratch.  But there is one thing for certain —

There is no “Instant Grit.”


[1] “The Key to Success? Grit.” Angela Lee Duckworth:. TED Talks, April 2013 Web. 24 Feb. 2016. <https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_the_key_to_success_grit?language=en&gt;.


Class Discussions: Laying the Groundwork

In the book, Discussion As a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms, Brookfield and Preskill[1] suggest that establishing expectations for classroom discussion can begin by having students reflect on their own experiences. So, I asked my sixth graders to identify characteristics of negative and positive discussions based upon conversations that they have experienced in the classroom, at home, or with friends. Here is the list they created:

Factors that negatively impact discussions:

  • Interrupting
  • Lack of flexibility
  • Lack of preparation
  • Difficult (sensitive)topics
  • Side conversations
  • Judgment of people
  • Facial expressions
  • Distractions
  • Attention Seeking

Factors that positively impact discussions

  • Engaging topic
  • Everyone talks
  • Feels natural
  • Everyone pays attention
  • Everyone’s opinion heard
  • Possible to change your mind
  • Many possible answers
  • Everyone treats others with respect

We discussed these lists and what we could do as a class to keep our discussions positive. Treat each other respectfully, give all students a chance to speak, and refrain from side conversations are examples of the norms that we established.

As I reflected upon this lesson, I realized that approaching discussion with a child-like honesty and a quest for the truth was not “starting small” in any sense.

Even at a young age, these children had already noticed, experienced, and/or internalized sometimes subtle inhibitors to meaningful discussions—facial expressions and judgment of others—that can silence meaningful dialogue. They understood that people may hesitate to discuss sensitive or difficult topics for fear of what others might think.

Yet, these sixth graders also embraced the idea that positive discussions are those that can potentially lead us to change our minds.

Classroom discussions belong to the students, and we continue to reflect on their quality and impact throughout the year.  Also, we refer back to this list as our discussions continue, deepen, or sometimes wander off course. Reflecting on personal experiences and understanding my students’ perspectives was essential groundwork for productive classroom discussion and continues to be well worth the class time.



[1] Brookfield, S.D. & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a way of teaching: tools and techniques for democratic   classrooms. 2nd Ed. San Francisco, CA Jossey-Bass.