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…

READING:

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.)

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MATHEMATICS

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!

…Abracadabra!

(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.)

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

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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;.

 

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

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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

 

 

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;.

 

A New Year’s Resolution for the Classroom

New Year

For us teachers, “New Year’s Day” offers a second chance to look ahead at all of the possibilities and make new resolutions. In addition to the luxury of celebrating the new year with a fresh start to the school year in August, we observe the January 1st New Year along with the rest of the country. Teachers are experts at ringing in the New Year, and have twice as many opportunities to be creative with New Year’s resolutions.

As part of my personal “second New Year’s celebration,” I resolve to enjoy more meals with friends and family at home by pulling out a few of the “tried and true” recipes. By cooking up lasagna, bisque, or a pie, I need not worry about the basic recipes, but can add a special twist or two to the old favorites and focus on listening to and enjoying the guests.

It’s time for a similar resolution in the classroom…

Teachers have an endless smorgasbord of “new dishes” out there to digest and absorb into the classrooms—new Common Core standards, new changes in curriculum, new instruction, new technology.  Of course effective teachers need to continually sample and master new curricula, keep up with the latest technology, and learn new instructional strategies. However, to maintain excellence, teachers also need to fully digest, taste, savor, and add new spice to the instruction being served.   We need to nourish our students with some “tried and true” menu items that improve over the years with reflection, experimentation, and modification.

So what can we do to provide a balanced menu in the classroom? Very simply—let’s find some truly great recipes for learning and prepare them more than once.

To welcome 2015, here’s a simple New Year’s Resolution for the classroom– “Do something old.” Choose a lesson or a unit that was taught before, and find a way to improve it by approaching it from a different angle, presenting it in a more engaging way through technology, enriching it with questions to promote high level thinking, focusing on an applicable state standard, or adapting instruction to meet the unique needs of a student.   Have fun. Be fulfilled.

Let’s resolve to teach something old, but not just again—Let’s teach it better.

Improving Education: Let’s Not Lose the Conversation


With the new Common Core, teachers are unpacking standards, adjusting instruction, incorporating technology, and sifting through new piles of educational stuff. But whether these resources are “gifts” or “distractions” depends upon whether teachers use them to spark or inhibit meaningful conversations.  In essence, teaching means understanding and responding to the needs of learners in our classrooms. We do this when we talk with the students.

In the 1967 Musical Film, Dr. Dolittle, an adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s classic series, Rex Harrison portrayed the eccentric doctor who could talk to animals.   He declared:

…It’s a fairy tale worthy of Hans Anderson and Grimm

A man who walks with the animals, talks with the animals

…And they could squeak and squawk and speak and talk to me!

As human beings, teachers and students certainly do not need magic to communicate. But, as Dr. Dolittle found, talking can bring about amazing discovery.

In fact, one day I talked with my fourth grade math students, and the conversation went like this:

Me: “So, what units did we use to measure length on this quiz?”

Students: “Centimeters!”

Me:  “So why would you write ‘5 cubic centimeters’ on your quiz to measure a line segment? How did you picture yourself doing this problem in your mind?”

Student Response: “I pictured myself taking my unit cube [a plastic one-by-one centimeter block] and counting how many cubes would fit on the line segment.

I had assumed that these were careless errors! Yet, by asking and listening to the students, I discovered the “little cube in their minds” that they were using to measure length. So, rather than tell them to slow down and check their work, I gave them what they truly needed–more “hands-on” practice with appropriate measuring tools and with using units to show what they measured — length, volume, or area.

Another conversation happened in my fifth grade Reading class. In order to develop research skills and creativity, my students were starting a project we call “REAL” time–“Read, Explore, and Apply knowledge about a subject that you Love.” (“REAL” time is inspired by the “Genius Hour,” which is an education initiative to increase engagement, motivation, and learning by setting aside time for students to research and develop “passion projects” on subjects of their choice.)

As we brainstormed research topics, some students struggled with the open-ended question—“If you could learn about anything, what would it be? What would it really be?”

Finally, after lots of talking, asking, and listening, the REAL topics started flowing. Movies, Alternative Energy Sources, Vikings, Cars, Baseball…

In fact, one morning the students were so engrossed in learning about the subjects they loved that I had to remind them, ”Kids, class time ended ten minutes ago! You really need to leave!”

Although the results can seem magical, unlike in Dr. Dolittle, there is no “fairy tale” process required for talking with students.   It is simple, natural, and essential for learning.  Data, technology, and assessments  can’t get us there.  Let’s accept the truth: To truly improve education, we need to recognize, nurture, and enrich the conversation inside our classrooms.

“What are you picturing in your mind?…Is there another way to solve this problem?… If you had a choice, what would you love to learn?”

We need to talk with the students. And we need to listen.