By Teresa Brown
“Differentiation” is a key word in the vocabulary of any teacher just out of their teaching program, and is one that we continue to use throughout our careers. We cultivate a variety of strategies over time to reach our typical and struggling learners, providing multiple levels of mentor texts, explicitly teaching and reteaching skills to analyze and understand literature and non-fiction, supporting our young writers with graphic organizers and patterns to help them get their voices down on paper in a way that reaches their target audience, and supporting them as they grow to into critical readers and writers.
But what about the gifted students we serve? What tools do we have to support them in a way that helps them to grow as well? How are their needs any different from those of a typical student?
Being gifted goes beyond academic achievement, and that’s what often gets forgotten in the classroom. The National Association of Gifted Children notes that the many of the myths about gifted students involve the idea that they don’t need anything special to learn–they’ll be fine. The fact is that gifted students see and experience the world around them differently, which means they also see and experience literature and communication differently.
The way the gifted brain works requires that we modify our teaching practices as well to ensure that their needs are met, both academic and social-emotional. Their inner worlds (intensities, emotions, perceptions, relationships, personality, etc.) need to connect to and understand the world around them on multiple levels. Asynchronous development (The Columbus Group, 1991) plays a role as well; gifted children are often many ages in one body, at age 7 enjoying entertaining stories about animals living in the forest, obsessing over non-fiction texts about the inner workings of ships and planes, and worrying about poverty and homelessness in their communities and abroad all at the same time.
Reaching and growing your gifted learners comes down to one word:
In order for gifted students to grow, they need opportunities to connect to what they’re learning at a deeper level. Providing opportunities for students to see themselves, the experiences they are having, and the issues they care about in the literature, poetry, and nonfiction texts they’re reading to learn literacy skills is critical. We work to ensure that all of our students make connections to text, however gifted students require high level of thinking and the presentation of big ideas first to remain engaged and involved in their learning. Connection to text is what provides access to text for our gifted learners–not the other way around as it is for those who need to practice a skill before a connection can be made.
Using the text “Salvador Late or Early” by Sandra Cisneros as an example, gifted students from a variety of socio-economic or cultural backgrounds and age levels can connect to the child and his experience. Discussions about patience, kindness, handling conflict, poverty, the increasing responsibility of children to help raise siblings, family dynamics, gang activity and its impact on learning and living, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and a host of other topics are incredibly valuable in connecting gifted readers to the text. Bringing appropriate non-fiction pieces about any of those topics helps to solidify those connections with factual information. Discussions of why Cisneros and other authors exploring similar themes and ideas chose particular words, specific phrases, and sentence structure are incredibly valuable to gifted students, as they are able to think through the nuances of writing as communication and their own work as writers.
Suddenly, a three-paragraph piece has created connections to the lives of today’s children and the social-emotional issues that many face, current events in our communities and world, and the work of authors to connect with their audience. A piece that took 10 minutes to read can take days or weeks to analyze and provided a cognitive hook on which a gifted student can develop close reading skills and meaningful writing skills. Modeling learner’s thinking is still critical and it shows your gifted students that taking risks in their thinking is ok. A question like, “Can you tell me more about your thinking?” often opens a floodgate of thought!
The key to this work for us as educators is looking beyond the text, and in some cases even the grade level standards, for ways to connect your gifted readers to what they’re reading as you’re explicitly teaching skills and then connecting what they’re reading to their writing. Some ideas to consider as you’re planning are:
- What topics matter to them? What issues are they passionate about?
- What types of characters do they identify with? Why?
- What experiences of their favorite characters resonate with them? Why?
- What genre will help them communicate their thinking best to their intended audience?
- What components of nonfiction text do they connect with most: diagrams? Scientific or historical facts? Photos? Emotional wording?
Allowing our students to bring these questions to the forefront of their work with text, in both what they read and what they write, creates a depth and complexity of thought that a worksheet, multiple choice test, or response to a group writing prompt can’t capture. Their thinking about a particular text is often far deeper than simply determining the main idea and details.
Linda Silverman, a local expert in gifted children at the Denver, Colorado Gifted Development Center, shared her thoughts at a conference I attended a few years ago and her words have stuck with me and drive my work with our gifted students and their teachers: “Gifted is who they are, not what they produce.” This is so true for our gifted students when we think about them as readers and writers. With intentional support, they will learn to connect to text, that of others and their own, and explore it in ways that are meaningful to the way they see and experience the world.
Teresa Brown is the Dean of Student Support and Director of the Center for Gifted Resources at Academy for Advanced and Creative Learning, a K-8 public charter school in Colorado Springs, Colorado with a focus on gifted education. She has presented on topics related to supporting gifted learners in the classroom for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, Colorado Association for Gifted and Talented, CCIRA, and at Denver Comic Con, which was the highlight of her summer! Teresa also serves as an officer in PPIRA. She practices self-care by fly fishing, practicing yoga, and listening to a variety of podcasts and audio books.