The 2011-12 school year was a pivotal year of reflection and growth for me as an educator. I was in my first year as a Jefferson County Public Schools teacher trying to meet the needs of 26 2nd- and 3rd-graders with a vast array of academic, social and emotional needs.
Jada* was a 3rd-grader reading at a kindergarten level, while Lucas* was a 2nd-grader performing math at a 6th-grade level, reading at a 7th-grade level, yet only writing two to three words per page amid his comedic acts intended to disrupt the entire class. I was exhausted, frustrated and felt like I had not been prepared to meet the unique needs of so many students on so many different levels. I felt as if I was failing all of the children like Lucas in my room.
Our school tiered students in the Response to Intervention (RTI) process, which places struggling students in the spotlight and targets them for intensive interventions. Above grade level students used a computer program called Study Island to engage in standards-based practice, while struggling students received small group instruction with myself or various interventionists. While my struggling students had their needs met, I couldn’t help but feel I was not challenging and helping my advanced learners grow in their educational journey.
This revelation sent me on a quest to learn more about gifted and talented students and how teachers meet their needs. I enrolled in the University of Louisville’s Teacher Leadership program and focused on an endorsement in the area of gifted and talented. My first observation was that there was a lack of teachers seeking a gifted and talented endorsement; I was the one and only student in the UofL program. While the independent study provided me with one-on-one instruction, I lacked other teachers’ perspectives and resources that are critical components to personal growth.
Throughout my coursework, I read numerous articles and books on differentiated instruction and best practices in gifted education. I had a revelation when I read educator and education expert Carol Ann Tomilson’s book on differentiated instruction, which she defines as an approach to teaching that involves planning for student differences within the classroom. I began to feel overwhelmed until I read on. “Differentiation doesn’t suggest that a teacher can be all things to all individuals all the time,” she wrote.
What a relief! I didn’t have to stay at work late every night creating 26 different lesson plans. All I had to do was shift my mindset from knowledge giver to organizer of learning opportunities.
I started by thinking about how I might use what is readily available to help me get started. As a new teacher, I already had failed at trying to do too much too fast and I didn’t want to make that mistake again. I combined a task for one of my gifted and talented Rank 1 master’s courses with initiatives my school was implementing around professional learning communities and interventions.
Through weekly standards-based check ins, students were ability grouped and intervention/enrichment activities were prepared based on individual student needs. Here are a few ways I was able to meet the needs of all students and challenge my advanced and gifted students within in a mixed ability classroom:
- Passion projects: Passion projects are opportunities for students to deepen their understanding of a topic of interest and then share that information in creative ways. They provide students choice and a voice in the learning process. Teachers guide students through the research process and empower them to see themselves as experts on their topic.
- Project-based learning: A staple of gifted education, project-based learning (PBL) is making its way into classrooms everywhere. All students in a mixed-ability classroom can benefit from PBL without a teacher creating different lessons. Students seek out and identify real-world problems while deepening their understanding of cause-and-effect relationships. Teachers also may provide students with guiding questions to fit specific standards. For example, what better way to learn about the American Revolution and our government by investigating the question: How did the American Revolution shape the way our government is set up today?
- Flipgrid: Engage and motivate your students by providing them an opportunity to share their voice on given topics. Students practice speaking and listening skills as they create and watch videos, then provide feedback to their peers. Go a step further and connect with teachers across so students can hear perspectives across the state or even across state lines.
- HyperDocs: I am new to the HyperDoc community, but now I am hooked. HyperDocs are Google Docs that contain innovative lessons that often incorporate 21st-century skills. HyperDocs are teacher created and shared for free through various networks. They have changed the way I embed enrichment into my WIN (What I Need) block, to ensure that every student is challenged at his/ her level. Simply copy the document to your Google Drive and modify as you see fit for your students, making sure to give credit where credit is due. There is a phenomenal HyperDoc crew on Facebook and Twitter.
Meeting the needs of all students is like trying to piece together a puzzle. I have found that building a strong network of peers who share my passion for working in high-needs schools, identifying at-risk students for advanced and gifted programming, and challenging all students through differentiation has been a consistent motivator to continue my growth as an educator. I refuse to accept that because a student is above grade level that he or she can’t continue to be challenged in my classroom because I am too stressed trying to get all students on grade level.
*The names of students have been changed to protect their identity.
Sheri A. Rhodes is a 5th-grade teacher at Portland Elementary School (Jefferson County). She earned her Rank 1 in teacher leadership and gifted and talented education. She is a 2017-18 Hope Street Group teacher fellow.