Gifted Learners in the Regular Ed Classroom

The nice thing about a blog is that I can post my fondest desires for education and it will either fly away like bubbles in the wind or hit home for anyone who reads it.  Today is one of those days I feel like sending bubbles out to the universe.  Here goes...

Gifted learners in the regular ed classroom deserve to be challenged at their level and not receive just more of the same.

During my time in the classroom, I had the opportunity to work with a wide range of ability levels.  I see you nodding your head. I know, many of you have shared that same experience.  In the schools I was in, gifted students were sprinkled around like the sugar on the top of a donut.  Teachers were up in arms if they didn't get their fair share of the gifted learners.  They saw them as a group that would drive their test scores up with little or no effort on the teacher's part, thus, giving the teacher more time to work with the students who just didn't get it.

Often, the battle for who snagged the most gifted students didn't end with the teachers.  Parents would wonder why the gifted kids were pulled out of class for "special programs". Or worse yet.  Why were these kids grouped together in one classroom and why couldn't their son/daughter be in that class?

Consider this fictitious letter to the editor:

Editor: I am writing to express my grave concerns with homogeneous grouping for gifted students in my child’s district. Our country was founded on the principle that all men (and in this case, students) are created equally. I believe that all children are gifted in some way. By allowing homogeneous groups to occur, we are teaching our children that some kids are “better” than others are. I feel it’s important to have a balanced number of high, medium, and low students in a classroom so there is a role model available for the students who don’t quite “get it”.

Having smart kids dispersed throughout all the classrooms gives teachers extra help that they need in a couple ways: (1) the high kids don’t need as much teacher supervision as some of the other learners, thus, freeing teacher time for those students who need more help and (2) the high kids can help their classmates, taking some of the load off the classroom teacher. Imagine how those high students will feel when they realize they’ve helped their classmates succeed. Finally, if those gifted kids get finished faster, they can do some extra credit or help out in another classroom. I just don’t think they need special treatment by being grouped together. A concerned parent of a regular student.

Hmmm, seems to fit in our "everybody wins" philosophy, but I offer this response:

Dear Concerned Parent: I applaud your understanding of our founding fathers’ purpose in creating a new nation. Thinking further, one of the best features of our country is that everyone has the opportunity to advance to his/her highest ability. While all children have talents, giftedness is an entirely different matter.

 A gifted student has special needs, not unlike the special needs of a child who has difficulty in math or reading. I’m sure you wouldn’t expect a non-reader to be placed in a regular reading group, or a math student who doesn’t understand when it’s appropriate to add, subtract, multiply or divide to be placed in an algebra class. Those students are grouped together for help in the areas in which they struggle. The difference is, gifted students not only are able to read, they understand literature way beyond their grade level. Their math skills and ability to problem-solve place them in an advanced state of mathematical understanding.

 These students deserve the opportunity to have their academic needs met at the level they are functioning. It is much easier for one teacher per grade level to plan those advanced lessons for a group than it would be for all the teachers at that grade level to plan for one or two advanced students in their classrooms. Just as you’d want your child to have peers he can relate to in his classroom, gifted students need academic peers that understand where they’re coming from. While gifted students are able to understand teacher instruction and can work independently, they still need the coaching and feedback the rest of the class is afforded. It is not their responsibility to become additional teachers in the classroom. They are there to learn, just as the rest of the students are.

As far as “extra credit” is concerned, think of this: You are very good at your job and always finish your work quickly and accurately. Your reward for this is that your boss gives you more work (or extra credit, if you will). I’m guessing your response would be to slow down and get done what’s assigned for one workday. But what if your boss said he was going to offer you more training for advancement because of your diligence? You would, more than likely, be eager or intrinsically motivated to continue the higher level of work for the appropriate reward. Gifted students operate the same way. They want to advance by learning beyond what is expected, not just do more of the same.

Homogeneous grouping for gifted students allows them to have a support system in the classroom, someone to bounce off their ideas. It helps cut down on planning time for teachers, when gifted students are in one room instead of being scattered throughout all the classrooms in the grade level. It alleviates discipline problems from “bored” students, allowing the teacher to spend time doing what she was hired to do: teach. Homogeneous grouping does not create an elite class of students, it merely meets the educational needs of the high-achieving group, just as pull-out classes for special education meet the needs of the other end of the learning spectrum. GT Liaison

I was a building liaison for gifted learners since the inception of the program in our district.  I was never able to convince the staffs I worked with of the logic of grouping gifted learners together.  It's my hope for the future that we stop treating gifted learners in the regular classroom as a commodity and, instead, give them the same opportunities to excel at their own rates as everyone else has.

"A child is not a vase to be filled but a fire to be lit."  Caine & Caine