In order for learning to occur, students need to connect to their own prior knowledge. Connections are like building bridges between the old and new. This building bridge can be brief or in-depth as long as it serves the needs of all learners. Pre-assessment determines prior knowledge whereas connections provides the link between old knowledge and new knowledge. This step is critical to applying constructivist theory in a classroom.
How do I build community?
- create trust between teacher and student and among the students
- build self-confidence so students will take risks, engage in dialogue
- move from competition to collaboration
- form ‘community clusters’
create learning circles of like-minded teachers to provide support and share ideas
practice working in collaborative groups and assign specific roles and tasks
encourage partner or peer tutoring situations
begin using reflective journals and/or learning logs
be open with the students that you are trying a different way of teaching and explain why – allow them time to express thoughts & feelings throughout the process
How do I group my students?
- students need to be taught how to work in a collaborative group
- keep groups “fluid” where students move in and out as needed
- use a variety of groupings based on ability or readiness, instructional needs and interests
- heterogeneous – a group of students with varying ability where each student takes a role in an area of strength that adds to the knowledge of the whole group
- homogeneous – ‘cluster’ grouping of a group of students with similar abilities or interest area can be effective for certain areas of study
- a group of 3 or 4 students works well in most settings
- teacher may choose and at other times, students may choose group members
- establish home-based teams and work teams to blend a heterogeneous group with a homogeneous group
- multiage groupings allow students of similar interests to learn from each other and work together
What strategies or instructional approaches can help students make connections?
Blogs - Blogs, short for weblogs, are online journals or diaries that have become popular since the mid 1990’s. Bloggers post personal opinions, random thoughts, connections and real life stories in order to interact with others via the Web! Weblinks and photos can also be added to the blog. A learner may choose to have their own blog to record their learning on a specific topic. A group of learners could choose to share a blog and read, write, challenge, debate, validate and build shared knowledge as a group. Check out Blogger.com to set up your own personal or professional blog – develop your digital voice and model for your students.
Graphic Organizers or Mind Maps – instructional tools used to illustrate prior knowledge. Student sample page
See Best Practice Graphic Organizers for more information and examples.
KWL Charts – K-what do the students already know? W-what do the students need and want to know? L-what did the students learn? An effective pre-assessment tool but also an effective tool to evaluate the level of understanding. Many teachers use the L part as an open-ended question on an exam allowing the students to share the depth of knowledge that was gained in the unit of study.
Questioning Techniques – Questions are a key element in each of the building blocks of constructivism. Categories of questions are guiding, anticipated, clarifying and integrating.
Reflective Journals or Learning Logs - Journals can be used to assess for process of learning and student growth. They can be open-ended or the teacher can provide guiding, reflective questions for the students to respond to. These often provide insight on how the students are synthesizing their learning.
Are you tired of using a pre-test or KWL chart as your pre-assessment tool? If so, read on and get more ideas on how to figure out what your students already know (or think that they know) prior to teaching a unit or lesson.
“Assessment is today’s means of modifying tomorrow’s instruction.” Carol Ann Tomlinson
Pre-assessment allows the teacher and student to discover what is already known in a specific topic or subject. It is critical to recognize prior knowledge so students can engage in questioning, formulating, thinking and theorizing in order to construct new knowledge appropriate to their level. Ongoing assessment throughout the learning process is also critical as it directs the teacher and student as to where to go next. Several assessment techniques are described in this section.
KWL Charts - K-what do the students already know? W-what do the students need and want to know? L-what did the students learn? An effective pre-assessment tool and summative evaluation tool to measure the level of understanding at the end of unit. Many teachers use the L part as an open-ended question on an exam allowing the students to share the depth of knowledge that was gained in the unit of study.
Yes/No Cards – Students make a card with Yes (or Got It) on one side, No (No clue) on the opposite side. Teachers ask an introductory or review question. Students who know the answer hold up the Yes card, if they don’t know the answer they hold the No card. This is very effective to use when introducing vocabulary words that students need as a knowledge base for a specific unit of study.
SA/A/D/SD – Students are given to opportunity to formulate their own views and opinions along a continuum rather than dialectically. Given an issue (similar to those outlined above) students are asked to consider the topic and determine whether they strongly agree (SA), agree (A), disagree (d), or strongly disagree (SD) with the statement. They are then asked to move to the appropriate station in the classroom identified with one of the options. A class discussion follows as students are given the opportunity to outline and defend their positions, refute the arguments of others as well as re-evaluate their own ideas.
Squaring Off – Place a card in each corner of the room with the following phrases: Dirt Road, Paved Road, Highway and Yellow Brick Road. Instruct the students to go to the corner of the room that matches where they are in the new unit of study. Students go to the corner of the room and as a group, discuss what they know about the topic.
Turn & Talk- During a lesson, there may be opportunities to have the students do a turn & talk activity for a few minutes. This allows students to talk about the information presented or shared and to clarify thoughts or questions. This is an effective alternate strategy to asking questions to the whole group and having the same students responding. All students have a chance to talk in a non-threatening situation for a short period of time.
“Assessment is today’s means of modifying tomorrow’s instruction.” Carole Tomlinson
Preassessment: a way to determine what students know about a topic before it is taught. It should be
Teacher prepared pretests
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Teachers, Start Your Engines:
Weekly Tip – Creating Puzzling Classroom
See if you can figure this one out:
“George, Helen, and Steve are drinking coffee. Bert, Karen, and Dave are drinking soda. Is Elizabeth drinking soda or coffee? (It is possible to reason this out using logic.)
Most of us love a good puzzle. Some are more drawn to spatial puzzles, others enjoy a good logic puzzle, still others math or situation puzzles. In fact, you may even be distracted from this article right now because you are trying to figure out that puzzle I posted above. Mazes, jig-saw puzzles, brain-teasers, and short mysteries pose challenges that capture our imagination and our thoughts. Puzzles are also an excellent way to capture the attention of our students and encourage them to think on higher levels.
Below are some ideas for incorporating puzzles into your classroom, no matter what you teach:
1. Pose a “puzzle of the week” every Monday. Students have all week to try to answer it. Have students place possible answers in a folder or large envelope to be opened on Friday. With younger students you might let them try throughout the week and then tell them whether they are “cold” or “hot”. Students who are “cold” might go back and rethink their answer. Students who are “hot” know they have it.
2. Add an object to your room that has to do with the topic or skill you are teaching. Challenge students to find the new object. (Original idea by Frederick Briehl)
3. Have a jig-saw puzzle “station” in the back of your classroom that students can work on during free time or when they finish their work early. A jig-saw puzzle is fun, but it also requires students to think logically and use spatial relationships to determine where pieces fit. If you can find a puzzle that relates to your novel, author, setting or location, art, music, math, science, or historical event – all the better. Use the internet to find topic related puzzles for students to solve. When working with pre-school and Kindergarten students, have a permanent puzzle station where students can put together different jig-saw puzzles.
4. Copy and paste logic puzzles and brain-teasers on the inside of a manila folder. Laminate the folder to last. This makes a portable “Thinking Center” that students can take to their seats and work on when finished with a class assignment or test.
5. Have students create their own jig-saw puzzles. Students could draw the setting or character in a story, create a timeline, draw a historical figure or event, or even create a mind-map or semantic web. If you have them do this on cardstock, turn the page over and have students draw different shapes and figures that interlock on the back. Cut along the lines and voila! You have a jig-saw puzzle. Craft stores such as Hobby Lobby and Michaels also sell jig-saw puzzle paper that is already shaped and pierced. Students simply draw on the sheet and then punch out the pieces.
6. Use a situation puzzle for a transition or time filler. Pose the statement or question to students and give them 20 questions to solve it. Two sources of situation puzzles are Jed’s List – http://www.kith.org/logos/things/sitpuz/situations.html and Nathan Levy’s book series – “Stories with Holes” – http://www.storieswithholes.com. You can also use a search engine to find situation puzzles. Just keep in mind that many are mini-mysteries and can include someone dying or being killed. Always check the puzzles for appropriateness before using in school and with certain ages.
7. Bring a wrapped present to class and situate it where everyone can see it. Don’t mention it or talk about it. When students ask, wave it off as nothing for them to worry about. This will drive them crazy. You might then pose a challenging question and tell students that the first to answer will get to open the present. Inside would be an object that relates to the topic of study. Ask your students at that point to identify why this particular object was chosen. This makes a great way to introduce a new topic.
8. A variation on the idea above is to put the objects in a box with an opening large enough for only a hand. Students feel the objects and try to guess at each. What do these objects have in common? How are they different? How does each object relate to the topic currently studied?
9. Have a Sudoku challenge on Fridays. The older students are, the more complicated the puzzle should be.
10. Use Crosswords and Word Searches when practicing definitions and vocabulary words. Cryptograms are also great for vocabulary and sentence practice. Students must use their knowledge of how sentences are formed to determine the “key” words that will help them decipher the puzzle. You can offer certain vocabulary words as clues to help determine the “key”. (Cryptograms are puzzles that substitute one letter for another. For example: a is really s, p is really a, and o is really t. The word might be “sat”, but in the puzzle it will show as “apo”. Once a word is deciphered, you use the “key” letters from that word to determine other words. Cryptograms are usually sentences and phrases.)
Puzzles are fun, challenging, and require us to think critically in order to solve them. We must use our knowledge of spatial relationships, numbers, number relationships, words, and our experiences in the world to solve different puzzles. This makes them not only enjoyable, but also a great learning tool. The next time you have a boring worksheet or activity, take some time to think about how you can turn it into a puzzle or mystery for students to solve. Look for different ways to incorporate puzzles into your classroom for students to solve as part of your class and outside of class. Before you know it, you too will have a puzzling classroom!
Still wondering about that puzzle above? Thought I’d leave you hanging, did you? Well, here’s the answer: Elizabeth is drinking coffee. She has two E’s in her name, just like everyone else in the puzzle drinking coffee (as well as coffee itself).
Weekly Tip - The 3 P’s of Classroom Management – 3 Part Series
Part II: Procedures
The first building block of good classroom management is positive environment, as we discussed last week. This week we’re going to take a look at the 2nd building block of good classroom management – procedures. For those of you who have been subscribing to this newsletter for a long time, you’ve heard my soap-box about procedures. I simply cannot say enough about this topic. In my mind having set procedures for your classroom means the difference between having an okay year and a great year. It definitely can mean the difference between having a bad year and a good year!
Human beings are typically creatures of habit. Even those of us who pride ourselves on being spontaneous have habits. We drink our coffee the same way every morning. Some of us brush our teeth first thing while others wait until after eating breakfast. There are people who live their lives by a watch and others who don’t. Think through your day for just a moment. What activities and/or tasks do you do similarly every single day? Do you walk the dog? Feed the fish? Get dressed? These activities become habits. We tend to complete them the same way (or very close to the same way) every day. You could say that these are procedures for your life.
A procedure, simply put, is :
1. An act or a manner of proceeding in any action or process; conduct.
2. A particular course or mode of action.
3. The sequence of actions or instructions to be followed in solving a problem or accomplishing a task.
(Source – http://www.dictionary.com)
When we create classroom procedures we are developing a course of action and/or a sequence of actions to accomplish a task. For example, an “opening class” procedure may consist of students checking their “mailbox” for returned papers, getting out their journal, sharpening their pencil, and beginning the focus assignment before the bell rings. A “closing” procedure may consist of students putting their journal back in their “mailbox”, turning in the class assignment, cleaning up the area around their desk, and sitting quietly until dismissed.
Classroom procedures should be developed for the different activities accomplished daily in your classroom. How do you expect students to turn in homework and classroom assignments? How do you expect students to work together in groups? What are your expectations for students to label their papers for assignments? What do you expect students to do when participating in writing or reading activities, labs, or learning centers? How will students request to go to the restroom, see the nurse, or get materials for class? What about lining up and walking down hallways to Art or recess?
All of these actions and activities require procedures. Some procedures should be written down so that students can easily see and refer to what is expected of them. Other procedures will be communicated verbally by the teacher. However, it is vital that you take the time at the beginning of the school year to think about how you want your class to operate. It is this proactive reflection and determination that will make your life easier. Clear communication only happens when you are certain about what you expect. If you only have vague ideas of what you think you want, chaos can easily happen. Don’t forget that your students are human beings also. They are likely to develop their own ways of acting and their own “procedures” to follow if none are specifically given to them. The more prepared you are in the beginning, the less likely your students will come up with their own more creative habits.
Take, for example, students entering and leaving your classroom. With clearly marked procedures in place, students know to enter the classroom, get necessary materials, and begin working before the bell rings. This does not mean that you will not have to redirect and remind students to get this done, but it does mean that each one already knows what they should do. When the bell rings most of your students will be sitting at their desk either working or preparing to work. Without a set procedure you’ll end up with students entering class at their leisure, chatting with friends, hanging out about the room doing “whatever” until the bell rings. Then you have to take the time to herd them all back to their seats in order to get class started. This, as some of you know, can take a chunk out of class time.
Once you have developed your procedures, be sure to train students in following these procedures. Go over them at the beginning of the year and practice. Stick to these procedures daily so that students can get into the routine and develop the habit. Before the bell rings, remind students of what they should be doing. If you see students not following your procedures/expectations, stop and practice it again until they do it properly. Taking time at the beginning of the year to practice and get into the habit of following these procedures will save time at the end of the school year when everyone is feeling that spring fever. Do not think that you are wasting class time by practicing and revisiting these procedures. Instead, you are wisely using time to reinforce positive habits that will continue throughout the school year.
As we discussed last week, a positive environment is only the beginning to good classroom management. The next step is developing classroom procedures. These will then reinforce that positive environment when everyone knows what to do and what is expected. There are no hidden surprises and everyone is on the same page. This results in a teacher who feels less stressed and less likely to show frustration in the classroom. Students respond to this positive atmosphere and tend to behave in a more positive manner. Next week we will discuss the last of the 3 P’s – Productive Students – and how this element increases the likely-hood of having a well-disciplined class.
Many educators have become well-versed in modifying the regular classroom curriculum to meet the needs of students with disabilities. Educators are not as experienced, however, in meeting the instructional needs of high-ability students. In a growing number of states, revisions in regulations pertaining to gifted and talented students are requiring that high-ability students, previously served in part-time pull-out programs, must also receive appropriate instruction within the context of their regular classrooms. For example, in Kentucky, high-ability students can no longer be viewed as sufficiently served by a once-monthly or once-weekly program. These students have educational needs that must be met daily, just as students with disabilities have.Many regular education teachers report that meeting the needs of high-ability students equals and often exceeds the challenges of integrating disabled students in their classrooms. High-ability students can be delightful, but they can also be demanding, impatient, perfectionistic, sarcastic, and disruptive. In addition, few regular education teachers have received sufficient training in issues related to gifted and talented education. Before teachers can develop appropriate instructional strategies to meet the needs of high-ability students, they must recognize the value of such efforts. For many educators, services to gifted and talented students may seem to be elitist. However, public education is founded on the belief that all students (including those with high abilities) have the right to instruction appropriate to their needs. Gifted and talented students, like all students, should learn something new every day.
General Strategies for Modifying the Curriculum
The objectives for modifying standard curricula for high-ability students include:
- meeting the learning capacity of the students,
- meeting the students’ rapid rates of learning in all or some areas of study, and
- providing time and resources so that students can pursue areas of special interest.
In order to modify standard curricula for high-ability students, Lois Roets (1993) proposed three options:
- lesson modifications,
- assignment modifications, and
- scheduling modifications.
Lessons can be modified through acceleration or enrichment of content. Assignments can be modified through reducing regular classroom work or providing alternate assignments. Scheduling options include providing opportunities for high-ability students to work individually through independent study, shared learning in homogeneous groupings with peers of similar ability and interests, and participation in heterogeneous groupings of mixed-ability students.
One way teachers can extend or enrich the content they present is by asking open-ended questions. Such questions stimulate higher order thinking skills and give students opportunities to consider and express personal opinions. Open-ended questions require thinking skills such as comparison, synthesis, insight, judgment, hypothesis, conjecture, and assimilation. Such questions can also increase student awareness of current events. Open-ended questions should be included in both class discussions and assignments. They can also be used as stimulation for the opening or conclusion of a lesson.
Another strategy for lesson modification developed by Susan Winebrenner (1992) is to use Bloom’s taxonomy of six levels of thinking to develop lesson content. Bloom’s model implies that the “lower” levels (knowledge, comprehension, and application) require more literal and less complex thinking than the “higher” levels (analysis, evaluation, and synthesis). Teachers are encouraged to develop thematic units with activities for students at all ability levels. This strategy involves four steps. Teachers first choose a theme that can incorporate learning objectives from several different subject areas. Secondly, teachers identify 6 to 10 key concepts or instructional objectives. Third, they determine which learner outcomes or grade-level competencies will be targeted for the unit. Finally, they design instructional activities to cover each of the six levels of thinking.
High-ability students are often expected to complete assignments that they find boring or irrelevant because they represent no new learning for them. Allowing them to reduce or skip standard assignments in order to acquire time to pursue alternate assignments or independent projects is called curriculum compacting. The curriculum for a gifted student should be compacted in those areas that represent his or her strengths. When students “buy time” for enrichment or alternate activities, they should use that time to capitalize on their strengths, rather than to improve skills in weaker subjects. For example, a student advanced in math should have a compacted curriculum in that area with opportunities given for enriched study in mathematics.
The first step in compacting the curriculum is determining the need to do so. A student is a candidate for compacting if he or she regularly finishes assignments quickly and correctly, consistently scores high on tests related to the modified area, or demonstrates high ability through individualized assessment, but not daily classwork (i.e., he or she is gifted, but unmotivated for the standard curriculum).
The second step in compacting the curriculum is to create a written plan outlining which, if any, regular assignments will be completed and what alternate activities will be accomplished. A time frame for the plan should also be determined. Modification plans can be limited to a few days (i.e., length of lesson or chapter) or extend over the course of an entire school year.
Alternate assignments for high-ability students can either be projects related to the modified area of study that extend the curriculum, or they can be independent projects that are chosen based on students’ individual interests. Winebrenner (1992) described a strategy in which students use written independent study contracts to research topics of interest to become “resident experts.” The students and teacher decide upon a description and the criteria for evaluating each project. A deadline is determined, and by that date, each student must share his or her project with the entire class. Before choosing their projects, students are also given time to browse various areas of interest. After completing compacted work, students are allowed to look through research materials to explore various topics. A deadline for choosing a topic for independent projects is also given to the students to limit their browsing time.
Cooperative learning through traditional heterogeneous groups is often counterproductive for high-ability students. When the learning task involves a great deal of drill and practice, these students often end up doing more teaching than learning. When placed in homogeneous cooperative learning groups, however, gifted students can derive significant learning benefits. This does not mean that high-ability students should never participate in heterogeneous cooperative learning groups. Rather, groupings should be chosen based on the task that is being assigned. When the task includes drill and practice, such as math computation or answering comprehension questions about a novel, gifted students should be grouped together and given a more complex task. When the task includes critical thinking, gifted students should be part of heterogeneous groups to stimulate discussions. Open-ended activities are excellent choices for heterogeneous groupings.
Cluster grouping of high-ability students in the same classroom is another option for meeting the needs of gifted students in the regular classroom. The traditional method of assigning students to classes has often been to divide the high-ability students equally among the available classes so each teacher would have his or her “fair share.” Under this system, however, each teacher must develop strategies for modifying the curriculum to meet the needs of the advanced students. With cluster grouping, four to six high-ability students are placed in the same classroom. This system allows the students to learn with and from each other and reduces the need for multiple teachers to develop appropriate instructional modifications.
The following case studies describe how the curriculum was modified for three academically able students.
Mark entered first grade reading at a fourth-grade level. He had mastered math concepts that challenged his first-grade peers. He was placed in a second-grade class for math instruction and in a third-grade class for reading and spelling instruction. Despite these opportunities, Mark was always the first to finish assignments and spent the majority of his school day reading library books or playing computer games. His parents and teacher were concerned that he was not sufficiently challenged, but as a 6-year-old, he was too young to participate in the district’s pull-out gifted program. They were also concerned that he was having difficulty developing friendships in his classroom since he spent much of the day apart from his homeroom peers. A request for consultation was made to the school psychologist.
With input from Mark’s parents and teachers, an independent study contract was developed for Mark to channel his high reading abilities toward study in a specific area. After browsing for a week, he chose dinosaurs as his project area. Mark then narrowed his focus to the Jurassic Period and decided to create a classroom reference book complete with pictures he drew. When he completed his daily work, Mark researched his topic area and worked on his project. When completed, Mark’s teacher asked him to share his project with his classmates. Because he had chosen a topic of high interest to his peers, Mark’s status as “resident expert” on dinosaurs made him attractive to his classmates. Mark’s teacher encouraged these budding friendships by asking the other students to bring dinosaur toys and books from home to share with the class during the following weeks.
Katrina’s parents chose to move her from a private school to public school at the end of her third-grade year. Following the advice of the private school staff, Katrina’s parents enrolled her in a second year of third grade at the public school due to reported weaknesses in reading and written expression. After a few weeks of school, Katrina’s teacher approached the school psychologist with her concern that retention may not have been in Katrina’s best interest. The teacher reported that Katrina was performing on grade level in all areas and demonstrated high-ability math skills.
Upon meeting with Katrina’s parents, however, they expressed the desire to keep her in the third grade. They felt that Katrina had suffered no harmful effects from the retention since it involved a move to a new school with different peers. Further, Katrina’s parents reported that she felt very comfortable and successful in her classroom. Although the committee decided to keep Katrina in the third grade, they developed a compacted curriculum for her in the area of math. A contract was written specifying modifications for Katrina in the regular class math curriculum. She was required to complete half of the assignments given to her peers, as long as she did so with 90% or higher accuracy. When finished with her modified assignment, Katrina then used her time earned through compacting for enriched study in mathematics. The committee was careful to avoid presenting material to Katrina that she would study in the future to avoid the possibility of repetition. Instead, an enriched program of study was developed that emphasized critical thinking and problem solving related to the addition and subtraction being taught in her classroom.
Katrina’s contract included several choices of activities, any of which she could choose to do on a given day, such as creating story problems for the class to solve, drawing pictures or using manipulatives to demonstrate calculation problems, or activities involving measuring, classifying, estimating, and graphing. Katrina’s teacher would present a specific activity choice in these areas that extended and enriched the basic concepts being taught to the class as a whole.
With these modifications, Katrina’s advanced skills in math were addressed. Her parents and teacher judged her school year a success, and Katrina made an easy transition to fourth grade, where she was able to work on grade-level material with an average level of accuracy in all areas.
Adam demonstrated a very high spoken vocabulary and advanced ideas when participating in class. He completed few of his assignments, though, and showed strong resistance to putting pencil to paper despite obvious high abilities. He was able to read orally at a level 2 years above his fourth-grade status and could perform multidigit calculation problems mentally. However, in the classroom, Adam demonstrated task avoidance and disruptive behaviors. His teacher and parents were frustrated by his lack of work output and behavior problems, and they sought assistance from the school psychologist.
In interviewing Adam, the psychologist found that he did not see the need to put on paper answers he already knew. It seemed likely that Adam’s behavior problems were related to boredom and frustration. To test this theory, the psychologist recommended the use of Winebrenner’s (1992) “Most Difficult First” strategy. With this strategy, the teacher identifies the most difficult portion of an assignment and the student is allowed to attempt that portion of the assignment first. If he or she completes it with 100% accuracy, the student is excused from the remainder of the assignment and allowed to use his or her free time to pursue an alternate activity.
Adam was resistant to this strategy at first, but he quickly saw its advantages and began completing those assignments that were modified using the strategy. With guidance from the school psychologist, Adam’s teacher then extended modifications to include pretesting and compacting opportunities across the curriculum. Adam used his time earned from compacting to pursue independent projects and recreational reading, and his behavior problems decreased accordingly.
The focus of educational services for high-ability students is shifting to the regular classroom. While this expansion of services to the regular classroom is a welcome recognition of the need to challenge high-ability students all day, every day, this initiative also brings with it a significant need to train regular education teachers. Support staff such as educators of gifted and talented students and school psychologists must learn to become effective consultants to assist regular classroom teachers in applying instructional strategies appropriate for meeting the needs of high-ability students.
All Means All: Classrooms that Work for Advanced Learners
Meeting the needs of all learners means all, including those who learn rapidly or are inherently curious about the world, eating up everything we offer—books, history, geometry proofs, science experiments. Some of these students make themselves known immediately. Others, especially during their middle school years, prefer to hide their talents, their academic interest and enthusiasm, and their abilities.
Regardless of whether they are students who need us to draw them out or students whose abilities are immediately apparent, we have a responsibility to help them reach their full potential.
Sometimes we are so overwhelmed by the needs of struggling learners that we believe we don’t have time for the gifted, talented, high achieving, and high potential students. But they are just as desperate as any other students for good teachers to help them progress. Middle school is a turning point for them, too.
Schools can be structured in many ways to meet the needs of these top students. Part of a continuum of services might include honors or accelerated classes, co-enrollment with the high school, pre-IB (International Baccalaureate) or pre-AP (Advanced Placement) programs that coordinate with high school offerings, multi-age classes, grade acceleration, magnet schools, or honors clusters or teams.
But teachers in most middle schools meet these students in heterogeneous classes where there’s a wide range of abilities, interests, learning styles, and special education needs. Cluster grouping is one approach that helps narrow the range. Effective cluster grouping places four to eight high achieving and gifted students in a heterogeneous class that does not include special needs students who require significant attention from the classroom teacher. This number of students ensures that students feel more comfortable doing advanced work and the teacher is more willing to provide it, since there isn’t just one student who needs it.
Providing Challenge and Choice
Whether in a clustered classroom or a fully heterogeneous one, all teachers can use strategies to help differentiate instruction for gifted, high achieving, and high potential learners. When applied consistently, these strategies help all students make progress throughout the school year.
The three components of curriculum that should be adjusted are content, process, and product. Content is the actual material being learned. The process is the way the students are engaging with the material, such as whole class instruction, small group work, online instruction, and independent projects. The product is how the students demonstrate what they have learned. Each approach that follows incorporates one or more of these and helps meet the two most basic needs of these students: challenge and choice.
Pre-Assessment: Who Knows What?
The cornerstone of any attempt to meet the needs of diverse learners is to find out what they are interested in, how they learn best, and what they already know. This is the purpose of pre-assessment.
Administer an interest inventory or a learning styles inventory to all students at the beginning of the school year. Questions can include: What sports do you play? Do you prefer to work alone or with a group? What musical instruments do you play? What do you enjoy learning about? What do you do with your free time? If you had to put together your new desk, would you rather hear the instructions, read the instructions, or watch someone do it and then follow their model?
Identify or collect from existing data information about each student’s reading and writing levels in all content areas. If the responsibility for gathering this information is divided among grade level team members, students don’t end up completing four writing samples or filling out six interest inventories during the first two days of school.
Teachers should be aware of any student who has been identified as gifted in a specific academic area, in a cognitive ability, or in the visual or performing arts. Criteria for this designation vary by state and district; this is different from the consistent federal guidelines for identifying special education students.
This pre-assessment gives teachers a general overview of students’ academic and personal starting points. The next step is to be more teacher- and content-specific. At least two weeks before instruction about a specific unit begins, teachers should give students a pre-assessment covering the content of that unit.
Often teachers misuse the K-W-L technique (What do you Know? What do you Want to know? What have you Learned?) for this purpose by doing it as an oral whole-class activity on the first day of a unit. While it is a great way to engage students’ interest in a topic, it is not an effective pre-assessment. The students who know the most stop talking after they offer two or three answers, even if they know more (it’s socially “uncool” and teachers ask “can we hear from anyone else?”) while students who don’t know anything about the topic say “he took my answer” or remain silent. Teachers get a false “read” of the class’s knowledge base. In addition, doing this activity on the first day of an already-planned unit gives them no time to adjust for individual learners’ needs.
Instead, pre-assessments should be
- Focused on the key information, concepts, and skills of the unit, including the embedded state and local standards.
- Relatively short.
- Assessed only for instructional planning and grouping (not graded).
- Returned to students only at the end of the unit when they can assess their own growth.
Other effective pre-assessments can be specially constructed pre-tests, post-tests, journals, incomplete graphic organizers, or open-ended questions. It is often useful to add “What else can you tell me about your experiences with this topic and what you know about it?”
Once teachers have a good idea of the starting point for each student, they can select the appropriate materials, pacing, and instructional approaches. This is the foundation of middle school philosophy and differentiation of instruction: start with the student.
Tiered assignments, both in class and for homework, are a great way to differentiate instruction when all students need to work on the same content or material. This might include differentiated journal prompts, comprehension questions at different levels of Bloom’s Cognitive Taxonomy, or a range of sophistication in math problems.
For example, when students are reading The Gettysburg Address, teachers can develop two sets of questions. One set is for struggling readers or more concrete thinkers with little background knowledge. These questions might emphasize the first three levels of Bloom’s taxonomy (remember, understand, apply) and some key vocabulary words. A second set is for advanced readers or more abstract thinkers. These questions might emphasize the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy (analyze, evaluate, create) and include a question about the oratorical devices that made this speech memorable.
Both groups get the same number of questions. The whole-class discussion that follows can include all students so everyone benefits from shared insights and knowledge, and encourage critical thinking.
Menus of Activities
Another approach is to create a menu of choices for learning activities ranging from reading the basal social studies text and creating an outline of its content to analyzing primary source material. Each activity in the menu is assigned a point value and all students must complete the same number of points. Making a basic map may be worth 5 points. Making a map of contemporary Europe and contrasting it with what that same map looked like in 1900 would be worth 20 points. The key is that point values are determined by cognitive complexity, not just quantity or amount of time needed.
Through thoughtful coaching by the teacher, all students can learn new material on the assigned topic. Struggling learners may be required to master certain skills needed for state assessments while those who already have those skills may work toward above-grade level proficiency. The emphasis is on meaningful work for all students connected to the unit’s essential questions.
Orbital and Independent Study
While differentiation is definitely not individualized education, opportunities for independent and orbital studies may be appropriate. For example, in a language arts unit on folk tales, fairy tales, and myths, a student with a lot of background might do an orbital study on Rafe Martin’s book Birdwing (Scholastic 2007). This novel extends Grimm’s fairy tale of “The Six Swans” in which six brothers are cursed and turned into swans. Their sister bravely breaks the spell, but one brother, Ardwin, is left with a birdwing. How he faces his difference, how the author has spun his ideas from the original tale, whether the moral is consistent with Grimm’s intention—all can be part of the students’ study. Significantly advanced students can explore Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces.
While orbital studies extend a given topic, independent study may replace a topic. If students have mastered the goals, objectives, and concepts of this unit and have no interest in the topic, they might substitute in-depth study of a topic of interest such as science or history.
21st Century Technology
We are lucky that today, computer and other media technologies provide unique opportunities for student learning. There are online courses at both the high school and college levels for advanced learners. There are Web quests, podcasts, and video lectures from some of the greatest thinkers and teachers of our time. These experiences extend the boundaries of our classrooms and the learning of our students.
Differentiation is an approach to teaching and learning, not just a strategy. It has a profound impact on the classroom community. Students must understand that not everyone in the classroom does the same thing at the same time, but everyone gets what they need.
It’s not OK to make the top students into junior teachers. It has the opposite effect of what is often intended; rather than build compassion and caring, it creates arrogance and resentment. In addition, often gifted students don’t know how they know what they know or how to explain their leaping insights to more structured learners.
Differentiating instruction for advanced learners takes time and resources. Teachers should reach out and ask for help from gifted coordinators, gifted intervention specialists, online resources in the gifted community or in a content area, or from teachers in higher grade levels.
When we apply these strategies in our classrooms, we are delighted to see students blossom beyond our wildest dreams. We see students reach up to accept challenges because they see others doing it. We exemplify the ideals of middle schools and ensure that all our students are learning every day.
Are Your Students Prepared for the Organizational Demands of Middle School?
Middle school moves at a fast pace. Students have many different teachers, each with his or her own homework, test schedules, and due dates. Add to the mix the after-school clubs and sports that students participate in, and it is a challenge to get organized.
Good work management and organizational skills are essential for balancing the load and minimizing the stress. For some students, organizational skills come naturally, but for most, they must be learned. While there is little classroom time to assess and train students in work management skills, here are some ideas for how you can help your students be prepared.
Help students make the connection
Getting students to value good organizational skills is the first step. Teachers can help by connecting the benefits of good organizational skills to the things this age group values most—more independence, less stress, more free time, better grades, and more self-confidence.
Organized binders are key
A binder is like a compact file cabinet that a student carries around all day to file and retrieve papers, homework, and information. Students must be able to access materials quickly and keep papers neatly stored by subject. Be sure to give students time in class to file papers in the correct place in their binders—no shoving loose papers into backpacks!
Planners are essential
No matter how good a student’s memory is, he or she must have a central place for recording activities. A student’s planner should contain important dates and events such as bell schedule changes, holiday breaks, exams, homework assignments, and project due dates. It’s a good idea for students to include personal items scheduled during school days such as medical appointments, vacations, and after-school activities.
Have a study bud
Students should identify a classmate in each class who can be contacted in the event of a forgotten homework assignment or lost worksheet. The study bud can also help when a fellow student is absent and needs a handout or class notes. Study buds should exchange home contact information.
A homework space that rocks
Encourage students to locate, design, and stock a work space at home. This will help them do their best work in the least amount of time. The space should be quiet and free from distractions such as people talking, TV, and video games. They can deck it out with posters, pictures of friends, or team photos to make it a place they won’t mind hanging out. Make it a “Designer’s Challenge” classroom activity in which students design and photograph their work spaces and vote on the work space “most likely to succeed.”
Most students, particularly those fresh out of elementary school, have no idea that a typical middle school teacher works with 100 or more students each day. Unaware of the many demands on a teacher’s time, students continue to believe that, as in elementary school, their teachers will track them down to provide a missing assignment. Encourage students to take personal responsibility for following up. You can role-play various student dilemmas in a “What Would You Do?” classroom activity to help students learn to recognize and follow up on matters that affect their grades.
Without basic organizational skills, middle school students can become overwhelmed. In some cases it begins a downward spiral of underachievement that can last into the high school years and beyond. Take some time to help students recognize and appreciate the benefits of good basic organizational skills.
Today’s students have a different (not better or worse, just different) mindset from those born 10, 20, 30+ years ago. To reach your students, you have to understand how they think. In order to help the faculty at Beloit College, one of the professors compiles an annual mindset list for the incoming freshmen. You might find this information interesting – and useful.
A note about the Beloit College Mindset List
To save readers the time and effort of writing to us about the Beloit College Mindset List, we offer four brief explanations.
The Mindset List is not a chronological listing of things that happened in the year that the entering first-year students were born.
Our effort is to identify a worldview of 18 year-olds in the fall of 2007. We take a risk in some cases of making generalizations, particularly given that our students at Beloit College for instance come from every state and scores of nations.
The “Class of 2011″ refers to students entering college this year. They are generally 18 which suggests they were born in 1989.
The list identifies the experiences and event horizons of students as they commence higher education and is not meant to reflect on their preparatory education.
BELOIT COLLEGE’S MINDSET LIST®
FOR THE CLASS OF 2011
Most of the students entering College this fall, members of the Class of 2011, were born in 1989. For them, Alvin Ailey, Andrei Sakharov, Huey Newton, Emperor Hirohito, Ted Bundy, Abbie Hoffman, and Don the Beachcomber have always been dead.
- What Berlin wall?
- Humvees, minus the artillery, have always been available to the public.
- Rush Limbaugh and the “Dittoheads” have always been lambasting liberals.
- They never “rolled down” a car window.
- Michael Moore has always been angry and funny.
- They may confuse the Keating Five with a rock group.
- They have grown up with bottled water.
- General Motors has always been working on an electric car.
- Nelson Mandela has always been free and a force in South Africa.
- Pete Rose has never played baseball.
- Rap music has always been mainstream.
- Religious leaders have always been telling politicians what to do, or else!
- “Off the hook” has never had anything to do with a telephone.
- Music has always been “unplugged.”
- Russia has always had a multi-party political system.
- Women have always been police chiefs in major cities.
- They were born the year Harvard Law Review Editor Barack Obama announced he might run for office some day.
- The NBA season has always gone on and on and on and on.
- Classmates could include Michelle Wie, Jordin Sparks, and Bart Simpson.
- Half of them may have been members of the Baby-sitters Club.
- Eastern Airlines has never “earned their wings” in their lifetime.
- No one has ever been able to sit down comfortably to a meal of “liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”
- Wal-Mart has always been a larger retailer than Sears and has always employed more workers than GM.
- Being “lame” has to do with being dumb or inarticulate, not disabled.
- Wolf Blitzer has always been serving up the news on CNN.
- Katie Couric has always had screen cred.
- Al Gore has always been running for president or thinking about it.
- They never found a prize in a Coca-Cola “MagiCan.”
- They were too young to understand Judas Priest’s subliminal messages.
- When all else fails, the Prozac defense has always been a possibility.
- Multigrain chips have always provided healthful junk food.
- They grew up in Wayne’s World.
- U2 has always been more than a spy plane.
- They were introduced to Jack Nicholson as “The Joker.”
- Stadiums, rock tours and sporting events have always had corporate names.
- American rock groups have always appeared in Moscow.
- Commercial product placements have been the norm in films and on TV.
- On Parents’ Day on campus, their folks could be mixing it up with Lisa Bonet and Lenny Kravitz with daughter Zöe, or Kathie Lee and Frank Gifford with son Cody.
- Fox has always been a major network.
- They drove their parents crazy with the Beavis and Butt-Head laugh.
- The “Blue Man Group” has always been everywhere.
- Women’s studies majors have always been offered on campus.
- Being a latchkey kid has never been a big deal.
- Thanks to MySpace and Facebook, autobiography can happen in real time.
- They learned about JFK from Oliver Stone and Malcolm X from Spike Lee.
- Most phone calls have never been private.
- High definition television has always been available.
- Microbreweries have always been ubiquitous.
- Virtual reality has always been available when the real thing failed.
- Smoking has never been allowed in public spaces in France.
- China has always been more interested in making money than in reeducation.
- Time has always worked with Warner.
- Tiananmen Square is a 2008 Olympics venue, not the scene of a massacre.
- The purchase of ivory has always been banned.
- MTV has never featured music videos.
- The space program has never really caught their attention except in disasters.
- Jerry Springer has always been lowering the level of discourse on TV.
- They get much more information from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert than from the newspaper.
- They’re always texting 1 n other.
- They will encounter roughly equal numbers of female and male professors in the classroom.
- They never saw Johnny Carson live on television.
- They have no idea who Rusty Jones was or why he said “goodbye to rusty cars.”
- Avatars have nothing to do with Hindu deities.
- Chavez has nothing to do with iceberg lettuce and everything to do with oil.
- Illinois has been trying to ban smoking since the year they were born.
- The World Wide Web has been an online tool since they were born.
- Chronic fatigue syndrome has always been debilitating and controversial.
- Burma has always been Myanmar.
- Dilbert has always been ridiculing cubicle culture.
- Food packaging has always included nutritional labeling.
Here is this year’s list, for the Class of 2010:
1. The Soviet Union has never existed and therefore is about as scary as the student union.
2. They have known only two presidents.
3. For most of their lives, major U.S. airlines have been bankrupt.
4. Manuel Noriega has always been in jail in the U.S.
5. They have grown up getting lost in “big boxes”.
6. There has always been only one Germany.
7. They have never heard anyone actually “ring it up” on a cash register.
8. They are wireless, yet always connected.
9. A stained blue dress is as famous to their generation as a third-rate burglary was to their parents’.
10. Thanks to pervasive head phones in the back seat, parents have always been able to speak freely in the front.
11. A coffee has always taken longer to make than a milkshake.
12. Smoking has never been permitted on U.S. airlines.
13. Faux fur has always been a necessary element of style.
14. The Moral Majority has never needed an organization.
15. They have never had to distinguish between the St. Louis Cardinals baseball and football teams.
16. DNA fingerprinting has always been admissible evidence in court.
17. They grew up pushing their own miniature shopping carts in the supermarket.
18. They grew up with and have outgrown faxing as a means of communication.
19. “Google” has always been a verb.
20. Text messaging is their e-mail.
21. Milli Vanilli has never had anything to say.
22. Mr. Rogers, not Walter Cronkite, has always been the most trusted man in America.
23. Bar codes have always been on everything, from library cards and snail mail to retail items.
24. Madden has always been a game, not a Super Bowl-winning coach.
25. Phantom of the Opera has always been on Broadway.
26. “Boogers” candy has always been a favorite for grossing out parents.
27. There has never been a “skyhook” in the NBA.
28. Carbon copies are oddities found in their grandparents’ attics.
29. Computerized player pianos have always been tinkling in the lobby.
30. Non-denominational mega-churches have always been the fastest growing. religious organizations in the U.S.
31. They grew up in minivans.
32. Reality shows have always been on television.
33. They have no idea why we needed to ask “…can we all get along?”
34. They have always known that “In the criminal justice system the people have been represented by two separate yet equally important groups.”
35. Young women’s fashions have never been concerned with where the waist is.
36. They have rarely mailed anything using a stamp.
37. Brides have always worn white for a first, second, or third wedding.
38. Being techno-savvy has always been inversely proportional to age.
39. “So” as in “Sooooo New York,” has always been a drawn-out adjective modifying a proper noun, which in turn modifies something else.
40. Affluent troubled teens in Southern California have always been the subjects of television series.
41. They have always been able to watch wars and revolutions live on television.
42. Ken Burns has always been producing very long documentaries on PBS.
43. They are not aware that “flock of seagulls hair” has nothing to do with birds flying into it.
44. Retin-A has always made America look less wrinkled.
45. Green tea has always been marketed for health purposes.
46. Public school officials have always had the right to censor school newspapers.
47. Small white holiday lights have always been in style.
48. Most of them have never had the chance to eat bad airline food.
49. They have always been searching for “Waldo”.
50. The really rich have regularly expressed exuberance with outlandish birthday parties.
51. Michael Moore has always been showing up uninvited.
52. They never played the game of state license plates in the car.
53. They have always preferred going out in groups as opposed to dating.
54. There have always been live organ donors.
55. They have always had access to their own credit cards.
56. They have never put their money in a “Savings & Loan.”
57. Sara Lee has always made underwear.
58. Bad behavior has always been getting captured on amateur videos.
59. Disneyland has always been in Europe and Asia.
60. They never saw Bernard Shaw on CNN.
61. Beach volleyball has always been a recognized sport.
62. Acura, Lexus, and Infiniti have always been luxury cars of choice.
63. Television stations have never concluded the broadcast day with the national anthem.
64. LoJack transmitters have always been finding lost cars.
65. Diane Sawyer has always been live in Prime Time.
66. Dolphin-free canned tuna has always been on sale.
67. Disposable contact lenses have always been available.
68. “Outing” has always been a threat.
69. Oh, The Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss has always been the perfect graduation gift.
70. They have always “dissed” what they don’t like.
71. The U.S. has always been studying global warming to confirm its existence.
72. Richard M. Daley has always been the mayor of Chicago.
73. They grew up with virtual pets to feed, water, and play games with, lest they die.
74. Ringo Starr has always been clean and sober.
75. Professional athletes have always competed in the Olympics.
Lists for previous years can be found at http://www.beloit.edu/~pubaff/mindset/.