October 23, 2007 at 6:44 pm (all, blogging, Blogroll, children, classroom management, culture, drama, Education, Educational Leadership, Elementary, ESE, ESOL, friends, Gifted, High School, history, kids, life, love, Middle School, movies, Parents, Pedagogy, personal, principals, reading, school, school administration, teachers, Thornebrooke, thoughts, Uncategorized, writing)


Reflection is a process for looking back and integrating new knowledge. Reflections need to occur throughout the building blocks of constructivism and include teacher-led student-driven and teacher reflections. We need to encourage students to stop throughout the learning process and think about their learning. Teachers need to model the reflective process to encourage students to think openly, critically and creatively.


Teacher-Led Student Reflections – Teachers review the learning to revisit concepts and processes that students will take away with them. This is an opportunity to restate and correct misinformation that has been noted. Teachers reframe new information to lead the students in a more appropriate path. Teachers link student learning to help the group make meaningful connections.

Student Reflections – Students reflect on what they thought about during learning process and how they reacted to other exhibits shared by peers. Reflections include what they were thinking, feeling, imagining and processing through the dialogue or learning exchange. Students reflect on what they will always remember. Reflections can be written but it is important to allow students to have purposeful dialogue.

Techniques for Reflections

Closing CircleA quick way to circle around a classroom and ask each student to share one thing they now know about a topic or a connection that they made that will help them to remember or how this new knowledge can be applied in real life.

Exit CardsAn easy 5 minute activity to check student knowledge before, during and after a lesson or complete unit of study. Students respond to 3 questions posed by the teacher. Teachers can quickly read the responses and plan necessary instruction.

Learning LogsShort, ungraded and unedited, reflective writing in learning logs is a venue to promote genuine consideration of learning activities.

Reflective JournalsJournals can be used to allow students to reflect on their own learning. They can be open-ended or the teacher can provide guiding, reflective questions for the students to respond to. These provide insight on how the students are synthesizing their learning but it also helps the students to make connections and better understand how they learn.

RubricsStudents take time to self-evaluate and peer-evaluate using the rubric that was given or created at the beginning of the learning process. By doing this, students will understand what areas they were very strong in and what areas to improve for next time.

Write a LetterThe students write a letter to themselves or to the subject they are studying. This makes the students think of connections in a very personal way. Students enjoy sharing these letters and learn from listening to other ideas.



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October 23, 2007 at 6:39 pm (all, blogging, Blogroll, children, classroom management, Education, Educational Leadership, Elementary, ESE, ESOL, Gifted, High School, history, kids, Middle School, Parents, Pedagogy, principals, reading, school, school administration, teachers, Thornebrooke, thoughts, Uncategorized, writing)


By using a variety of ways to show what they know, such as projects, metaphors or graphic organizers, students are allowed to come to closure on some idea, to develop it and to further their imagination to find understanding. Understanding is taking bits of knowledge in all different curriculum and life experiences and applying this new knowledge. When students apply new knowledge, connections are made and learning is meaningful and relevant. Application is a higher order thinking skill that is critical for true learning to occur.


We often require students to hand in a completed paper, project or give them an exam to see what they have learned. In a constructivist classroom, the process moves from the individual to more public, shared knowledge. The power of social interaction shapes learning through critical thinking, communicating and relating. When we keep the product as a private act, we deprive the learner the opportunity to engage in and learn from and with others.

Characteristics of Exhibits

  • Students create a variety of products to ‘show what they know’
  • Students share these products in collaborative or whole group presentations
  • Students respond to questions and openly question others
  • Teachers guide student learning creating learning paths appropriate for each student or groups of students
  • Students take more responsibility and ownership for their learning exhibits

Possible Student Exhibits

Analogies – Students compare a topic or unit of study to an inanimate object such as comparing something known to the unknown or some inanimate object to the topic.

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 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 to set up your own personal or professional blog – develop your digital voice and model for your students.

Collage – Students cut out or draw pictures to represent a specific topic. To evaluate the level of understanding, students write an explanation or discuss in small groups the significance of the pictures and why they are representative of the topic. This technique encourages students to make connections, to create a visual representation and to then explain or exhibit their understanding.

Celebration of LearningA demonstration where students have the opportunity to share their expertise in several subject areas with other students, teachers and parents.

Graphic Organizers – Graphic organizers, also known as mind maps, are instructional tools used to illustrate prior knowledge.

Portfolios A portfolio is a representative collection of an individual student’s work. A student portfolio is generally composed of best work to date and a few “works in progress” that demonstrate the process. Students show their knowledge, skills and abilities in a variety of different ways that are not dependent upon traditional media such as exams and essays.  Multiple Intelligences Portfolios are an effective way for students to understand not how smart they are but how they are smart.

Project-Based Learning– Students create projects by investigating and making connections from the topic or unit of study to real life situations. Multimedia is one effective tool for students to design their projects.

T-charts – A simple t is drawn and students jot down information relating to a topic in two different columns.

Venn-Diagram – A graphic organizer that is made with 2 intersecting circles and is used to compare and contrast. Using this tool, students identify what is different about 2 topics and identify the overlap between the two topics in the shared shared area.

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Effective Instructional Strategies for ESE and Struggling Learners

October 2, 2007 at 2:28 pm (all, Autism, blogging, children, classroom management, Education, Educational Leadership, Elementary, ESE, ESOL, Gifted, High School, kids, Middle School, Pedagogy, principals, reading, school, school administration, teachers, Thornebrooke, thoughts, Uncategorized)

What are instructional strategies?

Instructional strategies are methods that are used in the lesson to ensure that the sequence or delivery of instruction helps students learn.

What does effective mean?

The term “effective” means that student performance improves when the instructional strategies are used. The strategies were identified in studies conducted using research procedures and guidelines that ensure confidence about the results. In addition, several studies exist for each strategy with an adequate sample size and the use of treatment and control groups to generalize to the target population. This allows teachers to be confident about how to apply the strategies in their classrooms.

Strategies to use in designing effective lessons

These six strategies have been proven to work with diverse groups of learners (Kameenui & Carnine, Effective Teaching Strategies that Accommodate Diverse Learners, 1998). All students, and particularly those with disabilities, benefit when teachers incorporate these strategies into their instruction on a regular basis.

  1. Focus on essentials.
  2. Make linkages obvious and explicit.
  3. Prime background knowledge.
  4. Provide temporary support for learning.
  5. Use conspicuous steps and strategies.
  6. Review for fluency and generalization.

Focus on essentials

Identify important principles, key concepts, and big ideas from the curriculum that apply across major themes in the subject content.


  • Big Ideas: Instruction is organized around the major themes that run through a subject area. This helps students make the connections between concepts and learn to use higher order thinking skills. Kameenui and Carnine (1998) gave these examples of big ideas for social studies:
    • problem-solution-effect
    • success of group efforts is related to motivation, leadership, resources, and capability
  • Graphic organizers: Important ideas and details are laid out graphically to help students see connections between ideas. Semantic webs and concept maps are examples of graphic organizers.
  • Thematic instruction: Instructional units combine subject areas to make themes and essential ideas more apparent and meaningful. Lessons and assignments can be integrated or coordinated across classes.
  • Planning routines: The Center for Research on Learning at the University of Kansas website (go to has developed the Learning Strategies Curriculum, systematic routines that include graphic organizers to help teachers plan a course, unit, or lesson around the essentials or big ideas. Teachers guide students to use the organizer to monitor their learning.

Make linkages obvious and explicit

Actively help students understand how key concepts across the curriculum relate to each other as you are teaching.


  • Give clear verbal explanations and use visual displays (such as flow charts, diagrams, or graphic organizers) to portray key concepts and relationships.
  • Help students use techniques like outlining or mind mapping to show connections among concepts.

Prime background knowledge

Connect new information or skills to what students have already learned. Provide additional instruction or support to students who lack necessary background knowledge.


  • Ask questions to prompt student recall of relevant prior knowledge.
  • Make comparisons between the new concept and things students already know.
  • Relate the topic to current or past events that are familiar to students.
  • Relate the concept to a fictional story or scenario known to the students.
  • Use instructional materials that provide easy access to critical background knowledge.

Provide temporary support for learning

Provide support (scaffolding) while students are learning new knowledge and skills, gradually reducing the level of support as students move toward independence.


  • Provide verbal or written prompts to remind students of key information or processes.
  • Physically assist and guide a student when learning a new motor skill, such as cutting.
  • Provide study or note taking guides to support learning from text or lectures.
  • Use commercial materials that have been specifically designed to incorporate supports for learning.
  • Use mnemonics to help students remember multiple steps in a procedure.

Use conspicuous steps and strategies

Teach students to follow a specific set of procedures to solve problems or use a process.


  • Model the steps in the strategy, using a think-aloud process.
  • Name the strategy and give students prompts for using it such as posting steps on the board, providing an example of a problem with the strategy steps labeled, or using memory strategies, such as mnemonics to help student recall the steps.
  • Prompt students to use the strategy in practice situations.
  • Reduce prompting as students become proficient in applying the strategy.
  • Explicitly teach students the organizational structure of text and prompt its use.

Review for fluency and generalization

Give students many opportunities to practice what they have learned and receive feedback on their performance to ensure knowledge is retained over time and can be applied in different situations.


  • Use multiple reviews of concepts and skills.
  • Give students specific feedback about what they are doing well or need to change.
  • Give students enough practice to master skills.
  • Distribute reviews over time to insure proficiency is maintained.
  • Provide review in different contexts to enhance generalization of learning.
  • Provide cumulative review that addresses content learned throughout the year.

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Pre-Assessment Strategies

September 27, 2007 at 6:30 pm (all, blogging, children, classroom management, Education, Educational Leadership, Elementary, ESOL, Gifted, High School, Middle School, principals, reading, school, school administration, teachers, Thornebrooke, thoughts, Uncategorized)

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.


Pre-Assessment Techniques

Boxing – On a large piece of paper, students draw a box in the centre and a smaller box inside the first box. In the outside box, answer ‘what do I know?’, in the inside box, answer ‘what do I want to learn?’. Now in the outside box, write ‘what else do I know?’ and ‘how does it fit?’ In the inside box, draw a visual representation to explain the topic. Finally, in the middle of the box, look at all the information and summarize ‘what does that say?’

Graffiti Wall – with colorful markers and large poster paper, have all students creatively design a Graffiti Wall of things they know about a specific topic of study. Students are then encouraged to add to the wall throughout the unit as they gain new knowledge. A colorful way to display what they know and what they have learned.

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/SDStudents 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.


Preassessment Strategies

“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
used regularly in all curricular areas. Teachers can use the information gained in preassessment to make
instructional decisions about student strengths and needs. Preassessment will help the teacher determine
flexible grouping patterns as well as which students are ready for advance instruction. Here are a few
examples of preassessment strategies:

Teacher prepared pretests
KWL charts and other graphic organizers
Writing prompts/samples
Guess Box
Picture Interpretation
Teacher observation/checklists
Student demonstrations and discussions
Initiating activities
Informational surveys/Questionnaires/Inventories
Student interviews
Student products and work samples
Portfolio analysis
Game activities
Show of hands to determine understanding: Every Pupil Response
Drawing related to topic or content
Standardized test information
ISM data
Anticipation journals

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Modifying Regular Classroom Curriculum for Gifted and Talented Students

September 13, 2007 at 6:46 pm (all, blogging, children, classroom management, Education, Educational Leadership, Elementary, ESOL, Gifted, High School, kids, Middle School, Parents, principals, reading, school, school administration, teachers, Thornebrooke, Uncategorized)

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.

Lesson Modifications

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.

Assignment Modifications

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.

Scheduling Modifications

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.

Case Studies

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.

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Advanced Learners

September 11, 2007 at 7:00 pm (all, blogging, children, classroom management, Education, Educational Leadership, Elementary, ESOL, High School, kids, Middle School, Parents, principals, reading, school, school administration, teachers, Thornebrooke, Uncategorized)

All Means All: Classrooms that Work for Advanced Learners

Susan Rakow

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

  1. Written.
  2. Individual.
  3. Focused on the key information, concepts, and skills of the unit, including the embedded state and local standards.
  4. Relatively short.
  5. Assessed only for instructional planning and grouping (not graded).
  6. 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
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.

Some Cautions

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.

The Rewards

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.

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How To Appreciate Your Student’s Diversity

August 30, 2007 at 6:57 pm (all, blogging, children, classroom management, culture, Education, Educational Leadership, Elementary, ESOL, friends, High School, humor, kids, life, Middle School, Parents, personal, poetry, politics, principals, reading, school, school administration, teachers, Thornebrooke, thoughts, Uncategorized, writing)

This is a powerful reminder of the challenges – and joys that we face – in dealing with our diverse student population.

Welcome to Holland
By Emily Perl KingsleyI am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability-to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It’s like this…

When you’re going to have a baby, it’s like planning a fabulous vacation trip-to Italy. You buy a bunch of guide books and make wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas of Venice. You learn some handy phrases in Italian. It’s all very exciting.

After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, “Welcome to Holland.”

“Holland?” you say. “What do you mean Holland? I signed up for Italy! I’m supposed to be in Italy. All my life I have dreamed of going to Italy.”

But there’s been a change in the flight plan. They’ve landed in Holland and there you must stay.

The important thing is they haven’t taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place full of pestilence, famine and disease. It’s just a different place.

So you must go out and buy new guide books. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would have never met.

It’s just a different place. It’s slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you’ve been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around…and you begin to notice Holland has windmills…and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.

But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy…and they’re all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say, “Yes, that’s where I was supposed to go. That’s what I had planned.”

And the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go away…because the loss of that dream is a very, very significant loss.

But…if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to Italy, you might never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things…about Holland.

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Building Habits

August 24, 2007 at 5:53 pm (all, blogging, children, classroom management, culture, drama, Education, Educational Leadership, Elementary, ESOL, food, friends, High School, history, humor, kids, life, love, Middle School, movies, music, news, Parents, personal, photography, poetry, politics, principals, reading, religion, school, school administration, sports, teachers, technology, Thornebrooke, thoughts, travel, Uncategorized, video, women, writing)

It takes 27 days to form a habit. Remember when your mother used to ask you to make your bed every day? Then, after a while, you simply started making it on your own —without having to be reminded to do it. Making your bed every day had become a habit.

In my column, Laying the Groundwork, I discussed the importance of brainstorming expectations and procedures as part of laying the groundwork for building good habits. This time, I want to discuss in a little more detail the kinds of habits we want to build in our students — and how we can build them.

When thinking about the kinds of good habits you want students to develop, go back to that list of expectations and procedures you created. For me, for example, it’s important that students enter my classroom, check their mailboxes, and start working on their focus assignment before the first bell rings. It’s important that when I use the quiet signal, my students get quiet and focus on me. I expect my students to stay in a quiet straight line when I walk with them down the hall. It’s also important to me for students to be silent, with a clean area, before I dismiss them. Those types of habits, as well as others, also might be important to you. If you’re not really sure what you expect of your students, then take some time right now to brainstorm those actions and behaviors that you want to become habits for your students.

Okay, you have your list. You might be asking yourself, “Why is it important that I help build these habits?” The reason is to save yourself stress later on in the school year. Spring semester might seem like a long way away, but it will come around a lot faster than you think. Students who are not following good habits in the fall have a tendency to let spring fever get out of hand. Behavior can become more erratic then, and without good habits in place, students are more likely to get out of control. By setting the standards at the beginning of the year and turning good behaviors into good habits, you save yourself a lot of time and stress later.

But how can you build in students the good habits you expect? First, clearly explain your expectations to students. Next, make sure students practice the correct actions and behaviors daily. (It’s especially important to practice behaviors over and over again during the first couple of weeks of school.) Third, be consistent about requiring specific behaviors. If you see students not meeting your expectations, don’t be afraid to stop and take the time to practice the correct action or behavior right then and there.

For example, if I notice that many students are entering the classroom and “hanging out” without starting their work before the bell rings, I stop everything and practice my expectations. I have students file out of the classroom and re-enter correctly. If students are not following my quiet signal, we stop immediately and practice until they get it right. By doing that consistently, students begin to see that I will hold them accountable for their actions. After 27 days or more of doing the same actions over and over again, the behaviors become a habit for students. What you want to achieve is a classroom in which students know what to do and when to do it. That is a well-disciplined classroom.
You might find, of course, that as the year progresses, you need to stop and practice your expectations again. That is perfectly normal and can be thought of as “maintenance.”

Before you know it, however, your students will be entering the classroom and doing exactly what you expect of them — whether you are there to remind them or not. Good behavior has become — just like making your bed each day — a habit. In the end, that’s precisely what we strive to accomplish.
As you work toward that goal, remember the maxim “Good habits are hard to break” — and practice, practice, practice.

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Starting the Year Off in an Organized Manner

August 18, 2007 at 5:39 pm (all, blogging, children, classroom management, Education, Educational Leadership, Elementary, ESOL, High School, kids, Middle School, Parents, principals, reading, school, school administration, teachers, Thornebrooke, thoughts)

A new year is a great time for new habits.  Some of these tips might be useful to you.

Organization Tips

1.) Decide what kinds of organization tools work best for you.  Whether it be color coding, file folders, baskets or bins, keep it as simple as possible.    Don’t overwhelm yourself with a complicated system and defeat your purpose.

2.) Keep on top of clutter.  Don’t let piles start if at all possible.  Take some time at the end of each day to either file or separate accumulated papers.   Designate a student helper to file papers or help put materials back in the proper places.

3.) Avoid the “pack-rat” syndrome.  We veteran teachers often succumb to this because we accumulate more and more materials each year.   Keep an inventory of your materials and get rid of those you are not using.  Consider giving new teachers materials that you don’t use or extra copies of things.  They will welcome not having to go out and spend more of their own money!

4.) It helps to have your students use the same organization methods you use if possible.   If you are using color coded folders for different subjects, let your students do the same.  It helps tremendously for everyone to be using a cohesive system.

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PBS for Teachers and Parents

May 21, 2007 at 6:13 pm (blogging, children, Education, Educational Leadership, Elementary, ESOL, High School, kids, Parents, principals, reading, school, school administration, teachers, Thornebrooke)

PBS Teachers is a great resource for all teachers.  They have lessons, interactive on-line activities, links to useful web sites, and recommended books.  The resources are divided into the following categories so there is something for everyone!

  • Arts
  • Health and Fitness
  • Social Studies
  • Math
  • Language Arts / Reading
  • Science / Technology

Check it out!

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