What Worked and What Fizzled in 2013 #SAVMP

Public domain: No copyright

Public domain: No copyright

I’m doing a big of catch-up. I signed up for a Virtual Admin Mentor Program (#SAVMP)  - one challenge per week that began in August.

The Week 3 challenge asks me to address important thoughts I had starting at a new school in my new role. Seems like a good end-of-year-reflection – especially since the end of each school year is also the end of the calendar year.

What has been successful?

Documentation. I was better at keeping student behavioural notes as an administrator than I was as a classroom teacher.

One of my first welcome gifts was a small prayer diary. I used the diary to note down every important outgoing and incoming phone call, especially those from parents. I made notes about significant conversations I had with teachers. The notes were brief and messy – I’m pretty sure no one else would be able to make sense of them. But I remembered the instances. And I prayed about many of the instances.

When I started having multiple entries on the same student, I would start a Word document. The document included only facts – who said what, places where incidents happened, interventions and results.

The diary notes and documents helped me better identify patterns, frequencies, and levels of success with interventions. What have we tried? What have we not tried? What has worked? What are possible next steps?

I also have data that I will use as a baseline for 2014 and beyond. This next year, the school is focusing on creating a culture based on the philosophies of Positive Education and Restorative Justice. As I continue to document in 2014, I can see whether or not the cultural shift is affecting the frequency and intensity of particular student behaviours.

What didn’t work?

I know some teachers at my school read this blog. It would probably be best to ask them (feel free to leave a comment – I can take it).

In Term 2, I introduced professional readings into the Junior School meetings. Teachers could choose to read from a selection of professional articles or books. Some were related to teaching students with autism. Others focused on reading books on second language acquisition. Still others read the Daily 5, The (Second Edition): Fostering Literacy in the Elementary Grades
or Launch an Intermediate Writing Workshop: Getting Started with Units of Study for Teaching Writing, Grades 3-5.
.

The first week, teachers had 30 minutes to do the reading and 30 minutes to discuss. Discussions were focused around the following protocols:

  • What did the article/chapter say?
  • What were you thinking as you read?
  • What questions did it raise?
  • What does this mean for your classroom?

Two other weeks, teachers were expected to do the readings in advance of the meetings. I noticed the discussions weren’t as rich those weeks. On the one hand, I was disappointed. On the other hand, I remembered that we communicate the importance of things by the time we set aside for them. If I believed the reading was truly important, I had a responsibility to set time aside for the reading as much as the discussion.

Both reading and discussion time got lost in Term 3 due to the implementation of a school-wide assessment goal. I planned to resurrect the readings in Term 4. Then I broke my leg. Best laid plans…

The professional readings-as-part-of-meetings fizzled. But it wasn’t a total loss. Teachers began sharing other books that they were reading. One teacher became hugely passionate about Writing Workshop and gathered a host of new resources to share with me. Another teacher started asking for links to tech blogs. Still another team implemented the Daily 5, adapting it to fit the needs and constraints of their open classroom.

In 2014, I’ll get feedback from teachers on how the process worked and ask for suggestions on ways we can continue to grow a culture that regularly reads professional literature.

The Experts Got it Wrong

ImageI broke my leg. Having sprained both ankles on multiple occasions, I knew something was different when I tried ‘walking it off’.

“Can you wiggle your toes?” asked the nurses who happened to be at the same shopping venue. When the ambulance drivers arrived, they asked the same.

“Yes,” I answered.

“Looks like a sprain,” they said.

I knew they were wrong. I wanted to tell them they were wrong. But I didn’t. The only leg bone I could name was the femur – and the pain was south of my knees. Informing the experts of their error would only make me look stupid or wimpy or both.

I don’t respond to pain as most people do. I tend not to yell, scream, or cry. Instead, my mind spins, trying to assess the extent of the pain. I don’t like drawing attention to myself. For some reason, my body would rather black out than feel stabbing pain.

The experts assessed me: Swollen around the ankle, not screaming or crying, can wiggle the toes. Diagnosis: Sprain.

Treatment: Ask the patient to hold shoulders and stand up to sit on the ambulance gurney. Patient says she is in pain, so administer Methoxyflurane.

I remember the ambulance driver saying, “You should be able to get up on your own. It’s just a sprain.”

At the hospital, I was sent to a physiotherapist who asked me to wiggle my toes and reported that the ambulance had reported (and she concurred) that the ankle was probably sprained. No pain medication could be given prior to an x-ray analysis, which could take 30-60 minutes.

Then I cried. I thought, How much longer would I need to endure the pain? Can a sprain really feel this bad? Have I become a wimp in my old age?

After the x-ray, a very apologetic physiotherapist entered the room with enough pain meds to make life bearable. She informed me of the treatment process going forward.

What does this have to do with Education?

How often do we, as educators, get it wrong?

After 19 years in education, I can tell when a child is not learning and I have a battery of questions, assessments, and observations that help identify learning issues with relative certainty. I’ve seen most behaviour issues and have a range of possible interventions.

When parents come in to talk about the challenges, I speak as though I’m certain of the answers. Admittedly, I secretly scoff when parents tell me I’m wrong. After all, I’ve taught over 1000 children in five schools and three countries. I’ve seen [this challenge] before.

…and the nurses, ambulance drivers, and physiotherapists have seen equal numbers of sprained ankles.

The Hard Lesson

I get it wrong too.

Behaviours that look like oppositional defiance turn out to be symptoms on the autism spectrum.

Seeming learning delays are actually language acquisition challenges.

Students who have trouble learning often don’t act as if they have trouble learning. They may be trying to not draw attention to themselves. They may be trying to self-asses or discover for themselves all the reason others in their class seem to understand things they don’t.

The worst thing we can do is tell students the educational equivalent of ‘it’s just a sprain.’ But we sometimes do. We tell them that, if they just worked a little harder, stopped being distracted by their friends, listened more carefully, or stopped being so emotional, they would be fine.

What if they know we are wrong? Will they say something? Probably not. They don’t know how learning is suppose to happen and they worry their question make them appear stupid or wimpy or both.

Adding to the anxiety, specialist appointments and formal assessments can take months.

Relieving the Anxiety

When I broke my leg, I knew I was hurt and I knew the recovery time would be long. What I wanted most was for someone to say, “That looks painful. Let’s get you to the hospital, get an x-ray, and find out what is going on.”

My challenge to you is this: Consider students you know who are not achieving at a level you believe possible. Assume your informal assessments are wrong. Let the student know you see them struggling with a subject or assignment. Ask questions. Get specialists involved as necessary.

The student may feel better just knowing they’re not stupid, you don’t think they’re a wimp, and there is an end to their pain.

 

What Can Schools Learn from Reality Shows?

ExpatEducatorBlueprint

Since moving out of Asia, I’ve been shocked by the sheer number of home improvement reality shows both in Australia and in the US. I notice the confusion, the speculation, and the disagreements teams have when designing or redesigning a space.

Can’t the contestants just go to IKEA, assemble some items, and make the house work? Of course not. Along the way, teams discover leaky pipes, faulty wires, and shoddy insulation – things they never factored in to the original plan or budget. Builders could ignore these issues, assemble the trimmings, and make it all look nice. But the structures won’t last.

So why do educators think that learning can be built from assembling some items produced by textbook companies? If teachers follow the pre-assembled scripts, texts, and activities, are they fostering understanding or creating a facade?

Teachers can learn lessons about curriculum from reality shows, particularly home improvement reality shows.

This post expands on the house-building analogy, taking a slightly different spin on the house analogy used in Schooling by Design: Mission, Action, and Achievement
(although the foundational ideas are the same – pun intended).

In Terms of Building a House…

Outcomes or Standards are the specs. Curriculum is the blueprint. Textbooks or resources are the materials you use to build and furnish the house.

If you’re building a house, you know what you want. You’re pretty clear about the specs. If you’re following Common Core or Australian Curriculum, the specs (outcomes) are set for you.

Outcomes are not curriculumOutcomes comprise lists of what students should know and be able to do. Outcomes are often called standards because all students should know and be able to do these things when they leave school. By analysing the outcomes, you learn what a child leaving school should “look like” academically.

Architects use the specs to create a blueprint. Teachers use outcomes to design curriculum. Curriculum is a set of plans, or an ‘academic blueprint’, that show how a teacher will lead students to achieve the outcomes.

Textbooks, in contrast, are resources that may or may not be included in a set of curriculum documents. Admittedly, textbook companies try and write materials that align with outcomes. Relying on a textbook company to write your curriculum is like going to IKEA, picking out a bunch of furniture, assembling it all according to instructions, and hoping you come out with a house.

Teachers are both the architect and the builder. They must know what the final outcomes look like. They then design curriculum units and individual lesson plans. Finally, they assemble or create resources and use them to their full potential. Teachers notice which parts of the written curriculum are working or not working and re-design the curriculum blueprint as necessary. It’s likely curriculum will be designed differently according to the needs of a particular class or the resources available.

While standards are standardised, instruction should not be. Teachers should not be mandated to follow scripted programs. Doing so is like asking reality show contestants to build a facade over leaky pipes. No one program can fix student misconceptions and meet the needs of all students. Teachers cannot ignore foundational differences in student needs in order to finish programs. If you exclusively trust packaged materials, you build a hovel of learning that comprises a random clutter of facts and skils.

Get the plan right before building and purchasing materials.

I often hear teachers and other school leaders saying that they want to find a curriculum for Common Core or Australian Curriculum standards. What they’re really saying is this: We are looking for the “magic bullet” educational materials that will help students’ test scores improve.

Imagine builders who decide they want a fireplace, a pizza oven and a home theatre system – very cool items they’ve seen in other houses. To preserve money and time for such luxuries, they fire the architect.

Bricks for the fireplace arrive at the house. Leather reclining chairs are dropped off along with a gynormous television and state-of-the art surround sound equipment. Then come another stack of bricks and some metal items presumably for the oven.

Suddenly, the builders realise there is no room for the TV and no outdoor wall fit for a fireplace. Should the pizza oven go inside or outside of the house?

Sounds ridiculous. But educators do it. Without engineering a curriculum, we purchase levelled readers, iPad apps for 500+ devices, microscopes and bunsen burners – all of which are fantastic learning tools within a solid curriculum plan. We complete a school year realising we never touched half of the apps. Students couldn’t use the bunsen burners because there was no budget for safety goggles, and only one teacher knew how to use the levelled readers.

Reality show contestants have a very small budget – much like schools. They can’t afford to measure incorrectly or purchase unnecessary materials. As educators, we can’t afford to purchase items that we can’t use. If time is taken to design solid units of study we can make more informed choices about what materials are most useful. 

Make sure the curriculum blueprints are solid.

The decor should match the personality of homeowner.

I can’t allow students to be creative or learn what interests them. If I do, we won’t have time to cover everything they need for the standardised tests.

As stated earlier, you can teach to standards without standardising instruction. The wiggle room comes in knowing that standards include what students should be able to do.

Take, for example, a writing standard consistent with Common Core and Australian Curriculum: [Students will be able to] Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons.

Classroom A: A school purchases materials that guide the class through a step-by-step process of writing essays. Teachers follow the lessons as prescribed. All students write opinion essays about homework, the topic suggested by the publisher.

Classroom B: The teacher realises that opinion pieces are stronger with research, and research skills and nonfiction reading skills are also listed as outcomes. The teacher designs a unit around the question How can my writing change people’s minds? The teacher allows students to choose their topics but expects them to demonstrate research, nonfiction reading, and persuasive writing skills within their areas of interest. When teaching research skills, a boy interested in dinosaurs evaluates sources of information about dinosaurs. A girl evaluates sources writing about Justin Bieber. After finding reliable sources, the teacher creates mini-lessons that teach students to break articles into chunks, write margin notes, and use post-its to form follow-up questions and thesis statements. Finally, the boy chooses to write an opinion piece convincing people that volcanic eruptions led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. The girl writes an opinion piece about how Justin’s Bieber’s early music is better than his current hits.

Both classes teach to standards, but the teacher in Classroom B is able to engage students by allowing them to demonstrate skills in the context of their interests. 

Using the analogy of a house, both Classroom A and B build a nonfiction opinion-writing ‘room’ in the house. Students in classroom B connect the persuasive ‘room’ with research skills and nonfiction reading ‘rooms’. They choose the rooms’ decor, creating a final project they are proud to share.

It is not necessary to standardise instruction in order to hit the same standards. Schools can maintain creativity and passion in a standards-based classroom.

Home improvement reality show contestants work in pairs.

Contestants do the design thinking together then separate and work on different aspects of the plan. They regularly pull back together to address an unexpected problem or assess completed work.

Curriculum design is hard work. Teachers should work together on the original design thinking. They can distribute the labour related to finding and creating resources to use within those units. Problems will arise that require creative solutions – and teachers can come back together to think through possible solutions.

In the end, people will judge your work.

Contestants in reality shows get judged and receive scores. The scores are subjective – sometimes we agree with the judges and sometimes we don’t. While it’s easy to focus on who is winning, it’s good to remember that each of the houses ends up looking heaps better than it did in the beginning.

Schools are judged by students’ performance on standardised tests. As unfair as it seems, the tests aren’t going away. If standardised tests are the only visible evidence of learning we give the community, that is the only evidence by which we will be judged.

By carefully designing curriculum, students demonstrate authentic learning in ways that elicit the “Wow!” factor from parents and members of the community. Parents beam when their son or daughter independently works on a project at home, Imagine the proud smile on a parents face when they read a persuasive letter from their child, outlining all the reasons the child should be able have ears pierced.

Let’s make authentic projects and assessments embedded in well-designed curriculum be the measure by which our schools are judged. In the process, students will learn information necessary for standardised tests. I promise.

We have work to do in education. But, we have innovative teachers who care about student passions and are capable of creating lessons that teach to standards. Accomplished teachers know their students and how they learn.

We’re not building houses, but we’re building learning environments. Let’s teach to the standards in ways that are individualized, differentiated, and personalized.

What curriculum units are you writing?

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The photo was purchased from freedigitalphotos.com

Educational Leader, Manager or Detective?

Expat Educator Detective

As I’m finding my proverbial feet as administrator, I’m logging small notes about the things I do everyday. My original idea was to track the percentage of activities that are leadership-related and the percentage that are management-related.

I’ve created a third category: percentage of time Playing Detective.

The role of detective goes beyond ‘finding out who is at fault’. When you get to the heart of a situation, you get to the heart of a child. You create a school culture that values honesty and looks out for the needs of individual children.

When playing the detective role, the line between behaviour management and school leadership becomes blurred.

Beginning the Investigation

Picture five-year-olds playing their first soccer game – a game affectionately known as “beehive soccer”. If you grab a group of younger students to tell you what happened, you’re gonna be circled by students all talking at once and doing their best to prove to you that they and their close friends are all in the right and another person or persons are all in the wrong. Getting to the truth is about as likely as getting that soccer ball out of a beehive of players.

Calmly state, “Hmmm. This sounds very important. Let’s first get back to class then I’ll sort this out.” Insist they stop talking and walk with you back to class.

Walk them to their teacher(s). Smile. Ask the teacher if he or she would be so kind as to sit the young people far away from one another and not allow them to talk to one another until they’ve spoken with you.

Keep Them Separated

Yes, keeping them separated keeps the students from continuing the verbal brawl in the learning environment. But there’s another reason: Your goal is to get all the stories to match.

If students have opportunity to talk or write notes or sms one another before you talk with them, it’s more likely they will corroborate an alternate version of reality that keeps them out of trouble and keeps you from getting to the truth.

Conversations with the Students in the Brawl

“Tell me what happened” is an inefficient way to start a conversation with younger students (older ones too!). You’ll get the students’ sides of the story, details of which are carefully selected as to avoid any personal responsibility.

Instead, begin with “So tell me who all saw the [encounter].” Visible confusion. After all, the student expected to unfold a dramatic story of all the wrongs perpetrated against him or her. Now the child has to think outside of him- or herself.

After the student names five or six people that were at the scene, ask “When I ask [other student in brawl + witnesses] about the story – and I will – what do you think they’ll tell me?”

The student’s body language changes. Not only are you forcing the youngster to step into the shoes of the other person in the brawl, the student knows that you’re gonna find out more than a quick “he said – she said” version.

Take notes on what the student tells you and repeat the story back to him or her. Then ask, “Is there anything else the others will tell me? Are you sure? All the stories need to match.”

Take Them to the Scene and Bring Stuffed Animals

It’s much easier to re-construct a story when you can have the children at least partially re-enact the scene. “You were standing where? Then what happened?”

Holes in the story quickly emerge. “Hmmm. If you were yelling at him from here, how is it that he pushed you off the bridge? You weren’t anywhere near the bridge?” Gulp. “Can you grab the stuffed animal like so-and-so grabbed you?”

The other advantage to taking the individuals to the scene is that they get out of your office and are allowed to take a walk. A Head of School office is a very scary place for many kiddos. You’re heading out to their turf.

Conversations with Witnesses

By the time you get to the witnesses, the emotion of the situation has died down and students’ ever-brilliant teachers have been able to redirect them into the classroom activity. You have most of the stories, but there are a few holes in the story left to fill.

The conversation with witnesses starts something like this: “I’ve talked to a number of people and will talk to at least [x-number of] others – so whatever you say won’t be traced back to you. The stories need to match. I already know the bigger parts of the story, I just need you to confirm what I already know and fill in a few missing details.”

These phrases accomplish a few things. First, the student relaxes because you’re talking to lots of people – no one can trace back to him or her as the ‘rat’. Second, whatever story they’ve rehearsed in their heads suddenly becomes null and void. It’s not about taking sides, it’s about filling in details.

Take the witnesses to the scene and use the stuffed animals to recreate the parts of the story that have matched. Ask the witness to stop you if the story seems incorrect. Ask questions in the parts of the story that seem less certain.

When You Don’t Know Where to Start

So what if you don’t know either who did something or who witnessed an instance? Vandalism, for instance, often goes unreported. One thing to try is to go into a classroom and hand all the students a half sheet of paper (same colour, same shape, same everything).

Tell students you’re going to ask them to write something and you’d like them all to use either pencil or pen so whatever they write will not be traced back to them.

Explain the situation in general detail. You might say, Many of you know of a situation that happened today in the cafeteria. I’ve been thinking about the poor custodians who will be spending extra time cleaning and of the money that will be required to repair damages. We know that some of you actually saw the instance and that you may be afraid to come forward. 

All of you will write something on the paper. You will either write “I do not know anything about what happened in the cafeteria. Thank you for asking and have a lovely day” or you will write a few sentences that will help us understand what happened or who we need to talk to. The key is that everyone writes. Names are optional. 

After explaining the procedure, you can speak to the unknown culprit.

If you were involved, this is a time for you to show courage. You can talk to an adult at school later today or you can simply admit it on this paper. I can assure you the consequences will be far less if you come forward than if we have to spend additional teaching/learning time investigating. Everyone makes mistakes. We’re here to help you make things right again.

By ‘making things right again’, students hear you using the language of Restorative Practice – an alternative way of helping students understand how their actions affect others (and a future Expat Educator post).

Is an Educational Detective role counted as Leadership or Management?

The detective role could be delegated to teachers. It’s behaviour management.

But getting to the bottom of what really happened takes time – instructional time – from other students. I remember being a teacher and giving a class mind-numbing worksheets so that I could get to the bottom of an important incident. How much total instructional time would be lost if I left this all to the teachers?

If part of my role as educational leader is to remove obstacles to teaching/learning and encourage teachers to get make the most of every minute of instructional time, I need to take an active role in these situations.

When students are unkind to one another, whether as an instigator or retaliator, the instance should be taken very seriously. As a teacher, I admit dismissing instances that I should have taken more seriously. I couldn’t both supervise a classroom and take the care necessary to understand a complicated situation. There was no way I could take students back to the location of the trouble much less counsel them about alternative future choices.

The detective role allows us to effectively communicate to students (and teachers) that kindness and honesty are at the heart of the school. We also communicate that the school honours teaching and learning time. Hence, the detective process becomes a leadership activity that helps communicate and model the school culture we want to create.

Keeping the Teacher as Leader in the Mind of Students

The risk in becoming so heavily involved as detective is that you may become the ultimate authority in the minds of students – a role you want to have remain with teachers and parents.

To avoid taking power away from the teacher and parents, end the investigation by pulling the culprits out of class to confirm the final story. Then, prepare them to retell the story to their teacher and parents. Help them through the specific apologies they need to make to one another. Then hand over follow-up responsibility to the parents and teachers.

End the conversation saying something like You guys have been really courageous by telling me the truth and I know you’re not mean boys/girls. You just did something wrong and it needs to be made right. I’ll let your teacher and parents decide the best consequence for this, but I know the consequence will be lots less severe because they will know both sides and know that you were honest.

Help with Parents

If an instance is big enough for me to get involved, I give a call to parents. Having gone through the whole detective process, I can relay the story with a great degree of certainty. Also, I can say that all parties were honest about their contributions to the problem and they are sincerely remorseful.

The phone call or entry into the student diary does not accuse their chid or tell the parents their child is ‘bad.’ The communication simply relays a story and lets parents know that a follow-up conversation and, possibly, a few extra hugs may be needed that evening.

Future Situations

More than a few kiddos at my school know the drill. When taken to my office, their initial retelling ends up being very, very close to the full story. They know I’m gonna get there eventually.

I’m not angry. I’m genuinely concerned for their wellbeing. They know that too. I can use our time together to point out patterns and refer them to the chaplain or counsellor.

One of the things I love about my new role as administrator is the flexibility to talk with students during these important character-building moments. Yes, other important things get pushed aside – but nothing is more important than creating a culture of honesty and forgiveness. School mission statements mean nothing if they are not communicated in action.

How much time do you spend Playing Detective? What have been your experiences?

photo credit: paurian via photopin cc

Differentiating Homework for Gifted Students

Expat Educator Homework

As part of Mary St. George’s New Zealand Gifted Awareness Week Blog Tour, this post addresses homework for the gifted student.

Admittedly, as a classroom teacher, I avoided differentiated homework for many years. The idea of finding, assigning, grading, and following-up with multiple assignments seemed prohibitively time-consuming. Until I tried it.

This post begins with essential understandings and ends with some practical ideas.

Essential Understandings

1. Homework for gifted students should not be ‘more of the same’. If you want your class to spend their homework time reviewing the process of adding fractions, gifted students will not learn anything additional if you give them 20 computation problems while the other students do 10.

2. The homework objective should align with the class objective. Let’s say you’re studying groups of people native to your country of origin. You want the class to use a few websites or book pages to locate information critical to the understanding of the natives’ culture. You have a student in your class who is a font-of-all-knowledge on the topic. Assigning the student to research modern Estonia won’t lead the student to a deeper knowledge of native cultures. Asking the student to make a video portraying his or her knowledge of the culture may help the student learn more about tech skills than native culture. You want to further this child’s understanding of native cultures – the same objective you have for others.

3. You don’t need to create a new differentiated assignment each day for each subject. You can’t. You just can’t.

4. Make sure the student (and parents!) know that the gifted child is not expected to spend any more time on his or her assignment than you expect of the rest of the students. One of my favourite Australian phrases is “Have a go.” Some gifted students will pressure themselves to find a correct answer the next day (After all, the other students have to have all their answers correct the next day). Ask the gifted student to work on the alternate question or topic for 20-30 minutes. The next day, the student can tell you what he or she thought about or tried. If you have multiple gifted students who did the same alternate assignment, they can meet together to come to share thinking and come to consensus on an answer.

Option 1: Add a thought-provoking question.

In my ground rules example, I mentioned a homework assignment for practicing the addition of fractions. With gifted Year 5 students, the directions change. Say,

“Instead of doing all of these problems, pick two – just so I know that you know you remember how to add fractions. But I’d like you to spend the remainder of your homework time thinking through one of my dilemmas: We teachers tell you that fractions and decimals are the same. I’m not sure if that is true. When I add 1/3 + 1/3 + 1/3, I get 1. When I add 0.333 [repeating] + 0.333 [repeating] + 0.333 [repeating], I get 0.999 [repeating]. Those aren’t exactly the same. Can you help me figure out why? What happens to the extra 0.001?” – or

“We’ve been working on the rules of divisibility for 2, 3, 5, 6, and 10. Can you figure out rules for 4, 7, and/or 8?”

Many teachers get stuck on the idea that students have to turn in something to be graded. If a gifted student has grappled with a difficult question, write anecdotal notes about your conversation(s) with them. You’re holding them accountable by having the follow-up conversation.

Option 2: Give the student choices as to how to extend knowledge

Returning to the example of the student who could give a college lecture on many aspects of native culture, consider giving the student a few other homework choices that deepen knowledge or add complexity. The conversation goes something like this…

“Look, Jung Ho, I now that you already know everything in the reading assigned for tonight. I’m wondering if there is anything else you might like to know.

  • If I set up a Google hangout with an historian or a person of Aboriginal descent, what questions would you want to ask that person? How ’bout you spend tonight thinking about those questions and we’ll discuss them tomorrow?” – or
  • I’ve been thinking about the apologies made to the Aboriginals by the Australian government. Have countries like New Zealand, South Africa or the United States made similar apologies? What, if anything, might they need to apologise for? Would you say the colonists’ treatment of native Australians is better or worse than the treatment of those native to New Zealand, South Africa or the United States? Would you like to look into that?” – or
  • I watched the All Blacks do the haka before yesterday’s football game. It made me wonder about all the ways the Maoris’ culture is similar to or different from the culture of the Aboriginals. Would you like to look into that?” – or
  • I’ve been thinking about all the explorers who encountered native cultures from different countries. If you were a native, which explorer would you have most wanted to ‘discover’ your country? Which one would you dread the most?” – or
  • “When I was in Mexico, I went to an art gallery and saw pictures of the native Mexicans’ encounters with Cortez. The natives were visibly oppressed. Then I went to Spain and saw Spanish artwork of Cortez’s encounter with the Mexican natives. The natives were smiling. Would you like to look into some artwork depicting colonials’ encounters with natives and see if you notice other things?”

Option 3: Work with the student to develop a learning contract.

The beauty of a learning contract is that the student both plans it and completes it. Your input is critical, but the onus of the contract (especially for older students) lies directly on the student(s).

Homework contracts may contain any of the following:

  • Overarching question
  • List of sources to investigate
  • Journal pages to document investigations and thinking
  • Presentation format or picture of the end product
  • Timeline of due dates (most important!)

Projects can seem overwhelming for some gifted students. Also, gifted students sometimes get so engrossed in reading and research that they never get to information synthesis or presentation.

You’ll want to hold the student accountable for an end product but also allow the due dates to be fluid. As students continue to research and think, a final project may morph into something completely different. Your goal is to make sure students are working and to push their thinking.

Option 4: Make worksheets two-sided.

Worksheets are most prevalent in math. One side of a sheet could comprise computational problems that help students review the day’s lesson. The other side could extend the concept with a problem-solving situation or a thought-provoking question.

As much as possible, align the mathematical strand with the problem-solving concept. One side might be the addition of decimals. The other side might ask students to make an organised list to find the number of possible combinations of coins could pay for a $5 load of laundry.

The key is that students can choose. Many students not identified as gifted will want to ‘have a go’ with the challenge problem. Some parents will require their child to do both sides, even if you’re explicit that students should only spend x-number of minutes per night. It doesn’t hurt them.

Final Thoughts

If you ask students to do ‘more of the same’ or you require them to do things they already know, you teach them that homework is pointless. You want to teach gifted students that homework can be valuable for them too.

Need more ideas? Check out Dr. Sarah Eaton’s post on Alternatives to Traditional Homework.

What have you found to be successful strategies for differentiating homework for gifted students?

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