Some students just ooze their intellect. Watch these kiddos for a few minutes and you can usually peg their academic needs pretty easily.
- A 5-year old who can add 3-digit numbers during the first week of kindergarten can be given the opportunity to move ahead and learn multiplication.
- A middle school student who wows science fair judges with an elegantly designed experiment that makes a ground-breaking discovery can be paired with a mentor to continue their work in the field.
- A young musician who quickly masters new scores with finesse and passion can be given more complex music to learn.
But what about the child gifted within the humanities – the one who’s passion is history or philosophy and logic? What opportunities do parents and teachers give these kids to continue to nurture their gifts and talents so they can grow academically?
Too often, well-meaning gifted differentiation amounts to nothing more than a glorified craft project disguised as a pull-out program. One of the top Gifted Hall of Shame Lessons would be the Underground Railroad quilt project. You know the one where kids learn about how slaves would “read” quilts to follow a path to freedom and then the kids sew a quilt to show the quilt code.
Now, I have nothing against learning about the quilt code. And, I actually support all children learning how to sew. But, putting these 2 activities together does little or nothing to support the intellectual needs of a gifted child. Sewing is a life skill – just like making paper mache models is an art skill. If you want to pursue these projects in school, then call it “art”, not “gifted education”.
The breadth and depth of knowledge that some humanities gifted children bring to the elementary or middle school years can be staggering. Just because they already know the basic facts of what you expect them to learn in their 4th grade curriculum doesn’t mean you should throw make-work at them just to keep them busy (and quiet).
Coming up with an engaging academic project that supports critical thinking skills – and won’t leave you needing to invest hours of time – and won’t leave the student struggling to complete the project on their own – needn’t be an impossible task.
The first step in developing a humanities-based differentiated lesson plan is deciding what you want your student to learn. Chances are they already know the basic facts, so focusing on understanding concepts or developing critical thinking skills will, most likely, be your goal.
A man by the name of Frank Williams created an 18-point model that teachers can use with gifted children. Going beyond Bloom’s Taxonomy of Evaluating and Synthesizing, Williams’ model gives you more than just a list of verbs to put into a theoretical learning objective. [Take a look at this comprehensive example of how you can use the Williams model to create 18 different learning goals for kids learning about the Civil War and slavery.]
Once you decide on the focus of your lesson, you’ll need to decide what you’ll change about your regular instructional approach. Will you change up the Content your use? The Process by which you teach? Or the Product you expect your kids to complete at the end of the lesson?
Differentiating instructional material involves more than giving a 3rd grade student a 6th grade textbook and having them read the same basic facts they already know with slightly higher vocabulary. Consider these options when picking books, videos, articles, and websites that you’ll use as your Content guide.
- Breadth of Knowledge
Guide your student to exploring side topics that complement the general focus of your unit study. This is a good choice when you’re concerned that a younger student might not have the emotional maturity to handle certain topics too deeply.
- Depth of Knowledge
Dig deeper into the topic at hand. Go beyond the basic facts that are generally covered in your grade level curriculum and let your student study the details most people might not know about.
- Complexity of Thought
Most elementary and middle school material is pre-digested into testable soundbytes. Some kids, however, are ready to work with primary sources and actual research articles so they can tackle the process of reducing down complex ideas into their essence of thought.
- Abstract Thinking
Focus on bigger concepts that tie ideas together. This is especially relevant for your humanities gifted kids who focus on existentialism. These types of learning projects rarely have a solid answer but they build critical thinking when kids are forced to answer question like: What causes some leaders to use their power for evil over good?
More than just the question of do you let a kid self-study and call it differentiation; Process focuses on the interactive “how” of learning.
- Open Ended Questions
Yes, multiple choice worksheets are far easier to grade, but they don’t usually help students develop or even demonstrate their critical thinking skills. Open ended questions, on the other hand, focus on thinking about what is being learned versus just regurgitating facts.
- Inductive Reasoning
Inductive reasoning is the process where kids wade through numerous examples and try to come up with a “rule” that explains why the “fact” occurs. While it’s a process of learning through discovery, this approach still requires involvement from an adult facilitator.
- Providing a Rationale
If you know gifted kids, then you know they can have strong opinions. Teaching them argumentation skills gives them the opportunity to rationalize their opinion or provide justification for why they think a certain answer is correct.
- Team Problem Solving
The key to using this technique is to make sure the team is made of up like-minded intellectual peers who are all equally invested in the Process of learning. Socratic discussions, a Problem-based learning experience, or creative problem solving contests are just a few of this type of Process option.
The guiding principle for picking an appropriate differentiated Product is to Keep It Real! Consider the skills and time it will take for a student to complete a particular project and their interest in those required skills.
- Real-World Problems
Your humanities gifted student will not be the person who discovers the cure for cancer, but that doesn’t mean they still can’t tackle other real-world problems. Paying attention to current events may spark an idea that your gifted kids can sink their teeth into – such as how do you preserve antiquities in war-torn countries.
- Real-World Products
Keep in mind the technology age we live in today. Web 2.0 tools offer you an amazingly rich set of options for how students can package, present, and share their knowledge with others.
If you’ve got a kiddo who sees sewing as a beloved hobby, then maybe an Underground Railroad quilt project will be a good fit for them. Otherwise, the investment of time in sewing does little to advance critical thinking – unless you do the sewing together as a group and you ensure there is a facilitated, focused discussion that complements what you learned. The better alternative is to give the kids a list of possible choices and let them pick what interests them most.
- Peer Evaluation
Learning to give and take constructive criticism is a valuable life skill – and especially important to leadership training. It’s important, however, to make sure the evaluations are coming from individuals who can actually grasp the ideas that are being communicated by your gifted student.
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