Teach It Like They're Gifted

The picture is from an immigration unit I did with students a few years back. It was the first time I realized that ELL and Honors could both work on deep-thinking, creative projects. Language didn't have to marginalize. 

When I went to the gifted training, they promoted a framework that had the following characteristics (this is from memory and by no means exhaustive)
  • A respect of student autonomy. Students could customize the projects, using choice menus, student interest surveys, and developing their own essential questions. 
  • Thematic units. Not simply topical themes, but big themes. Students were given the opportunity to wrestle with a "man versus machine" concept, for example. There was a strong emphasis on students making web-like connections between topics and subjects rather than treating learning like a set of silos.
  • Inquiry-based: Students were encouraged to begin with inquiry and "follow their passions." They had the permission to geek out and go deep in answering their own critical thinking questions.
  • Project-based: Learning didn't need to be a set of assignments. It could be a larger, integrated project where the learning fits into a context. 
  • Reflection: There was a strong emphasis on letting students reflect on not only what they learned but on why they were learning it.
  • They got to play: Whether it was an in-depth simulation or a short game of Set, students had the chance to play together.
  • Tech-Integration: Students got a chance to use blogs, Google docs, videos and podcasts. 
  • Creativity: Students got to make things and improve things. They were encouraged to think differently and to solve problems. 
  • Critical Thinking: Students were asked to analyze facts, think divergently, see new perspectives, hold onto paradox, synthesize information, curate sources, and evaluate information. And often this fit into things like debates and mock trials where they could hash ideas out in a specific context. 
So, when I had the class with the small group of gifted students, I ran with it. This was my permission to do what I already believed in. And yet . . . I had students who had just left the ELL program and a few who were still ELL. I quickly found that they thrived in this same framework.

What if the authentic, project-based education we promote for gifted students is good for every student?

This year, I have all English Language Learners. I have a four-block constraint to work within (an hour of grammar, hour of reading, hour of oral conversation/vocabulary and an hour of writing). I know that I will need to add scaffolding, such as sentence stems, front-load additional vocabulary and explicitly teach grammar.

However, I want to teach within the same authentic, project-based framework that I used last time I taught self-contained (all subjects).  I want to view my students as having unique gifts that allow them to be deep thinkers. I want to see them wrestle with hard concepts, tackle some difficult texts and express a voice of confidence. I want them to see that any well-intentioned teachers who said, "these poor kids . . ." were unable to see their potential.

I think maybe I'll tell them that they are honor students who just need a little work on their language acquisition.


John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler.
He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard
and the co-founder of Write About .

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