A veteran principal once told me he could identify the gifted and talented (G&T) students in a classroom within just a few minutes. "Really?" I asked. "How?" "While the other students are working at their desks, they're the ones watering the plants and straightening up the room," he said.
As skeptical as I was, I started to consider the gifted and talented students in my own classroom. They weren't watering the plants, but the activities I'd assign them when they finished their work were the academic equivalent of tending to foliage—extra grammar packets or bonus spelling words, for example.
To be honest, I'd say being gifted in my middle school English classroom often meant more responsibility. When I created small groups, I followed a classic rule: one student with lower abilities, a few average students, and one gifted student to make sure the task was accomplished. I'll admit that when a gifted child asked a higher-level question after a lesson, I often put it off, thinking most students wouldn't be interested. "See me after class," I'd say, so that I could talk about it further with them.
My school district didn't have a separate gifted and talented program, rather believing all classes should be heterogeneous. Given my students' wide range of abilities, I was used to teaching to the midline, while students with lower abilities received some extra attention individually. I couldn't provide differentiated instruction for everyone, so I subconsciously adopted the idea that my gifted kids were fine as long as they didn't receive direction that went further than the rest of the class.
Rethink Possibilities in the Classroom
When my own child was selected for the gifted and talented program in our school district, she'd come home from school every day bubbling about the books they were reading, the projects they were doing, and the questions they were exploring. During an open-house session, I visited my daughter's G&T class and talked briefly with her teacher about it. I expressed how much my daughter loved her class and told her that we felt lucky to live in a district that offered a special G&T program.
"You know, many people think that gifted kids can do it on their own," she said. "But they're still kids, and they still need encouragement. They need challenging work, and they really appreciate being able to play off of one another."
Still, I worried about singling them out for special treatment in the regular classroom. I didn't want the other kids to think I'm favoring them.
"It's not like kids don't know who's who in the classroom," she explained. "They know which kids are the smartest and which kids need help. No student is going to complain if they don't get the same assignments as the gifted kids. And if a student does, maybe you should consider including her in the group."
She made some good points, and it was hard to ignore the differences between what my own child and my students were doing in school. I couldn't convince the school district to suddenly develop our own G&T program, but I could at least do something small to provide my gifted and talented students a more enriched experience.
Start Small for Big Results
I met with my principal to discuss the possibility of offering an after-school reading club for students. I was afraid he'd insist I open it to everyone, but he agreed to let me use the club as a forum specifically for my gifted students since I was doing it on my own time. I pulled aside five or six distinguished kids and asked if they'd be interested in meeting with me once a week after school for 45 minutes. Their responses were gratifying: They were excited to be chosen for something new and different. I contacted their parents, all of whom were delighted. We picked the day to meet and I reserved a corner of the library.
Here's what happened: The other two English teachers at my grade level asked if they could participate too. Having selected students and contacted their parents, we chose books and shared the teaching responsibilities. We'd spend two to three weeks reading, discussing, and sometimes writing about each book. Students could then take out their reading club books when they finished their work early during regular class time.
It was a small step, but the kids loved reading more challenging material and discussing and debating ideas with one another. Plus, it was a great way for teachers to value their students' unique abilities and work with them at an entirely different level. As we got to know these gifted and talented kids outside of the regular curriculum, we started to make small changes within the classroom. We offered research topics, writing assignments, book, and projects—all of which could be easily altered to tap into our gifted students' abilities.
Ultimately, the teacher's effort was well worth it.