What does DIFFERENTIATION Look Like Going Forward?

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We, as a nation, are currently in uncharted waters.  I recently received an email from my own son’s school system, confirming what was already known: that his pending testing for acceleration in mathematics was postponed indefinitely until we get this quarantine sorted out and SAFELY back into the brick-and-mortar setting.  For us, we looked forward to the results of the future testing, to finally begin to get him challenged in some of his areas of giftedness.  (Sidenote: His 2nd grade teacher recommended that he be tested for both math and reading, but current district policy only allows acceleration in 1 subject.  Go figure?!) 

I’m sure our situation is not isolated.  Our current virtual schooling- in many places, without official grades and end-of-course testing- puts a lot of differentiation into questions… 

  • How will we determine which learners will be added to (or continue to advanced within) accelerated content courses for 2020-2021, especially when end-of-grade testing was the largest marker for these decisions?
  • If portfolios will be used to determine advanced placement, how will we ensure educators are properly equipped to identify giftedness and its many faces?

Similar to missed graduation milestones, parents of gifted 3rd graders in North Carolina were looking forward end-of-the-year CogAT testing to finally get the academic label necessary to require differentiation for their learner. Due to quarantining, those test will now be done at the beginning-of-the-year… right along with beginning-of-the-year benchmark testing. This brings into question chronic issues such as over testing. Transitioning back to brick-and-mortar teaching will require a lot of critical planning and implementation. I just hope that politicians and educational leaders are ready to collaborate and compromise with the best interests of CHILDREN and EDUCATOR at the forefront.

What Corona is teaching us about Flipped Learning (Part 1)

Flipped learning has been around for quite some time now. Flipped learning is widely credited to being pioneered by chemistry teachers Jon Bergman and Aaron Sams and further popularized by Salman Khan’s 2011 TED Talk on the practice. At the time of its inception, Bergman and Sams were dealing with the issue of making learning accessible in schools with highly-transient populations and high levels of tardiness and absenteeism. As a young educator in 2013, I found myself experiencing the same issues at my own Title-I middle school. I needed a way to keep learners ENGAGED and CONNECTED to our content, even when they weren’t physically in the classroom. As I researched solutions, I happened upon Sam’s now-infamous YouTube video (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHYm7U0ePWY), and was hooked on the concept! After researching practical implementation suggestions, I went about bringing the practice to my own classroom. With the luxury of time on my side, I was able to be strategic about the transition, and successfully made blended/flipped learning a mainstay within my classroom culture. Here are the basic steps that I took to ensure success in transitioning from TRADITIONAL to BLENDED/FLIPPED learning:

  1. Surveyed my learners on tech/internet access at home: As I have coached educators on the POWER of blended/flipped learning environments over the past 5 years, I have found that many avoid the transition because they assume ACCESS will be the biggest barrier. However, once learners are actually surveyed, the constant trend has been about 5-10% needing accommodations due to lack of technology and/or internet access at home. For example, when I surveyed my first class in 2013, I found that 16/20 learners had the access needed- whether that was a laptop, desktop, or smartphone- to be successful in a blended/flipped learning environment. As a result, my classrooms have been highly efficient with minimal paper use; it’s soo much easier and efficient to make 4 copies, instead of 20!
  2. Let learners lead: This step took a lot of the burden of prep off of me. Student leadership within a blended/flipped learning environment can include student leaders ensuring that copies are available for absent students, or designating a “start-up” leader that is responsible for running new students through the blended/flipped learning system. My students also took leadership in ensuring that our virtual learning management system (we transitioned from Edmodo to Canvas and now Google Classroom; will share more about LMS later) syllabus/agenda page remained up-to-date daily on a daily basis.
  3. Instructions were written with student questions in mind: One thing that sets a novice educator apart from an experienced one is how well the seasoned teacher anticipates student learning needs. Any time that I am developing a blended/flipped learning course, I am keeping this student knowledge at the forefront. In a blended/flipped learning environment, instructions must be crystal clear and include examples to help guide student learning.

With this winning formula, each class that I taught from 2014-2018 (my last year full-time in the classroom) has been delivered in either a FLIPPED or BLENDED learning environment. The delivery platform has helped personalized student learning in ways that I could only imagine. Contrary to the popular belief that blended/flipped learning removes the need for the teacher, I have found that the need is actually increased (will discuss in future blog entries). As a result of increased student growth & success, I quickly became a staunch advocate for blended/flipped learning. As I moved into coaching/leadership roles, it became one of the top practices that I suggested to most educators, particularly those looking for the easiest route to differentiation. However, no matter how I presented it- through presentations or invitations to observe it in-action in my own classroom, teachers still were hesitant about moving from the “sage-on-the-stage” delivery to one that is more conducive to the learning habits of 21st century students.

Fast-forward to March 2020, when COVID-19 has forced most of United States schools to close their brick-and-mortar buildings. But how do we now ensure the continued learning for millions of students? The natural solution has been to abruptly turn to flipped learning. Teachers have been asked to transform their learning environments literally overnight. For some, like myself, it’s business as usual. But for the masses, it has been an exhausting, complicated task that has been accompanied with little-to-no support. Some district’s strategic plan has allowed for more success than others. (Shout-out to Durham Public Schools who is leading by example with the transition!) But what support is out there for those in need?

Over the next few weeks, I am planning to share my tips and tricks for blended/flipped learning on this platform to support educators who are currently in need. Please feel free to share your tips and strategies in comments as well.

What does Gifted Look Like?

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January 14, 2020

As an Advanced Academics Specialist for the past 5 years, I find myself immersed daily among gifted and talented youth.  Though it sounds cliché, each and every child’s “giftedness” is unique. Whether a student excels academically or is gifted in an artistic manner, it is important to both identify and nurture those gifts inside and outside of the academic setting.

However, as a coach, I always get the question “what does ‘giftedness’ look like?” Without proper training, many classroom teachers become slaves to crowded classrooms and standardized tests… leaving little-to-no room for proper professional development on how to identify and differentiate for gifted learners.

So what advice would I give any educator who asks me “what does ‘giftedness’ look like?” Here are a few tips that I frequently share with my novice educators and members of my TAG (Teachers of Academically Gifted) Team:

  1. Start Small with Teacher Observations: Pinpointing learners’ gifts- whether academic or artistic- starts with keen observation. Even in an age of over-testing and district-mandated pacing guides, a teacher MUST carve out time to get to know their students on an individual basis. Sometimes this is as simple as sitting with a different child at lunch or recess and having a conversation about their interests. If necessary, it can also be a teacher strategically planning 2-3 minute checkpoints daily during warm-up time. I’ve coached some teachers to create a roster to ensure that they are meeting with all learners and recording any interests and/or concerns. You would be surprised what a teacher can glean from a learner by just discussing how they spent their weekend or what was the last book they read!
  2. What are they reading: … Or NOT reading. This can also tell you a lot about a learners’ capacity. Ironically, I have successfully recommended learners for science, social studies, and math identification as a result of paying close attention to what they were leisurely reading while at school. A 6th grader reading Matt Parker’s Humble Pi “for fun” is usually because they understand the math concepts at a deep enough level to identify the errors- a skill that would come easily to a learner gifted in mathematics. Also paying close attention to thematic reading of advanced literature has helped me pinpoint giftedness in learners. For example, I currently have several learners that are obsessed with World War I and II. They are constantly reading text far beyond the “normal” lexile and complexity for their grade level, and can articulate and make sophisticated connections within and beyond the specific texts. This is another indicator of advanced capacity.
  3. The Learner ALWAYS has the answer: When gifted learners are intrigued and/or motivated by an educator, they are usually the child that you have to tell “let me make sure your classmates have the answer, too.” When gifted learners are certain of knowledge or experience, they do not shy away from sharing that knowledge with others. In instances when their knowledge is much more advanced than their peers, though, this over-eagerness can lead to social isolation from peers. We will discuss how to combat this in future discussions.
  4. The Learner consistently produces EXEMPLAR work: If you find yourself referencing a learner’s work all the time as an example for other learners, they probably are gifted in that area. As an English/Language Arts teacher a few years back, I noticed that I was choosing a particular learner’s essays and quick writes consistently as exemplars for those that were struggling with assignments. Upon a quick review of her testing record, she was 99 percentile in English/Language Arts and almost perfect on writing composition. Performance will align with ability when rigor and relevance is presented to gifted learners.
  5. Positive “Off-Topic” Activities: Particularly when uninterested or placed in non-challenging situations, gifted learners will result to reading or anything else that interests them. This is a great sign that the learner could be lacking challenge in the particular learning setting. The best way to curb off-task behaviors for a gifted learner is to provide them with appropriate level of challenge through differentiated learning activities.

Remember: “Gifted Guru” has little to do with me thinking I have all the answers, and more to do with the COLLECTIVE knowledge of those reading. Please SHARE ways that you identify giftedness in your learners that could help educators in need.