Anne Barounos: Gifted education: Differentiation ideal, but difficult

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Gifted education specialist Lisa Ruff recently wrote to voice her support for the "inclusive," or "differentiation," model of education for gifted and high-ability students. Put simply, this model advocates that gifted students not be separated from regular classrooms, but instead that teachers "differentiate" the curriculum within the regular classroom in order to challenge these high-ability learners.

Ms. Ruff mentioned that a group of parents have recently begun advocating for a return to a more exclusionary model, in the form of honors classes. As one of those parents, I feel compelled to reply.

In principle, I absolutely agree with Lisa Ruff. When done well, in-class differentiation is the best possible way to educate gifted and high-ability learners. My own son was fortunate enough to have Lisa Ruff as a classroom teacher, where she often suggested that he and a few other high-ability students take the "stretch" option on an assignment in order to push themselves academically. Ms Ruff's capacity to challenge the high-ability learners in her regular classroom while still meeting the educational needs of the rest of her students encouraged a passion for history in my son, without ostracizing him from his classmates.

What Ms. Ruff does not address is that not all teachers are as familiar with differentiation or as dedicated to challenging gifted and high-ability students as she is. In-class differentiation essentially requires a teacher to prepare, present and grade several different lesson plans for each class they teach. In short, it's a lot more work. Accordingly, very few teachers do it.

As a representative of the PEAKS parent group, I have met with the Steamboat Springs High School administration to discuss various ways that the school could meet the needs of gifted and high-ability learners. There is wide-ranging student support for additional AP courses, especially an AP European History or AP World History course. However, it was explained to me that the logistics of adding an AP version of an existing similar course (the 11th grade World Integrated Studies course) are formidable. So, we discussed instead offering a "Pre-AP" contract option for certain classes. This is basically an in-class "honors" differentiation contract that a student agrees to at the start of the school year, and is rewarded at year-end by the "Pre-AP" designation on his/her transcript. Discussion of this idea is ongoing, and the administration has conceded that it falls in line with the district's goal of inclusive education.

However, the Pre-AP idea has been met by less-than-enthusiastic support by some teachers. Reasons given have ranged from a belief that gifted kids should do extra work without demanding any special recognition for their efforts, to teacher fatigue at the idea of the extra planning work that the Pre-AP will entail.

So, in the absence of dramatic support for the Pre-AP "inclusive" model, I have continued to support the idea of honors courses, which would, at least, only obligate a classroom teacher to prepare one lesson plan for the class. Additionally, if the class were formally designated as an honors class, the student's extra effort would be reflected on his or her transcript - a key ingredient in selective college admissions.

In truth, I will support any and all formally recognized programs to challenge gifted and high-ability students. I also will go above and beyond the school's offerings to find ways to interest and challenge academically gifted students outside of the classroom. That being said, however, I am not willing to sit and wait patiently until my son has graduated before real, concrete solutions are put into place.

Anne Barounos

Parent and PEAKS co-president

Steamboat Springs

Comments

elk2 6 years ago

EVERY Child is gifted in one way or another.

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Deirdre Boyd 6 years ago

I want to thank Anne Barounos for her thoughtful ideas about differentiated education and about the possibility of implementing a Pre-AP program at the high school. As a teacher here at the high school, I am very interested in options that we can pursue in order to best meet the needs of all of our students, and I am also in agreement about the importance of keeping our classrooms inclusionary, with all levels in one class. I too believe that Pre-AP is a wonderful option that we should further investigate. I piloted such a program when I taught in Denver, and I know first-hand that it truly does work.
I would like to address, however, the impression that the teachers here at SSHS do not support such an idea. I feel that that is an unfair implication. The truth is that in all of the turmoil of late, we haven't ever really been given the opportunity to discuss it at length. It comes up at department meetings, with the promise that we will look further into it, but it never seems to happen. Many of the teachers have expressed interest in hearing what it is all about, but without that opportunity to be educated about what it might look like for them in their classrooms, they cannot be asked to make a decision about it. We've never been given any directive by the board, nor have we ever heard any official requests or inquiries from PEAKS. If we could all sit down together and talk about it, then at that point we could make a professional decision about which direction we want take our curriculum. But until the teachers have been included in the process, please do not portray us as unwilling or unenthusiastic. We are dedicated professionals and we want to be the best teachers we can be. We just need some information, support, and time to learn about and discuss the issue at hand. Thanks so much. Deirdre Boyd, SSHS History Teacher

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bandmama 6 years ago

Thank you Ann. As a parent of a "Gifted Child", I can honestly say that this district has done a wonderful job (with Lisa's help, she was also my childs teacher) trying to accomadate my childs needs. A gifted child thinks and rationalizes things differently. Please allow our teachers the chance to explore different programs to assist these students. Steamboat Springs has outstanding teachers, and they deserve the right to be included in any plans for any special group, not just the gifted ones, as it will effect all of the students in every classroom.

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bandmama 6 years ago

Thank you for addressing this issue. As a parent of a "gifted" child, I have to say the this district (with Lisa help, she was my childs teacher as well) has done an outstanding job of trying to accomadate my childs educational needs. But I feel it is a necessary requirement to include the teachers in any and all discussions, as any final results will not only effect those "gifted" kids, but all students in the classroom.

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bandmama 6 years ago

elk2- Yes, all children are gifted in one way or another, thank you for pointing this out. I believe part of the problem is that many fail to realize a "gifted" child to an extent, has a disability, their thought process is different and just because they have a high level of intelligence does not always mean that learning is an easy process for them. At times it can cause frustration for a child that can figure out a complicated math problem in his head but cant add 2 plus 2 without paper and pencil. I would like to add my opinion about inclusion/pull out options. My child was given a chance with a pull out type of situation, he went from a straight A student to a frustrated young man who struggled to keep passing grades. Why? Not only was he expected to keep up with regular classroom room expectations, but he had what he saw as extra work, almost a punishment for being smart. Not only the extra work, but there was not really a classroom set aside for this super group of kids, they met in a somewhat public setting, not every other child in school understood or cared why this group was meeting, he ended up being called some pretty hateful names (IE: Tards, Stupid ect ect ect) which in addition to the feeling of being punished, he had to deal with name calling and the peer pressure of being "different" How do I see the responsibility being put on the teachers by keeping these sometimes hard to challenge kids in class? Why should they? Without experience in teaching these kids, it can and has put a strain on them as educators. Why should their attention be torn from a majority of kids to handle the "exceptional" one or two? I really dont think it is fair to the rest of the kids in that class. The solution? I dont have one. As parents we have tried to challenge our child in every way we can outside of school, as we found him getting bored (and a bit lazy....) and we all know what can happen to a kid who is bored, they find ways to entertain themselves, usually leaning toward behavior issues. Lisa has done an outstanding job with our child, and is still available at any time to assist in problems as they or should they arise. I honestly feel that when the public misconception that if a kid is smart, it is an easy ride for them, is clarified, there will always be issues. An exceptional or gifted child has a disability to an extent. Autism ususally masks a tremendous creative or intelligent person, and look at the strides that have been made in the awareness of these kids. Spend some time with an exceptional child, they may have the same, yet not so severe, issues with some things as an autistic child. There is no easy answer, but I do commend this district for making strides with this issue. Although I have not always been 100% satisfied, I have been very impressed with the willingness by faculty and staff to aid my child in any way they could. Thanks again for bringing this to light publicly.

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quester 6 years ago

Good thoughtful and thought-provoking letter. Differentiation means meeting the needs of all the students.

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quester 6 years ago

I agree that differentiation is ideal and difficult, but that just takes us to the next question--How do we make it happen? As Deirdre Boyd explains, it is difficult with a range of abilities. Either changes are made to make it happen or we go to some kind of combination inclusion/pull-out program to give the students what they need.

I'm not familiar with how things are done in this district, but I cringed when I read when Boyd said that she had experience in this program and that it had been discussed, but not acted upon in department meetings. How long has this inertia been going on? Didn't the district go to extra time for the schools to work on this sort of thing? Aren't there staff development days and workshops offered? Whose responsibility is this? In most districts it is not the role of the board or parent groups to tell the teachers and principals how or what to teach.

I do support teachers. They have a tough job and I have heard LOTS of supportive comments about the ones in this city. Please step up and be assertive in meeting the needs of our children.

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