Friday, February 06, 2009

"I never, ever sit behind my desk"

Today in our series, we have a Q&A with Kirsten O'Neill, a high school English and art classroom teacher. She has worked with children of all levels and discusses differentiation and quality teaching with us.

GE: How does a good teacher deal with a wide range of abilities in a class?

O'Neill: My classrooms have always been all inclusive, so my students fall along all lines of the learning spectrum. A.D.D., A.D.H.D., Asperger's, dysgraphia, dyslexia, gifted, twice exceptional - I've worked with all of them. I have found that there are basic, key elements that lead to success when working with such diverse populations. First, one must understand what each of the learning disabilities and giftedness are. I make it a personal priority to educate myself on the characteristics, learning styles, possible challenges, and behavior traits that may be associated with each learning disability, as well as giftedness. I keep a binder, divided into sections, by my desk with the most up-to-date articles, research, and best practices. While this research does eat away a lot of personal time, I find the efforts well worth it.

Second, I use a classroom management system that works for all students, regardless of ability. I am a personal advocate and user of Love and Logic in the Classroom. I find that the methods in Love and Logic work, because students learn to accept the outcomes of their choices. I like the methods because students can sense that favoritism is not an issue.

Third, I expect my students to be actively engaged in the learning process at all times that they are in my class. I do not expect them all to be at or functioning on the same level, but I do expect them to learning and working. Because there is such a wide range, students may need to use tools to help them succeed. One student may have a headset on, listening to a book on tape instead of reading one. Another may be isolated in a quiet corner, working, due to sensory issues. One may be sitting on a floor or sprawled out while writing. Another may using a laptop to type notes. I have found that giving the students freedom to use whatever tools they need to be successful works. Distractions are rare and occur more at the beginning of the school year. The students learn quickly that distractions won't be tolerated and the source of the distraction will be removed, whether it is the student herself or her tool. I have had a few parents and administrators raise an eyebrow at such un-school like methods, but any objections are short lived, especially upon observation.

Last, I never, ever sit behind my desk. My seat is usually a depository for whatever supplies I bring in for the day. Working with such wide ranges also brings in a host of social and emotional levels and challenges, too. By staying active, being aware of classroom undercurrents, walking around, sitting with students, pulling students into circles for round-robin sessions, I try to head-off or eliminate any potential disruptions. I also try to get to know my students personally. I try to make time to talk with each student before or after class. I stand by the door and greet each one by name as they walk in the room. I have found that sometimes, it's the personal connection, much like a nurse's bedside care, that students respond to best.

GE: Describe how you differentiated a certain lesson or curriculum for kids with
varying needs.

O'Neill: This is a very technical question. I have to differentiate the majority of the time I teach. I start with a common theme or unit that all of my students will be studying at one time. I then break the units into categories, then break the categories into lesson plans and activities that can be easily adjusted to each student's learning ability. This provides flexibility, allowing me to individualize up or down the learning curve as needed, without too much re-write. Therefore, all of my students are engaged in learning the same unit/material; differentiation allows them to reach the lesson's objectives according to ability.

I will illustrate with actual lesson plans derived from my junior English class' study of Hamlet. Obviously, I started with my theme - Hamlet. Next, I broke down what I wanted my students to be responsible for collectively learning as we study the unit. I broke my original theme into six categories, not including the scheduled tests, quiz, or project, as follows: Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Era (pre-reading/background info), Act I, Act II,(Test Act I & II), Act III, Act IV (Test Act III & IV) Act V (Quiz), and End-unit Project.

The categories provided the framework for the lesson plans - and room for differentiation. Here's a sample of how it worked and where I used differentiation.

Act One, Lesson 1: Dramatics Personae
Objective: Students will identify key characters in the play and create a character sketch for each player. Students will use information gathered and learned in the pre-reading activities to help build their sketches.

Before students enter the classroom, the following will be posted on the board:

- What does the title, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, tell the Elizabethans who have come to see the play?

Today's Objective: Using only the Dramatis Personae, create a character sketch for each of the following key characters. (*Clue: What did you learn about the Elizabethans that might help you describe the characters?)

[List includes Claudius, Gertrude, Ghost of Hamlet's Father, Hamlet, Ophelia, Polonius, Rosencrantz, etc.]

Start of Class: Five minute discussion dissecting the question.

At the end of the q & a session, spend another 5-10 minutes asking questions about what they recall about the Elizabethans.

Next: Students become engaged in creating their character sketches. (25min)

Ok - here is where the differentiation really occurs. Notice that I did not specify how the character sketch is to be completed; only that one must be done. The students are able to create individualized character sketches, without breaking into groups. At this time, students have their books out or are listening to their taped Hamlet. All of my students are actively creating a character sketch. My g/t students created complex outlines or wrote essays, with lots of detail, others used simple charts or wheels, and some of my dysgraphic students drew actual sketches.

Close: At the end of 25 min., students share what they created. Because my classes are small, I usually could get to everyone before the end of class.

End: Cliffhanger: How many predict that their character sketches are accurate? Take a tally and write the number on the board, to begin Act One, Lesson 2.

Grading: If one met the class objective, then one earned an A for that lesson.
Simple, fair, and everyone learned.

GE: What do you wish more teachers knew about gifted kids?

O'Neill: I could write an entire book on this very subject! If I could have one wish granted, I would wish that every teacher would receive education and training on teaching gifted students. That way, every teacher would have a basic understanding of what giftedness is and what it entails. Gifted children are not perfect; they are not perfect children with model behavior and perfect decorum. Gifted students are not perfect students, either. There may be one or two that fit into that unjust expectation, but by and large, that is not the case. Gifted students are messy, disorganized, perpetually late, both to class and with assignments; sometimes, they can even be failing and in danger of dropping out of school entirely! Gifted students do, at times, require direct instruction and sometimes, remedial instructions. These students deserve to be properly educated, challenged, and stimulated; they are not in class to act as a peer-tutor, classroom aide, student monitor, or run errands.

One can be gifted in one area and not another. One can be intellectually gifted or artistically gifted or both. Gifted students deserve as much attention and support in the classroom as lower-level students. Being gifted is not elitist; a gifted student needs support and challenges, especially because of the negative emotional and social impacts that gifted students endure simply for being who they are. Giftedness is not found among only wealthy students; giftedness cuts across race, cultures, and socio-economics. I wish that more teachers were trained to observe the traits of giftedness, so that more gifted students were identified at early ages.

I wish that teachers understood that students should never be punished or put down or singled out because they happen to be gifted. They should not be given extra classwork to make up for missed work during their pull-out programs. Does one give students extra work, if they are required to go to remedial reading instruction? If you wouldn't behave that way to a child with a disability, why behave that way towards one with great ability and potential? I wish teachers would realize that gifted students are not a threat; they may be smarter then the educator, but isn't that what we would wish of all our students?

I also wish that teachers would understand that gifted students are human. Some gifted students, especially older students, are under tremendous pressures. They are still children, and even gifted children may need to be schooled in manners and acceptable behaviors. Disruptive behavior is not an indicator of giftedness; disruptive behavior, in any student, is a cry for help. In gifted boys, acting out may mean that they are not being sufficiently challenged. Gifted girls, however, tend to withdraw, become shy and quiet, especially around peers. Just as rowdy boys may need to learn how to appropriately garner attention, shy girls need to be drawn out. Gifted children may be more sensitive, emotional, or reactive then other students. Most gifted children long to be what they consider normal - and they will learn to live and survive a lifetime accepting that they are not.

And last, I want to remind teachers that our gifted students deserve better then what we, as a nation, currently offer. I would encourage advocacy and teacher education. Gifted students have neither the support, funding, nor legal mandates that would provide them the services they need to succeed. I wish that teachers who have no experience or education on working with gifted students would be bold and admit it. I would rather a gifted student be removed at the teacher's request and sent to another classroom, with a teacher trained in working with the gifted, then have that student and their untrained teacher suffer through a miserable, wasted school year. A mind is too precious, and a terrible thing to waste.

GE: What do you wish more parents of gifted kids knew about teachers?

O'Neill: I wish that parents understood the tremendous pressures teachers are under to conform to their district's and state's standards. Sometimes, what a parent wishes his or her child were learning and what is approved differ. Teachers, even great ones, may find that they are bound by policy. Also, I wish parents knew that one may not be gifted, yet be able to teach gifted children. Sometimes, parents need to have a little faith and trust in the teacher's abilities. We are, after all, degreed professionals, who are required to attend so many training hours a year to maintain certification.

I wish that parents would listen to what the teacher is saying about their child; we actively observe students, day in and day out, and we can be a great ally and advocate for their gifted child. Sometimes, parents get so caught up in their child's giftedness, they fail to see the actual child. I wish parents knew that just because their child is gifted, it does not entitle them to bragging rights or unrealistic expectations.

Last, I wish parents knew how much personal time, research, and training goes into being an educator of gifted children. But, we still have a personal life, too, and our job can't always be an extension of our home life. I wish that parents knew, particularly those who teach gifted children, that teachers are a great resource and are approachable. Even if we disagree, teachers usually have the child's best interests at heart.


Jeremy said...

This series of interviews has been fascinating -- I've been enjoying all of them and keep forgetting to leave a thankful comment. So much good food for thought, with great questions and diverse answers. Thanks!

Joanna said...

I lovve your blog and the links that you post. I rarely comment, but I'd really like to thnak you for putting these interviews together, and to thank the educators/specialists that are taking the time to share this information with us.

Anonymous said...

I am a graduate student in Elementary Education. I chose to do a paper and research on legal issues in gifted education. Your interview was very helpfu and informative. Thank you.