Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Favorite Books

This meme came on my news feed on Facebook today:  

In your status, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way (they don't have to be the "right" book, or great books of literature, just books that have affected you). 

It made me think of this: I was subbing for a 6th/7th grade teacher on Monday and the assignment was to have the students list 5 - 8 of their favorite books and to tell why they added them to the list. While the students were at their specials classes, I wrote up my own response to this and enjoyed thinking about why they were on my list. So here is a bit of what I was thinking on Monday.

1) Ender's Game. This book has to rank as one of my all time favorites. I am fascinated by gifted children, schools, and moral dilemmas and this book has all three. Both adults and children have to confront their demons.

2 and 3) Native Tongue and The Judas Rose. Focusing on women's issues and linguistics, this book also touches on things that deeply affect me. While not a school environment per se, the methods of learning and constructing languages are intriguing to me.

4) Anne of Green Gables. This is a comfort book for me. Whenever I long for a simpler, and simply GOOD story, I turn to this book. It soothes me to see people striving to know each other and to live well.

5) Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Yes, the British version. Again, there are some of my favorite elements - gifted kids, schools, and moral dilemmas. There is also the added linguistic/historical element with the names of places, spells, and characters.

6) Diary of a Wombat. I take this book with me when I sub. It is accessible to young children with the simple humor, and the unfamiliar animal intrigues them. Older children understand more of the sardonic humor of a different viewpoint that turns the tables on humans.

7) Infinity Hold. This book takes me away from familiar themes into the realm of moral dilemmas that are society-wide. The idea that there can be vastly different approaches to law was/is appealing to me.

8) The Hobbit. I taught this book once and the teaching of it opened my eyes to a structure that I had missed - the alternating chapters of light and humor with those of dark and dangerous events. Since I am not fond of dark and dangerous, the light and humorous parts make the whole journey more satisfying - a respite.

9) It's a Magical World. Gifted child dealing with life; large cat, what's not to like? One of the best cartoons ever.

10) Dealing with Dragons. I wrote a musical about this one. Feminism, tongue-in-cheek humor.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Why Should Each Teacher Differentiate for Gifted Students?

Differentiation is hard.  It is even harder to differentiate for gifted students. (Why Differentiating for Gifted Kids Is Harder)  But a key question is also, why do we depend on classroom teachers to differentiate for gifted kids?  Why aren't measures in place in the schools to accommodate gifted students? 

When kids with a wide array of distinctly different learning needs must have different instructional support, their teachers get significant help from extensive full-time staff, including teachers and aides.  When teachers are asked to differentiate for gifted students, there is frequently NOTHING available for the teacher to use and no one to ask.  There isn't usually anything in their own education and training to fall back on.  They may have had one or two lectures in their teacher training coursework addressing the needs of gifted students.  But what do they actually TEACH when one of their students is way beyond everyone else in her knowledge of the fundamentals of biology?  And, the question for this post, why should each teacher differentiate for their gifted student(s)?  Why isn't someone in the district already responsible for drawing up objectives, benchmarks, and learning activities for these children?  Why is each teacher charged with re-inventing the wheel for each gifted child?

It is true that each gifted child might be vastly different from another one.  But, that just makes it harder for each individual classroom teacher.  School districts, on the other hand, will usually have at least a few students with roughly similar needs.  Why shouldn't the school district already have materials, objectives, benchmarks, and learning activities available for teachers to use?  Or better yet, why don't schools have teachers available who are responsible for delivering these things to the gifted students? 

Most of the students with special needs receive at least part of their instruction - the part that specifically addresses their learning needs - from a special teacher.  Gifted students should be no exception.  Their needs should be addressed specifically by a special teacher who is prepared to deal with them. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Sub's Plea as Teachers Start the New School Year

1) If you know you are going to be gone, let your class know.  This is especially important for the younger ones.  Sometimes, they get the mistaken idea that the substitute has come to take over, pushing out the regular teacher.  Let them know you will be back and that their good behavior reflects well on you, their regular teacher.  They are showing the sub that the regular teacher cares about how they act, even when s/he isn't there. 

2) Leave extra class lists.  Every time you get a student or lose a student, update your class list.  Leave a supply of class lists in an easy to find location - perhaps a sub folder.  Check after each absence to make sure there are still extra up to date lists in the folder.

3) Leave an up to date list of all of the kids who go to special classes, the times of those classes, and whether or not the child needs supervision getting to and from the class.  Does the teacher or a group of students come to pick him/her up?  Update this list regularly.

4) Leave a list of all of the health alerts for students in all of the classes that come into the room, or for which the sub is responsible.  If you switch for some subjects, include health alerts for those students as well.  Update this list regularly.

5) Leave a list of important phone numbers either in the sub folder or next to the phone.  If there are buttons that need to be pushed before dialing or answering, leave explicit directions for using the phone.  No, not all phones are alike and searching for directions on how to use the phone takes valuable time.

6) If you can find a map of your school, leave it in the sub folder.  Highlight the locations of your room, the office, the lunch room, adult bathrooms, the teachers' lounge, the copier, and any special classes.  Highlight any teachers that might be able to help, in case they are needed.

7) If there is a code for the copier, it would be great to let the sub know, in case extra copies of something are needed, or in case there is an unexpected need to fill in extra time. 

8) It would be wonderful if you could get a guest login for your computer.  This is especially important if the computer is to be used for showing movies or web sites.  Someone may log off the computer before the sub needs to use it and it is very disruptive to have to send for help to use the computer. 

9) If there are school or classroom rules or discipline procedures that the sub needs to follow or be aware of, write them up in detail and leave a copy of the writeup in the sub folder.   It also helps to have a list of things that are not allowed, e.g., drink bottles that might leak if tipped over, snacks at any time other than the explicit snack time. 

10) Leave a phone number if you are willing/able to take phone calls.  Personally, I hate to use this, as I am a phone phobic, but I know other subs appreciate it. 

Oh, and did I mention?:  LEAVE EXTRA (up to date) CLASS LISTS.

Thursday, August 21, 2014


I am not sure why this is so annoying to me.

Last year, I subbed at this particular school fairly often and I really like it.  I have been treated well there by staff, teachers, and students.  This year, they are going to a new system for getting substitute teachers.  First of all, I had to re-interview.  I was a bit surprised at that, but I understand why they wanted to do so.  Then, I had to go to an orientation session, which basically consisted of filling out about a dozen different documents.  Most of that was completely necessary - payroll forms, contract, retirement forms.

But there were more requests:  they wanted copies of my transcripts.  So I brought in my relatively fat folder of transcripts.  I am a frequent scholar.  I like taking classes.  Too bad I don't get mileage for that.  In the end, they only copied the two most important ones - my undergrad transcript and the one with all of my post-graduate degrees and a lot of the extra hours. 

They also wanted to photocopy my social security card, my driver's license, and my teaching certificate.  I don't particularly like it that they have a photocopy of my social security card, but the others seemed necessary.

Finally, came the request to get fingerprinted again.  When you are certified in this state, you are required to get fingerprinting done.  But this school wants their own set of fingerprints.  I will probably get them done, but I am not happy about it.  For one thing, it is expensive.  The place that I will go to have them done charges $11.  Then, after the school has the card, they send it off for processing, which costs $40.  The $40 is deducted from the first two paychecks from this school.  So the total cost of fingerprinting will be $51, which is around half of a day's pay - before taxes.  Subs get paid little enough anyway.  I was lucky to make $12,000 subbing one year - other years I have made less.

I almost understand why they feel all this is necessary, but it does make me feel a bit rebellious.  If I didn't like working at this school so much, I would be sorely tempted to just tell them no.  Sigh.  Off to get fingerprinted. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Why Differentiating for Gifted Kids Is Harder

Every once in a while, someone, usually a parent, will complain that teachers don't care about their gifted child or else they would provide appropriate learning experiences for them.  They know that teachers don't have a lot of time, but they insist that, if they really cared, they would MAKE time for them.  While I don't disagree with the idea, the fact is, it does take time - a LOT of time.  It takes more time to differentiate for the gifted child than it does for the learning disabled child, and here is why.

1)  No Appropriate Materials
Materials for teaching are always in short supply.  Many teachers resort to buying some of their own supplies of things they find especially useful in the classroom - extra books, markers, colored pencils, rock collections for a geology unit, costumes for a social studies play, etc.  Even textbooks are often in short supply.  There is one set of science textbooks for 3 classrooms, or the social studies textbooks haven't been updated for 10 years.  Materials to use with gifted kids are usually non-existent, unless the teacher has purchased them him/herself.  This leads to several of the other problems.

2)  No Appropriate Learning Objectives
The goals and learning objectives for your regular students are published and explicit (usually).  There are resources to help with struggling students, both materials and people.  But what about the gifted students?  In my long years of teaching, both regular and substitute, I have rarely found any serious effort to address goals and learning objectives for gifted students.

Developing appropriate goals and learning objectives takes a LOT of time and expertise.  That is why they have curriculum committees and textbook selection committees.  How many districts have a "Gifted Student Standards" Committee?  A learning goal committee for gifted students?  Part of the problem is that gifted students are often widely varying in abilities and needs.  Another part of the problem is that it requires not only knowledge of gifted students, but also extensive knowledge of the subject matter.  This subject matter can be far beyond what most classroom teachers are familiar with.  They are adept at breaking down subject matter for which they are responsible.  But extending subject matter beyond what they are familiar with is far more difficult.   

I have worked with a few mathematics curricula that have explicitly developed activities for "extended" learning.  These activities are intended to be used with the gifted students.  I have never seen them used, but at least they are there.  I have rarely seen objectives for gifted students in other academic subjects. 

3)  Finding Appropriate Materials
Yes, the Internet is wonderful and yes, there are wonderful lessons out there.  Finding those lessons takes a lot of time.  Even if teachers have thought long and hard about what additional objectives they would like to have the gifted student(s) achieve, finding appropriate materials and lessons takes time.

There are a lot of bad lesson plans out there; there are a lot of good lesson plans that would be great for most kids; there are fewer lesson plans that would be great for the gifted students, but are not appropriate for everyone.  Why is it important that they NOT be appropriate for everyone?  Because if everyone in the class can do, enjoy, and learn from the activities, they should be part of the regular curriculum and should not be considered to be differentiation for the gifted student.  Too often, activities in pull-out gifted programs turn into "fun and games for smart kids" - activities that most of the kids in the classroom could have done, but they don't get to, because they are not labeled gifted.  I know, because my own pull-out classroom sometimes resembled this.  There is a danger to this.  The danger is that people will push to have kids participate in these fun activities, even if they don't really need gifted education.  Why not?  They are fun, motivating, and the results don't really matter in terms of grading or learning objectives. 

4)  Teaching and Presenting to Gifted Students
One parent suggested that, in the age of computers, just allowing the gifted students access to computers could keep them busy, motivated, and learning.  Perhaps.  Busy and motivated are especially easy.  Learning?  Possibly.  But what are they learning?  They are learning that learning is usually just fun and games.  That if they have to work hard at it, it isn't as much fun, so why should they do it? 

Perhaps it is simply from my own life, but even as a highly gifted child, I would not seek out difficult learning experiences.  I would not challenge myself.  Perhaps some gifted students do.  Many will not.  Many will not seek out appropriate learning experiences and may even rebel against being required to do something appropriate for their ability level.  Many parents and teachers will defend this as a matter of choice.  We could offer algebra to 7th graders, but if Student X, who is ready for algebra, doesn't want to take it, we will just let him stay in the regular classroom, doing work he has already mastered.  Why do we let smart kids choose to not work hard?  Do we let any other students opt out of difficult material?

If the objectives for the gifted students are well thought out and the materials and lessons planned, when are they presented and by whom?  When does the teacher actually teach the gifted student(s)?  Book groups are usually easy.  The groups can be varying in size and different objectives are generally seamlessly incorporated.  Math groups can sometimes be similarly arranged, though the most frequent alteration in presentation is that students actually switch classrooms for math groups, with one teacher taking the bottom group, one teacher taking the middle group, and one teacher taking the usually larger "top" group.  This top group is not only usually larger than any of the other groups, but it is also not really adequate for the gifted math students.  Typically, the material that is presented is just the standard curriculum that is a bit faster, so they can get ALL of the pages done, not just the bare minimum.  Sometimes, it is the standard curriculum accelerated by one year.

If, instead, the teacher is trying to differentiate for the students that are particularly gifted in social studies or science, it is much more difficult.  Typically, what will happen is that there will be projects for these subjects.  But designing projects that include both the regular curriculum and the learning objectives for the gifted students is difficult.  Instead, what usually seems to happen is that teachers hope that students will seek their own level in their projects.  The objectives and learning standards are vague enough so that they can be construed to be applicable to all ability levels.

5)  Assessing Gifted Students
This shouldn't be a difficult problem, but it often engenders great debate.  Should the gifted students be given As just because they have, indeed, mastered the regular curriculum?  Or should they be graded on the goals and objectives that were developed for them?  On what is a grade to be based?  Should it be what would be expected of any age student who attempts the given material or should the age of the student be taken into consideration?

6)  School Support Personnel
When asked to differentiate for struggling students, a teacher will generally have many different people in the school to turn to for help.  There are literacy specialists, behavior specialists, language learning specialists, learning disability teachers, math specialists, aides, and a number of other people who come to help, both at the school and the district level.  When teachers need to differentiate for gifted students, there are rarely people who are designated to help them.  There used to be a few gifted specialists, but these are rapidly disappearing from most schools.  I worked as a gifted specialist at a middle school.  I was hired for 7 hours a week.  When the specialists are rarely there and are not considered significant members of the staff, teachers cease to rely on them - or to even know how to use them.  

Differentiating for gifted students is actually HARDER than differentiating for struggling students.   There are probably other reasons than just those outlined above.  I know this won't satisfy the parent whose child needs something more and isn't getting it.  It shouldn't.  But we have to support different ways of helping teachers take care of gifted students.  Blaming them for not differentiating for their gifted students doesn't mean that they can.