Austin Creek Educational Systems Professional Quality Educational Presentations and Consultation
  • Oct

    We have worn out the phrase “thinking outside the box.”  It is, however, a very descriptive and useful phrase when planning for educating our students for their futures.  I have decided that “looking around the curve” may serve us just as well.  Think of a road that does not stretch for miles in front of you, but instead offers a series of hairpin curves.  You may approach them with a little unease, if you are not familiar with the road.  You may feel confident that the road does continue, that you will not fall into an abyss, but you still slow more than you would if you were very familiar with the road.  So, what does a curvy road have to do with education and in this case, gifted education?

    Think about it this way:  What is around the hairpin curves that are our students’ futures?  We may be confident that their education will help them ease around the curves, but what will they find around the curve?

    The Past

    Until the technology age began to offer a myriad of new and different insights into our world and at worlds we had not known, we focused our career efforts on being a something that carried a very identifiable label.  My something was to be an educator.  Some of my friends were soldiers, accountants, pharmacists, farmers, doctors, and lawyers.  We chose a road and headed around familiar curves.  (Let’s not forget our soldier friends from Viet Nam forward who will not be able to participate in any driving, straight or curve laden.)

    The Present

    Try to make a list of all the careers now available.  Yes, there are the old stand-bys, but even those include curves that are not as well-known.  Technology now is pervasive in all the pasts’ labels.  Think of the sub-categories of each of those careers.

    Did you know about a career as a landman? … a specialist that provides heart valves to heart surgeons? … a technician that troubleshoots for an oil  company at their drilling sites? … owner of a construction company?  … an entrepreneur who invents a device for (insert name here)?  I know all these people as do you.   I would venture a guess that they never considered being a (insert name here), nor did their educators know of those careers.

    How do we educators prepare our students for life around the curve?  The 21st Century Skills help guide us, but how do we prepare them for not only one curve, but also for a lifetime of career curves?  We know that they will not be the gold watch people of our grandparents and great grandparents.  They will have to be prepared for curves and curves hidden within curves.  Their lives will likely be a series of switchbacks.

    One Idea

    Many school districts offer sound program services for gifted/talented children in the elementary grades and rely on advanced courses for students in grades 6 through 12.  The transition years, grades 6-8, are often years of frustration for parents of gifted/talented who strive to keep the intellectual fires burning within their children and the children who strive to maintain their curiosity about the world around them.  The structure of some middle years’ programs prevents acceleration and enrichment for gifted/talented learners. One school determined to provide intellectual engagement, course acceleration, and 21st century skills for gifted/talented students in the middle years so that they could face the curves ahead in their roads.

    The Car

    Our car, the school district (SD), is a small urban district that serves 15,000 students in pre Kindergarten through grade twelve.  There are fifteen elementary schools, six middle schools, and two high schools.  The fifteen elementary schools offer a one-day-a-week pull out services for their gifted/talented students.  Their elementary school classroom teachers are encouraged to pre-assess the students to determine acceleration needs.  The teachers of the pull-out classes offer differentiated instructional strategies for classroom teachers.

    Getting Ready to Drive

    The SD took its lead for implementing the Middle School for Gifted Learners (MSGL) from the National Association of Gifted Children’s (NAGC) Gifted Education Programming Standards (2010).  District educators embarked on a book study of NAGC Pre-K-12 Gifted Education Programming Standards, A Guide to Planning and Implementing High-Quality Services (Johnsen, S. Ed., 2012).  After a six weeks’ course of study, district administrators and educators focused on the work’s five critical components for a quality program that would offer a continuum of services that reflect the NAGC standards:

    • comprehensive and coordinated services (5.5 and 5.2),
    • collaboration in schools and with families (5.3),
    • career and talented development pathways (5.7),
    • policies and procedures (5.6). and
    • resources (5.4)



    In addition to the 21st century skills and the programming standards, the district team looked at NAGC Standards for options to meet students’ cognitive and affective areas. Standards 5.1.1 through 5.1.5 remind educators that evidence-based options should include acceleration, enrichment, both during school hours and outside the school, multiple grouping arrangements, mentorships, internships, virtual schools, and all types of assistive technologies.  The district believed that these options would be the beginning of the gifted students’ driving lessons.
    The SD opted to redesign middle school services that included all research-based best practices listed above.  They determined to make sure that career pathways and technology be infused in all content areas.  They also wanted to make certain that their services for gifted/talented learners included the twice exceptional learners.  In order to make that happen, they included school counselors, school psychologists, social workers, and other constituents in their planning.





    Starting Driving Lessons


    Their first step was to focus on administrative support.  Support would need to include all central office administrators and the local board of education.  Monetary resources were requested to support curriculum, field experiences, technology, and course acceleration needs.  Autonomy would also be needed by central office administrators to select teachers and campus leaders for this school  that students named STARS.


    Their second step was to design services that would follow best practices.  The services would then be presented to administrators, parents, interested students, and the community for consideration.  After creating the design for STARS, the educators responsible for STARS developed procedures and policies to guide educators, parents, and students.


    An innovative plan for the ISD middle school was underway.


    MSGL Map


    The plan for STARS was that it would be a school of choice for students identified as gifted in grades 6-8 that would address student interest in the humanities, sciences, and technology as a foundation for advanced learning.  Each grade would have between 100 and 150 per students per grade level with one teacher at each grade level for Math, Science, Social Studies, ELA in each grade level.  A Dean of the Academy, who would work with the campus principal, along with the Executive Director of Advanced Academic Services would hand-select the 12 teachers.  It was determined that since STAR was a school-within-a-school, it would include a technology facilitator instead of a counselor.


    Students would have the opportunity to take core content classes in math, science, social studies and English language arts and select three electives from band, choir, Spanish, orchestra, Physical Education, Athletics, and art in an 8 period day.  The eighth period was designed to address student interests.  All core content classes would be pre Advanced Placement, interdisciplinary, and problem/project-based.  The pace of the courses would match the needs of the gifted students. Acceleration in math would be a priority and ability for students to accelerate or delve deeper into content in the other content areas would be the norm.


    The unique feature of STARS was the institution of mini-courses, the extra period to address student interests.  The purpose of the mini-courses was to begin driver training for curves in the road.  Mini-courses would be offered one period a day and would focus on students’ interests as paired with the expertise of teachers.  Students had been asked in their application to list areas of interests.  Teachers would take those applications and develop six courses to meet the interests of the students.  Each mini-course would be designed for a six weeks period, students would sign up for their top three choices, and the Dean would create the schedules for the students.


    Examples of mini-courses include the following:


    Forensic Facts:
    Students learn how Forensic Scientists use their background to help law enforcement solve crimes through a variety of experiments and a tour of a college chemistry lab and local forensics lab.
    A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words:
    Students explore the art of photography with both technique and impact. They learn to evaluate the craft as well as take pictures of various school events and create a yearbook for the school.
    Science Fair:
    Students learn how to develop their own experiment and compete at the regional and state level.
    Dissection Station:
    Students explore the world of biology and be given opportunities to perform dissections that are usually reserved for high school biology students.
    I Need a Doctor:
    Students learn about the varying areas of the medical field, both research and practice and become CPR certified.
    Fun Science:
    Students participate in daily fun science experiments that are not part of the school year such as making sugar crystals, bottle rockets, slime etc.
    Desktop Publishing:
    Students explore desktop publishing projects and software — brochures, flyers, signs, posters, etc. – and create original works as a means of personal or group expression


    Garage Bands:
    Whether vocalists or instrumentalists, students get the opportunity to create their own composition. Students use creative expression and performance to sing/play instrument.
    Plan, Cut, Sew:
    Students study geometric patterns and design their own heirloom quilt. Students utilize principles of mathematics and quality construction.
    Babysitting Survival:
    Students explore developmental characteristics of young children and develop babysitting activities to keep children safe and entertained. Students use various methods of guidance for children and analyze responsibilities for maintaining the health and safety of children.


    GI Joe and Jane:
    What would YOU tell the founding fathers?  Students learn how to identify patriots and collect oral histories.  Studies write essays for competitions and money prizes.  Students also put the finishing touches on a Welcome Home Parade for Iraq War veterans. This course involves a field trip to the state capitol for their veteran’s day parade.
    Media and the Message:
    Students communicate the news and opinion at STARS Academy using traditional and non-traditional media.  Students create and run a daily news show that informs and inspires the school’s students.  Guest speakers from local TV and radio stations help us shape our production and stories.


    Bumps in the Road


    Bumps in the road that slowed the Middle School for Gifted Learners before the curves had little to do with driver training or the map.   Scheduling in a school-within-a-school was problematic.  MSGL students’ schedules had to be synchronized with all students because of the electives and because some elective teachers were split between campuses and could only teach in the morning or in the afternoon.  Integration of core content subjects helped in many ways.  The ELA and social studies teachers and the science and math teachers integrated when possible.  In a few cases, students took ELA during social studies time or vice versa.  The same happened with math and science.  These were the exception, but it illustrates the willingness of the administrators and teachers to meet students’ needs in MSGL.


    Because students came from 15 Elementary School campuses, there was a wide variety of preparedness represented in the students.  All were identified as gifted, but not all had received the same depth and complexity opportunities on their elementary campuses.  Some students were more prepared for the pace and complexity than others.  Teachers remained calm, offered tutoring before school, at lunch, on their conference period, and after school.  By the end of the first semester, 99.5% of the students were ready to get behind the wheel, on this new road, and with expectations of what could be around the curves.  The .5% ultimately determined to return to their home campus where G/T services were offered, but only as differentiation within the core content areas.   Generally, retention of students in MSGL was not an issue.  For gifted students to be able to work alongside their academic and intellectual peers was its strength.


    The Curves

    Does MSGL prepare its students for the curves ahead?  With focus on best practices, 21st century skills, rigor in core content classes, and relevance in mini-courses, MSGL driver training, STARS, has begun preparing students for the curves ahead.  Students who work within a problem/project-based atmosphere with focus on why and how instead of what and with the opportunity to explore their interests will be prepared to face the hairpins and switchbacks that will be their future.







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