Seventeen years of Treehouse talk

Seventeen years of Treehouse talk

Monday, August 12, 2013

Countdown to School: Gifted kids, all kids, need to learn (Book comments)

It's still (officially) four weeks till school starts.

Dollygirl was at the public library Saturday morning getting her summer reading passport checked off, and I had a few minutes to get some "teacher books."  That branch library, for some reason, has a terrific number of school/homeschool books (in the 370's, if you're browsing in Dewey Decimal).  I took out four; two I'd read before, two I hadn't.  One I had read was Home Learning Year by Year by Rebecca Rupp.  I've borrowed this several times from our homeschool library and still think it's amazing that Ms. Rupp was able to pack all that she did into one little paperback.  Having had "scope and sequences" on my mind lately, I enjoy the way she hauls those learning objectives out and then puts them in their place...cuts them down to size, when necessary, and makes them practical for homeschoolers.

The other more-or-less familiar book was Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom, by Susan Winebrenner.  I used to have the 1992 edition; this is the "newer" 2001 revision.  Mrs. Winebrenner does have a newer book, Teaching Gifted Kids in Today's Classroom, which I think is the reason there won't be another update of the Regular Classroom.  Maybe the library will get a copy of the new book. Anyway, this is not a homeschool book; the focus is on how to make learning meaningful for the one or two gifted students in a class.  As homeschoolers, we have an extra option: if the grade-level book's too easy, we can skip it and go to the next level right away, without wasting time coming up with enrichment activities.

Oh, but that's why I like this book: not for a wealth of enrichment activities, because it's not a "cookbook," it doesn't have idea after idea that you can just pull out and use; it has a few suggestions, but you really have to do your own thinking about how you would use them with a particular topic or book.  No, the part I really like is the introduction, especially the section "Teaching vs. Learning."  That's where public-school-gifted-teacher meets Charlotte Mason.  "Of all the students you are teaching in a given class, which group do you think will probably learn the least this year?"  The extremely gifted ones, natch.  "How does this happen?  Mostly it's because of something with which we are all too familiar: the scope-and-sequence monster.  Each year, we are given a certain slice of a student's entire school curriculum to teach, and we feel intense pressure and responsibility to teach everything assigned to our grade or subject to all our students."

Then, this:  "A teacher's responsibility is not to teach the content.  A teacher's responsibility is to teach the students, and to make sure that all students learn new content every day."

So the big question that homeschooling parents, with gifted children or not, need to ask about any book, unit, activity, field trip, or experiment, is--is this going to contribute to their learning?  I don't mean in some definitely measurable way, something we can immediately test by dousing them with vocabulary sheets or hooking them up to some "you learned this today" computer; but in a larger sense.  This does not preclude periods of "productive daydreaming," or spending a whole week just building "something."  A lot of learning can go on during those times.  But in the work we assign to them, the academic activities we design--will they learn something new today?

How do we present a chapter of new material?  Do they already know this stuff, and need to either skip it or work with it in a new way (enrichment)?  Do they need a hands-on or creative presentation of the material, or will the chapter in the book be enough?  Will they benefit from doing a critical or creative followup assignment, something special or open-ended; or would it be enough, this time, just to narrate?

How do you as a teacher or teaching parent react to lists of suggestions for either "fun activities" (those that Mary Pride calls classroom clutter, those that offer little real learning), or more challenging, serious extension activities? How do you differentiate them?  (Mary Pride's book Schoolproof offers an excellent list of criteria for figuring that out.)  How do your students react to lists of suggested activities:  do they chomp at the bit to get started, or do you get a "do we have to?" response? (Do I have to build a castle out of boxes?  No you don't, and that saves us having to find a place to put it afterwards.)

Part of Dr. Winebrenner's thinking here relates specifically to the needs of highly gifted students, and perhaps that changes "nice to do this extra thing" to "this is where the real learning is going to happen." It means offering more, or maybe even offering less: some students might be happy to take off with something on their own, and not need you to tell them how to learn it or what to do about it; they might just need a little guidance, or some materials.  It's not just about making learning more fun; it's more about taking all children's learning, and their need to learn, seriously.  If you think of even young gifted students as able to work on a different level, ask different kinds of questions, then even for homeschoolers, the idea is not just skipping over what they "know," but adding new dimensions wherever practical.

I don't know that Susan Winebrenner's book would be required reading for most homeschoolers, although some of her reproducible forms (especially in the 2001 edition) might be useful for planning and keeping records.  But if you are a) teaching what the Equuschick calls a Busybrain, or b) just wanting to think through how discoveries in gifted teaching might apply to other children, then you might like to check it out.

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