It is worth pondering the definition of “giftedness” found in federal law:
[Gifted children] possess demonstrated or potential abilities that give evidence of high performance capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, specific academic or leadership ability or in the performing and visual arts (Public Law 95-561, Title XIV, section 902).
Perhaps the key words are “high performance capability.” Gifted children can have high, general intellect; the ability to think creatively and critically; the ability to lead; and extraordinary talent in the visual or performing arts. Currently 29 states have laws or policies requiring “gifted and talented” eduation (Lewis & Doorlag, 2006; Tomlinson, 2001; 2003; Turnbull, Turnbull, & Wehmeyer, 2007; see also the Website of the National Association for Gifted Children, www.nagc.org). Our concern is differentiating instruction for the gifted children who are in our elementary classrooms. Again, we will organize our discussion by the three categories of modifications teachers can implement: Changes in content, changes in instructional processes, and changes in work product.
Modifications in Curricular Content
In many instructional units, gifted students are challenged to learn more social studies content than their peers. This can be done by adding “depth,” so that students learn more information about a topic; or by “breadth,” by adding new topics. Here is an example of a “depth” modification. All students in our American Revolution unit would be expected to know the main ideas Jefferson expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Gifted students, however, might be asked to find out more about the 27 specific “abuses and usurpations” described in the middle part of the Declaration. Jefferson claims that the British were guilty of “transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offenses.” What did this mean? What crimes could result in Colonists being taking to Britain for trial? Why did Jefferson label them “pretended”? An example of a “breadth” modification would be: While all students would be expected to know about Paul Revere, some gifted students could learn about two other Colonists, in two different contexts, who rode through the night to warn that the “British were coming,” Sybil Ludington and Jack Jouett.
I must share one anecdote here from my own teaching experience. I spent five wonderful years teaching at Joaquin Miller Elementary School in Burbank, California. Our fourth-grade social studies curriculum focused on the history of California. One year, I differentiated instruction for one gifted student by modifying the curriculum through a “breadth” project. I asked this student to write a biography about the man our school was named for, the American poet, Joaquin Miller. Miller had a somewhat nefarious past and when the student finished her biography she told me, “Quite frankly, Mr. Zarrillo, I think it was a big mistake to name our school after that guy!”
Two techniques used to allow gifted children to learn additional content are “compacting the curriculum” and “tiering assignments.” Compacting the curriculum is a process in which students are allowed to show what they know at the beginning of a unit. This is typically done with a pretest. Children are not asked to learn what they already know; rather, they are asked to learn extra content while the rest of the class works on the topics they have mastered. Tiering assignments involves creating several activities that all lead to the achievement of a single standard. Some “core” activities are required of all students. There are, however, several other activities at various levels of difficulty. Children with learning disabilities might be asked to complete the simpler ones while gifted students pursue the most difficult.
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