How to Design Units that Access each Student’s Giftedness
…and turn on their excitement for learning
It would be amazing to take a protracted field trip and visit the schools across the nation, walk the hallways, and peek in the classroom doors to see what we can see. Doubtless what we would witness would be incredibly varied. We would see everything from classrooms in which students are engaged, participating, and energized, to classrooms in which children are passive, indifferent, and checked out. In some of these latter classrooms, behaviors are out of control, while in others, students are silent.
What makes the difference in classrooms?
I have a theory: if we access each child’s area of giftedness, we will turn them on to learning. In reality, the brain is already wired to learn. What remains is for us to figure out how to create a learning environment in which brains can learn, want to learn, and do so without a ton of effort on our part as teachers.
How can we do this?
Some ideas need to be in place before successfully designing units of instruction that engage students and access their best abilities. We should assume that:
- All children are gifted in varying ways.
- Students don’t all learn the same way.
- The ultimate best means of conveying what they have learned will vary from student to student.
- Lecture/verbal instruction is the least effective way to teach.
- Listening to verbal instruction is the least effective way for students to learn.
- It IS possible to teach one lesson and reach all the students in a classroom.
- Children can perform far beyond what we view as their ability level.
- Children rise to the occasion when they are given control over their own learning.
- Children don’t always learn concepts in the order we view as “the correct order,” be it sight words or math facts.
- Most children learn by sorting through a wealth of ideas and making order out of them in their own minds.
Planning a unit
As an example, let’s use the topic of European influences on the settlement of North America – 6th grade level. The unit includes the history of the first European visitors and settlers to America as well as what animals and plants were introduced from Europe. I actually prepared this unit back in 2001 and taught it to two sixth grade classrooms in a rural, at-risk population of students with marginal home support. Suffice it to say, the topic was not on the list of “burning issues I need to know about” for my students. Decide ahead of time exactly what you want all the students to come away knowing and understanding, and be prepared to share this with the students.
Prepare your unit in ways that speak to the modalities of the students. It is not the time to say “read pages 225-228 and answer the questions at the end of the unit.” Speaking to the modalities of the students means that you will show more than you will tell. As you are sharing the food stuffs that originated in Europe, create a huge map (on the whiteboard or smartboard) showing images of the various foods/animals; use arrows or put the items in little ships that are headed towards the new world. Use rhyme and color-coding. Encourage the students to use their hands to reflect the lessons you are presenting, even if it is to draw the map in their notebook and draw or cut out images of the influences from Europe.
At the end of the unit, share that you want to find out what they each understand. There will not be a test to study for; there won’t be a certain way for them to show you what they know. Each of the students will be able to choose a way to share what they have learned with you and the class.
Give them the list of concepts or questions you want them to be able to respond to.
At the same time, give them some ideas for options they can choose from just to prime the pump.
1. Verbally gifted students could choose to do a TV news report or write an article.
2. Interpersonally gifted students could do a TV or radio interview, do a game show where the host asks questions and the contestants answer the questions, etc.
3. Intrapersonally gifted students might choose to create a diary from the point of view of a young person traveling over to the colonies for the first time, recounting their experiences. Or, they might choose to make a scrapbook with cut outs illustrating their entries.
4. Visually gifted students might choose to collaborate on a mural/map complete with key, illustrations, etc. They might elect to create a product using color-coding to show source countries of different plants and animals or customs.
5. Rhythmically gifted students might make up a song or chant or poem or ditty about various aspects of the lesson.
6. Kinesthetically gifted students might create a choreographed play and act out the content of the unit.
7. Logically/Mathematically gifted students might recount the events, focusing on the challenges of the expansion into the Americas and the way these challenges were overcome. They might be interested in the data and numbers surrounding this period in our history. They might create graphs and other numerical charts as a way of sharing data.
The teacher’s rubric must focus not on the means of conveying learning but on whether the substance of the unit was understood and communicated. Did each student show they understood the unit? Did they convey the concepts that were central to the unit?
Consider having a simple rubric for students to use to rate each presentation, prepping them ahead of time to focus on content more than on the means of presentation.
The structure of the rubric should include the major concepts and have a place for rating maybe from 1-4 the excellence of communicating each concept. The student rubric should be simpler and focus on the main elements and the extent to which they were communicated.
Taking it further
As you teach more and more frequently using this model, encourage your students to learn all they can from each other about what each child finds easiest to do. Encourage collaboration, not by teacher-led grouping, but instead by giving the students the liberty of planning future presentations drawing on the skills and gifts of students who are different from themselves. For instance, a visual spatial student could team with a verbally gifted child to create a presentation that showcased both of their abilities. The mathematically gifted child might team with a body/kinesthetically gifted child. The resulting projects would be so diverse and amazing for the class to enjoy as their learning and their understanding expands with each new presentation.
Your students will love learning. I can guarantee it!
Sarah K Major
Sarah's absolute belief in every child’s ability to learn, and her passion to empower the child by supporting his/her own unique giftedness have fueled her life’s work and provided a new pathway for children to succeed academically.