“While natural, innate talent does exist, developing talent needs enduring and nonstop nurturing to come to a full fruition. Talent is made, not born. A dynamic environment that instills these beliefs into the fabric of the school matters enormously. Jonathan Kozol (2007) believes that knowledge is passed on through instruction and imitation and that that is a testament to the cultural impact of a learning environment that values the untapped talents of each and every person. These are the bedrocks of developing potential and raising students to unknown heights, to unlocking the talent within.” (p. 43)

Fogarty, R. et al. (2018). Unlocking student talent: The new science of developing expertise. New York: Teachers College Press.

Every year, I have a similar conversation with colleagues in the English department lounge: a teacher will read aloud an excerpt from a masterfully crafted essay. Teachers in the audience will oooh and ahhh. The student, once named, will become the subject of many compliments from previous teachers. Then, the current teacher (or sometimes a past teacher) will say something like this: “This is a kid you just leave alone and hope you don’t ruin or send backwards!”

This sentence–and all its varieties–makes me absolutely cringe.

Our job as teachers is to develop our students’ talents, starting at whatever point they come into our classrooms. If we are so concerned about our abilities to help a student grow, we need to think seriously about our role in the situation. But this isn’t a rant about teachers who are misplaced in their teaching assignments. It’s a call to action to work for every student in the room, including the student whose skills might even rival or surpass your own.

We have a little catchphrase in the world of Gifted and Talented education: Don’t be the sage on the stage; be the guide on the side. Many–dare I say most–teachers view themselves as the primary vessels of information and skills to be imparted to students in a carefully measured way. While we may have largely moved away from lecture-style teaching, students are still the recipients of teacher-delivered content.

This works reasonably well for the majority of students. However, it often leaves the exceptional student waiting, stagnating, and even back-sliding (especially if the student is ignored for a long period of time). What do you do to help this student move forward?

  1. Start with a reliable pre-assessment. It astounds me to learn how few teachers use pre-assessments, when it’s such a crucial step to effective planning and instruction! In my AP Language and Composition classes, I like this baseline assessment.
  2. Be honest with yourself and your student. If this student is pushing your skills/knowledge, tell your student. It’s better to acknowledge your limitations and frame the experience as learning together than to try to save face and lose the respect of your student when he or she figures you out (and students almost always figure you out!).
  3. Determine how far away from the class content the student needs to go. Are there still many skills in the unit that the student needs to learn? Prep a few alternative activities, lessons, or readings. Has the student mastered most or all of the content? consider curriculum compacting or a learning contract.
  4. Even if the student is working independently, you must build in time to meet one-on-one during class to check in and do instruction. Do not leave this student alone to his or her own devices! You can and will make a difference for this student, but it takes sustained effort–just like with any other student.
  5. Provide opportunities for the student to take the reins. Allow the student to design the research project or the direction of the learning contract. Your role, then, becomes pointing the student to the resources and methods used in the field. For example, a student might decide to look at the ways language has defined social class in America. You might help the student learn about research through databases like EBSCO, or you might use a tool like the Oxford English Dictionary to learn about etymology. While you might not have specific knowledge of social class and language, you can certainly direct students to these tools and help them develop the skills to use them. This is what we mean by the “guide on the side.”
  6. Go digital with resources like edx. My all-time favorite independent learning contract in my AP Lang class was for two students who ended up working with an open course from Yale. After about eight weeks of working through just a few video lessons (with lots of supports and many of my old notes from college!) the level of original analysis and criticism they generated absolutely floored me.
  7. Build in so many opportunities for metacognition that it feels like overkill. Tangential rant: GT students, generally speaking, make the worst tutors because they often don’t process the same way as their peers. They skip steps mentally, so it’s hard for them to explain steps that others have to take to reach the same conclusion. Make sure your advanced, gifted, and talented students have to slow down and think about their process, not just their products. They might loathe it initially, but it also opens up opportunities to talk about doing this differently. This is where you can introduce imitation exercises, talk about breaking rules, and really start to ask them to synthesize multiple perspectives or procedures. I really like to do this through conversation, so DOK Discussion Cards are helpful starting points.
  8. Consider different measures and standards for growth. If your student has already maxed out your state standards, that’s obviously not an appropriate measure of growth. Make sure you are looking at specific skills/content to develop at any given time. Consider college standards, AP standards, IB rubrics, etc. Also, keep in mind that a widely-accepted standard of growth for advanced/GT students is 1.5x the annual growth of grade-level peers. Without getting into the politics of standardized testing and data analysis, it’s good just to remember that your advanced students should be moving faster and further than your on-level students.

A final thought, with a little tough love sprinkled in: sometimes, I’ve had colleagues balk at this stance. It creates more work–no doubt about it. I get it. Teachers have a ton of work already–now add more layers of lesson and unit plans, individualization, and more?!

All I can say to that is yes. That’s the job. That’s the most important part of the job. Every student in your classroom deserves quality instruction that leads to growth. It might take a little more work up front, but the payoff is worth it. Promise.

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