By Tricia Ebner, M.S. Ed., NBCT
In many ways, it sounds like a dream situation for a teacher: my sixth grade language arts students arrived in my room in August 2015 eager to read, share their thoughts, and deeply analyze what they were reading. Our initial work, reading nonfiction articles and synthesizing information from across sources, almost seemed too easy for them. When I administered our district-wide reading assessment a week or so later, their scores confirmed the observations I was making: my sixth grade students were reading at a pretty high level.
Before I get much further in this story, I need to explain that I teach gifted and talented students in a self-contained language arts class. The students in my class are identified as superior cognitive and/or specific academic-reading, according to Ohio’s current operating standards for gifted. Most of the time, my students’ reading skills are strong, and often their writing, and speaking skills are as well. This year’s sixth graders, however, were demonstrating skills beyond what I had expected.
This posed a challenge for me. The units and lessons I had anticipated implementing weren’t going to be enough of a stretch for my students. I needed something else, something different, to spark their interest and motivate them while taking on more challenging text. Of course, one of the biggest challenges teachers face when finding reading materials for gifted kids is finding socially, emotionally appropriate materials for the age of the students while still challenging them intellectually.
As I considered my students’ strengths and needs, it was clear I needed to shorten one of our common units so that I could get my sixth graders working with something that allowed us to use more challenging, yet socially-emotionally appropriate, text. Many of my students have a strong interest in science, and several are interested in issues surrounding both science and people. I turned to some of my favorite resources: achievethecore.org, engageny.org, louisianabelieves.com, and Literacy Design Collaborative. All four of these sites have wonderful units integrating fiction and nonfiction, embedding a variety of sources and resources in the learning. Writing, speaking, and listening skills are also naturally integrated in their lessons and units. They’ve proven to be great springboards for work with my students in the past. It didn’t take me long to discover a nonfiction unit on EngageNY focused around the issues of fish depletion, based on the book World without Fish by Mark Kurlansky. The unit paired a study of this text with reading Carl Hiaasen’s novel Flush. The reading and work didn’t explore only environmental concepts; it also addressed the skills and strategies needed to identify an author’s perspective on a topic or issue. This kind of high-level thinking is exactly what I wanted to pursue with my students. After reading the texts, I knew this would be the kind of unit that could engage my sixth graders and push their literacy skills forward.
I took several steps to implement the unit. First, I carefully read through the entire unit, so that I had a clear sense of the kinds of skills and tasks students would face. I discussed my findings with my coordinator for gifted services, using her knowledge and expertise as a sounding board to ensure that my own enthusiasm for the study wasn’t clouding my judgment about its appropriateness for my students. Finally, to keep my building administrators informed about the resources I was planning to use for instruction, I asked my assistant principal (a former ELA teacher herself) to take a look at the two key texts and give me feedback. When I had approval and support from them, I ordered the books and began preparing materials.
As the unit began, I was constantly making adjustments in pacing. We often got into deeper discussions than what the unit called for. This required me to make adjustments, as we often do in our classrooms, so that I could best address student needs and maintain interest in the work. One of the common assessments we use in our sixth grade language arts classes is an argumentative essay, so I needed to integrate this kind of work into our studies, even though the full unit doesn’t call for a formal academic argumentative essay. It wasn’t difficult to do; the topics and issues were a natural fit for forming claims around the causes of fish depletion.
Overall, this solution has worked well. We aren’t actually finished with the unit yet; students are in the midst of writing their informative consumer guides, providing shoppers with information they need in order to make informed decisions about what fish to buy at the local grocery store. It’s been interesting to see how students have embraced their learning in this unit; one shared how she didn’t realize her mom was buying orange roughy for family dinners so she talked about what she’s learned about the depleted orange roughy population. Several others commented that as Lent progressed, they noticed a number of fast food restaurants in our area offering North Atlantic Cod sandwiches. The students have an increased awareness of their own eating habits, and as our work has continued, they are seeing that solutions aren’t as simple as, “Just stop fishing.”
From an academic perspective, the students’ reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking skills are also growing. Now I hear more self-direction within their cooperative learning groups. They are taking responsibility for inviting everyone to contribute to discussion and redirecting themselves back to the task at hand. Their writing pieces have stronger introductions and conclusions, an area we have struggled with all year long. Now when I ask for an author’s perspective or point of view in a paper, I get a much deeper response than “first-person,” and they have evidence ready to support their responses. Recently students took their third and final district-wide reading assessment, and overall the scores reflect increasing reading skills.
When faced with this situation in the future, I want to take these same steps. While it took over two months to move from identifying the challenge to making the final decision to implement this unit, the students’ learning and growth in the last two months has shown it was time well spent. These steps aren’t unique to meeting the needs of gifted children. Considering the evidence available on our students and then matching our materials and instruction to their strengths, needs, and interests is a surefire way to support student learning and growth.