How do you help coach gifted students to become active learners?
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When Passive is the Active Voice in the Room
Recently I helped a teacher respond to a very angry parent, one whose vitriol hammered away as hard as it could at a fantastic staff member. Several long and angry paragraphs got penned via email, in the hopes of proving this teacher was ill-qualified to assess a middle school student.
Why? The student had earned one point less than the full bank of points on a task rubric, a formative task that wasn’t high stakes. The student was not seen or heard during this series of communications.
Yet the student needed to be part of the process. How do we put students front and center in the learning process so that they can develop skills of goal setting, self-advocacy, communication, resourcefulness, and persistence? How do we involve students before these incidents happen, so there is a groundwork and framework for student expectation? When strong emotions are coming at you, or, when you are having your own emotional reaction to being critiqued, focus can easily shift from the student to the adults in the room. It’s crucial we shift the camera back to student skill development.
In the eStudies program for gifted middle and high school students, we integrate the Active Learning Skill in all our course modules and encourage our teachers to coach it. We have identified the behaviors we value and wish to cultivate. We’ve identified what we can coach no matter what is being said elsewhere.
It’s the Perfect Age…And It’s Not About Perfection.
Gifted youth, once they are in middle school, are in a great moment to begin shifting behaviors. After all, as neuroscience tells us, their brains are in a mode that’s malleable. Risk-taking and plasticity are two words we should keep in mind when helping our students become more active learners. If you establish weekly rituals that make space for a conversation about active learning skill development, you can help students see growth in answer to these questions:
- How am I becoming a better self-advocate?
- How am I doing with meeting goals I’ve set?
- How am I communicating well with my teacher regarding my goals and self-advocacy?
- How am I being resourceful before I come to my teacher with questions?
- How am I persisting?
If we are differentiating instruction and curriculum well, we are providing meaningful tiered assessments and metacognitive reflection spaces post-assessment to check in on the answers. If we differentiate, then we provide levels of performance, and we commit to growth, not perfection.
The parent who got mad at our teacher wanted perfection in the grade. We can change the narrative so that when students are with us, we are talking about growth and its evidence, and there is a common language in our classroom community about what success looks like.
How can we set up checkpoints in our classroom practice to ensure we’re providing these coaching moments and opportunities for our students to advocate for themselves and persist toward a goal?
Curriculum and Instruction Check: A Key First Step!
First, did the teacher need to change anything about her practice? In this particular situation, the formative task was meaningful, the rubric was clear and detailed, and the rationale for point deduction based on that deduction was legitimate. The teacher’s instructional skills were on point on the day the task performance occurred. Since it’s my job as supervisor of one of our online programs for gifted students to make sure we don’t have whimsical standards or “gut” responses to behaviors, I checked in with the teacher to make sure there was a reasonable choice in deducting the one point, which she had. The teacher was also invitational and approachable, another key quality we seek as staff build relationships with students in our eStudies program.
So when all things are fine in the world of curriculum and instruction, and major renovations aren’t called for, we can safely say that coaching Student behaviors and habits of mind are what matters most here.
Goal Setting: an Active Learning Skill
Do students have the opportunity to set performance goals and especially before they attempt a new type of task? If you consider that each course probably has, at minimum, four or five types of tasks (discussions, written tasks, multimedia creation tasks, oral presentations, etc.) If students get to establish their personal goals for growth in each task type, they own their progress in a new way. For example: Looking at the 4, or Exemplary level of Active Learning behaviors, or 3, Successful, a student who sets goals in these two levels has a place to return to. Any rubric you’ve designed can use the specifics of the highest levels of performance as something to strive for.
Another goal this process meets is making sure your students actually read the rubrics for your tasks. Five minutes of reflection on a rubric might save everyone questions and confusion later. This reflection process also challenges an educator to pull out models and exemplars, and lead conversations–especially about high-stakes tasks–as to what a 3 or 4 looks like, sounds like, etc. Let’s take a discussion as a task type that will happen often throughout the year, and let’s say 10 points are going to a student’s performance in a discussion every two weeks. Here is the eStudies Live Session (or face-to-face discussion) rubric. (We also offer asynchronous discussion forums.) Note the levels of performance in just this one behavior, and see how a student could review these and set a goal to achieve just one sub-skill at a certain level.
4: The student engages without dominating, distracting, or disappearing. The student observes rules for discussion etiquette and assists in building a sense of community. The student’s presence is crucial to appreciation and extension of others’ ideas.
3: The student may struggle on occasion with staying focused or engaged, but does not dominate or distract.
2: The student may stay on the sidelines, ignore others’ comments when contributing, dominate, or distract.
1: The student does not attend the session or watch the session/complete an alternate assignment.
Reflection: an Active Learning Skill
We want our students to reflect at least once weekly, so they can get a chance to consider where they are showing improvement and where they can improve. We want them to mull over how to implement feedback.
After a task is attempted, students can take 5 minutes (via journal writing, poll, exit tickets) to share where they feel they landed on the rubric, and why. The teacher can use this self-reflection as a launch pad for a one-to-one conversation later whenever there are evaluation points in the term, and/or when grades are reviewed. Having the students’ take on their performance might also be helpful whenever a parent comes knocking.
Resourcefulness, or “Seek First”: an Active Learning Skill
“The student also practices proactive problem-solving strategies by seeking out answers and information before asking for help, from investigation of course concepts to navigation and troubleshooting within an online environment.”eStudies Active Learning Skill Rubric
Resourcefulness and the skills of intrepid investigation are invaluable. What jobs don’t require these skills nowadays?
Every time students attempt a new type of task in your class, consider making space for a quick conversation about resourcefulness.
- What resources and materials will I need to do this task?
- What should I do if I run into an obstacle?
- Who are our people resources during this process? (peers, teachers, adult resources inside and outside of our school community)
- What are our print and digital resources for this process?
- What are the problem-solving steps I ought to follow before reaching out to other resources?
- What does success look like when it comes to being resourceful?
Setting even five minutes aside as a dress rehearsal for the sub-skill of resourcefulness can help students approach the discrete skills they must soon practice.
Communication: an Active Learning Skill
It’s hard to be 12 or 13 years old and to approach or write your teacher. There is a power difference, and there aren’t always the words to capture the confusion, emotion, and questions a student has.
Do you have a bank of questions you welcome, and language to help students approach you? Sometimes giving students a worksheet of questions you welcome can be the most helpful guide they’ll have all year.
This can remain a dynamic document, where you compliment the questions you receive and call out the creators as they ask them. “See how Lakeisha inquired about how long this task might take, so she can better plan her homework time? That’s very resourceful and proactive. Total problem solver right there! I recommend some of you think like Lakeisha’s doing…It will have tremendous payoff in terms of organization!”
A question bank also helps you because you will see there are “seek first” steps embedded in some of these asks, asking a student to invest in the process before they talk to you. You also see that some of these questions require that you be ready with meaningful answers.
- I looked at the assignment and all the steps. I don’t understand step number four. Could you help with that one? What does “synthesize” mean?
- I see I earned 10 out of 20 points on the rubric. I don’t understand why you deducted three points for critical thinking. Can you show me what good critical thinking looks like on this assignment?
- I did some research from the research project but I’m stuck. I went to these books and websites. Can you give me some advice on where I should go next?
Persistence: a Soft Skill That’s Hard to Coach
Teachers are coaches, and a student’s intrinsic motivation, interest in the subject, skill level, past school experiences, personality, home environment, sense of well-being, relationship to you and the classroom community, and many other factors all inform how persistent they are. As educators we know we have a lot to wrangle in ourselves alone to tackle a task we’re not enamored with. Helping our students become aware of the challenges to overcome, and also think positively about the strengths they have, as well as times they have persisted, can help you coach them towards greater tenacity.
If you haven’t yet had conversations about persistence, grit, or growth mindset in your classroom, consider some of these strategies:
- Be transparent and clear about what persistence looks like, and ask students to help you define it using personal examples. (“The time I wrote a poem, and kept changing things in it till I got it as good as I can.” or “The time I stayed late after practice three weeks in a row till I could make that tackle.”) Share anecdotes and admiration for your heroes and sheroes of persistence. Talk honestly about your struggles with staying on course and how you’ve fought various impulses to give up, cut corners, or ignore a task.
- Ask students to check in with personal persistence stories of success, unrelated to your class topics, and celebrate the skills and standards of “sticking with it.”
- Ask students to preview what aspects of this task might require special persistence.
- Ask students to share in pair or group conversations their success stories of persistence, and invite compliments during critique sessions where persistence is noted.
- If you already have grades or criteria for effort and persistence, great! If you don’t, what would it take to create a space for feedback and assessment in this area?
In an ideal world, every parent would
- ask their child to approach the teacher with questions
- coach the student through any feelings about point loss
- help the student reflect on their performance on a regular basis
- help the student set goals and develop strategies for persistence
Since we’re teaching the child first, what we can be active about is our own practice of initiating teacher-to-student and also student-to-student conversations about all these skills. We can encourage a growth mindset, and we can coach and model persistence in the face of challenges. We can help our students see their progress and their potential to be active learners who take charge of their own lives.