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The Gift of Independent Learning Projects

By Tamara Fisher — June 18, 2013 5 min read
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Regular and semi-regular readers of this blog have probably noticed over the years that for my middle and high school gifted students, I offer a class (“Advanced Studies”) through which they can pursue self-selected, self-directed, independent learning projects and other opportunities. [I suppose the current in-vogue term for what they do is “passion-based learning,” but I started them through this process long before (sixteen years before) I’d ever heard the term. And in the world of gifted education, many would call it a Type III, to which there are large similarities and, in fact, my Masters work at UConn under Joseph Renzulli, who coined the term, did influence portions of how I configure the opportunity.] It’s an amazing process to see the kids undergo, in part because it requires them to make decisions they haven’t had to make before (because typically the teacher has always been making those decisions). This decision-making aspect has amazed me over the years, as I’ve discovered some kids have come to rely on the teachers making so many of those decisions, even little ones like whether their poster should be oriented vertically or horizontally. The process they undergo encourages, nurtures, and even forces them to shoulder much more of the responsibility for their learning and final products. Additionally, they have to figure out how to organize their ideas, theories, problem solving strategies, materials, schedule, and troubleshooting. It’s a blank slate. Yes, I’m around for guidance and assistance. Yes, whatever they do does have to be legal, appropriate to school, and have academic value, but essentially it is a blank slate. And for gifted kiddos who have w i d e l y unusual interests, talents, and ambitions (learning Latin, studying coccidiosis, trying to determine a “formula” for time travel, starting a web design business at age 16, taking college courses at age 15 in an effort to earn an early high school diploma AND an Associate’s Degree both within the same three-year window, etc.), the class gives them the opportunity to fulfill those aspirations within school, whereas otherwise it is only in their dwindling free time that they can.

A few years back, the gifted education teacher from a town a couple hours south of us came to shadow me and my students to learn about the process of opening this type of opportunity for her middle school students. She went back and implemented it with awesome results. At the end of the year, there’s always a showcase where the kids can display and demonstrate what they have learned and done. This year, she and I were each able to take our students to the others’ showcase, and doing so was a hit with the kids. After my students and I returned from their showcase, I asked each of them, before they got off the bus, to tell me something they had learned or realized from the experience of seeing the other kids’ work. They said,

“I realized we aren’t the only kids in the world who are like we are.”

“I discovered I wasn’t the only one who ran into huge obstacles while doing my project.”

“It occurred to me that a secret nagging thought I’ve been having is right: I have more effort within me that I could apply to my project.”

“I learned some new programming techniques from that kid who also learned about programming.”

“I feel inspired to ‘go bigger’ next time!”

“I helped a boy solve a problem he’d encountered making his project and it made me think how good I’ve gotten at analyzing and troubleshooting by doing that on my project.”

“I think I made a new friend.”

Here are some photos from both events:

In this first photo, one of my students who learned about programming looks over the shoulder of an HMS student who is showing what he created using the programming language he learned.

And then, two weeks later at our showcase, here is the same HMS boy (post-haircut!) checking out my same student’s programming project.

...followed by my student’s little sister checking out his programming lessons, too.

Some of my students are among the crowd enjoying eye-opening learning opportunities in the town south of us.

One of my students talks with HMS students about the swing bike that he designed and built.

Someone checks out the novel that one of my students wrote, revised, illustrated, and re-wrote (over the course of three total semesters), and then self-published. An autographed copy is now available in our high school library for check-out.

Another of my students demonstrates beading technique.

A community member (who happens to co-run our local live theater) examines the saxophone part for the song that one of my 6th graders composed for his school band to play.

A young attendee examines this student’s origami snowy owl and the hand pumps that push air through wooden pipes hidden in the cage’s base to make a “who-who” sound.

One of my high school students prepares to demonstrate for the HMS students his remotely-robotic, battery-operated, air-compressed originally-it-was-going-to-be-a-battlebot-not-sure-what-it-is-now!

(For interest sake, this is what it looked like at the beginning of the year. The rods came from the frames of two old futons. Most of the rest of the parts were secondhand as well.)

The students who came to view our displays and demonstrations enjoyed connecting and re-connecting with my students that they’d met a couple weeks earlier at their showcase. Additionally, their teacher is hoping to expand the class into the high school, so her 8th graders who came were particularly excited to gain ideas of how they could take the opportunity even further at that level. For me, I love seeing kids, teachers, and parents at my school, this school south of us, and elsewhere realize what I realized soon after opening this door for my students: even our most capable students are capable of so much more than we know. That is, we don’t know just how capable they are until and unless we cut them loose and let them show us. This summer, contemplate ways you can cut your learners loose next year!

And finally, the setting sun as seen through the (sorry, dirty) school bus window as we headed north on our return trip...

The opinions expressed in Unwrapping the Gifted are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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