Special Education

Reporter’s Notebook

March 21, 2001 4 min read
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Educators Swap Tips on Finding and Serving Gifted Students

Educators received pointers on how to differentiate their instruction to address the needs of youngsters of varying ability levels at a recent conference focusing on strategies for teaching gifted students.

At the March 7-10 conference here, sponsored by the Center for Gifted Education at the College of William and Mary, differentiated instruction was cited by several speakers as part of the answer to meeting gifted students’ needs. The center’s annual National Curriculum Network Conference focused this year on the theme “Seeking Excellence in Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment.”

Differentiation, the use of varied teaching techniques to serve students of different ability levels within the same class, can help prevent gifted students who are taught within regular classes from underachieving, explained Carol Ann Tomlinson, an education professor at the University of Virginia. It can also be useful in classes of all gifted students, because some may excel in some subjects but struggle in others, she said.

Carol Ann Tomlinson

“Differentiation is a teacher’s response to a learner’s needs,” said Ms. Tomlinson, who gave a keynote speech on differentiation. “It allows the kids who ‘get it’ to move ahead, and the kids who need help to get the help.”

Successful differentiation depends on assigning respectful tasks for all levels of learning, she added.

“You don’t want to give a blithering-idiot task that is recognizable as a blithering-idiot task,” she said. “The kids doing the task will resent it, and the kids doing the more challenging task will resent it because they have to work harder.”


When asked to draw in nine blank circles on a page, many students will draw in smiley faces, or sunshine.

But one student might color in a mountaintop as seen through a telescope. Based on sheer creativity, that student may be considered gifted.

Students’ abilities are not always apparent in the daily classroom, an obstacle to identifying members of racial or ethnic minorities or other students who are underrepresented in programs for the gifted, said Mary Cay Ricci, an instructional specialist for the Montgomery County, Md., public schools.

One way to find gifted students is to ask their peers, Ms. Ricci said during a session here on identifying underrepresented students in gifted education.

In Montgomery County, Ms. Ricci said, schools distribute a questionnaire to students that asks: Who in your class can always think of new things to play or new things to do? Which boys and girls in your class are really smart? Who is funny and makes up a lot of jokes?

“Teachers may not think it’s a positive thing for a student to make jokes,” she said. “But it may be a sign of creativity, cleverness, and observational skill.”

If a student’s name comes up even once as an answer to those questions, he or she is on the radar screen as being potentially gifted, Ms. Ricci said.

The 134,000-student Montgomery County district has developed a program aimed at identifying students who are potentially gifted for further observation and nurturing. The program is now being run at schools in the county where at least 30 percent of students are members of minority groups.

Under the Program of Assessment, Diagnosis, and Instruction, or PADI, students are given a battery of diagnostic tests that includes reasoning, problem solving, and creativity.

Students identified as potentially gifted are assigned to separate PADI classes, where they are further observed by teachers. The program has proved helpful in identifying gifted minority students, Ms. Ricci said.

For information on the PADI program, call Ms. Ricci at (301) 279-3163 or visit the school system’s Web site at: www.mcps.k12.md.us/departm ents/eii/padi.


Teacher Lisa Walker, who works with gifted children in the 77,300-student Virginia Beach, Va., school system, sees parents as an essential part of gifted education. So she tries to draw them in with career days, cups of coffee, and invitations to come along on field trips.

“I’ll write them a thank-you note for coming,” Ms. Walker said of parents who chaperone field trips. “Then they are hooked. My parents take such good care of me because I take care of them.”

Ms. Walker joined other speakers at the conference in portraying parents as a vital resource, who can help reinforce class lessons at home, push for greater resources for gifted education, and provide a natural pool of volunteers.

During her talk, “Parent Advocacy for Gifted Children,” Ms. Walker said she phones parents to tell them about their children’s breakthroughs in class. She also has set up a small room, equipped with a pot of coffee, where parents can read up on gifted education. And she likes to offer lessons that foster better relationships between students and parents, such as career days for parents to share information about their jobs. “That really helped [the children] to see their parents as people.” she said.

Ms. Walker said she also encourages parents to meet and lobby at the state or district level for more money for gifted education.

—Lisa Fine

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A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as Reporter’s Notebook

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