Conceptualizing Differentiated Curriculum for the Gifted

The gifted education coordinator for the Newberry School District meets with teachers regarding the level of challenge provided for advanced and gifted learners. Gifted education specialists at the elementary and high schools work with teachers on a curriculum-writing project to develop concept-based units of study.

The Newberry School District contemplates changes in curriculum design for advanced students. The district coordinator of gifted education heads an initiative to develop a concept-based format for curriculum in grades K-12.

The superintendent has declared that the mission of the school district is to address the state curriculum standards as minimum requirements for students.The Newberry School District wants to create a culture of learning that promotes continuous progress for all students.Simultaneously, the superintendent has issued an edict that no child is left behind as part of the national focus on literacy. It is up to the school leaders to find ways that both initiatives can succeed.

Mr. Augustine heads the initiative.

George Augustine, the district coordinator for gifted education, is leading an initiative to raise the level of challenge for curriculum and instruction for advanced learners. With a three-year long emphasis on minimum-based standards of student performance across the state, some teachers have shifted their focus to struggling learners. Mr. Augustine reports that many parents are complaining that the above-average students are often waiting for other students to catch-up before teachers move on to new areas of study. In fact, some of the parents of gifted learners complain that their children are being used as peer tutors for students having difficulty mastering basic knowledge and skills.While helping other students, the gifted learners are not allowed to continue to move at a pace commensurate with their learning needs. Some students accept this role while others are frustrated and disillusioned with coursework.

Mr. Augustine carefully selects a handful of highly motivated, dedicated, and open-minded teachers at each grade-level to start the project. If these teachers are successful, it is hoped that they will work with their colleagues in a trainer-of-trainer professional development model. Although they are the best of the best, it is clear that George has a challenge before him.

“I’d like to introduce you to the topic of concept-based teaching and learning.” George places a transparency on the overhead projector.

Purpose of concept-based curriculum transparency.

Mr. Augustine continues, “Our goal is to teach the minimum curriculum standards developed at the state and district levels while also providing learning experiences that allow all students to learn at a pace and rate commensurate with their learning needs, including advanced learners. Frankly, a largely factual curriculum is not necessarily appropriate for any student and certainly does not lead to sophisticated learning for our highest level of learners.”

One of the teachers comments, “Yes, I know what you mean.� I sometimes feel guilty spending an extra day or two working on a topic or skill with my students because many of them need more practice.� The few who don’t need practice really don’t get much out of those lessons.”

Mr. Augustine responds, “Yes, I agree behavior problems may ensue.� But let’s find alternatives to helping others so that students can pursue deeper understandings, broader ideas, and work with problem solving around big issues.� I think you’d all agree that some of your students are yearning for more…but what’s more?� I think we want to go for something rigorous, engaging, and commensurate with students advanced level of learning rather than spending more time with mastered material with extra drill and practice or having advanced learners tutor other students.”

Mr. Augustine relays a story, hoping to win further support.� He tells of attending a regional meeting of the state supported Governor’s Schools for the Gifted. ï¿½One teacher there shared a story that seemed representative of many classrooms.�

See a description of state Governor’s Schools for the gifted below:

The tenth-grade biology teacher said that she had spent years—more than 5—developing a rigorous and advanced curriculum for her students.The teacher held a doctorate in biology and worked with several college level faculty in developing her year-long curriculum.Students responded well and worked at very sophisticated levels initially.� However, after 10 years of minimum student performance standards guiding regular classroom teachers’ instruction, the teacher found that even the gifted students were not sufficiently prepared for advanced studies. She found students had little practice with problem solving, higher level thinking, and advanced writing skills. This led her to believe that minimal standards had dumbed-down the curriculum enough to stop nurturing the advanced abilities of gifted learners.

The need for change is clear. The group is ready to begin. Mr. Augustine informs the teachers that further work sessions will be broken down by grade level. His first session will be this week with the twelfth-grade advanced studies teachers at Dodge High School.

George Augustine meets the faculty at Dodge High School to discuss increasing the rigor of the curricula for above-average and advanced students.Challenge in both the twelfth grade history and literature courses needs to be enhanced for gifted learners.

Mr. Augustine greets the history and literature teachers at the high school bright and early one morning. He welcomes everyone and asks if there are any questions or comments about the purpose of the curriculum writing project.

One of the teachers asks a question, “Mr. Augustine, I think we’d all agree there’s a reason to pursue a different curriculum format.� We have all talked about the �glass ceiling’ the current curriculum places on advanced learners.� I guess what I’m saying is, we’re all with you on the rationale.� However, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t completely understand what concept-based curriculum means.”

Mr. Augustine replies, “A great question, Beth.� Let’s start with some definitions.”

He places a transparency with several terms defined on the overhead.

See definitions transparency below:

Beth continues.� “I’m a little confused because the state curriculum guide outlines �concepts’ for each unit of study but none of them fit the definition you have there.”

Mr. Augustine places a list of topics and concepts in front of the teachers.� “The state curriculum documents contain discipline specific concepts rather than universal concepts. These concepts fit neatly into specific disciplines or have different meanings for different disciplines.� On the other hand, universal concepts have the same meaning and apply to three or more disciplines similarly.”

“The textbooks I find available don’t begin to include concepts, but rather contain mostly facts.� So where will we find the concepts to teach?” asked another teacher.

Mr. Augustine responds, “Most textbooks contain topics rather than concepts.� We want to use universal concepts that are developed through each of your subject areas. I would suggest that you select concepts that are rich in meaning in the discipline that you teach in order to promote complex and sophisticated learning beyond basic facts. Teaching these concepts will help student learn the basic skills, understandings, and ideas necessary to satisfactorily master material for required tests as well as guide more complex learning.

See list of concepts versus topics below:

The English department head begins work on the new poetry unit.

The head of the English department and instructor for the advanced literature studies course starts, “Well, let’s give it a try.� How about we work on an American poetry unit.� We’ve all discussed its existing inadequacies.� I believe there are implications for history as well.”

John Doyle, the only history teacher present follows, “I appreciate that.� Certainly I want to be a part of this, but without the assistance of a departmental colleague, I don’t want to try an entire unit on my own.� I’d be glad to develop a complimentary lesson to be covered in my course.”

Mr. Augustine adds, “That sounds great.� I’m going to let you begin work, but I’m here to help in any way that I can.”

The work begins. After 5 meetings and a lot of individual work, a unit on Romantic poetry emerges.

See an overview of the Romantic Poetry Unit below:

*Related Web Sites:

The Romantics Unbound: A Hypertexual Learning Space

The William Blake Archive

Romantic Circles Scholarly Resources

Voice of the Shuttle: English Literature

The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill

Pre-Raphaelites: An Introduction (George Landow, Brown University)

Pre-Raphaelite Passion


Poem Analysis Guides (Glor. of Commonplace)

Assignment for Group One (Nature)
Assignment for Group Two (Nature)
Amended Schedule (Nature)

Product Checklist (Pre-Raphaelites)

Romantic Poetry Final Assessment Rubric

*Supplemental Resources:

Abrams, M. H. (1993).� The Norton anthology of English literature. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

See one lesson from the unit differentiated by product and process below:

See one lesson from the unit differentiated by content below:

See a means for assessing learning for the Romantic Poetry Unit below:

*Related Web Sites:

IGAP Expository Scoring Guide

The Romantics Unbound: A Hypertexual Learning Space (great resource for this assessment, provides information about Romantics and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood including great photos of the paintings)

The William Blake Archive

Romantic Circles Scholarly Resources

Voice of the Shuttle: English Literature

See a rubric for evaluating the Romantic Poetry Unit assessment below:

Although the teachers are pleased with the work they have accomplished, they are exhausted. How will they find time to implement this?

The gifted education specialist at Washington Elementary School meets with the second-grade teachers to develop a more challenging curricular approach for identified gifted learners. The teachers begin with one lesson in a concept-based unit.

One week after the introductory session, the second-grade team of teachers meet to begin their own work. This group of teachers is ready to begin but lacking a starting point. The gifted education specialist leads. She begins with a unit that each of them teaches—Ancient Egypt. She decides to share her own concept-based lesson from her second-grade pull-out sessions.

See pull-out concept-based lesson below:

Related Web Sites:

Supplemental Resources:

Andronik, C. M., & Fiedler, J.D. (2001). Hatshepsut, His Majesty, Herself. Atheneum. Reading Level: 9-12.
Carter, D. S., Chessare, M., & Carter, D. M. (1987). His Majesty, Queen Hatshepsut. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins Publishers. Reading Level: Young Adult.
Greenblatt, M. (2000). Hatshepsut and Ancient Egypt (Rulers and Their Times). Benchmark Books. Reading Level 9-12.

After looking at the lesson, the teachers are impressed. On the one hand, they are pleased to learn that their most advanced students are able to work at such complex levels. On the other hand, they are concerned by the sophistication of the content. The teachers are not sure if their students can successfully complete this work. They all wonder if it is fair to ask them to do so.

One of the classroom teachers shares a story. “You all know that I have a student teacher this semester.� The other day she was reading one of our required readings to the children, Bring the Rain to Kapiti Plain. As you all know I have students of all ability levels in my classroom this year. They are all over the place. My student teacher used whole-group instruction as the primary format for teaching this diverse group. After reading this beautiful African folktale about the circle of life, she asked where the story had taken place.� Of course the students don’t know directly from the story, but rather, have to deduce this information from the clues in the story.� When the student teacher asked the class, �Where might this story have taken place?’ only one student responded.� Jeremy indicated that he thought the story came from upper Africa because of the drought depicted in the story and the dark skin of the characters. Another student added that they were wearing clothes that looked like sundresses. When she asked the children who spoke to tell her how they arrived at their ideas, Jeremy noted that there were many clues about the people’s culture.”

Jeremy answers correctly.

“Wow,” says one of the new teachers, “culture is a difficult concept to understand.� It is one that fits into many of our units of study in second grade.”

The gifted education teacher suggests that if teachers worked on one concept and accompanying generalizations all year long, more complex learning like that illustrated in this example could take place. The goal is to encourage it for more than just one student.

See sample concepts and generalizations below:

The teachers wonder what concept could be taught that will have students engaged all year long.

“How about culture?” suggests the young teacher.

Another teacher remarks, “Yes, I like culture, but that’s really raising the level of expectation for second-graders, don’t you think?”

“Not only is this complex, but time consuming.�� I don’t see how we’ll fit it in with the other topics,” adds a colleague.

Another teacher notes, “I think that students rise to the occasion.� If we raise our expectations, they will follow.� If we spend less time in over-learning the same basic curricula, we’ll have more time for bigger ideas.”

Their work begins. They decide to raise the bar in their Egypt unit using concepts. The work is moving slowly.

George Augustine attends a meeting of the districts’ principals to discuss concept-based curriculum.� The administrators have many concerns about the format despite teachers beginning to buy into the process.

George Augustine reports on his concept-based curriculum initiative at the monthly meeting of district building administrators.

Mr. Augustine shares a brief overview of the projects’ progress and some of the curriculum being developed.� He is enthusiastic and encouraged by the teachers’ efforts.

George is stunned at what follows. For the next hour administrators bombard George with questions about the concept-based approach. Many of the questions deal with logistics, while others are more critical.

Where will “this” curriculum come from?�

What materials will teachers use for guided practice?

Will other teachers use the curricula that only a handful of teachers have developed?

When will teachers have time to teach these lessons?

Will struggling learners suffer while students more able to master the material get “extra” attention?

How would teachers assess this type of learning?

What about the core curriculum standards?� Who has decided we don’t have to teach them anymore?

What am I going to tell parents about this initiative?

Mr. Augustine leaves feeling overwhelmed.� He needs to identify the key issues leading to today’s discussion and find a way to address them. There is a lot at stake.