Un-Scary Differentiation #5 – Helping the ‘High-Flyers’

In our drive to support our struggling students, it can be easy to overlook the kiddos who are gifted or above grade level.  One classic strategy that our students aren’t nuts about is having the ‘high flyers’ help the ‘poky puppies.’  (Forgive the labels, but I can’t resist!)  This strategy has its place, but the ‘high flyers’ aren’t really getting anything out of it and can resent the role if overused.  Probably the most often used strategy, though, is doing nothing since our students often let us get away with not challenging them.

In an ideal world, we all have it together enough to regularly analyze data in order to determine groups and then we are magically able to come up with the perfect higher-level assignments for our ‘high flyers’ to do OR we have amazing digital programs that do all of this for us.  In reality, though, there are many of us who either aren’t there yet or we don’t have the resources to do this efficiently.  No matter where you fall, these are some ideas for helping push the rigor for our ‘high flyers,’ whether you’re ready for a big project or want to start small.  For each strategy, I’ve provided a simple and a sophisticated version.

Product Choice Charts – These are great for anyone just getting started with differentiation and they meet the needs of all levels and interests, not just the ‘high-flyers.’  You create a chart that has several options for how students demonstrate their mastery of the same content.  For example, they might be able to choose between writing an essay or story of some kind, creating a model, writing a poem or song, creating a board game, drawing or painting a representation, etc. 

  • Simple version – Make this a low-stakes, extended assignment they work on throughout the week where the only purpose is to enhance learning and encourage creativity.  For the ‘high-flyers’ it turns into something fun they work on when they finish early and they can take it in whichever direction their advanced little minds want to take it!
  • Sophisticated version – If this is serving as a demonstration of mastery, craft each assignment in such a way that all the options are allowing the students to demonstrate/practice the same set of objectives.  And if it’s counting as an assessment or major grade, you’ll need to create a rubric for each option so that grading criteria is clear and fair.  You probably only want to put this much time into the planning if it’s a major unit assignment.

Independent Study (often called ‘compacting’) – For this strategy, you give some sort of pretest before a unit of study and if students show mastery, they are given an alternate, higher-level assignment or project to work on during class while the teacher & the rest of the class does the regular lessons.  This is great to try for units where you have a lot of resources from previous years (or from colleagues!) so that you’re not creating a pretest plus a regular test plus daily lesson plans plus an extensive project that only 2-3 kids will be completing.  It can be a lot!

  • Simple version – I did this with vocabulary every week.  On Friday’s vocabulary quiz, there was a short pretest of the next week’s words at the end.  If kids mastered those new words, they got a different list the next week to work on independently.  This worked well for me since I had most of the materials already made, so I was just making new advanced lists each week.  I also loved this because the students who were repeating the grade were often the ones who mastered the pretest since they’d learned the words last year.  This gave them an opportunity to shine and do the advanced list with some of the ‘high-flyers.’  Quizzes were mostly the students putting all the words into an original story, so it was simple to have students doing this with different word lists and didn’t require me to create extra assessments.  For science and social studies classes this also works since lots of the vocabulary words are the major content for the unit.  If students already know the basic vocabulary (and so concepts) on the pretest, they could research the advanced words on that topic, which would also mean researching the advanced content that that implies.
  • Sophisticated version – I’ve seen science and social studies teachers do this amazingly!  2-3 days before a unit begins, you tell students the major components of the unit and a brief overview of the types of things they’ll have to do to show mastery.  If you use textbooks you can tell them which chapters it will cover.  Then on the first day of the unit, you give a pretest that’s at the same level of rigor as the actual test.  Since they had a couple of days heads-up, students have the opportunity to prepare for the pretest if they choose.  For any students who master the pretest, you give them an independent project that requires them to work on the same content but at advanced levels.  At the end of the unit, they present their project to the class.  For every assessment that occurs during the unit, they simply receive the same grade they received on the pretest since they’ve already shown mastery on the objectives.

Contracts – The basic idea here is that the ‘high-flyers’ have all of the assignments for the week or unit laid out on their contract and they are allowed to work at their own pace through them and they come check in with you as they finish each one and then move right on into the next one.  Typically, they remain with the class for the introduction to new material and then go ahead and work at their own pace through the practice assignments.  Since they often work through the material quickly, there would be enrichment assignments included or an extra project that they would also complete along the way.  Different from independent study, they’re not opting out of any class assignments, just working through things at their own pace.  The contract part comes in because teachers often have them agree to certain terms and behavioral expectations in order to maintain the privilege of working independently. 

  • Simple version – This can be done in a single lesson through the use of a tiered assignment without the need for a contract or separate handouts.  For the students who are quickly catching on, they do a couple of questions in each tier to show you their mastery and then are allowed to jump to the higher-level problems in the advanced tier.  These are the problems other students aren’t required to get to since they’re beyond the target objective.  Click here to read our previous blog post on tiered assignments, if you missed it.
  • Sophisticated version – In this scenario, all the students receive the basic lesson introduction and then the contract kids go ahead and start working through the contract on their own.  Some days they may join the class for lessons, but most days, they are allowed to just work through in their small group or on their own and then move on to the enrichment and higher-level assignments as they finish.  It can take a lot of organization and classroom management skills to do this well.  Also, if some or all of your students are working through their contract assignments for an entire unit, this means you have to have all of the assignments for the entire unit created before the unit begins, which is a massive undertaking, so proceed with caution.  On the other hand, it means all of your planning is basically done before the unit begins, which feels amazing!  This is probably only doable if you’ve taught your content before and so are mostly organizing and tweaking your lessons versus creating them all for the first time.
  • Ultimate version!  One of the most amazing social studies teachers I know (Erin Palkot!) does this and it’s incredible.  Often called ‘layered curriculum,’ ALL of the students are working through a contract for an entire unit.  She has all the assignments created ahead of time AND there are various assignments of varying difficulty for all the major topics of the unit.  Students are together with the teacher for the anchor lessons and new material and then ALL of them work through the contract, choosing which assignments they want to complete for each topic of study.  Since everything is made ahead of time, the teacher spends all of her time during the unit, checking in with students’ progress and giving feedback on assignments as they finish them.  As you can imagine, you need to be super organized in order to keep tabs on where everyone is and making sure they’re all moving forward.  If you have a lot of experience teaching your content, this is a great strategy to try!

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