Devising a dynamic curriculum
Cindy also likes playing the role of facilitator. "Students spend a good part of their day working directly with me, doing projects that they've chosen. As a facilitator, I try to help them formulate their plans, and work with them to chart how they're going to progress through their research." She describes it as "kind of a mutual effort. Our students are often teaching us!" This has been particularly true when it comes to technology. "I've learned a great deal about computers and specific software programs from many of my students," Cindy reports. "We always operate on the philosophy that the teacher doesn't have to have all the answers."
Teaching gifted students, in Cindy's words, allows her to "go much deeper into things, rather than teaching things on the basic knowledge level and hoping to get to the application level." Even the basic knowledge among her students tends to be more advanced, which frees up class time to discuss big-picture issues. "For example, when we started an astronomy unit, I had kids who had already thought about such intense questions as, 'What is the shape of the Universe? Where is the edge of the Universe? Is the Universe going to end?' I love that," Cindy says, "because I have to keep thinking, and I can say, 'I don't know,' and they can go look it up. Some teachers don't want to say that out of fear of losing control, but I think it's the other way around. In my experience, kids can lose respect for you for not admitting you don't know all the answers."
Tackling a new topic: genetics
Keeping up with the science itself is another challenge, and not only for teachers of gifted children. Staying current is essential, "because there's no way to deal with genetics in the classroom unless you know the facts yourself," Cindy points out, adding that it's not easy to find good, condensed, accurate information at a basic level. She recommends teachers use science magazines, Discover in particular, and also suggests that teachers try to find another teacher with a real interest in the subject with whom to collaborate. "If you do, you might convince the school to let you do a little team-teaching, which will give you a little more time and support to delve into this new and constantly changing science."
When assessing basic knowledge about cloning during a mini-debate in her class last year, Cindy realized that the kids had encountered a lot of misinformation. "They thought that cloning meant that an identical person was suddenly standing beside you. That's one of the challenges of working with really bright kids: they can be too quick to assume they've figured out how something works." In this situation, the teacher's first task is to explore what the students already know. "We'll have a big discussion where I ask questions like, 'What do you know about genes?' 'Ever heard of a chromosome?'" says Cindy. "I often throw in a little teaching in the process, but I get a lot of feedback on where to begin. Then I provide materials and/or activities at the appropriate level."
Addressing the ethical issues
Finding and creating resources
Much of Cindy's teaching also incorporates the Internet. She has worked on creating a "webquest" on the subject of genetics, which could be used by one student or a group of students working together. Webquest is a basic design format for online interactive learning, which Cindy learned about through a Seminars on Science class offered through the AMNH and Connected University. "It takes kids beyond using the computer simply as a resource, like an encyclopedia, towards really using it as a teaching toola structured environment, usually focused around a problem or simulation," she explains. "Typically, the teacher compiles a list of Web sites of value where kids can get the right information, then asks the students to find information that can inform their answer to the question." In Cindy's webquest, for example, students are advising their Congressman or Congresswoman of their concerns about the implications of genetic research. A webquest also worked very well when Cindy studied mythology with third graders, who worked in groups of two or three. "They were very excited about using the computers and the Internet; they loved the subject; and they loved putting the PowerPoint together," she recalls. "It was a fairly new skill for most of them." Webquests also work well for mainstream children, and kids can often put the finished product on line.
Connecting with curiosity about life itself
One reason Cindy likes working with elementary school kids is that they're still ready and willing to ask a lot of questions. "I love the 'what if' questions that shows the students are really challenging their ideas, and genetics is full of that kind of thinking," she says. Cindy goes on to say that, "Genetics is a rich topic, with plenty of depth, complexity, and abstraction. I hope that by introducing and studying this and other complex topics, I encourage students to continue to ask questions and seek their own answers, long after their short time with me in the classroom."
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