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Yes, You Can Challenge Your Brightest Students

Who were the brightest, most capable students you’ve ever taught? Can you picture them? Now think about what they did in your class. Were they sufficiently challenged, or did they spend most of their time waiting for the rest of the class to understand concepts they grasped almost immediately?

Bright students need to be challenged
Photo Credit: Orange42 via Compfight cc

While we teachers tend to focus a lot of our time and effort on helping the struggling students, we sometimes neglect the brightest ones. We praise them for their excellent answers and are thankful for their quality work. And we may even throw them a challenge problem from time to time to keep them engaged. But we aren’t really challenging them to use their full potential – at least I wasn’t.

It’s not that we don’t want to challenge these students, but we just don’t have the time or ability to tailor lessons for students at multiple levels. It’s just too much – or is it?

During my fourth year as a middle school math teacher, I had some sixth grade students who were exceptionally bright and were finishing every assignment eons before the rest of the class. I noticed they were spending most of class bored and waiting for the rest of the students. I tried providing worksheets of games and puzzles, and this was somewhat helpful, but it still wasn’t really challenging them.

Then I got an idea. I would create a personalized curriculum for them that would allow them to work at their own pace. They could work as quickly as they were able, learn extra lessons, and complete extra projects.

I know what you’re thinking – “Are you kidding me? I don’t have time to do that for my students!” But I bet you do because this whole process actually took much less time than you would think. You just have to be smart in how you set it up.

You can create a work-ahead program for your brightest students as well. Here’s how:

Step 1: Determine the curriculum for the rest of the class. The work-ahead for your brightest students will be based around the curriculum for the rest of the class, so if you haven’t figured this out yet, you need to do this first. (Or at least do the a  few chapters.) You need to determine what lessons you will teach, what homework you will assign, and what tests and quizzes you will give.

Step 2: Create a checklist of lessons, assignments, quizzes, questions, etc. Take a look right now at this example: Math6 Go-Ahead Chapter 10 Every classroom will be different, but I took my typical pattern of class (teach, practice, homework, quiz) and formatted it so that the students would work on their own. Here’s a few ideas to note:

  • Have students use a notebook to complete all notes and assignments
  • Minimize grading by having students work from the textbook and providing them with the answer key to check their own answers.
  • Add extra sections when possible. Most textbooks have extra sections that we typically don’t have time to cover with the whole class. Add these in.
  • Keep theses form in a folder by your desk. When you grade the rest of the class’s homework on section 10.1, get out this form and record the students’ grades at the same time. This only takes about an extra ten seconds.
  • You don’t have to grade the tests and quizzes when they are taken. You can hold them in a folder until the rest of the class takes the quiz and then grade them all together.
  • Not every assignment the go-ahead students do needs to be graded. Instead, have them turn in their notebooks at the end of each chapter for a grade. You can just flip through quickly and give a grade, which could include extra bonus points if appropriate.
  • Unless you have the same students you taught last year, you will probably want to wait until at least the third chapter to start this program. Your students need to get to know you and how your classroom runs. You also need to get to know your students to determine who would be good candidates.

Step 3: Choose your students. Only rare students will succeed with a program such as this. You can’t just pick any student that gets straight A’s. The student(s) you choose must exhibit all three of these characteristics:

  1. Able to self-teach. The students will be learning these lessons on their own with limited help from you. Students who have lots of questions are not good candidates.
  2. Quick-working. Some students are extremely accurate but take a long time to complete work. These students should not be placed in the go-ahead program as they will become stressed with the extra work. Instead, choose students who are always finishing early and sitting there bored.
  3. Trustworthy. The way I had my go-ahead structured, the students graded their own homework and self-administered their own quizzes. They had to be trustworthy. If you can’t trust a student to work on their own and to be honest, don’t choose them.

Step 4: Explain the process to the students.

  • Assign seats. The students who were working ahead may sit in the back of the room at their own table. They are able to whisper quietly during class as needed. (By the way, having at least two students doing this works much better as they can ask each other for help instead of you.)
  • Explain when they will be working on their own and when they will join the class. My go-ahead students spent most of the class working at their own pace, but they did join the class occasionally.
  • Explain when they can ask you questions. Determine when they can ask you for help, whether it’s a particular time during class, after class, after school, or during lunch. If they are stuck when you aren’t available, they can skip a section and come back to it later.
  • Show them where to get their assignment, keep their worksheet, turn in work, and find answer keys. Designate out-of-the-way parts of your room for these students to keep their paperwork. Make them convenient for you.

Step 5: Reassess. Touch base with the students periodically to see how they are doing. When I did this, I had one student who wasn’t keeping up with the extra work in the go-ahead, so she returned to working with the class. The three students who did stick with the go-ahead ended up absolutely loving it. Two of them finished the book (including all the extra sections) three weeks before school ended. They were able to complete a special project and even give a presentation to the class. All of this with no homework out of class.

A go-ahead plan may seem like a lot of extra work, but the payoff for time invested is huge.

Still a bit unsure about how a go-ahead would work in your classroom? Ask your questions in the comments section.

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    • You’d just want to create a list of tasks/activities/assignments that your students would complete on their own and at their own pace. If you find they’re getting behind & not working fast enough, then just move them back with the rest of thee class. I had that happen with a couple students but a couple others ended up finishing the entire curriculum a couple weeks early (and that’s with a ton of extra enrichment activities added in.) That allowed them to have time to do another fun project.

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