Students Learning To Think Critically

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Nurturing gifted children poses a challenge in a world where the politics of testing meet limited funding and -- especially in small districts like in Payson -- size limits possibilities.

Creating a magnet school, for instance, usually only works for larger districts, as Superintendent Casey O'Brien explained at a recent school board meeting.

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Mrs. Jones counsels Skylar Vela as he searches for an answer in math class at Frontier Elementary School.

But administrators and teachers agree that gifted students must be adequately challenged.

To meet that challenge, Frontier Elementary School has formed clusters in two of its classes. The first-year pilot program concentrates groups of gifted, average and lower-achieving students in one classroom.

Pam Jones teaches a clustered class of third- and fourth-graders at Frontier Elementary. Jones has a master's of education with a gifted endorsement.

Strategies like pre-testing help Jones determine which students know what lessons, and which students still need teaching.

"Last week we pre-tested on the first chapter in math. This weekend, I went through all the scores and the standards," Jones said. "If they know it, they don't have to sit in on the lesson. If they don't know it, then they all participate."

For students who demonstrate previous knowledge, Jones gives them an "extension activity." The activity could range from a computer math program that accelerates learning to an open-ended writing assignment.

Rather than calling the education program individualized, Jones says it's "open-ended." Students can integrate their own interests into their lessons. "That's part of the taking charge of their own learning and making some of those decisions."

Jones even has a piano in her classroom, and said she is working to bring artists from Payson Art League to teach promising young artists.

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Skylar Vela and Camryn Faust are students in Mrs. Jones' math class at Frontier Elementary School. Jones strives to nurture critical thinking in her classes.

"We're not just going to ask what, when, where. We're going to go further," said Paula Patterson, Frontier's principal.

On Friday morning, a mathematics "scavenger hunt" was the lesson at hand. Students had to figure the answer to the question in the first column, then determine where the number fit into second column.

For instance, students needed to subtract 22 from 47 in the first column to determine an answer of 25, then realize, in the second column, that 25 is a quarter of a century.

At the end of the lesson, the only second-column category left was palindrome, which happened to be the word of the day. The first-column question asked students to add 100 + 1, for an answer of 101. The number, Jones told students, was the same, forward or backward. That made it a palindrome.

Jones dissected the word ‘palindrome' to teach the kids its Greek meaning -- palin, which means again, and dromos, which means running.

Eve, a student, pointed out that her name was also a palindrome. "Eve, you're so bright," Jones congratulated her.

"We're still doing the standards," Jones later said. "But the learning and thinking is often outside the box."

The students in Jones' class are not separated by ability levels in the seating arrangement. She adds, "It's funny, some of the kids who are responding the most aren't even ‘gifted.' All the students get excited about learning."

Friday's lesson integrated the whole group, but Jones said, "it's not like that all the time."

Many math classes are more individualized. In reading, students can pick their own books or sign up for a literature group. It's also possible to test out of the slated spelling list, which would open a child to picking his own list.

"We want to go deeper and broader," Jones said.

To be considered gifted, a student at Frontier must score in the 97th percentile in the Cognitive Abilities Test. A cognitive test explores a child's ability to think critically, as opposed to an aptitude test that evaluates knowledge.

Students can also qualify as gifted by scoring high on the standardized Arizona Institute to Measure Standards test. But, Jones noted, those scores aren't received until the summer. The cognitive test is administered twice a year, and is the basis for placement in the pilot clusters.

Though the district receives extra money from the state to educate gifted children, most of the money comes from the general fund. Funds set aside for gifted children pay for assessment tests and extra, accelerated materials, said Dr. Barbara Fitzgerald, the district's director of special services.

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Cece Venable contemplates a question about palindromes as Mrs. Jones tosses more clues into the math problem discussion.

Out of the district's maintenance and operations fund, the district this year budgeted $683 for gifted children, and it expects to receive $13,000 from the state.

Of the 11 gifted students at Frontier Elementary, eight have parental permission to study in the gifted program. District-wide, 187 students are considered gifted.

More students tested into the category than expected, "which is a good thing," Patterson said. However, since the program is a pilot, the school was unable to accommodate all students.

Children can test as gifted in three categories -- verbal ability, math ability and performance ability. Performance ability can mean a student is gifted in music or art.

"The 12-year-old that takes dad's car apart and puts it back together" is also gifted, Fitzgerald explained. Nonverbal testing is sometimes used to separate those kids from the average. Fitzgerald used the example of a Rubik's cube, and how quickly a child can piece together a puzzle, and figure out what's missing.

The district recruits experts to help judge. "Is it ability or is it exceptionality? How do you (determine) exceptionality?" Fitzgerald said. Therein lies the challenge.

"Gifted kids get bored when they have a linear program of instruction," said O'Brien. The critical thinking skills that distinguish exceptional students are exactly what's not tested on standardized tests, educators say.

"Historically, they (gifted students) didn't really have an opportunity to dig deep," Fitzgerald said. "Just as they have to differentiate for the kid who didn't get it the first time, they have to differentiate for the gifted kid."

By making education exciting at all ability levels, Jones wants to engage her students, and make them active participants in determining what they learn.

What are they interested in? "We want to make it broader, deeper, more challenging and accelerated," Jones said.

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