Shannon Colburn, gifted specialist at Rock Quarry Elementary, is teaching a unit with her gifted class on what being a hero really means by using popular superheroes like the Hulk and Superman to demonstrate chemistry and discuss flight. Students are responding favorably to the incorporation of their favorite superheroes in their classwork.
Special education is not what it used to be. Over time the education system has evolved, and gifted programs are focused on serving each student individually rather than only having them do extra work and tutor their classmates. Now, gifted classes offer a variety of activities to their students so that they have a well-rounded education that can be applied to life.
“It’s not just speeding up or adding an additional paper, we actually are challenging their minds,” Director of Special Education Bruce Prescott said.
Gifted specialist David Merzbacher at Verner Elementary is working on a forensics unit using science and Sherlock mysteries. Policemen showed the students fingerprinting techniques. Students researched basic identification and chromatography that will culminate in a crime scene investigation. The class asked to conduct a mock trial.
“You may be teaching one particular concept, one topic or something, and the kids come up with another idea and all the sudden you’re off in a different direction,” Merzbacher said.
Students have multiple talents and interests and cannot be expected to perform highly in all subjects just because they are gifted in one area. Enrichment education is tailored to the individual student by having them work in-depth on the subjects in which they excel. Now students get to choose which subjects interest them while building on what they learn in the general education classroom.
“It’s not your typical walking in and doing math problems on the board,” Prescott said. “It may be going in and building a roller-coaster and understanding the velocity and the force.”
Enrichment classes don’t use textbooks, give grades or use a specific curriculum. Instead teachers mold their activities to the student’s interest inquiries, and students set goals to develop their own research plan.
“We teach with the Common Core standards, but we don’t have to adhere to them and [we] make sure we’ve addressed every single one for their grade,” Colburn said. “As we teach, we make sure we teach in a way that is supporting Common Core at the grade level or above.”
Gifted specialists use a guided scope and sequence to address all areas of learning. The scope and sequence is a framework that recognizes the individual learning techniques that work for each student like critical thinking, creative thinking, and social-emotional skills. Teachers focus on the whole child as an individual learner with individual needs.
“In gifted education you don’t address just the cognitive domain, it’s the affective domain as well, the child as a person,” Merzbacher said.
Students who have other identifications, such as autism, can also be gifted. Prescott served as a mentor at the Tuscaloosa Magnet School, helping a fifth grade class with a research project on how one of their classmates had autism and was gifted.
In Alabama, students are observed in second grade for gifted behaviors and screened for gifted eligibility. Differentiation support is offered through consultation from the gifted specialist for kindergarten through second grade, when students demonstrate higher-level academic performance.
Pull-out classes are offered from third through fifth grades. This means the students are taken out of their traditional classrooms for three hours a week to work with other gifted students. These grades are pivotal because they set the foundation of the child’s education. Educators want to support the students’ advanced needs at a young age to prevent boredom.
After fifth grade, pull-out programs usually end. This wasn’t always the case, but due to budget cuts there are not enough teachers on staff to support the programs. Of the six gifted specialists in Tuscaloosa City, Merzbacher and Colburn are the only two who stay in one school.
General education teachers in sixth through twelfth grade are made aware of their gifted students and receive mentoring help from gifted specialists. These students can choose elective classes and advanced placement core classes to continue their gifted education. Tuscaloosa Career and Technology Academy offers courses to students in medical science, cosmetology, welding, engineering and an automotive program that connects students to Mercedes. Dual enrollment courses at local colleges and universities are offered for students to get ahead and graduate early.

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