Educator stories: Strategies to teach gifted students
One educator on Outschool shares how she designs classes specifically for learners who are advanced in a subject area.

Jill Harper doesn’t leave learners wondering which classes might be the best match for them.

She calls out in the titles who they are meant for. For instance, she offers Reading and Writing With a Purpose – A Homeschool Book Club for Gifted Students and the Ongoing Book Club for Engaged Students, both for learners ages 11 to 13. For learners focused on the environment, she has the Environmental Book Club for Passionate Teens (ages 13 to 16). With the target group right in the title, learners can find the class that’s right for them.

Jill also teaches other book clubs—another for gifted students, one on historical fiction, and another on action and adventure. Plus she offers a semester project-based middle school English class.

Jill has taught on Outschool since 2019 and has a steady following. The majority of her classes tend to have at least seven learners enrolled, even months ahead.

She shares her reflections here about teaching strategies she uses with all learners and advanced learners in particular. For more information on teaching gifted learners, check out Outschool’s event spotlighting the topic.

Parents can select the right class fit

Jill is comfortable teaching gifted learners because her own kids are gifted and she has taught book clubs that her children participated in. Note that children and adolescents may be gifted in some areas, such as reading, math, or science, but not in others. As to whether a child or teen would thrive in one of her classes for gifted learners—Jill lets parents decide.

“In the beginning, I had parents write me, and they’re like, ‘my student is not gifted but they love to read.’ Or ‘my student’s not gifted, but they’re very engaged with their reading and they want to discuss it with someone.’ ”

That’s how the “engaged reader” classes came about. “It’s a little different,” Jill says. “They very much love to read. They’re passionate, and they want to talk about it.”

How do you teach differently to gifted students?

Jill’s classes for gifted learners move faster than her other classes, with learners typically reading a new book each week.

“In certain book clubs, they may just cover one book over eight weeks. And they’re really going deep and doing little lessons for certain chapters. That’s not what’s happening in my book clubs, for the most part,” Jill says. “Every time we meet, it’s a new book we’re discussing.”

Learners in these classes “really get into that,” she says, but they have to read a lot. Some of Jill’s other book clubs meet every other week, which gives learners two weeks to read the book.

Gifted students have a variety of learning styles

Jill expects learners in her gifted courses to come to class ready to discuss the book. For some learners, that means they talk and share their ideas—sometimes they can’t stop sharing—and others may want to discuss their ideas but are more shy.

Everyone needs to have cameras on at the start, she says, but then learners can use chat to communicate with the class. Then Jill will read the chat aloud to the group.

“I try to get everyone’s thoughts,” she says, “and I read them to everyone in the class so everyone feels like they’re being heard, which I think is really important.”

How long a learner has been in the class can contribute to a learner’s comfort level in sharing, Jill says. She has some students who have attended a class for a long time and others who may be new. “All these kids come on with all their ideas and opinions, which can be a lot,” she says. “It can take a couple weeks for some new kids to get comfortable.”

Jill calls on every learner at the start of class to share their initial thoughts about the book they read. She also asks everyone to rate the book on a scale of 1 to 10 at the end of the class and to explain their rating. These are the two times when everyone has to participate, she says.

Gifted learners may be “twice exceptional”

Jill shares that her own children are “twice exceptional,” which means that someone is gifted in one area but also has unique learning needs, such as those that may come with dyslexia, autism, or ADHD. In addition, many consider “giftedness” itself to be a form of neurodiversity. People who are neurodivergent interact with others and their environment in ways that reflect their neurological differences.

She emphasizes that she welcomes twice exceptional (or 2e) learners in all her classes. “Sometimes a 2e learner may need a second to gather their thoughts,” she says. “So I might be like, ‘Okay, so-and-so, I’m going to call on you—you’re going to be the third person, so start thinking about it.’ “

Others may send her a message via chat, and then Jill will ask if she can share the comment with the whole class. Some of these learners may also prefer to read books in specific ways, such as taking turns reading them aloud with a parent, she says.

Many times a parent will reach out and let Jill know if their child has unique learning needs and would benefit from a particular kind of support. Jill also pays attention to what learners share, such as student statements that they couldn’t finish a book because they’re a slow reader. (Jill encourages learners to come to class anyway and participate.)

Do you move a gifted learner into a higher age range?

Jill only has a few ongoing book clubs—the rest are multi-day, semester classes—and she often recommends that someone new join one of those to try them out. It’s cheaper and doesn’t require a commitment, she says.

The ongoing book clubs are for different age ranges: teens, middle schoolers, and younger learners. She tends to ask learners who have been in a middle school group and are approaching age 14 to join a teen group because the teens read slightly different books.

Jill takes requests for a younger learner to join an older class case by case. “I have an 8-year-old who just signed up for my 10-to-12 book club,” she says, “because he’s at that ability. I actually had him try out a course, so I know he is.”

What can be tricky is that books for older kids or teens often have more mature themes that young learners may not be ready for. Jill says she always lets parents know:

“Yes, I can tell they’re gifted. Yes, I can tell they need a little bit more of a challenge. Just be aware that these are the books we are reading… and make sure it’s okay with you content-wise.”

One way to give parents a heads-up about sensitive content and make sure parents find it appropriate for their learner is to add this information to the parental guidance section of your class listing.

How to stay at least one step ahead of gifted learners

Jill believes that one of her strengths is discussing books with young people.

All kids who really love books want to share their ideas, often big ideas, she says. A question that’s popular in her classes is what learners would change in the book to make it better. “I try to do these higher level questions that really get them thinking,” she says. “Then I let them talk.”

Jill maintains a stance that everyone’s comments are valid, and classes have a lot of back-and-forth discussion. “It gives them a voice, and they get engaged,” she says. “And they’re excited to discuss it.”

She stays ahead of discussions on multiple books (her classes often read the latest books) by listening to audiobooks. She also has learners who do this too.

“These kids who have been in these book clubs for three years… they’ve read everything,” she says. “I do audio books, and I’m really good. I listen to them at 3x speed, and I get through them really fast. I’ve got a talent for that now.”

To view the whole conversation with Jill, check out the video below.

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