JEFFERSON — The Jefferson School Board received an update Monday on the district’s gifted and talented program, which has now broadened to include two areas: advanced learning and differentiation.
Advanced learning encompasses a large range of academic and special interest areas that used to fall under the gifted/talented label. The new name is intended to be more inclusive, with the recognition that a child need not be gifted in every area in order to benefit from advanced learning opportunities.
Differentiation, on the other hand, is teaching the same subject in different ways and on different levels to students in accordance with their needs.
Take math, for example. One student might be working at grade level; another might need additional supports, and yet another would benefit from more challenging material.
Then there are those who might do well in one area of math while struggling more with other math concepts.
On Monday night, the School District of Jefferson Board of Education heard a report from Deb Lemminger, the district’s new advanced learning coordinator and differentiation coach.
Lemminger, who took over the program this year, said she loved her longtime job as a classroom teacher at East Elementary School, but when the advanced learner position opened up, she saw the opportunity to expand what the Jefferson district does for these students and to take the program in a new direction.
“Teaching is my passion, but I love this even more because I get to work with different, diverse teachers and students at all levels and all across the district,” she said.
Lemminger laid out an array of different advanced learning and differentiation efforts going on at different levels in the Jefferson schools. Some of these have been done for some time under the former gifted/talented program; some are new.
Lemminger defined the district’s advanced learning program as a partnership between classroom teachers, specialists, coordinators, school administrators, parents and the community at large, working together to meet the unique needs of students with exceptional abilities in one or more of five areas: general intelligence, strength in a particular academic subject area, creativity, leadership and the visual and performing arts.
Some of the advanced learning opportunities that the district participates in include but are not limited to the following:
• The “Sweet to Be Me” regional conference for gifted fifth- and sixth-graders addresses the emotional needs and creativity of advanced students in upper elementary and middle school.
• The Southern Lakes Anthology, open to third- through eighth-graders from throughout the region, invites students to submit art, prose, poetry or illustrated writing on a particular annual theme. The theme for this year is “Under the Surface.”
• Math 24 is an opportunity for upper elementary and middle school students in fourth- through seventh-grade to have fun with math in a competitive setting doing high level math challenges.
• The middle-school level Science Immersion program, held at Milwaukee School of Engineering, offers a day of hands-on science programming for advanced students interested in that field.
• Academic Bowl is open to top middle school students who excel in their subject areas. They compete in the subject they represent against gifted students from other area schools, then join for a problem-solving challenge.
• The Middle School Leadership Conference, held at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, seeks to build on the skills of students with leadership potential via a regional conference, interactive activities, and workshops.
• “Touch of Red” is an art competition open to high school art students, which challenges students to create art centered around a certain theme.
Arts Immersion Day, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) opportunities, and high school leadership activities are some of the other areas encompassed by the advanced learning program.
In addition, the Jefferson schools have numerous opportunities open to students with high interest in challenging themselves in specialty areas.
Investors Club at Jefferson Middle School is one of those opportunities. This club challenges students to invest a set amount of fake money in the stock market over the course of a statewide competition. The team whose stock portfolio does the best wins.
Depending on market conditions, that might mean the winning team makes loads of imaginary cash, or team members might break even in a year when other investors are seeing their portfolios lose much of their value.
Jefferson Middle School’s teams, under advisor Erich Utrie, have frequently placed among the top few in the state, with one team a few years back winning state.
Lemminger credited staff members from throughout the district for providing opportunities for students through a whole array of clubs and activities taking place both during and outside the school day.
These clubs extend into all five of the areas of gifted education.
Lemminger said the enrichment activities and clubs that provide opportunities for gifted students to explore an area of high interest are too numerous to mention. Here are a sampling:
- Battle of the Books brings teams of students together to read a list of books, then compete against each-other on their knowledge of these books.
This too is a statewide program, and Jefferson Middle School has traditionally boasted extremely high participation, with around 60 students taking part each year.
• The Stained Glass Club at West Elementary School, under the guidance of Chelsea Miller, Wisconsin’s 2020 Elementary Teacher of the Year, has given students of all income levels the ability to try out a different and challenging type of art, then produce artworks for public display and donation.
• Jefferson Middle School and West Elementary School have chess clubs, which provide instruction in strategy and an opportunity for students to compete against each-other in this ancient game.
• STEM, Construction, Crocheting Club, Sunshine Squad, Tech Clubs, and much more are offered on the elementary level.
• Art Club at Jefferson Middle School, which meets after school, offers more opportunities for students to explore (mostly three-dimensional) art outside of class. The high school has a similar but much more formal Art Club.
• Garden Club, hosted at West Elementary School but open to students from around the district, gives students hands-on experience planting and caring for produce and flowers, with volunteer assistance from the Master Gardeners of Jefferson County.
• Student Councils at the district schools give students with a flair for leadership a voice in school activities and a way to address needs and to make a difference not only in their school but also in the broader community.
• The district also has high-quality drama programs at the middle and high school, giving students with an interest in acting, music, comedy and the tech end of theater a place to explore those talents.
The middle school hosts one large musical every year. Not everyone gets a lead, but everyone who wishes to take part is welcomed into the cast.
The high school has two different audition-only drama opportunities each year: the fall one-act, a competition straight play (that is, without music) in the fall; and a musical in the spring.
Jefferson High School’s 2019 one-act, the chilling Holocaust drama “Dark Road,” just returned from state competition at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
In addition, the high school and middle school both host talent shows for people interested in sharing their musical, acting, dance or comedy skills, and the high school has the Certified Auditorium Technical Support (CATS) for those interested in helping on the tech end with various shows and concerts that come to the Jefferson High School auditorium.
CATS students can actually earn money assisting with programs, such as elementary concerts, that are being put on at the auditorium.
For the new advanced learning coordinator and for the advanced learning leaders in the individual buildings, it’s important to participate in professional development in the area of gifted and talented education/advanced learning or order to know how best to serve these gifted learners.
To that end, the district belongs to the Wisconsin Association for Talented and Gifted and sent representative(s) to its recent conference.
The district also belongs to the regional Southern Lakes Advanced Learners Network, which as well as offering a variety of student opportunities and conferences, also provides a slate of opportunities for educators, including regular meetings, workshops and networking opportunities.
Jefferson staffers took part in “Learning Walks” centering on gifted/talented education to learn more about how different teachers and schools approach advanced learning and what works for them.
The district also sent representative(s) to a Professional Learning Communities event in Lincolnshire, Ill., as well as other Advanced Learning events.
In addition, the district’s Advanced Learning coordinator and building leaders in the area of Advanced Learning regularly meet directly with students to deepen and strengthen their learning in core subjects and to provide enrichment.
In the course of a week, the Advanced Learning coordinator might work with small groups of advanced learners, co-teach with classroom teachers, meet with Advanced Learner building representatives and participate in team meetings of teachers from different grades/departments.
The new advanced learning coordinator said that the district approaches gifted students much like it approaches people in need of additional support on the other end of the spectrum, through a tiered system.
Some students might receive differentiated instruction within the regular classroom; others might work in pull-out groups with other high achievers in a certain subject. For extremely advanced students, a individual differentiated education plan is created to assure they are being challenged sufficiently.
Lemminger said that as she has participated in learning walks and observed how others provide advanced instruction, she has discovered “learning always occurs in a context of taking action,” to quote Richard DuFour, and that (students) “value engagement and experience as the most effective strategies for deep learning.”
Donna Bente, president of the school board, said that she is happy to see schools moving to the concept of “Advanced Learners” rather than the old terminology of “gifted and talented” in order to include other areas of giftedness.
A student might be advanced in one or more of the traditional academic areas, or they might have a strength in another area, such as the arts or leadership, that shows great promise and should be nurtured.
“It’s much more inclusive,” Bente said.