By Dina Brulles, coauthor of The Cluster Grouping Handbook and Teaching Gifted Kids in Today’s Classroom Professional Development Multimedia Package
An observer in Mrs. Peterson’s gifted-cluster classroom sees highly engaged students working in small groups. One group is researching on laptops, another group is brainstorming ideas, and another group is working on the project. A closer look shows that they are all working on the same topic, yet at different levels of complexity. They all appear interested and motivated in their work as Mrs. Peterson rotates throughout the groups facilitating their learning.
What underlies success in this gifted-cluster classroom? Three critical elements:
- Mrs. Peterson participates in ongoing training along with the other cluster teachers at her school.
- Her principal has also had training and understands the importance of supporting the model.
- Her classroom—along with others in her grade level—was carefully composed to create manageable class loads for all teachers.
We often hear schools say they are cluster grouping when asked what services they provide for gifted students. However, when asked what the model looks like in their schools, and what they are doing to train and support teachers, it becomes frighteningly clear that many are doing little more than simply grouping their gifted students. Placing gifted students together in a classroom is just the first step. It does not constitute a program on its own.
A successful cluster grouping model involves attention to several critical elements, but the top three are:
- Creating balanced classroom compositions
- Providing ongoing teacher training
- Offering administrative support
1. Balanced classroom compositions
Teachers struggle to support gifted students when they have the full range of learners in one class: students with the highest ability along with the lowest achieving students in the grade level. Having both ends of the learning spectrum in one class means attempting to differentiate for two different groups of students with special needs. Narrowing the range of ability and achievement levels in every class greatly facilitates effective instruction for teachers.
Another tip: Placing high average students in classes that do not have the gifted cluster allows for strong academic leaders in all classes and prevents resentment by teachers and parents. We want to balance the students throughout the grade level so that all classes in every grade have either high ability (gifted) or high achieving students. Evenly balanced classes allow for better acceptance of the model.
Use achievement data to guide your group placements. Using data allows for more focused, goal-oriented placements.
2. Ongoing teacher training
Continual training is absolutely critical for success in this model. Gifted students have different learning needs. Since few classroom teachers have formal training in gifted education, it becomes the school’s or district’s responsibility to provide this training when incorporating this inclusive model. Just as with students with other special needs, gifted students require teachers who understand their social, emotional, and academic needs to provide a classroom setting where the students feel understood and accepted, and are accommodated for on a regular basis.
When implementing the cluster model throughout a school district, administration should arrange for initial training where all teachers develop understanding of the model. This should include training on identification and placement procedures, resources available to the teachers, and approaches for effectively communicating with parents. Teachers also need time to learn what the gifted identification tells us about how students learn, how to effectively differentiate the standard curriculum, how to modify instructional approaches based on these students’ needs, and how to document academic growth for students working on differentiated and accelerated curriculum.
Professional development can take place at the district level but should also occur at the school level. In schools that effectively support the model, cluster teachers meet regularly to participate in book studies, share resources, troubleshoot issues, and learn and discuss teaching strategies. Many cluster teacher teams develop resources that can be shared throughout the school or district. This might include building a repository of differentiated lessons, training tools, and assessment processes. When cluster teachers have such support, they become more successful.
3. Administrative support
Some schools struggle with the model because the school administration and/or staff lacks understanding that gifted students think, feel, behave, and learn differently from others. Learning about the atypical social, emotional, and intellectual needs of gifted students helps staff understand why schools need to create learning environments that account for these needs. Staff members learn that these students are not always easy to teach and then understand the rationale for providing gifted services and teacher training. For this reason, it is advisable that schools not only require training for gifted-cluster teachers, but invite all teachers to participate in professional development in this area whenever possible.
One example of training that is critical for teachers of gifted students but useful for all teachers is how to use ongoing formative assessments. This practice allows teachers to know where students are in their understanding of all instruction in the classroom. Teachers can then form flexible learning groups and plan for curriculum compacting and differentiated instruction for those who would benefit from it based on the assessment data. These types of instructional methods become a natural part of the process for trained and experienced teachers teaching in a gifted-cluster classroom. Such training is crucial for gifted-cluster teachers but beneficial to all.
Here are some ways teachers, coordinators, and directors can encourage support from principals and other school district administrators:
- Present on the model to all district administrators
- Work with principals on classroom placements
- Consider how to communicate with parents
- Discuss school and/or district initiatives and ways to incorporate those efforts into cluster teacher trainings
- Invite principals to attend gifted-cluster teacher meetings (even a brief visit shows support!)
- Discuss methods for using school achievement data to track academic growth of gifted students and monitor progress in the model
Teachers who are unable to secure administrative support and ongoing training can still make use of the strategies, plans, lessons, and resources available to schools that implement the model fully. Similarly, while it is ideal to structure carefully composed classrooms, for numerous reasons, this doesn’t always happen. If you’re in a less-than-ideal situation with your cluster grouping program, remember that what transpires in the classroom makes the most significant impact on student learning.
These three factors—balanced classroom compositions, ongoing teacher training, and administrative support—not only provide focused efforts for your cluster grouping program, but also allow for great variance depending upon the school’s needs, student populations, and school initiatives. They represent the most critical efforts schools can make for ensuring success in a gifted-cluster grouping model.
If you have had successes or learning experiences with cluster grouping, I would love to hear about them. Please leave a comment below.
Dina Brulles, Ph.D., is a school administrator and the gifted-education director for Arizona’s Paradise Valley Unified School District. Recognized for her expertise in creating and supervising schoolwide cluster grouping, she also assists districts throughout the United States in developing gifted-education programs, including those districts serving culturally and linguistically diverse gifted students. She holds a Ph.D. in gifted education and an M.S. in curriculum and instruction and serves on the faculty of the Graduate College of Education at Arizona State University. Prior to becoming an administrator, Dina was an elementary classroom teacher, a bilingual teacher, an ESL teacher, and a gifted-cluster teacher. She lives in Peoria, Arizona.
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Teaching Gifted Kids in Today’s Classroom Professional Development Multimedia Package by Susan Winebrenner, M.S., and Dina Brulles, Ph.D.
The Cluster Grouping Handbook by Susan Winebrenner, M.S., and Dina Brulles, Ph.D.
Teaching Gifted Kids in Today’s Classroom by Susan Winebrenner, M.S., with Dina Brulles, Ph.D.
Webinar: The Schoolwide Cluster Grouping Model: Challenging Gifted Students and Improving Achievement for All (free) by Dina Brulles, Ph.D., and Susan Winebrenner, M.S.
Paradise Valley Unified School District Gifted Education Department