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Teaching the Gifted in After School Sessions

by Maureen Hall, NJLA Board Member


A few months ago Dr. Ken Kunz called to ask me to work with him on something neither of us had ever thought about offering before. Due to the Covid19 pandemic, teaching shortages, and virtual schooling, a district in north Jersey needed someone to provide after-school teaching to three groups of gifted students in upper elementary school. As representatives of Dr. Ken’s LLC, For the Love of Literacy, and of NJLA, we were enthusiastic about this opportunity to try something new. Having completed the work with the three student cohorts, we are excited to share the results.


Before we began, the children who would be involved in the program had been surveyed about topics, which included Everyday Heroes, Protecting the Environment, and Mindfulness. A book was chosen for each theme and books were distributed by the district. We read all three books and began working together on Google slides that would be the framework of our services. Slides each week included a welcome and quick thinking/writing activity, a vocabulary piece, a central student lesson, and a wrap-up with a reminder of responsibilities for our next session. Each cohort met four times over the course of a month for about an hour each time.


Children were asked to identify an area of interest to them within the topic. We asked them, “What are you passionate about?” Their responses were fascinating. We created groups based on their interests and provided a work document that asked them to devise research questions and allocate work. Each week we conducted a short read-aloud from the book which led to something important to think about and discuss. We chose one or two interesting vocabulary words to study in depth. Each time we met children had time to work within their break-out rooms and also time to discuss ideas with us and the entire cohort. The wrap-ups served as a subtle reminder to the kids that there was more to accomplish each week on their own.


In the Heroes cohort we began with an exercise that asked students to define a true hero. Their responses were deeper than we might have expected; they decided that a real hero has greatness of soul, bravery, and has done something incredible. They were interested in people who had responded to the Covid19 crisis, and in ordinary people who had become heroic only when circumstances demanded it. On our last day with each group, everyone presented their findings, based on a research question they had designed. When a group offered a slideshow about first responders, we advised them to replace their pictures with those of local first responders and to share it with their community to increase its impact.


At the start of the unit called Protecting the Environment we asked the same question: “What are you passionate about?” The whole group (a small and very quiet one this time) came up with six areas of interest, including ecosystems, saving animals from extinction, health and poverty, world hunger, clean water, and world health. When we ran our Zoom poll to determine groups, one boy struggled to define what he wanted to study. His statement, “There’s such an intersection with world hunger, clean water, and world health,” made all of us think. Of course, that intersection was what we urged him to base his work on.


Our final cohort, Mindfulness, was a very big one, and several children told us that they were interested in this work “to see if there’s something that can help me with my nervousness.” We began (or ended) each session with an exercise from Headspace; not everyone ‘got it,’ but it was a start! Students chose to follow their passion in one of the following categories: yoga, breathing, exercise, meditation, or general mindfulness. On presentation day Robbie told us, “I used what I learned about mindful breathing today. We took a test online, and our score would be ready immediately. All I had to do was hit the button. I was nervous. I told myself to take a deep breath and let it out - three times. I was able to click on the button. I got a 93 on the test!”


Below, Claire reminds us that, even though it is not always easy to be mindful, it is very helpful for us and those around us. Her research question was, “How can we remember to be mindful in everyday life?”


Mindfulness:


Research provided by: Claire Yoon



How can we remember to be mindful in everyday life?


A crucial part of our day is spent thinking of our past. Being present is important, yet a hard lesson to learn. We forget to stay mindful and it’s completely normal as a human to remember something and tell yourself: “I’m going to do this today,” and forget a few hours later.


To be aware of mindfulness can lead to great things in life. Being present instead of wandering into the past or future can be hard to resist, but should be done. It’s hard, but with patience and work, it can be done.


First, you should get aware of mindfulness. Maybe you can get an idea about what it is, or what it can lead to.


Then, get right in it! When you notice that you’re getting nervous, or worked up about a


topic, practice deep breathing, or tell yourself positive things. Start doing it on a daily basis.


Mindfulness lets you be in the moment, while meditation lets your mind empty and think about what happened in the past.

In the following week, add another mindful habit. Maybe this week you’ll do your deep breathing and add some meditation. Keep doing this. Perhaps the following week you could do breathing, meditation and yoga, and so on.


Doing this everyday can help you stay present and focused during your daily life and help you enjoy every little sensation that makes you happy.



How can mindfulness affect you and others around you?


Normal people, like me and you can use mindfulness in everyday life to help us succeed. Mindfulness does not just only affect the brain, but also the body. For example, when you feel nervous for a test, and you remember to be mindful, it sends your brain signals to a part of your brain called the amygdala, which is where it does all the worrying, or getting nervous. The signals help shrink the amygdala, which overall makes your body feel better.


Mindfulness benefits you in multiple ways, including relieving stress (like the example we gave earlier), lowering blood pressure, improving sleep, and others.


As you can see, the man has a full mind of thoughts, which puts him on a higher chance of being anxious. The dog is in the moment which lets him enjoy life.


Without mindfulness, your body could be under a lot of stress that it can’t handle. Studies show that anxiety also affects others around you. They feel uncomfortable around a nervous person, and overall nervous as well. Anxiety can make you feel like you want detachment, and want to be alone, but all that equals is your friends and family wanting to comfort you, yet they don’t know how to.


But sometimes you need alone time, and that's okay. When you are mindful, it reminds others to follow your example which leads to a healthy and happy environment.


Another student in that cohort, Aryen Sen, asked a different question. His research can be found below.


How will mindfulness affect me when I do exercise?


Mindful exercise is about engaging all of your senses and physical sensations and keeping your focus on how they are responding to the environment and the exercise.


Exercise is good for practicing mindfulness because your mind doesn’t really have to focus on much else which allows you to be mindful.


Notice how your breathing quickens. Mindfulness can help you understand what you’re doing and what you need to change or improve in your exercise. You can ask yourself these questions while you’re exercising. Does your breathing become more shallow or deeper as you take up a new pace? Can you feel your heart in your chest? How does it sound? Is your body beginning to warm up?


Mindfulness is important because you need to be aware of your surroundings. Noticing your surroundings will most likely prevent you from getting injured. If you’re not concentrated on your exercise, you might not put in as much effort. Also you need to make sure you have a comfortable heart rate and not work too hard or too little.


Mindful exercise is best in a calm, soothing environment with little stimulus.



These students really learned something, and Dr. Ken and I truly loved learning from them as well as sharing information with them. The sweetest thing we learned from our work with these children: everyone wants human contact. In our first cohort, a couple of minutes after we had completed the session, we noticed that two kids were still online with us. We asked, “Hey, Esther and Alex, do you need us? Can we help somehow?” The response from both children: “No. I just wanted to hang around.” “I’m just not ready to be done with class.” The third cohort brought us Alex, who sent us the 20-page chapter of a fantasy book he is writing – just to share with us. We were reminded daily that the personal touch we, as teachers bring to our children in the classroom is more necessary than ever during virtual teaching.

 

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