catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 48, Num 1 :: 2008.10.01 — 2008.12.15


Online Math and English for talented middle school students

Why is the Christian Learning Center Network offering online courses for academically talented middle school students? The mission of the Christian Learning Center is defined in the following statement: “Building inclusive and interdependent community, the Christian Learning Center, working in partnership with others, provides Christ-centered educational, psychological, vocational, and advocacy services for people experiencing unique needs and gifts.” Thus, the Christian Learning Center (CLC) exists to support individuals who have unique gifts, including those who God has given gifts of great cognition.


Academically Talented Students

Gifts of great cognition place students in need of a curriculum that is qualitatively different from more conventional material in content, fluency and speed (VanTassel-Baska, 2007). For these students, referred to as academically talented (AT) learners, sometimes the content must be more complex in order to challenge their analytic ability. They are able to make or learn to make fluent connections within content and concepts. The speed with which talented students master concepts suggests that an alternative curriculum is necessary. As an advocate for the AT learner, CLC strives to help schools meet the needs of AT students within its Network schools (CLC Network). One way for these schools to meet the needs of AT students is through online courses.

The numerous experts in gifted education (e.g. Renzulli, Van Tassel-Baska, Gardner, Feldhusen, and Sternberg) have different models of best practices for gifted learners. While their models differ, they agree on several critical points:  

  • There are different levels of giftedness.
  • Educational programming needs to be flexible.
  • Students need to have time with like learners.
  • Learners need to be supplied with inquiry based materials and opportunities.
  • Learners need to be able to move at a rapid pace.
  • Materials should be facilitated by trained teachers.
  • Learners need a degree in ownership in their learning.

(Renzulli, 1985; VanTassel-Baska, 2007; Gardner, 1983; Feldhusen, 1986; Sternberg, 1995)

As much as schools in the CLC Network would like to offer classes for high ability learners, it is impractical in this age of declining enrollment and tight budgets. When a school has 15 to 20 students in a class, the number of high ability students is perhaps 2 to 3. It is unlikely that the school would be able financially to offer a separate class that meets the needs of these few students. Offering an online course from a Christian perspective, one that gathers students from many schools, is an effective solution from the perspective of student-appropriate content, effective teaching, and cost efficiency.


CLC’s Online Courses

The CLC Network currently offers five online courses for academically talented middle school students: 8th-grade Geometry, 7th-grade Honors Math, Enrichment Math for 6th- and 7th-grade students, 8th-grade Honors English, and 7th-grade Honors English. The courses were designed by certified teachers to move at a rapid and in-depth pace. The experienced teachers are aware of what is being taught in the typical middle school classroom and can adapt that curriculum appropriately for the AT student. 

For example, the 7th-grade Honors Math course uses a textbook that many of the network schools are using. While students in a typical math course might take one month to cover a chapter of material, the online class will likely move through the same chapter in two weeks. The time gained allows the students to undertake enrichment work such as problem solving, high ability inquiry, logic, and challenging math games.

The 8th-grade Honors English course follows a curriculum similar to that of the network schools. Grammar, writing, and literature are all taught but at a more in-depth and rapid pace.  Students will diagram sentences that are more intricate than those faced by a typical 8th grade student. Writing units require higher levels of thinking skills, and the literature units use materials that require high-level reading, processing, and reasoning abilities.

Duke University, Northwestern University, and Stanford University offer online courses for academically talented students. Certified teachers also design these courses to move rapidly and to study deeply. These courses are not taught from a Christian perspective, however, and they cost approximately $800 dollars per semester. Because of a generous grant, the CLC Network can currently offer online courses taught from a Christian perspective at no cost to schools or students.


How the Online Classes Work

The CLC Network online courses are taught asynchronously, which means that students do not have to be online at the same time as their teacher or their online classmates. Online students usually take the online course at the same time their classmates are taking their Math or English course. Most online Math and English students go to a computer lab or media center to work on their course during their regularly scheduled class time. This allows AT students to be in their school, not miss out on any middle school activities and yet be taught appropriate material with like learners.

The CLC Network online courses are taught using Moodle, a well-known online course management system. This is a secure system, used by many high schools and universities around the world. Only students enrolled in such a course have access to it. Students are encouraged to show parents their gradebook and print off assignments to share with parents and classroom teachers. Each student has a mentor in his or her school with whom the teacher of the online class is in regular contact. The student’s mentor helps the student with problem solving and computer issues, and the mentor receives a grade from the online teacher each quarter. 


Student Response to Online Classes

One reason that online courses are gaining popularity with AT students is that online courses make it possible to arrange classes beyond the school boundaries. Students want to take coursework that fit their needs and their schedules. They enjoy working at their own pace. They appreciate having ownership of their classwork. CLC is pleased to be able to offer this unique schooling option from a Christian perspective to AT students.

Students of the 2007/2008 8th-grade Honors English class were asked to tell their teacher three things about the class. This is what some of them wrote:

It’s fun to meet new people from different schools that you wouldn’t have met if not for this class. It’s also a lot of fun to do an online course because for the most part you can work at your own pace during the week and not have to worry about getting one certain paper in on one certain day. It’s a lot of fun to get to use the technology that God gave to us while still learning, just like we should.
- Alyssa Wychers (Byron Center Christian)

Best thing: I loved how I could do advanced English without even leaving my school. I think it worked really well doing it all online.

What I learned: I learned many different factual things from each unit, but I also learned one big thing: For this class, since I was working independently at my school, I had to make sure I was keeping myself on track and having self discipline to work. Also as  I said before I learned how to take everything one step at a time, because I haven’t been challenged ever before as I was this year.
- Jayne Kessel (Byron Center Christian)

I liked a lot of different things about the class. One thing I liked is that I could work at my own pace. Another thing is that I wasn’t bored. I had stuff and work to do. I liked doing the research paper. I can’t really think of anything that I didn’t like about CLC. I enjoyed all of it. I learned a lot. For instance, I learned a lot about good qualities to use in writing. Also, I learned how to diagram sentences really well. I really don’t know anything that I would change about CLC. I really liked it!
- Jennifer Post (Dutton Christian)



Feldhusen, J.F., & Kolloff, M. B. (1986). The Purdue three-stage model for gifted education. In J.S. Renzulli (Ed.). Systems and models for developing programs for the gifted and talented (pp. 126-152). Mansfield Center., CT: Creative Learning Press.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Renzulli, J.S., & Reis, S. M. (1985). The schoolwide enrichment model:  A comprehensive plan for educational excellence. Mansfield Center, CT:  Creative Learning Press.

Sternberg, R. & Clinkenbeard, P.R. (1995). The triadic model applied to identify, teach, and assess gifted children. Roeper Review, 17, 255-260.

Van Tassel-Baska, J., & Brown, E. (2007). Toward best practice:  An analysis of the efficacy of curriculum models in gifted education. Gifted Child Quarterly, 51, 342-358.

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