Future Teachers Challenging Students who are Gifted – and Vice Versa

Posted by: Elizabeth Richardson on March 12, 2018, 2 Comments

With a gaggle of elementary school children in front of him, Dane Barhite was peppering the kids with questions about small containers of different types of liquids on a table in the Innovation Center at East Stroudsburg University.

“Why would we want to know the contents of the containers?” asked Barhite, an ESU sophomore with a double major in early childhood education and special education from Clifford Township, Pa.

Fifth-grader Taiyo Molessa’s hand shot up.

“For the density,” Taiyo said.

“That’s it, he nailed it!” Barhite responded. “What is the function of density?”

And the session was off and running, with children who are gifted from six elementary schools in the East Stroudsburg Area School District (ESASD) calling out answers as Barhite and other future teachers from ESU guided a science experiment.

It was all part of a day of workshops Feb. 21 organized through an award-winning partnership between ESU and ESASD to give public school pupils who are gifted time each month to learn together at a higher level. The joint venture – called the IF Institute as in “What if…?” – gives ESU education students hands-on training teaching kids with exceptional abilities, while the children get to work together on advanced interactive lessons in a college campus setting.

In 2014, Sue Eden, an elementary gifted support teacher for ESASD, launched the partnership with Diane Cavanagh, Ed.D., a now-retired ESU professor of special education. Cavanagh was able to incorporate the necessary lesson planning and hands-on experience into her 200-level Instructional Planning in Special Education class.

“I saw it as a great opportunity for our students to learn about enhancements for the children who need more challenges,” Cavanagh said. “It’s good for them to interact with students who are going to challenge teachers in a very different way.”

Often in public schools, the focus of special education is on children with intellectual disabilities while fewer resources are devoted to those at the other end of the intellectual spectrum.

“So many times, we think of those modifications for the low end and we just think those students who are gifted are going to be just fine on their own,” Eden said. “And they’re not. We need to enrich and deepen what they’re learning.”

Gina Scala, Ed.D., chair of ESU’s Department of Special Education and Rehabilitation, said the kids who are gifted are capable of high-level academics but some struggle with social skills and that requires the college students to up their game in instructional/management techniques. Last fall ESU students started working with ESASD intermediate level students who are gifted as well.

“You have to anticipate the intellectual needs of these kids and plan accordingly,” Scala said.

In 2017, Michelle Kirias, an adjunct faculty member and an elementary school teacher at Bethlehem Area School District, took over the IF duties from Cavanagh.  Kirias earned her bachelor’s degree in special education and rehabilitative services in 2007 and her master’s in reading in 2010, both from ESU, and says she wishes the IF Institute partnership had been in place when she was studying to be a teacher.

The ESU students meet with district gifted support teachers and Kirias twice before each monthly IF Institute event. In the first prep session, they get the theme for the day and subjects for the workshops and then brainstorm about creative, interactive ways to teach the lessons. In the second class, they present their ideas and the gifted support teachers and Kirias help them to tweak the plans to better fit the kids.

So, for example, during one previous project, ESU students worked with elementary students on building the New York City skyline out of recyclables in a darkened room where they used flashlights to teach the children about light, shadows and reflection.

“They loved it,” Eden said of her schoolchildren. “The ESU students are very creative.

“It helps the ESU students prepare at a much different level. They have to come in here understanding their topic very, very well because these students will call them out if they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

At the Feb. 21 program, in addition to the workshop on density, ESU students ran sessions on cellular structure and how memory works. Sophomore Grace Martini, an early childhood education and special education major from Monroe Township, N.J., was among the students who led a discussion on memory before playing a memory game called “I’m going on a picnic” with the children.

“I love it,” she said later. “A little boy asked us a question about how the brain and memory work. The question blew my mind. You have to be so ready for these things.”

Junior Doreen Lwanga, who was part of the ESU group that taught about cellular structure, agreed.

“You have to be knowledgeable,” said Lwanga, an early childhood and special education major from Mount Pocono, Pa. “You also have to make sure you can explain yourself and you’re consistent. Otherwise they will challenge you.”

After the children head off to their buses home, Eden debriefs the ESU students, offering insights and getting ideas on what was effective and what they would have done differently.

In 2015, the IF Institute partnership won Intermediate Unit 20’s “Excellence in Education” award. In 2016, Eden and Cavanagh gave a presentation on IF to the Pennsylvania Association for Gifted Education and Cavanagh also spoke about it in 2017 at the Council for Exceptional Children in Boston.

College of Education Dean Terry Barry, Ed.D., said the program challenges ESU education students in multiple ways.

“Naturally, we like to give our students a wide range of experiences, so when they are in their teaching settings, they can address the needs of various learners in whatever classroom they might be teaching in,” he said. “Anytime our students are gaining real world experience teaching students in the field, that’s going to be beneficial to their development.”

Kirias agrees, adding, “Every semester my students say the IF Institute is one of the highlights of the semester.”



2 Responses to “Future Teachers Challenging Students who are Gifted – and Vice Versa”


My son is a 5th grader and has been a part of this program now for several years. Not only does he look forward to a day out of his regular classes (because, kids!), but he also looks forward to his engagement with the ESU students and the new opportunities to learn in a fun, structured environment. This program makes him feel special, not different, and gives him the ability to express his thoughts and creativity to fresh sets of eyes and ears. Molding future educators…reminding them that “Special Education” does not limit itself to individuals who may struggle with their ability to learn…provides hope.


    Dr. Gina R. Scala

    Posted March 18, 2018 at 1:03 PM

    Thank you so much for your positive comments. This partnership certainly extends to parents and that level of support is outstanding. Looking forward to our continued work.