Students in ‘Gifted and Talented’ program at Highland School take on complex problems every week, teacher says, and they never give up

    As she throws various academic and problem-solving challenges at third through-sixth graders in Highland School’s first-year “gifted and talented” program, teacher Amber Sannes says the best part is witnessing the “A-ha!” moments when the kids figure something out.

    “I’m excited to challenge them, but they’re challenging me, too,” Sannes said this week. “I try to solve some of these multi-step math problems, and it stretches my brain, too.”

    The school board last year allocated state dollars earmarked for gifted and talented programming to hire Sannes to work each Tuesday with Highland schools who, through testing or other avenues, fall in the 95th percentile academically in their class. Although she’s home most of the time with her three young children, Sannes says she already wishes the program could expand because it’s impacting kids.

    Sannes has purchased various resources that challenge the students to problem-solve and work through various situations in a variety of ways. One example is an ultraviolet light the kids use to read invisible ink when they’re trying to work their way through complex situations.

    Sannes said she invited some district administrators to the classroom recently to watch the students try to crack a particular code. They succeeded in a little less than 35 minutes. Then it was the administrators’ turn, Sannes said. They solved it in around 40 minutes but needed some extra clues.

    “A student said the adults have a tougher time doing things like this because they’re afraid of getting it wrong,” Sannes recalled. “The kids just keep on trying. ...That’s the awesome part, they don’t give up.”

    Sannes has different grade levels come in at different times each Tuesday. She presents them with new “kits” to work their way through each week, and sometimes she’ll bring in presenters from the community, with two examples being Margo Bowerman from U of M Extension and Katie Becker from 4-H.

    One recent day the students had to construct a ski-jump prototype and then send marbles over the jump. A marble not only had to jump far, it had to land in a bucket. The longest, most accurate jump was 62 inches.

    “They went through the engineering process and had to use their logic,” Sannes said.

    They’re also using software to create 3-D objects. And they’re working on blueprints to design their own tiny home, while adhering to a supplies and design budget.

    “They’re talking about financial responsibility, and when I think back to when I was younger, that’s something I wasn’t exposed to; that was something I didn’t talk about,” Sannes explained. “They had to stay within a certain salary, and it hit them how much money their parents have to spend.”

    Highland Principal Chris Trostad said the program is valuable because it challenges kids above their grade level, which they might not get in a normal classroom setting. And it’s also an avenue, he noted, for “2E” students (twice exceptional), who are extremely talented/skilled in certain areas while also having some sort of disability to expand their minds in an opportune setting.

    “It’s been a phenomenal program so far, and Amber is the absolute perfect fit with those kids,” Trostad added.