Great question! I'll be interested to see what different people have to say.
My fifth and seventh graders are both in gifted and talented "programs" at school, but they seem less structured than the one I was in so many years ago. Too often, I find that the differentiated instruction takes on the form of simply more work, rather than more challenging work.
This is an excellent topic for discussion. Some teachers like to use gifted students to assist those who are having more difficulty with assignments. Although this may be a good idea, I'm not sure it's always best for motivating the gifted students.
I think project-based learning works really well with gifted students. They can delve into a topic in more depth and present the information in creative ways such as a webquest, video, hands-on project, short play, etc. Another good activity for gifted students is to have them create review lessons for the rest of the class. They can use a jeopardy template in PowerPoint or some other game-oriented template for making review quizzes.
One key to working with gifted students is to keep them challenged and focused on more in-depth research.
The topic of differentiation and gifted students is one that I have researched for several years now and will be completing my dissertation on this issue within the year.
Many teachers do use gifted students as "co" or "jr" teachers, but this is not something that should be common practice. Unless a student has an interest in becoming a teacher, and has the compassion and communication skills necessary, this can be a very frustrating situation to both students. The gifted student may not be able to express their learning methods or solutions to other students without some support from the teacher - and at other times they can be very effective at doing so - it truly depends on the students involved. Many people like to quote research about collaborative teaming efforts and include statements about the practice being useful for students at all levels. What some don't know, is that those original studies often excluded the highly gifted from their study groups to begin with.
Gifted students need peers who can push them to higher or more in-depth levels of functioning. If that includes lessons on group development and communication, then collaborative groups can work - if it doesn't, then teachers should be extremely careful in their grouping. A gifted student who is trying to discover something new (to them) regarding the way numbers work - statistics for example, will be infinately frustrated to be grouped with students in a math class that have limited understanding of place value. (That is of course meant to be an exaggeration, but you get the point.)
Differentiation is a catch-all phrase these days and has many variations that do work well with gifted students. However, it would be interesting to hear what your biggest needs are for your gifted students so that we could find the best methods to use. One great way to let them move at their own pace is Curriculum Compacting, another is the MDF or Most Difficult First strategy. Both of these can be coupled with Independent Study Contracts to help your students move faster and work on more in-depth projects. The main thing - gifted students need to feel challenged - not overworked. Please don't make the mistake of just giving them more of the same old thing - they begin to experience what is often called "forced underachievement".
Sally Reis is the author of many books and articles regarding this method. It involves taking a very close look at how you want the student to show mastery of a skill, determining the true requirement for that evidence (which should free them from having to complete every activity done by students who need to move more slowly), and allowing them to work through those requirements quickly. This leaves time to move on to higher-level material by the end of the year, or to work on Independent Projects.
MDF - is a good method of allowing all students in your class to have opportunities to work on enrichment activities. The teacher selects the 5 - 10 most difficult problems from an assignment (hopefully one that can be used to show mastery/a summative evaluation). Any student who can complete those problems - without help within a reasonable amount of time, has "earned" the right to skip the rest of the lessons associated with that skill and to work on an independent project. The beauty of this is that for some skills, students who are not officially labeled as "gifted" will make the grade and will be able to work on enriching activities - uping their motivation.
Independent projects can be done using a menu, or bingo board type setup, of activities associated with deeper levels of application for the skill for which they have just shown mastery.
Your best bet - get a copy of Susan Winebrenner's book Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom. It is incredibly teacher friendly and has black-line masters for many of the tracking sheets you need to help keep up with where students are in their process. I have used it as a textbook for teaching an undergraduate course before and my college students loved it. Since going back to teaching public school, I have shared the book with many of my collegues who also enjoy mixing and matching the various strategies to their own needs.
Hope this helps!
I love "hearthside's" response. Those are all great suggestions, and as my district's gifted education specialist/elementary enrichment facilitator, I have given classroom teachers copies of the Susan Winebrenner's book.
Another idea is to Tier Assignments. After teaching the lesson, have 3 (or more) options for the follow-up assignment. Usually there is a below-level assignment (may just be fewer problems to work on, or more materials to assist students in this group), the on-level assignment, and the advanced-level assignment (taking the original assignment to the next level). It's not unlike differentiating instruction for below-level learners.
In my district I have been fortunate to be trained on differentiation. There are many tools that we use to enhance the 'gifted' child's learning without jeopardizing their own talents. I use independent studies in my room (geared toward the student that often finishes work early with advanced proficiency), I also use extension menus (another great tool when student's already show their expertise in a subject area), I would love to with thinkfinity begin incorporating more technology into the advanced learners. I look forward to reading many other ideas as well.