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Volume VIII Issue XII

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Bright Ideas and Timely Reminders

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop


One of my passions is learning new teaching approaches or rediscovering ideas that have the potential to improve teacher practice and increase student learning. My antennae are always up as I read books, journals and blogs as well as when I hear educators explain their thinking or see them create their magic first hand. I get no greater satisfaction than sharing an approach or strategy that can add to both teacher and student success.

I am a firm believer in the power of personal reflection which for me means taking the time to seek out a quiet environment and just think. In an age where multi-tasking is the norm, I think of quiet reflection as “mono-tasking.” It is in these moments that I review notes I have taken, highlight articles I have saved, or read publications I have set aside. With a clear head, I often set personal goals or determine next steps to take in my work. The result of those reflective opportunities is the discovery of new insights or reminders of time-tested approaches that I can pass on to others. It is with this motivation that I am sharing the “bright ideas” below. For some educators they will serve as validations of the work they already do; for others, they will provide inspiration for procedures and processes they can add to their repertoires.

Bright Idea #1: Students should never feel like “replaceable widgets.”
I am reminded over and over by practitioners how important relationship building is to their success as a teacher. In our haste to get our work done, we can lose sight of the necessity of viewing students as viable, valuable (and vulnerable) individuals who want to experience success, and who may not possess the skills to communicate their needs clearly and effectively. How we interact with our students can have a huge impact on their willingness to cooperate, put forth effort, and be receptive to what we want to teach them. Author Larry Ferlazzo provides an interesting perspective when he asks, “Will what I am about to do or say bring me closer to the person with whom I am communicating – or will it push me further away?” It is easy for teachers to work with students who are cooperative and who come to our classes with noticeable skills and personal motivation. However, it is important for us to not simply promote talent that is readily obvious in selected students but to develop talents in students who did not even know the talent existed. As youth advocate Bill Milliken has written, “It’s relationships, not programs, that change children. A great program simply creates the environment for healthy relationships to form between adults and children. Young people thrive when adults care about them on a one-to-one level and when they have a sense of belonging to a caring community.” Our students should never feel that they are “replaceable widgets.”

Bright Idea #2: Clarity of intentions will always win out.
I am always puzzled when I visit some classrooms where the learning outcome is unclear and where students are simply involved in an exercise that does not connect to a standard or an essential understanding. If we truly want students to learn, we must be forthright and perfectly clear about the standards we want them to master and how their learning will be measured. As one administrator recently said, “There can be no hidden agendas in our work with students.” At any given moment a visitor to a classroom should be able to ask a student what they are supposed to be learning and the student, for the most part, should be able to provide an explanation with specificity and assurance. A student recently wrote, “Teachers who played gotcha thought they were being clever and challenging when, in fact, they confused us with their evasive behavior. We simply had no clear idea about what we were supposed to learn.” Practitioners must be clear in their lesson design and up front in their communication with their students.

Bright Idea #3: Good teachers are change agents.
Some educators are rooted in tradition. They follow teaching practices that have been used for decades without stopping to consider what these practices mean and what impact they are having (or not having) on student motivation or learning. There is nothing more painful than to see students asked to complete mundane tasks that lack inspiration or any sense of creativity. The flip side of this scenario is to see students totally immersed in a learning experience; their words and actions show a true commitment to learn and master the content they are studying. Creating such environments requires a willingness to listen to the ideas of peers, to keep an open mind about possibilities that may improve learning, and to try new approaches that may or may not work the first time out. As author Leo Buscaglia has said, “The greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.”

Bright Idea #4: Our classrooms can be excellent construction sites.
The energizer bunny has it right. Our classrooms should be abuzz with activity and movement. A learner-centered classroom does not translate to chaos, bedlam, or confusion when a teacher plans well and implements clearly and carefully. A model from the Science Curriculum Improvement Study (SCIS) program is known as the 5 Es and is based on the constructivist approach to learning. Each “E” represents a phase of learning that the students experience.

  • Engage: The students make connections to past and present learning and are thus ready to focus on the new concepts or skills to be learned.
  • Explore: The students have a common base of experiences as they learn new concepts or explore the new content.
  • Explain: During this phase, the students have the opportunity to explain their understanding of the new learning and to demonstrate new skills or behaviors.
  • Elaborate: Through additional experiences, the students develop a deeper and broader understanding of the information they have learned.
  • Evaluate: Finally, the students take the time to assess their understanding and, as well, the teacher determines how well the students understand new concepts or have developed newly-learned skills.

Whether using the 5 E model or another approach, it is essential that teachers plan lessons and learning experiences that have the students be the doers, where students’ learning styles come into play, and where activity and excitement in the classroom are the rule of the day.

Bright Idea #5: Check, please!
Missed opportunities to ensure that students are learning cannot be regained. Put succinctly, there are no rewind buttons in the classroom. We can, however, rethink what we have done and make better plans for the future. One area of classroom practice that deserves a deeper examination is how we check for student understanding during a lesson. Some do not stop to see if the students are connecting to the lesson and simply move on with their lecture or presentation. Others may pause for a moment and ask such questions as:

  • “Do you get what I mean?”
  • “Got that?”
  • “Correct?”
  • “Now you have a better idea of what parallel means, right?”
  • “Everybody good on that?”
  • “Any questions?”

In each of these instances, the questioner has no idea of whether or not the students are learning from the lesson. It is paramount that classroom practitioners take the time to create ahead of time ways that they will check to see if students are following and comprehending the content that is being taught. There are tried and true practices that have been around for decades that teachers should continue to embrace as well as new practices that teachers can add to their repertoire. Frank Lyman’s Think-Pair-Share is an age-old approach; the use of whiteboards where all students write a response to a problem or a question is prominent in many current classrooms. Calling on students by drawing a popsicle stick from a jar will keep all students alerted to the fact that they may be asked to supply an answer to a question; and a quick write asks students to jot down their reaction or response to a question posed by the teacher. New Mexico educator Debra Dirksen suggests an exercise called Circle, Square, Triangle. With the three diagrams in front of them students write inside the circle what’s still “going around” in their head or what they don’t understand. Inside the square, the student writes about what is “squared away” or what they understand. And finally the students write about how they could use their new knowledge in their life, work or future study inside the triangle. Ideas teachers can use to check for understanding are all around us; we just have to make the decision to implement them.

Bright Idea #6: Follow a “noteworthy” practice can promote engagement and learning.
Often a class will begin as the teacher says, “Let’s get started. Take out your notes.” This request is typically followed by students listening to a presentation by the teacher and doing their best to write down what the teacher is saying. In some instances, the process becomes mechanical and the students are simply writing down words without making any attempt to connect meaning to what they are writing. In other instances, students struggle to keep up or give up all together. A recent practice that I observed was that of a new teacher who wisely understood that it is what the students do with the notes that matters most. The students are required to bring notebooks to class; the teacher regularly distributes a one page synopsis (notes) of the new learning that will take place. After the students glue the notes in their notebooks, the teacher can address the content by reading some of it aloud, asking the students to read and interact with the information, have the students highlight important ideas, and provide opportunities for students to discuss ideas/content/information in small groups or pairs. Throughout the lesson, students are interacting with the content rather than trying to keep up with a presentation and write down ideas they may not be processing at all. With time for learning being such a precious commodity, this approach uses that time in an extremely productive way.

Bright Idea #7: It’s the thought that counts.
I am concerned that the vast majority of the questions teachers ask in the classroom are fact-based with a right or wrong answer. Typically, one or two students might be called on to give an answer while the majority of the students sit idly by (sometimes listening, sometimes inattentive). After a brief interchange with a few students, the teacher continues on with the class only to repeat the procedure several more times before the lesson is finished. In these scenarios, not a lot of thinking is required by students and it is questionable how many of them are truly engaged in the lesson. Although it is necessary for students to learn factual information, it is more important that they learn to think, to problem solve, to seek solutions, and to examine alternatives to issues they are or will be facing in the future. In order to promote better thinking, teachers must devise better questions. By using the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, thought-provoking questions can be developed while units are being planned so that the teacher knows ahead of time how and when the questions will be posed to the students. In his article, “The Art of Questioning,” Harvard Project Zero professor Dennis Palmer Wolf notes, “It is a formidable challenge to establish and maintain a climate of inquiry with students of widely varying backgrounds and skills.” However, he further exhorts that regardless of whom they teach, skilled teachers learn to “question in distinctive ways” by posing a range of questions, sustaining and building upon the initial question, raising questions which are authentic and based on real world ideas, and inquiring in ways that demonstrate respect for their students. It is a skill that teachers develop over time and one whose importance cannot be underestimated.

Bright Idea #8: The term “double take” can have different meanings.
The term “double take” is defined as a delayed reaction or an afterthought. But as more and more schools examine their assessment and grading practices, the term has taken on a new meaning. With a greater emphasis on learning and not just grading, teachers are permitting and/or requiring their students to retake tests, redo learning tasks, or refine their work in order to reach a higher level of mastery. In their discussions, teachers are coming to grips with myths that surround the grading process. Long-held beliefs such as offering some students a second chance is harmful to the students who successfully complete the assignment the first time through, or for some students to shine, others must fail are falling by the wayside. It is a revolution whose time has come; schools which have not begun the assessment/grading discussions are challenged to begin their conversations in order to implement practices that truly need revision and clarification.

Bright Idea #9: “There is a great deal my high school teachers can learn from visiting a kindergarten class.”
The quote above is from a high school principal after participating with a group of administrators in a walk-through exercise at an elementary school. As part of a district-wide training program, administrators visited different schools and then in small groups went into classrooms to observe instruction and interact with students. When the opportunity arose, the administrators asked the students about what they were learning and how they would know when they were successful. As the administrators debriefed after a series of classroom visits, they shared insights they had learned from the experience. As the principal elaborated on his conclusion, he spoke about how the kindergarten teacher had broken up her lesson into segments, how she offered encouragement to her students, how she used Mary Budd Rowe’s Wait Time as she asked questions, how she allowed her students to share their thinking with a classmate before answering a question, and how she had her students complete a journal entry to capture their thoughts about what they had learned. Eventually the other administrators in the group chimed in with their supportive comments, and as the session concluded, the high school principal said, “Good instruction is good instruction regardless of the grade or the age of the children.”

Bright Idea #10: Teaching is not talking and learning is not listening.
As the class began, the teacher made sure that she had the attention of every student. She pointed to a side board where she had written the learning outcome for the day’s lesson and then asked the students to talk with a partner and put the outcome in their own words. With great adeptness and enthusiasm, she used an interactive white board to explain the new learning in sequential, clear steps. At the board, she tapped, dragged, pointed, and clicked as she worked at the screen. Periodically, she asked questions that students could answer only if they were making sense of the new information. Several times she asked the students to talk in their small groups, predict what might happen next in the process, and then share the group’s thinking with the entire class. Eventually she gave her students the choice to either work independently or in a collaborative group to practice and apply their new learning. The teacher’s lesson was an illustration of Pearson and Gallagher’s Gradual Release of Responsibility model. Often referred to as the “I do it, we do it, you do it” process of instruction, the teacher moved her students through the steps of direct instruction, guided instruction, and independent or collaborative learning. In this approach, the teacher helps students rely more on themselves and less on the teacher to master a process or learn a new concept. It was evident that this teacher fully understood that true learning occurs when students are provided necessary support but then gain confidence as they rely more on themselves to solidify their learning.

Hopefully, the ten “bright ideas” presented here will serve as a timely reminder of beliefs and practices that should be going on in our classrooms. As schools approach the mid-year point of the school year, there is still considerable time for teachers to add new thinking and procedures to their work with their students. When students experience success, the teacher likewise experiences a greater sense of fulfillment and accomplishment. There is no better time than the beginning of a new year to “try on” a new idea.

Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:

Oliver, Bruce. “Bright Ideas and Timely Reminders” Just for the ASKing! December 2011. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2011 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.

Free Top Ten Tips to Ask Myself as I Design Lessons

“These questions can be used to promote thinking about teaching and learning during the planning process, while teaching, and again when reflecting on the impact of the lesson either alone or with a mentor or supervisor.”

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