September 2018
Volume XV Issue IX


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Real Teachers, Real Students, Real Classes

Bruce Oliver

Bruce Oliver, the author of Just for the ASKing!, lives in Burke, Virginia. He uses the knowledge, skills, and experience he acquired as a teacher, professional developer, mentor, and middle school principal as he works with school districts across the nation. He has written more than 150 issues of Just for the ASKing!  He is the author of Points to Ponder and also a co-author of Creating a Culture for Learning published by Just ASK.


Given the popularity of reality television, I was inspired to share some real stories about real teachers and students in real classrooms. During my career I have had the opportunity to visit hundreds of classrooms and experience firsthand the wisdom and creativity of numerous educators. These classroom visits have provided opportunities for me to observe teachers as they respond to the reactions of students, experience some practice-changing moments, and add new ideas to their repertoire. While these captured moments may not result in the purchase of a house, the settlement of a court case, or being thrown off an island, the learning was genuine.

Gold In My Ear
Eric, a first year social studies teacher, was providing his ninth grade students information about the Arab-Israeli conflicts over time in the Middle East.  At one point he referenced the Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir, who became the first female Prime Minister of Israel in 1969. As Eric continued to provide additional details about her time in office, Mike, an outgoing and inquisitive young man and asked, “Why would anyone be named Gold In My Ear?  What kind of name is that?  Is it like Dances with Wolves?” Some classmates laughed while others looked to their teacher for a response.  As Eric smiled, he moved to the board and wrote the prime minister’s name for all to see.  He realized that he learned an important lesson in his young career, i.e., the importance of providing written information for visual learners.  The humorous encounter was an important aha moment.

Two-Minute Warning
Jared taught seventh-grade science.  He had learned a new strategy at a workshop and looked for an opportunity to apply it. On the net test day, he looked out at his charges as they were quietly taking their test. Near the end of the class he rang a small bell on his desk to get the students’ attention.  He explained that he was going to try a new strategy called Two-Minute Warning. Reminding his students of the derivation of the use of the term in football, Jared told his class that they would have two minutes to look up anything they wanted, to check their memory of the content, and to make any corrections or additions to their test. Some students reacted with a puzzled look since they had never heard of such a practice before. Jared set the timer on his desk for two minutes and the students began to check their notes or look in their science books to see if their answers were correct. When the timer went off, Jared asked his students to share their reaction to the new strategy. Many students were excited about the opportunity and several students shared that they felt they would remember information they had looked up for a much longer period. Jared learned an important lesson that day: It’s about learning not about grading.

Lyrically Significant
As a group of administrators entered a high school chemistry class during walk-throughs, it was immediately obvious that the students were riveted to their teacher Amy’s delivery. As the administrators moved around the classroom waiting for opportunities to interact with individual students, Amy periodically checked for understanding with well-developed questions and she paused to allow her students to share their thoughts/reactions with fellow students. As the class period neared its end, Amy asked her students to sing the song she had taught them. She had written a song with a familiar instrumental backing the students would recognize; however, she had written new lyrics that included chemistry content. As the class members sang in unison, they did so with big smiles on their faces. At the conclusion of the song, the administrative visitors had the opportunity to ask the students questions about the lyrical content, and, to a student they could explain the chemical connection. As the group of administrators left the class, several of them commended Amy on her unique engagement of these teenagers.

Ordered Pairs
The fourth graders in Jessica’s class had recently taken a mid-term, district-wide math test. She wanted to analyze and use the assessment data in a new way.  Some students had done very well while others had not done as well. Jessica had read about a practice of pairing students who had mastered a concept with students who were still struggling.  She was intrigued by the idea that students might find the words to explain a concept to their peers that had evaded the teacher.  Jessica had asked a colleague to collaborate in helping her evaluate the effectiveness of this strategy. Both adults moved around the room and listened in on the paired students’ conversations. The results were enlightening! Peer-to-peer discussions, in many cases, were extremely successful. As one struggling student responded after a fellow student explained a math concept, “Is that all that is?’ The tutor gave the student a few additional problems to see if the student had, in fact, understood the information. It was evident that same-age individuals could find the right words in the proper context to make real learning possible. The student tutors strengthened their own learning by putting just the right words together to help a peer. Jessica was thrilled with the results.

Future Projection
James, a graphic design teacher at a juvenile detention center, had a unique approach to working with his students. He knew that they would one day have to function in the world beyond the center and thus, he focused on skill building, future employment options, and building the confidence of his students. Each student had to create a magazine cover with his own picture accompanied by an article detailing his success in a future job.  James had taught the students the technological process they used to make their covers, and he had provided feedback to each student to make sure the accompanying prose was impeccable and high quality. It was so apparent that regardless of the mistakes the young men had made in the past, their teacher understood that they had talent that could be built upon so that they would look to their futures with optimism and hope.

Personalized Learning
Beverly was an experienced teacher who was the perfect example of an individual with an open mind about learning new approaches for her work with seventh grade language arts students. At a recent faculty meeting, her principal had shared with excitement the inclusion of oral communication as a valid form of assessment in addition to traditional methods such as a test, essays, or projects. Beverly realized very quickly that some of her students did not do well on pencil and paper evaluations, and perhaps another approach might allow these students to show what they had learned in a different way. Her principal had explained that conversation in the real world was a regular way of demonstrating knowledge and progress. As a central office administrator was making classroom visits, she became excited when she observed Beverly working with a student on his understanding of similes and metaphors.  As the other class members worked independently, Beverly quietly conversed with the young man. She began by asking him to explain his understanding of each word, and provided immediate feedback to his responses.  She asked him to provide examples of each idea and, again, through her feedback she was able to move him closer to a true understanding. Beverly concluded by asking him to explain his understanding of the concepts in his own words, and telling the young man she would have a follow-up conversation with him in several days to see if he retained his understanding. If so, she concluded that she would give him credit for his learning in her gradebook. Even though it was a different type of mastery, it was mastery nonetheless.

Stress Reducer
Karen is a very talented, highly motivated and open-minded third year calculus teacher who is not only interested in her students’ learning but their emotional well being as well. She realized that her seniors were conscientious and focused on real learning and not just grades, but also frequently stressed out as they added new concepts to their knowledge base. As she observed her students during a recent test, she was fully aware of the tension in the room. Midway through the assessment, she asked for the attention of her class and asked them to put down their pencils. She then announced that they were going to have a ten-minute break to get up, move around, and go out into the hallway for a short period. During that time, the students could talk to one another about any topic, including the test.  Although the students were taken aback by the announcement, Karen explained that in jobs in the world beyond school, employees frequently talked with co-workers for clarification or information when they were stuck. When the students returned and finished their test, the climate in the room was less anxious. In the debrief near the end of class, she asked her students about this unique opportunity. In general, the class members felt it was helpful and that in many cases they just needed a memory jogger. One student asked if the practice was a form of cheating and Karen wisely replied that it was just a different way of learning.

Bonus Opportunities
The third graders were completing an assessment on their latest social studies unit.  Ethan, their teacher, told his class that for this particular test, the students had a bonus:  Two opportunities to check in with their teacher during the test.  He explained that the two chances were “phone the teacher” when each student could ask for one correct answer on the 25-multiple choice question test; secondly, each student could check in with Ethan, show him an answer and ask if it was correct.  If the answer was correct, Ethan would just smile; if it was incorrect, he would say, “Is that your final answer?” indicating that the student needed to change his response. The students reacted positively to Ethan’s new ideas and as one student noted, “He cares about whether we are successful or not and that makes him a good teacher.”

Student Engagement
Janet was an experienced eighth grade teacher who was always seeking interesting ways to engage her students.  An advocate of backward design, she planned an upcoming unit by creating her summative assessment at the beginning of her planning process, making sure that it matched the standards she would be addressing.  As she presented an overview of the unit to her students, she framed her learning by describing the upcoming learning experiences and explaining how the students’ learning would be assessed.  At the conclusion of her introduction, she surprised her students by passing out the assessment the students would be taking at the end of the unit.  She announced to her class, “As we go through our unit, I will be reminding you of the connections to the content and the assessment you are holding.” Since no other teacher had ever passed out an assessment on day one of a new unit, the students were intrigued.  She then collected the assessment from her students.  As the unit unfolded, Janet made periodic connections between the day’s lesson and their future test. Her predication came to fruition, as the students were extra attentive and participated fully in the day’s activity. 

Highlighters and Glue Sticks
Maria, a second year high school teacher, was lecturing to her freshmen class when the assistant principal came into her room and took a seat near the back of the room. The visitor noticed that each student had a half-sheet of paper, a highlighter, and a glue stick on their desks. The AP asked a student nearby to see the half-sheet paper; he assessed that it was notes from the teacher’s presentation with occasional questions embedded into the summary. Every student was attentive to Maria’s words as she spoke. At appropriate points, Maria referred her students to the lecture summarizer sheet and asked her students to highlight the important points she had made. She then asked the students to talk in groups of three about the lecture content and then respond to a question embedded in the handout that had the students discussing the historical significance of the content she had shared. Maria circulated among the students to listen to their conversations and respond to any questions before involving the students in a full-class debriefing. What was especially powerful about Maria’s approach was that the students did not have to struggle taking notes but instead listened to their teacher’s words. They also had an opportunity to make personal connections to the content as well as engage in conversations with their peers. The final act of the lesson saw the students take out their glue sticks and paste the lecture summarizer into the notebooks.  Maria’s actions showed a deep insight into the best ways for her students to truly learn.

As I consider all the amazing teaching and learning described in these scenarios, I list some  of my take-aways below. As you read through them, make your own list of points to ponder and actions to take.

  • Personalized learning has a valid place in the classroom.
  • Visual learners need words and pictures to complete their understanding.
  • Adding new practices to our repertoires is the hallmark of a true professional.
  • Keep your eyes and ears open – unexplored possibilities are in your midst.
  • Happy, engaged students make teaching much more enjoyable.
  • If we want our students to think creatively, we have to model creativity ourselves.
  • Students can be a great support for their peers when we plan structured interactions.
  • All students, especially those who have made a past misjudgment, need our support and assistance in planning for their future.
  • We must pay attention to the social and emotional needs of our students.
  • When we help our students achieve success, they realize we are on the same team.
  • Catch students off guard; try something new. These are the things they will remember.

Keep an open mind; periodically replay a past class in your mind.  Ask yourself, “What more can I do to help my students learn?” Perhaps you have a different take-away from these real life examples.  I hope that you are motivated to try something new. Whatever you do, consider the results and make sure that the learning is genuine. 



Strategies in Action


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. “Real Teachers, Real Students, Real Classes.”  Just for the ASKing! September 2018. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development. © 2018. All rights reserved. Available at