May 2017
Volume XIV Issue V

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Where Do I Go From Here?

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 also a co-author of Creating a Culture for Learning published by Just ASK.


As professionals, most of us keep informed about options we can integrate into our instructional programs. We attend workshops, read journals, search the Internet, participate in webinars and listen to our colleagues. There is no shortage of possibilities. When the time comes for us to determine what we will do first with our newfound knowledge, we can be stymied by the volume of material or ideas, and unable to decide where to begin. The answer, in short, is “Start somewhere.”  We should not be satisfied with complacency. One of the best pieces of advice I have heard about integrating new ideas into the teaching and learning process is do not start too big. The danger of planning grandiose lessons for students is that if things do not go well, we may feel defeated and resort to old practices. We need to select an idea or concept and try it out. Below you will see some suggestions that may help you decide how to take those important first steps.

Promoting Student Voices
At a recent luncheon, a college professor talked about some of the practices she shared with the prospective teachers in her classes. One of her thoughts that resonated with me was an idea she called, “Every voice, every day.” Some students, especially introverts, might go through an entire day (or even multiple days) without ever being expected to speak in a classroom setting. The professor noted that she encouraged her students to use instructional approaches that required students to share their thoughts or reactions on a regular basis – in full class discussion, in a small group, or with a fellow student. When classrooms become more learner-centered, the possibility of achieving this goal can become much more achievable. Instituting such a practice should be made public to student so they can monitor their personal progress.  “Every student, every day” can be a relatively uncomplicated but powerful place to start.

What do you need to start doing, keep doing, or stop doing to take steps forward with this practice?

Maximizing Instructional Time
A good place to start may be to examine current practices more closely to determine their effectiveness. University of Michigan Professor Nell K. Duke suggests literacy practices to abandon in order for teachers to “analyze and maximize use of instructional time” in the classroom.  In an Edutopia article, Dr. Duke shares five “less-than-optimal practices.” 

  • “Look Up the List” Vocabulary Instruction
    As Dr. Duke notes, we have long known that this practice does not help students to build vocabulary; instead teachers should employ techniques that “engage students in discussing and relating new words to known words.”
  • Giving Students Prizes for Reading
    Research has shown that awarding students stickers, bracelets, or fast food coupons for reading undermines reading motivation and makes students less likely to voluntarily choose reading as an activity in the future.
  • Weekly Spelling Tests
    As Dr. Duke points out, “Research suggests that the whole-class weekly spelling test is much less effective than an approach in which different students have different sets of words depending on their stage of spelling development.”
  • Unsupported Independent Reading
    Establishing a block of time for independent reading is much more productive when teachers help students with text selections and reading strategies as well as including “post-reading response activities.”
  • Taking Away Recess as Punishment
    Physical exercise has been linked to positive academic learning and can help students better focus their attention on literacy instruction.

Dr. Duke’s insights provide valuable information that can help us determine which traditional practices to eliminate or modify.  If these apply to you, what is your next step?

Providing Trauma Support
Dr. Bruce Perry, psychiatrist and senior fellow at the ChildTrauma Academy in Houston has written, “….each year, nearly one-third of all children attending U. S. public schools will have significantly impaired cortical functioning due to abuse, neglect, domestic violence, poverty, and other adversities. Understanding the effects of trauma on a child’s brain and how these effects alter the ability to learn is essential to improving our public education system.” Other sources of complex trauma include physical, sexual or emotional neglect; being a witness to excessive violence; experiencing severe poverty, deprivation or homelessness; or being stigmatized by issues involving race, religion or sexual identity. Students who experience trauma may live in a state of fear that can lead to academic struggles, absenteeism and social challenges.

Realizing that our students are bringing these burdens to our classrooms each day should prompt us to take action to address these adverse childhood experiences.  The March 2017 edition of the Kappan is devoted to addressing the topic of “emotional life and learning.” Children who have experienced trauma may be “in a persistent state of alarm” and thus, are less capable of concentrating when they come into our schools. Experts on the topic suggest that teachers create trauma-sensitive learning environments which include the following criteria:

  • Emphasize kindness and calm as a general rule of how the classroom will operate
  • Nurture growth mindsets so students can see their progress
  • Build personal relationships with students who have experienced trauma
  • Be aware of nonverbal cues by the teacher such as tone of voice, body posture and facial expressions since traumatized children pay more attention to these traits
  • Have full faculty discussions about establishing a “trauma-sensitive school.”

A good place to start might be completing and discussing the Trauma-sensitive school checklist found at Would that be useful for you?

Balancing Student Help
We have all taught students who seem to need more academic support than other children. Compassionate teachers want to help struggling students so that they can improve their learning.  However, some students can become too dependent on their teacher to come to their aid, and “opt for expedient help seeking.” Education Update managing editor Sarah McKibben cautions teachers to “resist the urge to rescue” and instead provide strategies, not solutions when students repeatedly ask for help. “The aim is to ensure that they kids are grappling constructively, not just looking for a crutch.” Guidelines for teachers to consider include the following:

  • Establish a classroom culture where struggling is not considered a negative; most successful people struggled before they achieved success
  • Convey the message that personal effort is important, not giving up or making excuses
  • Celebrate small successes and movement in the right direction instead of just getting the correct answer
  • Seeking help should not be a taboo; teachers should present the message that everyone needs input at some point
  • Explicitly teach strategies and provide scaffolding with the goal that students can be more independent learners.

Jeff Heyck-Williams, a Washington D.C. curriculum director, sums up the issue this way:  “If we’re always giving kids steps to solving a problem and not letting them grapple and figure out how to solve it themselves, then they aren’t going to be prepared to do that effectively in the future.”

Where do you start in striking a balance between supporting the help-seeking process without becoming a crutch for students?

Improving Class Discussions
How often do teachers stop to analyze how effective their class discussions are?  Perhaps some do while others may operate on autopilot following the “initiate-respond-evaluate pattern” during which the teacher asks a question, a student responds and the teacher makes an evaluative comment. Towson University Assistant Professor Lisa Barker refers to this practice as “a perennial staple in classrooms” and that most teachers may not be aware that this common practice may be disadvantageous. Dr. Barker shares that “academically productive discussions” should have certain qualities in order to avoid the autopilot syndrome.  She suggests that teachers should explicitly establish norms for speaking and listening and explaining to their students why these practices were important. The process begins with the belief that students can successfully participate in high-level discussions. Next, the teacher makes public specific ground rules and expectations as to how the discussions will transpire which include the norms for speaking and listening to one another. Thus, the students can self-assess their progress to advance the skills they wish to improve. Dr. Barker’s final piece of advice is for teachers to improve their “questions and talk moves,” and to pay specific attention when not to talk. Teachers should become “more comfortable with an awkward silence after a student response to encourage others to join in, rather than reflexively affirming, restating, paraphrasing, or asking another question.” 

Do you see a next step to take from the suggestions above that could improve class discussions?

Building Stamina
Every educator has responsibility for teaching students to be better readers and writers regardless of the subject(s) they teach. For some students, these processes can be achieved with ease and fluency. Less successful students can become mired in frustration and anxiety when they are asked to complete a reading or writing assignment. Not all educators have received training in teaching reading and thus can use ideas to support their struggling students. Author and literacy coach Paula Bourque has provides some important perspectives that may make the process less frustrating for both teacher and student.  In her recent publication Building Stamina for Struggling Readers and Writers,” she shares the following ideas:

  • Scaffolding is essential. Students need strategies along with hopes for success. Bourque writes, “If we do all the heavy lifting for students in reading complex texts or writing, they begin to lean on that support rather than learn from it.” The teacher’s goal must not be to simply have students complete a task but to help them “build a strategic system while working on tasks.”
  • Present students with a mental model (they are the ones driving their brains and learning) so that they can periodically pause to think about their word choice or structure as they are reading
  • A teacher should not simply provide platitudes when students are improving but indulge students in thinking about such questions as:
    • What was the most challenging part and what did I do to face the challenge?
    • Based on how I faced the challenge, what did I learn that you could apply when I face your next challenge?

We want our students to apply the construct of growth mindset to their learning. How might you use that same construct to decide how the application of a new way of thinking improved your practice?

Continuing the Journey
We are all familiar with the adage, “How quickly we forget.” It usually applies to the idea of learning a lesson from an unfortunate experience from one’s past. I think the words can apply to the hectic lives of educators when we encounter new ideas or possible applications to lesson design. Through no fault of our own, we can quickly forget a new concept or practice we had good intentions of implementing. The suggestions in this issue of Just for the ASKing! provide an opportunity for us to take an important next step that will add new ways of thinking to our repertoire of options.  As you consider the ideas expressed in this newsletter as well as the suggestion to “start somewhere” remember an adage that was recently shared in a workshop setting:  “Your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your reality.” 

Don’t hesitate… make a decision and take action now before you forget!



Resources and References


Barker, Lisa, “Under Discussion: Teaching Speaking and Listening,” English Journal, May 2016. Access at

 Bourque, Paula. “Building Stamina for Struggling Readers and Writers,” Educational Leadership, February 2017. Access at

Duke, Nell. “What Doesn’t Work: Literary Practices We Should Abandon,” Edutopia, June 2016. Access at 

McKibben, Sarah. “The Ins and Outs of Academic Help Seeking,” Education UpdateDecember 2016. Access at




Instruction for All Students

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. “Where Do I Go From Here?” Just for the ASKing! May 2017. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development. © 2017. All rights reserved. Available at