The 10th Friday: Learning Walls

Reading is the most important subject in school. It’s more important than all the other subjects combined. If a child can’t learn to read well and love to read, chances of that kid finding success and happiness on any level are low…Successful kids represent the spectrum of all racial, religious, economic, and cultural diversity possible, but they all have one thing in common: they read well and love it…I want my students to understand that their ability to read and write is a matter of life and death…Show me a good reader and I’ll show you a child with strong self esteem…Lives hang in the balance. If you do nothing else as a teacher, develop able and passionate readers.
-Rafe Esquith (2003)

I wonder if you agree with this bold statement? I first heard Rafe Esquith speak during an NPR interview many years ago. His comments about teaching—and teaching reading, specifically—were so compelling that I listened intently to the entire interview and subsequently read two of his books: There are NoShortcuts (2003) and Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire: TheMethods and Madness Inside Room 56 (2007). His passion regarding the lifelong importance of reading and how imperative it is that we all serve as reading teachers, regardless of our primary content area, is worth considering.

Writing about how to teach reading would fill several hundred blog posts of space—at a minimum. However, I would like to share just one resource and one strategy from that resource today. The resource is How to Teach Reading When You’re Not a Reading Teacher (2006) by Dr. Sharon Faber. Sharon’s extremely readable book contains many ideas, but I want to highlight just one:  Learning Walls—not an original idea of Sharon’s by any means, but one she has written about extensively and specifically in her book as a way to connect kids to academic vocabulary.

Learning walls can be an effective way for students to associate meaning with the words they will use in each content area. First, generate a list of essential words, phrases, concepts, formulas, or whatever students must know depending on the particular content area. Have the learning wall in a prominent place in the classroom where students will be exposed to and can interact with words before, during, and after being introduced to the content. Refer to the wall often, adding pictures, phrases, or color coding dots as you learn more about each term. You can start by simply writing each term on a 4 x 6 index card and sticking them on the wall. You may use one color for words sharing a common concept, theme, chapter, or unit of study. Select only those words that students will see and use often in readings related to your class. Remind students on a regular basis that knowing the terms will help them in their reading and writing.

Finally, try to include an activity or comment about words on the learning wall every day. The more students use the words, the more they will retain them. One simple way Faber suggests is to start class by “guessing the word.”  Choose a word, formula, concept, etc. from the learning wall. Have students number from 1 to 5 on a piece of paper. Give five clues; after each clue, students write their guesses next to the corresponding number. By the fifth clue, everyone should have guessed correctly. The first clue is always the same: “It’s one of the words on the learning wall.”  Add clues as appropriate for numbers two to four.

Although this has been around a long while (Cunningham, 1999), I still agree with these six critical elements to using a learning wall successfully:

1. Be selective, including the most essential items needed to mastery of your subject.

2. Add words gradually—perhaps five per week

3. Make words accessible by putting the wall where everyone can see it. Use big black letters and colors (according to some research, black ink on yellow paper stimulates learning).

4. Practice the words daily by writing, using, chanting.

5. Make sure Learning Wall words are spelled correctly in all student work.

6. Plan a variety of review activities to provide practice until mastery is achieved.

Esquith equates reading to a life-and-death situation. Although perhaps not literally true, reading well is certainly necessary for success in every walk of life, including every classroom in every school. Teaching reading in all content areas is a key component of the Common Core and justly so. Using learning walls is one way we can teach reading across all content areas. The power of visualization is part of long-term memory and a reading strategy we can use to help our students master difficult academic vocabulary. Taking the time to help our students make sense of difficult reading material and academic vocabulary is one way that we Teach with Passion at our schools.

Book Bits…

As I have mentioned previously, O’Connor devotes a chapter each to 15 “broken” grading practices, offering a “fix” for each problem. This week, we look at the tenth problem, along with his fix:

Grades are broken when the evidence used to determine the grade is from poor-quality assessment and, therefore, misrepresents student achievement. The fix is to ensure high-quality assessments which have:

1. A clear purpose
2. Clear learning targets
3. Sound design
4. Effective communication
5. Student involvement

The 9th Friday: Closing the Deal...

"Lesson designs that have weak closure rob students of the most important part of the lesson-the time when they have the opportunity to think about and discuss what they have learned. This is the time in the lesson when student reflection is necessary for internalization of the skills learned."
-Wolf & Supon, 1994

Obviously, the concept of lesson closure is not a new one to any educator reading this blog. Yet I agree with the authors that it is a very important component of any effective lesson, and I fear that we, on occasion, overlook it—mostly due to lack of time. Instead, we merely conclude the lesson by assigning homework or preparing for dismissal. Closure—what the teacher does to bring the lesson to an appropriate or logical conclusion by giving the learner an opportunity to bring together the things they have just learned—is an essential component of lesson planning and student learning.

Lesson closure can and should be a quick review to remind students what they learned and to assist in planning the next lesson(s). RickSmith (2004) identifies closure as the last few minutes of a lesson, which can be the most significant time of the entire lesson. Effective closure techniques can help teachers determine if additional practice is needed, if they need to reteach, or if they can move on to the next part of the lesson, unit, or concept. Closure is the final time to monitor student progress before moving on to the next learning objective. It is not enough to say, “Are there any questions?” as students begin gathering materials and tuning out. Teachers must plan for specific closing activities in order to maximize student learning. Lesson designs that have weak closure rob students of a critically important part of the lesson: an opportunity for them to think about, write about, discuss, and show what they have learned. This time of student reflection allows students to internalize the skills that have been taught. In general, lesson closure will take anywhere from two to eight minutes and is most effective when it actively engages students in reflecting on the day’s lesson. According to Pollock (2007), many teachers misunderstand closure and use it—if they use it at all—to restate in their own words what they have taught in the lesson. If teachers settle for summarizing the learning themselves, they get the benefit of the closure, not the students. Far better then, to get students actively engaged in “closing” the lesson.

Although we typically think of closure as occurring at the end of a lesson, in actuality it can occur at any time throughout the lesson when the teacher wishes to clarify key points and ensure that students have understood the intended learning objectives. Whenever it is used, closure serves the purpose of summarizing main ideas, evaluating class processes, making decisions regarding questions posed at the outset of the lesson, and providing a bridge between what has occurred and what will occur in future lessons. Used effectively, closure can help students know what they learned, why they learned it, and how it can be useful (Phillips, 1987).

It is very easy to fall into the trap of “closing” a lesson or lesson component simply by asking if there are any questions and moving forward. Again, it is important to go beyond this in order to decide whether or not students have mastered the intended learning and to add further insight and/or context to the lesson. I have seen most, if not all, of these effective closure techniques used already this year at our schools:

1. Ticket out the door: a one or two question check for understanding that students complete in a few minutes and hand to the teacher (or submit on a device) on the way out.
2. Go around the room asking each student to state on thing they learned that day.

3. 3-2-1: Students write three things they found interesting, two things they learned, and one thing they still have a question about.

4. 3-Whats: What did they learn today? So what? Now what?

5. One student interviews another about what was learned in the lesson.

6. Student assumes role of the teacher and presents a summary of the day’s learning to the rest of the class.

7. Students write a postcard to their parents about what they learned that day.

8. Students discuss how the lesson is relevant in their lives.

9. Students write in a journal two or three things they learned that day.

10. Stumping the Stars: Desks are turned so that both halves of the classroom face each other. One group asks the other group three questions about the lesson. Students get thirty seconds to answer. Reverse the teams. If a team cannot answer the question, they must research it and present the answer to the class the next day.

Of course, in a 1:1 environment, the possibilities are endless for closure activities using devices and tools such as Socrative, PollEverywhere, Kahoot, and a plenitude of other neat formative assessment sites. As always, however, it is not the technology that makes the difference, but the pedagogy driving the use of technology that makes the difference. Whether you use technology or more “old school” techniques, effective closure activities allow students to reflect upon and actively think about what happens in class. At the same time, they enable teachers to assess what students got and what they did not in order to plan for future learning. Including purposeful closure activities when planning and implementing our lessons is another way that we Teach with Passion! at our schools.

Book Bits…

As I have mentioned previously, O’Connor devotes a chapter each to 15 “broken” grading practices, offering a “fix” for each problem. This week, we look at the ninth problem, along with his fix:

Grades are broken when we assign grade based on a student’s achievement compared to other students. We should not compare students to each other; the fix is to base grades on preset achievement standards—to be criterion-referenced, not norm referenced in assigning grades. In doing so, we acknowledge that it is possible for all students to get an A or a 4 and for all students to get an F or a 1. 

The 8th Friday: Expecting the Best!

"A teacher’s beliefs about students’ chances of success in school influence the teacher’s actions with students, which in turn influence students’ achievement. If the teacher believes students can succeed, she tends to behave in ways that help them succeed. If the teacher believes that students cannot succeed, she unwittingly tends to behave in ways that subvert student success or at least do not facilitate student success. This is perhaps one of the most powerful hidden dynamics of teaching because it is typically a subconscious activity."

When I was coaching high school basketball, we adorned our locker room walls with what we hoped were motivational quotes and messages. One example was the statement: “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”  In other words, our expectations determine our level of success. In terms of basketball, if we did not think we could beat our opponent, we could chalk the game up as a loss even before the opening tip-off. Analogies can be made to teaching our students. Obviously, our expectations must be attainable. For example, although I run regularly and have completed several marathons, expecting to win the Boston

Marathon is not an attainable goal for this slow-moving geezer. I can, however, set expectations for myself that I will run several miles every other day and complete any race I enter, and improve my time from race to race. Similarly, not every student can be class valedictorian and not every student will have a spotless discipline record, but expecting students to behave according to a clearly defined student code of conduct, expecting all students to learn grade-level-appropriate material, and expecting all teachers at the school to uphold these expectations is not only possible, but necessary, to achieve optimal results.

Teacher expectations can be self-fulfilling. The power of belief one person has in another can become a propelling force for that person to begin believing in himself. Although intellectual ability obviously affects student academic performance, hard work and effort are even more important in determining a student’s level of performance. Most educators would agree that their own success was a result of hard work and effort. As educators, we must continue to communicate this message to students, expecting them to achieve at high levels as a result of their work and effort, rather than any innate ability.

Anyone who has spent any amount of time talking with me about education knows that my core charge to educators is simply this: we must clearly establish high expectations for students and then set about building relationships with them such that they will want to meet our expectations. Although this is a mere hunch based on many years of teaching experience, as opposed to any exhaustive research I have conducted on the topic, I suspect that nothing influences how well our students perform in terms of academics and behavior as much as the expectations we hold for them and the firm, fair, and consistent manner in which we adhere to them. Probably the most famous study in the area of teacher expectations for students is Rosenthal and Jacobson’s Pygmalionin the Classroom (1968) in which teachers were told at the outset that 20% of their students (randomly selected) were identified as “spurters” whose academic performance would likely grow dramatically during the year. Sure enough, at the end of the year, these 20% significantly out-gained the 80% who were not
identified as “spurters” 
on an academic achievement test.

Marzano (2007) discusses two categories of teacher behaviors that communicate expectations to students:  affective tone and quality of interactions with students. Affective tone means the extent to which teachers establish positive emotions in classrooms. In looking at quality of interactions, research shows that teachers differ in their interactions with high- versus low-expectancy students. To avoid differential treatment in terms of affective tone, Marzano suggests examining whether we treat “low-expectancy” students differently by:

  • Making less eye contact
  • Smiling less
  • Making less physical contact or maintaining less proximity
  • Engaging in less playful or light dialogue.
Relative to quality of interactions, he suggests examining whether we treat low-expectancy students differently by:

  • Calling on them less
  • Asking them less-challenging questions
  • Not delving into their answers as deeply
  • Rewarding them for less-rigorous responses
In reflecting on my own teaching career, I fear that I may have been guilty of several of the above differences in treatment of students for whom I held lower expectations. My intentions were not malicious; rather I thought I was doing “struggling” students a favor by letting them off the hook at times. Of course, as Marzano suggests, this thinking -- although well-intentioned, perhaps -- was folly. We must work to communicate high expectations for all students.

Blackburn (2007) also addresses expectations and suggests there are three ways to incorporate high expectations in your classroom:  (a ) through your words; (b ) through your actions; and (c ) through your expectations of one another in the classroom. The language we use with students clearly reflects our beliefs. Students will follow our model when they hear us using excuses or saying we can’t do something. Even more important, our actions must show that we expect all students to learn. By calling on all students and making all students demonstrate their understanding of the content, we are communicating our expectations through our actions. Finally, we must cultivate a classroom culture whereby students expect each other to learn, participate, and behave properly. Through our modeling, students can learn to reinforce positive learning and behavioral actions for each other.

Some students at our schools have absolutely no vision of anything other than where they are right now. We can help our kids create a different vision for themselves through our words (including affective tone) and actions (including quality of interactions). Understanding that our expectations for students influence outcomes and acting accordingly is another way we commit to Teaching with Passion! each day.



Book Bits…

As I have mentioned previously, O’Connor devotes a chapter each to 15 “broken” grading practices, offering a “fix” for each problem. This week, we look at the eighth problem, along with his fix:

Grades are broken when they are determined using poorly defined performance standards, such as letter-number relationships that have traditionally masqueraded as performance standards. The fix is to develop clear, criterion-referenced descriptions of a limited number of levels of achievement. Whatever symbols are used to summarize student achievement (e.g., A, B, C, D, F or 4, 3, 2, 1), each level must be described clearly with the level of proficiency precisely identified.

The 7th Friday: Teaching With Passion!

“When I was an undergraduate, I once confided to a favorite professor that I was interested in becoming a teacher. He immediately responded, ‘And if you lose your passion for it, make a change. Promise?’ I promised” (Granrose, 2001).

In perusing Extraordinary Teachers, the book in which the above quotes appears, I was struck by a list identifying characteristics of extraordinary teachers, and, in particular, by the number of references to “passion” as a must-have for effective teaching. The term conjures up many meanings to us, but as it applies to successful teachers, I prefer the simple definition “boundless enthusiasm.” 

At our schools, we have many extraordinary teachers. Ironically, one of the extraordinary 5th grade teachers I am thinking of has almost nothing in common with one of the extraordinary math teachers who comes to mind--except for their boundless enthusiasm. Their enthusiasm truly knows no bounds. They will do whatever it takes to help a student, hone their own professional skills, or assist a colleague. While some of our greatest teachers may be more creative than others or more adept at assessment techniques, all of them excel at possessing and exhibiting enthusiasm--both for their subject matter and for their students.

In the introductory chapter, the author indicates that through research, he has identified many different traits that distinguish excellent teachers, all of which tend to fall within these six areas (including my personal favorite within #1, “Passion”):

1. Extraordinary teachers have a great passion for their work. Preeminent teachers are passionate about their subject matter, their students, learning, and teaching. They feel responsible, even obligated, to help all students. They want to share the thrill of discovery with their students. They wear the title of “teacher” with pride; finding their work exciting and meaningful is the chief driving force that motivates them to succeed.

2. Extraordinary teachers know what to teach, how to teach, and how to improve. Exemplary teachers see the primary task as preparing their students for life. An ultimate goal is to produce honorable and productive members of society. They have a craftsman’s ability to choose the best tools for each particular task. They use their research knowledge as a powerful source of energy for both teaching and student learning. Top teachers will look anywhere and everywhere for help. They have the courage to accept risks and defy conventional wisdom.

3. Extraordinary teachers excel at creating exciting classroom environments. Exceptional teachers capture student interest with boundless energy and enthusiasm. Outstanding teachers grasp the importance of the first classroom meeting. They realize that by the time day one is over, most students will have already formed opinions about a teacher’s interest in teaching them, whether the teacher wants to be there, if the instructor has passion for his or her subject matter, and whether the teacher likes students. As a result, extraordinary teachers seize the opportunity to set a positive tone for the entire course during the first class session. Successful teachers are cheerful individuals; their classroom is their stage and they relish the opportunity to perform for their students--not necessarily for laughs or popularity, but to excite a student response toward learning.

4. Extraordinary teachers connect exceptionally well with students. Highly effective teachers have an uncanny ability to connect with students. They get students to trust them, to be more receptive to their advice, and to believe in what they are trying to accomplish. Their goal is to create a bond, an educational partnership, with their students. They know that understanding, acceptance, compassion, and fairness carry much weight with children. They comprehend the importance of a teacher’s character and credibility and try to be good role models.

5. Extraordinary teachers challenge students to reach their full potential. Outstanding teachers are demanding instructors who teach rigorous courses. Students are worked hard and help responsible for finishing assignments on time and for delivering quality performances. Such teachers have high standards, which are not compromised. Their motto seems to be “I welcome any and all to my classes, but don’t sign up unless your are serious about learning.”  Despite the widespread knowledge among students of the academic rigors that lie ahead, students flock to get into extraordinary teachers’ classes.

6. Extraordinary teachers get extraordinary results. The ultimate characteristic of acclaimed teachers is that they get results that far exceed the teaching norm. These teachers receive accolades from students, colleagues, and parents. Their students perform well, year in and year out, despite the fluctuations in student ability levels. They teach students many more things, they reach a greater number of students, they change the way students approach and value education. They influence attitudes and behaviors. They open minds and hearts and help students find direction, meaning, and satisfaction in their lives.

Teaching is a demanding, yet rewarding job. Without a sincere passion for all that the job entails, we are unlikely to succeed. Sincere thanks to all the teachers out there who strive each day to demonstrate what preeminent, exemplary, exceptional, highly effective, outstanding, and acclaimedteachers do--in essence, exhibiting passion for the students we teach as well as the things we want them to know and be able to do.

As always.........TWP,


Book Bits…

As I have mentioned previously, O’Connor devotes a chapter each to 15 “broken” grading practices, offering a “fix” for each problem. This week, we look at the sixth problem, along with his fix:

Grades are broken when evidence of learning from multiple sources is blended into a single grade and the communication fails to show how successful students have been in mastering individual standards/learning goals. The fix is to base grades on specific standards and to report them for each standard. We must collect information/evidence about student achievement toward specific standards and be able to discuss and/or report this with students and parents.

Cultures of Excellence

“ Culture is what enables teams of people to defy the odds and achieve the remarkable. ”  from the NfX Company Culture Manual “Culture”...