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Best Practices: Priming the Student Learning Pump

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October can be a time when smart and well-prepared new teachers find themselves becoming disenchanted with their early classroom experiences. "I know my content, I teach it well, but they just aren’t learning it!" My six years as a school-based literacy coach has helped me identify a frequent cause of this basic teaching dilemma. These otherwise promising new educators had not yet figured out how to prime the student learning pump.

One novice teacher I worked with taught 7th grade English. It was clear from my classroom observations that she knew her subject, but she seemed very uncomfortable in front of the class and came across as quite distant. She hadn't yet figured out how to use herself as a resource for student engagement. I offered to demonstrate a couple of student management and engagement strategies that might help.

Her 7th graders were working on expository writing, which required them to be able to "explain an event, concept, or idea using facts and examples." I began skimming the textbook in search of something we could analyze for this exercise. When I spotted an article on the history of chocolate, my veteran teacher-brain began to do its thing. Here's the lesson that evolved:

As a first step, I handed each student a chocolate kiss. I told them we were going to use our senses to describe it. Students first held the still-wrapped chocolate drop in their hands and quickly wrote a few sentences about how it looked and felt. Then they smelled the kiss and wrote some more. Next they removed the crinkly foil wrapper and jotted down the sounds they heard. Finally, they excitedly popped the kisses into their mouths and wrote about the taste.

My coaching notes: Many new teachers don't yet realize the importance of engaging students' interest and attention before the more rigorous work begins. When I had the students turn to the article on the history of chocolate, they were intrigued. This first burst of interest turned to engagement as we explored the chocolate kisses using the writing process. Of course, not every lesson is going to begin with a piece of candy, but I wanted to demonstrate to the teacher that a little bit of creative thinking can go a long way. Connecting the details of expository writing to an activity that triggers student interest and/or prior knowledge is much more likely to shift them into "learning mode."

In the lesson's next step, I paired up the students for partner work—an activity their novice teacher had carefully avoided out of fear she might lose all control. The article about chocolate's history was written in chronological order with dated subtitles followed by chunks of text. I handed each pair of students a timeline with writing space next to each dated subtitle. After reading aloud the first couple of chunks with the class, I modeled how I would summarize each segment in a sentence or two. I then asked the partners to take turns reading aloud the remaining material and determine together how to summarize each chunk in one or two sentences.

My coaching notes: Many new teachers avoid cooperative group work because they haven't mastered classroom management skills and worry about off-task behavior. Having students work in pairs is a good first step that even inexperienced teachers can manage with relative ease. Researchers tell us that students spend far too much classroom time either listening to the teacher or working alone, when what works best for most students (especially ELL students) is talking together. Research also shows that the ability to summarize is an essential skill for strong reading comprehension. If students can't summarize as they read, they reach the end of an article with little recall. Regular practice with summarization supports deeper understanding.

A few days later, I returned to this same teacher's classroom for a second demonstration lesson. This time I chose a recommended reading in the district instructional guide, a short story about a young boy who unwillingly visits his grandfather yet learns a great deal from his experience. I began by talking to the class about my maternal grandmother who suffered three times from a broken hip. I told them how she spent the last year of her life trapped in a bed in a rest home, even though her mind was as sharp as ever. Then I read with them a poem that hung on the wall of my aunt's house during the 17 years she cared for my grandmother. Entitled "See Me!", the poem retells the author's life from childhood through marriage and children into old age, with a constant reminder to see her whole life, not just the elderly figure she had become.

Coaching notes: Here I began weaving in two teaching strategies I firmly believe in. One thing I've learned over the years about connecting with my students is that they relish the chance to relate with the teacher on a personal level. By sharing bits and pieces of our lives, we become real to them, and someone they want to please. Another motivating factor is sharing our own passions. In this case, it was my empathy for the elderly. I grew up spending a lot of time with a relative who ran a home for the elderly. In an American culture that idolizes the young, I think it's important to remind our students that the elderly are simply people like them—grown old but with wisdom to share. When we turned our attention to the story "An Hour with Abuelo," the class was all mine, and I was especially pleased with how well they understood how a young boy could learn from an older relative.

So what did the young teacher gain from these lessons?

First of all, she was amazed that her students actually paid attention and remained on-task for an entire lesson. She tried the chocolate lesson herself with the rest of her 7th grade classes that day, and much to her delight, they all responded equally well. She actually relaxed and had fun with her students, and they recognized the difference in her demeanor. As she related to me, her students asked, "How come you’re so much fun today?" She began to realize the importance of structuring her lessons for student engagement. She also began to believe that if she planned well, she could trust her students to respond appropriately during group work.

Her first reaction after my "The Hour of Abuelo" demonstration lesson was, "I never even thought about sharing something about myself with my students." In our post-lesson chat, we talked about the kinds of personal information appropriate to share with her students and also the kinds of questions she might ask her students to help build meaningful relationships and break down invisible barriers that could be blocking the learning connection.

This year I've returned to a full-time classroom of my own, with all the challenges you might expect. Now I’m once again practicing what I preached during six years of coaching: Open up to your students, and show your interest in them. Share your personal passions, weave them into instruction whenever possible, and watch your enthusiasm spread. Never forget to prime the learning pump with activities that engage prior knowledge or student interest. Let them talk to each other. Try to relax, smile, and show your sense of humor. Be yourself.

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