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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Professional Development Opinion

Response: The Best Teaching Moment Was When ‘I Let Go’

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 20, 2018 12 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What was the best moment you ever had in the classroom?

We educators have lots of highs and lows in our teaching lives. This week’s series is about celebrating the best of those times!

Today, Jen Schwanke, Amy Sandvold, Anne Jenks, and Sarah Thomas share their top moments. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with them on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Like all of us, I’ve had a lot of great moments in the classroom. My “best” one might have come in the first year of my teaching career.

I was in a once-in-lifetime situation for a high school educator—teaching a class of pre-literate Hmong refugees. None had ever been in school prior to my class.

It was an incredible year.

The Picture Word Inductive Model (PWIM) was (and is) an excellent instructional strategy for ELLs and other students. It’s a process of showing an image, labeling its items, turning those words into sentences and then into categories. Next, students convert those categories into paragraphs, put them all together, and lastly choose a title. At the end of the series of lessons, students have written the critical components that are present in any academic essay.

Near the beginning of that year, we used the PWIM for the first time with an image of all of us working in class. By the end of the week, students had completed the series of activities and all held an essay in their hands. I congratulated them on writing their first essay after only being in a school for two weeks, though they didn’t understand what the word “essay” meant and were confused. Luckily, the school had just hired a Xee, an extraordinary bilingual aide, who explained it to the class.

The class erupted in cheers and several began crying. Xee told me that many of the students had started school thinking they might never be successful.

Students were able to use that confidence-builder to carry them to countless more triumphs that year and beyond. It reinforced for me “the power of small wins”. And I knew on that day that I had made the right choice in becoming a teacher.

Response From Jen Schwanke

Jen Schwanke has been a language arts educator and school administrator for 20 years, currently serving as an elementary school principal in Dublin, Ohio. She is a graduate instructor in educational leadership and has written frequently for literacy and educational leadership publications. She is the author of the ASCD book, You’re the Principal! Now What? Strategies and Solutions for New School Leaders:

The best moment I ever had in a classroom was the moment I let go.

It was only a couple years into my teaching career. At the time, I still thought everything was a nail and I was the hammer. Or, rather, everyone was a nail. Particularly the students who struggled to conform to my classroom rules—and there were many, many rules. Be respectful. Be on time. Come prepared. Raise your hand. No talking if I’m talking. And, of course, Absolutely, positively NO GUM.

I didn’t yet know that none of these things made for a particularly positive classroom environment. Instead, they made students wary and hesitant, unable to believe that I was someone who was actually there to help them. My rules didn’t make me a teacher. They made me a compliance officer.

One student, the red-haired, freckled, grinning Kevin, scoffed at my rules from the very first day, both overtly and covertly. His energy was bigger than me, bigger than his standard-issue desk, bigger than our whole room. He could not sit in his seat and work, as I asked him to do. Instead, he fidgeted; he whispered; he shouted; he scrunched up papers and broke pencils. He had this big, obnoxious sneeze that seemed to make the windows rattle. There were five pieces of chewed gum stuck under his desk at any given time. He was like a swarm of hundreds of honeybees, swirling and buzzing and constantly moving—except there was just one of him. And he was soundly unable to meet my expectations for classroom behavior.

I tried everything. I was firm. I was kind. I cajoled. I begged. I yelled. I snarled. I met with his parents, his other teachers, the guidance counselor, even the principal. I thought about this kid at night when I was supposed to be asleep. I moved his seat, moved his books, made him sit next to my desk, sent him to the hallways to work alone.

Nothing helped. I grew angry, frustrated, and then—of course—dog-tired.

So, one day, when Kevin got up—for the 15th time—without asking—again—to sharpen his pencil, I just gave up. I literally thought, “You win, Kevin. I quit.”

And I did. I quit trying to fit my rigid rules on Kevin. Instead, I let him sit wherever he wanted. I didn’t correct him when he sprawled out on the floor in the back corner, his feet resting on the heater. When he broke a pencil, I simply handed him a new one. When he chewed gum, I looked the other way. He sneezed like a rhinoceros, I simply said, “Bless you.”

And guess what? Nothing happened. Except Kevin started looking at me with a curious and interested look, and then he relaxed, and then he started to fit in with the routines and patterns of the rest of the class. And then, the two of us started to really enjoy each other. I started to see Kevin not as my opponent, but as an interesting, curious imp of a student, someone who was fascinated by all sorts of things. And funny! He really was funny. By the end of the year, instead of resenting Kevin, I had grown fond of him. Exceedingly fond, in fact. And he of me, I think; his classwork had grown to reflect the learning of a student who has connected with a teacher he likes and respects.

That’s why the moment I quit enforcing my myriad rules was my best moment. Just like that, my rules were broken, forever and ever, and with it, I finally learned I didn’t need all of those rules. If I didn’t have them, and didn’t waste all my energy trying to enforce them, I could devote my energy to building relationships with my students.

Best moment ever.

Response From Amy Sandvold

Amy Sandvold is an experienced educator in both private and public schools. She is co-author of the bestselling The Passion Driven Classroom and The Fundamentals of Literacy Coaching. She currently practices her passion as a third grade teacher at Highland Elementary for the Waterloo Community School District in Waterloo, Iowa. You can read her Teacher in Iowa blog at and follow her on Twitter @TeacherinIowa:

Bugs. One year, I had a group of students just passionate about anything creepy and crawly. Caterpillars, moths, and ladybugs all made it into my third grade classroom that year. One day, a student brought a particularly amazing bug that changed how I taught and eventually inspired me to co-author The Passion-Driven Classroom: A Framework for Teaching and Learning. The insect was a praying mantis. Students that were sometimes unengaged in learning were suddenly on fire about this insect. I also found myself more on fire about teaching! How could I connect this student passion with our core standards and engage all of my students through this praying mantis?

We studied the habitats, predators, and prey. We became authors of informational text and were apprentice scientists taking daily lab notes in our science lab notebook. We questioned and found answers. We asked more questions. We fed him other bugs. We misted him every day. My students learned new vocabulary as they became entomologists! We named our praying mantis Bob. We loved him!

Then one day, we had another surprise. “Look, Mrs. Sandvold! Look what we found when I was getting a donut before school! It was on the side of Casey’s General Store!” One of my students had visited our local convenience store for a donut and brought back another praying mantis! We now had two! We put them in the terrarium together. The passion for learning continued.

After several more weeks, my entire classroom was transformed into a passion-driven classroom. It went beyond a ‘genius hour,’ or passion project. Instead of limiting our passion for bugs to one hour, it was woven throughout the entire day. Students discovered other passions and we created opportunities to be scientists, writers, researchers, historians, and geographers!

Then I had my best teaching moment ever. It has been several more weeks and our passion driven classroom was rocking and rolling. One morning, as our student scientists approached the terrarium, a student announced, “Oooooo! What is THAT?” A huge, white blob was connected to one of the little sticks we added to their habitat. Then, one of the students gasped, “Bob is in there, but the other bug’s head is off! Where is the body?” We had a huge mystery. What happened to Bob’s friend? What is that interesting white blob? Every student in my classroom was engaged and absolutely driven to find out more. It turned out, after student research, we had an egg mass (ootheca), and Bob was not Bob. Bob was a female, and probably ate her mate after she created her egg mass. Bob now became Bobbie.

This experience has inspired me to listen and watch each year to what my students’ passions are. It inspired me to create beginning of the year opportunities for students to learn more about themselves and to discover their passions. It has become the foundation for my classroom each year from which to connect our core standards. If we listen to our students and watch, we can engage all of our learners in our own passion-driven classrooms!

Response From Anne Jenks

Anne Jenks is an educator with 26 years of experience in teaching and school administration. She was the 2015 CUE Site Leader of the Year and the 2013 ACSA Region 13 Elementary School Principal of the Year. Currently, she is working as a consultant with an emphasis on edtech integration and STEM:

The best moment I ever had in a classroom happened two years ago. We have an ELD Academy in my school. It’s for students who are new to the United States. There is a wonderful mixture of students from all over the world, although the majority come from Mexico and Central America. A large number of students are Mixtec, an indigenous Mesoamerican people. Many of these students have never been to school before, or if they have, school was very different in their home country than in the United States.

We are fortunate to have a 1:1 iPad program at our school. The school is an Apple Distinguished Program and technology integration is very much on the forefront of our school culture. We feel that it is particularly important for our students to have access to technology as most don’t at home. Without being fluent in technology, our students, many of whom live in very challenging situations, would be left far behind in pursuing college and careers later in their lives.

One day two years ago, I walked into a 3rd grade ELD Academy classroom, and the teacher was transitioning into a lesson that involved technology. She gave instructions to the class that involved using their iPads to complete the assignment. I looked around the room and saw this little Mixtec girl, new to the country and the school, take out her iPad and do the assignment as if she had had a tablet in her hand since birth. She had come from a little mountain village in Oaxaca and had very little experience with school. It brought tears to my eyes to see this child navigate through the technology like a pro, and validated what we are trying to do at the school—level the playing field and help make our students competitive with students from more affluent communities.

Later in the year, I was preparing for a presentation at a conference. It involved coding which is very prevalent in our school. We have a subscription to a coding platform and you are able to track students’ progress though this. This same student had completed every level in the course. The most interesting thing was that she had gotten stuck on a section of one level, but instead of giving up, she did it over 61 times until she mastered it. Her grit and determination were and still are a great inspiration to me.

Response From Sarah Thomas

Sarah Thomas is a Regional Technology Coordinator in Prince George’s County Public Schools. She is also a Google Certified Innovator, Google Education Trainer, and the founder of the #EduMatch movement, a project that empowers educators to make global connections across common areas of interest:

The best moment I’ve ever had in the classroom was every day of the last two weeks before I moved to my current (district-level) position. Once I found out that I would be moving, my students and I decided to cram everything that we’ve wanted to do into those two weeks. We had so much fun learning together, as we explored drones, robotics, coding, design thinking, PBL, 3D printing, and even hoverboards. At the time, my students were obsessed, and I had promised them that I would bring one in before the end of the school year so they could experience it first-hand. This ended up being a bit challenging, as they were very popular and sold out in many places. However, it arrived just in time, and we had a great last day learning about it together. I even learned how to ride!

Thanks to Jen, Anne, Amy, and Sarah for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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This Year’s Most Popular Q&A Posts

Classroom Management Advice

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I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column.

Look for Part Two in a few days.

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