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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.

School & District Management Opinion

The 5 ‘Best’ Decisions School Districts Have Made

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 25, 2022 11 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series.)

The new question of the week is:

What are the best decisions a school district you were working for has made during your teaching career, and why was it/were they so good?

Though there will be future posts on the worst decisions districts have made, I thought it would be good to lead with the positive.

I have many concerns about the district where I teach, but I have to give them accolades when it comes to COVID. We’ve had a mask mandate for students and teachers for most of the time and an extremely robust test and vaccination program at all our schools.

When it comes to that kind of health and safety, it’s a district worth emulating.

Let’s see what others say about their own districts.

Today, Chandra Shaw, Holly Skadsem, Lana Peterson, Verónica Schmidt-Gómez, M.Ed., and Jen Schwanke share their experiences.

PD About ‘Designing Learning Experiences’

Chandra Shaw has more than 24 years of experience in Education, as a teacher, reading specialist, instructional coach, and now a literacy consultant at one of her state’s regional service centers. She is also a TEDx speaker and amateur YouTuber:

The absolute best decision a school district I worked for made was in requiring all staff, administrators, teachers, counselors, you name it, districtwide to learn about student engagement and shifting our thinking from being “teachers who write lesson plans” to “designers of learning experiences” for our students. At the time, this was done through professional development provided by the Schlechty Center, started by Phillip C. Schlechty in 1987. Whether you believe in Schlechty’s full philosophy or not, I can honestly say that this training was the single most influential PD on my own teaching practice because it made me face my own beliefs about students’ capabilities and my efficacy as a teacher.

It all began with a book study, Working on the Work. An Action Plan for Teachers, Principals, and Superintendents, in which everyone was required to read and participate in group discussions and other activities. We then learned all about student-engagement levels and how we should strive for authentic engagement in our students, which was achieved through work that was relevant, challenging, and designed for the specific students you served. This training taught us to think of our students as our “customers” and to do whatever they needed to be successful. At first, there was some pushback because the notion of “the customer is always right,” when thinking about our students did not sit well with many. Some teachers thought it was just a different way of blaming us for our students’ failings. However, over the next three years of this initiative to train all personnel, what happened as we were asked to get to “know your who” and design learning experiences that they would be compelled to engage in was amazing!

Not only did more teachers feel empowered to make learning decisions in their classes by doing what they knew to be best for their particular students, this work translated into the highest test scores on state assessments and overall job satisfaction among the staff that this district had achieved since its great demographic change, in this case a period of 10 years when the number of white students decreased by nearly 90 percent. This phenomenon is not uncommon in large suburban districts, but what was uncommon was this district’s relatively quick response in training its staff to do the work and elevate their own practices to address the different needs of the changing clientele. There was nothing wrong with our students. WE needed to fix our instruction and move from thinking that student compliance was student engagement.


An Educator-Built Online School

Holly Skadsem, the digital learning and online elementary coordinator for the Bloomington public schools, in Minnesota, and Lana Peterson, the director of community engagement at the Learning + Technologies Collaborative, are the authors of Elementary Online Learning: Strategies and Designs for Building Virtual Education, Grades K-5. The book is a practical guide for school leaders and educators based on the experience of launching New Code Academy, a K-12 online school within Bloomington:

The Bloomington school district was proactive in the spring of 2020 by listening to families and teachers who were seeking an intentionally built online school experience within the K-12 public system. Rather than purchasing a prebuilt platform and curriculum from a vendor, the program design, curriculum, and instructional strategies were created by experienced district educators and informed by research-practice partners from the Learning + Technologies Collaborative at the University of Minnesota.

The decision to build and design the online school through the leadership of district educators and with the evaluation support of university partners resulted in a more equitable, developmentally appropriate, and community approach to online learning. It also produced staff, families, and students who are invested in the success of the school because they have opportunities for input on the design and updates to the program.


Dual-Immersion Program

Verónica Schmidt-Gómez, M.Ed., is a dual-language teacher and has taught in the Hillsborough County district for 20 years. She has taught Spanish (6-8), dual-language world history, dual-language U.S. history, and dual-language civics and is currently the dual-language district resource teacher in the Florida school system:

The single best decision my school district made was to introduce and implement dual-language immersion programs. The Hillsborough County district is the 7th largest in the nation, encompassing rural, suburban, and urban areas. Our district recognized the benefit of a student’s native language in learning a second language. They implemented programs for incoming K-1 monolingual Spanish-speaking students to leverage their native language while learning English. They understood the reverse to be true as well. Incoming K-1 English-speaking students are also given the opportunity to leverage their native language while learning Spanish. They are forging the path toward biliteracy and bilingualism. Students are taught in a 50/50 model where they receive instruction half the time in English and half the time in Spanish. One teacher is the English-speaking teacher, and the other is the Spanish-speaking teacher. Bridging provides the opportunity for students to make connections between both languages.

The program looks a little different at the middle school level. Students already fluent and biliterate in Spanish and English are combined with monolingual Spanish-speaking students. At this level, students maintain, refine, and learn academic Spanish while maintaining, refining, and learning academic English. Students are taught by one teacher, who is biliterate in English and Spanish. Students receive their information in a 50/50 model also but in an AB schedule wherein one day the instruction is in English, and the next day it is in Spanish. The material covered is not repeated, but with bridging, students are able to make connections and thrive. The focus is on closing the achievement gap and giving our underserved Spanish-speaking populations equal footing toward success in high school and college.

The district’s investment in the dual-language immersion program provides the pathway toward developing global leaders in our society.

The program is now implemented in seven elementary schools across the county and two middle schools with prospects for an eighth elementary school and a third middle school. Thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, two elementary schools will be added in the 2022-23 school year through the funding, which will phase in two additional middle schools and high schools through the life of the grant.


‘The Workshop Model’

Jen Schwanke has been an educator for 24 years, teaching or leading at all levels. She is the author of three books published by ASCD, the most recent of which is titled The Teacher’s Principal. She currently serves as a deputy superintendent in Ohio:

Over two decades ago, my district made the decision to adopt an instructional philosophy grounded in the workshop model—and has maintained a commitment to it in the years since.

The decision coincided with my first year teaching English in the district. When I was trained in the workshop model, it didn’t feel like I was learning something that was novel or cutting edge, and I didn’t struggle to make sense of it in my mind. It just felt … right. I could spend a chunk of time directly teaching my students a concept, give them flexibility and practice through small-group intervention or individual conferences, and then bring them together as a group to summarize and respond to our learning. For my readers and writers, a workshop approach enhanced their learning experience because of the flexibility it provided. It allowed me to focus my attention on seeing, hearing, and helping my students in both an individual and group setting.

After the workshop model was fully accepted and adopted in language arts classrooms, my district stretched its implementation to other content areas, too. It turns out the workshop approach provides the same sort of structure for any and all content areas and can be implemented from kindergarten through high school. When done well, it works everywhere and with everyone. Workshop model grounds a teacher’s differentiation by giving the opportunity to focus on a standard while adjusting the independent or guided practice to changing student needs. It provides time for intervention and enrichment. Project-based learning and self-directed outcomes are easily embedded. There isn’t much it can’t do.

Long before the words “workshop model” came to describe a particular way to teach, it was alive and well in classrooms that required instruction, practice, and attention to de-brief. When I was in junior high in the 1980s, Mr. Topp used a workshop model in shop class. My parents, in their mid-70s now, both remember having teachers who used a similar approach in science and vocational labs. Teachers have used the workshop model for years, especially those whose content didn’t hold up under the pressures of lecture. It worked then and it works now. Workshop feels natural and right. When districts formally implement it as a universal philosophy, it gives teachers the structure to make their classrooms a place where students learn, practice, and master content—with the freedom to make it their own.


Thanks to Chandra, Holly, Lana, Verónica, and Jen for contributing their thoughts!

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.

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.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all Ed Week articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 10 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

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

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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