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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.

Teaching Opinion

6 Small Instructional Changes Teachers Can Make for Big Results

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 17, 2021 16 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What is a “small teaching move” that you think is not as common as it should be? A “small teaching move” in this context is an action that would require very little prep, can easily be made into a routine or habit, and is likely to result in increased student engagement and learning.

I recently saw a series in The Chronicle Of Higher Education titled “Small Changes In Teaching” by James Lang that was published three years ago.

The idea of the series was intriguing to me, and I invited educators to nominate ideas for a K-12 version.

Today, Valentina Gonzalez, Ann Stiltner, Holly Spinelli, and Chelonnda Seroyer share their suggestions. Valentina, Ann, and Holly were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

However, before we get to their recommendations, I’d like to offer two of my own.

One is providing students with choice—-whether it be offering three options for an essay prompt, letting them choose members of a small group, or giving them seating options. Choice promotes autonomy, one of the key elements required in creating conditions in which intrinsic motivation can thrive.

Here’s a video that Katie Hull Sypnieski and I did for Ed Week on student choice:

My second recommendation is taking simple steps to differentiate instruction. This strategy is sometimes incorrectly perceived as requiring a substantial amount of planning and being difficult to implement, but, as Katie and I discuss in this next video, there are simple ways to make it happen:

And, now, to the responses from today’s contributors:

Wait Time

Valentina Gonzalez is a former classroom teacher with over 20 years in education serving also as a district facilitator for English-learners, a professional-development specialist for ELs, and as an educational consultant. Her work can be found on Seidlitz Education and on MiddleWeb. You can reach her through her website or on Twitter @ValentinaESL:

One of my favorite parts of being in classrooms with my peers is learning from them. Through the lens of an observer, I’ve noticed that some of the most effective teachers do one simple thing differently.

They wait and offer students time to think. A practice called wait time. I realize that this may seem like it’s obvious, but in reality it doesn’t happen as much as we’d like to think. Wait time is the time teachers give after posing a question, and there is an additional, lesser known wait time after students respond that is actually more important. Wait time allows students to think about answers. All students and not just the one or few that are called on.

Research on the outcomes of wait time by Mary Budd Rowe says that if teachers increase the wait time after posing a question and after students respond, there are encouraging improvements. Waiting an additional three seconds or more can enhance students’ “use of language and logic as well as in student and teacher attitudes and expectations” according to Rowe’s studies.

Studies also found that waiting after students first respond (Wait Time 2) increased the length and quality of their responses. Students provided more information and elaborated on their thoughts. Wait time slows down thinking, allowing students to process and dig deeper into content.

How does wait time support ELs?

By definition, English-learners are learning English. And in content classrooms, they are also learning the content of instruction. When we pose questions, some ELs may need wait time to process the question, translate the thought, formulate a response in English, and build courage to respond. That can often take longer than three seconds. Sometimes by the time an EL goes through all those steps, we’ve moved on to the next question if there was not sufficient wait time.

Short amounts of wait time can cause ELs to feel left behind and, possibly, as if their thoughts and ideas are not valued or as if they are not expected to participate. Imagine having ideas that you want to share but repeatedly not being given the opportunity to share them. Eventually, you might shut down. You might even form the notion that this environment is not for you, that your thoughts don’t belong.

On the other hand, supplying copious amounts of wait time is valuable to all students, including ELs. Students in elementary and secondary classrooms ranging from those receiving special education services to those receiving gifted services benefit from additional time to think.

Wait time also reduces the teacher footprint and increases the student footprint in the classroom. This is beneficial to ELs because it slows down the pace of instruction, providing valuable time for processing of information and speaking and/or listening practice.

Below is a picture of a tweet I shared about wait time. It became very popular amongst educators, I think, because wait time can easily increase student success and does not require a lot of teacher prep.

waittimegraphic

What can we do?

There are three basic moves: reflect, act, and be consistent.

First, reflect. Be aware of how much wait time you are providing.

  • Are you providing any wait time?
providingwaittime

  • Are there opportunities for all students to be thinkers?
  • Is the classroom conducive for thinking, or is it more about checking for compliance or understanding?

Next, based on your reflection, act. Be intentional about adding in more wait time so all students can think. As this becomes a routine and practice in your classroom, students will become thinkers.

Avoid repeating students’ responses. A common teacher practice in classrooms is to repeat what a student says. Rowe cautions us about repeating because it tends to stop students from elaborating or extending their verbal response. Instead, try nodding and pausing. Some teachers even say, “Tell us more about …” This encourages students to build ideas and elaborate on their thoughts.

Don’t forget wait time even when working with small groups and one-on-one with students. The opportunity to work closely with students is a great place to embed more wait time.

Be consistent. Don’t give up and forget about wait time when things get busy. Remember that wait time increases students’ success in your classroom. So when you feel pressure to “cover” it all or you feel stressed about an upcoming assessment, don’t decrease wait time. Students need it! Covering curriculum does not mean students will learn it and internalize it.

Wait time is not cumbersome. It’s not something you have to go to a professional learning session about. It isn’t even anything you need a lot of extra planning time for. You just have to do it. What some teachers do is place a small reminder somewhere they can see it while they are teaching, such as a sticky note that says, “wait time.”

Wait time is a small move any teacher can make right away with big wins!

waittimevalentina

Teacher Voice

Ann Stiltner is a high school special education teacher in Connecticut. She writes the blog from Room A212 (annstiltner.com/blog). Follow her on Twitter @fromrooma212:

Voice is one of the most important tools teachers have to engage, instruct, and support students. One’s voice is so low tech it is more like “no tech.” That might be why teachers, especially secondary teachers, forget to make use of it whether teaching in person or remotely. Teachers can make a “small teaching move” by being aware of how to adjust this “major teaching tool” to match the needs of their students and their classroom.

I learned the importance of teacher voice years ago when I began my teaching career as a preschool teacher. Nothing worked better to get the attention of 4-year-olds to clean up their toys then by giving them the direction in a singing voice. Luckily, they were more shocked and surprised by the change in my voice to notice how off tune I was. But it worked to get their attention and follow the direction while making it, at the same time, a fun game. Little did I know that tweaking this just a little works with high school students as well. Let me explain two key ways I use voice in the secondary classroom.

First, I alter the volume or tone of my voice to redirect my high school students when I need them to focus on the day’s lesson. I found it effective to use a whisper in the middle of a whole-class lecture to punctuate an important point or at the beginning of class to get students’ attention to let them know class is starting. Surprisingly, this small change in my voice is noticed by a few students who stop their side conversions or look up from their phones to ask what I am doing. I then know I have the attention of the whole class and can continue with the lesson.

At other times, I alter the speed at which I am talking and add inflections to keep my voice unpredictable and theatrical to mix things up and prevent using a flat, boring tone that would definitely cause my students to tune out.

Second, voice is an useful tool for behavior management in your classroom. Tone of voice is a way to express support and calm down a student who is upset. I use my tone to de-escalate students when they are arguing or when they are upset with me. A teacher’s voice—volume, speed, tone—can communicate more than the words they are saying. It is also a way to model for students self-regulation and the value of discussing issues calmly. As Linda Darling-Hammond says in this video: “Developing a calm, neutral, assertive voice is part of a teacher’s own self-regulation, which allows them to help students be self-regulated and to be secure in the knowledge that the teacher will be receptive to them, but also, in control.”

Together, these are just two ways voice can be a powerful tool in your classroom, whether you teach elementary or secondary students. Like any great teaching tool, there are tons of ways to adjust it to fit your students and classroom. Google has a host of resources and research on tone of voice in teaching. Begin with this article to get started thinking of ways you can incorporate the use of voice in the ways that make most sense in your classroom. It is a simple “small teaching move” that can have a large impact to create a positive learning environment that focuses on student engagement and relationships.

voiceisoneann

Saying Student Names

Holly Spinelli is a students’ rights activist with specific focuses in alternative, strengths-based pedagogies in which students’ voices are the catalyst for their education. She is a New York public high school teacher, an adjunct instructor at SUNY Orange County Community College, and an active member of the NCTE’s Committee Against Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English:

While schools and communities navigated the pandemic’s harsh realities regarding systemic inequities, student engagement surfaced as a chief concern. As an educator who works hard to cultivate authentic classroom communities where students and I support one another through the learning process, I found myself spiraling when student engagement sharply decreased just a few months into the school year.

Unfortunately, student disengagement is not a new challenge. In her article, “Student Engagement in Instructional Activity: Patterns in the Elementary, Middle, and High School Years” (2000), Helen M. Marks’ research reveals that student engagement typically decreases as students progress from elementary to high school. This is simultaneously surprising and expected. A paradox, indeed. Despite the considerable challenges pandemic teaching presented, I kept working with trusted colleagues to find solutions to keep students engaged in learning and growing individually and as a classroom community.

After a long day of hybrid teaching, I took a break and started scrolling through social media. I stumbled upon a post one of my former graduate school professors shared. He wrote about the importance of greeting each student by name—whether entering the physical or digital classroom space—and continuously using their names throughout class as they participate. I paused and read his words several times. It was such a quick adaptation that I felt ashamed to have overlooked it. I knew I greeted students when they entered the room or signed onto the online classroom, but I used generic group greetings like, “Good morning, wonderful learners,” or “Hello, fantastic humans.” For me, naming students occurred naturally in some instances but not always. I wondered how this small change would work. Naming each student seemed like it would feel forced. I feared my high school students would view this as treating them like small children, but I decided to put it to the test. After all, what did I have to lose?

At first, I was anxious that I would miss a student upon entry. I never wanted a student to be or feel left out of our classroom community. Thankfully, students entered the physical and digital space like they would in a typical year—one at a time or in small groups. The more I practiced the individual greetings, the more natural it became. Students recognized this as part of our daily practice. Some would smile and ask me how my day was going. Some responded in the chat. On rare occasions, a student would unmute and start a small conversation with me and others in the learning space. Others would let out a grunt or put their hand up in a small “hello” gesture. There were even a few who would completely ignore me. Those were not always my favorite responses, but most students were responding!

I cannot say with certainty if this technique is the reason why some of my students remained engaged during this unpredictable and overwhelming school year, but I do know that the students noticed and welcomed the practice. I recall running late to one of my morning classes and I made it into the room just as the bell rang. I tried to start class and one remote student unmuted his microphone—a miracle!—and said, “Mrs. Spinelli, I know you seem rushed, but you didn’t call my name yet.” I was stunned. The student noticed that our daily practice was interrupted. I apologized and said, “You’re right. Let me begin again.” I followed with saying good morning to each student. It took less than 30 seconds, but the shift in tone and mood was palpable.

There are no guarantees when adapting new practices in our classrooms. Some changes will work well, and others won’t. The most important thing to remember is that small moves have the potential to lead to larger outcomes. We just have to be willing to engage.

Resources:

Marks, Helen M. “Student Engagement in Instructional Activity: Patterns in the Elementary, Middle, and High School Years.” American Educational Research Journal, vol. 37, no. 1, 2000, pp. 153–184. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1163475.

hewroteholly

Transitions

Chelonnda Seroyer is a former high school English teacher who currently consults with schools and districts both nationally and internationally in the area of effective classroom management. She has worked with Harry Wong for over 16 years and is committed to helping teachers become more effective:

Understanding the value of intentional and efficient transitions can greatly increase instructional time in the classroom. I have visited many classrooms where countless minutes of instructional time were wasted because students were always “getting ready” to do something. Essentially, it felt like they were constantly in a state of “getting ready ... to get ready ... to do something.” They were getting ready to go to lunch, or getting ready to start their reading centers, etc. However, what I saw were moments where students were walking around confused, or playing with their friends, or simply not understanding what they should be doing in that moment.

There is an easy fix for this, and I can help by providing a few suggestions for you. We can frame it around Harry K. Wong’s pretransition procedure that he calls “CPR.”

Close … Prepare … Refocus

Close the activity that you are currently working on.

Example, “That was a great lesson. We are now going to end this portion of our literacy circle. Please close your books, place them under your desk, and give me a thumbs-up to let me know that you are ready for our transition directions.”

Prepare the students for what you would like them to do next. Ask them to simply LISTEN to what you are about to say and not to start transitioning until you ask them to do so.

Example, “Great job! Thank you! Now, I would like you go get your Chromebooks from the tech center row by row. Please wait until everyone in the row before you has been seated before you proceed. After you get your Chromebooks, please come back to your desk and log in to the website that I have posted on the board and give me a thumbs-up to let me know that you are logged on. Does anyone have any questions about what our transition will look like?”

Refocus the students as they move into the next activity.

Example, “Thank you for doing that so quickly. Now, I would like you to begin working on the assignment listed in the website folder with your name on it. Please open the folder, read the instructions, and begin working.”

IMPORTANT TIPS:

  • The teacher should resist the urge to continue talking while the students are accomplishing each phase of the transition. Practice NOT TALKING while the students are following your directions so that you can simply monitor them and allow them the opportunity to do what you have asked them to do.
  • Use a visual timer. This will help the students (and the teacher) stay on task for the activities and transition times.
understandingthevaluechelenda

Thanks to Valentina, Ann, Holly, and Chelonnda 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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