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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

How to Enhance the Craft of Teaching

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 22, 2023 13 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
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(This is the third post in a seven-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question of the week is:

What do you think are the best one-to-three things a teacher can do to improve his/her/their craft?

Carissa McCray, Ph.D., Latrese D. Younger, Kayla Towner, and Verónica Schmidt-Gómez, M.Ed., started this series in Part One.

Carissa, Latresee, and Kayla were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Aisha Christa Atkinson, M.S., Angela M. Ward, Ph.D., Meghann Seril, and Altagracia H. Delgado contributed their suggestions.

Today, Ron Berger, Nancy Frey, Ph.D., Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., and Mary K. Tedrow continue the discussion.

‘Questions and Responses’

Ron Berger has over 45 years of experience in education, 28 of those as a public school teacher. He is the author of a collection of books on education including Management in the Active Classroom and Leaders of Their Own Learning. He leads EL Education’s vision for teaching and learning:

This is a challenging question. To list a hundred things would be easy; to narrow it to one or two is daunting. One challenge: Which dimension of our teaching craft? Relationships—ensuring that all students are cared for, valued, and inspired? Inspiration—building classroom communities that bring out the best in students? Planning and Instruction—designing and leading learning experiences that are challenging and meaningful? Assessment—building student agency and ownership for growth? And what format for improving our craft? Peer observations? Professional learning communities? Working with a coach?

But the charge here is to be focused and specific, so I will choose one topic: Questions and responses. I am amazed by the power of great teachers to use questions artfully and respond to student answers in ways that open minds and doors. Our craft will profoundly improve if we can all get better at this.

When I observe lessons, most teacher questions are low-level recall questions, regardless of whether it is in a kindergarten or high school classroom (e.g., “The next step in the process is …?”, “And who discovered that?” “We call that a …”). We often don’t even realize this is the case unless we watch ourselves on video with this specific focus. It is a habit we learn as students and repeat as teachers.

But sometimes, I observe classrooms where teachers regularly push students’ thinking and open minds with their questions. They compel students to reflect on their thinking, explain it to each other, and question one another: “You have an interesting hypothesis. Can you explain it to us?” “What evidence would you point to for that?” “It sounds like you disagree with Jalen. Jalen, how would you defend your idea given this argument?” “Katelyn, I don’t think I understand your solution. Can you explain the mathematical steps you took to get there?” Questions like these empower students to own, reflect on, and defend their thinking and then debate it with their peers.

Equally important to how we as teachers ask students questions is how we respond to student questions. We often wait for the “right answer” to appear, and when it does, our faces light up, and we confirm that it is correct. Students know this game; many are passive and wait for a peer to respond. No sense in wasting time thinking or risking being wrong. They attend to the teacher’s words and face to affirm that they don’t have to think—they are off the hook.

But everything changes if the teacher gives a neutral response—an intrigued face that does not telegraph right or wrong: “Fascinating, Susana. Explain why you feel that’s right.” Students will immediately look at the teacher to read her face. They need to know: fascinating as in “correct” or fascinating as in “wrong”? Which is it? If the teacher can keep a neutral face, students have to actually stop, listen, and think. Do they agree with Susana or not? They may have to choose a side. They have to think and understand, and everyone is engaged. A neutral stance can change everything.

I worked with a sparkly-eyed teacher, John Reid, who showed his students strange and puzzling geological scenes in the field or through slides—rocks, rivers, landscapes. He asked them to describe in detail what they saw and explain the story of how they thought those scenes came to be. Every time a student came up with a hypothesis, he asked a series of probing questions, drawing out their thinking and simultaneously teaching concepts via the questions themselves. And then, he named that hypothesis after that student and recruited a different idea from another student. The students couldn’t wait to discover who was right and why, but John was inscrutable. He was excited and amused equally by all the ideas. Sometimes, he even ended a class without closure, and students eagerly rushed to research which hypothesis made the most sense.

This advice also applies to drawing out questions from students. I love visiting classrooms where the walls are covered with student questions that drive learning—anchor charts of “100 questions we have about our classroom snails”; “Questions we have about whose story is not told in our history book”; “Questions we have about the universe.”

Recently, I met with middle school teachers who were implementing “Crew” (EL Education’s name for a daily advisory-meeting structure and school culture that focuses on personal and academic wellness). An excited teacher shared a strategy she used: “I gave my Crew index cards, and they anonymously wrote questions about topics they hoped we could discuss. Their questions dealt with things like mental health, race, gender identity, body image, parents, social media, love, death, bullying. … It was eye-opening. Our conversations have been remarkable, and they really matter to my Crew.” Empowering students through recruiting, respecting, and giving time for their deeper questions can transform classroom culture.

Focusing on questions and responses may seem like a small part of our craft, but doing it well can fundamentally improve learning and life.


‘Professional Generosity’

Nancy Frey, Ph.D., is a professor in educational leadership at San Diego State and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High and Middle College. Her published titles include Visible Learning in Literacy, This Is Balanced Literacy, Removing Labels, and Rebound.

Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is a professor of educational leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High. He has published numerous articles on teaching and learning as well as books such as The Teacher Clarity Playbook, PLC+, Visible Learning for Literacy, Comprehension: The Skill, Will, and Thrill of Reading, How Tutoring Works, and most recently, How Learning Works:

Educators are knowledge workers, and the currency of our profession is the knowledge we possess. An educated society enjoys more robust economic growth and better health outcomes. Our investment in educators is long-lasting and extends far beyond the schooling years. As educators who are members of our communities, we owe it to ourselves to invest in our own professional knowledge. But to do so requires that we invest in ourselves with intention and don’t leave it to chance. Here are three practices to ensure that we continuously build our knowledge and skills.

Set annual knowledge goals and develop an action plan to attain them. The notion that experience equals skill has a shelf life—while skill development increases rapidly during the early years in the profession, it levels off after five years. A teacher with 17 years of experience isn’t likely to be more skilled than one with seven years under their belt. The difference, however, is knowledge. Teachers who pursue advanced degrees, attain national-board certification, and seek new opportunities to enhance their skills continue to invest in themselves. Take an annual inventory of your own skills and performance. Identify areas where growth occurred as well as where knowledge gaps persist. It can be helpful to meet with a trusted colleague to identify these areas. Once you’re done so, develop an action plan to address your next steps for growth.

Spend time in colleagues’ classrooms and invite them into yours. There’s a real danger in isolating oneself in a single classroom. And there is so much to learn from collegial observations of teaching. In fact, this should be a central feature of professional learning communities. Capacity-building learning walks are not evaluative observations but rather are short, scheduled 10-minute visits through a succession of classrooms. Members of a 3rd grade team may arrange with their 4th grade colleagues to walk classrooms to gain knowledge about expectations for their students next year. Geometry teachers might conduct a learning walk of the classrooms of their Algebra 1 colleagues to gain a better sense of how mathematical thinking is manifested. Schools that regularly conduct teacher-led learning walks enjoy higher degrees of relational supports among teachers as well as an increased collective responsibility for student learning across the building. Importantly, learning walks are a catalyst for the spread of effective instructional practices.

Get involved with school and district organizations and committees. You possess the ability to positively impact the professional lives of teachers through your advocacy and leadership. Your voice is an essential one for obtaining resources, building student learning, and fostering family empowerment. In the meantime, the learning you gain from such experiences is immeasurable as you interact with others on shared goals. The next time you are approached to join a committee, resist the urge to catalog why you can’t and, instead, consider how you might. Your time is precious, to be sure, but must include opportunities to interact with adults to discuss what is central to your professional life—continuous learning.

If you have detected a common thread of professional generosity, you’re right. Doing so means that you are generous to yourself in focusing on what your learning needs are. In addition, it extends to the supportive relational conditions needed for schools to be learning, not just teaching, organizations. And it is further evidenced in an intention to be a part of our institutions’ need to address inequities and gaps. We are knowledge workers—how will you invest in your knowledge this school year?


Annual Goals

Mary K. Tedrow, NBCT, taught in the high school English classroom beginning in 1978, ending her K-12 career as the Porterfield Endowed English Chair at John Handley High School in 2016. She currently teaches and directs the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project at Shenandoah University in Winchester Va. Tedrow is also a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University and the author of Write, Think, Learn: Tapping the Power of Daily Student Writing Across Content Areas:

I have benefited from including the following habits into my own teaching practice. Not only have they changed practices, they keep me engaged and growing in my chosen career.

  • Set an annual goal on an aspect of teaching for improvement. I accept this challenge each year and have added the following to my repertoire: How to lead a better whole-class discussion. This led to Socratic Seminars and then to the Harkness discussion model. How to use writing as a tool for learning in the English classroom. This was an ongoing challenge to embed writing to learn language arts concepts. How to build collaboration into class and still meet curricular goals. This challenge forced me to think about student-centered learning and to shift the responsibility for learning over to students. All of these questions arose out of a true reflection on what needed improvement.
  • Take your goals and questions to your professional community. That community could be the other teachers in your building (our resident expert let me sit in on one of her seminars and shared handouts and guidelines), online communities (I learned about Harkness discussions on an Advanced Placement discussion board), or professional books. My favorite professional books are written by teachers who have walked the talk like Nancy Atwell, Kelly Gallagher, and Penny Kittle.
  • Don’t forget to ask the students! If students know your question is an honest overture for input, they will provide valuable feedback. When I am stumped in resolving a problem, I ask students for suggestions. Some of the best changes made came directly from student feedback. In fact, I trusted them so much that the students annually revised our Staff Manual for the Journalism lab. We relied on these guidelines for producing the paper.

Thanks to Ron, Nancy, Douglas, and Mary for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@educationweek.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.

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