(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)
This week’s question is:
“I am a principal. There is a social studies teacher who could use some help making lessons more interesting and engaging. I am concerned that the lessons are the same format each day. Look up a topic on the internet then do some research. I challenged the teacher to make the lessons more engaging and the teacher’s response was, well I asked YOU to help show me what you want. The fact is I know what I don’t want, and that’s the same old boring lessons. Please help!”
For brevity’s sake, however, I’ve shortened it to:
How can principals help teachers improve their craft?
This topic has generated many insightful responses from invited contributors and readers alike. Some focus on general suggestions for how principals can help all teachers, while other specifically focus on how they can help Social Studies educators.
Part One featured commentaries from Mark Estrada, Diana Laufenberg, Bryan Harris, Ben Spielberg, Sarah Cooper and Drs. William & Pérsida Himmele. You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Diana and Mark on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.
In today’s post, Shawn Blankenship, Pete Hall, Jennifer Hindman, Steven Anderson, and Aubrie Rojee share their suggestions.
Response From Shawn Blankenship
Shawn Blankenship ( @blankenship_s on Twitter) is currently a Principal/Instructional Coach. He’s a National Board Teacher with 16 years in education. Shawn says his greatest accomplishment in education is “creating a love for learning within my students and teachers while fostering a culture in which they both wake up excited to come to school":
Effective principals work relentlessly to create a strong climate for quality instruction and to define in detail what their pedagogical expectations look, sound, and feel like in the classroom. To do this, principals must become intimately familiar with what is required to improve the quality of teaching and learning. In other words, knowing what you don’t want instructionally has very little impact on student learning. On the contrary, having a strong understanding of what you do want to see in every classroom can make change become a reality. How else can a principal model, implement, support, monitor, and communicate effectively?
Many times, good principals passionately share their perspectives and points of view with a teacher, hoping this teacher will jump on board. However, effective principals work collaboratively to develop an individual plan for every teacher and to provide support so that failure is almost impossible.
As principals, we should...
- Recognize what our teachers want to learn, as well as, what they need to learn. Then, spark their curiosity.
- Embed time for teachers to develop new knowledge and on the job learning opportunities.
- Urge teachers to take the time to practice what they learn. Knowledge is power only when we use it.
- Commend good mistakes when risks are taken and lessons are learned.
- Keep teachers in their uncomfort zone. Ask the right reflection questions and want to hear their answers. “How” and “why” and “what if” questions will stretch the boundaries of their minds.
Keep in mind, it’s unreasonable to ask a professional to change much more than ten percent a year, but it’s unprofessional to change by much less than ten percent a year. Great educators take responsibility for their own learning rather than waiting for their school district to tell them when and what to learn. As a principal, we must lead this effort. Otherwise, it will be difficult to assist teachers and to engage in relevant conversations.
Response From Pete Hall
Pete Hall (@educationhall) is a veteran school administrator and professional development agent who has dedicated his career to supporting the improvement of our education systems. He is currently a faculty member with ASCD Professional Learning Services. He is co-author of the recent books Teach, Reflect, Learn: Building Your Capacity for Success in the Classroom (ASCD, 2015), Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom (ASCD, 2016) and The Principal Influence: A Framework for Developing Leadership Capacity in Principals (ASCD, 2016).
There are two pieces of this puzzle that need solving: 1.) We need to identify the target teaching behavior that we’d like to see in this teacher’s class, and 2.) We need to clearly communicate our expectations to this teacher in a way that makes sense and is likely to lead to positive change.
Let’s address the target teaching behavior first. It’s extraordinarily difficult for any of us to hit a target that is moving, missing, or blurry. So, let’s define and describe the various “best practices” we expect to see in our classrooms. I recommend a relatively simple, direct strategy for achieving this clarity:
Step 1: Access research. In a staff, department, or team meeting, discuss a particular instructional strategy. Use excerpts from journals or books to provide a solid research base for all involved staff to grasp.
Step 2: Validate staff expertise. Further the discussion by weaving in staff members’ experiences with this particular instructional strategy. Including their perspective validates their expertise and adds staff ownership to the equation.
Step 3: Define the implementation. Coupling research and experience, ask staff to record (on chart paper is simple way to make all staff members’ thinking visible) what this particular instructional strategy looks like, sounds like, feels like, and produces when implemented successfully. Give each staff member an opportunity to contribute to each aspect of the strategy.
Step 4: Achieve consensus. After a gallery walk that allows all staff members to view and ingest each other’s thinking, follow the “Dot Protocol” (Hall, Childs-Bowen, Cunningham-Morris, Pajardo, & Simeral, 2015) - each staff member places three sticky-dots on the items listed on the posters that are most likely to result in successful implementation of the particular strategy.
Step 5: Set the expectation. From the 40-60 (or more) suggested items originally listed, use the frequency of dots on specific items to narrow the list to the top 8-10. These become the staff’s agreed-upon definition of this instructional “best practice,” and this becomes your clear expectation for implementation throughout the team, department, or building.
As for the second piece of this puzzle (communication that leads to positive change), remember that each staff member is unique and responds differently to various motivational strategies. Quite often, our teachers get into routines - habits - that determine their actions in the classroom. In order to diversify their instructional strategies, we need to help them develop new habits, and this will require them to attend to their thinking along the four components of the Reflective Cycle (Hall & Simeral, 2015):
- Are they aware of their habits and any alternatives?
- Are they planning intentionally to implement a wide array of instructional strategies?
- Are they assessing the impact of their chosen strategies?
- Are they responding to their students’ needs along the way?
In the example above, it sounds like this teacher needs to address the first two components of the Reflective Cycle: awareness and intentionality. As a leader, you can provide support for this teacher by engaging in reflective dialogue to determine how this teacher’s thinking is impacting his/her teaching. Based on the teacher’s responses, you might either suggest alternative strategies (if question 1 is the sticking point) or facilitate some instructional planning sessions (if question 2 is where the breakdown occurs). Since you’ve already defined a “best practice” and set the expectation, just be sure to weave that into your planning sessions with your teacher!
Response From Jennifer Hindman
Jennifer Hindman the Assistant Director of the School University Research Network (SURN) in the School of Education at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. She is the author of Effective Teacher Interviews: How do I hire good teachers? (ASCD, 2014) and has co-authored two books with James Stronge: The Teacher Quality Index: A Protocol for Teacher Selection (ASCD, 2006) and Handbook for Qualities of Effective Teachers (ASCD, 2004):
What would you do if I told you that there are 12 research-based strategies that engage students and promote learning? Would you be over the moon if I said that I’ve seen them work in math, science, history, English, horticulture, and a host of other classes? How about the fact that these 12 strategies work as well with high schoolers as they do with pre-schoolers? The strategies are already in the toolbox of effective teachers, they may just need to be pulled out and used. For other teachers, there is learning involved as they polish their professional practice.
Teachers need to plan for appropriate and challenging student engagement. They need to know when a lower-yield strategy such as listening (e.g., 7-minute lecture) can be leveraged such that students can move forward with their learning. Dr. Jan Rozzelle of the The School-University Research Network (SURN) at The College of William and Mary, a public university in Virginia developed a tool to help instructional leaders provided formative feedback to teachers and for teachers to use in planning and reflecting upon their students’ engagement. The 12 strategies are: setting learning goals, making choices, reading, writing, discussing text, engaging in problem solving, creating products, engaging in cooperative learning, applying meta-cognitive strategies, creating or using learning tools, self-assessing work, and asking for as well as giving specific feedback.
Take the history teacher who loves talking about the subject; however, lecture is not optimal for learning as the adage goes, the one talking is the one learning. We need to shift the dialogue to the students, scaffold content knowledge and learning opportunities so they own it. It is an investment of time in planning for engagement, energy in preparing students for the hard work they will do, and reflection the teacher will do to connect curriculum, instruction, and assessment (the CIA connection as Gareis and Grant write about in their book Teacher-made Assessments). Evidence of appropriate and challenging student engagement involve students setting learning goals, applying meta-cognitive strategies, using cooperative learning, generating graphic organizers and products, providing feedback and other high-yield strategy use (Hattie, 2009).
Professional reading of books such as Total Participation Techniques (Himmele and Himmele, ASCD) and Power Tools for Adolescent Literacy (Rozzelle and Scearce, Solution Tree) offer teachers structures engage students in their own learning. As a teacher, reflect upon how the 12 high-yield strategies are evident in your classroom and think about who is doing them (ideally the student). Lead teachers and instructional leaders, visit classrooms and focus on what students are doing - how are they engaged in their own learning?
Response From Steven Anderson
Steven Anderson is a former teacher and Director of Instructional Technology, a member of the ASCD Faculty, and a 2012 ASCD Emerging Leader. Anderson is author of The Tech-Savvy Administrator: How do I use technology to be a better school leader? (ASCD, 2014) and co-author of The Relevant Educator: How Connectedness Empowers Learning (Corwin, 2014):
For the past several years the role of the principal has been shifting from that of an instructional leader to one more resembling an office manager dealing with the day-to-day operations. The fact is, principals and others in school leadership need to shift back into more instructional roles. The principal would be better equipped to work with this teacher if they spent more time doing walkthroughs, observing teachers, and understanding the ever changing nature of the teacher role. We need leaders to take that more active role in the instruction in their buildings and provide solid instructional leadership.
Response From Aubrie Rojee
Aubrie Rojee has been a social studies educator for the past 12 years in Rhode Island, D.C., and Massachusetts and is currently the Educational Leader for Humanities at Medway High School in Medway, Massachusetts. Aubrie is also a class of 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader:
Social studies education has come quite far in the last decade and this style of lesson, with the pun intended, seems to be a bit stuck in the past. Students in social studies classrooms were formally the receptors of information: names, dates, events, etc. While it seems that your teacher is headed in a better direction in that the student is expected to be the pursuer of that information and not solely a receptor, what these lessons lack is the integration of “historical thinking skills” or the opportunity for students to think as a historian or social scientist in the field would. These desired skills include historical argumentation, contextualization, synthesis, and the analysis of various interpretations. The days of simply requiring students to know the content are gone. We must begin to teach students how to use and challenge that information. Your question to this teacher should be: so now what?
Once students have the information, what do they do with it? Are they using it to form arguments in a debate? Are they taking part in a Socratic Seminar or mock trial? Begin by working with the teacher to create lessons that have students use the information in different ways. Most importantly, these lessons should not simply be about regurgitation, but about molding, blending, and dissecting the information to respond to some greater challenge that requires higher-level thinking. Instead of just learning about what happened in the past, ask students to determine how it gives meaning to us today, how are the events connected to those in times before it, or how do views vary on that topic.
Once students are using the information as a tool, it is time to go up a rung on the ladder of rigor. While the internet offers a plethora of information, students need to recognize how that information may not always be the best source or even accurate. The web offers a wide array of primary sources that students can access virtually. Encourage the teacher to offer lessons on how to find and analyze a primary source. Suggest that the teacher holds the expectation that students use these types of sources when assigned research. In addition, encourage the teacher to think about the social studies classroom as an exceptional place to teach reading, writing, and speaking. Have him or her reach out to members in the English Language Arts department, particularly grade-level members, and see where the curricula intersect. In other words, how can this teacher enhance lessons to bring greater connections to the broader learning of students?
It seems that your teacher does indeed want to increase engagement in the classroom, which is a great place to start. It is important to recognize that the social studies classroom many teachers were trained for simply doesn’t exist anymore. While it is an exciting time for these educators, it can also be scary. There are many resources available to help your teacher explore historical thinking skills and how to incorporate them into lessons. I have no doubt that by changing the role of the student to one of an investigator, the teacher will see a positive shift in the engagement level of students and overall better learning outcomes.
Thanks to Shawn, Pete, Jennifer, Steven, Aubrie 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.
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Look for Part Three in a few days.....
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.