Teaching Opinion

Response: Great Teachers Focus on Connections & Relationships

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 24, 2014 9 min read
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(This is the second post in a three-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here.)

This week’s question is:

Based on your research and what you’ve seen and experienced in the classroom, what are the five best practices teachers can do to help their students become better learners?

Though the question asks for five best practices, I’ve also given readers the option to share just one or two suggestions.

In addition to publishing three posts responding to the question, you can listen to a nine-minute BAM! Radio podcast where I interview two educators, Diana Laufenberg and Jeff Charbonneau, whose written responses appeared in Part One.

In addition to contributions by Diana and Jeff in Part One, Ted Appel and special guest John Hattie shared their thoughts.

Today, Eric Jensen, Jason Flom, and PJ Caposey respond to the question.

Response From Eric Jensen

Eric Jensen is the author several books, including Turnaround Tools for the Teenage Brain: Helping Underperforming Students Become Lifelong Learners (Jossey-Bass) and Engaging Students With Poverty In Mind: Practical Strategies For Raising Achievement (ASCD):

Boosting Student Learning
© Eric Jensen 2013

Three core attitudes are necessary. First, build the hope in their lives and teach the skills of optimism. Hope can come from many sources. They include having a teacher who is an advocate for their success not an adversary. Ask for their dreams and support them. “I love that you want to be a sports trainer. Let’s make a plan so you’ll know what to do next each year.”

Second, start building mindset for success. Teach students that when things aren’t working to change your effort, strategy or attitude. These are more important than just so-called “talent.” Affirm what you want most. Say, “I love how you cnaged strategies and ended up with reaching your goal.” Or, you might say, “Your positive attitude carried you through. It’s one of your best qualities; keep using it!”

Finally, build the attitude of personal responsibility. If something’s not working, don’t point fingers, change it. If you made a mistake, say so and fix it. If you hurt someone’s feelings, apologize and move on. If you were late, don’t make excuses. Apologize and ask for how you can make up lost time.

Another core practice is to build their cognitive capacity. Most teachers notice HOW their kids are doing. So, they tell them what to do, based on their apparent “capacity.” But the best teachers are building capacity all the time. The biggest areas for leverage and getting quick academic results are in these five areas: working memory, study skills, self-regulation, auditory processing and analysis. Each of these are teachable. Many teachers assume that kids either have these or they don’t. That’s false; these are built consistently in the classrooms of high-performing classrooms. Few kids are taught basic study skills and these give kids a huge leg up on school success. Make a plan and start small. Keep adding cognitive skills over time and never, ever quit.

Third, foster grit and perseverance. Teach them what “grit” is and point it out in class when it’s used. Long-term effort is worth a lot! In the classroom, point out each time a student pushed through obstacles and worked extra hard to complete a task. “I love how you stuck with that until you completed it. Now that’s the grit I was talking about. That, my friend, will take you far in life!”

Build social skills. Teach kids basic “meet and greet” strategies as well as how to put yourself in another’s shoes. Teach basic politeness and teach kids behaviors that adults expect of them. Great social skills will go a long way in this world. These can be build in as short as ten seconds. Every single time you have social encounters, throw in the behaviors you want. “Before you head back to your seat, thank your partner.”

Finally, connect the learning to their lives. Strong teachers don’t teach content; Google has content. Strong teaching connects learning in ways that inspire kids to learn more and strive for greatness. For example, while kids are studying, learning or answering questions, “I love that contribution! That’s what will help you understand this better and help you reach your goal. Keep it up!”

Response From Jason Flom

Jason Flom is the Learning and Communications director at Cornerstone Learning Community in Tallahassee, FL. He is an ASCD Emerging Leader, class of 2010, and the founding editor of Ecology of Education, a multi-author blog exploring issues and ideas in education. He is also a BAM Commentator. Give him a follow on Twitter at @JasonFlom:

1. Employ Metacognition

Copious research studies demonstrate time and again that helping students to understand themselves as learners increases motivation and achievement. Two resources to get you started:

  • Teaching Metacognition presentation slides by Marsha C. Lovett of the Carnegie Mellon Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence
  • Learner Sketch Tool by Q.E.D. Foundation provides students a look at themselves as learners while also providing them practical strategies for leveraging their strengths. (Bonus: teachers can see their entire class’s learning sketch!)

2. Instill a Growth Mindset

When students understand the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset they are able to better understand that they can grow as learners. This empowerment can help encourage them to take additional risks. The work by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck really fleshes this concept out.

3. Design for Authentic Engagement

Model-Eliciting Activities or MEAs provide a context for students to explore a data set or challenge with the goal of helping them develop the strategies / skills within the process of the problem.

You can learn more about MEAs at Pedagogy in Action’s Examples page for helping students “invent and test models” for solving problems. And at Purdue’s School of Engineering’s “Small Group Mathematical Problem Solving” page.

4. Provide Relevant Content

Novelty is the catalyst for growth. But lasting learning necessitates the learner connect with the novel content. A middle school or high school student hardly connects with Christopher Columbus and his sailing of the ocean blue in 1492. However, put the student adaptation of Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States” in their hands and you’ll find them storming out of the classroom saying things like, “Columbus was a jerk.” Or, my favorite, “Wow. What a pig.”

When students emotionally connect to the content they are more likely to think and talk about it (read as, “analyze and process it”) long after they have left your classroom walls.

5. Leverage Student Voice

Students who find their voice is valued and empowered are more likely to take risks and exercise that voice. Doing so requires educators find connection points for students to authentically express themselves within activities.

One such example combining science and hip-hop is Science Genius, a pilot program that employs music as a catalyst and vehicle for connecting learners with scientific content. The design is fairly simple. As part of demonstrating their understanding and competency, students explain scientific concepts by writing and dropping rhymes over beats. See the winning example from this year’s competition here.

Response From PJ Caposey

PJ Caposey is Assistant Superintendent/High School Principal for Meridian CUSD 223 in Illinois. PJ has won many awards, become a sought after speaker on many topics, and has written two books in the past two years, including Teach Smart: 11 Learner-Centered Strategies That Ensure Student Success (which focuses on the instructional strategies he discusses in his response):

Communicate For Your Audience: The difference in communicating for your audience and communicating to your audience may seem slight, but it is what separates good teachers from great teachers. Great teachers work to reach their students, not simply convey the appropriate information in an understandable manner.

Question For Kids: Asking questions is something every teacher does. Asking questions that make kids think, causes true conversation, and may lead in a variety of directions is something that is far less common in classrooms. A good tip for teachers is to script questions based on Bloom’s Taxonomy - and make sure to ask questions that cause kids to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize information every single day. And yes - this is possible at every grade level.

Give the Work Back: The most successful teachers don’t ‘teach’ much in the traditional sense. When you think stand and deliver - I think average educator. When you think of a teacher that engages students so that they are active creating and solving their own problems - I think great educator. Simply put, most teachers ‘work’ too much in the classroom while great teachers find ways to give work back to the students.

Connection, Not Compliance: Great teachers focus not on compliance, but on connections and relationships. Focusing on connections and relationships is not mutually exclusive from a teacher running a tight ship, but great teachers have the goal of serving and connecting with students first - not creating a compliant culture. In fact, great teachers often use instances of misbehavior as a way to strengthen and further relationships whereas average teachers use their instances to refer students to administration. Classrooms that are defined by compliance are generally not fun places to be - and can actually be stressful and stressful environments generally produce low levels of learning.

Seek Feedback: Great teachers always want to improve. One of the best ways to improve is to continually seek feedback. The best teachers do this in three ways. First, be informed by the information provided to you in the day-to-day work of a classroom. Assessment must be continuous and ongoing - and for assessment to be meaningful - it must change teacher behavior. Second, welcome feedback. Invite colleagues and administration into your classroom. Reflection is powerful, but everyone has blind spots and a new set of eyes always helps. Lastly - ask for feedback directly through student and parent surveys.

Thanks to Eric, Jason and PJ for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. I’ll be publishing comments from readers in a few days.

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 weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers. I’ll be highlighting one particular publisher every two months, and it’s Routledge’s turn now.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to blog for free via RSS Reader or email.... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first two years of blog, you can see a categorized list of them here. You won’t see posts from school year in those compilations, but you can review those new ones by clicking in the monthly archives link on blog’s sidebar.

You can also see annual lists of my most popular posts.

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

Last, but not least, I’ve recently begun recording a weekly eight-minute BAM! Radio podcast with educators who provide guest responses to questions. You can listen and/or download them here.

I’ll be posting Part Three in a couple of days....

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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.