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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

Response: Important ‘Moves for Teacher Success’

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 05, 2018 25 min read
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(This is the last post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here; Part Two here; and Part Three here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What is an instructional strategy and/or teaching concept that you think is under-used/under-appreciated in the classroom that you think should be practiced more widely?

In Part One, Kathy Glass, Amber Chandler, Carol Salva, Jennifer Davis Bowman, and Janet Allen proposed their “nominees.” You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Kathy, Amber, Carol, and Jennifer on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Part Two‘s contributors were Jo Boaler, Katie Brown, Rachael George, Laura Greenstein, Dan Rothstein, David Jacob, and Greg Brown.

In Part Three, Ron Berger, Debbie Zacarian, Greg Walton, Christopher Panna, Kathy Dyer, Barb Pitchford, Dr. Paul Bloomberg, and Malke Rosenfield share their responses.

We’ll wrap up this four-part series with commentaries from Regie Routman, Gabriella Corales, Shawna Coppola, Donna Wilson, Marcus Conyers, Fred Ende, Tom Hoerr, Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, and Adam Fachler. I also include comments from readers.

Response From Regie Routman

Regie Routman is a longtime teacher and the author of many books and resources for educators, including Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success (ASCD, 2014) and Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for ALL Learners (Stenhouse, 2018). See www.regieroutman.org for information on her books, articles, PD offerings, and to contact her:

Based on my long-term experience working in diverse schools and classrooms, a powerful but greatly underused strategy for improving teaching and learning is a scaffolded conversation. A scaffolded conversation is a supported and guided conversation with a learner for the purpose of promoting rich oral language and thinking, expanding ideas for storytelling and writing, and raising expectations for what’s possible across the curriculum.

Too often, as educators—and I’ve been guilty of this myself—we go from demonstrating or explaining how to do something—which often includes specific, required criteria—to expecting learners to “just do it.” The missing step, that many students need in order to work independently and experience success, is shared experiences, and scaffolded conversations are one prime example. The teacher is still in charge shaping the child’s language and responses orally and/or in writing while the student is encouraged and supported to put forth best efforts without fear of failure.

Specifically, the scaffolded conversation gives the child the opportunity to verbalize his ideas on a topic the teacher has already demonstrated, perhaps through her own writing or through leading a discussion. Through back-and-forth conversation and guided questioning, we encourage and prompt the student to clarify and elaborate his thoughts in a meaningful and engaging manner. We also suggest language the child might want to try out.

Teachers are often surprised when I support students’ oral language facility by explicitly suggesting possibilities—that is, I put the language in their ears, which pays big dividends. For example, instead of asking questions when the child is silent or reluctant to speak, try prompting his thinking by offering various possibilities: “You could say _____,” or “You might want to say something like _____,” or “Notice how this author worded that. How might you put that in your own words?” With our verbal support, the quality of the work the student produces is likely to be higher than when we leave all the thinking to the student.

Many of these scaffolded conversations are done in a public conference with one student or a small group, with the whole class looking on and astutely listening. In that way, all students have the potential to benefit and get ideas for their own writing or literature discussion of a book or curriculum topic. A caution: avoid under-scaffolding, an approach in which we just keep asking questions, the child is mostly silent, and we ask more questions; and over-scaffolding, also ineffective, because we do almost all the talking.

Scaffolded conversations are crucial to the success of English language learners, students who struggle, and all those who yet lack the confidence, know-how, and practice to independently speak and write connected, interesting, and sophisticated thoughts. Scaffolded conversations—a temporary, but vital support—are one of the most effective techniques my colleagues and I employ for ensuring all K-12 students succeed. For one example, view the three-minute video of a scaffolded conversation; I am coaching excellent grade 2-3 teacher, Trish Richardson, with a 3rd grade student who is a second language learner.

5 principles for effective scaffolded conversations:

  • Most learners benefit from one or more meaningful, shared experiences—where an expert, often the teacher, takes the lead to guide and encourage the student to try out a task/activity without fear of failure.
  • The specific, supportive language we use with students can make it possible—or not—for them to succeed at a task that might otherwise seem too difficult for them to attempt.
  • Facility with oral language positively impacts thinking and writing ability; for example, telling the story first aids the quality and quantity of the writing.
  • Following the student’s lead and intentions (Think, “What is this student trying to say and do?”) is a priority for relevant questioning and making suggestions.
  • Successful and sustained literacy learning depends on a culture of trust and respect where learners feel safe and encouraged to make their voices heard.

A part of the response to the posed question is adapted from Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse: Portland, ME, January 2018)

Response From Gabriella Corales

Gabriella Corales presently teaches at a rural, public high school in the panhandle of Florida; she formerly taught at a charter school in the Bay Area of California. She continues to work with first generation college students, hailing from low-income backgrounds (like herself). She is originally from San Antonio. She obtained her Bachelors in English and Communication Studies from Texas State University and her Masters in Education from Stanford University:

Shifting How We Talk and Doing More Positive Narration in the Classroom

When we step back and look into our classrooms, what types of behaviors are we recognizing and naming repeatedly? Do we spend more of our time praising the positive behaviors or disapproving the negative? What phrases do we repeat and emphasize on a regular basis? If a student remembered that phrase, could it benefit them later in life? Throughout the school year, we teach our students many lessons and as a result, they internalize some of these teachings. What if we could get them to not only internalize (some of) the academic content and skills we teach, but also the productive habits and behaviors they will need in and outside of the classroom? Fortunately, we can, and it starts with shifting how we talk in the classroom. By changing how we address unsatisfactory behaviors and including more positive narration in our classroom, our students’ behaviors as well as our classroom culture can improve.

Let’s start with a common scenario: that one student talking while someone else is talking. Our natural inclination may be to say, “Stop talking.” However, what if, instead, we named what they should do, how they should behave, or what expectations they should be meeting? For example, we could shift our approach and instead say, “Now is not the time to talk... later today, we’ll talk, but now is not the time” or "[Student name]. Time and place. There’s a time to talk, and a time to listen.” This may require us to modify how we usually react to unsatisfactory behavior, however, with practice these unpleasant moments have potential to be teachable moments. Students know what we don’t want from them, so why repeat those behaviors? Instead, let’s spend our time repeating and naming the behaviors we want from our students. I would rather my students internalize, “Time and place” instead of “Stop talking"—after all, they need to know this in order to appropriately function in other contexts outside the classroom. What “go-to phrases” can you use that both address unsatisfactory behaviors and also teach students valuable (life) lessons? It may be a shift initially, however, it becomes easier. Instead of classroom management issues taking away from the class, those instances become content for a brief yet real life lesson.

This in combination with positive narration can enhance student behavior and classroom culture. Positive narration allows us to recognize individual students and to draw attention to the behaviors we want to see from all our students. Some of the best times to do positive narration is right after delivering directions, getting started on a (group) task, or after setting a new routine or procedure. This type of narration recognizes the good students are doing and allows you to build a classroom culture where students seek positive attention and are recognized for positive behaviors. There’s a socio-psychological element to positive narration as well. For instance, after setting a new routine, a teacher may say, “Oh, I see [this awesome student] doing [this routine-that-everyone-needs-to-get-down]” or, as a beloved colleague would say, “Thank you, [so-and-so] for [doing this-amazing-thing-that-more-students-need-to-do].” When students hear you’re recognizing that one student, suddenly more students begin to replicate that same behavior; it motivates them and results in a better classroom atmosphere.

Positive narration implicitly communicates that positive behavior is what’s recognized in your classroom—not negative. When inappropriate behaviors arise, address that in a way that teaches that student, and the class, about other life skills. Challenging as it may be, shifting how we address and recognize student behavior can have positive impacts on student behavior and classroom culture, and that seems worth the challenge.

Response From Shawna Coppola

Shawna Coppola is a literacy specialist at a K-6 school and an instructor at the NH Literacy Institutes, Her first book, titled Renew! Become a Better—and More Authentic—Writing Teacher, is available through Stenhouse Publishers. Connect with her on Twitter at @shawnacoppola:

Imagine a notetaking method that, unlike more traditionally-taught methods, has been proven to help students not only retain new information, but synthesize it; that provides “access” for a wider variety of learners of all ages; that’s enormously engaging. Sounds amazing, right? Well—I have some fantastic news for you! This notetaking method already exists.

Sketchnoting, or visual notetaking, has been around since people first felt compelled to compose any sort of written text, but it seemed to explode anew three years ago with the publication of Sunni Brown’s “The Doodle Revolution: Unlock the Power to Think Differently” (2014), which reminded those who read it of the scientific evidence—and the good, clean fun—behind teaching oneself to take visual notes. A combination of written text and images, sketchnoting is a way to visually represent information on the page or the screen using such tools as icons, bullets, frames, and word art (or “lettering”), and, contrary to popular belief, does not require an ounce of artistic ability—only a willingness to take a healthy risk.

Each time I have taught students to take visual notes, I have been blown away by the response from both the students and their teachers. For younger students, using words and pictures to represent their thinking—or to document new information learned—allows them to compose far more than they can by exclusively using written text. For older students, the reintroduction of drawing into their school or classroom repertoire (which, sadly, tends to dwindle the more they move up in the grades) becomes an irresistible novelty that ends up “sticking around” more often than not. And for teachers, witnessing first-hand the efficacy of sketchnoting is often just the nudge they need to try it out for themselves at their next conference or workshop.

For the sketchnoting newbie, there is a huge store of resources available online to help anyone who wishes to to get started: simply Google “sketchnoting,” “visual notetaking,” or “doodle revolution,” or take a peek at #TheEdCollabGathering session I co-facilitated with Tanny McGregor last fall. Wherever or however you decide to begin your sketchnoting journey, my best advice is to share in this learning alongside your students so that you are constructing your new knowledge of this engaging—and effective!—notetaking method together.

Sketch on!


Brown, Sunni. 2014. The Doodle Revolution: Unlock the Power to Think Differently. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.

Response From Donna Wilson & Marcus Conyers

Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers, founders of BrainSMART, are international education consultants and authors of over 20 books. To learn more, see Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains: Metacognitive Strategies, Activities, and Lesson Ideas (ASCD, 2016):

Teaching students about how their brains actually change during learning can have a positively transformative impact in the classroom, yet this fundamentally important knowledge is traditionally not taught. When kids realize that they can become smarter through study and practice, their dedication to persevere in the hard work that learning sometimes requires is enhanced.

Rudimentary lessons about the discovery that learning changes the structure and function of the brain can engross students, particularly when combined with explicit instruction on the use of cognitive and metacognitive strategies that guide them to learn how to learn. Using these tools well produces academic gains, which motivate students to take charge of their learning and as a result leads to additional success at school. When students see this process as changing their own brains, the outcome is a positive and powerful cycle.

Here are some ways to inspire students with basic knowledge about their brains and how they learn. Lessons about the power of brain plasticity to fuel learning can take many forms for students across the age span, as these ideas reveal:

Teach students about brain plasticity by teaching basic structural elements such as what dendrites, axons, and neurons are and how connections in the brain create learning. You can amplify that each person in class has an amazing, unique brain and that through effort and practice, every student will learn and remember a lot during the year. Next, it is important to tell students that when we learn, it is essential to connect new information with something we already know. Then give a few examples to aid student understanding. (Depending on the age of your students and their interest in the brain, you can go into further exploration about the brain and learning over time.)

When students want to know “Why do we have to practice so much?” You can share a great story about how brain scientists research how learning affects the brain: Researchers in the medical field were fascinated with the way expert cab drivers could make their way around the hectic streets of London so easily and often remember shortcuts without using a map. So they did brain scans and discovered that the cabbies’ hippocampal areas, the part of the brain associated with spatial reasoning, were larger than those of other adults. All those years of driving and remembering routes had literally changed their brains. Studies of musicians have found similar results of the impact of practice, practice, and practice some more. Teachers can also teach students a wide variety of strategies to us as they seek to stay engaged in their practice.

Remind students that they are in charge of their learning, and teach them valuable learning tools. For example, we advocate for teaching students many strategies such as, for example, how to gather information to help solve a learning problem, how to plan a solution, the importance of taking action in alignment with the plan, and how to learn to persist until the problem is solved. Highlight the fact that as they learn these important tools they will have resources to use across learning contexts at school, home, and at work. Students will have a greater chance of success if they are taught tools for self-regulation in the early grades of school.

Response From Fred Ende

Fred Ende is the author of Professional Development That Sticks: How Do I Create Meaningful Learning Experiences for Educators? (ASCD). Ende is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam Northern Westchester BOCES, one of New York’s 37 regional education service agencies. Connect with Fred on Twitter @FredEnde:

One practice I wish was used more, and truly thought about more deeply, is questioning. Certainly we ask questions in our work with learners, however that is often part of the problem. WE ask the questions. And, because of that, and when paired with the ping-pong nature of many conversations in our field, we may be dimming the bulb of creativity and wondering that all students enter school with. In fairness, it isn’t necessarily just about the number of questions, or who is asking them, but also about what those questions are asking, and why we are asking them. A question asked with no real value is a series of words that no one is looking to listen to. Questions must have a purpose, and just as importantly, must be of interest to the asker.

Whether we utilize a strategy like the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) designed by Luz Santana and Dan Rothstein, or whether it is through reading a text such as “A More Beautiful Question” to understand the power of the query, questioning must be emphasized. Our profession must shift from putting the power behind a right answer, and instead make asking the right questions the real priority.

Response From Tom Hoerr

Tom Hoerr is the Emeritus Head of New City School, a Scholar In Residence at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and writes the “Principal Connection” column in Educational Leadership. His latest book is The Formative Five. www.thomasrhoerr.com:

We are all different learners, possessing a unique array of strengths and weaknesses in our intelligence profile. These individual proclivities can be easily observed in how we choose to spend our spare time. Some of us love to read and write, whereas others are most comfortable in the woods or tending to a garden. Still others find respite in music or puzzles, while some lose themselves in an easel or pottery wheel. Of course, regardless of how we spend our time, some choose to be amidst others, whereas others find comfort in solitude. Yes, I have just described interests and activities that reflect multiple intelligences, described in Gardner’s Frames Of Mind.

However, despite these different intelligence interests and strengths, for too long success in school has most available to those whose learning profile matched what educators value—the linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences. Students who were strong in these in intelligences did well, whereas students with strengths in the other intelligences likely had to work harder, or perhaps did not fare as well.

The appreciation of multiple intelligences is not to discount the 3 R’s; students must learn how to read, write, and calculate. That said, recognizing MI is to understand that students can learn and can show what they know in a variety of ways. Sometimes when presenting, I will ask individuals to think back and identify the smartest person in their high school graduation class. For some, this is easy because they recall the name of the valedictorian. For many people, though, this is a complex question because they find themselves thinking about what has happened after graduation, who has succeeded and how. Invariably, they share stories of classmates who weren’t all that successful in school—their intelligence strengths did not correspond with the narrow pathway for success that teachers offered—but who have accomplished great things in the real world. Sometimes those achievements are reflected by high salaries, and sometimes not, but they are making a positive difference in the world regardless of their grade point average.

In Frames of Mind, Howard Gardner cited seven distinct intelligences: linguistic; logical-mathematical; spatial; musical; bodily-kinesthetic; intrapersonal; interpersonal. He later added the naturalist intelligence. Gardner’s thinking was based on a number of factors, including an evolutionary and bio-psychological presence, as well as amenability to psychometric measures. From my pragmatic perspective, further evidence for MI comes from observing how people choose to learn. Not everyone finds a book or mathematical equation to be the best teacher.

For 20 years after the theory of multiple intelligences (MI) was created, it was seized by many educators as an effective way to think about curriculum. Lessons were designed to enable students to learn by using their stronger intelligences; assessments were created so that students could show what they learned through art or music or movement. Teachers worked to give students experiences in an array of intelligences, including providing times to work in groups as well as opportunities to work alone. No surprise, this differentiated approach to curriculum and instruction led to increased learning and also created a sense of joyful learning. Teachers worked hard, creating curriculum and designing projects and portfolios, and they found their efforts effective and gratifying. I know this first-hand because I was the head of the New City School in St. Louis, Mo. throughout our MI implementation, beginning in 1988.

Alas, the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001 forced most educators to turn away from curriculum and teaching that reflected the various ways in which students learn. Instead, standardized tests, a very narrow pathway for academic success, were used. As the question about high school graduates illustrates, academic tests and grade-points have value, but they should be part of a much wider array based on the multiple intelligences that we all have. Looking ahead, I hope to see educators recognize and work from students’ learning strengths, their multiple intelligences, in creating pathways to learning and success.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames Of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Response From Jeffrey D. Wilhelm & Adam Fachler

Jeffrey D. Wilhelm is a Distinguished Professor at Boise State University. Adam Fachler is creator of the EMPOWER Method and and Education Consultant:

In answering “What would we like to see more of in the classroom?” two moves come to mind: PRIMING and ORIENTING.

What is priming and orienting?

PRIMING is accessing and building background knowledge, generating interest, and making connections to what learners already know and care about while ORIENTING is goal-setting, task deconstruction, and self-assessment as a starting point for a unit of study.

These two moves show up in all kinds of learning situations:

  • On a basketball team, the “priming” might be the warm-up while the “orienting” is setting a goal to beat crosstown rivals.
  • “Priming” in a classroom might be students completing a pre-assessment on a skill while the “orienting” could be their setting a goal to improve at that skill.
  • In reading, “priming” might be reviewing the previous chapter and “orienting” ourselves towards what’s coming next.

However real world these learning moves feel, though, these are exactly the kinds of things we often see left out of lesson plans. And this is a huge mistake.

Cognitive science teaches us that humans feel first and think second. (You might think it’s wise to exercise but if you don’t feel like it, what happens?)

Anyone who has ever taught knows this intuitively: we have to capture students’ emotions and get them invested in an outcome before asking them to do any considerable work towards it.

“What’s in it for me?” is a question every learner has. And a justifiable one at that. We certainly ask this question whenever we take on a learning challenge.

Said even more simply: where there’s a will, there’s a way. Where there’s no will, there’s no way.

We do our best to help learners see the relevance in the learning. If we can’t make it compelling, we make a change. Whether we’re dealing with adult teachers or adolescent students, without legitimate reasons to learn, we know we won’t get too far.

Knowing its importance, we would love to see teachers making these moves more explicitly. Why write stories? Why make arguments? Why speak publicly? Why learn about functions, the French Revolution, or mitosis? Why read, paint, or sculpt? What’s the deep purpose of this kind of learning? What’s in it for you—and for others? What work might get done in the world?

All these questions have legitimate answers, and students deserve to know them. If we can’t answer the “big why” question about a curricular topic or strategy, then we shouldn’t be teaching it.

We know, we know: standardized tests. Hands are tied and, and, and.... We get it, and we know that pressure on teachers has never been worse.

But here is the rub: Five or 10 minutes invested at the beginning of a week, or one or two lessons at the start of a unit can create a “conceptual hook” that you can hang the rest of your unit on.

That’s the work that “frontloading” can do for you and for all your learners: the activation of interest, the connection to current lived reality and problems, and the potential of sustained engagement over time that can support the deliberate practice with conceptual and strategic knowledge that is required for expertise.

In a unit on civil rights, we might want students to understand what actions have led to promoting and protecting civil rights. Students could show understanding through writing compositions about what has worked, perhaps through explorations of figures who have successfully fought for greater rights, accompanied by explanations of how their actions worked towards civil rights.

On the unit level, we might PRIME by asking an essential question like “How do we best protect and promote civil rights?” or even a more provocative sub-question like “How does this school violate your civil rights, and what can we do about it?”

You could then survey students about their level of agreement with statements like:

  • “Everyone should have the same rights no matter what.”
  • “Some people deserve to have their rights taken away.”
  • “To change what is unfair, we usually have to stand up to and resist an authority.”

To ORIENT you might share examples of famous reformers and activists and ask students to rank them in order of effectiveness, and then to justify their rankings. This will involve them in articulating critical standards. Then brainstorm with students what they will need to deliberately practice and learn to do in order to achieve those standards. Share some of how you will help them to learn what is necessary to create the personally compelling profiles that they will write at the end of the unit.

By consciously including a little dose of these two moves at the beginning of each unit, week and even lesson, we have found that we have a much higher likelihood of sustaining motivation and engagement over time... by design.

In fact, we have a whole checklist of the major moves we include in each unit, week and lesson at different levels of detail. These moves summarize the process of cognitive apprenticeship and mirror the research on motivation, optimal experience, cognition, and development of expertise:

Now, we could geek out about each of these moves, what they represent, and how they show up in big and little ways in every single learning situation across every major discipline and field, but suffice it to say, having a set of principles that remind us to—among other things—to PRIME and ORIENT learners at the outset of each learning challenge assists us to consistently capture learners’ investment and interest. Then everything else that follows is much easier. And the inevitable struggles are then productive ones about deep learning, not about lack of motivation or off-task behaviors.

Ultimately teaching is a transitive verb: we are always teaching something to somebody (or teaching somebody something). And that’s exactly why we need to PRIME and ORIENT in every unit and lesson.

Interested in more? Email us at adam@empoweryourteaching.com or visit empoweryourteaching.com to download our free PDF that explains the method.

Responses From Readers

Thanks to Regie, Gabriella, Shawna, Donna, Marcus, Fred, Tom, Jeffrey, and Adam, and to readers, for their contributions!

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