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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: Principals Must Support Teachers in ‘Quest of Continuous Improvement’

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 13, 2016 20 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series)

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.

Today’s post features 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.

I don’t have much to add to all the great advice that contributors are sharing. I would say, however, that a key issue in how a principal can assist teachers is trust. For example, I’ve been lucky enough in my career to have administrators whom I have wanted to come observe me during my most difficult classes, and not just see me in the easier ones. Doug Lemov (A Tiny Little Thought-Post on Growth Mindset for Grownups) and I (Does Your Principal Support Teachers Developing A Growth Mindset?) and I had a brief conversation about this issue that might be worth visiting.

Readers might also want to review previous related posts at this column: Teacher & Administrator Leadership and Teaching Social Studies

Response From Mark Estrada

Mark Estrada is the principal of Lockhart Junior High School in Lockhart, Texas. He has experience as a middle school social studies teacher, middle school instructional administrator, and elementary principal. Mr. Estrada is a class of 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader and Doctoral Fellow at The University of Texas--Austin Cooperative Superintendency Program (CSP). Follow Mark on Twitter @22southpaw:

As a campus principal, paramount to our work is the need to ensure quality instruction everyday and in every classroom. In order to do this we must support classroom teaching and learning. Supporting the teacher that you describe is complex but an important part of the job as the instructional leader.

Robyn Jackson asserts that, “Leadership is not so much getting people to follow you as it is working through other people to accomplish the vision and goals of the institution. Just as teachers might be judged by how well they handle their most challenging students, we school leaders can be judged by how we handle our most challenging teachers”. I commend you for asking this question that many of us have struggled with as campus leaders. To begin, I encourage you to start from a place that assumes that this teacher is trying to do what is right with the knowledge and skills that he/she has. I have found that often times what is lacking is my lack of clarity provided for the teacher with my feedback or suggestions. Consider the following to move forward with supporting this teacher.

Clearly define what you consider “interesting and engaging”

* Common language is often the missing ingredient that can bridge the knowledge gap between an instructional leader and a struggling teacher.

* I recommend utilizing the Rigor Relevance Framework to address your desire to improve the level of interest and engagement.

Focus on the teacher’s strengths and determine where they fall on the skill/will matrix as a starting point. Skill is the science of teaching; it involves a teacher’s pedagogical and content knowledge. It determines how well teachers know the subject and how well they can help students learn it. Will has to do with a teacher’s passion; it is the art of teaching. It involves teachers’ drive to help all students be successful. Master teachers have high skill and high will. They don’t just know their craft; they also have the drive and determination to be the best at it.

* The teacher seems to be interested in utilizing technology so I recommend capturing and building upon that strength. Help the teacher utilize technology in more appropriate and meaningful ways.

* I recommend that you read “Never Underestimate Your Teachers: Instructional Leadership for Excellence in Every Classroom” by Robyn Jackson to further your knowledge on the skill/will matrix and more specific ideas for feedback and coaching.

Consider ways to utilize the expertise on your campus to provide mentoring and coaching for the teacher

* Have the teacher visit other classrooms that model high levels of engagement and rigor.

* Utilize the teacher’s Professional Learning Community (PLC) to harness the power of the professional capacity of your campus. How do teachers collaborate to develop and design lesson plans and curriculum?

* Ensure that the teacher is receiving consistent feedback from other administrators and any other coaches or supervisors on campus providing the teacher with feedback.

I hope that you find these suggestions relevant and useful in supporting your teacher grow. Todd Whitaker is often quoted saying, “The best thing about teaching is that it matters. The hardest part about teaching is that it matters everyday.” As the campus leaders our kids are depending on us to ensure that our teachers put their best foot forward each day and that we support them in the quest of continuous improvement.

Response From Diana Laufenberg

For 16 years, Diana Laufenberg taught 7-12 grade students Social Studies in Wisconsin, Kansas, Arizona and Pennsylvania. Most recently, Diana Laufenberg partnered with Chris Lehmann to start Inquiry Schools, a new non-profit working to create and support student centered learning environments that are inquiry driven, project based and utilize modern technology. She currently serves as the Executive Director and Lead Teacher for Inquiry Schools:

Patterned classroom experiences can be mind numbing to the students as well as the teacher. While I believe powerfully in routines in the classroom and around the learning, I am not a fan of routines as a part of the learning experience. If a student knows that Monday is read out of the book and answer questions day, they are about as excited to sit in that room as they are to have a tooth pulled. Nothing says, “I see you as a person and this is a day of learning that takes into account what you have to offer.” The modern social studies classroom needs to embrace who the student is as much as what that student does. The lens and background that each individual student brings to the experience can make each discussion and debate something completely unique.

Inquiry is the gateway to less boring. Asking questions instead of answering them is a powerful start to re-engaging the student as an active learner in the classroom. Inquiry is the tool. When a student asks a question, you ask a more focused and direct question back. When a student offers an answer, craft a question that requires the student to think deeper about the topic, when they are confused about the next steps don’t tell them what to do but listen carefully to where they are stuck and ask the type of question that will send them back to their work space with a new path to investigate. Practically this can look like open ended projects with well defined essential questions, it can be mystery primary source documents as bellringer activities where students are racing to uncover where that photo came from with more speed and skill than their neighbor, it can be getting students to define complex historical concepts and only through a host of questions that they can posit an answer, it can be the teacher choosing to provoke the minds of their students with information so compelling that they cannot help but dig further to understand the why.

Once you’ve accepted inquiry as a tool in your toolbox of more modern and engaging methods, the next idea to embrace is learning visually. Students are of the 21st century. Choose resources that engage them as a modern learner and not just as a student of a bygone era. These students have incredible facility with visuals, infographics and videos. The tools that are used to process big data are used on a daily basis to create stunning visualizations of their world. Start keeping a compendium of resources that are so inviting and interesting that the students are incapable of not clicking and discovering their way through. Then, once they are hooked start to make more specific correlations and relationships to the content you are working with in the classroom. What started WWII cannot be your hook. The hook is showing them this graphic and letting them spin for awhile with questions. Let them be a little overwhelmed and confused, ask them for questions and answer them with even better ones. Encourage them to seek out answers and even more questions. From that place you will be able to jump into the content from a completely different space. That is where learning becomes interesting and exciting.

Value the evolution of sophisticated questioning amongst your students and use resources that wield the vast tools of the modern age to propel them into the content. These are two of the many ways to make the social studies class less boring.

Response From Bryan Harris

Dr. Bryan Harris serves as the Director of Professional Development for the Casa Grande Elementary School District in Arizona. He is the author of 3 highly-regarded books published by Routledge and is a popular speaker and workshop leader who specializes in helping teachers utilize effective student engagement and classroom management strategies. He can be reached via his website:

When a teacher asks for advice, guidance, or assistance with lesson planning from their principal, we should view it as an amazing opportunity to do a couple of things. First, it offers us the chance to mold the kind of experiences students will have those classrooms. Second, it helps us to build instructional credibility.

I’ll speak first to the issue of credibility. The job of leading a school is incredibly complex and challenging. In addition to filling all the traditional roles of a manager, the last decade of research and practice has highlighted the need for principals to be instructional leaders. As instructional leaders we are expected to have a depth of knowledge regarding instruction, assessment, classroom management, communication, and the like. As leaders, we need to be able to succinctly and effectively communicate our vision of effective instruction. This communication includes exactly what we expect to see of students and teachers. For example, we need to be able to define concepts like student engagement in positive terms with specific examples. We cannot rely on general advice or platitudes such as “make it more engaging for students” nor can expect positive results by telling teachers what we don’t want to see. The bottom line is this: before we set out to help teachers improve instruction, we need to get our own house in order. We need to be able to effectively communicate what we believe about instruction and we need to be able to give specific examples of how to put those beliefs into practice in the classroom. If we cannot do that, we have no business offering advice to teachers.

Once we have established instructional credibility via specific examples, strategies, and practices, the next step is to sit with teachers to help them plan lessons and experiences for their students. This second step, by the way, is what instructional leaders crave. Most principals are former teachers and we love to “get our hands dirty” and plan lessons for kids. So much of our time is occupied tackling non-instructional issues and problems, the idea of actually influencing instruction is exciting. Given that we need to we need to be able to help a wide variety of teachers in any given day, one approach would be to develop a series of questions that guide the thinking of teachers as they plan lessons. These general guiding questions allow us to help mold the instruction without having to be experts in every grade level or content area.

Examples of guiding questions to ask during lesson planning:

  • What is it we want our students to learn?

  • How do we want to them to be different after the lesson?

  • What is the most essential knowledge or skill that you want students to develop or refine?

  • Given those objectives, what are the most effective strategies to help students learn?

  • Given what you know about your students, how might they respond to (insert the name of a specific strategy)?

  • How will we know that students understood ___________?

  • When you have taught this lesson in the past, what have been the successes? Setbacks?

  • Think back to when you taught this lesson/unit last year, what do you recall?

    • How did your students perform on the assessment?
    • What feedback did you get from your students?

  • Do we have any data that might help us to determine which path is the best to take?

  • Is this approach/strategy/resource the same one you’ve used in past years? If so, how many times? What might be some of the differences between our students this year and students 5 years ago?

Response From Ben Spielberg

Ben Spielberg has worked as a math instructional coach for middle and high school teachers and has taught middle school math and science. A Teach For America alum and former member of the Executive Board of the San Jose Teachers Association, Ben currently works on economic and fiscal issues at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He holds a B.S. in Mathematical and Computational Sciences from Stanford and blogs at 34justice.com:

We can learn a lot about professional settings when we draw analogies to the classroom.

Consider, for example, the revised prompt below:

“I am a [teacher]. There is a [student] who could use some help [improving his or her work] . I am concerned that [it is of subpar quality]. I challenged the [student] to make the [work better] and the [student]'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 [subpar work]. Please help!”

In this situation, our recommendations would be clear. The teacher’s relationship with the student sounds oppositional, and the teacher must first repair that relationship. To earn the student’s trust, the teacher needs to assume that the student’s intentions are good and demonstrate investment in the student’s success.

The teacher must also recognize that the student’s critique is a fair one - it is the teacher’s job to help the student improve, not to offer critiques. Until the teacher develops a conception of what he does expect from the student, he can’t reasonably expect better work quality.

Principals have similar responsibilities when dealing with teachers. School leaders must first build trust with their staffs and must second make sure they deliver constructive feedback instead of unhelpful criticism.

To accomplish these objectives, principals should begin by listening to struggling teachers. What is the teacher hoping to accomplish in his classroom? How well does the teacher believe his current approach works for his students? What evidence does the the teacher have to support his beliefs?

A teacher’s answers to these questions can help the principal identify instructional strategies for the teacher to try. The principal will ideally be able to model the type of instruction she’d like to see. However, even if social studies isn’t her area of expertise or she is struggling to think of alternative lesson strategies, the principal can still provide useful guidance. She can connect the teacher with an instructional coach, either in-person or through a virtual platform. Alternatively, she can give the teacher release time to observe colleagues or attend professional development sessions. The specific approach the principal takes matters less than her commitment to collaborate with the teacher on developing and implementing an action plan.

Response From Sarah Cooper

Sarah Cooper teaches eighth-grade U.S. history and is dean of studies at an independent school near Los Angeles. She has written a book about teaching middle school history, Making History Mine: Meaningful Connections for Grades 5-9 and also writes regularly for MiddleWeb’s Future of History blog:

Often when lessons are stale, it’s because teachers are bored, afraid, or frozen:

  • Bored with the content because they haven’t read anything new recently
  • Afraid of questions they can’t answer
  • Frozen at the idea of taking a risk and admitting all they don’t know

Just as we ask students to follow their interests when we assign independent projects, we can encourage reluctant teachers to let their own passions guide class, even with content standards to follow.

Try asking this teacher a series of questions to renew his or her interest in the material:

  1. Which parts of the social studies curriculum interest you most? Why?
  2. Which articles do you gravitate toward reading, in the daily paper or online?
  3. What do you like to do in your spare time?

Once the teacher has talked for a while about his or her interests, open up the conversation to explore how these passions could become hooks for lessons:

An interesting article. Start class by projecting and reading aloud a short piece that has interested you recently on a theme from social studies, such as modern population density. Then ask students to relate this theme to a topic from your current unit, such as ancient Roman apartments, Greek city-states or the Black Plague. The connection could be as simple as writing out a) a quotation from the article, b) a quotation from the textbook and c) a symbol that relates them both. Or students could do a Venn diagram comparing and contrasting the two, and then find an article of their own.

A gripping image. We’re inundated with meaningful photos every day. Find a photo from a site such as the BBC’s News in Pictures and ask students to describe what they see, why the photo is so compelling. Then go back into history, asking students to use the same skills to analyze and write about a primary image - whether a cartoon from Andrew Jackson’s time, a painting from the Hudson River School or a photo of the first nuclear test in New Mexico. For historical periods before photography, what might a stunning news photo have looked like?

A personal story. Tell a story about something you did this weekend, and ask students to imagine the equivalent during the period they are studying. For instance, if you took a walk around a local estuary, ask students to envision what kinds of natural settings surrounded the people in the Arabian desert in the seventh century. Did early followers of Islam have the same geographic freedoms to walk and travel that we do?

Or, if you went bowling, ask students to consider what kinds of recreation (if any) the inhabitants of Harappa or Mohenjo-Daro engaged in. Was their idea of fun the same as ours? After this conversation would be a perfect time to follow up with targeted Internet research.

Kids will follow our passions if we’re not afraid to express them!

Response From William & Pérsida Himmele

Drs. William & Pérsida Himmele are Associate Professors at Millersville University in southeastern Pennsylvania. They are the authors of the ASCD books Total Literacy Techniques, Total Participation Techniques, and The Language-Rich Classroom. They can be reached atwhimmele@millersville.edu and phimmele@millersville.edu. Follow them on Twitter: @williamhimmele and @persidahimmele:

When planning for student engagement, it’s easy to think that it will take some super creative ideas that require a ton of prep time, and lots of novel materials that will keep kids entertained. The concept of engagement is often misunderstood as fun. Engagement, however, is really all about helping your students get lost in the learning. Student engagement often results in fun, but fun is not your priority. And if you start off with fun as the goal, it can actually get in the way of students’ cognitive engagement with the content. Always keep your goal in mind: Deep learning, or cognitive engagement with the content. Below are some simple concepts that can help when it comes to planning for cognitive engagement.

First, decide on your big-picture non-negotiable learning goal for your overall unit and then for every lesson within that unit. What are the essential concepts to be learned? A year from now, what do you hope that your students will retain? Five years from now, what important message defines the essence of what you hope they learn from this unit?

Next, put yourself in the position of your students. If you were sitting in their chairs, what would help you remember these non-negotiable big-picture ideas? What stories, video excerpts, prompts, and interactive structures can force students to process these big-picture ideas individually and then in pairs or small groups? Create prompts that require that students make connections and examine the essence of your lessons. We recommend that you mix up the way that students respond to prompts by using Total Participation Techniques that allow for individual reflection, followed by pairs or small groups sharing their reflections, and finally, volunteers sharing in a whole group format.

One of the prompts that we love is “What’s it really about?” (see Total Literacy Techniques). Putting the emphasis on the word “really” prompts students to dig deeper and find the underlying reasons for what is being discussed. For example, if you’re teaching history, the question might be related to the conflicts that you’re studying. You might ask, “With regard to the American Revolution, what are the Patriots reeeeeaaaaally fighting about?” And then require that students back their responses with evidence. To add an interactive feature to student responses, combine it with a Debate Team Carousel (from Total Participation Techniques, Himmele & Himmele, 2011). In a Debate Team Carousel, students respond only to the first prompt on the template (see photo, and click here for the template). After a few minutes, all students are asked to pass the paper to their right. They then read their neighbor’s responses and respond to the prompt in box 2. They, again, pass their papers to the right, and read and respond to the next prompt. Papers are returned to their original owners, or can be collected by the teacher to be used as a formative assessment of content knowledge or to formatively assess students’ depth of knowledge.

It’s not difficult to plan for student cognitive engagement, but it does take having clear big-picture goals in mind. It also takes planning that intentionally immerses students in interactive structures that allow them to become cognitively engaged with the content being taught.

Thanks to Mark, Diana, Bryan, Ben, Sarah, and William & Pérsida 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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