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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: Students Can Become ‘Co-Teachers’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 19, 2018 16 min read
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(This is the second post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are effective strategies for having students teach their classmates and other peers?

Part One‘s contributors are Bobson Wong, Adeyemi Stembridge, Jennifer Davis Bowman, Starr Sackstein, Kathy Dyer, and Rachelle Dene Poth. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Jennifer, Bobson, Adeyemi, and Starr on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today’s posts includes commentaries by Rita Platt, Paul Solarz, Laurie Buffington, Dr. Laura Greenstein, and Anne Taffin d’Heursel Baldisseri.

Response From Rita Platt

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a national-board-certified teacher and a proud #EduDork! Her experience includes teaching learners of all levels from kindergartner to graduate student. She is currently the principal of St. Croix Falls and Dresser Elementary Schools in Wisconsin, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, and writes for MiddleWeb:

My favorite half hour of the day is the time when I supervise my all-volunteer army of 4th graders as they work one-on-one with 1st graders who need a boost in reading proficiency. It is a cross-age tutoring delight! I call the older students, “the bigs” and the younger ones, “the littles.”

As a part of our tier-two reading-intervention program (RTI), the bigs give up their lunch recess to mentor the littles. I train the 4th graders during “working lunches” and offer them a tight schedule of activities to complete with their students.

Listening to the productive buzz of kids helping kids and watching the bigs as they gently and kindly encourage their partners, and seeing the admiration in the eyes of the littles as they beam under the praise from their mentors is truly a wonder. The academic benefits are many ,but the social-emotional bonuses might supercede them. Our school is a warm and wonderful place where students believe they can grow and learn and that they will be supported in doing so. The cross-age tutoring program we’ve developed is a perfect example.


I first started the cross-age tutoring sessions in response to the high number of students in 1st grade who needed a boost in literacy. My elementary school is Title I, and we have increasing numbers of students from impoverished homes and higher mobility than in the past. We also continue to enjoy incredible success on all academic measures. We want to keep it that way. That means thinking outside the box.

One of the many lessons learned from Judith Rich Harris’ controversial book The Nurture Assumption is that school-aged children are highly influenced by what they see their slightly older peers doing. I wanted my littles to recognize that the bigs are “into” reading and writing, that literacy was cool.


I carefully select the bigs by looking at their grades, their behavior, and their record of meeting their own reading goals. If at least two of three of those factors look strong, and they have the desire to work with littles, I invite them to participate. Once my team is in place, I call the bigs to eat lunch with me in the library every day for a week so I can train them. I teach them about phonemic awareness, phonics, comprehension, and motivational strategies. We use the following schedule to guide the tutoring sessions.

5 Minutes: Phonemic awareness or phonics-skills work.

5 Minutes: Sight-word practice.

10 Minutes: Read connected text at the little’s independent level.

5 Minutes: Celebrate, chat, set goals, and talk about home reading.

While the cross-age teams work together, I walk among them, offering encouragement, feedback to both bigs and littles, and generally feeling proud to be a teacher!

What is truly amazing is how well the littles respond to the bigs. Remember, these are students who tend to struggle a bit in reading and who often do not read at home. Once they get matched with a big, however, their level of commitment to improving as a reader often turns around. The littles listen to the bigs and want to please them. If a big gives a little a set of sight words to practice and book to read at home, it gets done! That’s not always the case when their teachers try to do the same. Cross-age tutoring is good for all involved and well worth the efforts to make it happen.

Response From Paul Solarz

Paul Solarz has been teaching 5th grade at Westgate Elementary School in Arlington Heights, Ill., since 1999. His book, Learn Like a PIRATE: Empower Your Students to Collaborate, Lead, and Succeed, provides ways to make your classroom more student-centered, while ensuring students become self-sufficient leaders:

In our 5th grade classroom, I like to have my students work in randomly assigned partnerships (called “Responsibility Partners”) for nearly everything we do! I pull sticks, ask kids to sit next to their assigned partner, and then I give the directions for the activity. I also make sure to leave the directions project on the board or give students the link so they can access the directions whenever they need. Although this takes one choice out of my students’ hands, it builds strong relationships between all my students and it prevents cliques from forming!

While students work in pairs, they are reminded to be responsible for any questions their partner might have, keeping them focused and on-task, and giving feedback to help them be the best they can be on the assignment. Now, this only works if you give assignments that get the students thinking and creating, rather then regurgitating facts and completing busy work. The lessons these students are completing often require students to demonstrate understanding of concepts on video or creating ePortfolio blog posts that show evidence of understanding through text or pictures. If we want students to help each other, they can’t be filling out worksheets or completing tasks that only have one right answer. This just causes students to give each other the answer (or not) and then move on.

Students are also taught in our classroom to use the “Give Me Five” callout to get the attention of their classmates whenever they have an announcement. I have encouraged my students to do this whenever they have ideas, tips, or mini-lessons that they want to share.

Quite often, students will be heard calling, “Give me Five! Give me Five! I’m going to show Shaun how to upload a picture to his ePortfolio. Feel free to join us if you’d like to learn how!” or “Give me Five! Give me Five! I made a Bit.ly with the URL so you don’t have to type the whole thing out. It’s being projected on the board now.” Students also do “Give me Five’s” to announce transitions, to give warnings on how much time is left in a period, to ask questions of the whole group when no one near them knows the answer, and to make suggestions that might help others.

Thanks to confident students who have been empowered to lead, I don’t have to think of everything all the time! I have 25 co-teachers picking up my slack!

Response From Laurie Buffington

Laurie Buffington is a high school English teacher at Laquey, Mo. A 25-year teaching veteran and a Writing Project teacher consultant, she enjoys sharing ideas and networking with others who are interested in reading, writing, and teaching, as well as gardening, traveling, and family time:

Students are naturally influenced by their peers. Harnessing that influence and transforming it into a classroom tool can make a difference. Many of us learn best when we have the support of those we have bonded with. Lumped together by the schedule, students in a class are not always friends or supportive of one another, so teachers need to find ways to help students become a cohesive team that can help create a “kids teaching kids” classroom. Such a classroom allows teachers to become facilitators and helps students to create work, lead work, and share work.

In my early teaching years, I led every discussion, assigned work, graded work, and struggled with ways to reach all students. Eventually, it became apparent to me that I was the person doing the most work. I shifted my practice to include intensive team building in my classroom. Now, as my students learn about and accept one another, they value the contributions that their classmates make to their successes, they become more compassionate and confident, and they take pride in helping others become successful.

Team building? Doesn’t everyone hate team building? The answer is unequivocally no; kids love it. Team building is a diversion that makes the routine of those first days of school lively and purposeful, changes up the pace when tasks become stale, and delivers an unimaginable impact. It inspires kids to learn to work well together and to take the lead in their own educations. It is a tool that is important in creating a successful “kids teaching kids” classroom.

Team building is not an occasional activity but a leisurely stroll through the year; it’s an ongoing commitment to fostering an environment where all ideas are respectfully heard and discussed. When teachers create real community in their classrooms, students can help one another develop ideas, examine facts, opinions, and concepts. They can write and share their drafts and openly discuss ways to improve their writing.

To achieve this environment, student-created norms/rules are necessary. Students should create a collective list of non-negotiables that will help them easily share ideas in the classroom. Students work first with a partner, then bring the partners’ ideas to the larger group and discuss the norms that are important to them, such as not being laughed at or ridiculed when expressing an opinion. A good list of norms isn’t a “thou shalt not” list, but a positive, short list that can be referred to throughout the year to help maintain cooperation and respect. When the list is complete, students create personal writing that focuses on their own strengths/weaknesses and how to build on the strengths and overcome weaknesses. Revisiting the norms before daily activities and discussions will reinforce their value.

Teachers may facilitate activities to help students share their personal goals and talents, such as demonstrations of talents, special knowledge, unique skills, or “About Me” posters. As students begin to see their peers in new ways, they become increasingly receptive to hearing their peers’ perspectives.

It’s helpful to introduce brainstorming activities in which teams investigate, discuss, then write and present their findings about a particular problem or issue. These cooperative activities are abundant on the web and provide the scaffolding needed to practice respect and cooperation before introducing more complex themes, such as environmental concerns or social issues.

When educators inspire students to help one another learn and to interact with respect and cooperation, they give them the gift of civility, enabling them to participate successfully in the classroom and the world they live in.

Response From Dr. Laura Greenstein

A lifelong educator, Dr. Laura Greenstein has served as a teacher and school leader, professor and professional-development specialist. Her passion for excellence in assessment is evident in her numerous books, articles, and blogs on the topic:

When Students Become the Assessors

“To teach is to learn twice.” (Joubert, ©1800)

Being a believer in the importance and the value of peers helping peers, I appreciate seeing them in action. For example: Jigsaw (where each subgroup masters one part of the big picture to share with the whole class), reciprocal analysis of an image (what do the rungs on the slide represent in relation to the solution), think-pair-share, and designing infographics to organize information in support of conclusions.

Each strategy has the potential to engage learners, increase motivation, foster interpersonal skills, and develop metacognitive awareness. But how can these significant learning opportunities be assessed? As with all assessment, best practice in peer assessment is supported by clarity of purpose, feasibility of process, monitoring of progress, and responsive modifications.

This leads to three essential questions when developing peers as assessors, as well as selecting or designing peer assessments.

  1. How do we match the assessments with the purpose of peer learning?

  • Align assessment methods with learning intentions so students can see the connection between the purpose of learning and the way it will be assessed. If you want to assess knowledge but also want students to apply their learning, have them write a letter to the editor about a topic such as using math for space travel or whether we should celebrate Columbus Day. Alternatively, use the content vocabulary to explain how the parts work together and lead to a conclusion. Rely on peer assessment to analyze the work in relation to the learning intentions. Anu tells Moby, “Your narrative is well-organized and easy to read, but can you explain how it connects to what we have been learning?”

  1. What strategies are most practical, feasible, and effective in assessing peer learning?

  • Incorporate accurate and actionable opportunities for assessment of personal learning. Keep in mind that while goals are worthwhile, the journey is equally important. Relying on clear objectives, engage students with annotated checklists and learning trackers for recording process and outcomes. Students can also plan and record their personal goals, steps, and outcomes. Russo explains, “I used what we learned about rhyme and rhythm to explain why rap is poetry and also why some people disagree with that.”

  1. What are the best ways peers can support and monitor students’ progress toward mastery?

  • Students can be asked to elaborate on their progress by responding to peer prompts such as: What can your group do differently, how might someone else solve this problem, what information and resources were most significant to your purpose? Why? Reliance on descriptive and annotated rubrics gives students the opportunity to score themselves as well as get peer feedback on their process and products of learning.

Students can be helpful givers of feedback that promotes learning and achievement when it is specific, actionable, aligned with the learning intentions, and moves learning forward. Two-way feedback relies on accountable talk rather than argumentative language. For example, instead of, “I like your narrative,” say, “I could picture it happening because ___, or ask, “In what way did that person express those emotions? Rather than, “There’s no logic in that!”

Response From Anne Taffin d’Heursel Baldisseri

Anne Taffin d’Heursel Baldisseri has a BSc in biology and an MSc and PhD in zoology, as well as postgraduate diplomas in educational management and early-childhood development. She is currently the head of the Primary Division at Avenues: The World School in São Paulo, Brazil. She was formerly the head of early years at St. Paul’s School, also in São Paulo:

I would like to focus on one effective strategy for using students to teach their classmates and other peers. In classrooms where children’s thinking and learning is made visible to themselves, to their peers, and to their teachers, constructive criticism becomes an important part of the learning process. Conversation routines and discussion protocols help structure the critique and provide children with consistent practice in giving meaningful and considerate feedback. Linking each child’s thinking to the collective learning in the class helps create a safe environment where risk-taking is welcome and ideas are respected.

Providing opportunities that support peer critique and effective feedback can enable even our youngest children to produce high-quality work. Setting high expectations and believing that every child can reach them and then providing students with time, support, and opportunities to critique one another’s work empowers them to take on challenges that may initially seem insurmountable for such young children. The importance of a collective and collaborative belief in one another’s potential supports every child to create excellent work.

Inspired by Ron Berger’s Austin’s Butterfly, a teacher I worked with decided to use peer critique in her nursery classroom. As an example, she transformed a typical lesson about patterns, firstly by giving her students’ choices: They could choose to produce a ladybird or a bee and they could also choose the media they wanted to use. Some chose to draw, others painted, some used plasticine, and a few used the method she had always used before with all students: a collage. The next day, she sat the 12 children in a circle and showed them each child’s individual production, asking them to tell one another if it looked like a bee or a ladybird. They all decided that none of their pieces did in fact look much like what they were supposed to. When asked to give specific reasons why the work was not representative of the two insects, the students’ answers led to the construction of checklists with the characteristics that needed to be present in a bee (stripes, yellow and black, six legs, antennae, wings) and in a ladybird (red body, black dots, six legs, antennae). The children then had another go, using the checklists to check their work. The revised products were remarkable, as was the students’ awareness of their own improvement and that of their peers.

Thanks to Rita, Paul, Laurie, Laura, and Anne 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.

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.

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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Look for Part Four in a few days.

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