Opinion Blog

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: ‘The Best Lesson I Taught’

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 31, 2018 16 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What is the best lesson you ever taught and what made it so great?

In Part One, Tara Dale, Sarah Cooper, Alexis Wiggins, Debbie Silver, Stephaney Jones-Vo, and Cindi Rigsbee share their lessons. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Tara, Sarah, and Alexis on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Heather Stinson, Meredith Allen, David Hochheiser, Dr. Sonny Magana, and Brooke Ahrens contribute their experiences.

Response From Heather Stinson

Heather Stinson (CAGS, MED, S/LP-A) received her master’s degree in education of the deaf from Smith College in 2006 and a graduate certificate in children, families, and schools (with a concentration in research methodology) from the University of Massachusetts in 2012. In addition to her many years of experience working with children with hearing loss who communicate using listening and spoken language, Heather has also worked as a preschool classroom teacher. Heather has presented both locally and nationally on issues related to mainstreaming students with hearing loss and is a contributing author to Odyssey magazine. Heather currently works as an itinerant teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing at Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech:

Sometimes the best lessons are the ones that we are able to catch in the moment and capitalize on. A few years ago, I had a junior high student who would proclaim loudly to anyone who would listen that she HATED science. She struggled in that subject, so we often previewed and reviewed the concepts. One morning, my student begrudgingly pulled out her science book when I directed her to do so, grumbling the entire time. She perked up as she watched me open to the designated page. “Hey! It’s about hearing!” She scanned the diagram of the ear, softly naming the parts, a smile beginning on her face, until she came to the bones. “Wait—hammer? Anvil? Stirrup? It’s the malleus, incus, and stapes! I should teach this lesson!” As part of helping her to understand her hearing loss and better advocate for her learning needs, earlier in the year she and I had gone over the parts of the ear, learned about the damage to her cochlea that caused her hearing loss, compared and contrasted her hearing with typical hearing, and researched how hearing aids work and how they help people to hear. Because it was important to her and personal, she did not make the connection that all this research was science.

I decided to challenge my student to do just what she had said—to teach that lesson. I also worked with a s2nd grader in her school. I had worked with that student on parts of the ear as well but on a more surface, 2nd grade, level. When I proposed the older student instruct the younger, both teachers and both sets of parents were thrilled! Over the course of the next few weeks, both girls met, and I facilitated. The junior high student asked me for resources, thoughtfully created posters, and helped the younger girl write and illustrate a book about hearing and hearing loss (complete with labeled diagrams and headings ... science?!). The project was so effective, and both girls were so excited that they decided to do a presentation for the entire 2nd grade. Armed with posters, the collaborative book, a model of the ear, model hearing aids, and an arsenal of picture books, the two girls did a lesson for the 2nd graders.

From that day on, both girls gained celebrity status among the younger children. When my junior high student walked down the hall, the younger kids swarmed around her. For my 2nd grader, hearing aids became the cool new accessory that everyone wanted. Having to present to the class forced my older student to explain information concisely and succinctly in a way that the class would understand. While I served as a facilitator for this lesson, the initial teaching about hearing and hearing loss prompted this priceless moment.

Response From Meredith Allen

Meredith Allen (@msmeredithallen) is an educator and an international presenter. She currently works as an instructional technology consultant, education ambassador, and education specialist for Soundtrap. Meredith taught instrumental music, K-7 technology, and virtual reality at a rural school in Iowa. She has a master’s of science in technology for education and training:

The best lesson I ever taught was a complete accident. It wasn’t planned or anticipated, but the repercussions of its success have continued to deliver benefits to my students and me years later.

The stage (literal and figurative!): My band students had a concert, which I video recorded, and I posted the YouTube link on our group Facebook page for those family members that couldn’t make it to the live performance. Nothing was extraordinary about this particular routine. The concert went off great, all played wonderfully, and we ended with a culminating 5th-12th grade combined performance on a favorite tune using garbage cans.

Fast forward a couple of days, and I’m checking my email. I received a message from the composer of the last piece we performed, and it consisted of basically an “atta boy —keep on keepin’ on” message to my students. I was delighted he’d taken the time to watch the performance and give us positive feedback. I immediately planned to share with my band later that day. Still, not really thinking too far into the ramifications of this experience. Class assembled, and I shared the good news with the students, read the email, and watched a COMPLETE transformation of energy in the class. These kids, rural Iowa students, some of whom haven’t left the county, much less the state, had influenced someone outside of their “world.” Someone from New York. Someone who was successful. Someone who was “famous.” Someone that wasn’t mom or dad. The boundaries of possibility they previously established were expanded. My boundaries of possibility, as an educator, were destroyed in the best possible way. Our audience can be anyone. They can find us through technology and they can be anywhere. Our audience can be the world.

The best lesson I have ever taught was the best lesson for these reasons:

  • I shared and showcased my students’ learning.
  • I celebrated my students’ successes with them.
  • I learned right alongside my students.
  • I (accidentally) showed my students the world and the positive effects of a social network.
  • I (accidentally) used technology as an avenue for redefining the learning experience versus just as a means for substitution. SAMR at its finest!

I invite all educators to make mistakes, embrace opportunities, and create environments in which our students can connect and collaborate with those outside the traditional boundaries of education.

Response From David Hochheiser

For the past 18 years, David Hochheiser has served the communities of rural, suburban, and urban schools districts in Maine, New York, and Massachusetts as an English teacher, content coordinator, adjunct professor, assistant principal, and school committee member. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidHochheiser:

When I taught high school English, we didn’t always read texts as a full class, but all of my classes read The Great Gatsby. Even though I believe that the vocabulary, sentence structure, story structure, and figurative layering all make it a very complex novel, its themes are so important and the writing is so good that I believed in having all students read it. In order to make such a text accessible, we took our time, connected a number of related fiction and nonfiction texts, and I designed a wide variety of lessons, activities, and structures that helped students, including connecting to a number of essential questions, from which I let students choose. One of the best lessons I ever taught was tied into considering “ambitions” as a topic, attempting to help students answer: “Is it a good idea to limit ambitions?”

While Gatsby can be enjoyable as just a book to read, it’s fully worth studying. In that sense, we spent a lot of time observing and discussing all Gatsby says about this EQ (Emotional Quotient), from the ‘20s and the booming N.Y. economy, to jazz, flappers. and upheavals of social conditions for women ... from the rise of American-style marketing and celebrity to the exacerbation of socioeconomic-class strata and the sad continuance of nativist ideals. This also included reading and making connections through allusions to the stories of Midas, Icarus, and Odysseus and the Sirens. Furthermore, we discussed the idea of “ambitions” and spent time naming and exploring some of the students’ personal ambitions and ambitious behavior throughout history. This lesson happens during Chapter 7, when this theme comes to a head. After years of a pining away over Daisy Fay Buchanan, and a summer of actually reconnecting with her, Gatsby’s ambition to belong within America’s wealthy elite—for which “acquiring” her would be his symbol of success—comes to a crashing halt as Daisy tells him:

“Oh, you want too much!” she cried to Gatsby. “I love you now—isn’t that enough? I can’t help what’s past.” She began to sob helplessly. “I did love him once—but I loved you too.” Gatsby’s eyes opened and closed. “You loved me TOO?” he repeated.

Without even mentioning Gatsby, this lesson started with my laying out, one at a time for effect, six sizes of soda cups from a variety of stores, ranging from 10 oz. to over 150 oz. After a turn and talk reaction, I gave student groups news articles about the differences in sizes offered in America and other countries, the fact that Starbucks’ smallest cup is called a “tall,” and about an attempt to limit the size of fountain sodas in New York City. Using a few focus questions with their group, students would check each other’s comprehension of the articles and then spend time on their own writing about why the sizes might be different, where, if ever, the options go beyond what someone needs, and why might these offerings continue to get larger.

Turning to the text now, we can try to empathize with both Gatsby and Daisy. Students were allowed to choose which character they’d prefer to study, answering one of the two questions: 1) “Why does Gatsby think it’s unfair for Daisy to ask him to compromise? Is she being hypocritical?” 2) “At what points in his story could Gatsby have accepted progress he had made instead of his ambition’s perfect ideal life? How would things have ended up for him?”

I always loved this lesson, and it always seemed to have gone well because it critically brings so many pieces of an essential question’s puzzle together. There are personal, historical, and literary connections to synthesize. It’s focused on a specific piece of the anchor text yet affords a lot of choice. It also allows all kids multiple access points. Even if someone hadn’t been able to keep up with the reading, they would be able to come into class and meaningfully contribute. Finally, it includes content objectives and all four literacy goals: reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

Response From Dr. Sonny Magana

Dr. Anthony J. Sonny Magana III is an award-winning educational futurist, best-selling author, and pioneering educational technology researcher. Sonny is a highly sought-after leadership consultant, speaker, and instructional coach with more than 30 years of experience helping educational systems around the world realize the power of transcendent learning. The author of numerous research studies and articles, Sonny has a new book, Disruptive Classroom Technologies: A Framework for Innovation in Education, recently published through Corwin Press to wide international acclaim. Follow him on Twitter @sonnymagana:

One of the best lessons I ever taught came about quite fortuitously; in 1991. while serving as the science and technology teacher at ACES Alternative High School, I wrote and received a grant to put a 300-Baud modem in my classroom so that my students and I could participate in a newly formed U.S.-Soviet exchange project. Using the recently declassified internet for the first time, we engaged in meaningful dialogue with teachers and students in Moscow to promote improved educational outcomes and greater cultural understanding.

In the midst of the project, we learned that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife had just been kidnapped by Communist Party hard-liners who were enraged at Gorbachev’s recent government and cultural reforms. The military coup leaders effectively redrew the Iron Curtain by shutting off all television, radio, and print news feeds to the outside world. However, as the coup leaders were completely unaware of the existence of email, that communication medium remained open. For a tense three-day period while the rest of the world anxiously waited and wondered, my students and I freely engaged in open and enlightening email dialogue with our Soviet partners on the fragility of democracy, their collective fears regarding a return to Cold War-era Communism, and their hopes for a brighter future.

Over the next several months, those tenuous hopes appeared to be realized as the Soviet Union disbanded and the emblematic Berlin Wall was reduced to rubble. My students and I not only witnessed a historic moment but indeed took part in making history through an entirely new educational technology—electronic mail—which allowed us to make valuable contributions to Moscow from Mukilteo, Wash. We were forever transformed from that lesson on technology, society, and democracy. That fortuitous lesson put me on a path of inquiry to uncover the most highly reliable strategies for accelerating student learning with technology, which I articulate in my latest book, Disruptive Classroom Technologies: A Framework for Innovation in Education.

Response From Brooke Ahrens

Brooke Ahrens is the director of educational innovation at Notre Dame High School in San Jose, Calif.:

As an educator, student success is always one of my primary goals. I recently taught a lesson using the EdgeMakers Innovative Thinking curriculum that showed me an area of student need that required more of my instructional time and attention.

We’ve all assigned our students group work. The learning outcomes we hope to see from group work are valid; it provides students the opportunity to develop and practice the soft skills we know they’ll need in the 21st-century workforce. But the dark side of assigning group work is the conflict-resolution management we’re called to do. We’ve all been required to mediate student issues that arise as a result of having students work in groups, and it’s never a fun task. Whether it’s students who feel they have done more than their fair share of the work, or students who need help with group members who cannot stay on task, trying to help groups work better is a struggle.

Using this innovation curriculum, I was able to help my students improve their ability to work in groups by making them aware of how collaboration can result in a better end product.

I started by asking my high school students what made working in groups challenging. Their answers were exactly what I expected and brutally honest. Here were some of their biggest issues:

  • Not everyone does their fair share.
  • One person takes over and won’t let anyone else contribute.
  • Disagreements arise about how the work should be done.
  • Group members are a distraction to getting the work done.
  • Interpersonal issues crop up within the group.
  • Work isn’t done on time, or up to expectations.

I’m sure you, or your students, could easily add more reasons that group work is challenging.

As my students generated their list, what surprised me most was their misperception that group work, and all associated issues, was only something that they would be required to do while in high school. I did not relish in explaining to them that group work would not end when they graduated, and that I was still experiencing many of the challenges they had listed when working with my teaching colleagues. My insights did help to validate my students’ experiences, and they also demonstrated the need to learn better collaboration and group-work skills.

The EdgeMakers curriculum explores collaboration with others through eight character strengths. We each embody all of these eight strengths to varying degrees, but no one person excels at all of them. To successfully complete a project, we need expertise that can only come from collaboration.

My students quickly recognized that successful groups need a variety of skills and strengths.

Through identification of which of the character strengths they struggled with, as well as those in which they excelled, the students begin to see how each member of a group provided tools needed for success. It’s a great manifestation of real world, relevant learning; we all need to fill our role and collaborate to achieve.

When my students learned that group work requires multiple perspectives, roles, and strengths, their passive role in group work ended. Instead of waiting for someone to make their groups work, my students recognized that they were able to facilitate conversations about collaboration before group work even began. They became empowered to ask group mates, both in and out of my class, what skills and strengths the collective group possessed and areas that might require more expertise or support.

In a follow-up conversation with the class several weeks later, my students were feeling more positive about group work. They reported that they looked forward to group work because it provided everyone the opportunity to highlight their areas of character strength and contribute most effectively.

Thanks to Heather, Meredith, David, Sonny, and Brooke 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.

Just a reminder—you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first seven years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. The list doesn’t include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the “answers” category found in the sidebar.

This Year’s Most Popular Q&A Posts

Race & Gender Challenges

Classroom Management Advice

Best Ways to Begin The School Year

Best Ways to End The School Year

Implementing the Common Core

Student Motivation & Social-Emotional Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

Using Tech in the Classroom

Parent Engagement in Schools

Teaching English-Language Learners

Reading Instruction

Writing Instruction

Education Policy Issues

Student Assessment

Differentiating Instruction

Math Instruction

Science Instruction

Advice for New Teachers

Author Interviews

Entering the Teaching Profession

The Inclusive Classroom

Learning & the Brain

Administrator Leadership

Teacher Leadership

Relationships in Schools

Professional Development

Instructional Strategies

Best of Classroom Q&A

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column.

Look for Part Three in a few days.

Related Tags:

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.