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Teaching Opinion

Response: The Best Lessons ‘Linger in Memories for Years to Come’

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 02, 2019 14 min read
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(This is the final post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two 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.

In Part Two, Heather Stinson, Meredith Allen, David Hochheiser, Dr. Sonny Magana, and Brooke Ahrens contributed their experiences.

Claudine Phillips, Kelly Wickham Hurst, Mary K. Tedrow, and Diane Mora wrap up this three-part series. I’ve also included comments from readers.

Response From Claudine Phillips

Claudine Phillips, a national-board-certified teacher, currently teaches at Roscomare Road Elementary School in the Los Angeles Unified School District. She is a member of the Instructional Leadership Corps, a collaboration among the California Teachers Association, the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, and the National Board Resource Center at Stanford:

The best lessons excite children, engage their curiosity, and linger in their memories for years to come! One such lesson was “The Fourth Little Piggy’s House.” My 3rd graders became architects and engineers as they participated in the Engineering Design Process to create the fourth little piggy’s house and save him from the big bad wolf!

The lesson began with literature. I read aloud several versions of The Three Little Pigs. After listening to and discussing the similarities and the differences of the tales, we looked at pictures of homes around the world. Students became budding architects as they explored and discussed what makes a “home.” Students’ guiding questions included: 1) What is essential to call something a “home”? 2) Are there common features amongst homes? 3) Does the shape of the building matter? 4) Are some designs better than others? 5) Does where a home is built change the shape or materials used? How? 6) Are the materials used for constructing the home important? Why?

After the discussion, students were presented with the driving question: How do we build a house that the big bad wolf can’t blow down? Students spent time thinking about how they would design a sturdy house for a fourth little piggy. Students also knew three constraints: 1) Their home needed to meet the class-developed common definition of a “home.” 2) Materials: straws, aluminum foil, construction paper, 3x5 cards, Play-Doh, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, and tape. 3) Their client, the fourth little piggy, had a tight budget of $100, and the materials had all been given a cost.

Students individually imagined and planned a house based on the available supplies, within budget. Students labeled their diagrams and predicted that their house would withstand the big bad wolf! Each student was thoughtfully paired with a partner to share designs and create a group blueprint. Students worked with their partners to discuss the best materials, costs, and which aspects of their design would make their home the best and most stable choice.

Purchasing supplies and building the fourth piggy’s home was what students had been looking forward to. They were giddy with excitement! After their homes were complete, we tested at the “Big Bad Wolf” Station (a blow dryer with a wolf image on it). The whole room became silent as the first group tested their home. I could feel the tension around the room. Here it goes ... and a collective gasp was heard as the home blew away! Definitely room for improvement. Back to redesign! And so it went in our room bustling with young engineers.

This lesson is memorable because it excites and engages me and my students. To use my student’s words, “It puts the F in FUN!” Students enjoy working together to accomplish a shared goal, and our classroom is a safe place to explore seemingly wild ideas as we all grow and learn throughout the year. This enthusiasm for learning comes across in all subjects because I integrate math and reading throughout the day, rather than in isolated time blocks. All students feel able to connect and engage with the lessons that have low floors and high ceilings.

I use novelty as an entrance point for students to engage them in getting to know the engineering practices and use this “fun” challenge as a gateway to real-world connections. Students will move on to exploring rocks, sand, silt, and erosion through our science lessons, and they will apply those through our Engineering is Elementary-Designing Walls unit, cementing their learning this year. Former students return to visit and ask me if this year’s class will be making the fourth little piggy’s house, and they remark how much they loved doing it. Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I hope my students never forget their joy in exploring and never stop wondering.

Response From Kelly Wickham Hurst

Kelly Wickham Hurst is a 23-year educator, classroom teacher, and administrator who founded Being Black at School in 2016. BBAS is an advocacy organization that uses frameworks and data to assist schools in being more equitable. She’s a mom of six and grandmother of two and lives with her husband in Springfield, Ill.:

It was a lesson on poetry, and I had been using these horrible books because that’s what our school had. I hadn’t yet broken out of that mold so I went to several slam-poetry events and brought back those elements. However, it wasn’t really me who made it great. I invited in a person whose craft around poetry was his life, and he infused so much heart into the lesson I was a little ashamed! He brought more out in my students than I could have hoped for. Invite in the experts. They’ll spark a fire.

Response From Mary K. Tedrow

Mary K. Tedrow taught in the high school English classroom beginning in 1978, ending her career as the Porterfield Endowed English Chair at John Handley High School in 2016. She is currently the director of the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va. She also adjuncts at Lord Fairfax Community College and Johns Hopkins University and is the author of Write, Think, Learn: Tapping the Power of Daily Student Writing Across Content Areas:

Most English teachers I know despair over the endless editing of student work. Besides its tedious nature, we also know that editing student papers as they are graded is a complete waste of time. Well, marking errors isn’t really a waste of time if you just want kids to know that they are making errors, but it is a complete waste of time if the hope is to improve student editing skill. Most students look at the grade, see all the red marks, sigh, and toss the paper in the trash. Editing during grading is pointless.

Additionally, the directive to put away the red pen is often misinterpreted by teachers. It does not mean switching to purple. It also does not mean ignoring errors of convention. These errors can be both confusing to readers as well as signaling a faulty education or a lack of care. Good instruction on using conventions should be a responsible part of any writing instruction.

But what is meant by putting away the red pen? It means handing over the task of clarifying prose—through the use of standard conventions—to the writer. And our students are the writers!

I resolved this issue through a Best Lesson Ever adapted from another teacher. Of course, I put my own spin on it, which seemed to center on when to teach the lesson as much as how.

The CRISPing tool I employ came from an online conversation with Dixie Dellinger, a North Carolina teacher and National Writing Project leader who is now deceased. CRISP is a mnemonic device for combing through writing to both cut out extraneous wording and clarify meaning.

It stands for Cut words, Reduce clauses, Intensify verbs, Sharpen diction, and Pack phrases.

Here is how my Best Lesson Ever works in the classroom.

First, my students work on their papers in cooperative groups, going through drafts, receiving feedback along the way from both me and their peers. When the time comes to turn the papers in, I ask that they bring their final drafts to class. When students arrive, they anticipate turning in a final draft, but I stop the process to take them through the lesson on CRISPing.

I delay the CRISP lesson until after the students have spent considerable time trying to express their ideas in writing. The thinking aspect of the paper should be over and done. Students need to do their thinking without the threat of correction interrupting the flow of ideas. Up until this final draft, I delay my comments in this area. But I have been noting the recurring difficulties for the lessons I will emphasize.

First, we work on cutting words. I use a standard worksheet for this activity. These worksheets can be found in any writing workbook that accompanies a text. They are usually titled “Eliminating Wordiness.” At first, cutting words seems easier if the students are not working on their own writing.

Students are challenged to cut words from the sample sentences. To increase the challenge, I tell students they will earn a hypothetical dollar for every word they can cut from the sentence without changing the basic thought behind the sentence. Reordering sentences is allowed.

We busily get cutting. I do it, too. but deliberately keep my dollar amount on the low side. After cutting words from about four of the sample sentences, I have them look at each sentence as a group.

I say, “I earned 10 dollars on the first sentence. Who made more money than me?” Then we go through the room until we find the student who earned the most money. That student agrees to read his or her sentence aloud, and we all decide together whether the meaning of the sentence has been altered.

The discussion is the important part of the lesson. We debate whether a word is necessary to the meaning or not. The group gets to decide if that person truly “earned” the money. If we determine the revised sentence is not true to the original intention, we move on to the next highest bidder and discuss a second sentence. This modeling helps all the students understand the task and what possibilities exist when manipulating sentences and ideas.

After several sentences have gone under discussion, we move on to the CRISPing handout. I take them through each of the tasks for CRISPing writing and have them stop and look at their own papers to cut words, locate “to be” verbs and work to intensify some of them, or find a sentence that can be written more clearly.

Finally, I release them to their peer groups, asking that they look at their own paper or another’s. Sometimes it is easier to CRISP another person’s paper. Students who are too attached to their own words are given this option.

Toward the end of class, I ask for a volunteer with a difficult sentence to CRISP. Would they be willing to let us all work on it together? This sentence goes up on the board, and we all make suggestions on conveying the same thought in a clearer, crisper fashion. Generally, this is a low-risk activity for all students, and the volunteer is grateful for the opportunity to tighten the prose. The large group gets yet another example of manipulating ideas.

At the end of class, students are directed to take their papers home and do further CRISPing. The new draft is due the next day and the draft with the handwritten changes is stapled behind it.

When I read the final drafts, if there is a grievous error in the final that was corrected in the CRISPed paper but not reflected in the final draft, points are taken off.

My goal in the lesson is to teach students that, after their ideas are down on paper, they can manipulate sentences to make their ideas clearer, more concise, and friendlier to readers. I want students looking at every sentence. Providing time and support in class for the task cements the concept, though building the skill is continuous. I also want to send the message that clarifying writing is their task, not mine.

After the initial lesson, CRISPing becomes a part of our classroom language. On early drafts, peers can help identify areas that need CRISPing and so can I. Also, the “share a sentence you are struggling with” activity is repeated throughout the term. Building clear and concise sentences becomes a puzzle we all enjoy working on.

On the next paper, we do a similar exercise on the final draft and look at punctuation as a rhetorical tool. When we do the research paper, the students speed-date it to look for consistency in the MLA-style formatting.

Each time we spend a class period honing our skills on a final draft, the students are highly engaged, focused ,and learning. And I am doing none of the editing work. Red pen: gone.

Response From Diane Mora

Diane Mora, M.A. Ed., has been teaching writing in ESL programs internationally and in the United States for 12 years. Currently, she is passionate about teaching writing and literacy skills to SLIFE (Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education) students who are also ELLs at East High School in Kansas City, Mo.:

The best lesson I taught last year was a unit project called, “If My Life Were a Playlist.” This was a six-week writing project. Students first chose five songs that would play in the background of their life. They also had to hotlink the songs to their Google Doc writing project, translate the most meaningful lyrics from at least one of the songs and tell why those lines had meaning for them, research how other people rated their favorite song and restate their own opinion about why they love the song, and reflect on why music has meaning in our lives.

At the start of each class, I “featured” a song from a student, and we used those songs as journal prompts to write about some aspect of music or simply how the song made us feel.

We ended the unit with a “publishing party” at which we played our class playlist in the background, while guests walked around the room reading and leaving positive comments on student writing.

I learned a ton about music from around the world, and student reflections after the publishing party consistently indicated how much they loved the project.

Responses From Readers


My best lesson is one I do every year for World Kindness Day. Students come into the room, and on each desk, there is a love button (we use them in an activity) and a smile card from kindspring.org. We read a short article about World Kindness Day, and there are two inspiring readings, a short video and some art work on the board ,as well as small-group discussion questions on kindness. Students are surprised and usually enjoy the class very much.

Thanks to Claudine, Kelly, Mary, and Diane, and to readers, 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.

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