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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: Ways to Make Lessons ‘Great’

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 30, 2018 23 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

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

Some of our lessons go well, and others, well, not so well. On a few of them, though, we hit the ball out of the park!

In this three-part series, teachers will be sharing a few of those best lessons and, most importantly, they’ll be trying to explain what made them so great. Perhaps we can learn a few tidbits and apply them in our own practice so we can improve all our lessons.

Today, 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.

Instead of my talking about what I believe to be my “best” lesson, Routledge, the publisher of several of my books on student motivation, has made a related chapter from one of them freely available online. The chapter is titled “What Are The Best Things You Can Do to Maximize the Chances of a Lesson Being Successful” and comes from Helping Students Motivate Themselves.

The same link includes downloadable student handouts. I have students read the chapter, use it to create and teach their own lessons, and then their classmates evaluate them. Not only do great learning experiences come out of this activity, but students can also use it to hold me (and their other teachers) accountable to make our future lessons engaging!

Response From Tara Dale

Tara Dale is an Arizona high school science teacher. She earned her bachelor’s of science degrees in psychology andbBiology from Arizona State University. She earned her master’s in secondary education from the University of Phoenix. In 2014 she was an Arizona teacher of the year finalist:

As a science teacher, my best lesson plans are those that require my students to critically think, creatively problem solve, and effectively communicate. These three skills will adequately prepare my students for any college or career aspirations they have after they leave my classroom, so I make these skills the core of every lesson plan. My all-time favorite lessons are those that require students to solve real-world problems. The most recent project was accomplished with my high school environmental-science students.

During this previous school year, my students divided themselves into groups of two or three and then analyzed the environmental impact of a restaurant chain. In total, they researched 49 restaurants, including fast-food chains such as Burger King, Jersey Mike’s, and Papa John’s Pizza and casual-dining chains such as Red Robin, Olive Garden, and Red Lobster.

The ultimate challenge my students received was to develop four changes their restaurant could make that would decrease their carbon footprint without negatively affecting the restaurant’s bottom line.

My students used the Materials Economy Model to deeply analyze how the restaurants impact the environment, beginning from the point of growing the food and raising the animals. The Model follows the food through the production and transportation processes, ending at the point that the food is disposed of in a landfill or compost pile. They also used the Model to quantify the impact of the paper, plastic, and Styrofoam products the restaurants use.

After four months of research and learning, my students had written reports, each with footnotes documenting their validated resources and graphs or charts as a visual representation for their restaurant’s environmental impact. They invited their restaurants to meet with them to discuss their four suggestions.

Of the 49 restaurants, 37 agreed to attend a business meeting, and all but two of those committed to taking at least one of the kids’ suggested changes to the next step for possible implementation. Restaurants were interested in changes such as switching to paper straws, using brown napkins instead of bleached ones, and expanding their recycling efforts.

My students didn’t only learn about the environment during this project. They practiced validating online resources to learn about real-world solution methods and implications. They became proficient in written and oral communication. They acquired the skill of financial analysis in a business model. And they performed extremely impressive work! I was delightfully surprised when restaurant leaders and owners responded to my students. Two students were offered an internship, and six others were offered jobs. Restaurants were even interested in having the kids help them develop marketing campaigns that would advertise their environmental efforts.

It was a life-changing experience for all of my students. Most students made the same comment when their meeting with the restaurant representative ended. hey looked at me with an obvious sigh of relief and said, “This project was so much work, and a few times we wondered if we could do it, but it was worth it because I feel like I can change the world now!” Students walked away from these meetings with a sense of pride and confidence. They learned how to bear down when the work was difficult and how to persevere when the project became frustrating. They learned they can succeed with tenacity. And all along, they were practicing the three main skills that drive every lesson: thinking critically, communicating effectively, and problem solving creatively.

This is an example of problem-based learning (PBL). A quick explanation of PBL can be found using this link, and a list of resources from ThinkThought is available at this link.

Response From Sarah Cooper

Sarah Cooper teaches 8th grade U.S. history and is the dean of studies at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, Calif. She is the author of two books, Creating Citizens (Routledge, 2018) and Making History Mine (Stenhouse, 2009). Sarah speaks at conferences and writes for Education Week, MiddleWeb, CommonLit, and other publications. She recently received a Margot Stern Strom Innovation Grant from Facing History and Ourselves, for a project on inspiring empathy through spoken word poetry:

It’s tempting to describe the “shiny” lesson: the debate, the simulation, the Socratic seminar. When students connect with each other so loudly the air crackles.

Of course I love those lessons. Who doesn’t? They are our showpieces, the culmination of so much student thinking.

But the lessons I love the most in my history classes are more daily, quieter than that. These assignments ask students to satisfy their questions about the world. As they do, my own engagement ratchets up.

My ideal kind of day happened recently, after students had settled on a U.S. reformer for a long-term project and were starting to do library research.

In emails the day before, my 8th graders had made often impassioned cases for their top choices of reformers. As Jasmine wrote, “The options for my three social reformers for this project are all Asian-American, as I really would like to explore more Asian-American reformers. I’ve never had an opportunity like this to present on people like me who have influenced American culture!”

Now, I walked around as they researched, peering at their screens to suggest a new search parameter, pointing out a relevant chapter from a book’s table of contents. It was the embodiment of “teaching by walking around,” when I can do a fly-by for students who are finding what they need and home in on those who could use more help.

Dri was researching the tactics of gay rights activist Harvey Milk in articles from the 1970s on ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Initially, the search frustrated both of us, until she added “Castro,” the district where he lived, to his name on the search line. Suddenly, story after story appeared about his time owning Castro Camera, which became campaign headquarters when Milk ran for office.

Tim was looking up information about anti-feminist advocate Phyllis Schlafly, whose views conflicted with his own. He couldn’t resist pointing out what he felt were her most egregious statements, pulling in the interest of nearby classmates as he read aloud.

Lori had next to her computer a book about her civic reformer, Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City. I hadn’t heard of it and wrote down the title so I could check it out of the library when she was finished with it.

If a search disappointed, we could always engineer another way in—another keyword, another page, another database. If it dazzled, students began to understand history’s power to uncover truths about human behavior.

One-on-one teaching, with sophisticated research skills embedded, on topics students care about. In my 8th grade U.S. history classroom, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Response From Alexis Wiggins

Alexis Wiggins (@alexiswiggins) is the author of The Best Class You Never Taught: How Spider Web Discussion Can Turn Students into Learning Leaders (ASCD 2017). She is the founder and director of the Cohort of Educators for Essential Learning (CEEL), an organization that unites like-minded educators around the globe. She has worked as a high school and middle school English teacher in six countries and as an instructional coach for all subject areas:

A little over five years ago, I was feeling a little bored—stifled, even—in my role as a teacher.

At the time, I had been a high school English teacher for a decade. I knew I had mastered classroom management, time management, and understanding new curriculum. And, at that point, my students were doing pretty well on their International Baccalaureate exams, college essays, and the college-admissions process.

But I still didn’t see how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. While my students could effectively analyze an unseen poem on their IB exam, note all kinds of literary and poetic devices, and write compelling prose, these skills didn’t really seem like they mattered in the larger scheme of things. It was, of course, good to have analytical abilities and to be able to write cogently. But where was the deeper meaning? Where was the heart and soul of the learning, the connections to our lives and the world at large?

This is the question that stuck with me as I had the chance to redesign the 10th grade English curriculum at my school the following year. I let go of all my notions about what English was “supposed” to do or be and let the principles of backwards design guide me: If I wanted to create graduates that felt a connection to the world around them, that wrote and spoke with clarity about that world, and that felt a deep sense of empathy and compassion for the planet and all its inhabitants, how and what should I teach?

I wound up designing a unit I called “Unheard Voices,” which began with my sophomore students learning interview skills so we could sit down with the school’s cleaning staff and interview them and then write up profiles on each of them, presenting them to the community through large, colorful bulletin boards. Secondly, this unit lesson asked students to identify an “unheard voice” in their own lives, interview them at length, and then write an essay in that person’s voice, telling his or her story.

Throughout this time, we watched several movies or read essays depicting “unheard voices,” from slum children in Calcutta, to writers with autism, to undocumented immigrant teens, allowing students to feel a sense of empathy for those distant and different from them. Finally, students had to identify a cause they cared deeply about that they believe needed advocacy. I taught them how to write a business letter, and they wrote an organization of their choosing to request action or change. I recall vividly how two students wrote to a big restaurant in our city that served shark-fin soup, a controversial delicacy in Asia that is made by cutting the fins from live sharks, leaving the animals to die a painful death in the ocean. The students got a reply from the restaurant, saying it would no longer serve shark-fin soup. I will never forget the excitement in their faces when they realized that the power of their words and actions could effect real change.

This unit was unlike other lessons I had taught. I let go of what I had always done in the English classroom, as both a teacher and a student. Once I decided to do something different, something based on the end result of creating connected, compassionate learning, the creativity and design flowed freely. And the results were fantastic; I read some of the best student writing I had seen all year, and the engagement was much higher than with a typical literature unit.

In this case, the best lesson I ever taught came from feeling that I wanted to do more in my classroom than just produce strong readers and writers. I wanted to give students the chance to use their skills to feel alive and connected to the world around them, to get closer to people’s stories, and to feel that they—even as teenagers—can make a difference.

Now, more than five years later, I never feel bored in my teaching because I try to design most of my units this way. We need to have the courage to teach and design our lessons from the heart if we want to produce graduates with heart. This, I think, is the secret to our best lessons.

Response From Debbie Silver

Debbie Silver is a former Louisiana state teacher of the year and an internationally known presenter. She is the author of the best-selling books, Drumming to the Beat of Different Marchers: Finding the Rhythm for Differentiated Instruction and Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed. She co-wrote Deliberate Optimism: Reclaiming the Joy in Education and Teaching Kids to Thrive: Essential Skills for Success. She can be reached at www.debbiesilver.com:

I was on fire with my science lesson for the day. I distributed “D” cell batteries, copper-wire coils, paperclips, rubber bands, and magnets to my middle school lab groups and challenged them to build a working motor. I couldn’t help but pat myself on the back as I observed how engaged the students were. With varying degrees of success, lab partners were creating small motors. I kept telling myself this was teaching at its best—students constructing their own knowledge.

Then I overheard a student remark, “Well, I don’t know how we use the magnet, but she wouldn’t have put it on the lab tray if we didn’t need to use it.” Uh-oh. I hadn’t thought the whole experience through. I was basically giving my students just another “recipe science” experience. It would have been better, far better if I had asked students to brainstorm how they could make a motor with simple materials available in our classroom.

Several of those who had “created” a working motor basically just used a trial and error approach with the distributed materials until they got the correct positioning to get the coil to spin. Their understanding of the principles of electricity was not deepened. I had gone to a lot of trouble to create a learning experience that turned out to be just a fun demonstration without much meaning.

Frustrated, I stopped the motor building and asked the students to focus their attention on the board. I drew the desired model and began explaining the three elements required of an electronic circuit. By this time, I was a bit nonplussed and I confused the terms “resistor” and “capacitor.” Tongue-tied, I couldn’t seem to get things straight. That’s when it happened.

Anthony, a new student diagnosed with autism, spoke for the first time. “May I come up and show them what you’re trying to say?” I was dumbfounded. Not only did I not know this kid knew about electricity, I did not know he could talk! He took my place at the board and gave one of the most illustrative, cogent talks I have ever witnessed from a student.

His passion for the topic was obvious as he graphically represented and explained about resistors, capacitors, and inductors. He was accurate as well as engaging. I was as awed as the students in my class. His peers shyly began asking questions and then bombarded him with requests for more information. It was the greatest thing I have ever witnessed in a classroom. I had to hold back tears as the class gave him an ovation.

Later his mother told me that enrolling Anthony in our school was one of the hardest things she had ever done. Their family had recently moved, and ours was the only school that allowed kids like him to be mainstreamed. He had hated every minute of being with us. However, that day he went home from school and told his mom that he thought things were going to be OK.

The greatest lesson I ever “taught” was learning to do a better job of honing my students’ critical -hinking skills by not micromanaging every part of their learning. I also discovered that some of my greatest teaching comes from knowing when to get out of the way and let my students shine.

Response From Stephaney Jones-Vo

A veteran ESL teacher of K-12 and adult English learners, Stephaney Jones-Vo has also sponsored multiple refugee families and individuals. Her cultural insights are especially evident in a recent Corwin publication, Engaging English Learners Through Access to Standards: A Team-based Approach to Schoolwide Student Achievement (2016) which provides useful scenarios and tables detailing the impacts of various student characteristics on K-12 instructional and assessment practices:

Reflecting over the past 30 years as an ESL teacher and teacher educator, I have had my share of both successes and failures. However, there is one lesson that stands out so succinctly that it provided me a template for constructing additional lessons. I came to rely on it and regard it as my best lesson.

The backstory of the lesson was rooted in the adverse environment my high school ELLs were facing. Harassment outside of the classroom by other non-ELLs was on the rise. Some of the other students were hurling insults and exhorting my ELLs to “go back where they came from.” Unfortunately, this theme is one repeating itself today. My most memorable lesson was born of frustration and a soul-searching meeting with my English-learners who were diverse survivors of war, trauma, and culture shock.

And there is the key! The ELLs themselves, at all levels of English-language development, were interested and impacted by a situation; they actively took part in choosing to focus on it and communicate with others about it. My students knew personally the injustices and the emotions connected to the problem. This personal vesting gave them opinions, perspectives, and motivation. It fueled their creativity.

I realized that if I could harness these factors, powerful learning and language development could take place. Indeed, it was the single most powerful lesson that I ever tackled.

Description of the Best Lesson

Thirty-two English-learners met in my classroom after school feeling increasingly unsafe and misunderstood. They wanted me to do something!

Since ELLs arrive in schools without any fanfare or introduction, I reasoned that if only ELLs could tell their own stories as I knew them to their classmates in a safe environment, know each other as human beings and forge relationships, it might help the situation.

We decided to form “The Peace Project,” a group presentation that would ask teachers for an invitation into their classrooms to share their stories. My students prepared content, including photos of their previous homes, folk dances and snacks to be demonstrated and shared as they broke the ice at the beginning, and a script that built on their stories. While I was present, it was the students who told their own stories.

Each time we presented this format, many times over the course of the school year at both the middle school and the high school, I learned new things about my students. They supported each other as they dug deeper to express themselves.

During one unforgettable presentation, after the ice-breaking, dancing and building of background, sitting in the semi-circle alternating ELLs with non-ELL hosts, my refugee student reached into her pocket and produced a pair of brown socks. She spoke haltingly: “These are the socks my father was wearing when they shot him. And then they made my mother bury him.” Other students followed with their astonishing experiences of violence and separation.

Gasps were heard, and tears began to flow, not only from ELLs, but from the other students and their teachers as well. We learned over and over that which we already knew: If you develop a relationship with a real person, it is impossible to hate blindly.

At the conclusion of our sessions, teachers helped distribute our feedback sheets, which prompted specific reflections by our audience. These were returned to me within 24 hours. As I read the reflections, I wept each time, humbled by the obvious deep thinking that was prompted in our audience. Memorable comments include, “I never knew refugees suffered so much,” and “I will never say anything negative about a refugee again.” Perhaps a collection of reflection sheets would make the best testimony.

Retrospectively, I was able to dissect the Peace Project, its components, research, presentations, and opportunities to practice oral language. Only after the school year concluded was I able to truly understand why it was such an empowering and reciprocal experience for both my students, as well as their non-ELL classmates.

List of Best Lesson “Top 10" components resulting in effective learning and outcomes

  1. Idea comes from students and involves choice
  2. Authentic issue that interests and impacts students
  3. Requires communication across domains as they embrace their voice for important communication
  4. Hones verbal-presentation skills and organizing skills
  5. Welcomes and expects participation by interested ELLs regardless of language levels
  6. Situates ELLs in the midst of diverse authentic experiences recognizing that they have valuable contributions to make
  7. Students support their statements by citing examples, providing visual support, using humor, etc.
  8. Requires written reflections answering specific prompts following each session within 24 hours from non-ELL participants
  9. Processing of experiences with students informs future actions and shows evidence of impact
  10. The experience itself provides intangible positive results: e.g., increases ELLs’ standing among peers, enhances self-esteem, improves relationships, informs others authentically.

Clearly, I did not teach this lesson. The students constructed and taught themselves, their peers, and their teacher. It was my best lesson ever.

Response From Cindi Rigsbee

Cindi Rigsbee is a national-board-certified ELA/Reading teacher recently retired from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, where she worked on recruitment and retention initiatives like beginning-teacher support. With over 30 years in education, Cindi was named the 2009 North Carolina teacher of the year and is the author of Finding Mrs. Warnecke: The Difference Teachers Make. A member of the Center for Teaching Quality’s Collaboratory, Cindi was a contributing author to Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools, Now and in the Future. She blogs at cindirigsbee.com:

At the end of every school year, I asked my students what their favorite lesson was. And every year, students reported that the interdisciplinary lessons I planned and implemented were the most engaging.

In one school, we had a Cheetah Day every year. In my language arts class, we would be writing poetry about cheetahs and reading stories. In science, students would study adaptations (why do baby cheetahs have tear stains on their faces?) In math, students worked on word problems (If a cheetah can run 75 miles per hour....), and we studied the cheetah’s habitats in social studies. The entire day was connected for students—from class to class—which increased engagement and sparked interest.

When we read the novel Master Puppeteer, set in Osaka, Japan, we made puppets, practiced our origami skills, and even took a field trip to a Japanese restaurant. Around Halloween, we would always have our “Fright Fair,” which included sitting around a candle (battery operated) sharing scary stories the students had written. I focused on students’ strengths when planning. The artists would design invitations (we invited teachers and staff) and plan decorations, the musicians would select background music, and the writers would choose and organize the stories we’d share. I’d bring a cake for the guests, and we’d read the entire day!

My favorite, though, happened out of need. One year, I started reading a book aloud to my inner-city students. I took one look and knew I was losing them. They were dealing with drug deals “going down” outside their bedroom windows and couldn’t relate to a story about a little puppy on a farm. I went home that night and started writing a short novel named Shooting Star. It was about two girls who had grown up together but who found themselves dating boys from rival gangs. The setting included my students’ neighborhoods, and they helped me write the book, naming the characters and providing ideas for the plot. The sequel included a kidnapped bride, and the students had to determine where she was hidden (in our hometown) by following clues in the book and searching the internet.

The best lessons include activating prior knowledge and providing connections for students. Including them while planning and executing lessons allows for engagement and participation and lessons they’ll remember long after they’ve left the classroom!

Thanks to Tara, Sarah, Alexis, Debbie, Stephaney, and Cindi 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 Two in a few days.

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