This post is the second in an ongoing series about small teacher moves that have the potential of a big impact on students.
Sydney Chaffee, the 2017 National Teacher of the Year, is a 9th grade humanities teacher and instructional coach at Codman Academy in Boston:
Teachers should give students more opportunities to make choices.
I often consider student choice when designing long-term projects or summative assessments, but building choice into daily lesson plans is just as important in communicating my respect for students as individuals. It’s a low-lift way to meet them where they are.
During the 2020-21 school year, like for many teachers, Zoom became my classroom, and my students had choices they’d never had before: on camera or off? To mute or not to mute? Some students were silent black boxes the entire year, their private chats to me the only way I was sure they were there. I offered small choices to try to entice the quiet ones into participating: “Answer out loud or in the chat,” I said, or “You can put your answer on the Jamboard or go into a breakout room to discuss.” One day, our school community was hit by tragic news, so I leveraged these same strategies to hold space for students: “Choose the breakout room that fits you best: independent work space, group discussion about what happened, or private check-in with a teacher.” Over time, students got more comfortable expressing themselves in their own ways, and I got more comfortable giving them room to do so.
Now, I offer my students choices as often as I can. Here are a few examples from a recent class period: First, students annotated the poem of the week, choosing what kinds of annotations to use and what parts of the poem to respond to. Then they moved into independent reading time, where students chose any book they wanted to read. (On another day, we might have done some journaling, where students would have a choice between two prompts of the day, several other prompts pasted into the back of their journals, or simply to write about whatever was on their mind.)
Next, we read a chapter of our class book, and students selected whether to read along with the audiobook, read aloud in a small group, or read independently. After reading the chapter, students analyzed the author’s characterization of the protagonist. They selected details from the chapter that helped illuminate the protagonist’s character and represented them in words and images, citing their evidence. They decided whether to work independently, with a partner, or in a small group with me and a few peers. Finally, we had a short class discussion about the book.
None of the choices I offered students in this lesson was massive, and none required me to revolutionize the way I teach. Students all worked toward the same learning targets; they just made choices about how they wanted to get there.
I used to think giving students choices would make planning and facilitating lessons overwhelming. Now, I see that a few simple moves—like offering them an option to work in pairs or alone or giving them a choice between two writing prompts—do not require significantly more time or effort on my part yet can make the difference between a student who feels like they can engage in the day’s work and one who feels like they cannot.
Wendi Pillars, NBCT, has been teaching nearly three decades, both overseas and stateside, in grades K-12. She currently teaches biology and earth science, and works with MLLs at the high school level. She is the author of Visual Impact: Quick, Easy Tools for Thinking in Pictures:
A small teaching move that can help engage students with little teacher prep is to provide a sticky note, whiteboard, or piece of paper at each desk each day. Students can then be prompted to sketch a concept, define a word, or provide their responses in a pithy way.
Maybe it’s as simple as a letter answer to a multiple-choice question displayed, a recap of a paragraph or page they just read, or an imaginative visual representation using three shapes (or something along those lines). They may even use the sticky notes to pose a question for you if they know you will be walking around to view them.
The point is to provide more opportunities for students to engage with the content in nonthreatening and low-stakes ways. The portability of the sticky notes means that you can easily swap them among students, too. Say each student poses a question or idea on their sticky note. You can then swap papers among the students in random ways so that others can help respond or make a connection.
There are three big benefits of this teaching move:
1. Constraints of a small sticky note are far less daunting and less time-consuming for students to craft their responses, thus encouraging engagement.
2. As you walk around the room you can gauge student understanding quickly and can then reteach, clarify, or move on—and no one is the wiser as to who might need the extra support.
The sticky notes serve as a great reminder for teachers to slow down and provide time for students to consolidate some of their learning. Even two minutes to sketch, connect, or summarize an idea can help cement new knowledge, especially when done at least two or three times per class.
Kacee Weaver’s career began in 2010 at a Montessori charter school, as a mixed-grade teacher. In 2018, she joined the Ogden school district in Utah and thrives on being in the classroom with the children:
You’ve probably seen the viral video of Barry White Jr., an elementary teacher in North Carolina, highlighting the special way he greets each student before they enter the classroom. His deep connection with the students he serves is demonstrated as a special handshake and dance before they even step foot into the classroom. Educators of all levels are embracing this simple method and witnessing the classroom climate improving.
White’s choreography skills aren’t required. A simple high-five, fist-bump, or handshake, welcoming the student to school establishes an authentic connection between educator and student that continues throughout the day. Research from 2007 and 2018 indicates that by greeting students at the door of the classroom, using their name, making eye contact, and offering a nonverbal greeting increases academic engagement by 20 percent and decreases disruptive classroom behavior by 9 percent, potentially returning an hour of instructional time simply by spending 30 seconds making a human connection.
Consider the positive implications this practice might have if we applied it among our students, providing them the time and space to greet one another each day.
Classroom greetings are part of our daily Community Meeting. It takes as little as two minutes, and the children love it. Through smiles and laughter, their connections grow. Sometimes, we simply shake hands and say “Good Morning!” Other times, we do a little chant called “Hello Neighbor” that involves bumping hips and turning around in a circle. Another favorite is a “fishy greeting” where we pretend our arms are fish and we flap our fins together.
In my experience, providing students the opportunity to greet one another prior to beginning instruction improves peer relationships and positively affects communication and collaboration throughout the day. Students learn one another’s names more quickly at the beginning of the year and are able to connect in a brief but meaningful way each day, throughout the year.
Not only are my students being welcomed individually to school by me, they are also intentionally welcomed by at least five other students during our community meeting. Their smiles and laughter are all I need to know that this is time well spent, and it’s one of my favorite times of day.
Cheryl Abla, M.Ed., a senior consultant at McREL, works with schools, districts, and other stakeholders to develop sustainable plans for improving the professional practices of teachers and school leaders:
Relationship building between a teacher and their students is critical to creating a classroom community that makes all students feel noticed and cared for. A small teaching move that helps build these connections and positive relationships with your students is to greet each of them every day or every class period.
Welcoming students daily shows them that they are important and you are happy to see them. An unfortunate reality is you may be the first positive adult interaction that the student has had during the day or, perhaps, you are the first person to have spoken to them at all. Make a point of communicating every day with every student. A simple warm greeting can make a huge difference in a student’s life, personally and academically.
Here are some simple ways to “notice” every student every day:
- Get their names right: When greeting each student, use their preferred name and correct pronunciation. This takes a little time at the beginning of the school year, but it’s worth every minute.
- Look them in the eye. There’s no better way to show someone you see them than to look them in the eye. Students don’t miss a thing and notice your every action. For your elementary students, consider sitting in a chair as you welcome them since their eye level is significantly lower.
- Change up the interactions: You can wave, give a high-five, fist-bump, thumbs-up, shake their hand, a pat on the shoulder, or offer a side hug. Let the students choose what they would like that specific day by telling you or pointing to a picture on a poster on your classroom door.
- Explore student languages: Have a multilingual student teach you how to pronounce “hello” in their native language and greet all students in that language.
- Keep it positive: Say things like, “It’s great to see you,” “I’m so excited you’re here,” or “I’m glad you’re back today.”
- Set the tone: Each day provides an opportunity for a fresh start, and your greeting offers an opportunity for a great reset moment to say, “I’m sorry,” or “Hey, let’s do better together today.”
- Embrace the playful: Have a secret password that students need to say as they enter your classroom. The password can pertain to your content—for example, if you’re a P.E. teacher, the student must name an Olympic event, or if you teach science, the student must say a science term from yesterday’s lesson.
- Beyond the classroom: Say “hello,” “good morning,” or “good afternoon” to every student you encounter in the hallway, even if they’re not one of your students. This creates a welcoming and joyful school culture.
Thanks to Sydney, Wendi, Kacee, and Cheryl and for contributing their thoughts!
The new question of the week is:
What is a “small teaching move” that you think is not as common as it should be? A “small teaching move” in this context is an action that would require very little prep, can easily be made into a routine or habit, and is likely to result in increased student engagement and learning.
In Part One, Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, Jessica Fernandez, Alejandra Carmona-Guzmán, and Daman Harris shared their suggestions.
Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at firstname.lastname@example.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 (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all Ed Week articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 11 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.
- It Was Another Busy School Year. What Resonated for You?
- How to Best Address Race and Racism in the Classroom
- Schools Just Let Out, But What Are the Best Ways to Begin the Coming Year?
- Classroom Management Starts With Student Engagement
- Teacher Takeaways From the Pandemic: What’s Worked? What Hasn’t?
- The School Year Has Ended. What Are Some Lessons to Close Out Next Year?
- Student Motivation and Social-Emotional Learning Present Challenges. Here’s How to Help
- How to Challenge Normative Gender Culture to Support All Students
- What Students Like (and Don’t Like) About School
- Technology Is the Tool, Not the Teacher
- How to Make Parent Engagement Meaningful
- Teaching Social Studies Isn’t for the Faint of Heart
- Differentiated Instruction Doesn’t Need to Be a Heavy Lift
- How to Help Students Embrace Reading. Educators Weigh In
- 10 Strategies for Reaching English-Learners
- 10 Ways to Include Teachers in Important Policy Decisions
- 10 Teacher-Proofed Strategies for Improving Math Instruction
- Give Students a Role in Their Education
- Are There Better Ways Than Standardized Tests to Assess Students? Educators Think So
- How to Meet the Challenges of Teaching Science
- If I’d Only Known. Veteran Teachers Offer Advice for Beginners
- Writing Well Means Rewriting, Rewriting, Rewriting
- Christopher Emdin, Gholdy Muhammad, and More Education Authors Offer Insights to the Field
- How to Build Inclusive Classrooms
- What Science Can Teach Us About Learning
- The Best Ways for Administrators to Demonstrate Leadership
- Listen Up: Give Teachers a Voice in What Happens in Their Schools
- 10 Ways to Build a Healthier Classroom
- Educators Weigh In on Implementing the Common Core, Even Now
- What’s the Best Professional-Development Advice? Teachers and Students Have Their Say
- Plenty of Instructional Strategies Are Out There. Here’s What Works Best for Your Students
- How to Avoid Making Mistakes in the Classroom
- Looking for Ways to Organize Your Classroom? Try Out These Tips
- Want Insight Into Schooling? Here’s Advice From Some Top Experts
I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.
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.