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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

Teaching Is About the Messy Work of Being Human. Here’s How to Embrace It

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 15, 2023 15 min read
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Being open to give new ideas a try and observing the “micro moves” of colleagues are just two of today’s educator’s recommendations for how teachers can improve their craft.

‘Teaching Is Human Work’

Lauren Merkley teaches English at Cottonwood High School in Murray, Utah. She is the 2020 Utah Teacher of the Year and a Utah teacher fellow with the Hope Street Group. Twitter: @lmerkles:

Amid today’s slurry of edu-jargon and mystifying digital platforms, it can be easy to overlook that teaching is human work. It’s the messy work of helping weird and wonderful humans grow into new knowledge. When lost in the labyrinth of learning and lesson plans, I often have to poke my head above the hedges to ask: What do the humans in my classroom need? What do these humans love? How can I center their human-ness in my teaching?

Frame lessons as problems to be solved

A note on my computer reads: “Lessons=problems to be SOLVED.” This faded Post-It has helped me reframe lessons from “What am I teaching?” to “What problem is this lesson solving?” Without reminders, I can easily forget that my job is to help students make meaning, not for me to impart it.

After all, humans are curious. Kids especially are miniature philosophers, lawyers, scientists; they love juicy problems and puzzles. As long as they can solve them. Without necessary skills, juicy problems become the Sunday New York Times Crossword: just too dang hard.

And so it is in the classroom. When I opened an English lesson with the facts of a bizarre 1955 court case wherein an aunt sued her 5-year-old nephew for battery, the room tightened with attention. My juniors were hooked; the problem was, indeed, juicy. Most quickly asserted their disdain for a nephew-suing aunt;, others vocally rose to her defense, but all were rapt as I challenged them to develop a logical, courtroom-worthy argument. They were unusually invested in the ensuing instruction on developing logical lines of reasoning because they had reason to be! Someone needed to defend (or prosecute) the nephew! He was 5! That day, logic didn’t exist for its own sake; it was a tool to solve a human problem. It had stakes. It mattered.

Quite often, young people harbor the right instincts. The stakes of real-world problems simply extract those instincts and leverage the human curiosity burrowed inside every miniature human. Translating content into real-world problems sets that curiosity ablaze.

Frame lessons as opportunities to create

I don’t assign anything in my creative writing course. Instead, students design their own projects—form, topic, and length. In a school system stuffed with assigning, I dared to preserve a space for what humans love to do: create stuff. So, if Sally wants to write a rap about her hamster and Juan a screenplay about love on Mars, I’m game.

To be clear, this is an experiment. This means that students are simultaneously creating poetry, narratives, memoirs, screenplays, raps, vignettes, the list goes on. Is this chaotic? Yes. Do I often ask myself what the heck I’m doing? Yes.

For a few students, the tabula rasa is paralyzing, even after weeks of journaling. Given unfettered creative license, some are stymied by years of prescriptive English prompts. They look at me with panic: “Just tell me what to write.”

Who can blame them? Instruction too often generates ideas for students. We assign science experiments that have been done or (myself included) soulless essays with rigid recycled rubrics and are baffled when kids don’t care about the topics. But kids are creating in their free time: on Minecraft, YouTube, Wattpad. What if classrooms were the platforms where kids tried out, nurtured, or even rejected, their own ideas, no matter how tangled the process?

So, I don’t intervene. I let them tussle with the most basic unit of writing: an idea. Of course, I teach craft, I conference endlessly, I draft alongside them. However, my silence as to what they should write is a risk. A big one. And yet, this risk has produced some of the most heartening moments of my career, as teenagers discover their own voice absent a word-count requirement or the vice grip of a rubric. Learning demands risk, and it turns out good teaching does, too.

Yes, unrestrained choice in the classroom is chaotic, but so are humans. Problem-centered lessons can be unpredictable, but so are humans. I remind my English students that studying language helps us understand the messiness of human nature. I often remind myself that teaching does, too.

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Seeing ‘Micro Moves in Action’

Cindy Garcia has been a bilingual educator for 17 years and is currently a districtwide specialist for bilingual/ESL mathematics. She is active on Twitter @CindyGarciaTX and on her blog:

A teacher’s craft is refined and improved based on their experiences during their teaching careers. It is important for teachers to not only accept opportunities offered but to see out learning experiences.

Peer observations are a purposeful way for teachers to improve their craft. Taking part in peer observations allows teachers to see instruction taking place at their own campus and with the same type of students they have in their own classrooms. If something is working in a peer’s classroom, then it is likely to work in their classroom as well. Peer observations prompt teachers to reflect on their own instructional strategies, classroom environment, organization, etc., because they are able to make a real-time comparison.

Teachers are able to see their colleague’s micro moves in action. These are the actions that teachers usually do not think are different from what others do or not very important, but they tend to be impactful. One example of a micro move is how a teacher prompts students to share their thinking. Do they have an assigned partner and role? Do students use specific response stems? Does the teacher use a digital random name generator? What are the “little things” that other teacher does that positively influences and impacts student learning?

Taking advantage of professional learning opportunities can support teachers’ professional growth. School districts usually offer sessions facilitated by their district specialists whose duties include keeping up with the latest educational research. Twitter also allows teachers to be part of professional learning networks and explore numerous topics such as improving instruction for multilingual students #MLLChat_BkClub, math elementary education #ElemMathChat, and instructional coaching #educoach.

Campus instructional coaches can be instrumental in supporting teachers. Coaches have access to the latest research and opportunities to work with different grade levels. Coaches conduct classroom observations and analyze teaching practices. Coaches can coordinate peer observation and model instructional strategies for teachers. Coaches can work with teachers to determine what they can tweak and how to refine their craft.

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Taking Advantage of Professional-Development Opportunities

Cheryl Abla, M.Ed., a senior managing consultant at McREL, works with schools, districts, and other stakeholders to develop sustainable plans for improving the professional practices of teachers and school leaders:

1) Take advantage of the free but totally legit professional-development resources you can find on social media. Join a Facebook group to get ideas to improve your classroom skills and also to have a safe place to share challenges that you wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing at work. Over on Instagram, there are lots of videos of teachers demonstrating specific strategies to improve student learning. Social media isn’t all about celebrities tearing each other down—it’s where the rest of us can go to build each other up!

2) Then again, there’s nothing like taking advantage of a PD day to spend some time learning from another teacher in real life. Find an observation buddy at another school or better yet, in a nearby district. I’ve got clients rotating among four Colorado districts so they can get a “study abroad” experience and still be home for dinner. If a planning period is all you can spare, then observe within your school and be sure colleagues know you have an open-door policy for them.

Have realistic expectations. You might go in with high hopes for learning how to ask higher-order questions, but in reality, you discover a better way to line up or hand out papers. You might discover opportunities for improving your learning environment that you never thought about.

3) Be open to change. I often encounter teachers who think their way is the only way, and it’s not necessarily stubbornness; it may just be that they’ve never had an opportunity to see a better way in action. Nothing ventured, nothing gained; if you see or hear or read about an approach that others say they’re succeeding with, try it. If it’s really a stinker, you can just stop!

I would just add that as brain science continues to shed light on the sequencing and pacing that works best for students, it seems nearly impossible that a teacher could do things the same way—and that this just happens to be the best way—for an entire career. The decision about whether to adopt or reject a new teaching strategy should always hinge on whether it’s best for students, not whether it’s most convenient for us.

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‘Trying Something New’

Kathy S. Dyer is an innovative educator who has served as a teacher, principal, district assessment coordinator, and adjunct professor:

What a loaded topic. How do teachers get better at what they do? Do they do more? Do they get feedback? If so, from whom? There are so many approaches for educators who have a continuous improvement mindset. For me, craft improvement starts with three things: welcoming change, trying something new, and giving responsibility.

  • Welcoming change – How you show and explain the knowledge you want to transfer to students should be fresh for you and them. Look for new approaches, modalities, resources, tools, and strategies to convey what you want learners to know. Meet learners in their world—now and the one they will move into. Change ignites the brain. Even rearranging the physical environment can lead to improvements. Keep it fresh for you and your learners.
  • Trying something new – Every day, there are new things in the world. Teachers ask students to try something new daily. When a teacher demonstrates their willingness to take a risk, learners will let them know if it works. And what if it does? Learners grow, and so does the teacher. Students see a side of the teacher that demonstrates risk taking along with how to handle success and failure and how to grow as a learner. Stepping outside your comfort zone can be uncomfortable—and lead to amazing results.
  • Giving responsibility – Infuse your practice with formative instructional practices. Develop a collaborative and respectful environment that promotes learning. The revised CCSSO definition of formative assessment includes these practices:

    • Clarifying learning goals and success criteria within a broader progression of learning;
    • Eliciting and analyzing evidence of student thinking;
    • Engaging in self-assessment and peer feedback;
    • Providing actionable feedback; and
    • Using evidence and feedback to move learning forward by adjusting learning strategies, goals, or next instructional steps.

The combination of all these practices will enhance and improve your craft more than you can imagine. Learners become engaged and empowered. They own their learning because you’ve given them the responsibility to.

Most of us want to get better at what we do, improve our craft. Find one idea from the list above or look at this Sketch Note by Janet Hamilton and pick something to try.

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‘Read, Read, Read’

Nawal Qarooni is an educator, literacy coach, and writer who supports a holistic literacy model of instruction in schools. She and her team of coaches at NQC Literacy work alongside teachers and school leaders. Nawal’s first book with Stenhouse about family and caregiver literacy is forthcoming this year:

I have always believed that one of the best ways for literacy teachers to improve their craft is to consistently and voraciously read and write themselves. It often feels impossible to find the time, but still, I force the time, often with my young kids running around my feet. Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Read books for kids and read books for adults. Read articles and cookbooks. Write letters. Write about your feelings. Write lists.

Notice what you naturally do; pay careful attention to your authentic tendencies. What do you do when you are finding it challenging to make your way through a text? What about when you love a book? Do you desperately want to talk to others about it? When do you find writing most useful—maybe cathartic, maybe to communicate something with clarity to an audience?

As an educator, I bring my own out-of-classroom literacy behaviors into student spaces to be sure what I’m bringing is relevant for life. I use what I read and love in my student conferring; I fold little bits of what I write as mentor examples in writing lessons. And I bring new, interesting findings from my own reading of the world as personal passions that engage students directly. I believe that we can’t be teachers of reading and writing without reading and writing ourselves. If we reduce the teaching of literacy to rote worksheets and fill-in-the-blank content, forgetting the literate behaviors we engage in as adults, we lose the glory and gorgeousness of rich literacy experiences that strengthen our young thinkers outside of school, for life. Recent texts I’ve loved:

  • Gibberish by Young Vo (picture book)
  • Sweet and Sour by Debbi Michiko Florence (middle grades)
  • What’s Mine is Yours by Naima Coster (adult fiction)
  • Literacy is Liberation: Working Toward Justice With Culturally Relevant Teaching by Kimberly N. Parker (professional text)
  • My Daughter’s White Doll by Ibram X. Kendi (Atlantic Monthly article)
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This is the sixth post in a eight-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here, Part Four here, and Part Five here.

The question of the week is:

What do you think are the best one-to-three things a teacher can do to improve his/her/their craft?

Carissa McCray, Ph.D., Latrese D. Younger, Kayla Towner, and Verónica Schmidt-Gómez, M.Ed., started this series in Part One.

Carissa, Latresee, and Kayla were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Aisha Christa Atkinson, M.S., Angela M. Ward, Ph.D., Meghann Seril, and Altagracia H. Delgado contributed their suggestions.

In Part Three, Ron Berger, Nancy Frey, Ph.D., Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., and Mary K. Tedrow continued the discussion.

In Part Four, Jennifer Orr, Jennifer Casa-Todd, Ann Stiltner, and Rebecca Alber shared their thoughts.

In Part Five, Sheila Wilson, K. Renae Pullen, Ruth Okoye, Ed. D., Chase Orton, and Shaeley Santiago added to the conversation.

Today’s post is time for Lauren Merkley, Cindy Garcia, Cheryl Abla, M.Ed., Kathy S. Dyer, and Nawal Qarooni to contribute their commentaries.

Thanks to Lauren, Cindy, Cheryl, Kathy, and Nawal for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@educationweek.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 EdWeek 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.

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.

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