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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

These Small Moves Can Make Outsized Differences in Class

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 19, 2021 10 min read
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(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

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, Valentina Gonzalez, Ann Stiltner, Holly Spinelli, and Chelonnda Seroyer shared their suggestions. Valentina, Ann, and Holly were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Regie Routman, PJ Caposey, and Sarah Cooper wrap up this series.

‘Scaffolded Conversations’

Regie Routman is an educational leader and equity champion who is passionate about improving the literacy and learning lives of all students. For full information on Regie’s many books, articles, podcasts, videos, and professional learning offerings—and to contact her—go to www.regieroutman.org and @regieroutman on Twitter:

We’ve all been there. We’re conferring with a student—publicly or one-on-one—and asking questions to get a cogent response, a two-way conversation going about the content at hand, to ascertain what the student knows and doesn’t know, to clear up confusion—so we can offer support.

The student looks at us, silent. We give wait time, five seconds, another five seconds. More silence follows. In a sincere attempt to help the student, we repeat the questions. And when that doesn’t work, we implore with more questions and give more wait time. The student’s body language—squirming, eyes darting, head down—indicates growing discomfort. “Put the language in the student’s ear” is the advice I give most often when I am coaching teachers who are struggling to communicate with a student. I call the dialogue, which ensues from the language choice and encouragement we give the student, “scaffolded conversations.”

I define a scaffolded conversation this way: focused talk and guided questioning that prompts students to think about and express ideas they might not generate on their own.

In a scaffolded conversation, I am face to face with the learner in a natural, give-and-take exchange on a topic the learner has some familiarity with. I concentrate on what the learner is trying to say and focus my talk and questions there. Simply put, I suggest language for the learner to consider and try out. Scaffolded conversations take place as part of celebrations, conferences, small-group work, and content-area learning contexts, and they:

  • Build on the students’ strengths.
  • Extend what the learner is attempting to do.
  • Suggest language and ideas for the learner to consider.
  • Encourage the learner to restate language and ideas in his own words.
  • Increase verbal proficiency.
  • Celebrate memorable language and thinking the learner has employed.

Especially with our students whose first language isn’t English, scaffolded conversations are a game changer for bringing out the intelligence and thinking of students who have often been marginalized because they have difficulty expressing their ideas. Scaffolded conversations support the belief I hold for all learners: “Do the best you can. I’ll help you with the rest.”

Advantages of scaffolded conversations

  • Builds student confidence and competence in oral and written language.
  • Makes it possible to raise expectations for what’s possible, especially as writers and speakers.
  • Models a possible start of a sentence or idea, which jump-starts the student’s thinking.
  • Supplies language the learner understands but is not quite ready to independently apply.
  • Is a temporary support that treats students with respect and dignity.
  • Clarifies and elaborates upon a learner’s thoughts in a meaningful, engaging manner.
  • Augments multilingual learners’ literacy development across the curriculum.
  • Promotes equity by giving the learner language needed to tackle the task.

The language of scaffolded conversations: some examples

  • You might say it like this . . . or you might want to say something like . . .
  • Notice how the author worded that. How might you put that in your own words?
  • You’re writing about . . . so you might say . . . or . . .
  • Perhaps you might start it this way . . . . Try saying that. Or say that in your own words.

Tips for successful scaffolded conversations:

  • Try not to focus on what the learner doesn’t know or say but on how you can encourage the child to find out what he does know and can say, with our support.
  • Provide sufficient wait time, but when no response is forthcoming after reasonable wait time, put language possibilities in the learner’s ears.
  • Jot down key words or sentences from the conversation on a sticky note, which jogs the learner’s memory when s/he goes to write.
  • Do not let the learner fail; at the very least, have the learner repeat suggested language.
  • Be encouraging; present a “you can do this” spirit.

Student Emails to Parents

PJ Caposey is an award-winning educator, keynote speaker, consultant, and bestselling author of eight books (https://amzn.to/2MArWY5) who currently serves as the superintendent of schools for the nationally recognized Meridian CUSD 223 in northwest Illinois. You can find PJ on most social-media platforms as MCUSDSupe:

This move is a game changer. Trust me!!

Everyone I have ever met in education proclaims that they want bell-to-bell instruction to take place. I know as a building principal this is something that I spoke on so frequently that it caused eye rolls and I am sure was the subject of conversation around the water cooler.

The bottom line, however, is that it simply is not ALWAYS possible. The most skilled teacher with the best plan occasionally ends up with the structured part of class ending a few minutes early. In those moments, there are a couple of things that typically happen—some good and some bad. Great teachers take the time to build relationships or extend the concept of the day through conversation. Others let the class be self-directed and hope that chaos does not ensue.

This is where the ONE SIMPLE THING comes into play.

This is the suggestion that I have given to thousands of educators over the years, and I still get emails about this being a total game changer. In those moments when class ends early, have students create an email to their parents, copy you on the email, and state their current grade and performance in class. We are talking about a three-sentence email.

This takes two things many teachers dread and turns them into an easy win. First, everyone is uncomfortable in those four minutes before the bell, hoping for no discipline problems or the impromptu administrator dropping by. Second, many teachers enjoy parent communication but dread the burden of time that it places upon them. Using this technique allows for 20+ emails to be sent authentically and in real time and takes minimal effort from the teacher.

The role of the teacher is to provide the prompt and to correct any misinformation provided to the parent by the student. WARNING: This does occur (but rarely). Second WARNING: Make sure they are not just sending themselves the email if the grade is less than spectacular. Besides these two acts of mischief, this one technique is a game changer in terms of communication and class structure.

Lastly, the benefit I did not anticipate when I started to share this technique was the fact that students had to send this email increased their agency and ownership of their progress. Many teachers have shared with me that after deploying this strategy, they have students approach them after class and ask for extra help or inquire about how they can improve their grade when the student had never done so in the past.

As a side note, this CAN work at all grade levels. While this may have not seemed possible a year ago, the pandemic has accelerated both our dependence and capabilities with technology at all ages. I would not have thought a kindergarten student could share what they are doing well and where they are struggling in a quick video and drop it into a shared Google folder with the ease that I am seeing this type of work being done every day.

I am not trying to tell you that this strategy is going to dramatically change student performance. But this is a simple, no-cost strategy that can do something that is desperately needed right now and can reduce the stress and workload of teachers.


‘Dropping Into’ Google Docs

Sarah Cooper teaches 8th grade U.S. history and is assistant head for academic life 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 MiddleWeb’s Future of History blog, and she lives just outside Los Angeles with her husband and two sons:

What I realized during remote teaching and then back in the classroom is how powerful Google Docs can be for a specific purpose: I can “drop into” a group’s work during class and help make their writing and research better than it would have been otherwise.

In a recent resilient history podcast project with my 8th grade U.S. history and civics students, I especially saw the power of this tool.

For each stage of the project, students put their group file into a Google Drive folder with four subfolders:

  • Group Research Document (topic brainstorming and initial research)
  • Primary Source Analysis (each student’s source, analyzed, using a guide from the Library of Congress)
  • Podcast Script
  • Final Podcast

At first, I set up these folders simply for ease of grading. As students started their work, though, these folders gave me an immediate window into the collaboration process. I might go over to a group, ask where they were, and then pull up their research document on my laptop—while still talking with them—to make a note on a source or suggest where to cut part of their script.

These folders felt like the x-ray vision I had been missing. Previously, I had walked around, looking over students’ shoulders at the page they were working on, but I couldn’t see the bones of the project in process.

As a result of my drop-ins, the final scripts ended up being a lot better than the year before.

In one draft, a girl mentioned an oral history interviewing Sam Yorty about the Great Depression, without realizing anything about his time as mayor of Los Angeles. Dropping into her doc several times in one day, I suggested that she do some research on his background and also check out the original interview, realizing that there was a quotation that fit better with the group’s theme than the one she had chosen. Sure, I was guiding with a pretty firm hand. However, as a result, she felt she understood her quotation, rather than struggling with something not quite relevant, and her group was able to create a more connected podcast.

This trick has also helped with my grading time by allowing me to suggest fixes during class for problems I would have found later, at home. In addition, dropping in has felt like the ultimate formative assessment, being able to respond to student misconceptions or needs on the spot.


Thanks to Regie, PJ, and Sarah for contributing their thoughts.

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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