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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

What Teachers Have Learned From Students and Mentors

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 07, 2023 12 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 was the most meaningful critique you have received about your teaching—how was it communicated and how has it affected your practice?

In Part One, Ann Hlabangana-Clay, Ashley Kearney, Keisha Rembert, and Mary K. Tedrow shared their experiences.

Ann and Ashley 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, Rebecca Alber, Kathryn Welby, Ed.D., Stephanie Dewing, Ph.D., and Kelly Owens wrote their responses.

Today, Amber Chandler, Zachary Wright, and Dale Ripley, Ph.D., finish up the series.

Being an Effective ‘Tour Guide’

Amber Chandler is the author of The Flexible SEL Classroom and a contributor to many education blogs. She teaches 8th grade ELA in Hamburg, N.Y. Amber is the president of her union of 400 teachers. Follow her @MsAmberChandler and check out her website:

I’m a planner. I love thinking with the end in mind. It is important to me that I know where I’m taking students on their learning journey. Often, in presentations to other educators, I use a visual of a mountain with many paths, all leading to one destination. This paradigm soothes me and calms my fears. However, the most meaningful critique I have received from a student came from Mya, who, when given my beautiful overview of our unit, muttered, “Oh my God. I can’t think about this right now.” I bided my time and then I approached the student. “Is everything OK?” Her response has changed the way some of my students take the journey with me through a unit.

“This,” she said, holding up my neatly organized monthly calendar, “stresses me out. I don’t even know where to start,” she explained. The very thing that soothes me was causing this student (and probably others) anxiety, while its purpose was to alleviate stress. I’d always known that my obsessive planning could be off-putting, but I didn’t know it would actually serve as a roadblock on the path through my unit.

Did I stop being a compulsive-calendar-creator? Nope. However, I’ve adopted a different approach. When I begin a unit, I make my calendar, and each week, I write the tasks on our side board. I post my monthly calendar next to the weekly list on the board. Both of these appear in my Google Classroom. After Mya’s critique, I gave my students a survey asking how much they want to know about the upcoming unit. Surprisingly, to me anyway, about 85 percent only wanted a week-to-week overview. The month view either didn’t mean much, or it completely stressed them out. Now, I make a few dozen of the month view and allow students to grab one if they want, but I no longer spend class time laying out our entire journey. I’m trying to make everyone comfortable, and so far, this approach has worked.

If I’m going to be the tour guide, and embrace both that metaphor and that role, I’ve come to realize that telling my students about all that they will encounter was ruining the journey for them, or even worse, dissuading them from coming along to the destination. As trite as it may seem, this approach has made me more cognizant of the journey itself, and when I’m present instead of planning, the learning is more significant for everyone.

idalwaysknownchandler

Prioritizing Reading Strategies

Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, N.J., a 2013 Philadelphia Outstanding Teacher of the Year, and the author of “Dismantling a Broken System: Actions to Bridge the Opportunity, Equity, and Justice Gap in American Education":

I remember teaching my 11th and 12th grade ELA classroom some tough political philosophy. I was in a collaborative meeting with my teacher coach at the time. I read the text—I believe it was either Hobbes or Locke—annotated the text, and composed a main idea summary as the exemplar for my students. I was then going to brainstorm how to go about teaching this text to my students and what types of analysis I was going to have them do, when my coach asked me a very simple question; “How did you figure out what the text meant? What moves did you make?”

The question made me pause. I had no idea what I did to figure out what the text was about. I read it and understood it. But my coach pushed me. She said, “You did things, used metacognitive strategies when the text got difficult. Whatever those strategies were, that’s what you need to get your students to do.”

Often, ELA and Social Studies teachers zoom right past comprehension and go straight to analysis, ignoring the fact that students will not be able to analyze texts that they do not understand. What we need to do, and what I learned how to do thanks to my coach, is identify the metacognitive reading strategies we use when we read and then teach our students how to use those strategies whenever they run into difficulty reading texts.

We found that the vast majority of student reading-comprehension struggles arose from three types of reading breakdowns; difficult vocabulary, difficult syntax, and difficult noun/pronoun agreement. We then created bite-sized chunks of text that exemplified each type of reading struggle and then used think-alouds and multiple at-bats for students to practice specific strategies for solving reading breakdowns when confronting difficult texts.

Student ability and confidence skyrocketed. No longer when confronted with difficult texts did they say, “I don’t get it.” Instead, they said, “The text has difficult vocabulary, so I am going to try to use my vocab strategies.” That one day with my coach changed my teaching practice forever.

Strategies used to engage students

Often, students become obsessed with the “right” answer. They raise their hands because they want to share what they believe to be the right answer or they try to become invisible if they don’t know the right answer lest they are called on and then embarrassed in front of the class. This focus on the correct answer, rather than the correct process, I have found silences many students, severely limits the amount and diversity of student contribution, and can further cement the false notion for struggling students that school is not for them.

A very simple, yet immensely powerful strategy I used to engage more students in my high school ELA classroom was what I began to call Get/Don’t Get Charts. When looking at a text, students would use the left-hand margin to jot down anything about the text they “Get” and use the right-hand margin to jot down anything they “Don’t Get.” They could Get who was speaking, what the setting was, and what was going on. They could “Don’t Get” what specific words meant, why a particular character said something, or why the author used a particular type of figurative language.

The power of the Get/Don’t Get chart is that it flips the script on what a successful student looks like. Instead of applauding and reinforcing students with the most Gets, I routinely circulated the classroom applauding all the Don’t Gets because I wanted students to develop their critical reading skills and I wanted students who struggle to feel success with perseverance.

When students question the Get/Don’t Get chart, I would present them with a hypothetical. Imagine two people reading a text. The first person said, “I get it.” The second one said, “I think I get it, but why is the author saying this, why is that character saying that, etc.” Which person actually understood the text more? The person with all the questions!

Using the Get/Don’t Get chart totally revolutionized and reinvigorated my classroom.

thatonedaywright

‘Show Up’

Dale Ripley, Ph.D., has taught for over 40 years at the elementary, secondary, and postsecondary levels, primarily in high-needs schools. His latest book, The Tactical Teacher: Proven Strategies to Positively Influence Student Learning & Classroom Behavior, shows teachers 58 ways to improve the negative classroom behaviors of even their most challenging students in order to increase student learning:

I was asked to set up a high school on a First Nations reserve in Canada a few years ago. The director of the school was an old friend, and the high school was not working well. She thought I might be able to help. So I went to the reserve to take a look.

What I saw were a few students who dropped by the high school only when they were bored and wanted to hook up with some friends. I agreed to see if we could build something more akin to a “real high school,” so I started to teach these kids. They hated me! In their eyes, I was this “old white guy” from the city coming out to “the rez,” – and I had no business being there and nothing to offer them.

They swore at me—sometimes in English, other times in Cree—sometimes in a whisper, other times loudly. That was the start of the school year in the fall.

FAST FORWARD TO SPRING: It was a beautiful evening in May. The school had put on a spring concert that evening, and I was walking around the building after the concert making sure all the doors were properly shut. A young high school student of mine, Annie, was walking with me, chatting about the concert, her friends, school, and so on. It was about 9 in the evening.

What was this 16-year-old Indigenous girl doing walking the hallways of the school helping me at 9 o’clock on a beautiful spring evening I wondered? She was popular and had a lot of friends. Surely, she had better things to do.

So I asked, “Annie, why are you here? You have lots of other things to do, yet here you are, helping me. When I first started teaching here last fall, you hated me! You refused to do any work. You yelled at me in English class, ‘I don’t read and I don’t write!’ What’s changed? You and the other kids are so nice to me now. Seriously, I want to know. What happened?”

This young woman then proceeded to teach me a lesson that I have never forgotten, one that I believe is at the very heart of what it means to be a good teacher.

“Well, Ripley,” she replied smiling. “You’re right. We did hate you back then. You wanted us to come to school and you made us work when we did. You were pushy and demanding and always wanted more.”

She continued, “So we made a bet as to how long it would take us to get you to quit. We were mean to you and swore at you and refused to do any work because we figured you would quit. But you didn’t. You kept coming back. You came every day. You never even took a sick day. Finally, after several months, you just wore us out, and we gave up. We knew that no matter how badly we treated you, you would show up the next day anyway and try to teach us.”

At the end of the school year, this same student (the one who yelled at me in our first English class, “I don’t read and I don’t write!”) wrote me a beautiful letter about all she had learned that year and what a great experience the year had been for her.

The lesson that Annie taught me was powerful, one that every teacher ought to learn. If you truly want to make a difference in the lives of your students, you have to let them know that you are always going to be there for them. You are going to show up every day, well-prepared and ready to teach them. No matter how badly they treat you, you are not going anywhere. You will be there when they don’t deserve it. You will be there when they fight with you. Why? Because their future depends on it.

Let them see and feel and know for certain that you will be there for them because you believe they are worth it—even if they don’t think they are.

thelessonthatannie

Thanks to Amber, Zachary, and Dale 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.

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