Questions & Authors: Integrating inquiry, assessment, and strategic teaching

In Pulling Together: Integrating Inquiry, Assessment and Instruction in English Classrooms, Leyton Schnellert and his coauthors present a comprehensive answer to the current big ideas in teaching: formative assessment, backward design, inquiry learning, strategic teaching, and metacognition. In this edition of Questions & Authors, Leyton talks about the origins and inspiration for Pulling Together, and how he and his colleagues find connections between English language arts and inclusive education.

Pulling Together emerged through collaboration with my colleagues Krista Ediger, Mehjabeen Datoo, and Joanne Panas.  Over the last few years, we have met about once a month to build text sets, redesign lessons, explore strategy instruction and wrestle with assessment.  However, somewhere along the way, we began to realize that the various approaches that we were pulling apart and trying to make our own actually supported one another.  Our inquiry then became something more satisfying and even elegant – an attempt to pull various practices together.

Pulling together seems to be a theme for me; I have spent much of my teaching career finding connections between my two passions: English language arts and inclusive education.  For me they go hand in hand, classroom communities with diverse student populations open up opportunities to explore multiple perspectives and literacies from the inside out.  Krista, Mehjabeen, Joanne and I use inquiry as a planning and teaching framework because inquiry invites students to engage with ideas and experiences by asking questions and developing and sharing their own perspectives. Planning from our knowledge of students – what they know and believe, looking at their strengths, interests and stretches – helps us to develop culturally relevant curriculum.  For us, ongoing formative assessment plays a big part in inquiry-oriented classrooms.

Through teaching English language arts and co-teaching with peers (in my role as a resource teacher), I have learned to invite students to tell their stories and develop their own insights.  Instead of looking for right answers, I ask students to develop an idea and/or interpretation and to explain their understanding using evidence.  When there is an aspect of oral or written language that we all want to develop – a common outcome – I invite students to generate criteria with me.  Even if criteria or rubrics exist, I prefer to involve the students in figuring out what our shared criteria might be and invite them to find positive examples of these criteria in their own and others’ writing and thinking.  In my teaching I work from a belief that all students bring experience and skill – I don’t expect all students to at the same skill or knowledge level, but what I do communicate is that each of them needs to move from where they are as a learner to a deeper, more accomplished place.  In my planning and teaching, I’m asking students to pull together their background knowledge, the texts they read and create, the criteria we develop together and the mini-lessons I teach to help them get closer to those criteria.  Together my students and I make curriculum together.  The learning outcomes or standards are part of this curriculum, but so are we.

Inquiry learning builds enduring understandings and thinking strategies.  In Pulling Together we show how we have combined inquiry, formative and summative assessment, and strategic teaching. Within inquiry units we find that we can both (1) help students to develop deep, conceptual understanding and (2) explicitly build the thinking skills they need to help them develop these understandings. In each unit we focus on a few key thinking, reading, and writing skills. This is how we develop thoughtful readers and writers, who choose to read and write beyond our classrooms.

To help us in this process we:

1. Start with the end in mind.  We look at the learning outcomes and/or or standards to determine what we want students to know and do in a unit.  We also think about what themes and/or aspects of the human experience we can students to explore. Then we group these into one or two big ideas.  By the end of the unit, we want students to:

–      link examples and ideas across texts and explain how they are related to the human experience

–      explain how technology shapes the way we live our lives

–      use more than one medium to analyze and share a personal example of technology impacting how they communicate and behave

2.  Recast big ideas as questions that can be explored through inquiry.  Joanne, Krista, Mehjabeen and I were able to shape an entire three month unit around the questions:

How does communications technology shape our humanity?

How do we communicate with each other?

How does technology impact the way we communicate?

How does the way we communicate change the way we behave?

How does communications technology humanize and/or dehumanize us?

3.  Plan one or two performance assessments for the unit.  These allow students to show the understandings and skills they have developed.  For this unit students:

– wrote a personal essay on the topic how communications technology impacts them personally

– created a video, blog or broadcast (ie podcast) on how communications technology affects humanity/ society/other groups

– reflected on their learning in their metacognition journals

4.  Engage in lots of formative assessment especially descriptive feedback and student self-assessment.  These activities and assessments are not usually for marks, but rather to help students practice working with ideas and approaches, getting feedback along the way.  In this unit:

-students co-created a personal essay, guided by the teacher, on the topic “how does YouTube affect behavior?”

-they created a communications technology timeline

-They participated in quickwrites, a class blog, group discussions, information circles, and read and discussed articles on the impact of technologies

-wrote a reflection on their learning in their metacognition journals

5.  Teach mini-lessons use gradual release of responsibility for key knowledge and skills.

–      Students saw a teacher model ways to brainstorm ideas, start essays, create a flow for their ideas and back up their ideas with examples.

–      The strategies and approaches used and practiced along the way were the same ones they used in the performance assessments.

–      By the end of the unit everyone had a change to see examples and practice with feedback related to criteria.

–      All students had more success as they got personalized feedback related to shared criteria.

For Mehjabeen, Krista, Joanne and I, we are working to help students develop foundational skills for working with texts, ideas, each other and beyond the classroom. What is key for us is that it is the thinking skills and communication approaches that allow students to deeply engage with and understand complex ideas and information being taught.  This is a principle of inclusion – all students have a right to access ideas and techniques that can help them to develop themselves and engage with others and the world.

It is exciting for us is to hear and read how students’ thinking and understandings are developing.   By spending this extended time developing thinking skills, we have found that our students are able to grasp increasingly complex ideas and synthesize information and concepts with insight and appreciation. Using inquiry and performance assessment has also helped students to see the unique perspectives of their peers and any number of ways that these insights can be represented and communicated.  This provides us with a deep satisfaction as teachers; pulling together inquiry, formative and summative assessment, and strategic teaching is helping our students to develop the ability and sensitivity to appreciate diversity and difference.

Add comment July 29th, 2010

Quick Tip Tuesday: Building a shared voice for a comprehensive literacy plan

In Synchronizing Success: A Practical Guide to Creating a Comprehensive Literacy System, literacy leader Maren Koepf tells the story of how her elementary school developed and implemented a schoolwide literacy plan. One of the key steps, according to Koepf, is developing a shared voice among teachers. administrators, and parents. In this selection from the book, Maren talks about how you can overcome barriers by keeping the lines of communication continually open.

To activate a comprehensive vision, you need to keep a finger on the pulse of what works and what does not. Here, the component of shared voice becomes a critical measure of the real obstacles along the path. A continuous feedback loop from key role groups helps literacy leaders make decisions that will take hold. Your constant role is to identify the barriers that impede progress and to find ways to remove those barriers for each role group (teachers, students, administrators, parents):

*Barriers to learning
*Barriers to implementation
*Barriers to participation

While listening to teachers express aggravations about the ineffective systems or insufficient supports for implementing commendable practice and recognizing the burdens and constraints placed on administrators to meet the state, district, and staff expectations, I realized certain barriers needed to be removed to liberate a new paradigm.

“I don’t have time to go looking for the books or materials to go with every mini-lesson,” argued Kerry after a lunchtime inservice to share resources for teaching the strategy in question. Kerry had to plan for four reading groups, three word study groups, and math and science, so her exasperation was evident. Kerry is an outstanding teacher; her plea was not about resisting change so much as requesting support. If we expect our teachers to maintain high standards of instruction, then we must provide them with extensive levels of support. In response to Kerry’s expressed frustration, a list of library books suited for demonstrating specific comprehension strategies was generated. Instruction was not limited to these few texts, but the list alleviated Kerry’s pressure with ready materials for manageable planning.

Teachers, parents, and administrators are dedicated to helping students achieve. Sometimes we simply have differing perspectives on how that should be accomplished. Each member of a school organization enters the challenge from a different vantage point, and those points of view need to be articulated. Throughout our process at Moreland Hills, various teachers or parents have either disagreed with decisions or made adamant requests for additional resources or clarifications. Rather than viewing these communications as adversarial, we recognize them as treasure troves, revealing obstacles that need to be addressed.

Allow the differing points of view to provide you with a more inclusive understanding of what needs to be better aligned, supported, or eliminated.

Koepf goes on to discuss two more tips for creating a comprehensive literacy system through the use of shared voice:

*motivating a community of innovators and problem-solvers
instigating a tipping point

Add comment March 9th, 2010

Quick Tip Tuesday: Parent/teacher conferences

Parent/teacher conferences can be stressful for both parties, but even more stressful to new teachers who are navigating this delicate relationship for the first time. In this week’s Quick Tip, the authors of Mentoring Beginning Teachers: Guiding, Reflecting, Coaching, offer some advice for veteran teachers on how to support new educators as they prepare for their first parents/teacher conference.

Newsletters, websites, and surveys are helpful, but face-to-face meetings serve as perhaps the most important communication venues. These might take the form of open houses, back-to –school nights, or parent/teacher conferences. Many schools host an open house for parents/guardians during the first weeks of school.

Jim Burke (2007) recommends preparing a handout, displaying student work, wearing professional attire, greeting parents upon their entrance, and emphasizing teacher availability for future conferences or email exchanges. He also gives parents index cards with questions similar to the survey questions suggested earlier. Mentors can help prepare beginning teachers for these occasions by describing the general procedures: who greets parents upon entering the building, how long parents usually stay in the classroom, whether teachers are expected to talk to the parents as a group or individually, what displays are usually provided, how many parents to expect, and where refreshments or other information (book fairs, etc.) are located. Beginning teachers will often feel more comfortable with a routine: greeting parents, introducing themselves, saying something positive about the student, giving a handout or index card, and inviting parents to circulate around the room. Mentors might role play situations with beginning teachers to help them feel more comfortable in this new situation.

Middle schools and high schools sometimes sponsor a back-to-school night in which parents adopt their child’s schedule and move from classroom to classroom, hearing a summary of each class for ten to fifteen minutes. Mentors and beginning teachers can jointly rehearse their own description of the course. Beginning teachers, who are often technologically adept, may wish to present a PowerPoint presentation, keeping the presentation organized and allowing the parents’ eyes to be directed to the screen rather than directly to the speaker. Since the session usually concludes with a question-and-answer time, mentors can help prepare beginning teachers with typical parental questions.

Of course, the most common encounter with parents is the parent/teacher conference. While beginning teachers are often acquainted with various school procedures in their past observational role as a student, they probably have not directly experienced parent/teacher conferences unless they themselves have children. Ellen Moir states, “Parent conferences require new teachers to be highly organized, articulate, tactful, and prepared to confer with parents about each student’s progress. This type of communication with parents can be awkward and difficult for beginning teachers. New teachers generally begin with the idea that parents are partners in the learning process, and they are not prepared for parents’ concerns or criticisms.” (1999, 21)

To assist new teachers in preparing for conferences, mentors can discuss the procedures and rehearse various encounters. Some teachers prepare folders with student work and use the time to explain the curriculum and show the student’s strengths and weaknesses (or “areas to work toward”) in the particular subject area. Other teachers create note cards with specific comments tailored to each student, allowing them to use the sandwich technique: saying something positive, presenting the student’s difficulties or challenges with the work, and concluding with ways the parents and teacher can work together for positive results. Yet others like to begin on a conversational note of talking about the student’s interests prior to talking about the student’s academic work.

Mentors working with student teachers might model the first conferences, then invite the student teacher to give added comments, and gradually move toward having the student teacher takes a leadership role in the conference. In a middle school or high school situation in which the student teacher is teaching various classes and the cooperating teacher has not yet turned over other classes, the student teacher can take a leadership role in the conferences with the parents of the students she is currently teaching. Th is initial experience will help the beginner feel more confident in future parent/teacher conferences.

Mentors can help make beginning teachers aware of the concerns that parents bring with them. Sidney Trubowitz and Maureen Picard Robins refer to “parents who themselves experienced schools as places of failure, parents whose family life is in disarray, parents with unrealistic expectations for their children, and parents whose cultural values are out of sync with those of the school” (2003, 80). Other parents may seem quiet-natured and remain silent during the conference, may be non-English speakers who require a translator, or may have little or no control over their children and frankly admit their deficiencies. For instance, a beginning  teacher may be excited to see a parent at a parent/teacher conference in which a student has earned an A– in class, thinking that this will be an easy conference to negotiate, only to discover that the parent is angry that the student doesn’t have an A on the report card.

Veteran teachers will often remark that each conference time often contains a new surprise, so mentors might prepare beginning teachers that occasionally a parent may cry, become angry, or seem apathetic. Sometimes a parent takes a negative comment personally, presuming that if a child is not doing well, it must be the parent’s fault. Mentors can show how to reassure parents by discussing or role playing possible encounters, illustrating how to defuse a problematic situation. While this might make some beginning teachers even more nervous, usually new teachers prefer to feel prepared, even for unlikely events.

Mentors need to emphasize that just as classes need to be learner centered, so, too, parent/teacher conferences should be parent centered. Teachers can encourage parents to describe their child’s interests and goals, to ask questions, and to share their concerns. Questions such as “What would you like me to know about your son?” or “What questions would you like to ask about your daughter’s work?” might lead to fruitful conversations. Most important, though, is for teachers to ask, “What ideas do you have for how we can help your child improve as a student? How can we work toward this goal together?” To create a true parent/teacher partnership, the conference needs to conclude with a two-way action plan: for instance, with the parent providing a work space and specified time for homework and the teacher agreeing to inform the parent of progress or problems with homework completion.

Mentors can help beginning teachers realize that what they say during a conference is often less important than what they ask and how well they listen.  Many schools have moved toward a student-led parent/teacher conference, which may not have been the beginning teacher’s experience in his own school years, his practicum, or his student teaching. In this instance, it’s helpful for mentors to explain the procedure and to prepare students to become leaders in the conference. If these conferences are  interdisciplinary, the beginning teacher may not see some of the parents of her own students, so she may want to set up individual conferences at another time for parents of struggling students.

In the following conversation, interdisciplinary team members describe to their new colleague how they prepare for parent/teacher conferences:

Amanda: Since parent-teacher conferences are scheduled for next week, let’s talk about what we can do to prepare. For instance, Kevin, since you’re a new teacher, you might have questions for us.

Kevin: Well I’d like to hear you describe a typical conference and what I should do to prepare.

Betty: What were you planning to do to prepare?

Kevin: Frankly, I hadn’t thought about it. I just figured I’d answer the parents’ questions.

Betty: Well, the most common question is, “How is my son or daughter doing in your class?” How can you prepare for that question?

Kevin: I guess I should have my grade book with me so I can look up the grades and assignment


Sam: That’s helpful. Sometimes I make a note card for each student with one positive comment and one goal for improvement.

Kevin: Um, I could try that.

Amanda: Would you like to see us role play some conferences?

Kevin: That would be great!

Amanda: If we each role played being the teacher, Kevin could see our different conference styles, and then he could decide which way suits him.

Kevin: Super! Could you role play a typical conference and then some difficult ones, such as a student not doing the work or a student who is the class clown? Then maybe I could role play the teacher’s role and get in some practice.

Amanda: OK, let’s try it.

Sam: Let’s go for it!

Helping beginning teachers know what to expect during conferences will assist them in feeling more prepared and confident as they initiate parent/teacher partnerships.

1 comment February 9th, 2010

Quick Tip Tuesday: Counterfeit beliefs about conferring

In this week’s Quick Tip, Patrick Allen tackles some of the myths about conferring. In his new book, Conferring: The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop, Patrick maintains that the benefits of conferring with readers are worth the effort of learning to do it well. He sets out to reveal how teachers can overcome their perceived obstacles and make the somewhat intangible aspect of conferring with readers tangible.

I remember when my friend and colleague Lori Conrad and I met to plan a presentation on conferring with readers. Scones and lattes in hand, we set to work (we always do our best thinking over coffee, it seems). We had our conferring notebooks, anecdotal records, professional texts, and favorite conferring quotes spread out on the table. We were hoping to synthesize years of conferring work into a two-hour presentation.

When we spent time in others’ classrooms, Lori and I noticed that many teachers were conferring with writers, but fewer were having similar interactions with readers. Teachers were talking to children about their writing, but not always taking the time to have the short, meaningful types of reading conferences we were having with the children in our classrooms.

Why were we seeing so few regularly occurring reading conferences?

As we started to outline our presentation, Lori said to me, “There are a lot of misconceptions out there about conferring with readers. I hear them pop up when I talk to teachers about the power of conferring.”

I nodded in agreement and added, “I don’t have time; I don’t know what questions to ask; It’s too hard; I don’t know what to write in my notes; I don’t even take notes; I don’t know how to go deep . . . These excuses are myths that have developed about such an important instructional construct. Teachers have internalized lists of reasons about why conferring can’t or won’t work.

There has been such a focus on small groups of late. Reading conferences are less tangible, but not less important. I think people just think they’re too hard. The lists of ‘can’ts’ or ‘won’ts’ are the things people need help sorting and understanding. We know conferring is effective, but there’s so much to learn.”

“You’re right,” Lori said. “There’s a difference between legitimate wanting to learn and making excuses.”

“Learning to confer is an art; we know that. It’s not easy; it takes practice,” I said. “But it’s one of the most important and beneficial instructional moves I use with my students.” Then a lightbulb went off . “That’s how we should start,” we said together.

Lori said, “Let’s start out by sharing some of the conferring myths we’ve uncovered in our work with students and adults.”

“Should we call them myths? A myth is more like a legend or a tall tale,” I said.

We both laughed. We’d heard plenty of reasons why conferring takes a backseat to other instructional practices. “What about counterfeit beliefs?” Lori suggested.

“Counterfeit beliefs. I like that.”

We started talking about the film A Private Universe. You remember it, don’t you? Many of us saw the fi lm in one of our college methods courses. If you didn’t, it is an interesting commentary on what happens when learners develop and maintain long-held beliefs that lead to misconceptions in their understandings of a concept. In the fi lm, graduating Ivy League seniors were asked to explain what causes the seasons. The graduates thought that “eccentricity in Earth’s orbit” made it warmer when it was closest to the sun and that the moon’s phases were caused by Earth’s shadow. And when ninth graders at a nearby school were asked the same questions, they had similar misconceptions.

Then students had an opportunity to test their ideas and justify their reasoning. The results? If students saw their ideas proven wrong they would do one of three things: (1) immediately let go of their old ideas and accept the new ones, (2) try to blend the old and new, or (3) revert to their previous learning.

In college, before we became classroom teachers, we may have found the film a bit humorous, but our humorous reaction changed to a state of being flabbergasted. We started asking, “Why don’t students grasp these concepts?” Even the brightest students have long-standing misconceptions that endure despite what they were taught by their teachers. And, in our methods classes we had conversations about instruction and assessment, trying to identify the causes of having students leave our classrooms with mistaken thoughts, ideas, or notions about their learning.

In our experiences, Lori and I saw the misconceptions about the power of conferring running rampant. The very definition of conferring—discourse, consultation, discussion, comparison, viewpoints, deliberation, talk—was somehow getting lost in translation.

If confer means to bestow a gift, we hoped that participants would better understand conferring as a result of our workshop.  Jeff Wilhelm says that many teachers still rely on an “information-transmission” approach, focusing mainly on the what, which he believes is insufficient for powerful understanding (2007, 9). Wilhelm contends that if we focus on only the what of learning, it leads to “shallow learning and even misconceptions” (2007, 9). Educational psychologists know that “if misconceptions exist, meaningful classroom learning requires experiences that help to restructure existing knowledge” (Murphy and Mason 2006, 307).

Perhaps teachers were doing the same thing with the notion of conferring with readers. The misguided concepts Lori and I noticed about reading conferences needed to be restructured.

Murphy and Mason point out that “Conceptual change refers to revisions in personal mental representations; revisions that are often precipitated by purposeful educational experiences” (2006, 307). Lori and I felt that nudging teachers to revise their misconceptions was our best option. So what did we come up with? Here is our list of counterfeit beliefs. Which ones do you believe? Which ones have you actually said, or thought, at one point or another?

Counterfeit Beliefs About Conferring

1. If I meet with small groups, I don’t have to meet with individuals. It’s easier to meet with small groups.

2. If I don’t meet with every student every day, I’m not doing a good job.

3. If I don’t do a running record during each and every reading conference, I’m not really assessing my students’ reading ability.

4. If I don’t talk about all the errors a student is making while he or she is with me, I’m not being diligent.

5. I have to take an expert stance in each conference.

6. I need to focus on skills and fluency; comprehension comes later.

7. When I’m talking to a child about his or her learning, I’m conferencing.

8. I need to confer with every student the same number of times for the same amount of time each week.

9. I need to give the rest of the class something “to do” so they’ll stay busy and leave me alone so I can confer.

10. I’ve tried _____’s conferring suggestions and recommendations and they just didn’t work out.

Now before you close the book and say, “Wait a minute, I agree with number nine or number two,” let the statement weigh on your mind a bit. Think about each statement carefully. Spend some time pondering. Can you see why these ideas might be considered misguided?

Read the rest of Chapter 1 and the entire book online now!

1 comment October 27th, 2009

How do you support new teachers?

How do you create a sense of community for new teachers in your school? How do you support new teachers’ instructional decisions? What are some successful ways of looking at literacy assessment with new teachers and with the entire school staff?

These are just some of the questions teachers and administrators grapple with during the discussion of Jennifer Allen’s book, A Sense of Belonging. Join the discussion today and read what your colleagues have to say about creating a sense of belonging in their schools.

For example, Dayle Timmons, a literacy coach in Florida, shared her school’s practice of bringing together teachers who don’t usually work together. Dayle writes: “Every other Wednesday our children leave an hour and half early so for 4 consecutive Wednesdays we have teachers meet in study groups around a text. Well before the starting date we give teachers an overview of each of the titles that we have selected. Then teachers have a week to sign up for one of the groups. The Principal puchases all of the books….This has been a particular favorite of our teachers although we aren’t quite as structured as Jennifer’s Study Groups.”

Jill Dillard, another participant in the discussion, shared her experiences as a new coach in her school: “I like Janet’s idea of letting her teachers observe her so I’ve been trying that. In other classrooms I’ve just joined in the lesson…sometimes on a wing and a prayer…but so far so good. I’ve been at this job for three weeks since I was hired part-time after the fulltime coach quit. Perhaps word is spreading that I’m okay. I’m using a ‘soft’ approach, eating lunch with a different grade level each day I’m there and trying my best to learn and understand the conversation here.”

Now it’s your turn: sign up for our Ning community and join our book study group! Jennifer’s book is now available, so order your copy today!

1 comment October 1st, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: The Ongoing Pursuit of Knowledge

In Growing Readers, author Kathy Collins helps teachers lay a foundation on which children can build rich and purposeful reading lives. But to be able to support that foundation, Kathy says that teachers have to continually learn about themselves and about their students. In this week’s Quick Tip she talks about how she continues to observe and learn about her students and how she uses the support of her fellow teachers and school principal to learn about and improve her own teaching.

We teachers have a huge responsibility to know our subject matter, our students, and our teaching. These three things are always evolving, and it’s our job to keep up with the changes.

As teachers of reading, we need to know what’s going on in the field of reading beyond our district’s prevailing model. This means we have to continue to educate ourselves about the reading process and learning issues. We need to be sure our knowledge base about reading is ever-growing and that it leads us to more inquiries in our teaching. The best teachers I know never feel like they’ve mastered it, and so they keep trying to figure things out. It’s as if there’s a carrot forever dangling in front of them.

It’s helpful to talk to colleagues about our teaching. Although it may feel more comfortable and affirming to talk to like-minded colleagues, it’s also important to talk to teachers who might do things differently. Listening to those who have different ideas keeps us open-minded, and it can help us clarify, strengthen, and amend our own beliefs and practice.

I can’t emphasize enough the power of being part of a supportive network of teachers. I’ve been fortunate to be involved with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project throughout my teaching life. Lucy Calkins, the founding director, provides many different venues for teachers to come together to share ideas, study with experts, confront difficulties, and perhaps most important, to know we’re not alone.

This idea of continuing to learn about our subject matter and learning from our colleagues, of course, extends to learning about our students. I listen closely to everything my students say, especially when they don’t know I’m listening. I watch my students’ interactions with classmates and other adults throughout the day in order to add more details to the picture I have of each child. When we closely observe our students, we learn about them, of course, but we can also learn about our teaching. One of my former students was also one of my most important teachers. I noticed that Shakeem seemed reluctant to participate during lessons and class discussions. I didn’t consider him to be shy, and he was a strong student, so it seemed sort of strange that I rarely heard his voice. I talked to Shakeem’s parents about how quiet he was and how I was trying to get him to participate more. They were surprised to hear this. “He’s usually very outgoing and doesn’t seem intimidated by groups,” his parents told me, as they recounted different situations in which he had participated with enthusiasm. We were puzzled, so I began to watch closely for times when Shakeem did express his ideas in class.

I noticed that he often participated during math lessons. During literacy work, however, Shakeem was silent. He rarely contributed to a book talk or offered insight during a writing lesson. My theory was that Shakeem didn’t feel as comfortable stating his opinions on more amorphous topics as he did answering questions that had a definite right or wrong answer. My theory was that he liked the security in knowing that he was right. I felt as if I had uncovered a little project to work on in my classroom.

The project required that I not only think about Shakeem and his participation but also reflect on my teaching. If I were to encourage Shakeem and other learners like him to participate more, I would need to fine-tune certain aspects of my teaching. I realized that instead of having whole-class discussions during book talks in which the same handful of children tended to participate, I needed to provide more opportunities for my students to “turn and talk” to a partner.

For children like Shakeem, it’s not as threatening to share an opinion with a friend as it is to do so in front of the whole class, and talking to a partner also provides a venue (as well as an expectation) for children to share their thinking about books. When I have my students turn and talk, I can scoot around and listen to what they are saying, so I hear more ideas than I generally would in a whole-group discussion.

In addition to watching students as a way of reflecting on our teaching, it can be very informative to watch our teaching on videotape. As miserable as it is to see and hear myself on videotape, I try to take the high road and focus more on my teaching than my bad haircut or fashion faux pas. I look for places in my teaching where I could be more explicit or concise. I’ve also found that it can be just as informative to focus the video camera on the students in order to watch their reactions, responses, and levels of engagement as we teach.

I often ask those with more expertise to observe my teaching so that I grow as a teacher. I remember struggling with transitions with one particular class. It felt and looked like Grand Central Station when my students were going from one thing to another. There were materials everywhere, a noise level that rivaled rush hour, and more tattling than I care to remember. I decided to slow down the transitions into their smallest pieces to calm things down. After a few days, I knew it wasn’t working. I needed another pair of eyes, so I asked Liz Phillips, my principal, to help me out. (I realize how lucky I was to have the kind of principal whom I could trust to watch me in action during what I considered one of my weakest classroom moments.) Liz helped me see that in my effort to create calmer transitions by slowing them down, I was actually increasing the tension. “Pick up the pace a bit and don’t wait for stragglers. Just get the next thing started, and they’ll begin to move faster when they know you won’t be waiting for them,” she suggested. What a difference in my class in just a couple of days!

The beauty of a job like teaching is that there are so many opportunities to learn and change. Our job reinvents itself when we get a new class each fall, change grades, or develop a new curriculum. We model all day long as we teach, but perhaps the most important thing we can model is how to learn. I believe that we teachers have to be the most insatiable learners out there.

Add comment June 23rd, 2009

Questions & Authors: Keeping teaching and life in balance

TeamWorkMany new and veteran teachers struggle with keeping their professional and personal lives in balance. The authors of TeamWork: Setting the Standard for Collaborative Teaching Grades 5-9 know this all too well. During their years of team teaching, they have learned many tricks for setting aside the time they need for planning their classroom activities, and for meeting their personal obligations to themselves and their families. Amanda Mayeaux, one of the coauthors of TeamWork shares some of these tips in this latest installment of Questions & Authors:

“A good teacher is like a candle – it consumes itself
to light the way for others. ”  ~Author Unknown

True, but most of our families would not be pleased if suddenly in the middle of grading papers while sitting on our couches, we were consumed! The question we are often asked by teachers struggling with the overwhelming workload is how to manage all of the responsibilities of work. Add the responsibilities of children and a spouse on top of your workload, and being consumed may sound like a great escape.

Our book, TeamWork, is not only about teaming, but more about the relationships we had with each other and our students. What truly made the teaming concept work for us was — and is — the collaboration which helped all of us learn to depend on each other so we could balance our professional and personal lives. If you are in a school without the structure of teaming, you can still benefit from the basics of collaboration. Learning to balance is about keeping your priorities straight, planning, and learning to lean on and support others.

If you are in need of some balancing, first, set your priorities. If you don’t take care of you, you can not take care of others in your family or your students. Your family is crucial. If you are struggling to make the list, think about who will be at your deathbed. These people are your priority.

List the things you and your family need to function properly. These may include being with your family, exercise, eating right, spiritual time, and recreational adult time. Many of these can include your family. Maybe you eat a healthy meal together three nights a week or maybe each Saturday morning regardless of what needs to be graded, you play in the park.

If you are struggling with fitting it in, consider having a family meeting each week to set dates for the week and anything important that may be coming up in the next few weeks. Knowing the important events that are coming up will allow you to know when you can take the lead at work and when you need to move back a little. For example, when Kathryn was getting married, Monique and Amanda knew we had to pick up some extra duties during the week leading up to the big event. Likewise, when Kathryn knew when Monique and Amanda had responsibilities with their children that may require a little extra help from her. How you manage your family is personal. Our families have moved to online calendars, but traditional paper family calendars work well also. Your students are important, but your families are you lifeline. You should plan with your family first.

Second, think about your professional priorities. Our best trick for keeping life in balance is planning ahead, setting a timeline for what has to be done, and then getting it done. As a team we plan quite a bit during the summer by planning our major unit timelines, planning parent and other events, and preparing anything we can prepare ahead of time. We also only focus on one major change a year. For example, one year we decided to add more parental involvement activities to our team. We planned during the summer, assigned roles to each person, and then spent the year implementing. We did not create another big push until we had this one under control. Chapter three in TeamWork illustrates the various elements of this initiative and has resources for anyone wishing to involve parents more often.

Of course every teacher has numerous demands thrown at them. Decide what is critical and what is not. Yes, some things are not. If you are overwhelmed, do not be afraid to talk to your administration or a mentor. Sometimes administrators do not realize things that may be on your plate personally. If there is an important event coming up in the life of your child or spouse, don’t be afraid to tell your administrator. Being up front about what you can manage and what you can not will assist everyone in getting the job done.

Finally, connect with your colleagues. If you are part of a team, then you are so lucky to have people with whom to share the responsibilities of calling parents, managing attendance records, conferencing with students, setting up special events, and many other things. Again, planning ahead will save you a great deal of time later and reduce your headaches.

If you are not part of a team, you will benefit from having someone you can talk to. Find a few teachers with whom you connect. Maybe these teachers teach the same subject or the same grade level. Maybe you are all in graduate school together or completing National Boards. Maybe you just like this person. If planning time during the school day is unavailable, ask if they are willing to talk over coffee after school once a week or once every two weeks. Amanda has a friend she meets on Saturdays when her daughter is dancing.

Before you begin the talks, set some rules. In chapter 1 of TeamWork we have some ideas for building a team. These questions and thoughts will help any group in the beginnings of collaboration. We believe the establishing core beliefs are crucial. Ours are listed in this chapter for your benefit.

Even though we are not teaming together anymore, we still get together with each other and with a few other teacher friends, because one of our core beliefs is that learning is a lifelong endeavor. Our meetings are not complaint sessions. We talk about issues, but we focus on solutions. We may talk about professional books we are reading or ask questions about an issue we have in the classroom. Sometimes we even talk about how to manage a personal issue or two. Adding a wise mentor to the group is a great idea.

We also collaborate with online chat sites and email. With Monique and Amanda moving to a new school in the district, we found the internet to be a way to remain connected. As lifelong learners, we are enjoying finding new ways to engage our colleagues and even some of our former students.

Teaching is an all consuming profession. Having someone or a small group of people to talk to about your challenges and thoughts will save your family the fate of hearing about school day in and day out. Great teachers should burn brightly, but please don’t burn those around you or they may blow you out.

1 comment April 15th, 2009

Questions & Authors: Put students in charge of learning


In Part I of our three-part Questions & Authors series with the authors of TeamWork: Setting the Standard for Collaborative Teaching, Grades 5-9, Monique Wild talks about how she used student-led conferences to get parents involved in their children’s lives at school and to get students motivated and excited about their own learning.

When we first began to host student-led conferences, we had meager hopes that the conferences would serve as a tool to assist our students in articulating their academic progress to their parents. Often parents had complained to us that their middle school children no longer told them about school activities. In fact, when questioned about what had occurred at school, most of our students responded with a standard, “Nothing!”

Student-led conferences were our attempt to bridge the widening communication gap that was forming between our middle-schoolers and their parents. We did not realize the power that student-led conferences would also have in improving the academic success of our students. Suddenly, our students became active, empowered participants in the learning process. In short, they not only communicated with their parents, but also began to accept responsibility for their successes as well as for improvements that were needed in their academic endeavors. It seemed that once they realized they would have to discuss their academic progress one on one with their parents and provide evidence to support their findings, academic activities became more important to them. What we witnessed was nothing short of a magical transformation. Here are the key components that made student-led conferences successful in our classrooms.
1. Gather artifacts to share with parents.
Our students maintain portfolios that contain graded assignments, photographs of learning activities, articles about our students from the local newspaper, work students are proud of, and student self-evaluations. It is important that students be provided time throughout the course of the grading period to organize and peruse portfolios to note trends in their performance. When portfolios are part of a reflective learning component in regular classroom activities, students are much more likely to articulate information about their learning to their parents.
2. Allow students to set goals.
Our students use their portfolios to reflect upon their learning and to set goals for improvement in subsequent learning activities. The goals they set are shared with their parents during student-led conferences and are monitored closely throughout each grading period. By setting their own learning goals, our students become responsible for their own learning.
3. Allow students to plan for the discussions prior to the student-led conference.
When we first invited parents for student-led conferences, we thought that the conversation would flow easily between our students and their parents if they were simply provided student portfolios to peruse. However, in the beginning many of our students sat silently looking at their parents for the duration of the conference. Now we have our students complete a discussion plan prior to conference day. We provide our students with the following sentence starters to which students write their thoughts.
– Three things I’d like to discuss with my parents are…
– What I need to explain to my parents about my goals includes…
– The thing I’m most proud of is…
– I need to work on…
– I want to tell my parents that I need help with…
In addition to having students write their plans prior to conferences, we also have them take their plans with them as reference notes during the conference. This provides our students and their parents with a guide for the proceedings.
1. Schedule dates and times for student-led conferences well in advance.
In today’s hectic world, we have found that it is essential to have dates for student-led conferences planned well in advance so that parents have time to adjust their schedules in order to attend. We have found that we experience the largest parental turnout when we schedule conferences throughout the school day and into the early evening. This gives all of our students’ families a chance to attend without jeopardizing job-related responsibilities.
2. Send personalized invitations two weeks before the event.
We tend to experience greater turnout for our student-led conferences when we send personalized invitations to our students’ parents prior to the event. We ask parents to RSVP with the time they plan to attend so that we can accommodate all of our visitors.
It is also helpful to ask for feedback from parents to assist in planning for future events. The feedback will help you to fine-tune the process to better facilitate discussions between your students and their parents. Questions that have helped us to improve the student-led conferences experienced by our students and their parents include the following.
– How was the student-led conference beneficial to you and your child?
– What was the most pertinent information you gained during the conference?
– What do you still want to know?
– What were your expectations of the event prior to the conference with your child?
– What do you feel your child’s teachers need to know?

Because we have incorporated student-led conferences into our practice, our students have become more engaged in the learning process and their parents have reported feeling more involved in their children’s education. The notion of adolescent students taking responsibility for their own learning is a compelling argument in support of student-led conferences. This alone is reason enough for us to encourage all educators to consider student-led conferences as a way to engage your students and their parents in meaningful dialogue about academic progress. We anticipate that you will witness magical ransformations just as we have. Enjoy the magic!

1 comment April 1st, 2009

Study guide for TeamWork now available

The authors of TeamWork compiled a study guide to use by yourself or with a study group to help you reflect on ideas in the book. In each section of this professional development guide you will find an introduction to a chapter, reflection questions, and action steps.  You may journal as you read the book and use the reflection questions as a guide for your writing or for a discussion. Action steps range from basic to more complex steps.

Download the study guide from the Stenhouse website and enhance your understanding of this great book.

Add comment June 6th, 2008

Team Teaching: With careful planning it’s not a luxury

Without teamwork, we cannot prepare students to meet the challenges of the next millennium. If each teacher individually tries to address every curricular objective and cycle back to the broader standards of learning, there will never be enough time in the day or the school year to finish the job. We have to work together to integrate and reinforce importance concepts from all subjects, teaching students that learning is recursive, related, and really, really cool.

–The authors of TeamWork
TeamWorkTo many teachers, the idea of team teaching seems like a luxury. It sounds wonderful, but who has the time for that kind of collaboration? In their new book, TeamWork, Monique Wild, Amanda Mayeaux, and Kathryn Edmonds argue that with careful planning, collaborative teaching actually saves time by drawing on both individual and collective strengths. And if you’re resourceful, these award-winning teachers say, you can carve out planning time without skipping meals or abandoning your family life.

The authors of TeamWork spend countless hours unifying their curriculum, coordinating classroom activities, discussing student progress, and collaborating on creative ways to bring the curriculum to life for their students. They even wrote their book together during stolen minutes between classes, or while sitting in a parking lot in Monique’s Acura, waiting for their daughters to finish dance lessons. “Ultimately, it was our passion about the benefits of teaming for students that propelled us to find the time to work when it seemed there was none,” says Amanda.

This same passion fuels their teaching every day. They believe that teaching as a team enables them to infuse their lessons with engaging and challenging content, while also ensuring that the curriculum meets state and national standards.

The three “Teamers” begin the planning process in the summer with a series of meetings. “The summer meetings might frighten people,” Kathryn says, “but we probably meet for a total of only four full days. And in that time, we can outline our entire year.” Once they have the framework in place, they can pull lessons together quickly throughout the year, staying a few weeks ahead of where the students are.

The Teamers were provided with 90 minutes of planning time each day by their school’s administration — half of that time is used for team planning and the other half for individual planning — and every minute is critical. “We plan the meeting the day before so that we’re clear on what we have to do,” explains Monique. “We table things if we can’t come to a conclusion.” They also have a timetable for what topics are addressed on what days: for example, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are set aside for IEP meetings and on Fridays they address classroom discipline issues. “We set these at the beginning of the year, so we don’t have to ask ‘what are we doing today?'”

It also helps to have ground rules for meetings: always start at the agreed-upon time, don’t run over the allotted time, stick to the topic, and don’t get distracted with other things like grading papers. Resist the urge to multitask, advises Monique; it’s more efficient to concentrate on one thing at a time as a group.

The Teamers also take advantage of their different personalities to move planning forward — Amanda is “the dreamer” who comes up with imaginative ideas to engage students; Monique plays the role of “the enforcer” who makes sure that things happen on time; and Kathryn has great organizational skills that “keep the team humming.” The key, Monique says, is using the group’s balance to meet all the objectives: “We divide and conquer.”

The Teamers realize that other obligations at school or at home sometimes can cut into the most well-planned meeting, but they try to keep interruptions to a minimum. “When that starts to happen on a regular basis, we have a frank discussion,” says Monique, and they might modify their team meeting schedule. “That time remains sacred at all cost.”

Family time is equally important. The teachers’ ambitious teaching and planning schedules could easily overtake home life, but they won’t let that happen. “Our schedules revolve around our families. We don’t cancel family plans because of work,” Monique says.

And sometimes, family members pitch in their own ideas to help with the process — like the converter Monique’s husband bought for her so she could plug her laptop into her car during all those dance lessons. Without that kind of team spirit, TeamWork might have never been written.

Add comment May 22nd, 2008

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