Friday, July 21, 2017

Differentiation is NOT a Scary Word

I found How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms by Carol Ann Tomlinson not only crammed with so many good ideas it will take me a book discussion to unpack it all, but also just straight up inspiring. Here's how it starts:

Teaching is difficult.

Teaching really well is profoundly difficult.

Even the best among us fall short of our professional aspirations regularly, and feel diminished in those moments.

Okay, so not inspiring yet, but she does let you know you're not alone.

And yet, for many, the work of teaching is also nourishing. It grows us as we grow the young people in our care. Each success is instructive. Each failure is instructive. We are challenged to become the best version of ourselves as we challenge our students to become their best as well.

One classroom reality that taxes our capacity to teach as we need and want to teach is the great variety of learners who surround us every day. They are mature and immature for their age.... They are excited by school and terrified by it. They suffer from poverty and from affluence. They are entitled, and they are without hope. They are socially adept and socially inept. They are intrigued, inspired, and shut down by very different topics or issues…. (vii)

And that's just the preface!

What is the answer to captivating every one of these varied children with the content, skills, and understandings we teach and in order to equip them to succeed in our classrooms and in life? Differentiation. What is differentiation? According to Tomlinson, who published the first edition of this book over 20 years ago and the third edition this year, “In a differentiated classroom, the teacher proactively plans and carries out varied approaches to content, process, and product in anticipation of and response to student differences in readiness, interest, and learning needs” (10). While the first half of the book is about the need for differentiated instruction and the role of the teacher, students, and learning environment in a differentiated classroom, that 3x3 grid—differentiating content, process, and product in response to students’ varied readiness, interest, and learning needs—is the second half of the book. 

There are so many ideas I’ll need a book discussion with my colleagues in the fall to unpack them all. But I did have a few overall responses:

I appreciate Tomlinson’s reminder that it’s not only English language learners and struggling learners who need attention, but also advanced learners and “kids in the middle.” Under-challenge for advanced learners can result in mental laziness, undeveloped study and coping skills, rewards found in grades rather than learning, risk avoidance, and failure to develop self-efficacy. And about kids in the middle she says the following: “...[T]he most devastating wound teachers and schools inflict on students is the wound of underestimation…. It’s easy to get lost in the great middle…. And yet, in among these kids who don’t seem extraordinary in any way, there are ones who need just a little more help to be able to soar academically. There are ones who need to find their voice but will remain mute without a teacher taking time to ask and to listen.… In the middle is pretty much the whole human condition. And every student in the middle is waiting for someone to signal that he is unique, that she is special, and that there is no achievement that is beyond reach. Teachers have the opportunity (and I would argue, the obligation) to be that someone as often as it is humanly possible to be” (30).

This does not mean, however, that every child needs his/her own individually tailored learning program--that would be overwhelming! To a certain extent, simply using a variety of instructional approaches enhances everyone’s opportunities to learn: “There is no exclusive ‘ELL’ strategy that doesn’t have utility for some other students as well, just as there is no exclusive strategy for students who struggle, who are advanced, or any student for that matter. What’s necessary is that teachers understand their students, be prepared with a broad repertoire of instructional approaches, and use those approaches in ways that support growth for particular students in particular contexts” (29).

I also appreciate Tomlinson's emphasis that “in order to provide good differentiated curriculum and instruction—whether we are talking about content, process, or product—you should first have good curriculum and instruction” (144). The most challenging and foundational prerequisite for differentiation is convincing students that your class goals are important to them, and that the activities you have designed will get them there. Otherwise you can spend hours designing tiered assignments, orbitals, and RAFT assessments, and some students will still ask how it will be graded and slip by with the minimum of investment.  

The good news is, good teaching is good teaching, however it is packaged. Don't fear the jargon "differentiation." There are common themes that have emerged from the three professional books I've read so far this summer. The three books are framed in very different ways by very different people. Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools is by a senior research associate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College is by a guy who runs an organization with the mission of starting and managing "outstanding urban public schools that close the achievement gap and prepare low-income scholars to graduate from college" (Lemov xxxi). How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms is by the guru of all differentiation. But each of them want school to be a place where every child is challenged, empowered, and equipped to learn and succeed. And each of them insist that in order for this to happen, the classroom should be a place of emotional safety and intellectual engagement, where both teacher and students know the learning goals are significant, know what they are, and know how the learning activities will help them get there.

Good teaching is pretty basic, and yet it's taken me a lifetime to grow into it--and I'm still growing. So grab a break this summer, fellow teachers--head for the beach, or the mountains, or the pool, or your family--but somewhere along the line, also grab one of these books--or a different one that will grow and challenge your teaching practice come the fall. Let's get ourselves ready to return rested to the great challenge of helping every kid in our classes experience more success and joy in learning.



Friday, July 14, 2017

Teaching Like a Champion, Part 2

The Driehaus Museum--the lovely restored Gilded Age mansion in downtown Chicago that we toured this morning
  • I’m going to turn my walkie-talkie off right now because there’s nothing more annoying than being interrupted by bursts of static. Would you please also silence your cell phones?
  • You are more than welcome to take lots of pictures—just no flash photography, please.
  • What parts of this room are you noticing right now?
  • Can anybody guess what this centerpiece was used for? (Silence.) It has something to do with the bunches of grapes in relief around the edge.
  • I have some more information on your question, and I’d be happy to talk to you about it after the tour.

You know you’re a teacher when during summer vacation, at a family reunion, on a group tour of the Driehaus Museum, you keep noticing how the knowledgeable, lively guide employs techniques from your latest professional reading, Teach Like a Champion 2.0. And then you go back to your hotel room and blog about it. (What did the guide do? She clearly articulated, modeled, and gave reasons for her expectations. She framed them positively. She invited participation with questions, wait time, and prompts. She kept the pace moving.)

Two weeks ago I blogged about the first half of the book, and this week I’ll finish it up. Doug Lemov has spent many years observing champion teachers in their classrooms, capturing the moves that make them great, classifying and naming those moves, and then sharing them with other teachers so we, too can teach like champions. There are 62 of these moves or techniques (thus the subtitle: 62 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College), organized into 4 parts:
  1. Check for Understanding: Specific techniques to gather valid and reliable data throughout each lesson in order to modify instruction to boost student understanding.
  2. Academic Ethos: Specific techniques to communicate the high expectations and plan and pace the instruction that maintains rigor.
  3. Ratio: Specific techniques to ensure that all students are frequently and actively engaged in rigorous thinking.
  4. Five Principles of Classroom Culture: Specific techniques for establishing routines, managing behavior, and building relationships that make your classroom a place where vigorous learning can flourish.
Part 3 was my favorite. I've long quoted Harry Wong's line “School should not be a place where young people go to watch old people work.” “Ratio” is Lemov’s shorthand for this idea. As he says, “One of our most important goals as teachers…is to cause students to do as much of the cognitive work—the writing, the thinking, the analyzing, the talking—as possible” (234). This ratio has 2 dimensions: participation (all students as often as possible) and rigor (quality and depth of thinking). The 3 chapters in part 3, elucidate 3 ways to build ratio: through questioning, writing, and discussion. All 3 of which I teach and use a lot, but I’m always on the lookout for how to do it more and better, and here are 3 techniques I’ll be using more intentionally and systematically next year:
  • Cold Calling: Can be misused as a “gotcha,” but can also be an important part of a classroom culture where everyone is expected to be engaged at all times. If this seems threatening to you or to your students, Lemov outlines steps for acclimating students.
  • Everybody Writes: Ask a challenging question, and then give students time—even if just a minute or two—to respond in writing before discussing. This gives students more writing practice (and a purpose for writing), fosters more rigorous discussion, and helps students experience the processing by which thoughts and writing are refined. As far as procedure goes, it prepares students for Turn and Talk or Cold Call. 
  • Art of the Sentence: Lemov points out that we spend a lot of time addressing word choice and paragraph structure, but not so much on sentences. But if we “ask students to synthesize a complex idea, summarize a reading, or distill a discussion in a single, well-crafted sentence…the discipline of having to make one sentence do all the work pushes students to use new grammatical forms” (286). You can increase scaffolding by using sentence starters (“Summarize the data from this graph in one complete, well-written sentence that begins with the phrase ‘Over time…’” [286]) or sentence parameters. Sentence parameters could include using academic vocabulary (“Using the word ‘epiphany,’…”), idea combinations (“Explain the author’s proposal and how you know it’s satire…”), or discipline-specific thinking (in science, begin “To test this hypothesis…”).

It’s not that I’ve never used any of these techniques in my class, but giving them a name and thinking about the benefits of systematically implementing them—not just 3 times a year for a change of pace or because I remembered this cool trick—I think could make a difference. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Grandmothering a Reader


I’ve read more baby board books than education books this week. That’s what 11 days of vacation in Salem, OR, with my first grandchild will do for me.  (Oh, yes—and with my two daughters and their husbands, too.) In that context, I’ve been reflecting on the opposite end of the process of language learning from what I usually do—not teaching honors and AP English classes, but playing with an 11-month old. I’m reminded of a New York Times article I read recently, “How to Raise a Reader,” and I’ve been noticing how my own reading to my grandson corresponds to the advice in the article for reading to babies. 

For instance, he and I were reading Sandra Boynton’s What’s Wrong, Little Pookie? Little Pookie is crying, and the mother runs through a litany of questions trying to guess what’s wrong, starting with the usual—hot, hungry, hurt—and when the answer is always “no,” venturing into the ridiculous: “Did a very large hippo try to borrow your shoes?” My grandson suddenly lost interest and crawled away. I put the book down and followed him. My English teacher daughter (the other one, not the child’s mom) called out from her armchair where I thought she was lost in her own book, “Wait! I’m not going to find out what’s wrong with Pookie?” So I quickly finished it for her…but not for my grandchild. He was gone, and that’s okay. Books are fun, not a chore.

The sounds in baby books are a lot of fun—like the animal sounds in Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle.  Usually my grandson just stares wide-eyed at me or babbles or grunts in excitement as I moo and oink. One time he actually “baa-ed” back after I made a sheep sound! It might have just been a serendipitous vocalization because it hasn’t been repeated, but we toss the sounds back and forth and practice the pattern of conversation.

While most of the language is simple, every so often vocabulary pops up that we don’t usually use in talking to a baby. Words like “anxious” in A.A. Milne’s Piglet Is Entirely Surrounded by Water and “suspicious” in Winnie-the-Pooh and Some Bees. 

But mostly we “play” books more than read them at this point. An 11-month-old is still exploring how cool it is that the pages flip back and forth. Board books are great because he can do this flipping himself and even chew on a page if he wants—and no one says, “No.” Who wants to associate “no” with books? I play with the voices—big, deep ones and little, squeaky ones. We stop and notice the illustrations—count the frogs, find the chick, name the colors. And when something in the book bounces, we bounce. It’s reading as a contact sport. The important thing right now is that he associate language and books with delight.

The family trip to Powell’s City of Books, which claims to be the world's largest independent bookstore, he didn’t find as delightful as the rest of the family did. However, if we are all enjoying books on our own, and enjoying them with him, I’m pretty sure he’s on the right track. So enjoy some books yourself this summer, and share your enjoyment with a child near you. There’s a straight line from that to how passionately and skillfully that child will wield language some day.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Teaching Like a Champion, Part 1

I’ve been in a lot of conversations about making our classrooms safe places to fail, but reading the first half of Doug Lemov’s wildly popular Teach Like a Champion 2.0on nearly every “essential reading for teachers” list I’ve come across recently—is the first time I’ve seen such a collection of specific protocols and examples for doing just that.

And that is the strength of this book—practical, specific protocols and examples. The book I reviewed last week, Creating Cultures of Thinking, was big on the theory, on painting the vision, with a few specific examples thrown in, assuming that once a teacher has the vision, he or she can come up with plenty of ways to apply it. It decries just giving teachers new techniques without really changing their thinking. But it’s also true that sometimes a vision needs a few more hooks. Teach Like a Champion is the complementary other half—assuming you have the theory and vision for what student learning should look like, but experience the frustration of, “Yes, but what does that look like in my classroom at 8:25 on this particular Tuesday morning?” 

Doug Lemov has spent many years observing champion teachers in their classrooms, capturing the moves that make them great, classifying and naming those moves, and then sharing them with other teachers so we, too can teach like champions. The first half of the book covers (1) checking for understanding (a lot of good ideas here for efficiently gathering data on student mastery and using that data) and (2) establishing an academic ethos (setting high expectations, planning, lesson structure, and pacing). 

Making it safe to fail, or what Lemov calls creating a culture of error, is part of checking for understanding, because it’s much easier to check for understanding if students are eager to expose their errors so they can get them fixed than if they are trying to hide them for fear of disappointing the teacher or looking dumb. I realized I need to examine my own attitude first—do student mistakes frustrate me because I feel they reflect badly on my teaching or because they throw off my well-timed lesson when I have to circle back and re-teach? Or do I honestly welcome them—because what if we hadn’t uncovered that misunderstanding, and a group of students had continued building on their confusion? 

With experience, it’s easier to plan for errors—to anticipate that there will be confusion about a particular character’s motivation at a given point in a novel, or about how to format the hanging indent for a Works Cited page using rulers rather than tabs—and to build into the lesson the necessary time for dealing with those errors. Lemov gives 4 key parts to establishing a classroom culture that “respects error, normalizes it, and values learning from it,” and they are “expecting error, withholding the answer, managing your tell, and praising risk-taking” (67). Read the book for more explanation and examples. (It even comes with a companion CD so you can watch champion teachers in action.)

I realized also that an exciting aspect of a classroom culture in which it is safe to struggle and fail is that it is shaped not just by the teacher’s attitudes, words, and efforts, but also by how students respond to each other. This requires the teacher to articulate how students are expected to respond to each other and why, to practice those responses with students, and to hold students accountable for them. I find this exciting because part of our school’s vision for students is that they will use their learning to serve others, and this doesn’t need to wait until after graduation, or even until our dedicated “Service Week” in February—it can happen every day in every classroom as we support and help each other through the struggle of learning.   

In addition, I learned that some controversial practices can be managed to good effect. Two that Lemov champions are cold calling (if you’ve truly established a culture of error—because how else can we efficiently judge the level of student mastery?) and reading out loud. His group of protocols for managing reading out loud he calls “controlling the game,” and he spends 11 pages on it. Something else I want to consider trying next year. 


This book is full of practical, specific and illustrated ideas for putting to work in our classrooms the grand visions of learning that sometimes seem elusive in the press of everyday lessons. I’m looking forward to implementing more intentionally a culture of error, and I’m looking forward to reading the second half of the book. I just don’t think I’ll probably be scripting and practicing my lines as the author suggests. But then again, I’m not his main target audience of teachers in urban schools serving low-income students. However, one don’t have to be in that target audience to find enough useable ideas to make this book well worth its price and the time spent reading it.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Creating Cultures of Thinking

Setting: The chemistry class for which I was a 4th quarter sub (see here for the longer story of how an English teacher managed THAT)
Me: What did you get for an answer to the next problem?
Student A: 2.4
Student B: 33.5
Student C: 0.22
Me: So, explain to me why you think your number is the answer.
Long pause
Student C: This is just like English class!  

I believe education—whatever class a student is in—should be not just about right answers, but about knowing how we got them so we can figure out when things go wrong, what we need to learn next, and how we can learn it so that we can tackle the progressively harder problems of real life with confidence, competence, and creativity. Ron Ritchhart calls this a culture of thinking. I just finished reading his book Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools, and I loved that it gave me a framework for thinking and talking about what goes well in my class and in my school, and how to help more of that good stuff happen both places. 

We all know that, by itself, changing a textbook, a set of standards, a curriculum, an instructional strategy won’t increase student learning (though it will increase teacher cynicism!). What will increase student learning? Changing the school culture. If we believe differently, we will act differently. These do go hand in hand—you can believe your way into action or act your way into belief. You can implement an instructional strategy and see it elicit thinking in a way you want to know more about and see become the norm for your students; you can desire a culture of thinking and gradually learn what attitudes, strategies, and practices will foster it. I think of belief and action as the blue and yellow that make the green of culture. 

So how do we change school culture from one of right answers to one of thinking? Ritchhart names 8 forces: expectations, language, time, modeling, opportunities, routines, interactions, and environments. I’ll give a brief summary or highlight of each, and I really hope it does whet your desire to read the whole book, talk about it with your colleagues, and create a culture of thinking in your school and in your classroom:
  1. Expectations: This is about our beliefs as they affect our behaviors, such as promoting learning rather than work, understanding rather than knowledge, independence rather than dependence, and growth rather than fixed mindset. I began this book last summer and this cultural force really struck me (see this blog). During the ensuing year, I changed the daily headings on my board from “agenda” and “homework” to “learning plan” and “independent learning.”
  2. Language: The words we use might seem insignificant, and yet they subtly but powerfully convey our beliefs to our students. Ritchhart breaks it down into the language of thinking (see above), community (using “we” rather than “you”), identity (speaking of the students as readers, writers, scientists, mathematicians, historians, etc.), initiative, mindfulness, praise/feedback, and listening.
  3. Time: “Learning to be its master rather than its victim” is Ritchhart’s chapter subtitle. Two points that interested me were prioritizing (we often do it by default rather than intentionally—see Stephen Covey’s classic “big rocks”) and managing energy, not time (we have only so much time, but there are activities within time that are energy boosts or energy drains—like meeting with students vs. writing comments we aren’t sure will even be read).
  4. Modeling: “As a culture shaper, modeling operates on both an explicit and an implicit level. Explicitly, we may demonstrate techniques, processes, and strategies in a way that makes our own thinking visible for students to learn from and appropriate. Implicitly, our actions are constantly on display for our students. They see our passions, our interests, our caring, and our authenticity as thinkers, learners, community members, and leaders. Adult models surround students and make real a world that they may choose to enter or reject” (115). At my Christian school, we talk about teachers as the “living curriculum.” This works in our subject areas as well as in our faith life and ethical practice. It’s also a chapter out of the last faculty book discussion I was a part of. 
  5. Opportunities: The tasks we design for students—from daily activities to larger assessments to long-term projects should be not just “work” (see expectations and language) but opportunities to learn. Ritchhart gives examples of a 12th grade English class creating a math equation involving selecting and weighting character traits for Othello, a 9th grade social studies class using VoiceThread to synthesize learning on migration, and an elementary music class creating songs to sell to support music classes in other schools. The takeaways for any class opportunity are novel application, meaningful inquiry, effective communication, and perceived worth.
  6. Routines: Ritchhart’s chapter subtitle is “supporting and scaffolding learning and thinking.” He mostly illustrates how one thinking routine (Claim-Support-Question) is used in a variety of levels of math classes (kindergarten, 2nd grade, 5th grade, and secondary). I think this is the heart of his earlier book Making Thinking Visible, which is on my to-read for later this summer. 
  7. Interactions: We set the pattern, interacting with students by asking good questions (not just procedural and review, but ones that deepen thinking and connections and elicit support) and pressing for thinking. We help students interact with each other in the same way by training them in roles and norms. (I loved these norms: “contribute to group work and help others contribute, support ideas by offering reasons, work to understand others’ ideas, and build on one another’s ideas” (220).
  8. Environments: The chapter subtitle, again, says it all: “Using space to support learning and thinking.” There is, of course, the seating—the default setting of my desks is in pods of 4 for collaboration, and if students ever walk in and see another arrangement, they freak out. Unexpectedly, this chapter revealed another insight into my 2016-1027 school year: I loved my room. It’s the first time I’ve had my own room in many, many years, and being a nomadic teacher has its advantages (like many collegial connections). And my room was nothing special design wise. But it was mine. And as the year progressed, the walls became covered with our learning—vocabulary words, group projects, books read, poems written, group thinking. From this chapter I got the okay that it wasn’t all beautiful display, and I got a word for why it works and made me happy: curation of learning. (See photos below.)

One of my happy spots is in a book discussion with other faculty members, working out how we can do an even better job of helping students learn. Another is in a class where students are learning and helping each other learn. Ritchhart gives a name to those settings: cultures of learning. Read the book, talk to someone about it, and be a part of helping them happen even more frequently for more of our students.





Friday, June 16, 2017

What an English Teacher Learned from Teaching Chemistry


When Kim Essenburg woke up one spring break from unsettling dreams, she found herself changed in her bed into a chemistry teacher….

Not that chemistry teachers are anything like cockroaches—in fact, after a quarter of teaching chemistry as a long-term emergency sub, this 30-year veteran English teacher has a heightened respect for the variety and depth of knowledge and experience of all of my colleagues in all of their fields. My quarter of chemistry teaching also helped me appreciate my own expertise as an English teacher. Finally, I was intrigued by the ways good teaching is the same and different from discipline to discipline. Still, as I scribbled equations on the whiteboard, it did feel a little Kafkaesque.

The world intrigues me. From quarks to cultures, it is an amazing place. And reading is my entry to it all: from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. So, I figured, there are books about chemistry. There is YouTube. I had a year of Chemistry 101 thirty-four years ago when I was an indecisive college freshman. Certainly I can model a growth mindset and somehow tap into all that learning!

Chemistry is fascinating. If it is incredible that all of English literature, from Dr. Seuss to Shakespeare, is made up of various combinations of 26 letters, then it is even more incredible that everything in the physical world is made up of various combinations of 3 particles: protons, neutrons, and electrons. I psyched myself up by re-reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. I discovered amazing online resources from Khan Academy to TED-Ed’s Interactive Periodic Table.

And when I collected my first worksheet, the students seemed to think the point was getting the right answer rather than understanding how to get it. I realized simultaneously why I don’t do worksheets in English, and that it is my experience with teaching English that enables me to create assignments that are meaningful enough to spark engagement, creative enough to defy plagiarism, and still target important learning goals. I didn’t have that kind of experience in chemistry.

Another thing experience gives is the ability to explain even complex things simply, in multiple ways, while anticipating novice misunderstandings. If a student doesn’t understand satire, I have 5 other explanations and 10 other examples, both from literature and from life. If a student doesn’t understand the common-ion principle, all I can do is repeat the one explanation and one example I got from the textbook. 

For comic relief, there were a couple of interesting “when your science teacher is also your English teacher” moments. Like when I was clearing up confusion over what the capital K I’d written on the whiteboard stood for—I’d tried to make it look italic, which means equilibrium constant, but some students didn’t recognize that and thought it meant degrees Kelvin. I said, “How do I make it italic?” One of my English students volunteered, “Underline it! Underlining is italics!” (Well, yay they finally got that, and I won’t see Works Cited pages any more with mixed underlines and italics, but I’m still not sure the proper way to do it in science.) There was also the time I asked an English class to list the 7 reading strategies we’d talked about, and a student said, “All I can remember are the 3 you had us use on the nitrogen-fixing reading in the chemistry book.” (At least he remembered 3….) 

I tried to connect the learning to life. We read about chemistry professionals, researched for presentations on topics from the Nobel Prize for Chemistry site that interested us, and watched Chemistry Life Hack videos. (I discovered that even with chemistry life hacks, interest has to be calibrated to the students. For example, here in Okinawa, Japan, where many people don’t have ovens, there was little interest in the one on baking soda life hacks, but there was high interest in the videos on the chemistry of wasabi and how to treat a jellyfish sting!)

I used as many engaging teaching strategies as I could—I gave choice on an independent module reviewing gases or exploring nuclear and organic chemistry. They worked in groups to understand and complete the modules. To review chemistry vocabulary for the exam, I assigned each student in a class 5 words to create Freyer models for and orchestrated reciprocal teaching. 

My students learned about chemistry. I did, too. In addition to learning about chemistry, I also learned about teaching—how much I love teaching English and how 30 years of experience really helps, how much amazing knowledge and experience my colleagues have who can engage and challenge students in other disciplines. And I wonder what we can learn from each other about constructing meaningful learning opportunities; teaching skills like problem solving, critical thinking, and communication in the context of each discipline; and creating a culture where students see challenge as an opportunity to grow.

Khan Academy just sent me an email: 

Kim Essenburg, 
We missed you this past week! Be sure to come back regularly and continue learning!
If you make a mistake, it's an opportunity to get smarter!


It made me laugh out loud. Yes, it was a week without Khan Academy. They might have missed me, but I didn’t miss them. Still, those are a couple of great thoughts to bring to all of our students next year: Continue learning, and If you make a mistake, it’s an opportunity to get smarter.

Friday, March 31, 2017

To Thrive as a Teacher, Try a Professional Book Discussion


Last week I just had to drop in on a fellow teacher during our mutual prep period. I was enthusiastically waving a sheaf of papers: “Hey, I just tried that discussion roundtable we talked about last week at the book discussion—it worked GREAT!” She shared my excitement, and then we talked a bit about the collaborative activity she’d tried—what had worked well, and how she’d tweak it next time. 

One thing that helps me thrive as a teacher is being part of a community of colleagues working together to get even better at helping students learn. The best way I’ve found for creating this community is book discussions. I find a book that has ideas I really want to incorporate into my teaching. I invite colleagues to join me. We meet after school once a week over coffee and cookies to discuss one chapter and set a goal for implementing something we’ve learned before the next meeting. The next week we start by reporting on our goals.

This week we just had our sixth and final discussion of Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. It’s about how to intentionally structure lessons through 4 interrelated phases in order to help students become engaged, independent learners. The 4 phases are named and summarized in the titles of chapters 2 - 5:
  • Focused Instruction: Purpose, Modeling, Think-Alouds, and Noticing
  • Guided Instruction: Questions, Prompts, and Cues
  • Collaborative Learning: Consolidating Thinking with Peers
  • Independent Learning: Applying What Has Been Taught
I learned a lot, and tried some new things. I’ve become much more aware of and intentional about when I’m in each stage, how much needs to happen between the first and fourth stage, and how to foster accountable talk and use formative assessment in every stage to notice the successes and struggles of students and support them into deeper learning. As for specific things I’ve tried, I’ve written blogs already on implementing two different collaborative learning routines described in the book: group posters and discussion roundtables.

At the end of our final discussion this week, I asked my colleagues what they had learned and what they wanted to continue to focus on. Here are some of the things they said:

What have you learned?
  • I was held accountable to make goals every week. I also am starting to think about how to improve my teaching by modeling and demonstrating. 
  • Model my thinking more explicitly. Think through how I want students to think and talk--and model that.
  • I need to model & be intentional about teaching students how to work collaboratively & independently.
  • I really benefitted from considering the phases between focused instruction and independent learning. There’s a wide gap!
  • Establishing lesson purpose.
What do you want to keep focusing on?
  • I think I’ll definitely continue to examine my time management/structure during classes to include time for guided instruction
  • Taking notes on areas that students are struggling in (especially in math) so I can use it to know who needs extra help.
  • Being purposeful about explaining the expectations of working in a group/model how to work in groups (collaborative).
  • I want to make sure that my learning tasks are meaningful and relevant.
  • More modeling & think-alouds.
  • I hope to be able to implement more collaborative & independent learning.
  • I want to translate the purpose more clearly to students rather than just assigning activities.
I find it so energizing to be part of a community of colleagues that are focused like this on helping themselves, each other, and their students grow.

When I read a good professional development book on my own, I’m so excited about it that I zoom through it in a couple of days, and while I start with enthusiasm for each new idea, I end in despair at how to even remember, let alone implement, the 57 or so good ideas I came across. And when I go to a conference and meet a bunch of other people all learning about the same thing, I again get the initial emotional charge, the overwhelm of ideas, and no community, when I get back into my classroom, to share my excitement, understand my ideas, and offer encouragement, reflection, and accountability. 


So I write this blog for two reasons. First, to express gratitude to all those who have walked with me through a long list of book discussions and who talk with me online or in the hallways of my school about what we are doing to increase student learning in our classrooms. I also write it to encourage others, wherever you are, to try a book discussion with your peers if you’re feeling the need for encouragement, community, and growth.