I am convinced that the best way to improve educational outcomes for students is to support and empower teachers. I have been a teacher in Rhode Island for eleven years and am returning to my classroom after two years on full-release, supporting beginning teachers. This work is amazing and my learning never stops! I have learned so much about schools, learning, teaching and the power of collaboration.
(In my class, these become our Community Norms and replace any “rules”)
Equity of Voice: Monitor your airtime. As a group member you are responsible to be a speaker AND a listener. You are also responsible to invite others to speak. Equal(ish) airtime is the goal. Our community values all voices.
Active Listening : Eye contact, nodding, being sure you respond to a comment with a related question or comment. Build on what others say. Our community believes everyone should feel heard.
Respect for All Perspectives : You will not agree with everyone’s ideas. Work to understand their thinking. Our community values diverse perspectives.
Safety to Share: Your language, tone, body language and overall behavior should invite others to share differing opinions. Approach others’ ideas with curiosity and an open mind. The goal is never to be right, it is always to learn. Our community values safety.
Self-monitor use of Electronics : It’s hard to feel like your ideas are important when you are speaking to the top of someone’s head because they are staring at their phone or their laptop screen. Our community values you and your ideas.
*Adapted from the norms used by the New Teacher Center during the best trainings of my life!
How Can We Create A Community that Values these Norms?
I gradually release student responsibility. Here’s how:
Conduct whole group discussions- focusing on the norms and sentence stems. REALLY focusing on them. With the same vigor you focus on routines and procedure in September. You hate yourself when you relax about them in November and vow you’ll never do that again. Do better with this. They need the structure to feel safe.
Pull small groups for discussions (maybe even half the class). Coach them. Invite a few students to be observers/ analyzers with you. Share the highlights with the whole class. Find observation sheets here.
When you feel they are ready, divide the class into small groups (4-5 students max). Let them discuss! While you monitor, record excellent phrases and interactions and share them publicly as soon as it’s over! Provide students an opportunity to reflect on paper after discussion. Download my free Discussion Reflection Activity when you subscribe below.
Current Events. It’s been done to death. And I get that. What I’m going to share with you is not about current events at all. The context just happens to be Current Events- but it could be anything. It’s about academic discussions- conversation. Do kids really know what that is these days? Chances are they do more discussing in school than out of school- but wouldn’t it be nice if there were more conversations happening everywhere? Fewer interactions, with cell phones in hand- and more eye contact, active listening and questioning? Ahhhhh!!! My teacher brain is in heaven just thinking about it! And my mom brain is pretty psyched too.
A few years back, I was inspired by some AMAZING parents in my classroom. These parents were involved- I’m talking Family Book Club at 7:00AM before school involved. They would do ANYTHING. As a result, I tried to incorporate some type of authentic home school connection in all of our subject areas. These families inspired this series of activities- and it’s been successful with many classes since… even classes without that crazy- involved crop of parents;) What has remained the same though, is that having quality discussions in class- where everyone is set up for success– leads to more discussion at home (and in the lunchroom, and the hallway, and art class). When kids are engaged in a topic- ENGAGED- and have opportunities to discuss it in a safe space (our classrooms), momentum builds… and those discussions continue. And if we take our time, really go slow to go fast… they take those discussion skills and apply them to all of the relationships in their lives. They debate important topics with integrity, challenge one another, and change the world for the better. (No pressure!)
The Making of Amazing Current Events Discussions
*Interact with an assigned topic. Listen to a podcast, watch a news broadcast, read something.
*Process that new information. (Complete assigned response sheets in Events in Our World)
*Participate in a class discussion focused on the questions that were answered while processing that new information. Check out my tips!
*Engage an adult in your life in a discussion about the topic. (More details in Events in Our World)
*Participate in a short class discussion focused on new perspectives from that discussion with an adult.
*Reflect & Self-Assess your discussion skills (Get my free guide when you subscribe below)
All kids participate when they are prepared and encouraged. For me, that meant that when I had some students who would not do homework- I made sure not to assign steps 1 and 2 as homework. Sometimes I assigned all students that work in class. Other times, I found opportunities for a few students to accomplish these tasks during the day. In all cases- those students participated in class discussions and engaged an adult. Also, I use “an adult in your life” very purposefully. For some students that has been a family member, for others a dance teacher and for others- the adult supervising Office Detention. All of those work.
When I worry about the success of a lesson, my inner control freak comes out. Early in the year, when we are beginning the work of discussions- everyone interacts with the same assigned topic and reads the same article or watches the same news broadcast… in front of me. But, guess what? It’s fine!!!! We make our way to the place where lots of differentiation is happening and my blood pressure stays under control. So- know yourself and do what makes you feel comfortable. Go slow to go fast. You are building a community.
I’ve also learned that kids are proud of their grown ups. Even the “too cool for school kids” who hate getting parent signatures. I’m totally shocked by this EVERY YEAR! I always devote way more time than I mean to in the beginning, to that- “how was last night’s conversation at home” discussion. Eventually kids discuss it in groups, so in 10 minutes everyone gets a chance to share and I can get the highlights. In the beginning though- it’s important that Joey and Alison both share about their discussion publicly if their hands are up. And they beam with pride!!!
Using Sentence Stems and Explicit Instruction for Classroom Discussions
Teaching discussion skills can be daunting! You know you want productive, positive discussions… but how do you get there? Here’s some of what works for me!
Body Language & Politeness Matter
Eye Contact: looking directly at the speaker lets them know they have your attention
Inviting Posture: Facing your body toward the speaker with an open posture invites them to share. Avoid crossed arms if you can!
Use your group member’s name when addressing them.
Ex. “Dan, can you tell me more about what you thought the author meant by…”
2. Paraphrasing lets the speaker know you have listened and understand.
In other words,
…It sounds like…
There are some key points you’re bringing up…
From what you’re saying,…
3. Clarifying lets the speaker know you have listened but do not fully understand.
Would you tell me a little more about…?
Let me see if I understand…
Can you tell me more about…
It would help me understand if you’d give me an example of…
So, are you saying/suggesting…?
What do you mean by…?
How are you feeling about…?
Let students collect data on their use of these important behaviors! Encouraging them to formally reflect on their performance after each and every discussion instills in them the importance this work.
Sign up for my newsletter to download your FREE Reflecting on Discussions Activity!
You finally have your own classroom!!! No more shuffling around on a cart, lugging your whole life with you every period of the day… no more “borrowing” other teachers’ classrooms and hoping you left them as neat as you found them.
Now, you’re ready to make this new space work for you. One of the biggest challenges to classroom set up is that projector screen. It’s no one’s fault. It was hung uniformly, matching all of the other classrooms… probably with an antique overhead projector and transparencies in mind. More importantly though, moving it is not topping anyone’s to do list… there are much bigger fish to fry- from a property services standpoint. But, in your world- a thoughtfully place projector screen could make ALL the difference. It did for me! When I added this DIY projector screen to my classroom, things changed- and FAST! No more distractions for kids working on the class warm up. The problem wasn’t just that occasionally a classmate would block someone’s view while walking to their seat- it was that staring at the warm up on the screen in the front of the room at the start of class, provided an unintentional “social check in” for my easily distracted kids.
It didn’t matter if I moved their seats- it didn’t help for them to “pay attention”… they were! But- every minute or so one of their besties walked right into their line of sight. That’s REALLY HARD for a middle schooler to ignore. For weeks I had joked with Distracted Danny that if he could pick where the screen went it would be better for everyone. Every couple of days he’d remind me, “you know, if you just move it up high and in the corner, we’ll all be able to see it better…” He was right. But I would never get anyone to hang a screen in the corner!
So, I tried a white sheet. I tried chart paper. I tried a regular sized piece of foam board… and finally this. An extra large piece of foam board from the Custom Framing department at Michael’s Crafts. I stuck some Command strip hooks on the back of it and used string to tie it to the ceiling tile spacers in my classroom. About $10 and 10 minutes to make a significant impact on student learning.
I used to cringe watching students stuff papers into their folders to be lost in the locker abyss… after I had spent so much time thoughtfully providing feedback on their work!! I spend so much time writing thoughtful questions about their math thinking and comments aimed at pushing their scientific curiosity… It was killing me to know that none of my feedback was likely going anywhere but the bottom of a messy locker!!! The ultimate frustration.
A few years ago I decided to tackle this problem head on. I knew that students could learn and grow if they sat, and really thought about my feedback. So- I made some changes. I decided to protect some time for exactly that. How could I expect students to read my notes, review the content and reflect on their learning if I didn’t show them how? Students needed to see that I valued their interaction with those assignments if I wanted them to value it too. And so began RRR&R. I dedicate a class period every few weeks to this and students and parents alike have seen the benefits.
My Goal: Students will think about the content, their work habits, and their progress.
This work is not about simply giving students time to change their answers and fix mistakes. This is the time when students will reflect upon the better answers they can come up with for the science test they weren’t proud of, and realize the study guide would have helped! Students need time and repetition to make those connections and draw those conclusions. And, they need to do it themselves.
Things that Matter
Oftentimes, I give students a few choices of assignments they may work on during this time. I don’t want anyone revising spelling homework or a math quiz with a score of 98% correct- I want students to dig deep and to grow. There are many times that I will notate right on an assignment (when I am grading it) that I want it revised. Sometimes I do that when I think my feedback is particularly powerful or if I feel a student is on the cusp of a breakthrough.
Home School Connection
These assignments and reflections might go home to families (there’s a Celebrating Success at Home Page), but ultimately end up back in student portfolios in our classroom. These make great conversation starters for student and family conferences. Students are empowered by their growth, and the language they develop as they learn to describe their learning is powerful.
I hope that this serves you and your students and families well!
We have moved on to subtraction with renaming (2.NBT.7). You might call this regrouping… but really- if we think literally about what’s happening- we’re also giving the values new names! 50+10 is a different name for 60. So, renaming, regrouping… you know what we’re doing! I’ve been doing a lot of this work with students in small groups and it’s amazing to see students talking and thinking about making trades, or renaming numbers. In a small group full of dialogue, students physically traded one of the ten rods that makes up 60 for 10 unit so they can more easily subtract 13. We talked about the value of 60 at the start, during and after the trade. Students giggled about how I could still buy exactly 60 $1 ice cream cones- no more, no less; at every phase of the trade. They knew that whether 60 was composed of 6 ten rods (60+0) or 5 ten rods and 10 unit cubes (50+10), its value remained constant. We worked through a few more bare number problems that also required renaming to get more ones and I really emphasized how accurately our recording matched their physical manipulation of the base ten blocks as well as their thinking. Students recorded on white boards, just as I had… and I expected we were good to go! Not so fast. About 1/3 of my students were not able to demonstrate their learning with much independence… even with 60-13. Even if I talked about ice cream cones. These students seemed to rely heavily on the scaffolding that came from our discussion throughout the trading process. So, I decided they needed a trading center- a place where they could be successful and independent with the skills that this high level work demanded. Here are some of the recording sheets that are guiding their work. I needed them to build confidence and more deeply conceptualize the equality of the value of the numbers they were composing, both before and after renaming. Continue reading “Subtraction with Renaming”
In my second grade classroom, I’ve recently identified a troubling gap in my students’ learning… Counting. I know how important counting is… and we have been counting all year. We count while we wait in line, we count backwards and forwards, by 2s, 3s, 5s, 10s and more. We start in the hundreds, we start in the teens… So, why (I’ve asked myself and anyone who will listen) am I observing students struggle to cross decades when counting in the midst of double digit addition and subtraction?!?! Here’s what I mean: We are working on adding multidigit numbers and I stumble upon a student who is heading toward the wrong answer. As I listen to her explain her thinking, I realize when she counts from 19 to 20, there is a question mark in her voice and she looks up at me for reassurance. From 38, 39 she heads to 60 with the same inflection and eye contact. The scariest part… she’s not the only one. I’ve realized this is a symptom of a few more serious issues, one of which is patterning in base ten… and conceptualizing the magnitude and difference of numbers.
So what are we doing about it? After consulting with some of my favorite math teachers… here’s the plan. First, I’ve been doing an activity we call Sound of a Number for a few minutes each day.The kids love it and they are exercising an important part of their math brain. For this activity, I hide behind a cardboard study carrel with a pile of base ten blocks. Students listen hard to attempt to identify the value of the blocks I drop. We start each lesson with a quick review. I drop of each of the pieces, unit, ten rod and hundred flat; a student identifies each by sound and explains some of the different ways each could be made. For example, we could make a hundred flat with ten ten rods or 100 unit cubes etc. This helps to deepen the concept of base ten.
The view from down here.
“It all falls on the classroom teacher, it always does” she reminded me. This was my mother. A retired elementary school teacher, who had made it the long haul. In the classroom for her entire career, advocating for kids, mentoring new teachers- reminding me when I express frustration in the system that, I shouldn’t be surprised because “other people just don’t get it. Everything is the responsibility of the classroom teacher.” In other words- s#!t rolls down hill. I’ve been hearing it for years. But, honestly I didn’t quite get it until recently.
I’ve spent most of my career as a middle school teacher. I guess I have that genetic mutation that appreciates the sass and limit-testing of the adolescent. Continue reading “Classroom Teacher: Reality Check”