Monthly Archives: November 2013

Letting them be challenged without having them fall on their faces

There is a sweet spot in teaching between scaffolding and rescuing, between challenging and overwhelming, between chaos and a productive buzz in the room.  Finding the sweet spot is not always easy but when you do you are rewarded with student engagement, creativity and the feeling that you are a wonderful teacher with wonderful students.

Scaffolding vs rescuing.  We scaffold student learning by setting up the environment so that they will successful and engaged:

  • Create a provocation or reason for being interested
  • Engage students in an activity that activates their background knowledge; help them to recognize what they are already bringing to the task
  • Trust that they will be able to accomplish the task
  • Give help only to those students that appear to be struggling
  • Create open-ended tasks that have many entry points:  everyone can do something.

Challenging vs. overwhelming:   Students actually like to be challenged.  When I surveyed a whole school of students who were engaged in problem solving in math, what they told me was that they liked the harder questions the best.  I thought about that for a while and realized that I liked challenges, too.  I like playing Angry Birds better than doing laundry.  I like planning lessons better than marking quizzes.  I don’t, however, like challenges where I feel unsupported, get no feedback to know if I’m on the right track or really don’t have a starting point.

  • It’s not cheating if you help students who are struggling; it’s teaching
  • Be comfortable with the first 5 minutes or so being uncomfortable for the students
  • Challenges are easier when you can talk about it with someone
  • It’s not cheating if someone who is on the right track helps you out
  • If you only challenge them once in a while it is overwhelming; if they are challenged every day they develop confidence and perseverance
  • It’s nice to get a similar challenge the next day so that I feel that I’ve mastered it

Chaos vs a productive buzz.  Chaos is every teacher’s worst nightmare (remember the before- school-starts dreams?).  And, sometimes we choose controlled, tight environments over what we imagine will be chaos.  The most common comment I hear from teachers is that “my students couldn’t do that”.  I’m fairly certain, though, that if I were to show a video of a class of students engaged in that very activity, not one teacher would say “I couldn’t do that”.  You have to take a risk in your classroom when you let go of some of the control and let your students be challenged.

  • You are still in control—if it turns into chaos you can always stop the activity
  • You might be surprised that what you think is chaos (noisy) is really productive work
  • Some off task behaviour is going to happen (are you always on task when you work in a group or involved in a challenge?)
  • There is lots of off task behaviour when the kids are quietly doing seatwork, too—you are probably not aware of it
  • Trust your students; they are often far more capable than we give them credit for
  • Chaos can mean lots of things: Was it planned well enough? Did I consider my groupings? Was it a good problem/task?  Did I scaffold appropriately?
  • Productive challenges turn into chaos when it goes on too long—know when to stop and sometimes that is before everyone is completely finished

Teachers want their students to be successful.  We worry that if we don’t help them enough they will panic, shut down and feel disappointed.  And yet, we all love a challenge.  We love activities that make us think, that give us that “aha” moment, that provide us with a sense of accomplishment.  When teachers provide students with the “just right” amount of scaffolding, background knowledge and support students are willing and eager to approach the task.

Try something challenging in your classroom:  no one will die and everyone will learn something.  You can always change it up again tomorrow.

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How Can Effective Feedback Reach Students?

I read an excellent article this week (Wiggins, Grant.  Seven Keys to Effective FeedbackEducational Leadership, September 2012, pp 11-16  Two things in particular struck me as relevant:  two different kinds of feedback that are useful and the difference between feedback and advice.

Many times we receive feedback simply from being in a situation that has a goal or challenge to solve.  When I teach a great lesson I get positive feedback from engaged students.  When I teach a lousy lesson I also get feedback from students: yawning, fidgeting, not answering questions, disengaged.  When I am building something in the tech lab and it keeps falling apart, I am getting immediate feedback and I continue to try things until my structure is stable.  In volleyball, every time the ball doesn’t clear the net, I have to think about how I could get it do so.  Immediate feedback.  How many of the activities that you set up in your classroom provide for that kind of feedback?

I also can get feedback from others.  When I share my work with someone else or have a coach or ask someone their opinion, I am looking for feedback.  Usually I want feedback that will make me think about my challenge and help me to improve.  I want the “sweet spot” of feedback:  not too much or too little, it has to timely and relevant to the task at hand, and I want the opportunity to apply it immediately.

Wiggins states:  Less teaching, more feedback equals better results.  What are some ways that we can incorporate feedback into our lessons on a regular basis?  Small group work with the teacher is one, but Wiggins talks about small group work among students as also being effective feedback.   When students work in groups to solve a challenging problem or discuss an issue, they are getting continuous feedback from their peers:  Did what I said make sense? Does my thinking mesh with the group’s thinking?  Do I understand things better now?  Can you tell me that part again?  I don’t understand what you are saying.  When students work in groups they are able to use the conversation as feedback to strengthen and deepen their understanding.

Wiggins also differentiates between feedback and advice:

Advice Feedback
You need to put more examples in   your report. When I read your report I didn’t   understand how levers are incorporated into daily living.
You need to identify the speaker   when you write dialogue When I read your story it was very   engaging but I got confused with who was speaking.
Don’t forget to put the units in the   answer for your math problem. I don’t understand how big this   patio is.


When we provide more feedback and less advice, we are helping students to take charge of their own learning and to make decisions which will improve their work.   While sometimes advice is the right thing to offer, too much advice without nonevaluative, descriptive feedback can make students dependent on the teacher always telling them what to do.



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Rethinking Learning Goals, Success Criteria and Rubrics

When I was a student, back in the dark ages, teachers gave out assignments all the time.  We did them, we got them back marked and we went on to the next one.  I don’t remember ever really thinking about why I was doing something (other than the teacher told me to) or how I would know if it was any good or not.  My experience was probably the norm.

And now we have learning goals, success criteria and rubrics.  The research said we had to make sure that students knew what they were doing, why they were doing it and how they would know if they were on the right track.  I agree with all of that.  But I do wonder if we haven’t gone a little overboard and incorporated too much of the teacher-talk into the student learning.

A couple of things have happened this week that have caused me to reflect.

First of all I came across this quote on twitter:

Posting a learning target [goal] before a lesson is like announcing what a gift is before it’s opened.  Post a question.  Bring curiosity and thinking to the classroom.

Next I was perusing Pinterest and saw a picture of the following math learning goal and success criteria for the lesson of the day:

Learning goal:  I can find the area of the patio.

            Success Criteria:

  1. 1.     I will draw a diagram and label it.  I will label the dimensions.
  2. 2.    I will express my answer in metres squared.
  3. 3.    I will use the formula l x w = A.
  4. 4.    I will have a concluding sentence.

I would argue that those really are the instructions for how to solve the problem and by posting them, students do not need to think very deeply about what to measure, how to solve the problem, or which mathematical strategies would lead to the answer.

A teacher came to me and relayed the following story.  He is used to posting learning goals at the beginning of learning cycles but had forgotten to do so this time.  So, as bell work he asked his students to write what they thought the learning goals of his new literature circles  were even though they were a week into the learning.  He was thrilled, and a bit surprised, that they were “bang on”.  Perhaps it is more valuable when students are able to uncover the purpose of the work instead of just being told what it is.  Obviously his students were engaged in their learning and could see the purpose for it.

Another teacher was starting Readers’ Notebooks in the classroom for the first time and had immediately given out the rubric.  She was disappointed with what the students produced; they were so focussed on the language of the rubric that their letters and responses seemed contrived.  For the second class of the day, she gave the same mini-lesson but did not give out the rubric.  That class’ work was “far better”.  When we are just learning to do something, we need some mucking about time before we can really look at our work and try to make improvements.  I remember when I first started throwing pots on the wheel, I would not have wanted a rubric of the perfect mug with which to compare my first feeble efforts.  Once I had some experience, some lessons, some practice, then I was able to critically look at my attempts and compare them to a standard.

Another teacher and I were discussing learning goals and success criteria and all the different ways that we can express those within the classroom environment:  anchor charts, text deconstruction, checklists, personal goals, statements about good readers and writers.  In the end we decided that the supports we co-create with students to scaffold their learning, are in essence the learning goals and success criteria.  Really, the benchmark for knowing if students understand the learning goals and success criteria is when they can answer questions like these:

Why are you working on this? How will you know it is good?  What goal are you working on?  How will you know if your answer is reasonable?  How will you know when you are finished?  What can you do if you don’t know what to do?

A group of teachers and I were meeting and there was some lamenting about students who always wanted to know their “mark”.  And while the teacher was trying to give “grade-less” feedback, the student was focussed on the mark.

Perhaps we as teachers have created this mindset with all of the best of intentions.  In trying to make the assessment piece transparent for students, have we removed their ability to wonder, question, and risk?  Can we provide students with learning opportunities where they have time to explore, think, create, marvel, try, imagine, construct and “muck about” while still being fair in our assessment practices?  I think we can.  We may need to readjust, at times, the presentation and timing of our learning goals and success criteria.

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Responses to Reading

When kids are reading we want them to spend most of their time reading, thinking about their reading, talking about their reading and writing about their reading.  But, there are lots of ways to get kids thinking and talking and writing without resorting to the typical comprehension questions.  The problem with comprehension questions is that it is the teacher who has determined what the most important things to think about, talk about and write about are.  While teachers certainly want to guide kids to determining deeper meaning, what is more meaningful for students is to determine and construct their own meaning.

Here are some ideas:

  1.  Readers’ Notebook letters allow you and the teacher to recreate that “dining room conversation” about books that you wish you could have but can’t due to time constraints.  The trick is to write back like a reader, not like a teacher.
  2. Students can write letters to other students in their readers’ notebooks who have read their book.  This works well when students might be reading a second book from a literature circle.
  3. Students can write in their readers’ notebooks as the main character or as a secondary character.   They are still writing to you, the teacher.  If the author is using a particular writing style (I’m thinking about the voice in the BFG by Roald Dahl, they can try writing in that voice).
  4. Students can blog about their reading.  Teachers may wish to start the blog with an open-ended question, or not.
  5. When doing a read aloud students can record their think marks in Today’s Meet or on little white boards that they hold up (white plastic plates work, too) as you read.
  6. If you are reading aloud and want students to be thinking about the character’s feelings (inferring) they could use Today’s Meet, or they could write in thought bubbles on a piece of scrap paper and then share after the reading.
  7. Have a student be a character during a read aloud and sit in the “hot seat”.  Every once in a while, stop the reading and ask the “character” some questions.  Other students could also ask the “character” some questions.
  8. If you are reading nonfiction text, the student in the hot seat could be the “expert”.  At this point you are helping to bring out the content of the text.
  9. In a similar vein, as you are doing a read aloud, within a grouping of students, one student is a character and when you stop, the other students in the group ask questions.
  10. If you have multiple characters and you want students to explore the relationships between them, assign groups of students to be different characters.  When you stop reading at strategic points, the students stop to talk in character.
  11. Instead of having the student in the hot seat be the character, have them be the author.  At this point other students or the teacher can ask questions about why the author made the choices s/he did in writing the next. (e.g.  Why did you make the character seem so unlikeable?)
  12. Readers’ theatre is another way for students to demonstrate their understanding of a novel or text.  As literature circle groups are just beginning their reading, ask them to choose a passage with a fair amount of dialogue which is pivotal to the beginning of the story.  Students turn it into a reader’s theatre to present to the class.  They will have practiced their reading fluency but will also have to determine important parts of the text, how the characters speak, and understand how dialogue works in a novel.
  13. Students can do the same activity at other points in the novel to show where a cliff hanger is in their novel, a section which exemplifies a character’s personality, a scene which shows a problem, the most exciting part of the novel and so on.
  14. When students are reading nonfiction they can create a reader’s theatre that is an interview between a TV reporter and the expert.  This is also a good way to review content before tests.
  15. Students can create “found poems” about the setting, problem, or characters by lifting words and phrases from their book and turning them into a poem by how they put them together and/or arrange them on the page.
  16. Fifteen second book reports are when students stand up and give a summary of their book, the plot, the author’s message or the characters in only 15 seconds.  They don’t need to finish their thoughts and, in fact, should stop mid-sentence as this will make other students interested in the novel.
  17. In order to get students thinking about the background knowledge required to understand a text, ask them to do some research about the time period or issues/theme of the their book and create a powerpoint presentation or photo collage.
  18. Have students, individually or as a book club, determine important quotes from the text and record their thinking in double column format to explain why they chose the quote.
  19. Students can keep an ongoing diary of one of the characters in the novel.
  20. Students can make an iMovie trailer of their book.  Think about asking them to focus their trailer instead of just doing a plot summary.  It could be about the problem, the theme, the characters, the setting.

BUT DON’T DO EVERYTHING FOR EVERY BOOK.  Over the course of the year students can have opportunities to express their thinking in a variety of ways.  The best way to kill a story is to work on it for too long.  And, don’t forget that modeling the activity or doing it as a class first is always best.

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