Monthly Archives: February 2015

A sense of urgency in the classroom invites student engagement

We know that student engagement is key.  Often we moan that “if only the students were more engaged…”.  But perhaps it is not the students.  Perhaps it is the environment we create.  After all, these students are engaged in other environments.  It is not their personality.  A teacher I know said she noticed a class was disengaged during a practice activity for the summative task.  Upon reflection she realized they were bored.  They didn’t need to do the task.  She moved on and all was fine.

Pacing in a classroom can make all the difference to student engagement.  Teachers, in an honest desire to ensure that all students are “getting it”, tend to teach too long and say too much.  We have to remember that as the teacher talking, we are having a great time.  But what about your audience?

When you pick up the pace, shorten time frames, decrease teacher talk and provide challenge, students become more engaged.  Here are some practices that increase pacing and, thus, increase student engagement.

  • Mini-lessons are mini. Try not to talk for more than 7 consecutive minutes.  If that is your goal you will feel guilty after 10-12.  After that long no one is listening anyways.  We want students to spend most of their time in class actually doing instead of listening.  Doing is engaging.
  • Learning cycles are short. Try to create units/learning cycles that last 2-4 weeks maximum.  This creates “flow”.  It is easy to sustain interest in a topic that long.   It is more difficult to maintain interest for 10 weeks.  Interest is engaging.
  • Return to key concepts frequently over the course of the year through shorter learning cycles.  Students need percolating time.  Students need to repeat and practice.  Practice is better when it is spread out over time.  You don’t learn to program you car’s clock because you only do it twice a year.  So, instead of trying to teaching everything at once, pick up the pace but come back to the key ideas again and again.  Familiarity is engaging.
  • Students have ample talk time with each other without it being so long that they get off topic. We understand that students need time to have focussed discussion but that when it is planned, purposeful and reasonably short, they stay on task.  Collaboration is engaging.
  • By providing small group instruction at either the back table or as you circulate among groups you are providing just right instruction for specific groups of students. Kids are hearing only that which is relevant to their learning.  Feedback is engaging.
  • Let students struggle by not telling them everything.  How can you create challenge and discord?  Do you create problematic situations?  Do you create inquiry?  When you provide just enough information to get students thinking but not so much that they are only completing a task, they are challenged.  Challenge is engaging.
  • Challenge students to get work done quickly. They read books in a 2 week time frame, the have long chunks of time to write or do math so that they can get it done, they work on projects during class time.  When we give students only a little bit of work time during class, tasks can take forever to complete.  We want students to get lots done.  Accomplishment is engaging.

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Learning Goals and Success Criteria in an Inquiry-Based Environment

At our school, I do not insist that teachers post learning goals and success criteria.  The simple act of posting them does not ensure that either teachers or students are learning any differently.  What I do insist upon is that teachers think deeply during the planning process about what students need to know and do.  I do insist that students know what they are learning about.  I do insist that we provide the supports for students to successfully meet expectations.  Our expectations should not be a surprise..  What might that look like in an inquiry-based program?

In inquiry-based learning, it may be useful to have 1 to 3 over-arching big questions that will guide the students as they read the novel, explore the science concepts or proceed through their unit of study.  As students are working, researching, thinking and collaborating, you continually guide them back to these big questions.  These are the also the questions that students will need to answer at the end of the learning cycle in some format (essay, presentation, conversation etc).  These are the questions that will lead students towards achievement of the curriculum expectations.

The following is a chart I created that might point to some of the differences between how learning goals and success criteria may have been originally understood and how they are understood in an inquiry-based program.


Posting Learning Goals and Success Criteria  Inquiry-based Learning Goals and Success Criteria 
Teacher posted a statement “We will learn…”The teacher usually decided the goal. The teacher, often in collaboration with students, develops some big questions to answer “How…?”  “Why…?”  “Which factors…?”
Success criteria were often the “how-tos” of answering a question or completing a task. As students develop their understanding and skills, teachers help them to record success criteria through checklists, anchor charts and co-created student exemplars.
Often success criteria were the things required to complete a task.  The teacher provided a rubric or checklist that listed those things required to complete a given task. Success criteria are discovered by students, guided by teachers.  For example, as students work in groups to begin answering the over-arching questions, they will work as a class to determine what makes a good answer.
Usually the teacher told students what they would learn. What we will learn is uncovered as we learn it and begin to answer the over-arching questions.
Learning goals were often curriculum expectations rewritten in kid friendly language (hopefully). The over-arching question is designed to help students achieve the curriculum expectations.


As we delve more deeply into an inquiry model we discover that our students are more engaged and, as teachers, we are having fun too.  It is important, however, that we do not lose sight of being planned and purposeful in our practice.  As we design inquiry-based approaches, we still need to be aware of exactly what the students will know and be able to do at the end.  We still need to know how students will demonstrate that.  And, most importantly, we have to make sure we let students in on our expectations.  However, within an inquiry model we can lead students towards learning goals, we can encourage creativity and wonder, we can work with them to construct their own learning.

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Supporting challenge in the classroom

As I was wandering about the other day, avoiding the paperwork in my office, I ended up in a math class.  The students were working and engaged with a problem, but it was tricky.   The teacher got everyone’s attention and said, “I wonder if you and your partner have thought about which fraction to start with.  And that is all I am going to say.”  Perfect.

The teacher recognized what the issue was and gave her students enough information to regroup.  The teacher did not, however, rescue the students by showing them what to do.  It is hard not to rescue.  But struggle is good.  People like to think and figure things out.  The challenge and the struggle is what turns your program from task completion to rigorous learning.

But it is a “sweet spot”.  Because left entirely to their own devices students who are struggling can also become disengaged and discouraged.  We don’t want the work to be so easy that students are just “doing what the teacher said” but on the other hand, there needs to be enough structure that students are able to accomplish the challenge and learn something.  And, of course, different students need different amounts of structure.

And, of course, you are reading to this point and hoping I will tell you an easy way to find this sweet spot—but I won’t.  Because it is hard.  Because different kids need different things.  Because what works in one situation won’t work in another.  Because what is a challenge for one kid is not a challenge for another.

You can, however, reflect on your beliefs and teaching style.  Start by creating the conditions for challenge.  Look at those challenges from a student’s point of view and look for the hurdles.  Determine if students have the skills to overcome the hurdles or whether the hurdle will become a road block.

For example, students may be working on a science inquiry and not know enough about simple machines to solve their problem.  That is a hurdle you want them to overcome:  What do you already know?  What questions do you have?  Where might you find out that information?  What hypotheses do you have?  However, if the student has a reading disability and is not going to be able to access the reading material that will provide the answers, that is a roadblock.  If the student has organizational difficulties then he is going to require a graphic organizer to help organize his thinking.  If the student has time management issues then she will require you to provide frequent check ins and chunking of material.

Providing supports for students to meet challenges is not cheating.  It is not rescuing.  It is supporting.  As teachers we need to create supportive environments that support struggle and challenge for all kids- no matter who that kid might be.

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A little feedback more often is better than a lot all at once.

We have been thinking about descriptive feedback and how it can be so powerful in moving students’ achievement.  We have been experimenting with more feedback and fewer grades.  We have been finding ways to be explicit about how to show students what the end product needs to look like through exemplars and anchor charts.  And, we have been exploring ways to teach more recursively by coming back to key ideas many times throughout the year instead of blitzing through them in a 6 week unit.  Does the amount of feedback we give matter?

When I think about learning something new, I think about being overwhelmed.  It is much easier to manage when the support I receive is given in small doses and many times.  How does this play out in the classroom?

  • Mini-lessons (7 minutes or less) provide students with a small amount of feedback or instruction and a chance to try it out. If I were teaching writing and wanted to help students write better leads, I might have 5 days of mini-lessons over the course of a week or two about leads instead of one 45 minute lesson on everything I knew about leads.  And then I would come back to a few more lessons on leads a few weeks later to consolidate our understanding.
  • Leaning in and giving students one suggestion on how to improve their work while they are working is often more useful than collecting the work at the end and giving students 5 to 10 suggestions.
  • Bringing students together for small group instruction to provide them with one or two new ideas as they are learning can help you to be more student-specific with your feedback.
  • Asking students to highlight something in their work that they would like feedback with to hand in as an exit ticket means that you are only looking at part of their work that evening, not the whole thing. It saves you time and your students are more likely to be receptive to feedback they requested.
  • As an exit ticket you can ask students to identify one thing they are unsure about. If you see patterns then you can shape your small group instruction or mini-lesson for the next day to address the issue.
  • Resist the urge to use your red pen. While it is tempting to correct all of a student’s work, this does not promote learning.  Instead, of marking all of the punctuation errors, write a short note stating that you would like the student to find 5 places to add punctuation in the piece and resubmit it.  Instead of marking all the places where paragraphs go, suggest that the student create 3 paragraphs and resubmit it.  Ignore all the other issues for the time being.  We don’t have to fix everything at once.

As teachers we feel passionate about our subject.  We love to share that passion with our students.  And it is hard to really imagine what it is like to be the student who is at the beginning of the journey. When you are already the expert, all the components flow together seamlessly.  But when you are the student trying to figure it out, it takes time and patience to see the whole.  We need to provide feedback in manageable chunks during the learning process.  We need to provide less feedback more often and probably repeat ourselves many times!

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