Monthly Archives: October 2015

A productive sense of urgency–pacing your lessons in the classroom.

I actually get more done when I don’t have enough time.  I get more done when there is a structure to my days.  I think students are often the same.  We don’t want to overwhelm students but how we structure and pace our lessons can greatly influence the amount of work students get done.  You want to create a productive sense of urgency in the classroom.  Your students need to be energized and engaged in the learning.  You know yourself that when things drag on you quickly become less engaged and less productive.

Here are some ideas that lend themselves to students getting more work accomplished in shorter amounts of time or ways that teachers have organized time and materials to lessen the amount of wasted time in their classrooms.

  • Have a routine that students do when they enter your room to get them on task right away. I recently read The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller,  a classroom teacher who gets her students to read 40 books a year.  One of her tricks is to have kids pick up their book and read the minute they enter her class.  Some of our core teachers have implemented that practice.  It means that not only do your students get more reading done, but it also gives you some time to take attendance quietly, deal with any administrative tasks and maybe get reset from the previous lesson.
  • Or other types of “bell work”. The trick to this type of activity is that it needs to be engaging for students.  If your routine is that students review their notes from last class they probably won’t do it.  Here are some other things that might engage students as they enter your room and could possibly act as review:
    • Have a word sort on their tables as they enter
    • Have a problem to solve on little white boards as they enter
    • Hand students either a question or an answer as they enter and they have to find their partner
    • Have students work in pairs to compare homework answers – if they have the same answer chances are it is correct; if they have different answers they have to talk it over
  • Get kids up and moving during the class. Post some questions on the walls and have students go around and answer them.  If you have a method of students checking their answers after each question, they get immediate feedback.  One teacher posted different levels of questions on different coloured cards.  As soon as students got three correct of one colour they received that colored dot on their hand and could move on.  Don’t have the activity last more than 15 minutes.
  • Keep the little white boards in the desks. Keep the math manipulatives in a bin on the desks.  Have a bucket of sharp pencils.  Have the worksheets/duotangs organized for students to pick up as they enter.  Have a system for students to go to the washroom without having to ask you.  All of these little organizational tricks (and others) will lessen transition times in your classroom.
  • Tell students how long they will have to do the work: “You need to have 3 examples done in the next 15 minutes”  “Your group has 5 minutes to think of ten words to describe X” “In 10 minutes we will share 3 different leads to our stories”.  Don’t have the end of the work time be when most students are done; rather you set the time limits on the activities.  Of course you don’t want to do this for all activities; you don’t want to encourage speed reading or sloppy work.  However, creating a sense of urgency and having deadlines for short amounts of work will keep everyone on task.
  • Never say “If you don’t get done, then you will have it for homework”. Instead of creating a sense of urgency you have just given every one more time.  Kids, and many adults, are not good at organizing time and will just take this as permission to do it later.
  • Grab kids who are off task and have them work with you at the guided table for a few minutes. Assume that off-task behaviour is a result of misunderstanding and get them back to work.  If everyone is antsy, do some push-ups and jumping jacks or run around the school.  It is hard to sit all day.  While you may think that this disrupts your pacing, it is more beneficial than constant nagging to get on task.
  • Give small chunks to do, especially to the more disorganized kids. The whole page, the whole chapter, the whole story, the whole piece of music is overwhelming and impossible.  Their solution is often to do none of it.  Beat them to the game and only give them a small chunk and then a check-in.  They will accomplish a lot more.

And the last thing the 7 minute talking rule.  Very rarely should you talk for more than 7 minutes.  Your lesson at the beginning can include you talking for 7 minutes and kids trying things out for another 7 minutes but a lesson that goes much longer would be rare.  Mini lessons should be mini.  Set a timer if you think you are talking too long.  Pacing is usually better when kids are doing more and we are talking less.


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Using Drama and Narrative to Teach Concepts

Here are just a few things that I have seen lately that use drama or movement to help kids understand tricky concepts.  Students like to be up and moving and working with their peers.  Plus, drama can give them a concrete visual that may not be apparent to them on paper.

  • Pat (and probably others but I ran into his class—literally as they were in the hall) had his students pick a pivotal scene from the novel to act out. When students do this they have to do a number of things: figure out the difference between dialogue and narrative; figure out the personalities of the characters; figure out which scenes are pivotal.  They also practice their lines so they end up doing a lot of repeated reading which we know is good for fluency.  Drama in language arts doesn’t have to be a full length play.  Think about how students can turn what they are already reading into drama.  Think about using some plays as reader’s theatre.  Think about assigning students different characters to play and having them have a quick conversation about an event in the story.  Think about having a student be the main character in the read aloud who sits beside you; every once in a while stop and ask the “character” how she or he is feeling.
  • Ruth took over the foyer and had her students being soldiers and superwomen in a growing pattern. Kids were predicting and noticing how the pattern grew. You could give kids a pattern like AABCC and ask them to act it out.  What about acting out x + 3?  Student who can transfer skills from one modality to another have a deeper understanding.  Asking students to act out a math problem before they start will increase their understanding of the problem.  Often students begin to solve a math problem before they really understand what is being asked.  Students may often be stumped by simple algorithms (5 – 0; 33/33; 27 x 1) but when you ask them to tell a story about that algorithm in cookies, then it all makes sense–or sometimes you have to translate the algorithm into a cookie story and then they get it.
  • Cam and Marina (and maybe others) have been working on telling the “narrative “of history. History is often a vague and confusing subject of Acts and Treaties and Wars. Students don’t really understand that all that happened because of real human events.  A simple dramatization of the event increases understanding immensely.  You don’t need props or a script, just place some students, give them a role and have them act out the story you tell.  Get audience participation by asking what the different groups might be thinking or feeling.  Cam has had success by breaking the narrative in to “chapters” so that each set of events is a chapter in the historical narrative.  Students can refer back to an event by looking at the synopsis of that chapter-who was involved and what happened.   I heard through the grapevine that Ken was doing the narrative of particle theory but I didn’t get a chance to see it.  Apparently the solids slow dance like grade 6s and the gas molecules run around like grade 3s playing soccer.

There is actual research that suggests that students learn best through narrative due to our human cultural interest in story.  When you have a confusing or difficult concept then tell a story.

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Five ways to help with inclusion

 “Diversity is inviting someone to a party.  Inclusion is asking them to dance.”  John Dyer.

I saw this quote on twitter last weekend and it has been haunting me.  I think that one of the loneliest times is when you are part of a group, but not really.  It is like break time at a conference when you know no one; it is like being on the volleyball court but not feeling like you can really play; it is like being invited to a party but then no one talks to you and you aren’t sure how to enter the conversation.  And, I wonder what it is like for our vulnerable students who have been invited to be part of our classrooms but may not feel like they belong.

True inclusion in a classroom is really hard for both the student and the teacher.  We know that students who are successful at being included, despite having learning disabilities or behavioural problems or physical disabilities, are those who have a strong sense of self, who are able to take risks, who advocate for themselves.  When you feel lonely or out of place, those are hard things to be.  For teachers, trying to find tasks that meet everyone’s learning needs is tricky.  It is often difficult to find the extra time to work with vulnerable students.  And, it can be frustrating when these vulnerable students don’t appear to want our help.

Recognizing that it is a difficult task, here are some ideas that might make our vulnerable students feel like they are being asked to dance….

  • Make sure that they think you really and truly like them. Study after study has determined that students do better when they have a relationship with their teachers.  This does not mean that you do not have high expectations for them or let them “get away” with stuff.  But, they have to think you care.  And, since they aren’t used to thinking that anyone cares, you will probably have to make more than your average effort.
  • Have open-ended tasks. When we have tasks with multiple entry points then everyone can join in.  Or, offer a choice of tasks:  have 3 – 4 possible problems in math class; have a choice of graphic organizers in subject classes; allow students a choice of writing topics or books to read.
  • Don’t let students pick their partners. When students choose their own partners, often our vulnerable students are left out.  Again, it’s like being given a dance partner instead of being asked to dance.  For each group or partner activity, think carefully about whether you want random groupings, homogeneous groupings or heterogeneous groupings.  There are good reasons for all three.  Be planned and purposeful about how you group. For more information about grouping see this post.
  • Modify the class task if possible; don’t give an alternate task. There is nothing like feeling excluded when the class gets the white worksheet and you get the pink one that is obviously “easier” than everyone else’s.  (I admit I used to do this because it was easier for me as a teacher to organize.)  Often you can modify the class task by limiting the number of questions or changing the format slightly.  If you know how it needs to be modified but don’t have the time, ask your EA to do it while you are teaching the first part of the lesson. (I am happy to help, too).
  • Do have high expectations. It would be awful to not be asked to dance because no one thought you could.  Be careful that the help provided is not in the form of “getting the assignment done” but that the assignment is at the right challenge level for the student.  At the end of finishing an assignment we want all students to feel that they actually did something important, not that someone got them through something they didn’t understand.


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Rubrics versus letting kids “give it a go”

I must admit that I don’t love rubrics.  They take a long time to write and sometimes it is hard to know what they actually say, even when I wrote them!  In fact, when I have marked using arubric I often find that it is not helpful to me at all:  either I put down things on the rubric that arent’ true once I mark it or I have used such vague language on the rubric (e.g. “uses effective communication strategies”) that I don’t really know what I am looking for.  So, if I am having difficulties using the rubric then maybe the kids are too????

Rubrics and checkbrics became popular because traditionally the assessment of student work was done in a vacuum.  Teachers couldn’t articulate what they were looking for and students had no idea what to produce.  Research showed that when teachers knew how they would be assessing a product ahead of time, and shared that information with students, student achievement increased.  Except what the research didn’t say was that it was really, really hard to come up with a good rubric or good set of success criteria for a checkbric.  What the research didn’t say was that even if we shared it with kids it might take them a long time to get it.  What the research didn’t say was that sometimes our rubrics and checkbrics led students to produce formulaic work that was devoid of creativity and simply a case of task-completion.

Assessment is the hardest part of teaching, and it doesn’t really get easier because the more you refine your teaching practice, the more you have to change your assessment. And it is important that teachers have a clear idea of what they are looking for when they assess and that we let students in on the secret.  But….I do think that there are some instances where we need to give ourselves permission to not be too clear, at first.

When students are first learning how to do something (such as write a response to reading, write in writer’s workshop, develop a scientific report, solve a math problem, play a new piece of music, give an oral report or any other task that you know that students will have multiple opportunities to try over the course of the year) let them muck about with it first before handing out the rubric.  This accomplishes a few things.

One, it gives students a chance to try something without thinking you are going to MARK IT.  Even if you say it is ‘just formative’ you will get some worried and uptight kids who think more about “getting it right” than about thinking it through. This doesn’t mean you don’t have mini lessons, offer suggestions or teach.  But, see what happens with your students risk-taking if they aren’t comparing their work to a rubric or exemplar  right away.

Second, it gives you a chance to breathe and think and look at student work and then decide what exactly do you want the success criteria to be.  Are you getting what you want or not?  Is this particular task going to provide you with rich information about your students?  Is it at the right level of challenge?  If you were marking these what would you be looking for?  If you work in collaborative teams you could do some teacher moderation and determine what you really think students at your grade level will be able to do after some more instruction.  And, what are the next steps?  If you decide the task isn’t really getting at what you want, you still have an opportunity to change it, revise it, rethink your approach.

Third, it gives you an opportunity to co-create rubrics, anchor charts and checkbrics with your students.  Often, when we jump to the co-creation stage before students have had a chance to try the task and even think about the criterion.  If they have had a chance to give it a go, and perhaps work with the peers or have a look at their peers’ work, they will be in a much better place to help determine the success criteria.

Fourth, it will help you to avoid students producing products that are carbon copies of each other.  After all, in a critical thinking environment, there should be some room for creativity and individuality.  I want my tasks to be open-ended enough that these things are possible.  If you do want cookie-cutter products, then give an example and a rubric and some instructions and most students will comply.  But if your task is more complex than that, it may be worthwhile to let students try things out a bit first.  After a few attempts you can share some exemplars of work to help students link the teaching in the mini-lessons to the student work.  From there your class can gradually arrive at a collective understanding of the success criteria.  The advantage is that students will now have an opportunity to see that the success criteria can be met in a variety of ways.  I might write about the Rebellion of 1837 in narrative form and you might write about it in an editorial but we could both meet the success criteria of having identified the key historical points and presented the information from a specific historical perspective.  You might present your math solution using an algoriethm and I might show my solution in diagram form but we both have shown complete solutions that someone else would understand and identified the answer.

Fifth, if you adopt this stance you are more likely to create tasks that provide students with multiple entry points and many opportunities to practice.  If you always create the rubric immediately and mark every attempt against it, there is a chance that your rubric or checkbric is no more than the instructions for how to complete a task.  Completing a task is much different than learning through doing (see this post for more).

The only rule is that there are no secrets; students shouldn’t be surprised when they get back a graded piece of work.  In fact, their self-predicted grade should be close to the actual grade.  Beyond that, take a deep breathe (particularly if you are trying something new), give kids and yourself a chance to try things out, use their attempts to plan out your next steps, and guide them through teaching, small group instruction and the co-creation of success criteria.  And then continue to give them many opportunities to try it out before you “grade” their work against that rubric or checkbric.

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