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4 Small Teaching Moves That Can Pay Big Dividends (Opinion)

Today’s post is the latest in a multipart series where educators are sharing “small” teacher moves that can lead to big positive changes.

Positive Calls Home

Kwame Sarfo-Mensah is a 15-year veteran educator and the founder and CEO of Identity Talk Consulting LLC, an independent educational consulting firm that provides professional development and consulting services to K-12 school districts, educators, colleges and universities, and educational nonprofit organizations. He is also the author of the book, Shaping the Teacher Identity: 8 Lessons That Will Help Define the Teacher in You:

One small teaching move that we can make is to normalize the habit of proactively sharing positive communications to parents about their children.

Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, many of us only contact the parents of our students to report academic and behavioral concerns about the student. Now, should parents be informed of those concerns? Absolutely!

But we should also develop the habit of reaching out to parents to share the positive progress that their students are making. This is especially powerful for students who consistently struggle with academic or behavioral challenges. For the parents of those students, it is highly likely that they receive significantly more negative calls about their children than positive ones, and that only adds to the overwhelming stress that they’re already experiencing.

As much as parents want teachers to inform them about the academic and behavioral challenges of their children, they also want to feel confident in knowing that their child’s teacher is as intentional about seeing the good in their child. A positive call, text, or email to a student’s parent can be the one thing that uplifts the student’s spirit and, most importantly, motivates them to keep their performance trending in a positive direction.

Every now and then, if you see that a student is working extremely hard or they’ve made significant improvement with their performance, you need to make a big deal out of it and call the parent. If you can’t call them, send them a text. If you can’t text them, send them an email. You can even take a picture of their child in action and send it out to the parent. However you decide to break the great news, it’s important that your authenticity shines through.

Ultimately, we must adopt a balanced approach when providing constructive feedback about a student’s overall performance because parents and students will call you out if they sense that you’re not giving a fair, balanced assessment.

‘Accountable Talk’

Lauren Nifong is an assistant principal in Greenville, S.C. She holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, a master’s degree in administration and supervision, and has been recognized as one of South Carolina ASCD’s Emerging Leaders. You can connect with Lauren at @AP_Nifong on Twitter:

As educators, we are constantly trying to find strategies that will make the greatest impact on student achievement. At times, it feels a bit like piecing together a puzzle of magical pieces made up of pedagogy and best practices, differentiation, and a whole lot of hard work.

One small teaching move that I have seen directly impact student learning and understanding is accountable talk. And although classroom discussions may be common, it is the way they are implemented that matters most. Intentional academic discourse that is guided in a meaningful way is a small shift that teachers can make in the classroom that will directly increase student performance.

As with any teaching strategy, it is important to understand the “why” behind it in order to foster buy-in from teachers and students. John Hattie’s Barometer of Influence describes the effect size of numerous factors. Hattie shows that 0.40 is the effect size for one year of growth. Classroom discussion is listed as having an effect size of 0.82—which is equivalent to two years’ worth of growth. The trick to this is implementing accountable talk that allows students opportunities to talk through their thinking in a way that expands further than a simple “yes” or “no” answer.

Consider the following points when applying this strategy in your classroom:

1. All stakeholders should be involved in creating classroom norms for student talk.

2.Talking stems and anchor charts help to create clear expectations for students as they are working collaboratively with peers to discuss their learning. Teachers can even use color-coded response cards during class discussions for a quick formative assessment but then stop to have students explain their thinking to the class and facilitate a class discussion for the whole group.

3. Accountable talk must be managed in a way that is student-centered and fosters accountability within each student.

When students are able to discuss their learning in a structured, collaborative way, they immediately deepen their understanding of a topic. As teachers, we know that if students can talk about what they are learning and doing, then this means they truly understand it.

Through these structured classroom discussions, students learn how to actively listen to others, consider various viewpoints, and even defend their own. The way to make this truly effective is explicitly modeling classroom discourse and creating guidelines together. This small move of using accountable talk to enhance understanding will make a huge impact on your students’ ability to retain content, while simultaneously teaching them a valuable lesson in listening to others.

Anonymous Surveys

Rebecca Alber teaches in the Graduate School of Education at UCLA. She has been a high school English teacher, literacy coach, and consulting editor at Edutopia:

I’m forever a fan of routinely giving students an on-the-spot anonymous survey. During my years as an instructional coach in secondary schools, I would often encourage teachers to face the fear and get that feedback from students early on in the school year and throughout. We know that reflection is key to our growth as educators and so is getting feedback from our students on the structures we use, content we cover, and the overall classroom climate—and doing so on a regular basis. And when we make it anonymous, we are providing students a space to be more honest.

Also, we don’t need to make it a digital survey that requires some time to design and for all students to have a device. What we can do—and what I did often with the high schoolers I taught, the teachers I coached, and with the new teachers I currently instruct—is go low tech and pass out half sheets of paper. (I like to use the piles of mess ups from the copy room and cut those up if there’s only ink on one side.)

For your survey questions, decide what you want to know. I’m always interested in seeing what they think of the activities we are using, so I might do a quick rundown of the current structures we are using in class. (For instance, we have been doing a lot of in-class reflective writing, pairing and sharing, and also talking in small reading groups).

Then I ask them to write, “Start, Stop, Sustain” on their paper, leaving space after each word. If there is something they would like to start doing in class, stop doing, or sustain, they can make that suggestion. I also offer up the choice to add a fourth line where they can write “another thing …” in case they have something else they’d like me to know. I either project the questions on a slide or write them out on the white board.

After class, I read through the stack and I make small piles from the patterns that emerge. For example, I might get several suggestions under “start” to increase discussion time in the small reading groups. Under “stop,” maybe a few students might request less reflective in-class journaling. After I identity patterns, I then spend some time thinking about those patterns and what and how I might make some changes.

Then in our next class together, I share with students those patterns that emerged from their survey responses and I also share the things I will be adjusting or changing in class structures or content as a result of that feedback.

When gathering survey data from students, I always need to remind myself that I can’t please everyone. There are always the “one offs” from the surveys, and although I don’t necessarily take immediate action on those, I keep those in mind. For example, one student might have suggested I start making class break time longer, so on the next anonymous survey I give them, I decide to probe a little deeper with the class on this one. I might give them a Likert scale statement: “On a scale of 5 to 1, ‘5’ is ‘completely content’ with the length of our break time, and ‘1’ is ‘it’s too brief,’ write down a “5” or a “1” or a number in between.”

Including anonymous surveys in your classroom as a routine will certainly contribute to increasing the level of engagement and learning. And, overall, I have found that people—children and adults—appreciate opportunities to provide routine feedback to an instructor or coach and are generally pleased with the changes and adjustments that are made as a result of that feedback.

‘Message Abundancy’

Jenn Guerrero is the multilingual-learner specialist for the Sonoma County education office and a Title III regional English-learner specialist for the California education department. You can find her on Twitter at @ELSCOE:

No matter the grade or subject area, multilingual learners are always doing two things simultaneously: learning both language and content. Without the proper support in the classroom, this is understandably not an easy lift for students. Language learning requires ample processing time, and in the fast-paced nature of the classroom, teachers can often lean heavily on teacher talk as the primary mode of instruction. This creates an environment in which multilingual learners are forced to only rely upon auditory input in order to access information.

Educators must intentionally design their instruction to ensure that multilingual learners have full access to the curriculum, and one of the ways in which they can effectively do this is through the use of message abundancy. Coined by Pauline Gibbons in her seminal book Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning, message abundancy is the act of strategically coupling teacher talk with other systems of meaning to ensure what is being said by the teacher is fully understood by the students.

Picture a classroom where message abundancy is used: Students are learning about various habitats and the similarities and differences amongst them. The teacher talks about each habitat, and as they say the name of it, they display a photo and write the name of the habitat in one consistent color, which is also used for the other habitat names.

During the whole-group discussion, all weather attributes are written in one consistent color, while all land features are written in yet another consistent color. When it comes time to compare and contrast the habitats, a student notes that the desert habitat is “really hot.” The teacher warmly acknowledges this contribution, writes it on the board in the appropriate color, and then explains that another possible way to describe the weather in this habitat would be as an “arid climate.”

The teacher then draws an arrow from the student’s contribution to the new academic language, “arid climate.” As the students dive deeper into understanding characteristics of an arid climate, the teacher provides facts about their local desert habitat, which include scientific data about the sparse rain that falls here. While explaining this, the teacher writes the data for the students to see and accompanies it with a quick drawing of clouds and raindrops with a large “X” over them.

In this example, students were provided with intentional, ample, consistent doses of language and content in additional modes that enhanced the teacher’s message, thus making learning more accessible to the students. When teachers employ message abundancy, it provides an additional opportunity to access the information, in turn amplifying the understanding of content and language acquisition for multilingual learners, rather than simplifying it.

While message abundancy demands deep intentionality on the part of the teacher, it requires very little preparation and once started will easily become second nature in instruction. Most importantly, it contributes to a learning environment in which multilingual learners are engaged and provided meaningful access to grade-level content.

Thanks to Kwame, Lauren, Rebecca, and Jenn for contributing their thoughts!

The new question of the week is:

What is a “small teaching move” that you think is not as common as it should be? A “small teaching move” in this context is an action that would require very little prep, can easily be made into a routine or habit, and is likely to result in increased student engagement and learning.

In Part One, Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, Jessica Fernandez, Alejandra Carmona-Guzmán, and Daman Harris shared their suggestions.

In Part Two, Sydney Chaffee, Wendi Pillars, Cacee Weaver, and Cheryl Abla contributed their responses.

In Part Three, Diana Laufenberg, Valentina Gonzalez, Matt Renwick, and Cindy Garcia answered the question.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email . And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 11 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

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