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Try These Simple Shifts in Teaching for a Big Payoff (Opinion)

Today’s post is the latest in a lengthy series on “small” moves teachers can make that can have big payoffs in the classroom.

Calls Home

Renee Jones is the 2023 Nebraska Teacher of the Year. She teaches AVID and 9th grade English at Lincoln High School. Follow her on Twitter @ReneeJonesTeach:

Every Friday, just before leaving school for the week, I make a positive phone call home.

Simply reflecting on my week, I think of a student who made personal progress in the individual mountain they are climbing. I then call their guardian, with no other agenda other than to tell them about the good thing(s) their student has done in class that week.

With only a few additional minutes each school week, I am strengthening the relationships between myself and my students. At the same time, I am building trust and a partnership with the adults who support the students I serve. The phone call is simple, takes only a few minutes, and not only fills the bucket of that student, and their guardian, but also serves as a personal reminder that there is good in every week. I am intentionally leaving school each week on a positive note, reminding me of the important work I am providing as an educator and the incredible students I have the privilege to teach.

Asking the Right Questions

Todd Stanley, otherwise known as the Gifted Guy, has been in education for over 26 years. Everything you need to know about him is on his website where you can find tons of free resources:

They say there is no such thing as a bad question, but for teachers, that would be incorrect. If you want thought-provoking responses that show depth of learning, you have to ask questions that elicit this type of response. You would think this would be obvious, but oftentimes in classrooms, I see and hear a lot of teachers asking lower-level questions designed to help students memorize content but not for them to think. These lower-level questions are even on their summative assessments even though this is supposed to be the culmination of the learning from the unit.

This does not mean asking students more difficult questions. It means asking divergent questions that have multiple possibilities and are going to cause students to have to think about their response.

For clarification purposes, here is what a dead-end question looks like:

What is 4 x 3?

The student answers this type of question, and then they are done with it. No more learning or thinking to be done. That is what makes it a dead end. There is nowhere to go.

A superhighway question looks like this:

The answer is 12. What are all of the ways you can get there?

Some kids will find all of the possible math problems such as 6 times 2, 24 divided by 2, 9 plus 3. Others might start thinking outside the box a little. How many eggs in a dozen? How many months in a year? The number of years it takes Jupiter to orbit the sun. How many sides a dodecahedron has. The numbers on a clock. Some may even personalize their responses. The age when I got my braces. The day of my dad’s birthday. The sided dice I need to kill an ogre in Dungeons and Dragons. So … many … possibilities.

The big difference between these is that one is a fact and the other is an idea. Ideas are stickier in the learning process. Ideas have many possible answers. This is not to say that you should not ask any dead-end questions. Students need these as content to build on their ideas. But in my experience, the balance between these two is not as balanced as it should be.

This means not only looking at the questions on your assignments, activities, and assessments but also the day-to-day questions you ask your students. For instance, when you ask students “Did you have a good weekend?,” how many are going to give you a genuine response? Most times they are going to say it was “fine.” What if you asked them instead, “What was the most interesting thing you did this weekend?” or “If you could have done anything this weekend, what would you have done that you didn’t?” These sort of questions are going to require a more thoughtful response.

Asking good questions does not require you buying a canned curriculum or changing your pedagogy completely. It just means being aware of the questions you are asking and if you are not getting the responses you are looking for, asking yourself was the question an invitation to share an idea or a request for information.

Responding to Mistakes

Kelly Owens, M.Ed., is a reading interventionist and Wilson ® Dyslexia Practitioner who enjoys sparking educators’ professional reflections via her contributions to MiddleWeb, The King School Series (Townsend Press), and Emmy Award-winning “Classroom Close-up NJ”:

Remember the red pen marks students feared when turning in papers? The thought of a paper full of teacher gotchas was quite discouraging. Mining for mistakes really squashed motivation. Let’s switch students’ mindsets about mistakes. Instead, teach the benefits of boo-boos.

Many life lessons originate with mistakes. They’re part of the learning process. You try, make mistakes, adjust, and try again. Do you remember a test question you missed when you were a student? Chances are, you didn’t make that mistake again. Plus, mistakes tend to stick with you more than those correct answers at test time. A growth mindset builds an appreciation of the positive role mistakes play in growing understanding. Mistakes are often our greatest teachers.

Reactions to Mistakes Matter

Nothing makes students happier than catching a teacher’s mistake. Even though we may plan to deliver polished lessons, mistakes reveal our human sides. And that’s OK. Students need to see mistakes happen to all of us. More importantly, students need to see how we respond to those mistakes.

Unexpected mistakes offer teachable moments. But we should still plan for them. Decide on how you’ll react when they happen. Stay consistent! First, model how to accept mistakes. Then, pause and think about troubleshooting strategies. Do a Think-Aloud demonstration, so students hear you process the situation. Finally, model a mindset that shows an openness to learn from mistakes. Reframe mistakes as learning opportunities.

Build Intentional Mistakes Into Lessons

Teach with planned mistakes, too. Learners benefit from seeing both examples and nonexamples. For example, I self-taught myself calligraphy using a book. Before writing my first letter, I read the step-by-step instructions and studied the Correct Letter model. Eager to do it myself, I dipped pen into ink and formed what I thought was right. Unfortunately, my letter didn’t mirror the exemplar. Instead, it resembled the Incorrect Letter model shown farther down the book page. Before trying again, I scrutinized the Correct Letter and Incorrect Letter models. The deeper analysis really engaged my problem-solving skills. Most of all, my reflective thinking allowed me to fine-tune my overgeneralization. As a result, my long-term memory of the skill sets me up for more success with future handwriting practice.

Add Mistakes to Your Teaching Toolbox

Help students overcome the fear of making mistakes. Make the risk of going out of their comfort zones worth it by highlighting the joy of aha moments. Teach students to embrace mistakes as catalysts for valuable lifelong learning.

Student ‘Revoicing’

Kit Golan (@MrKitMath) is the secondary mathematics consultant for the Center for Mathematics Achievement at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. Kit was a Fund for Teachers Fellowship Grant Recipient, studying Realistic Maths Education at the Freudenthal Institute in Utrecht, Netherlands, and presented a TED-style talk, “Become the Subject,” at Math for America’s MT 2017:

We all know the joy of hearing a student contribute an important understanding to a class conversation. However, many teachers’ first instinct is to highlight this idea by repeating, rephrasing, or rewording the information themselves. Shifting from doing this yourself to asking other students to do so can transform the student-to-student interactions in your class. With this simple switch, teachers promote listening skills and peer discourse, decentering their own role in the conversation. As an added bonus, it creates additional opportunities for students to engage with each other’s reasoning.

Although revoicing a student’s contribution to class discussions is a known discourse move, there is often not enough attention paid to who does the revoicing. Teachers often think that only we can repeat, restate, or reword “correctly” instead of transferring the power to students.

This reinforces the often dominant paradigm of “IRE/F” (initiate-response-evaluate/feedback) discourse structure that keeps the conversation ping-ponging between students and the teacher, centering the teacher as the mediator of knowledge in the classroom. Furthermore, this can signal to students that they need only listen to the teacher, as any ideas their peers say will be repeated by us.

Transitioning the classroom discourse to another student disrupts traditional power dynamics between the teacher and students during classroom conversations, placing the heavy lifting on students to think, make sense, and engage with each other. The teacher’s role shifts from evaluating student contributions to directing student attention and focus onto their peers’ ideas and reasoning.

Furthermore, this positions students as knowers and doers of mathematics, enhancing their status, authority, and agency in the math classroom. It sends the message to students that they are considered knowledgeable about mathematics and that their reasoning matters to the classroom community.

Another positive benefit is the increased participation and comprehension by multilingual learners and disabled students. By asking students to restate their peers’ ideas, we provide multiple passes on the same information, allowing additional processing time and slowing down the conversation enough that all students can engage and participate. Furthermore, by having multiple students restate and rephrase an idea, we are highlighting the significance of that idea; this is a useful strategy to highlight the lesson’s goal during the conclusion of the lesson.

Talk is a form of thinking; people do not engage in talk merely to communicate something they already know but also to explicitly solidify their mental formulations as they speak. By asking students to rephrase what they heard someone else say, we are embedding formative assessment in our classroom discussions.

When we hear one student deliver the response we are expecting to hear, it provides a false sense of security that the entire class understands. By asking another student to rephrase, we are checking that the initial student’s ideas are resonating with their peers and that their peers grasp the concept well enough to rephrase it in their own words. This simple discourse move engages students in collaborative sense-making by focusing on student thinking and simultaneously deepens their content understanding.

Here are my suggestions for implementation:

When/Why to use these moves:

· Some students may have expressed or shown confusion or uncertainty.

· Encourage more active listening on the part of students; holds students accountable for listening by restating.

· Increase student talk and diversity of voices.

· Shift emphasis away from the teacher holding the knowledge.

· Press for precision by asking students to reword using relevant math vocabulary.

· As a form of formative assessment to check for understanding.

· To give an opportunity for students who haven’t participated yet to contribute.

How to use:

· After you’ve asked an initial student one of these questions:

o What did you notice first?

o How did you start?

o How were you thinking about this problem?

o What was your strategy?

· Ask students to restate/repeat, rephrase, or reword another’s idea:

o “Who can remind us …?”

o “Who can rephrase what __ just said in their own words?”

o “Who can reword that idea, using [vocab word]?”

o “[Name] can you explain what you think __ meant?

o “[Name] can you rephrase what __ just said in your own words?”

o “How could we add, revise, rephrase, or build on this idea?”

Thanks to Renee, Todd, Kelly, and Kit for contributing their thoughts.

The 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.

In Part Four, Kwame Sarfo-Mensah, Lauren Nifong, Rebecca Alber, and Jenn Guerrero offered their ideas.

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.

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 12 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list here.

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