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Classroom Instruction that Works

Welcome to the sixth foundation of reading: Academic language skills

For those of you who have coached, taught, and followed the five foundations of reading: Did you know there’s now a sixth?

It was back in 2000 when the National Reading Panel last published findings and recommendations for teaching the five components of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Research since then has been vetted, and last year’s What Works Clearinghouse practice guide, Foundational Skills to Support Reading for Understanding in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade, identifies a sixth foundation: Teaching students academic language skills, including the use of inferential and narrative language.

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Yes, you should share the learning model with your learners!

Ever since we articulated McREL’s six-phase model for student learning in our April 2018 white paper, Student Learning That Works: How Brain Science Informs a Student Learning Model, I’ve been having great fun talking about it with thousands of educators at conferences and workshops around the world, sharing instructional strategies and classroom practices that support each phase. (Learn more about the model in the spring 2018 issue of Changing Schools magazine and this October 2018 blog post.)

The purpose of the model is to remind us all that the goal of school isn’t teaching, it’s learning. This hasn’t been news to any of the educators I’ve interacted with. What is new is seeing the entire learning process—from disconnected data points to a robust plan for ongoing personal growth, mediated by known science on neurological and psychological processes—described in a unified model for student learning. Teachers often tell me they’ve been doing many of the strategies we endorse, yet have never before had an opportunity to think about why they work or how to sequence them in a cohesive manner (or how to tweak them to work even better for the precise mix of students in their class). In other words, they’ve long had a good toolkit and materials but often lacked the blueprints, and you need both to build a sound house.

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Instructional models help schools do the right things the right way

A guest post by Elizabeth Ross Hubbell, co-author, with Bryan Goodwin, of the influential book, The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day, and the forthcoming Instructional Models: How to Choose One and How to Use One.

I have had the greatest pleasure working in schools and school districts around the world as they worked tirelessly to help their students succeed. One of the most common aspects of my work was helping schools during their transition to a new instructional model—a tool that can lead to consistently excellent instruction by explaining why successful teaching practices work and how to emulate them. I often came in after the model was chosen and was there to lead training, observation, and implementation efforts. On occasion, I had the good fortune to work with schools as they were starting the process and got to be a part of the discussions, trials, and decision making that went into making these monumental shifts.

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Window Notes: How to turn note-haters into note-creators

Imagine asking hundreds of students and adults to share their unfiltered thoughts and feelings about taking notes in school. What do you think you’d get back? It turns out that our team has actually conducted this mini research experiment in schools across the country, and here are the most common responses: pained faces, deep shudders, a litany of adjectives like boring, tedious, and torture (not technically an adjective, but you get the idea.)Are these responses about what you expected? Are they similar to what your own would be if you were one of the respondents?This visceral and negative response to notes is a real problem because we know from research (and experience) just how important notes are to student success. In fact, the comprehensive meta-analytic study that underpins the second edition of Classroom Instruction That Works (2012) shows that teaching students how to make effective notes is one of the highest-yield strategies of all, with associated student gains of over 30 percentile points (Beesley & Apthorp, 2010).

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Mystery: Posing curious questions to spark student interest in learning

Curiosity is a compelling mental and emotional force that can propel students to ever-greater educational achievement. And of all the great ideas in Tools for Classroom Instruction That Works, I’m really drawn to the Mystery tool [free tool download] because of its connection to curiosity.When we talk about trying to solve a mystery, we’re really talking about fashioning a hypothesis: Why do you think something happened, and can you prove it? While the word “hypothesis” is often associated with science, we can prompt students to phrase and answer such questions in all academic subjects—and, I would add, in all aspects of our lives. As discussed in Classroom Instruction That Works, hypothesizing pushes the brain into using one (or both) of two thought processes: deductive and inductive reasoning. And for our students, acquiring knowledge through active participation is often more engaging and effective than listening to a lecture.

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The value of classroom walkthroughs: One district’s perspective

In Millville Public Schools, we’ve been conducting informal classroom walkthroughs for more than 10 years to gather meaningful data about what’s going on in our nine schools. We use McREL’s Power Walkthrough app to record our notes and collect data on the instructional strategies we see (or don’t see) being used in classrooms. This gives us great, actionable information we can use in conversations with teachers and school leadership teams about needed professional development supports related to our instructional and professional goals. These walkthroughs are definitely not about evaluating teacher performance—they’re truly about instructional collaboration and professional learning.Getting into a long-term habit of routinely conducting and reflecting on our walkthroughs has helped us set and achieve a variety of key goals: determining a clear focus, developing a common language for instructional and leadership conversations, creating greater visibility for our principals and administrators throughout their schools, and establishing an open-door culture in all our schools. We want to share a little more about each of our results related to the goals we set, in case it sparks ideas for how walkthroughs can be used in your own school or district.

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Why we love to hear a common instructional language

Frequently after working with a school district, we hear teachers and leaders say that one of the most valuable things they learned from their time with McREL was “a common instructional language” to use with one another and with students. You might be wondering: What exactly does this mean? And why would educators ever have felt they were deficient in their professional vocabulary?

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Does your school have a guaranteed and viable curriculum? How would you know? (Infographic)

A few months ago, we began working with a new principal who was in the process of getting to know her school. She knew that students came to school ready to learn, teachers were prepared to teach, and families were supportive of their school. The school was a welcoming place that served as a focus for community activities. But despite these positive supports, she explained, students were not meeting learning expectations. Academic progress in both English language arts and mathematics were below the state average, and she was concerned that families might soon lose confidence in the school’s ability to prepare students for the next level of learning.

During our consultation with this principal, we asked her if she knew whether the school has a guaranteed and viable curriculum (GVC). She wasn’t sure how to answer, so she responded with a question, “How would I know if the school has a guaranteed and viable curriculum?”

To determine whether a school has a GVC, we must first describe it. A “guaranteed” curriculum is often defined as a mechanism through which all students have an equal opportunity (time and access) to learn rigorous content. This requires a school-wide (or district-wide) agreement and common understanding of the essential content that all students need to know, understand, and be able to do. The word “all” needs emphasis; a guaranteed curriculum promotes equity, giving all children equal opportunity to learn essential content, and to provide this opportunity, curricular materials and instructional approaches must be grounded in research, implemented with fidelity, and must include vertical as well as horizontal alignment.

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Informal classroom observations – not just for principals anymore

Over the past 10 years, I’ve spoken to hundreds of principals and central office administrators about their successes and challenges with conducting informal classroom walkthroughs—observations that are done for professional development coaching and monitoring rather than for formal evaluation purposes. While many of these school and district leaders say that there are benefits to doing these walkthroughs—such as improving PD effectiveness, increasing collaborative staff dialogue, and building a purposeful school community—they often struggle to find time to conduct the walkthroughs because of how much else is on their plate during busy school days.

A solution I’ve seen many successful principals employ over the last few years is to bring other observers into the fold, engaging instructional coaches, peer coaches, and other teacher leaders in the process. What these principals found is that sharing walkthrough responsibilities with these additional staff not only saved time, but it instilled higher levels of trust and transparency throughout their building and helped more of their instructional team members understand and rally around common goals and initiatives.

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