Category Archives: Engaging Classrooms

Supporting student creativity, perseverance, and risk-taking (the good kind)—(Infographic)

When I was five, I saw my sisters riding their bikes and thought it looked fun, so I decided I would learn, too. I got on a bike, toppled over, and skinned my knee. My grandpa, who was watching nearby, helped me up, gave me a little hug with some advice on how to keep my balance, and told me I needed to try again. I got back on, determined to conquer the bike, and started pedaling. I could hear my grandpa behind me, encouraging me and telling me to keep pedaling.

Eventually, with my grandpa’s encouragement, I learned to ride a bike. Without that support, I may have given up, feeling defeated and a bit wounded. Students can feel the same way in the classroom when they don’t feel supported, encouraged, and safe.

Being supportive is one of three key characteristics of effective teachers, along with being intentional and being demanding, that are discussed in McREL’s The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching. Being supportive means that a teacher interacts with students and encourages growth in a trusting, nurturing environment.

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Are we thinking about what we’re asking students to think about?

An anecdote at the end of a recent New York Times article caught my attention because it raised the question of what constitutes meaningful student work. For a unit on Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, students in a Michigan high school were given a choice of assignments: give a regular class presentation (meh) or use a 3-D printer to illustrate a theme from the novel (super cool!). The teacher proudly Tweeted one such student artifact: a 3-D gavel that illustrated the novel’s theme of social justice.

Amazing!

Or … is it?

Without wading into the thornier issue that the assignment was slyly related to a side business the teacher was running out of his basement (the focus of the Times piece), I had a question about the educational value of the project: What do we imagine students are thinking about when they engage in this sort of exercise?

Learning to use software and a 3-D printer to manipulate shapes and objects is a perfectly valid objective. But this was supposed to be an opportunity to think about themes from the novel. The student who chose the printer assignment probably didn’t put much thought about social justice into the task.

We know from cognitive studies of how our brains process information that we must at some point concentrate on what we’re learning to develop long-term memories. As University of Virginia cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham states: “Students remember … what they think about.”

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Demanding the best from your students, and helping them believe they can achieve it (Infographic)

Back when my daughter was in high school, she professed to me that she didn’t like one of her new teachers, Mr. Bagley. He’d sent an e-mail to students before the first day of school, telling them to review the syllabus and be prepared to take a quiz on the first day of class, which she didn’t think was fair. During the first class, he told them that his job was to help prepare them for college-level work, so the learning, assignments, and tests in his class would be like college courses. From the start, he helped them set goals, encouraged them through the process, and clearly explained the requirements to be successful in his class. They knew exactly what he required and the high expectations he set for every student, every day, with every lesson.

Being demanding is one of three key characteristics of effective teachers, along with being intentional and being supportive, that are discussed in McREL’s The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching. Being demanding is not about being a no-nonsense, authoritarian teacher. It’s about having high expectations of your students and, just as importantly, helping them gain confidence in themselves and encouraging them to take on more challenges than they previously thought themselves capable of handling. The 12 Touchstones book gives four key things for teachers to think about within the be demanding imperative.

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The Reading Now Network: Growing a moral purpose

Four years ago, a group of district superintendents in West Michigan gathered for their quarterly regional meeting. As they trudged into the room, they picked up a familiar agenda, one they’d seen in countless prior meetings—facility updates, regional events, and teacher negotiations—really, nothing new. Outside, nearly 5,000 third-graders in public schools across the region … their students in their region … were demonstrating below-proficiency achievement in reading.

After the first few announcements, a bold voice spoke up:

Why don’t we use this time together to do something meaningful? Why don’t we solve a real problem? We are the leaders of the schools. Less than half of the kids in our schools are not learning to read and write like they should. If we are not talking about that every moment of our time together, what are we talking about? What could be more important?

What could have been a snooze-fest instead brought an entire region together around solving a problem. An inside-out approach to improvement began.

In the years that followed, a network of learners, known today as the Reading Now Network, grew up devoted to collective action. Among its accomplishments, the network has written formal commitments among superintendents and resolutions to be adopted by boards of education; undertaken inquiry-based action research field studies within member schools; and provided myriad professional learning opportunities emphasizing early literacy research.

In addition, the network supports literacy coaching opportunities for principals and teachers; a classroom library initiative; and a customized instructional rounds practice providing contextualized assistance, one school at a time.

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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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Differences, not disabilities

Students who learn differently from most have often been defined as having disabilities, which has a profound effect on their experiences in school, their relationships with others, and even their sense of identity. But a growing movement is seeking to shift the paradigm from learning disabilities to learning differences—recognizing that no two students learn exactly the same and that all students deserve an education based on their strengths, not their deficits.

In the April issue of Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein examine these differences through the lens of learning styles, which focus on the ways students gather, process, and evaluate information—and how that can inform curriculum, instruction, and assessments.

Learning styles have been around for decades, the authors explain, but little hard evidence proves their existence, let alone their impact on learning. However, the concept continues to influence educators. The Every Student Succeeds Act, for example, calls for states to apply the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL)—a framework for developing flexible learning environments that accommodate individual learning differences—when planning assessments and instruction. Why?

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What does it really take to personalize learning?

Emma is an 8th grader who loves horses. For a school project on animal behavior, she learned all about their intelligence and complex social dynamics—and then, with her teacher’s guidance, designed an experiment to see whether horses were smart enough to learn how to read. More specifically, she showed horses one board painted with a circle and another board painted with a rectangle to try to teach them to choose the circle in order to get a treat.

This is personalized learning at its best: Students learn what they need to learn (how to design a science experiment) while getting to choose how to go about it based on their interests (horses) and curiosity (are they smart enough to read?). But, asks McREL’s Bryan Goodwin in his latest Research Matters column in Educational Leadership, how effective is this kind of learning? Does it work for everyone? What does it take to implement it well?

Goodwin points to some promising studies that show benefits, particularly for low-achieving students. A 2015 RAND Corp. study, for example, compared achievement levels of 11,000 low-income and minority students in personalized learning environments with that of similar peers nationwide and found positive effect sizes for both mathematics (0.27) and reading (0.19). Perhaps most impressive was the fact that students who started off below average on national assessments were scoring above average just three years later.

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Supporting students’ growth mindset and effort

“What makes a student successful?” If you ask students in your classroom this question, how would they respond? Would they say that a student is successful because she is smart, or because the teacher likes him, or because she is lucky? Would students suggest that taking good notes, studying for tests, or doing homework can lead to success?

Often, students attribute success to things that they consider beyond their control, like luck or intelligence. But student effort is often overlooked or minimized as a factor in future success. The more immersed students are in a school and classroom culture where effort is a focus, the more the messages and examples of effort will resonate and bring about positive change for them.

How, then, can we establish an effort-focused classroom culture? First, when teaching students about the relationship between effort and achievement, be explicit. Share stories about people who worked hard to be successful and help students identify the specific actions that contributed to their success. Then, talk with students about what they want to succeed at; help them identify their steps toward success, providing explicit guidance about what it means to expend effort. Be clear about what is necessary for success in your classroom and help students practice those skills. Finally, ask students to keep track of their effort and achievement. Rubrics or graphs depicting effort and achievement can help students to see the correlation between the two.

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