There is so much to learn and so much to teach! Sometimes it can become overwhelming. Sorting through what is critical, what is important and what is still important but not top priority at present can be daunting. Still, teaching well necessarily involves determining what is important at this time for these students, and making the best use of each instructional minute. How can a focused educator decide what to hone in on? This is a critical question. Determining the answer is the art of teaching well.
Professional developers I have worked with across the past decade have spoken of instructional north stars. I have had a few over the years. Choosing one has been a powerful way to focus my own work with students and avoid being overcome by possibilities and options.
In my work as a content area specialist over the past 15 months, I have had opportunity to visit many classrooms. I have seen so many teachers working incredibly hard to serve their students the best ways they know how. Now, as I prepare to move back to a school site, I know my north stars may shift. It is for this reason, I would like to share a few of the instructional north stars that have arisen over the course of my work with teachers and administrators across this very large urban district. Allowing these strategies to guide us strengthens the important work we do with our students.
TALK: Talk is a critical part of learning. Consider how you learn. Talking about your understanding of what you are learning improves understanding. I have seen courageous educators move from more traditional quiet classrooms to classes filled with students who listen hard and then think and share their thinking again and again with peers in order to grow and learn. If you would like to read more about the importance of talk in learning check out this, and this, and this.
TURN & TALK: This is a powerful instructional strategy for so many reasons. Students learn from sharing their current thinking and grow from hearing others’ thoughts. Teachers benefit when they listen in to students talk, gathering immediate data on what students understand. Teachers further benefit by being able to make instructional adjustments to meet the immediate needs of their learners. These adjustments hone instruction in a unique and powerful way. Being able to authentically respond to what our students are or are not quite yet doing enables a responsive learning experience in every subject across 180 school days a year. It makes each learning experience differentiated for each individual learner. Students also come to know that there are many to learn from in a classroom, not only the teacher.
STOP & JOT: I have written often about this powerful “little” instructional strategy for reading. I have posted videos on the strategy. This strategy is important NOT for the jotting part so much as for the THINKING part. Students learn to independently stop in their reading to THINK. This is a lifelong gift we can teach and support and ultimately give to our students. Wouldn’t you just be thrilled if your students left knowing that they needed to stop and think about what they were reading? And then did it?
QUESTION: Wow, the power of setting students up to ask questions! Give students an experience with a document of some sort (e.g., text, video, painting). Then simply ask them to talk about ALL the questions they have. (For a lesson example of this strategy check this out.) We, as their teachers, also learn so very much simply by listening in as they riff on their questions.
I have been amazed at the power of this strategy. It involves having students ask all their questions, they can jot them if you like, but they need to know all questions are acceptable. They need not to judge themselves as they formulate the questions. They need to just ask the questions, not trying to answer them. Students jumping into authentically ask questions wind up considering source, context, and even trustworthiness of a video clip, document, or painting.
The Right Question Institute out of Boston is a great resource. Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, authors of Make Just One Change offer an in-depth look at how questioning can support classroom learning.
I have thoughts about north stars for ourselves and our collaborative teams as learners. But that for another time. Today, I’ll simply leave you with this:
If you’re a teacher who is not yet harnessing the power of talk in your classroom, give it a try! If you are already setting students up to talk, keep up the good work! Keep asking students to take in information, then let them talk about it. Talk before they write. Talk before they read. Talk after they read and after they write. Talk before an experience. Talk after an experience. And remember to lean in and listen!