Tips and Tricks

Check out teaching strategies straight from the classrooms of Rose High teachers.

Fishbowl Seminars with Backchannels

April 4, 2014
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Teaching sounds a bit too much like ordering at Starbucks when you say it–a fishbowl seminar with Google+ backchannel–but that’s the strategy we looked at on Wednesday. Funky as it might sound, here’s what it’s all about.

Socratic Seminar: Students analyze complex texts. Your job: play Socrates. Ask questions of the circle of students that lead them through the text, looking with an increasingly critical eye for the details of the text and, ultimately, a greater understanding of its meaning as a whole.
Fishbowl: Inner circle speaks; outer circle listens. Large classes make large circles and, frequently, unbalanced seminar discussions. Fishbowls help correct those problems, while still allowing deeply analytical discussion.
Backchannel: The outer circle engages in the seminar discussion by sharing their own thoughts through social media. The teacher can post questions, or just ask students to respond to topics that arise in the inner circle. Use twitter, Edmodo, Facebook, Padlet, or scrumy. All of them provide a venue for the outer circle to stay involved.
The point of this strategy is to push students toward deeper thinking–not just comprehension, but analysis, application, and synthesis–and to wean them from their dependence on teachers to explicate a text. What I like most about the strategy is its versatility. It works in almost every subject area. Consider these strategies with:
  • A complex, real world problem in math
  • A panoramic photograph of a modern hotel interior
  • Sheet music for a concerto
  • A poem
  • An audio recording of a car engine, along with the customer’s complaint
  • Part of an historical document
  • Lab results
  • An infographic
  • A political cartoon
  • A painting
  • A battle map
Seminars don’t just happen. They take substantial preparation and practice. Explaining the text yourself is always much easier for the teacher, but the payoff in student learning from a good seminar is undeniable.
I look forward to helping you prepare your Socratic seminar, fishbowl, or backchannel. Let me know how I can help.


Using Journals to Reinforce Academic Vocabulary

March 20, 2013

If MSL/Common Exams did anything, they reminded us that for students to demonstrate understanding of a subject, they must be able to communicate about that subject. They must master its concepts, its processes, and its academic vocabulary. But learning to communicate about the effects technology has on war, or the relationships of angles, or the structure of DNA means students need to practice communicating about those subjects.

Enter the Journal
Ok, “enter the journal” is a bit dramatic, especially since journals entered instructional practice long ago. Sometimes they are tools for reflection and expression; other times they are used for research and recording. Students in English classes use them to practice writing or to generate ideas. But it is rare to see journals used in math classes.

In Mike Swinson and intern Ryne Cooper’s pre-calculus classes, students have been starting class with journal assignments since January. They are still doing math, but the problems tend to require application of learning, not just mimicry of a process they’ve already learned. The problems require multiple steps and always challenge students to make mathematical decisions.

Most of all, the students have to explain their answers using the academic vocabulary of the discipline. They must speak in math. Of course, they are still calculating and reasoning mathematically, but with the added expectation of processing the complex concepts through its native tongue.

In the example above, Mr. Cooper’s student must generate a rule based on a pattern she observes with functions. She writes, “These functions all have x-coefficient of 1 and y-intercepts at zero and exponents on the x value,” demonstrating to her teacher that she understands the mathematical concepts at hand and that she knows and can use the academic language of the course.

I, on the other hand, cannot.

Across the Curriculum
Certainly, this idea of using journals as a tool for engaging students in critical thinking and use of academic language is not restricted to mathematics, or just to arcane topics like calculus. They make sense in civics and world history, in art and cooking, in Latin and Spanish and English and chemistry. They provide students with a consistent place for processing thoughts, practicing with academic language and applying their learning, while giving teachers a consistent tool for formative assessment. See…

Art: Color the image below; then, justify your color scheme using at least three of the following terms: complementary, analogous, hue, tint, shade.

English: The following sentence is mechanically flawed. Explain the error and write a mechanically acceptable revision of the sentence.
Frequently, Poe’s sentence structure is not intended for clarity, he wants to lose readers in the complexity of his long, abundantly punctuated sentences.

Ultimately, we want our students to talk like scientists and artists and writers and linguists and chefs and mechanics and mathematicians and politicians. Ok, not politicians. But we do want them to talk the talk, and that means they need time to apply the academic vocabulary they learn to new situations. They should hear the terms and read the terms. More importantly, they should speak them and write them, and the journal is a great place to start.

The Common Core, in a Small Meaningful Way

December 8, 2012

This is Not a Homework Check
“Going over homework” in Jennifer Mabe’s class is far more than a right/wrong self-check. Mabe asks her students, as any teacher might, to announce their answers to questions from the previous night. She follows, not with correction or confirmation, and not with her own demonstration of the correct process for arriving at the best answer, but with an opportunity for other students to challenge the first response with their own. The most important part happens when Mabe asks students to justify why an incorrect answer is incorrect, and why a correct one is correct. Mabe’s students are able to identify where negatives were neglected, order of operations not followed, and concepts misconstrued.

Small as this homework check detail might seem, its value is substantial for two reasons. First, it promotes two of the eight mathematical practices:
3. Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
6. Attend to precision.
While teaching them algebra, Mabe is also teaching cross curricular habits of mind (reasoning, precision) that will serve them well as life-long learners. She’s teaching them to think math, and teaching them to think.

Beyond training her students to think math, Mabe requires her students to talk math. To explain why an answer is incorrect, they must, to some extent, use the language of mathematics. Math talk in the mouth of the teacher is fine; it’s like listening to a native speaker. In the mouths of learners, however, talking math develops ownership and mathematical fluency, the same way speaking Spanish helps develop fluency in that language.

Sharks Aren’t Like Dolphins
Clinton Todd wants his students to develop biology fluency as they learn to classify animals. In a recent bell ringer, students decided which animal (turtle, wolf, or shark) the dolphin most resembles, biologically speaking. After a few minutes of independent processing, the first student to respond answered, “shark.” When Todd prodded the student to justify his response, the student offered a detailed comparison of the physical similarities between dolphins and sharks. Todd then opened discussion. What other answers did anyone choose? Why not the shark? Why did you choose the wolf? (The correct answer is the wolf, which, like the dolphin, is a mammal, the biggest hint being the dolphins blow hole and lungs, as opposed to gills. Only one student selected the turtle.)

Todd’s line of questioning, and his response to correct and incorrect responses made this bell ringer effective. The nature of his response remained even and inquisitive, whether the answer was correct or incorrect. What he valued, it appeared, were the reasoning and the thought process the student used to draw a conclusion.

Todd’s activity worked much the way Mabe’s did. His students engaged in science talk, using the language of biology themselves, instead of merely hearing it from the teacher, and they engaged in the thought processes of a biologist, observing, classifying species, and, just as Mabe’s students did, verbally justifying their responses with reasoned explanations.

Common to the Core
These strategies are not new, not by any stretch of the imagination, and they aren’t spectacular. The thing is, they don’t have to be. Nothing about Common Core has to be spectacular, flashy, or funky. What CC does have to do is place the challenge of critical thinking and of developing content-specific literacy on the student. It’s simple enough to see how all this fits into your own discipline, but here are a few questions that might guide you:

  • Are your students solving a problem, instead of mimicking, copying or regurgitating?
  • Have you asked/required/expected/taught your students to justify their solutions/answers?
  • Do you value the students’ reasoning process?
  • How many times during the course of a period does every student use the language of the course?

I would like to make another point about the Common Core standards. They are common. They are the expectations of all students. All students, that is, must be expected to demonstrate these thinking skills in the various courses they take. The two classes described above were not AP or honors courses. Todd’s was a typical standard biology class. Mabe’s was a year-long (euphemistically read, not mathematically inclined) Math I class. Mabe and Todd expected these thinking skills from all students, and by this point in the school year, they can see the results.

Techno-Performance Task Assessments

November 30, 2012

This post is the second in a series of three about implementing performance task assessments, an important part of the Common Core/Essential Standard shift.

The Challenge
Creating and administering common assessments is seldom easy work, and sometimes it is incredibly challenging. Take, for example, the challenge of assessing reading, writing, speaking and listening in world languages. Spanish teachers must assess student development in these four areas in intervals throughout the semester. Of course, their daily work, through workbooks, projects, quizzes, tests, and general instruction, provides them a picture of students achievement in particular skills, but that big, 4-strand picture is tough to assess.

Most difficult of all are the speaking and listening strand, as they require either one-on-one assessments (imagine having to test 30 individual students fairly as they explain why it will take two trains, one traveling east, the other west, four hours, thirteen minutes to meet in St. Louis). The Spanish I teachers figured it out.

Assessing Listening
To assess a students’ abilities to comprehend spoken Spanish, the Ms. Haynes, Ms. Dunham, and Ms. Watson created a video of six native Spanish speakers (plus one Japanese student, just for kicks) telling about themselves and their preferences. For the assessment, students watched the video and charted details about any four of the speakers. This assessment told the teachers which students were able to listen to Spanish and extract information from the speaker as they might need to in an actual conversation.

Assessing Speaking
My wife likes to tell the story of how her friend Crystal got entire class out of a speaking test in Spanish II. When it was Kerri’s turn to take the test–there was only one cassette machine for playing and recording–she pushed play, and all she heard was Crystal’s deep drawl, saying, “Hellllloooooo. I don’t hear anythang. Heeellllllooooooo.”

The Spanish teachers came up with a great solution to the challenge, and they were able to eliminate what I will call the Crystal effect. They created Google Voice accounts. Google voice provides you a phone number, and can direct calls to all of your phones, so you never miss a call. The key with this Spanish assessment, however, was to miss the call. Google voice redirects to voice mail and record messages as MP3s.

The teachers had their students call their Google Voice numbers all at once and answer two questions provided by the teacher in their best Spanish. To assess students’ performances on the task, the teachers opened their Google Voice accounts, clicked on the files, and listened to them. SInce the files are MP3, the teachers can easily move them into students’ digital linguafolios, so they can track student development throughout the year, or even as they progress through multiple levels of Spanish.

So What?
So what? Are you kidding me? That’s awesome, and not just because it’s a cool use of technology that averted the Crystal effect. What’s really awesome is this. The assessments tell teachers whether their classes as a whole are on track with reading, writing, speaking and listening, and it helps them identify which students are not progressing in each of the four strands. By delivering a common assessment with a common rubric and collaborating on the evaluation, they cannot help but see their own strengths and weaknesses. It is inevitable, for example, that a teacher whose students’ listening skills fall noticeably below the average will seek to improve that area with the assistance of colleagues. The process ferrets out shortcomings and begs us to respond.

Taking Risks
The Spanish teachers will tell you this process was not without flaw. The sort of risk they took in creating, delivering, and evaluating the assessment was huge and uncomfortable. It is that kind of risk that inspires growth, and growing is a darn good thing.

Leave your comments if you wish, or contact me directly at to collaborate with your PLC or to discuss assessment, instruction, or technology.

Annotating Texts to Teach Analysis

February 16, 2012
You won’t find a better collaboration partner than high-energy art teacher Randall Leach. He is full of ideas and always open to more. For one period a day, Leach has to shift gears from his studio art classes to his more lecture-based AP Art History class. It is a class heavy with content that requires students to analyze works of art. I had the opportunity to collaborate with him recently on a project we called The Greene Family Sculpture Commission Competition.

Students “sculpted” each other by positioning the limbs of one group member–the model–in a manner they believed would depict the values our culture considers good and beautiful. Their end goal was to win the hypothetical Greene family sculpture commission, which was really just a box of Transformer cupcakes from Harris Teeter. But the project was not all fluff and icing.

Not Just Fluff
Using Leach’s iPad, students photographed their “sculptures” from several angles; then, using an app called Educreations (also available for your computer free online) they annotated their sculptures with digital ink and explained how specific features reflected beauty or other values admired in our culture. We projected their work from the iPad for the whole class to see and for the panel of judges–Mr. Leach, Mr. Greene, and me–to evaluate using a rubric.

What was immediately evident was that these students had, for the past three weeks, been learning quite a bit from Mr. Leach about how artists represent values through the physical form. They were learning how to analyze works of art. Using the annotation strategy through Educreations allowed them to both demonstrate and develop that skill further. And it was fun.

Not Just Art
Ashley Hutchinson has used the same app for the same purpose, almost. Instead of analyzing works of art, her students analyze written texts. English teachers put tremendous effort into teaching students to reference specific words and phrases when they explain the meaning of a text, and this activity helps, and perhaps forces, Hutchinson’s students to do that. They literally layer their own voice and their own interpretation on top of an existing text, and the result can be impressive.

Not Just on the iPad
Of course an iPad is far from necessary for implementing annotation strategies. Hutchinson’s students could also have used a printed text and some markers under a document camera. Or they could have used the computer lab to access the Educreations app online, or used, as Mrs. Haynes’s Spanish students have,

But annotation hardly requires a high tech solution. Students could have glued a photocopy on top of a large sheet of paper, and used pens and highlighters to annotate and add their analysis by writing in the margins of the large paper. And, fad of the 1980s or not, sticky notes are as useful a tool as any for annotating texts. The effect is the same–layer student voices and student interpretations on top of an existing text.

Whether it happens in ink or digital ink, spoken text or written text, annotation is a phenomenal way for students to develop their analytical skills and demonstrate their ability to interpret a text. It is a useful tool for assessment, and it can be used in almost any subject: primary documents and tangible artifacts in history, graphs and geometric structures in mathematics, diagrams and sheep brains in science, and the casserole I burned last night in foods.

Give it a try.

Want help? Ask me.

Wednesday Walk and Talk: Problem Based Learning

January 26, 2012

We had a great turnout for the first Wednesday Walk and Talk. A big thanks to all the dedicated teachers who were able to participate.

What We Walked About
About a mile. No great feat, but better than sitting still for sixty minutes.

What We Talked About
After watching Dan Meyer’s TED talk (check it out at we discussed how teachers might devise compelling problems that prompt deeper, more meaningful learning in our classrooms. The speaker focuses on math problems, but they idea reaches beyond the math classroom. Meyer suggests that if we start instruction with a problem that is relevant and tangible, we might motivate learners to develop both “patient problem solving” skills and the content knowledge essential to the courses we teach.

One example that arose from a walk and talk conversation regards infectious diseases. Students in the health sciences learn about an abundance of diseases, but if they were to be given a stripped-down case study and perhaps a few graphic images with the simple instruction to diagnose the disease, then their learning, whether through research or lecture will have added meaning. That is to say, instead of gathering facts about diseases for the purpose of passing a test–hardly a compelling motivator during instruction–students become motivated learners discovering diseases to determine which one solves the case. They become Dr. House.

This approach to learning requires teachers to understand the relevance of their curriculum in the real world. It asks them to give students time to think, to use their intuition to solve problems, even to figure out what problems they are solving and what information they require to reach a solution. But above all, it gives students an opportunity to develop as critical thinkers while they learn course content, and that’s a solution worth seeking.

Feel free to share your ideas using the comments link above. Thanks for reading. See you at the next walk and talk on Feb. 15.

Students Acting Out

May 6, 2010

In Civics and Economics, tenth graders learn the difference between civil and criminal. Defining the concepts and distinguishing between the two is simple enough, but last week Mark Grow’s students performed short skits to make sure the concepts were clear and unforgettable.

Having learned all the basics, Grow’s students were instructed to form groups of three to four students, choose a type of case (criminal or civil), create a skit demonstrating that case, and act it out. Keep reading »

Know thy students

April 22, 2010

Three wonderful teachers shared their strategies for getting to know their students, and all three are worthy contest winners. I hope you will enjoy reading what they do to develop a stronger understanding of who their students are as individuals. I am, as always, amazed by the brilliance and dedication of our teachers.

Tracey Moore

It is hard to get to know my students by teaching them math. I’ve always admired english teachers because they get to know their students through their writings.

The first day of class I give out a student information sheet. On the first page is all of the normal information…parent’s names, schedule, phone numbers, etc. On the back, however, I ask questions like:

What would you do if you were given a million dollars?
Who is someone you admire and why?
What do you think are the characteristics of a good teacher…a bad teacher?
Do you consider math to be something you are good at or a difficulty?

That night, my husband and I go through all of the sheets. We learn which of my students come from single parent homes (this year I have 5 students total that live with both mom and dad!). I learn who is self centered and who is giving (from their answer to the $1,000,000 question). I learn who is already defeated by math before they walk in the door Keep reading »

A Tale of Two Islands

March 4, 2010

I will never pretend that technology can do what we do. Teaching is best left to teachers. But learning? That belongs to students. Study Island, although it cannot teach a student on its own, can help students learn the skills and knowledge we teach. In my conversations with teachers about online tools like Study Island, I have encountered two strategies that seem particularly effective.

The Kujawski Plan
Geometry teacher Zina Kujawski—in every way a mathematical thinker—has such an elaborate Study Island plan for her students that it deserves a name: The Kujawski Plan. Here’s what she does: Keep reading »

Switching Seats

January 21, 2010

My students always had to ask me when they could change seats, then wait another week before I actually changed them. I treated it as an inconvenience, a waste of class time. Plus, it messed up my system for distributing papers.

But changing students’ seats is beneficial, and there is a good time to do it. Instead of waiting for the end of a grading period, change your seating chart each time you begin a new chapter or unit. There’s actually a good reason for it Keep reading »