Teacher Talk

Students Learn Best When You Do This... and This... and This

posted Oct 21, 2018, 4:07 AM by HSD Principal

by Grant Wiggins, Ed.D, Authentic Education

Want to know what kids need in order to learn better? Ask them: Here are the first 50 answers, unedited, from our typical HS.

I learn best when the teacher –

  1. Is hands on and doesn’t just talk at me. 
  2. They need to be interested what they’re teaching and encourage class discussions. Not only does this encourage us to use what we learned, it also helps us see the information in a different way.
  3. I learn best when the class is interactive and the teacher makes it fun and meaningful for my life
  4. I learn best in class when the teacher teaches one-on-one
  5. Explains it, then shows it, then asks us to demonstrate to make sure we know how to do it and if we don’t then further explains
  6. Assigns groups.
  7. Is engaging and attempts to relate to the students, not talk down at them
  8. gets the class involved and has hands on activities.
  9. I’m a hands on learner
  10. Allows us to ask questions and goes into detail.
  11. Teaches me in a hands on way, in other words I need to do an activity in order to learn it
  12. Shows a personality. Like when a teacher is humorous or shares personal experiences. When a teacher shows they are human, and don’t just do robotic teaching.
  13. Is showing me something visually instead of just talking at the students
  14. Shows the class what to do by demonstration
  15. Shows me step by step on how to do things and clarify any misunderstanding. Also has fun activities that involve interaction between other students in order to gain new insights. Has having field trips to experience real life situations.
  16. Is there to answer questions and gives us a lot of practice that is related to what we are going to be tested on.
  17. Interacts and gives us hands on things to do
  18. Helps me one on one
  19. Has us do things during class for us to learn
  20. Is enthusiastic about what we are learning and makes the learning fun and jokes around with us
  21. Interacts with the class and doesn’t just answer the questions on their own
  22. Slows down and does hands on activities
  23. Hands on with notes and examples
  24. Helps us learn by using visuals
  25. Teaches the class. Not when the students have to teach each other. That was horrible
  26. Actually wants us to learn about the subject and asks us questions about why we should learn this and gives us activities that ties it to the real world and outside of school
  27. hands on activities like anatomy.
  28. Has something (activity, homework, etc) that effectively demonstrates the concept
  29. Gives us a debate or something to discuss with each other
  30. Make learning active and fun
  31. I learn best when the teacher stands up in class teaches the lesson and then gives hand on activities instead of busy work. It also helps when if you don’t understand something the teacher is willing to help instead of just saying they can’t help us.
  32. Involves the whole class and we have in class discussions and everything is really hands on.
  33. Is hands on, gives us group activities and we share ideas.
  34. Hands on activities and expressing my ideas with others
  35. Is excited about what they are teaching and has many class discussions
  36. Anything that’s visual like when a problem is written out or when I have one on one with the teacher
  37. Engages students and makes content interesting.
  38. Is fun and makes me engaged
  39. Is fun and knows how to work well with the class
  40. Goes slow and spends many days going over what we are learning
  41. Gives examples & actually shows you what to do
  42. does more hands on things
  43. Talking in an exciting voice, acts like they want to be there, and help
  44. Doesn’t lecture the whole class and gives us lots of worksheets
  45. Actually teaches the class instead of simply sitting in the back of the room and play on his computer.  Or when the teacher provides no constructive criticism.
  46. Has activities for us to do and is more hands on and actually makes learning fun and want us to come to school not just another dreadful day waiting for the last bell to ring at 2:45
  47. Is more hands on, and cracks a joke here and there to keep my attention. When class is more layer back rather that really strict. Open discussion is a great stress reliever.
  48. Lectures and then let’s students work.
  49. Is interacting and asking us questions. It keeps me alert and I like getting the answers from fellow students as well as the teacher.
  50. Makes the material interesting to learn. Sometimes reading out of a book or listening to a lecture isn’t enough – I need to do hands on activities to see the point of things.

This article was excerpted from a post that first appeared on Grant’s personal blogGrant can be found on twitter here; image attribution flickr userglobalpartnershipforeducation


Retrieved from http://www.teachthought.com/pedagogy/students-learn-best/

Self-Assessment and Metacognition

posted Oct 13, 2018, 12:14 AM by HSD Principal

As you endeavor to help your students be reflective on their learning, here are some ideas from Understanding by Design to help you along (I really like the fourth suggestion):
    • Set aside five minutes in the middle and at the end of an inquiry-based lesson... to consider these questions: So what have we concluded? What remains unsolved or unanswered?
    • Require that a self-assessment be attached to every formal product or performance, with the option of basing a small part of the student's grade on the accuracy of the self-assessment.
    • Include a one-minute essay at the end of the lecture, in which students summarize the two or three main points and the questions that still remain for them (and, thus, next time, for the teacher!).
    • Require students to attach a postscript to any formal paper or product in which they must be honest about what they do and do not really understand about the subject in question - regardless of how authoritative their work may appear. (Of course, students need to know that they will not be penalized for confessing!)
    • Train students to evaluate work in the same way that teachers are trained as advanced placement [sic] readers, so that students become more accurate as peer reviewers and self-assessors, and more inclined to "think like assessors" in their work, too.
Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. p. 216.

Another way to help students evaluate learning is to train them to question their textbooks and other learning materials. As you use course materials, you can help students ask: 
  • What point of view is the author of this textbook promoting? Does he have an agenda?
  • Is the author making assumptions that should be questioned? How can I get more information to make informed conclusions?
  • Can I find a source that comes to a differing conclusion? How can I reconcile the differences?
  • Does this textbook give all the information worth knowing on this subject? How could I find out more?
  • And most importantly: Does what is communicated in this source align with what I understand from the Bible? If not, how do I reconcile the differing perspectives?
The answers to those questions may help students come to deeper understandings of your subject matter, and may help you address essential questions, much more effectively than just following the textbook's outline.

Building Better Questions

posted Sep 13, 2018, 5:19 PM by HSD Principal

Following up on our webinar from a couple of weeks ago (and, yes, it was really long after a full day of teaching), we want to make sure essential questions are being addressed as we plan our units and lessons. As you are thinking through the questions you are asking, here is an article on How to Make Your Questions Essential that has a framework to help you rate your questions. Grant Wiggins (author of Understanding by Design) and Denise Wilbur describe essential questions:
  • They stimulate ongoing thinking and inquiry.
  • They're arguable, with multiple plausible answers.
  • They raise further questions.
  • They spark discussion and debate.
  • They demand evidence and reasoning because varying answers exist.
  • They point to big ideas and pressing issues.
  • They fruitfully recur throughout the unit or year.
  • The answers proposed are tentative and may change in light of new experiences and deepening understanding (McTighe & Wiggins, 2013).
As you plan, they suggest you ask the following questions of your questions:
  • How well does the draft question meet the criteria?
  • If the question is too convergent, how can I phrase it to invite inquiry and argument? If the question is factual, what question on the same topic is worth arguing about?
  • Is the question merely engaging? Or will pursuing it lead to the topic's big ideas?
  • Is the question general enough to use across other units? Or is it bound too narrowly to just this topic or text?
  • Does the question get at what's odd, counterintuitive, or easily misunderstood? Or is it a predictable question with mundane and relatively superficial answers?
  • Am I trying too hard to craft the perfect question?
  • Am I looking for questions in all the wrong places?
As you are planning the questions you will ask, you can also help students with the questions they ask. Like other skills, question-asking can be modeled, taught, and practiced in the classroom. In this article on 5 Ways to Help Students Ask Better Questions, Martin-Kniep writes that teachers can:
  1. Guide Students to Question What They See or Read.
  2. Establish Criteria for Questioning.
  3. Provide Protocols and Structures for Student Feedback.
  4. Invite Students to Generate Their Own Essential Questions.
  5. Design Learning Experiences That Encourage Students to Be Critical and Engaged Consumers.
As you model asking good essential questions, you can build that skill into your students as well, a skill that will serve them well on their way to being Christlike lifelong learners.

Helpful Skills - For You and Your Students

posted Sep 2, 2018, 3:50 AM by HSD Principal   [ updated Sep 2, 2018, 4:00 AM ]

I'd like you all to read this article on Teaching Smarter in its entirety when you get the chance. It's got a lot of good advice in it about doing things in a way that keeps your students learning while keeping you from classroom burnout. And Always Find Time for Family!


In "The Enduring Value of Study Skills," authors Fisher and Frey state that students often need more coaching in study skills than teachers realize. They categorize what students need into three areas:
  • Study tasks – for example, practice testing, deliberate practice, and organizing knowledge and concepts;
  • Metacognition – monitoring one’s own learning through self-questioning;
  • Dispositions and motivations, including setting goals and planning for study.
So teaching students how to succeed goes beyond just skills. It requires addressing their mindsets and thoughts before and during studying. 

As a bonus, Fisher and Frey give five practices that research has shown have been linked to higher levels of student success:
  • Practice tests– These can be very effective if students get feedback on the results. That’s because they trigger the “retrieval effect” – locating and bringing information to mind, which strengthens long-term memory. Retrieval also makes students metacognitively aware of the current status of their knowledge, giving them a realistic sense of what they know and what needs more study.
  • Distributed practice– Retrieving information at intervals over several days is far more effective than rereading or highlighting. In fact, rereading may make things worse by giving students the feeling that they know the material without realizing that their ability to retrieve information hasn’t improved. “[N]o athlete would think that one long practice session just before a match or game would be wise,” say Fisher and Frey. “Practices occur on regularly scheduled intervals, and study sessions require the same condition.” 
  • Study context– Study skills should be taught in the subject area in which they will be used – for example, Cornell notes in social studies classes. 
  • Distraction during study– Studies have shown that today’s adolescents rarely study more than 9-10 minutes without being interrupted by their devices – yet they believe they’re “focused.” These distractions, along with the myth of multitasking, take their toll, both on the quality of study and students’ anxiety about not having enough time. Fisher and Frey believe the best approach is to challenge students to turn their devices off for 15 minutes when they study, then treat themselves to a one-minute technology check, then get back to work – and gradually expand the tech-free window over time.
  • Metacognition– Fisher and Frey suggest sharing research about study skills with students so they understand and are empowered to use recent insights about what works and what doesn’t.

Big Questions & Good Questions

posted Aug 27, 2018, 4:36 AM by HSD Principal

Along with asking students about retreat learning and how they plan to apply that learning, this blog post (by a guy named Jai!) titled Listening to Learners gives suggestions on other questions that can be asked of high school students to help them think about their learning. The four big questions he suggests are:
  • Can you name two people in this school who believe that you will be a success in life? How do they let you know?
  • What are you learning? Why is it important? How does this learning connect to your life outside of school?
  • How are you doing with your learning? 
  • What are your next steps?
The process of having students answer those questions - and listening to their answers - helps them take ownership of their learning, and helps us ensure they are getting the direction they need to make their learning real.

But Craig Barton argues that the more ordinary and regular questions asked in classes and on assessments can be made better as well. His article On Formative Assessment in Math makes the case that not all questions are equal when it comes to determining student knowledge. His article focuses on math, but his ideas can be applied to any subject. 

Barton says that teachers should have diagnostic questions that are designed to help determine student understanding. Specifically, he says questions:
  • It should test a single skill or concept. This is not the time for interleaving, says Barton: “The purpose of a diagnostic question is to home in on the precise area that a student is struggling with and provide information about the precise nature of that struggle.”
  • It should be clear and unambiguous. The teacher should be able to accurately infer students’ understanding from their answers.
  • Students should be able to answer it in less than 10 seconds.
  • The teacher should learn something from each incorrect response without further explanation from the student (that’s because the teacher has chosen the incorrect answers very carefully).
  • It cannot be answered correctly while still holding a key misconception. This is the most important characteristic, and the one that makes formulating questions so difficult.
And, as a bonus, Barton has created thousands of "diagnostic questions" and made them available on his site

Eliminating Anxiety - and Fostering Something Better

posted May 20, 2018, 12:21 AM by HSD Principal

Gina Picha wants to help teachers recognize and alleviate math anxiety. Anxiety, she says, can manifest to look like misbehaving, off-task behavior, or avoidance of work. Here are the signs she says to look for:
  • lack of response: freezing when a math problem is encountered
  • tears or anger: more so in younger grades, but look for overly emotional responses
  • negative self-talk: you've heard them (you may have said them!) - "I'm bad at math." "I'll never be able to do this."
  • low achievement: anxiety can keep students from performing, resulting in poor grades, reinforcing their already-held beliefs about math
So, what can you do to help alleviate math anxiety in your class? Picha's suggestions:
  • Provide students with the time to understand why. Math can be seen "as a series of nonsensical steps," and it takes being intentional to help students understand why they are doing what they do.
  • Use healthy and accurate messages. Talk through the "I can't learn math" myth and provide examples of how people use math outside the classroom. And, as we talked about in fostering grit, reinforce proper methods, strategies, and persistence instead of just right answers.
  • Allow think time when asking questions. Try to avoid asking questions that put students on the spot.
  • Use mixed-ability groupings. The tendency can be to put low-performing students together so they can be given additional instruction. But that can reinforce the idea that they are "slow" and mean the instruction they get is expecting less of them.
We always want Faith promote a positive learning environment. Tom Hierck and Kent Peterson cite research that says people are most likely to flourish in a culture if people experience at least three positive emotions for every negative one. They sough out to discover what behaviors would most encourage such an environment. Their Positive School Culture Inventory (PSCI) identified 19 student and staff behaviors "that are most likely to contribute to a positive school culture." 
  • .Showing pride in school
  • .Collaboration
  • .Kindness
  • .Taking pride in one’s work
  • Leadership
  • .Helping others
  • .Using time wisely
  • .Being prepared
  • .Love of learning
  • .Making good choices
  • .Active listening
  • .Cooperation
  • Using appropriate communication 
  • .Caring 
  • Self-reliance
  • .Perseverance/resilience
  • .Making an insightful comment
  • .Organization
  • Going above and beyond
Notice their findings connects those behaviors not only with students, but also with staff. Never underestimate the part you play in creating our school culture!

Take Care of Yourself; Take Care of your Students

posted May 13, 2018, 12:14 AM by HSD Principal

In the best of circumstances, being a teacher can be an emotionally draining occupation at times. Add in support raising, distance from family, and cultural stress, and teaching here can require even more emotional energy. In this Cult of Pedagogy article, Jennifer Gonzalez summarizes lessons from Elena Aguilar's book Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators.

Here are her 12 insights, corresponding to the annual cycle of the school year and beginning in May:
    • Celebrate and Appreciate (as we wrap up the year in May)
    • Know Yourself
    • Understand Emotions
    • Tell Empowering Stories (as everyone returns in August)
    • Build Community
    • Be Here Now
    • Take Care of Yourself
    • Focus on the Bright Spots (as you finish the semester in December)
    • Cultivate Compassion
    • Be a Learner
    • Play and Create (to get through the long month of March)
    • Ride the Waves of Change (as April brings many changes of plans for the coming year)

There are times to try new things in the classroom, but also times to rely on strategies that have been proven effective. Mike Schmoker argues in this commentary on why he's against innovation in the classroom that it's always better to focus on research-based and established practices when looking to improve student learning. Some things that Schmoker counts as meeting those conditions:
    • teachers constantly monitoring student learning and giving effective and timely feedback
    • increased time spent on reading, writing, and public speaking in subject area courses
    • a solidly coherent curriculum that maps out when and where students will encounter the subject benchmarks and how they will be assessed

Writing in Different Ways

posted Apr 21, 2018, 2:00 AM by HSD Principal

In this article about varying students' writing assignments in order to practice writing from differing perspectives. Author Lauren Porosoff makes three suggestions:
  1. Move from "I believe" to "We believe" - Instead of having students simply write their take on a topic or idea, have them think about what positions different groups would take on the subject and write about why they would hold those positions.
  2. Move from "What I Know" to "What Can I Learn?" - Instead of having students give the information they know about a subject (eg. Here's what I know about the triangle trade), have them write to think of potential questions about a topic. That provides student choice and can take learning in unanticipated directions.
  3. Move from "Here's My Story" to "Please Tell Your Story" - Students are used to talking about themselves from their own perspective, but they can benefit from having to invest in learning and telling the point of view of another. 
If you have student write arguments, Linda Friedrich, Rachel Bear, and Tom Fox offer For the Sake of Argument to help students write persuasively by thinking of it as dialog and not a debate. Their method is based on these principles:
  • Focus on a specific set of skills or practices in argument writing that build over the course of an academic year. These include organizing evidence and responding to opposing viewpoints.
  • Provide text sets that represent multiple perspectives on a topic, beyond pro and con, with a range of positions, information modes, genres, and perspectives, using videos, images, written texts, infographics, data, and interviews.
  • Use iterative reading and writing practices that build knowledge about a topic. These might include interviewing community members, doing detailed research, and beginning to craft their claims.
  • Support the recursive development of claims that emerge through reading and writing. These are manifest as students gather information from text, consider multiple angles on a topic, develop and revise a claim, and write a full draft.
  • Help students organize and structure their writing to advance an argument. Have students read exemplary op-ed articles, thinking through the decisions the writers made and how they organized their sources. A key takeaway: there isn’t one right way to write a persuasive piece.
  • Embed formative assessments to identify areas of strength and inform next steps for teaching and learning. Especially important are one-on-one conferences with students to focus, encourage, tweak, and if necessary redirect their efforts. 

Using Mistakes to Teach, Worksheets, and STEM Field Infographics

posted Apr 9, 2018, 4:40 AM by HSD Principal


As we seek to build grit and perseverance into students, helping them deal with mistakes is part of that challenge. Four researchers (one named Barlow!) have found that mistakes can be great teaching moments in classrooms. Their article discusses when mistakes should be used as teaching moments for the whole class. The authors say to look for mistakes that meet one of the following criteria:
  • The mistake is closely aligned with the goals of the lesson and moves the class toward solving the problem
  • The mistake gives insight into students’ understanding, fluency, and problem-solving
  • The mistake offers a novel approach to solving the problem. 
In order to make good use of those mistakes, the class can be structured in a way that allows mistakes to be a regular expectation, and not something to be feared:
  • Setting classroom norms that value mistakes; 
  • Planning and selecting tasks that elicit mistakes; 
  • Structuring lessons to maximize student thinking and collaboration; 
  • Helping students focus on and discuss mistakes in helpful ways.
  • The teacher following up effectively. 

This Cult of Pedagogy article on worksheets was making the rounds this week. Jennifer Gonzalez give some indicators of poorly designed worksheets, but more importantly, she gives some tips on how to make sure the worksheets we do use in classrooms are created in a way that will truly engage students and support their learning instead of just being a time filler.


And if you teach on STEM subjects, here are a set of infographics made by Dominic Walliman that show the breadth of possibilities within what might be thought of as a single field (eg. math or chemistry). 

Standards-Based Grading in High School

posted Mar 11, 2018, 5:06 PM by HSD Principal

Matt Townsley writes about moving to Mastery-Minded Grading in Secondary SchoolsTeachers shifted from giving students grades on homework assignments, projects, and class tests to monitoring and posting students’ current level of mastery on course standards. (At the end of each reporting period, these were converted to letter grades.) The school moved to standards-based grading for three reasons:

            • To communicate students’ current level of learning – The best way of explaining this to students and parents was with the analogy of how a band instructor gives feedback to a flute player: “Rhythm could be better, but you’re exceptional at hitting high notes.” Clearly this is a better way to affirm and improve performance than a letter or percentage grade.

            • To eliminate the influence of practice work on students’ final grades – What really matters is mastery at the end of a unit or course, not on the formative assignments, some of which may not have gone that well. An athletic analogy is apt: some of a football team’s scrimmages may have been less than stellar, but it’s game scores that count. Teachers using standards-based grading keep track of homework and other assignments, as well as student absences, but the key feedback for students and parents is final mastery of content and skills.

            • To give students multiple opportunities to demonstrate understanding – Students learn at different rates and find some parts of any curriculum unit more difficult than others. Standards-based grading keeps students’ and parents’ eyes on the ball: mastery of content, which sometimes requires several attempts and some stumbles along the way.


One of the concerns about standards-based grading in high school is now it will affect university admissions. Here is an article that addresses that issue.

FYI, Sycamore can be set up to reflects standards-based grading. If you would like to try that out, shoot me an email and we can work through how to set that up.

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