Teacher Talk

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.

Improving Learning through Projects

posted Feb 25, 2018, 4:05 PM by HSD Principal

John Larmer from the Buck Institute for Education wrote in Social Education about Project Based Learning (PBL). He says that projects can get a bad name for reasons like parental "over-supporting," one person doing all the work, or  “make something” projects like building a model of the Alamo or a Civil War battlefield diorama or creating a poster of the solar system or a famous inventor.

As Larmer and his team examined projects, their "gold standard" project would have the following features:
  • A challenging problem or question – Students need to solve the problem or answer the question, which is posed at an appropriate challenge level.
  • Sustained inquiry – Students are engaged in a rigorous, extended process of asking questions, finding resources, and applying information;
  • Authenticity – The project includes a real-world context (or a good simulation), tasks and tools, and impact – or it speaks to students’ personal concerns, interests, and life issues.
  • Student voice and choice – Students are asked to make some decisions about how they work and what they ultimately create.
  • Reflection – The projects builds in opportunities to think about the effectiveness of learning experiences and products and how obstacles were overcome (or not overcome).
  • Critique and revision – Students get detailed feedback on their process and products based on known standards and rubrics.
  • Public product – Students present, display, and explain their work to an audience beyond the classroom.
Larmer acknowledges that not all projects will have all of the above characteristics, but still thinks it's valuable to strive to include them. In his social studies context, he gives the following suggested projects:
  • A debate, speech, social media campaign, or multimedia presentation on a current event or issue – the more local and personally relevant the better;
  • A museum exhibit about a historical time, place, person, event, or development;
  • A proposal for a monument that explains a historical event or development;
  • A simulation of a situation in which people in the past or present have to solve a problem, make a decision, or advise a leader;
  • A podcast, guided tour, field guide, or annotated online map about local history;
  • An action or service learning project to benefit the community.

Training Students Away From Plagiarism

posted Feb 18, 2018, 5:44 AM by HSD Principal

Michelle Navarre Cleary wrote an awesomely helpful article in the Phi Delta Kappan: Top 10 reasons students plagiarize & what teachers can do about it. It's lengthy, but worth the read. To entice you to read on, here are the ten reasons she addresses:
  1. They are lazy
  2. They panic
  3. They lack confidence
  4. They think they are supposed to reproduce what the experts have said
  5. They have difficulty integrating source material into their own exposition or argument
  6. They do not understand why people make such a fuss about sources
  7. They are sloppy
  8. They do not understand that they need to cite facts, figures, and ideas, not just quotations
  9. They are learning
  10. They are used to a collaborative model of knowledge production
Each of the above reasons gets helpful advice on what we as teachers can do to help students correct for those reasons. And in case students don't fully grasp what plagiarism is...

The poster below, created by Curtis Newbold of Westminster College, can be used to help students understand all the practices that are encompassed by the term plagiarism. I like how comprehensive the initial set of questions is.

Metacognition Isn't Intimidating

posted Jan 28, 2018, 3:44 AM by HSD Principal

Metacognition, as a big and misunderstood word, can prevent teachers from understanding the power behind the practice. In short, it is "thinking about thinking." In his article "How Metacognition Boosts Learning", Youki Terada gives teachers some simple tools to help the practice increase student learning and success. Much of it boils down to training students to ask themselves questions about their learning:

During instruction, students should ask themselves:

    • What are the main ideas of this lesson?
    • Is anything confusing or difficult?
    • If something isn’t making sense, what questions should I ask the teacher?
    • Am I taking good notes?
    • What can I do if I get stuck?

Preparing for tests, students should ask themselves:

    • What will be on the test?
    • What areas do I struggle with or feel confused about?
    • How much time should I set aside to prepare for this test?
    • Do I have the necessary books, supplies, technology, online access, and a quiet place to study
    • What study strategies will I use?
    • How can I test myself to be sure of what I know and fix what I don’t know?
    • Should I study with a friend? Use note cards?
    • What grade would I get if I took the test right now?

After a test, students should be required to answer these questions:

    • Which questions did I get wrong? Why?
    • Were there any surprises?
    • Was I well-prepared?
    • If not, what could I have done differently?
    • Am I receiving useful, specific feedback from my teacher to help me progress?

Building Literacy in Your Classroom

posted Jan 21, 2018, 5:45 PM by HSD Principal

We all ask for examples of what specific teaching practices look like in our own disciplines. If you have been asking how developing literacy fits in with your subject area, the article "But What Does it Look Like?" is for you. The authors share the 4-Es theory of what content-area literacy should accomplish:
  • Engaging and apprenticing students in the problem- and text-based work of the discipline in question;
  • Engineering classroom experiences so students understand and use the discipline’s cognitive strategies;
  • Examining how words, language, and other representations are used in the discipline;
  • Evaluating the ever-evolving cultural practices of the discipline and connections with students’ own cultural practices.
The article then gives examples from a history class and a physics class of what literacy looks like in those two contexts.

Another article lists the four key variables in adolescents’ reading development as:
  • The volume of material they read (ideally 2-4 hours of literacy content learning a day);
  • Text difficulty (ideally students read a variety of levels, including some challenging texts, with support, to stretch proficiency);
  • Background knowledge (a crucial element in comprehension); and
  • Motivation (hooking students’ interest is helpful, as is experiencing success).

They conclude that one way to enhance all four and accelerate adolescents’ reading proficiency and confidence is the use of text sets – carefully chosen groups of material that complement each other, provide different perspectives and reading levels, build students’ interest and confidence, and deepen the reading experience. What text sets have in common, say the authors, “is their focus on providing students the chance to look across texts and build both general and disciplinary knowledge.”

Technology Weening & Differentiation

posted Nov 26, 2017, 6:06 PM by HSD Principal

“Due to the constant temptation to check their smartphones, today’s students are spending less time on their schoolwork, taking longer to complete assignments, and feeling more stressed in the process,” 

says Larry Rosen in a Kappan article. The full article is behind a paywall (sorry), but some cited research includes:
  • Teens are constantly multitasking, even though they know it’s not efficient.
  • When teens have their phones taken away, they become highly anxious.
  • Phone-related anxiety is closely linked to poor academic performance and sleep deprivation.
  • About 80 percent of teens say they rarely if ever sleep well, usually because they have a smartphone at their bedside and check it before going to sleep and during the night.
  • The average adolescent finds it difficult to study for 15 minutes at a time.
  • During a 15-minute stint of studying, teens spend at least five minutes in a state of distraction.
  • 80 percent of high-school teachers and 63 percent of elementary teachers say technology is making students less able to sustain attention.
One of the ways he says teachers can help is to build stamina for studying without technology
Treat this like any kind of strength training, says Rosen: start off easy and gradually increase the amount of time without a tech break. He suggests 15 minutes at first, turning off all websites and apps that aren’t relevant to the study topic, setting an alarm, and placing the phone within sight, face down. When the alarm goes off, the student can check for messages and notifications for a minute, then set another 15-minute alarm. When the student can tolerate 15 minutes, perhaps finishing a paragraph when the alarm goes off rather than immediately grabbing the phone, push the time to 20 minutes, then 25, and so on.
We can help students by being intentional about doing this in class. When you disallow technology use, explain to students why you are doing it and how the practice is helpful. Students need to understand that not being allowed to look at their cellphone constantly isn't a punitive practice, it's a developmental one.

If you want to take a deep dive into differentiation in your classroom, here is a whole issue of HaYidion (a publication for Jewish day schools) based on that topic. It's a challenging read, but includes articles such as "Differentiation in an Inclusive Classroom" and "Differentiated Instruction and the Fairness Challenge" as well as the awesomely titled: "Differentiation: The Key to Unlocking the Joy of Torah Study for All Students."

Fake News & Real Disagreements

posted Nov 19, 2017, 12:34 AM by HSD Principal

Educational Leadership published this article on how to help students distinguish real news from fake news. There are several pieces of advice you can give students and some skills you can teach them to help determine the truth of something they find online.

And for the fun part, there is a list of five online articles at the end you can share with students to have them put their new skills into practice.

Kids, Would You Please Start Fighting: The NY Times published this article on the importance of knowing how to disagree well. The premise is that productive argument is hidden from students and they can end up not knowing how to disagree with someone without getting mad.

While the focus of the article is on younger children, the concept would be helpful to our high school students as well. As we send them out, we should make sure they know how to interact with people with whom they do not agree. Here is a bit of the author's summary:

Instead of trying to prevent arguments, we should be modeling courteous conflict and teaching kids how to have healthy disagreements. We can start with four rules:

• Frame it as a debate, rather than a conflict.

• Argue as if you’re right but listen as if you’re wrong.

• Make the most respectful interpretation of the other person’s perspective.

• Acknowledge where you agree with your critics and what you’ve learned from them.

Small Changes: Little Things Add Up

posted Nov 5, 2017, 1:57 AM by HSD Principal

The Chronicle for Higher Education has published a series on small changes that teachers can make to increase student learning. While the Chronicle is intended for university audiences, most of the ideas in these articles can apply directly to high school learning.

My favorite idea from the article on what you can do in the minutes before class begins: create wonder.

Drawing inspiration from the "Astronomy Picture of the Day" — a NASA website that posts a new and fascinating image from the cosmos every day — he suggests that instructors post an image on the screen at the front of the room and ask two questions about it: "What do you notice? What do you wonder?" Before class starts, let the image direct the informal conversations, Newbury argues, and then use it to guide a brief discussion during the opening minutes of class.

One of the ideas from the article on using the first five minutes of class time: get them writing. The author suggests having a question, prompt, or other discussion starter (possibly connected to the idea above) posted before class that students will begin to write answers to as they enter. Those prompts get the students' minds in the right place to take on the content for the day. He has found that:

Frequent, low-stakes writing assignments constitute one of the best methods you can use to solicit engagement and thinking in class.

And finally, on using the last five minutes of class well, one idea is to have students make connections between the content learned and life outside school. The question they often ask, "When will we ever use this or need to know this?" can be given back to them to answer individually or in pairs.

Finish the last class of the week five minutes early, and tell students that they can leave when they have identified five ways in which the day’s material appears in contexts outside of the classroom. You’ll be amazed at how quickly they can come up with examples when this activity stands between them and the dining hall.

The whole series of articles is worth the read; there are other articles on helping students make connections, allowing students to give input on instruction and assessment, and more.

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