Watch out for the Either/Or Trap

I continue to see articles comparing teacher-led and student-centered learning.  While not rising to the level of the chicken or egg, the discussion about how to structure the classroom learning environment continues.  Many educators fall prey to the temptation of either/or, failing to achieve balance in the classroom; research shows that classrooms need active student learning to improve achievement.  Are you intentionally seeking to improve student engagement and create an active learning environment in your classroom?

In the traditional classroom, information largely flowed from teacher to student. Students had a smaller portion of designated work time to absorb and apply the knowledge gleaned from the teacher.  The problem is the skew towards teacher-led instruction, with averages often above 75 to 80 percent of allotted class time devoted to teacher talk time.

The truth is that students only stay engaged in listening for short bursts of time. One study I saw recently noted that students could recall about three-fourths of what the teacher taught in the first 10 minutes of a class; however, retention dipped to 20 percent of material presented in the last 10 minutes.

Jensen (2005) noted in his Teaching with the Brain in Mind that appropriate amounts of direct instruction time for kindergarten to adults only varied from 5-18 minutes.  While lower grade levels obviously have much shorter attention spans, Jensen found that direct instruction time for new content even for high-school age students should not exceed 15 minutes.

So what are you doing to improve student engagement in your classroom?

Here are a few reminders as you plan upcoming lessons:

  • Plan multiple short bursts during the allotted instruction time. Research shows student achievement and retention increase when instruction is segmented into smaller, “bite-sized” time frames. Early childhood teachers should think in burst of 5-8 minutes, grades three to eight in segments of 8-12 minutes, and high school teachers 12-15 minutes.

 

  • Plan multiple types of activities designed to engage various learners. Like Peter in encouraging believers to “add” to their faith, virtue; to virtue, knowledge; etc., teachers should add to their verbal (linguistic) approach, visual (pictures, images, objects); and to visual, aural (auditory) or music; and to aural, kinesthetic (physical).

 

  • Plan multiple strategies to deliver important concepts. Teachers should remain aware of how students are grasping concepts so that concepts can be repeated, reinforced, or perhaps lessons can be accelerated when students “get it.”

Some say that “variety is the spice of life.” Some educators, however, seem to take refuge in “consistency;” change and variety seem to scare them.  Immutability is part of the nature of our God; however, it should not be part of our instructional model.

Are you intentionally structuring learning activities in your classroom to control the teacher speak time?  What learning activities are you including in your instructional planning to increase student engagement?  What instructional strategies do you find effective in reducing students entering a zombie state?

WHAT MAKES A SCHOOL A GREAT SCHOOL?

Part 2 of 4

What are the unique qualities all great schools share? We have observed that schools may appear to be organizations, but they are in fact organisms – living, breathing, dynamic, growing relationships between teachers and students, among teachers, among students, and so forth.  We can properly conclude that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  In other words, a great school is more than isolated great parts.  What makes up the glue that transforms the parts into a great whole?

The first is an overarching MANDATE – a vision that fuels and directs the activity of administrators and teachers. This should be reduced to a very short statement, such as “Know, Love, and Serve Christ”. If we fail to train our students to serve Christ and to lead in the workplace and the churchplace, the fundamentalist strain of Christianity will soon cease to be relevant or matter very much at all.

The second is a clear MISSION – to enroll, educate, and equip tomorrow’s leaders. Attracting these young people is a “marketing” strategy in business terminology: our students are the very best advertisement for our school and word-of-mouth is the most effective recruitment tool.  Providing incentives for our friends to recommend the school to others is appropriate and productive – as long as prospective parents see in our students what they desire for their own children: Godly people of inner character and outer kindness.

Once they enroll, we must provide a solid academic education, and that means something traditional at its core but relevant in its content and delivery. Students need a broad and deep liberal arts education, and the STEM courses are essential if the secondary and even the elementary schools are to be competitive. Upperclassmen, for example, expect dual enrollment offerings. Christian educators need to know what is available to students in the ever-expanding variety of public schools.

Of course we need to insure that our Bible curriculum teaches content and doctrines.   But we had better be emphasizing and integrating a Biblical worldview through which to understand the other courses we teach.  Kids can retrieve this and infinitely more with two clicks on an iPhone.  We must teach them to read critically and to discern Biblically.  Bible worldview must be integrated on every grade level and for every subject (the writer will share his “Blue Papers” upon request), including math, and should culminate in a capstone senior course.  Graduates need such training in order to defend their faith and to attack error.

The fine arts, in particular music, are ministry tools and life skills. We must provide all the instruction possible on every grade level.  Additionally, intramural and interscholastic competition teach Christian conduct in a pressure-cooker unavailable in the classroom.  We need to do more with younger children.  Arts and athletics contribute mightily to a well-rounded, useful graduate.  They help us complete our mission.

Part 1: Mandate (Feb.21)         Part 2: Mission (April 18)          Part 3: Method (Coming soon)         Part 4: Remember the children (Coming soon)

Presentation Does Matter! Go for the Garnish!

Kids growing up today live in a…600-channel television universe, 10,000-station radio universe, 1,000,000,000,000 page internet.

“Constant exposure to digital media has changed the way the digital generation processes, interacts, and uses information. As a result, they think and communicate in fundamentally different ways than any previous generation” (Jukes, McCain, Crockett 2010). How have teachers adjusted their teaching style to engage this new type of student? Many teachers still teach and assess the same way they always have. “As a result, the digital generation, who are accustom to the twitch-speed, multitasking, random-access, graphics-first, active, connected, fun, fantasy, quick-payoff world of their video games, MTV, and the internet, are incredibly bored by most of today’s education” (Jukes, McCain, Crockett 2010).

Each teacher has a style. A teacher is in complete control of his or her teaching style; therefore, a teaching style can be changed. Take a look at the teaching style of Jesus. Jesus’ messages were “common yet classic, plain yet complex, simple yet revolutionary, childlike yet ageless, ordinary yet multifaceted, and familiar yet unforgettable” (Scarborough, 2007). How do your lessons match up to His?

Presentation matters! Students need to be engaged in the lessons. Every lesson needs a lure to ensure a student is attracted and lured into the lesson. Lesson lures include …

  • chants
  • songs
  • startling statements
  • questions
  • visuals
  • props
  • pictures
  • stories
  • involvement
  • humor
  • role play
  • games
  • writing.

Incorporate as many of these elements as possible into your lessons. Many teachers are consumed with following and finishing a curriculum that they forget to add lures to their presentations. Lesson lures help students engage in the lesson and then remember the material when test time comes. With the use of the internet, teachers can find these lesson lures for every topic. A teacher must be willing to take the time to work them in to each lesson. The more lesson lures are used, the greater the student recall.  Check your lesson presentation. Do you need a style change?

Promoting Literacy in School Culture

"You get what you honor"

The disheartening truth is that as students grow up they read less.  For a teacher this should sound an ear-splitting alarm.  As a teacher desiring that students mature spiritually, the shock of the alarm must be even greater.

As far back as I can remember in my professional life, educators have advocated and emphasized programs for literacy; writing across the curriculum; targeting reading “drop outs,” especially male students in junior high and secondary grades; as well as informal journeys led by educators seeking raise the educational bar for their students.

But alas, the days are jam packed with curricular activities and other worthy endeavors.  So what’s a teacher to do?  I recently read an article that provided some ideas to promote reading in all classrooms.  While some of the suggestions were obvious and perhaps already done in your classroom, some of the other suggestions could be used as tools to “build skills and joy in literacy” (Gilmore).

Help build excitement about reading!

  • Publicly celebrate reading

Reflecting on the adage “you get what you honor,” teachers should give significance to reading.  This can be done by posting student reading lists, helping students develop lists of books that they want to read, or perhaps asking students to write brief book reviews.  Model and teach students to share things learned from reading.  Excitement is always contagious!

  • Share word walls

Keep words walls dynamic and as interactive as possible.  Word walls provide a model for high frequency words as well as help students see patterns and relationships in words.  Word walls provide reference support for students during reading and writing activities.  Make sure that students contribute and use the word wall regularly.

  • Read and write across content areas/Value disciplinary literacy

It is important that students learn to write in all content areas.  Do not fall into the rut of having all writing done in a language arts class.  Keep students reading and writing in every academic discipline. Teachers can help their cohorts, especially those teachers that struggle to assist students with writing.

  • Provide authentic writing experiences

Help students escape the tendency to write for the audience of one.  Students that write just for the teacher soon lose a love for reading and writing.  Provide students with opportunities to write for different audiences—letters, op-eds, book reviews, information captions for graphics, etc.  Teaching literacy greatly improves when we “keep it real.”

  • Promote reflection and goal setting

Reading success is not measured by how many books a student reads or even complexity of the book that is selected.  Reading success is seeing the student use the reading—support writing, improve critical thinking, etc—to enhance overall literacy.  Students must be taught to habitually reflect on their reading and develop greater aspirations as a result.  Praise reflection and goal setting and it will flourish.

Are you doing everything that you can do to improve the overall literacy of your school’s culture?  Can you use some of the above ideas to make your classroom a better development ground for literacy?

If you have other ideas that you have found effective, please share them in the comments section below.

 

Gilmore, B.  (2017, February). 10 ways to promote a culture of literacy.  Educational Leadership, 74(5).  ASCD: Alexandria, VA.

 

Can They Hear Us Now?

A lesson from Charlie Brown.

“Mwaaahh, mwahhh, mwaahh  mwwahh, mwahhh, mwahhh.”  That’s all Charlie Brown and his classmates hear when their teacher talks.  Poor Sally falls face first onto her desk in slumber and Charlie Brown looks perpetually confused.

This scene might give us a chuckle, but sadly it may be an accurate description of what many of our students hear when we are talking.

Instead of asking our students, “Why weren’t you listening?”, let’s consider four ways that we can get out of the way of our message so that our students can really hear what we are saying.

Four ways we can help students listen

  • “Lean in” – Students are more likely to listen to us when they feel that we are genuinely listening to them. We need to move toward our students – to “lean in” expectantly and listen to what they are saying if we want them to value our message.  We bless our students by paying attention to them.  As we bless them, they become more open to “leaning in” to hear us as well.
  • Affirm well and often – Remember the old saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink”? That may be true, but we can make that horse thirsty!  Leaning in toward our students leads them to the “water” of our instruction, but affirming our students’ growth, God-given gifts, and interests makes them thirsty for what we say.
  • Avoid “overtalk” – Often the urgency of our message causes us to “overtalk” a situation. Address the issue, yes, but avoid belaboring the point and exasperating the hearer.  Most of the time, “less is more.”
  • Say something worth listening to – Whether we teach math, writing, science, art, or Latin, the key to getting students to listen is to say something worth hearing. The things most worth hearing fall outside the content of a class, but rather lie in the character of the teacher.  Is our life – our habits, our attitudes, our actions – speaking something our students want to hear?
  • Encourage often – While affirmation looks to the past, encouragement focuses on the future. Words like “You can do it!”  or “I am confident in you” open a student’s ears to hear instruction on how to accomplish the goal.
  • Criticize/correct intentionally – No one likes to receive criticism or correction, yet often teachers fall into the trap of correcting in the name of “instruction.” Good instruction does require correction – possibly even admonition.  But if we want our students to hear us, we need to make sure that we are correcting strategically and separate from any affirmation or encouragement.  Only then will students be able to really hear our message.

As we consider our place in the classroom, we don’t need to ask our students, “Are you listening?”  We need to ask ourselves, “Can they hear us now?”

Extra! Extra! Read All About It

As I was perusing a recent issue in Education Week (March 1, 2017), a terrifying thought kept racing through my mind—the front page had five articles that were competing for my attention and only one of them was related to the educational process of students.  I reviewed the page to make sure that my eyes were not deceiving me.  Alas, my initial concerns were verified.

The front page introduced two articles that focused on social issues, one as it related to teachers and one as it related to students.  The top article on the page centered on the angst among many educators about the “scrapping” of the Affordable Care Act.  Yet another prominent front-page feature was devoted to efforts to prevent laws that could allow school staff to carry firearms on campus. The most obscure of the front-page articles featured the implementation of technology into civics instruction.

The cumulative effect of these attention-grabbers got me to thinking about what is really going on in a Christian school today.  More specifically, what is going on in each classroom within the school.  How about your classroom?  If a newspaper recounted the top five things that are happening in your classroom today, what would be the focus of the articles?  What kind of graphics would grab the reader?

Below are several considerations that might help as we edit a weekly front page for the classroom.

  • Academic Instruction – When I recently asked one teacher about his lesson plans, his response was “Overrated!” In other words, he did not value lesson planning.  However, lesson plans give a snapshot of what is going on in the classroom.  A group of these “photos” makes up each school day.  These lesson plans provide insight about what is important for that particular day.  After all, classrooms are epicenters of a school.  Schools should be focused on instruction—well-planned, sequential, rigorous instruction.
  • Biblical Worldview—Would a front-page review of your educational plan for this week include intentional inclusion of worldview instruction? Are you relying too heavily on the textbook for worldview instruction? Have you fallen into the trap of environmental worldview, believing like many parents that a change of environment is enough to significantly impact a student’s worldview? Research indicates that just placing students in Christian school classrooms does not make a significant difference.
  • Character Development—The 1828 Webster’s Dictionary defines education as “the bringing up, as of a child, instruction; formation of manners.” However, Webster did not stop here.  A further explanation is included that reads:

Education comprehends all that series of instruction and discipline which is intended to enlighten the understanding, correct the temper, and form the manners and habits of youth, and fit them for usefulness in their future stations.  To give children a good education in manners, arts and science, is important; to give them a religious education is indispensable; and an immense responsibility rests on parents and guardians who neglect these duties.

What article about character development is included on the front page for you this week?  A good teacher not only instructs the mind but also trains the will.

  • Innovation—That’s right! What are you doing that is fresh and new in the classroom this week.  I spoke with a teacher recently that complained that after many years of teaching the same grade level that her job had become mundane. Yep, just plain ole’ stale! As teachers it is our responsibility to not allow the classroom to become a rut (heard one person describe a rut as a “grave with the ends kicked out”).  I hope that your classroom’s front page would include some article or graphic showing excitement and a love for learning.

As you consider what would be included on your classroom’s weekly front page, spend a moment to measure the impact on the reader.  Parents, as well as other stakeholders, are looking and reading every week to see what your classroom is all about.  Does your front page make the reader exclaim Extra! Extra! Read All About It!?

Questions, Questions Everywhere

For some reason my recent reading has taken me to several selections that discuss the art of questioning.  Experience reminds me that questioning is often friend or foe, depending on who is asking the challenging question.  Even in reading the New Testament, I have again noticed that Jesus’ teaching included adept questioning.

Research shows us that questioning is closely linked to critical thinking.  For that reason, teachers should give attention to the questioning techniques implemented into the teaching process.  Observation reminds me that many times teachers carefully prepare to teach a lesson but that preparation does not include carefully crafted questions.

So when I happened upon an article in Education Update about questioning, my interest was piqued.  Jeanne Muzi, a teacher from New Jersey, began the article by connecting classroom questioning to critical thinking.  However, upon closer examination, I noted that she took a completely different tact than I had taken to that point.  Her article was entitled Five Ways to Strengthen Student Questioning (emphasis mine).

She offered apt reminders like “all students need to generate purposeful questions” and “a significant instructional shift takes place when a classroom culture is transformed from one where the teacher poses the majority of questions to one where a community of curious wonderers offer up their own.”

Improving Student Questions

What are you doing in your classroom to improve student questioning?  Muzi offered five classroom activities that a teacher can use to improve student questioning; I have shared on three below:

Pass-Arounds

Circulate a unique object (photograph, antique, item from nature, etc.) around the classroom.  Ask students to develop questions that “uncover more information about” the object, not identify it.  After students have put together their list of questions, discuss which questions will be most helpful in learning about the object.  Of course, take time to answer the questions.

Q-Stems

Using a set of sentence-stem cards developed by the teacher, students draw a stem card and try to generate as many questions as possible about a concept using a single Q-stem.  Stems could include starters like:  Why…? What is another way to describe…? Are there…? How…? Is it possible that …?  After questions are developed, take time to go back and answer the questions before moving on to another stem.

Whose Eyes?

Distribute or project a copy of a photograph (famous illustration, historic setting, current event) and allow students to thoughtfully look at the item.  The, ask students to develop a set of questions that might come from any character in the photo.  It could be a prominent character but might work better to choose a lesser character.  Then ask students to pose their question(s) to the class and provide a rationale for the question.

As teachers, we must continually hone our questioning skills.  Why?  Because effective questioning cannot be separated from the critical thinking.  However, as we seek to improve our questioning skills, let’s not forget to strengthen student questioning skills as well.

Can you share a technique that you use in your classroom to strengthen student questioning?

 

Muzi, J.  (2017, January).  Five ways to strengthen student questioning.  Education Update, Vol. 59, (1).  ASCD: Alexandria, VA.

A Teacher’s Soliloquy

“To be or not to be, that is the question”

This is the initial line in the third act of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The soliloquy is the most famous verbalization of a character thought used by the Bard of Avon, perhaps the most famous of all soliloquys.

Hey, teacher, do you recall your most recent soliloquy?  Perhaps no fellow laborer was within earshot or maybe even your verbalization was muddled and barely audible.  Perhaps you have not even found time to stop and re-think the musings of that moment.

So take a minute to review what might have been or not have been your most recent soliloquy.  Whether it was the most recent or perhaps some previous verbalization, every teacher grapples with motivating students.  Motivation is a common theme of teacher soliloquys—motivated or not motivated, that is the question.

I was reading recently in Kingdom Living in Your Classroom (McCullough, 2008).  The author presented a thought-provoking challenge for the reader (teacher)—is our focus on controlling students’ performance or stimulating students’ motivation?  While effective classroom teaching necessitates a measure of classroom “control,” the author suggests that often the teacher soliloquy does not ask the right question—am I effectively motivating my students?

Principles for Motivating Students

McCullough suggests eight (8) principles for motivating students; a brief summary indicates that teachers should:

After reviewing the suggestions of the author and considering her challenge to re-think the approach that most teachers take into the classroom, I am sure that many times the teacher soliloquy could be different if the approach to classroom management were different.

1)  Consider what motivates students to behave a certain way.

2)  Manage their classrooms to be efficient learning communities.

3)  Provide opportunities for student success at tasks they view as valuable and challenging.

4)  Focus learning activities around worthwhile academic objectives.

5)  Systematically encourage students to replace negative thinking about themselves with positive truths about themselves.

6)  Help students recognize the relationship between effort and outcome.

7)  Show moderation and variation when using motivational strategies.

8)  Develop lessons that are relative to students, model enthusiastic learning, and provide a variety of learning strategies.

A Motivating Soliloquy

So the next time you find yourself “talking to yourself” after a long day in the classroom, ask yourself if you were over-focused on classroom control to the detriment of student motivation.  Let me suggest that a healthy balance of these two will go a long way towards making your next soliloquy one you want to remember.  To control or to motivate, that is the questionHopefully the answer is a resounding YES!

McCullough, J. D.  (2008).  Kingdom living in your classroom.  Purposeful Design Publications:  Colorado Springs, CO.

WHAT MAKES A SCHOOL A GREAT SCHOOL?

Part 1 of 4

We have already defined the characteristics of an excellent teacher and one might assume that a great school is simply a collection of great teachers.  Nothing could be farther from the truth: many great teachers do NOT a great school make, and some great schools have few great teachers.  So, what are the unique qualities all great schools share?

Schools may appear to be organizations, but they are in fact organisms – living, breathing, dynamic, growing relationships between teachers and students, among teachers, among students, and so forth.  That being said, we can properly conclude that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  In other words, a great school is more than isolated great parts.  What makes up the glue that transforms the parts into a great whole?

The first is an overarching MANDATE – a vision that fuels and directs the activity of administrators and teachers.  For our school, it is simply “Equipping Tomorrow’s Christian Leaders”.

We believe in the depths of our soul that almost all the leaders of the church 20 years from now are sitting in Christian school classrooms and home school study areas today.  For decades our churches, colleges, missionary force,  and day schools have been aging and decreasing in size and number. If we fail to train our students to lead, the fundamentalist strain of Christianity will cease to matter very much.

So we teach them that there is no difference whatever in the value of God’s calling to churchplace vis-à-vis workplace ministry.  We show them this principle in the Bible from the lives of Moses, Daniel, and many others.  We model it by having church members in business and the professions speak in our chapels. We also invite school parents in the professions, and sometimes believers not connected organically with the school, to inspire the kids.  When Christians exercise political influence, we have a much better chance of living quiet and peaceable lives.

Training the next generation of leaders

The next mayor of North Charleston has to go to high school somewhere.  Why not this school?  So does the governor, congressmen and senators, supreme court justices – listen, the president of the United States will go to high school somewhere.  Why not my school?  How literally awesome would it be to have dozens of men and women like Asa Hutchinson in Washington!  The faculty must live and breathe this high expectation for every student, and the kids must embrace it.  This is the first hallmark of a great school.