Help students build stamina for homework by creating a consistent, meaningful structure for assignments.
While there are a range of positions on the benefits and drawbacks of out-of-class learning (aka homework), many teachers recognize that learning outside of class can benefit students as they develop new skills. Research shows that student engagement and performance increases when students engage in meaningful, relevant, out-of-class opportunities aligned with the in-class curriculum. Additionally — and especially in high school — out-of-class learning is important for students to gain valuable college-ready study skills, move through content at a faster pace, and develop personal responsibility and executive functioning skills.
While many teachers see the value of out-of-class learning, the challenges around homework are so overwhelming that assigning any homework at all can feel like a lost cause.
We often assign homework as a way to build healthy academic habits for students to develop independence and personal responsibility. But building habits takes time and consistency. This means that in order to create a learning community where students regularly and reliably complete their homework, it must also be assigned consistently. Whether it’s assigned on specific days of the week, or in a set pattern, establishing homework routines and sustaining them for long periods of time is essential for developing the habit forming behaviors that students need to engage in their learning outside of class. Consistency is critical — but consistency without purpose can lead to its own set of challenges.
In an effort to create routines for homework, we sometimes fall into the trap of assigning homework for the sake of assigning homework, rather than for engaging students in meaningful practice. But when students can’t find the purpose or the relevance between their homework and the classwork or their own interests, they will lose a sense of purpose and their participation will begin dropping off. Homework should build a bridge between students’ lives and content topics in the classroom. Disconnected tasks have no impact on students’ understanding of the content, engagement in the course, or in developing the long-term characteristics of independent learners. When out-of-class learning is disconnected from the in-class content, it loses its value both to the student and the teacher.
Creating consistency & meaning
There are four types of meaningful homework assignments:
When students apply a concept or skill learned in class.
Practice assignments engage students in reading, writing, or problem-solving tasks that they’ve learned in class and can apply through different examples. Practice tasks help students internalize the concepts and skills, and encourage them to think through a variety of applications. Common practice tasks may be reading with a graphic organizer or notetaking protocol, completing a problem set, or strategic vocabulary building. The benefit of practice tasks is that the reinforcement helps students internalize content they’ve learned in class, which should better prepare them for new content in follow up lessons.
When students take something they’ve learned in class to a new application or new context.
Extension activities take in-class learning to a new level, stretching students to think about the concepts in different contexts. This might look like extending an application task in class to an analysis level or to a synthesis level outside of class. It may be asking students to make relevant connections between class content and their own lives, or drawing real-world conclusions on a given topic. The benefit of extension activities is that they help students see their classwork as relevant or important in the real world.
When students engage in learning that prepares them for in-class content.
Preparation activities provide students with the prior knowledge, skills, or context to prepare them for future classwork. This might look like including a pre-reading activity, or review of prerequisite information needed for the in-class task. When developing preparation activities, consider what types of tasks will help students engage in future tasks, avoid creating in-class learning that is 100% dependent on completed homework.
When students use personal expression to respond to in-class content or other learning goals.
Creative tasks are activities that go beyond recall or critical thinking and invite students to synthesize, reflect, or create a response to the topic being studied. These types of activities might include independent reading with a reading journal, personal reflection, drawing, or modeling a concept through multiple modalities.
Creating a structure
If it’s been difficult to establish a learning environment where students regularly engage in completing tasks outside of class, it can feel pointless. Unclear how to make a culture shift for our students, we can feel really defeated and give up even trying. But if we’re serious about cultivating these skills in our students and we know it will be better for their learning long term, we can make strategic choices to help our students develop important habits over time by leaning on some of the principles that drive athletic trainers to help people develop healthy physical habits.
In the sample homework sequence below, we can see how it would be possible to take students who haven’t done any homework all year through a process that would build to 30 minutes of homework within 8 weeks, using six principles that provide structure for a goal-oriented routine, and translate from physical habits to academic habits.
Creating the right conditions for change
We respond to patterns and cycles that help to structure consistency & variety.
In athletics, periodization may look like alternating weight training with cardio to develop a balance of strength training and heart health. In teaching, periodization is about creating a balance of interesting and relevant activities so that students don’t get bored or burnt out after a few days of practice. Creating a schedule, routine, or pattern for homework tasks is a great way to build in periodization.
Our practice will reverse if we’re inconsistent.
When engaging in skills-based activities, consistency is critical for establishing healthy habits and meeting target goals. When we’ve established healthy habits, the tasks are easy to complete and bring satisfaction. When we are inconsistent, our skills atrophy, and it can take a lot more mental energy to get back into the habit. The same is true for homework practice. When we’re inconsistent in assigning homework, students will fall into reversibility, and it can set their progress back to the beginning stages. Consistency is critical for success.
We can maintain interest and balance by rotating through a variety of tasks.
If we went to the gym every week and lifted 2.5 pound weights, we might see a jump in our strength in the beginning, but if that’s the only exercise we ever do, we’re likely to see those early gains fade away. Just like the body gets used to the same physical activity, the brain gets used to the same mental activity — and it loses its potency after a period of repeated use. This is tricky because we know we need to engage students in consistent practice, but that consistent practice must include a rotation of different thinking routines in order to maintain interest and balance.
We need to evolve our training needs over time to keep a consistent level of challenge.
Similar to specificity, progression is about ensuring a consistent challenge. In physical fitness, this means that as we get stronger, faster, or more agile, we move the target to increase the challenge. Similarly, with our students we want to ensure that as their skills improve over time, we continue to increase the intellectual challenge so that students’ interest, curiosity, and skills continue to increase over time as well.
We will benefit from instances of “maxing out” or a” big stretch”.
For athletes seeking a physical target, they create opportunities for overload, to periodically see how far they can stretch their skills. The concept of “maxing out” is about going as far as one can go to measure the extent of progress. Maxing out is not advised as a daily or even weekly routine, but rather as a periodic test designed to assess progress and set up parameters for a new training routine. The same can also be valuable in pushing students to new levels in their academics. Engaging students in progressively challenging content, texts, or problem-solving activities can stretch what students thought they were capable of and paint a picture of what’s next in their learning. Overload doesn’t just create a stretch for the next training level — it also changes our perspective. When an athlete routinely lifts 25 pounds each workout, and then maxes out to 50 pounds, lifting 30 pounds the next session will feel lighter. Similarly, when students engage in reading a complex text or completing an intense multi-step problem and then return to a text at their level or to a problem with a recognizable solution, their own confidence and perspective also shifts.
We each respond to challenges differently.
While we can recognize that there are some workout patterns that can be a helpful guide, everyone is unique and responds to stress and challenges differently. Whether they’re physical or intellectual challenges, we need to consider and plan for meeting students’ individual needs. This comes with talking openly and directly with our students about the tasks, what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how it can help them reach their own goals. Additionally, it comes when students engage meta-cognitively in their own practice. How are we engaging our students to reflect on their challenges, their fears? How are we helping them develop tools that can empower them to strive toward their goals? We strengthen our students when we engage them in action planning, personal goal setting, tracking progress, and celebrating small and large successes.
Creating a culture change with respect to working outside of the classroom can be overwhelming, but it’s not impossible. With a strategic plan that engages students and focuses on building strong habits over time, we can cultivate a community of learners who develop personal responsibility and independence over time.
Set clear instructional expectations that help elicit students' most quality thinking.
There are many excellent reasons for looking closely at student work. We can look at the work to engage in inquiry around particular students and understand their strengths and struggles across classes and content areas, or we can look at the work of a particular class section in order to create strategic student grouping and inform differentiation for upcoming lessons. Sometimes, looking at student work can be a really meaningful way to reflect on our own instructional and curricular design — especially when we’ve recently created a new learning activity or assessment that we’ve never used before.
Recently, I supported teachers at one of our wonderful partner schools in student work analysis for this purpose. Like many schools across the city, rigor is a focus for professional learning this year. For this particular learning cycle, teachers worked on designing rigorous tasks using the Rigormeter, a resource designed by Dr. Roberta Lenger Kang, which re-envisions Bloom's Taxonomy.
For this particular session, teachers were invited to bring two different pieces of student work: one that “met or exceeded expectations” for the task, and one that “is not yet meeting expectations.” Here is a snapshot of what they did with those pieces of student work, and how this reflection will inform next steps.
What does success look like?
For the first round of reflecting and sharing, teachers spent some time with the piece of work that met or exceeded expectations. Teachers were invited to engage in individual reflection using an iteration of our What / So What / Now What resource, which offers a process for making low-inference observations, analyzing findings, and identifying a course of action.
In this round of reflection, teachers had the opportunity to consider and articulate the success criteria for their rigorous task, and identify the skills and knowledge required for students to produce work that meets or exceeds expectations. Ideally, we’d like to have a clear vision of the success criteria before we ask students to engage in a task, but when we are trying something for the first time, this type of reflection might be necessary to gain further clarity.
Let’s say a Social Studies and ENL co-teaching team is trying out a new assignment in which students are asked to plan an educational tour of Greece for the class. They are asked to choose at least three stops on the map and explain why a particular place or geographical feature is important for understanding the ancient culture of the civilization. A What / So What / Now What-style reflection on a successful student’s work might look like:
What are revisions and next steps?
For the second round of reflecting and sharing, teachers moved their attention to the piece of student work that was not yet meeting expectations. Once again, they engaged with a What/So What/Now What protocol, this time with slightly different prompts:
A sample reflection for that same scenario might be:
Insights and next steps
During our whole staff debrief, one common high-level insight that emerged across departments was that we cannot make assumptions about students’ knowledge and skills before assigning rigorous tasks. Thus, a next step in the group’s professional learning will be to explore the concept of formative assessments and their connections to engaging students in work that is appropriately challenging.
The whirlwind pace of teachers’ work does not always allow a beat to critically reflect on planning; often after trying something new, we must take stock as quickly as possible and then shift our attention to the next lesson, activity, or assessment. However, when we can carve out space for intentional reflection (and school leaders and PD coaches support us in doing so), there are undeniable benefits — perhaps the most obvious being that we have much better insight into students’ immediate needs. But also, if we understand student work to be a mirror of our own practice — reflecting back ways to improve our own instructional design — looking at what students produce in live time informs how we will design our next learning activity, or how we revise our design for next time so that it elicits students’ most quality thinking.
Break away from the "I did all the work, and they did nothing" refrain.
As a student, I dreaded hearing the words, “This is going to be a group project.” In my mind, this translated to, “You are going to have to do all of the work for this project and let 2-3 other people take credit for it under the guise of collaboration.” I liked to talk to my classmates and work together on low-stakes assignments, but I cringed at the prospect of long-term group projects that would be graded as an assessment.
As a new teacher, I quickly lost sight of my own experiences as a student. In the spirit of collaboration and teamwork, I often assigned group projects in my classroom, until, one day, a student said, “Oh great, that means I will have to do all the work again.” This comment catalyzed a turning point in my teaching: I realized that I couldn’t keep assigning group work in the same way that I had been assigned group work in school. I needed new norms and strategies for group work — ones that created accountability and equity.
Assigning & assessing group work
Clearly define the group's task and objectives. Make sure that each group member understands their role and the expectations for their work. This stage of the group work process should have an adult involved to make sure that each group member has an equivalently rigorous task to complete.
Assign specific roles to each group member. This can help ensure that everyone is contributing to the group's work, and can also serve as a way to evaluate individual performance. Perhaps one student will take the lead on communicating with the group and setting up meeting times, whereas another student will take the lead on identifying next steps to complete the project. Here are some student roles to consider:
Created by by Alanna Tuller, ELA teacher in New York City, informed by source
Set clear criteria for evaluating the group's work and each individual's contribution. This can include factors such as attendance and participation, quality of work, adherence to deadlines. These criteria can be tied to students’ roles listed above.
Provide regular teacher feedback to the group and to each individual member. This can help ensure that everyone is aware of their strengths and areas for improvement, and can also serve as a way to track progress over time.
Use a combination of formative and summative assessments. Formative assessments can help identify areas where the group needs to improve, while summative assessments can be used to evaluate the final product or performance.
Use various forms of assessment to evaluate student performance, like self-evaluation, peer evaluation, and teacher evaluation. This will provide a comprehensive view of the student's performance. I like to give students in a group an anonymous survey to communicate with me about strengths and areas of growth for their group. By giving this survey at a few points over the course of the project, I was able to intervene when groups needed a teacher mediator involved to get back on track.
Group work has its challenges, and many students come to our classrooms with negative past experiences of collaborative learning. As educators, we can transform what group work looks like in our classroom spaces by establishing clear expectations and holding students accountable to one another and to the learning process. If we implement these norms, perhaps students will respond to the prospect of group work with, “Great! I’m excited that we get to work together as a team.”
How the timing of checks for understanding can impact what you learn about student comprehension.
Great teachers want to be sure their students understand content information on a daily basis. They don’t want their students to wrestle with misconceptions, misunderstandings, or mistakes in their thinking that might set them up to struggle as the content unfolds throughout a lesson or unit. As a result, many teachers use small, formative assessments at the beginning, midpoint, or end of a period so students have an opportunity to practice their content and skills, and teachers can assess their understanding at different stages of the learning process. In an effort to ensure that all students have the right answers and a clear understanding of the lesson, many teachers review the correct answers to the assessment before moving on to the next stage of the lesson.
In both examples, we see the teachers making choices that elevate student collaboration, ensuring students have the opportunity to correct misconceptions, connect with one another, and leverage grouping and discussion strategies to process content information. In both examples, the teacher is using a formative assessment — or a check for understanding — with the goal of assessing student comprehension. And in both examples, the check for understanding may be giving teachers more misinformation, than information.
Check for understanding
Well-developed instructional design includes multiple checkpoints to assess student comprehension in real time. Highly effective assessment structures may include between 1-3 checks for understanding in a class period, with each check being an opportunity for students to independently demonstrate their understanding and skills related to the lesson objective or learning target. When we jump from the check for understanding task to the review of direct responses, some unintended consequences may emerge.
One likely scenario is that students who had a misunderstanding or a misconception when working on their own will likely copy down the “right answer” during the discussion. But copying down the answer doesn’t necessarily correct their misconceptions. The unintended consequence is that it appears that all the students have the correct answer, even though some may have simply copied down the answer during the discussion. For teachers using formative assessment data to inform their instructional choices, there’s no evidence that helps them know which students had the correct answer at the time of the assessment, which students had an a-ha moment during the discussion, and which are copying down the correct information but are actually still confused.
Another unintended consequence is that students discover that the right answers get shared immediately, before their work is completed. It’s a lot easier to copy down the right answers later than it is to work through the hard problem in the moment. Some students may begin to opt out of the learning activity altogether and simply wait for the correct answers. This phenomenon may not be noticeable right away — a gradual disengagement happens slowly over time, and can start with students who appear slow to start, or students who are easily distracted. For teachers feeling the pressure of time, it can be tempting to skip to the right answers even if some students aren’t finished. The challenge is that over time, fewer and fewer students finish the task because everyone is waiting for the right answers to be shared.
Creating space for small changes
The good news is that there are a few small changes that can make a big difference.
Add a reflection. In addition to the discussion of the correct answers, ask students to write a reflection comparing their first response to the correct answer, and share if they made any changes to their thinking or had any a-ha moments in the process. Consider creating a chart on their task that includes space for their individual work, notes from the discussion, and reflection after the discussion. Not only will this provide more insight for you as the teacher, but the students’ metacognition will increase their self-awareness, which supports recall in the future.
Have students share & give feedback. The standard share out often includes time for students to work independently, followed by the teacher reviewing the correct answers. This practice can be modified to having students post their answers in small groups at the same time, and then visiting other groups' responses and leaving feedback or asking questions. By turning this process over to students, teachers can increase the responsibility and accountability for students to work with their groups and think critically if different groups have different responses.
Leverage differentiation strategies. Building in differentiation as a result of a check for understanding is an effective way of structuring the lesson. Teachers can plan to use hinge point questions, where students receive a specific task as a result of their answer on a check for understanding question, or Four Corners, where students move around the room in real time to show their thinking and discuss with their peers. Both of these strategies leverage real-time responses and interaction to notice misconceptions and work to address them in the moment.
Checks for understanding are a very valuable touchpoint. Getting in the moment information about what is and isn’t clear for students provides insight into differentiation, student grouping, and tweaks to the next day’s lesson. When we reveal the “right” answer before we can gather information on what students know and can do, we might go for weeks before we realize that students have not been learning what they need to be successful on high-stakes assessments like unit tests, projects, or major exams.
It’s true: it is important to correct misconceptions, and we don’t want students to sit in frustration if we’re withholding information that can help them learn. And also, when we jump to reviewing the right answers before we’ve had a moment to collect the data or reflect on how students are processing the information in the lesson, we miss valuable insights that help us plan and prepare the learning pathway for students’ success.
Reimagine your role in the classroom in service of creating more opportunities for authentic learning.
Although it’s a different building, it still feels like home, the place where I spent the first six years of my teaching career. As I am buzzed into the main entrance, I see students filling the hallway, getting ready to leave for the day. I sign in and take the stairs up to Room 209, Ms. Cunningham’s room. I’m excited to see my former colleague, who has been teaching here for eight years.
Her classroom is decorated with flags, posters of student work, and the desks are grouped in quads. The large windows are a breath of fresh air after teaching in a building with no windows, and I joke with her about the increase in Vitamin D. After a brief catch up, we started talking about how Ms. Cunningham’s teaching practice has changed throughout the years, defining what authentic learning means, and how her role as educator has shifted to teacher as facilitator.
Ms. Cunningham: I think authentic learning really relies on the students and what they bring into class, showing them that their experiences are what make this class. It’s not that I have any preconceived notion of what they need to learn or what they need for education, it’s that they’re bringing their passions with them. I’m just here to kind of bring that out. And in doing so, I bring that out of every student.
Did you always have this mindset?
Ms. Cunningham: I think for the first half of my career, I was very much of a control freak about my classroom and what I was doing. At the time, I felt like if I was leading things and I knew what I was teaching was what was aligned to the curriculum, I could have “control.” After attending the Stanford Hollyhock Fellowship, I began to question my role in the classroom. My classroom is not about me. Before, I was the source, and now, I'm a facilitator. I think that has inspired me to do a lot more group work with students, more individual conferencing, and more conversations in general rather than looking for a product. Even today, we sat in groups; in my first three years, I could never imagine seating my students in groups, but by adjusting my role as facilitator, I showed them that I trust them more and that they have power in their learning.
What do you think has been the most noticeable change in your classroom practice?
Ms. Cunningham: Fostering curiosity. It should be the students bringing forth curiosity and interest; the teacher is there to aid in that, not necessarily just fill them with what they think students need to know. Am I coming into the classroom with a notion of giving the students what I think they should know, or am I coming into this classroom genuinely getting to know these students as people and then navigating how they want to interact with their learning? Ultimately, I decided that what really means more to me is giving students the space and opportunity to be curious. Learning does not come from me. Learning comes from the students, and they should guide their learning; I'm just here to help out. My role as a teacher is to help them make the map or point them in the right direction. Students tell me where they want to go, and I hope that I can get them there.
The mindset shift
There are a few things that really stood out to me during my conversation with Ms. Cunningham. The first was that this new teaching philosophy was encouraged through a mindset shift. She questioned if she was the source of knowledge, leading her to question the idea of knowledge as a singular term. This is not an easy task — demonstrated by the word “knowledges” being underlined in blue as I type this article — but being the courageous educator that she is, Ms. Cunningham challenged what she had previously learned about the role of a teacher. One person should not be the “keeper of the knowledge”, and students all bring their own knowledges to the classroom, knowledges that should be welcomed and validated.
The curriculum shift
As we continued our conversation, I asked Ms. Cunningham for examples of how she enacts this mindset shift in her classroom. She talked about starting new units with notice and wonder protocols, allowing students to ask their own questions about the information provided. These questions guide their exploration throughout the unit, prompting reading choices and potential final reflection questions. Through these student-led explorations, she provides resources, suggestions, and teaches the students skills they need to master in order to answer their questions and communicate their findings. Rarely will you find her at the front of the classroom.
The classroom space
This leads to the physical classroom space; Ms. Cunningham has arranged the desks in quads on this particular day, encouraging students to discuss their ideas and explore together. There is a couch in the reading corner, complete with several bookcases. Students are welcomed to use the space as they need, moving desks or sitting in the reading corner when they want to get some independent reading done. This classroom setup invites students to use each other as resources and can mutate to fit their needs. Without flexibility of space, mindset and curricular shifts wouldn’t be enough to make this teacher-as-facilitator role possible.
As the sun starts to set, I thank Ms. Cunningham for inviting me into her classroom and sharing her work with me. Her shift from teacher-as-knower to teacher-as-facilitator is inspiring and by no means easy. It requires educators to do what we want our students to do; question what we know, build new knowledge, and enact positive change.
How can you implement instruction that's grounded in curiosity and collaboration? Take part in 21 Skills for the 21st Century to expand your understanding of critical capacities that will prepare today's students for tomorrow's changing world.
Engage meaningfully and gain insight that will support both your instruction and students' growth.
Throughout my work as a teacher and a coach, I’ve come across many different interpretations and definitions of what it means to conference with students. At a minimum, conferences are 1-1 interactions between a teacher and a student. At best, they are highly meaningful and informative conversations. They are opportunities to get to know a student, to assess where they are and where they are going, and to provide highly customized instruction aimed at advancing their learning. As Don Murray explains in his book A Writer Teaches Writing:
“Conferences are not mini-lectures, but the working talk of fellow writers sharing their experience with the writing process. At times, of course, they will be teacher and student, master and apprentice, if you want, but most of the time, they will be remarkably close to peers, because each writer, no matter how experienced, begins with each draft.”
How can we maximize our conferences with our students?
When it comes to conferencing, I have always leaned on Carl Anderson’s book, How's It Going? He explains that conferencing has a two-part structure: it’s first a conversation about the work the student is doing, and then a conversation about how the student can get better. As part of these conversations, the teacher and the student have distinct roles that help ensure they are meaningful and productive. Anderson explains:
When the teacher and student enact these roles, the conference becomes a true conversation, whereby the teacher and the student become equal contributors, dedicated to the larger goal of improving the learning.
Facilitating the conversation
In addition to establishing roles, Anderson offers what I think is a helpful structure to facilitate a conference. The structure, which consists of six parts, can also benefit from the use of meaningful facilitation questions that will help guide your conversation.
Launch the conversation
The goal of the launch is to ask: how’s it going? What are you working on today? What do you need help with? This allows the student to take the lead.
Look at/assess student work
It is so important to look at the work of our students in efforts of being able to analyze what they have shared, what is showing up in the work, and how the two compare. This kind of analysis is necessary if we are going to be able to accurately assess where students are and where they need to go.
Decide what to teach
This part of the conference is definitely the most challenging intellectual work. We need to decide what and how to teach during this particular conference. What helps me is to identify what I think is the most high-leverage area, the most urgent need, and not rely on a fix-it-all approach. To help with the decision we can consider things like:
In terms of how to teach a specific strategy or skill, Anderson offers some helpful tips:
Nudge students to have a go
After our teaching, Anderson recommends that we nudge our students to try it out! I appreciate this terminology because it supports the idea that we encourage them to put forth an initial attempt to talk through what they are going to do during the conference, while they have our support. This helps us assess their understanding of the conference, and what they will go do on their own.
Link the conference and stamp the learning
To promote the transfer of skills and strategies, we want to link the conference to students’ ongoing work and encourage them to do the work we’ve discussed right away. As Anderson states, we can ask things like: “What are you going to do now?” or “Tell me your plans for your work…” I like to think of this as stamping the learning.
The last part of the conference, while it can often feel tedious, is crucial. As educators of high numbers of students, we can’t possibly remember every conversation we’ve had with each individual. Each student is unique and has different strengths and struggles depending on the content, the topic, the genre, etc. I highly encourage the teachers I coach to identify a method of keeping conference notes that works for them, and something they can maintain throughout the semester (and ideally the larger school year). In my own work, I used folders and index cards and titled them by the unit of study. Other teachers I know use voice notes/memos, while others have used Google Drive where they created one Drive for the overall unit, and created a folder for each student. Keeping notes and records helps us cater our instruction, monitor progress, and celebrate growth.
Whereas any 1-1 interactions with students are valuable, finding ways to maximize our conferencing techniques such as those mentioned above can be transformative for us as educators. It can be challenging to find the time to conference amidst all that we do, but these highly essential and enlightening conversations can help us get to know our students on a deeper level. When we really know our students, we can most effectively cater our instruction and meet them where they are, which gives us the best chance at truly advancing their learning.
How one high school is constructing their own definition of rigor, in service of developing high expectations and meaningful work for students.
After several years of prolonged uncertainty and hardship, a feeling of normalcy seems to finally be settling in, and schools want to refocus their vision for high expectations and meaningful work for students. As coaches, we’ve noticed that “rigor” has become a topic of particular interest for school leaders this year.
However, not everyone has the most positive associations with the word, and we can’t really blame them (just look at the dictionary definition — yikes!). What we mean by rigor in the educational context is often unclear, and it’s for this reason that we believe in the importance of co-constructing definitions and characteristics of the concept as a school community.
We’ve undertaken this endeavor with the Business Technology Early College High School (BTECH) — one of our wonderful partner schools in Queens, New York — and have been investigating the concept of rigor through a variety of entry points. Our inquiry around rigor began with a tool developed by our colleague, Dr. Roberta Lenger Kang, who envisions rigor as an odometer, a visual retake on Bloom’s Taxonomy. After working with the “Rigormeter”, the staff at BTECH engaged in inquiry around how to assess and establish criteria for rigorous questions. Here is a snapshot of how we explored this question and a look into the insights that were gleaned.
Assessing for rigor
What makes a rigorous question? The central way that teachers pursued this line of inquiry in our workshop was through a hands-on, minds-on activity. In small heterogeneous groups (mixed in terms of both content areas and experience), teachers were given an envelope of paper strips, each printed with a question inspired by real high school curriculum (How does the greenhouse effect work? What is exponential growth and where do we see it in our everyday lives?). Working collaboratively, teachers were tasked with sorting the questions into categories according to their perceived level of rigor. As we circulated the room, we heard teachers engaged in rich and lively discussion as they made decisions about how to rank questions according to their rigor level, and why.
Establishing criteria for rigor
After teachers spent some time engaging in the question sorting activity, we asked the small groups to reflect and discuss together: What criteria did you use to distinguish more rigorous from less rigorous questions? Then, when we came back together as a whole staff, we asked teachers: so, what does make a rigorous question? Here are some of the defining characteristic they articulated:
A rigorous question...
After teachers generated their own ideas, we as facilitators offered a few additional criteria that worked to amplify and elaborate on the group’s working definition. The criteria we offered were inspired by some of the dispositions of competent readers delineated by Dr. Sheridan Blau in his article Performative Literacy: The Habits of Mind of Highly Literate Readers (2003) — with the thinking that if these dispositions allow for readers to make meaning of texts and “enable knowledge” (p. 19), then questions that inspire the cultivation of such dispositions will in turn cultivate meaning-making in general.
We proposed that a rigorous question also:
The importance of complexity and flexibility are also explored in Robyn Jackson’s How to Plan Rigorous Instruction (2010).
After generating their own collective definition of a rigorous question and considering the Blau-inspired characteristics as well, teachers were given the opportunity to apply these new insights to an upcoming lesson. Teachers left the session with a new Do Now activity or slightly tweaked questions that asked for justification, for example. Most significantly, they left with clarity on what counts as a rigorous question.
As we continue working with this school, we are designing next steps in the professional learning process. Our upcoming sessions can focus on when and how to use rigorous questions, specifically, at what point of the lesson, and how to assess student response. We can also explore activities or teaching moves that pair well with investigating rigorous questions. We might also reconsider our essential questions and check how they measure against our “rigorous questions” criteria. There are many possibilities for moving forward with our inquiry cycle.
While there are plenty of resources and frameworks out there for teachers on creating compelling and meaningful questions, both facilitators and teachers found great value in doing some first-hand discovery, and in trying to articulate the nuance in what distinguishes rigorous questions from the rest.
Low-stakes, high-reward discussion practices you can bring to your math classroom.
Most teachers I know recognize the importance of discussion in their classrooms, but often struggle with how to best facilitate student-to-student discussions, particularly in a content area classroom like math.
As a former elementary educator, I was responsible for teaching all subject areas — Reading, Writing, Math, Science and Social Studies. Math was always my most reluctant subject. When it came time to teach math, I was guilty of sitting in front of the whiteboard, doing practice problem after practice problem with my students, asking if they had any questions, and then sending them off to their desks to do more practice problems in their workbooks. I could tell they were bored (heck, I was bored), but I was unsure how to shift my teaching to make it more engaging and student-centered.
I was compelled by the idea that practice makes perfect, right? So the more problems they practice, the more likely they’d be to get it. But the drill and kill approach is not adequate, especially in classrooms today, and as we think about the necessary skills of students in the 21st century. We know they need much more to acquire skills and knowledge that will serve them in real life. They need to be able to talk about math, reflect on their processes, and collaboratively problem-solve.
What is Math Talk?
One of my recent areas of focus and interest is helping math teachers incorporate more discussion in their classrooms and move away from the often well-intentioned chalk and talk approach.
“Math Talk,” while a rather new term, is gaining in popularity, as research suggests that when students talk more about their math thinking, they are more motivated to learn and they learn more. It is one of the mathematical practices of the NGS that supports students in clarifying their thinking and understanding, constructing mathematical arguments, developing language to express math ideas, and increasing opportunities to see things from different perspectives.
How can teachers promote this challenging yet crucial mathematical practice in their classrooms? What I share below are three simple, yet effective strategies that can promote math talk in meaningful and manageable ways.
Turn and Talks
Turn and talks are a well-known and commonly used strategy. They support oral language, speaking, and listening skills in a low-stakes way. Math can often promote a lot of fear, and fear of getting it wrong. But because students are talking to a partner, there is often less hesitation than if they had to speak to a larger group. Turn and talks can be a great entry point to promoting discussion.
Gallery walks are another simple yet meaningful technique to support discussion. These support students in being actively engaged as they walk throughout the classroom, and they can be highly effective in problem-solving within a math classroom.
Similar to a turn and talk, a gallery walk could be the focus of the Do Now, as part of guided practice in preparation for independent work, or it can serve as the independent work after some explicit instruction.
Think - Pair - Share
Think-Pair-Share can support students in working together to increase understanding and explore multiple perspectives. Like turn and talks, it is a partner strategy that can be a nice entry point to promoting discussion as its low-stakes and a bit easier for the teacher to manage participation of students. It can be done as part of a Do Now, to review a particular skill, to assess work that is already completed, or as part of independent practice as students apply what they’ve learned.
By no means do I consider myself a math expert; however, I do have extensive experience in promoting discussion in all disciplines. While these strategies are not new or revolutionary, I have witnessed how even small moves can shift instruction to allow for more student interaction and application. I hope you find them helpful as you consider how you can maximize discussion in your classroom, and remember that any of these can be a starting place — as you boost your confidence and experience success, I encourage you to consider your own twists and share them with others.
Promising practices that can help nurture confident, capable student writers.
The beginning of the school year is a powerful time for setting intentions and establishing expectations. As a former classroom teacher and professional development coach, I understand the importance of making sure students feel safe in their writing environment, so that they feel empowered to put pen to paper. Using the beginning of the year to create a culture of writing can help cultivate a sense of community, boost students’ confidence, dispel some of the myths that exist about writing, and strengthen students’ skills and strategies.
How then, can we create this culture and community?
Creating the environment
As Dan Kirby writes in Inside Out: Strategies for Teaching Writing, “…there should be some obvious indications that you believe that the physical environment is important, and these touches need to be present even in a rather sterile classroom setting…the fact that you’ve done something to your room is a signal to students that you care about the writing environment.”
Teachers should create a space where they want to be, as chances are that the students will feel comfortable, too.
Teachers can use questions such as:
By asking and answering these questions, it can inform and inspire the ways in which you design your classroom, as well as what materials or resources you might need or want. Perhaps you want to have a writing corner, or a gallery space for finished pieces. Think about all the spaces in the room — whether it’s a specific bulletin board, the walls, the ceiling, outside the classroom — where and how will writing be honored and celebrated?
When it came to my environment, I recognized the importance of a quiet, comfortable space for students to write. I wanted to have inviting spaces around the room where students could choose to sit, whether it was on the carpet, with a pillow, a large bean bag, or in a comfortable chair near a window. In addition, I would turn off the lights when we wrote and play soft, classical music. This routine, over time, helped signal to students that it was time to write. It set the expectations that when we write, it's quiet and calm. You might be thinking that this can or should only happen in an elementary classroom; however, I have seen it used in middle and high school classrooms, and it was very well received by the students.
I also had a writing center in my room, where students could go to gather paper, pencils, highlighters, and post-its to use for their writing. There was a basket for them to drop writing that they wanted or needed me to read. This empowered students to take ownership of their writing and build their independence as writers by providing them with common resources and tools they could access on their own, as needed.
Establishing rituals & routines
The second promising practice for creating a writing culture is to consider meaningful rituals and routines that value and encourage writing. Rituals and routines involve necessary actions that create purpose and organization, and when done frequently, they become innate. Below are some of my favorite rituals and routines.
I encourage you to start the process of creating a culture or writing by identifying what you are most passionate about, what you are most excited about, and use that information to inspire the ways in which you create your space and establish your rituals and routines. If you have a passion for writing, like me, and/or you are a writing/ELA teacher, then I invite you to use the promising practices shared above, as they were very helpful for me and for the advancement of my students as writers!
Why creating intentional groups can help match each student to intellectually engaging tasks.
Group work is important.
Group work is also hard. It can feel discouraging when we initiate group work and then it doesn’t go as planned, with some students opting out of the assignment while others carry the weight of the task for everyone.
Teachers know that when they have a wide range of students with different learning needs, they can differentiate their instruction. Differentiation often includes creating multiple entry points to content and skills through group work, and we often see differentiation strategies like heterogeneous or homogeneous grouping used to differentiate instruction. But how do we determine which method will help our students reach their learning goals? Which types of grouping are best for which instructional strategies?
The case for homogeneous grouping
Whether matching students in pairs or small groups, homogeneous grouping happens when teachers enlist students with similar learning traits to work together to complete a task (either individually or together). Homogeneous grouping should be informed by data, like students who earned similar scores on a diagnostic assessment, had similar responses in a class assessment, or who shared a misconception about a previous lesson. It's valuable to match similar students together to complete a task that is designed to meet their learning needs. Homogeneous grouping is ideal when the teacher has designed a unique task for each group, is providing a unique text for each group, or has differentiated the content so that groups are aligned with content information they need to examine more closely.
When students are in homogeneous groups, the tasks, topics, or texts they work with should be diverse. This becomes an effective practice because teachers are strategically matching similar students’ with a task that is designed specifically for them. When each group of students is working with a task or topic on their level, they’re able to increase their completion rate, feel confident about reaching their learning goal, and refine their thinking through discussion.
A math teacher realizes that their students had a wide range of responses to adding and subtracting fractions on a formative assessment. Some students are completing all of the addition and subtraction questions with fluency and accuracy. Other students are struggling with subtracting, but showed proficiency with addition, while others are still struggling with the concept of fractions as well as how to add and subtract.
With students performing within these three profiles, the teacher develops a lesson where students are grouped homogeneously and matched with a task that is specific to their learning needs:
By differentiating by student need in homogeneous groups, the teacher is able to match a task strategically to students in their zone of proximal development, which should increase their understanding of the content, create opportunities for success, and increase confidence.
The case for heterogeneous grouping
Homogeneous groups are an important strategy to use, but using them exclusively can be limiting to students. Not only is it important to develop community across a whole class, it’s also important for students to learn from one another and have opportunities to teach each other. Diversifying group structures to include mixed ability or heterogeneous groups gives students exposure to a wide range of voices, and keeps students connected to the class community.
Heterogeneous groups are best matched with complex tasks that have multiple components. Within the group work structure, students can self-select or be assigned roles based on their areas of interest, as well as their performance. Working in a heterogeneous group allows them to build on each others’ ideas, and develop a product as a team, which is effective, memorable, and can be personally rewarding. Group roles or independent tasks are highly effective in heterogeneous groups and teachers will want to design the task so that every group member can take on a component that they can complete successfully.
Jigsaw groups are a great structure to use for heterogeneous groupings.
Within a jigsaw group, the group task is divided into multiple components (one for each student representative), and then brought back together when students inform their team of what they’ve learned. These components might be content-specific (e.g. each student represents a different character from a book, or a different type of problem solving in math). They may also be leveled by text (students divide out leveled texts on the same topic and collaborate on their understanding after reading). The easiest way to organize jigsaw groups is to strategically match students using a grouping strategy.
If there are six groups, each student may be assigned a group number, and a letter which is matched with a task. Group 1 might have students matched with 1A, 1B, 1C, 1D, 1E, 1F (each letter representing a different task).
Students then move into their letter groups (Group A would consist of students 1A, 2A, 3A, 4A, 5A, and 6A) and complete their task. Once they complete their task, students rejoin their number group to share what they’ve learned and complete the shared task or discussion.
In heterogeneous groups, every student is matched with a task that is at their instructional level, and they use what they’ve learned to complete the shared task.
While homogeneous and heterogeneous groupings are some of the most common types of groups, they aren’t the only way to develop strategic collaboration for students. We can also consider grouping based on areas of interest, social dynamics, or even special gifts and talents. What’s most important is that when asking students to work together to complete a task, we are thoughtful and strategic about who should work together, what goal we want them to accomplish, and how we match them to an intellectually engaging task to reach that goal.
Connect the dots between larger goals and the specific needs of your students.
As an instructional coach and elementary specialist for CPET, much of my work with elementary schools has involved helping teachers unpack and make sense of the chosen, school-wide pre-packaged curricula they’re asked to work with — a curricula that is designed by professionals to meet grade level and subject requirements, and includes most, if not all of the materials needed to teach. I often facilitate workshops and professional development sessions, introduce teachers to the curricula and its components, as well as engage in classroom visits and critical reflection conversations with individual teachers to support the implementation of the curricula.
While the curricula is packaged, there’s often a surprising amount of tweaking and adapting involved to make sure the curricula fits the school calendar, the style of the teacher, and most importantly, that it meets the needs and interests of all students. This can be a daunting and challenging task for educators.
How can you make sense of and revise curricula to meet the needs, goals, and interests of your students?
Identifying your goals
One of the biggest challenges I see when it comes to the adoption and adaptation of packaged curricula is just the magnitude and density of it all. There are often many components, books, inserts, handouts, and templates, and this can make it difficult for teachers to even know where to begin. They often express feelings of overwhelm or lack of time or opportunity to make sense of and collaboratively plan with the curricula.
Because packaged curricula often includes all of the individual lessons, with varying levels of detail and information, teachers often fall into the trap of teaching lesson to lesson and relying on the teacher manuals to drive their day-to-day instruction. But this can result in losing sight of the larger goals and what these lessons are in service of. Essentially, teachers can start to become the mouthpiece of a script.
I recently began to work with a school that had just adopted a new curricula for reading. After using a program for a number of years, many teachers were unsure and rather uneasy about this transition. After meeting with leadership and discussing their needs, my goals as the instructional coach were to:
In support of these goals, it was my intention to facilitate a number of workshops with the teachers to first and foremost ease their anxieties, answer questions, and cater to their varying levels of familiarity and comfort with the curricula. From there, we worked together to unpack the curricula in a meaningful and productive way, the specifics of which I will share with you, as I believe they can be helpful when it comes to adopting and adapting any new curricula.
Starting with the end in mind
In order to know where you’re going and how you are going to get there, you need to understand the larger goals and objectives of a curriculum, the driving questions, and the final tasks or assessments. To do this, I would suggest starting with the end in mind. Most curricula I’ve seen offer a unit overview or summaries that are often found at the front. Taking the time to read or skim these overviews can be a helpful starting place. With the teachers I worked with, each grade level engaged in jigsaw readings, where one teacher took on a portion of text from the overviews and underlined and annotated, made comments in the margins, and then shared their thinking, questions and interpretations.
From there, we examined the culminating assessment, asking questions such as:
This exercise was intended to not only understand the assessment as it’s suggested, but more importantly, to provide a lens through which to recognize opportunities for revision, including scaffolding or extending the task, and then consider the implications for instruction. No curricula can take into account the needs and interests of all students, so it is up to teachers to revise and adapt the curricula with their students in mind.
Lastly, we considered the necessary materials, resources, rituals, and routines that would be needed in order to implement the units successfully:
With this larger, more robust understanding of the curricula, teachers can more effectively navigate their curricula and instruction and move away from feeling bound to a script.
Pushing into the pacing calendar
Most often, pre-packaged curriculum includes a pacing calendar, sometimes called a scope and sequence. This calendar offers a snapshot for instruction, including when particular units, (also known as modules or bends) should be implemented, and for how long. These calendars can be helpful when thinking about a school year at large — where you’re going, and how long it’s going to take you to get there. In my experience, the suggested pacing calendars often need to be changed or revised to take into account breaks, testing, and school events. Perhaps more importantly, the pacing calendars need to be adjusted based on teachers’ understanding of the larger goals, objectives, and assessments.
With my teachers, we compared the suggested pacing calendar to their school calendar and grade-specific calendars, asking questions such as:
Asking these questions supported teachers in taking action to make adjustments. Having a larger calendar for instruction can make things feel more manageable.
Identifying the structure of instruction
In my experience, most packaged curricula have a consistent structure and organization, and even specific rituals and routines that define the units and individual lessons. Looking across the lessons and identifying these structures can be very helpful for teachers. Examples include rituals and routines like turn and talks, reflective writing, stop and jots, or structures such as progressive scaffolding. The adopted curricula of this particular school was organized around the workshop model, starting with a connection which led to a mini-lesson, an opportunity for student practice, and then culminated with a share out and reflection of the learning.
I supported teachers in understanding and unpacking these various components and their purpose and then modeled a few of the lessons for them. To facilitate this, we used a template to plan one or two of the lessons, adopting what we liked, and taking out what we felt wasn’t necessary. We revised anything necessary, based on our larger understanding of the goals of the lesson and what teachers thought would be most relevant and important to students. Lastly, we worked to revise the lesson to ensure it reflected their voice and their style, fostering a sense of authenticity and ingenuity that supports relationship-building with students.
By identifying and understanding the key structures, rituals, and routines of a curriculum, teachers can move through the lessons with more clarity and confidence.
Implementing packaged curricula takes a great deal of patience, persistence, and flexibility. We know that no curriculum can be implemented as it’s written if it is going to meet the needs and goals of a particular school community. We have to work strategically, creatively, and collaboratively with our peers to examine the curricula, consider aspects we can and should implement, and what needs to be revised, replaced, or even eliminated.
Are you adapting curricula in your classroom or community? Get in touch with me to receive support throughout the daunting — but doable! — process.
A flexible path toward mastery that provides structured support for students at all levels.
When I was growing up, my high school Social Studies teacher had a poster hanging on the wall that read, “If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” The message was clear, even to teenagers -- the power to succeed or to reach a new goal is often inside of each of us. As educators, we know that our students’ mindsets play a major role in how hard they try, how much confidence they develop, and how committed they are to reaching their goals. But confidence alone doesn’t get them to a point of mastery. And desire alone won’t develop their skills, or increase their knowledge base, or level up their accuracy or precision. For those changes, our students need structured support!
This structured support often comes in the form of scaffolding. Like the large platforms that help construction workers reach the tall exterior of a building, scaffolding student learning creates platforms of support as teachers incorporate challenging texts, complex tasks, and abstract ideas into their instruction. Scaffolding is critical when holding high expectations and implementing a rigorous curriculum — but scaffolding alone doesn’t develop independent learners. Sometimes, scaffolding can become a crutch that teachers and students use, turning a support into a shackle. As educators, we often spend a lot of our planning time thinking about how to build scaffolds to break learning down into manageable components, but we can’t stop there. We must also consider the ways we gradually release scaffolding so that students can internalize and transfer their knowledge and skills to new tasks and topics.
A path toward mastery
Our Progressive Scaffolding Framework outlines a path for educators to consider when setting high expectations for students, helping them find that balance between necessary supports and structured enabling. Building on the ideas of Zone of Proximal Development and apprenticeship theories, the framework outlines a path toward mastery in four stages:
Stage 1: I do, you watch
When introducing new content or skills, we begin with the I do, you watch stage. We initiate this by introducing new concepts alongside prior knowledge, real world examples, or previous units of study. Our goal is to map new information onto our students’ activated schemas so that the new content or skills are contextualized and relevant.
At this stage of instruction, we can prepare and provide a model of the task, using a Think Aloud mini-lesson where we walk our students through an internal thinking process that illustrates how we navigate the task and make decisions. Alternatively, we can outline the explicit steps to complete the task, or provide a roundup of the important information students need to know before diving in.
The I do, you watch process can be presented to students working individually or in small groups. It’s important to remember that even at this stage, students shouldn’t be sitting silently. We always want students actively engaged, so we might add a note taking component, a reflection task, a meta-cognitive class discussion, or an element of inquiry so that students remain intellectually engaged in the process.
Stage 2: I do, you help
After laying the groundwork for the task in stage 1, we can move into stage 2, where students begin working with the content and task materials with support. Working in small groups, students might replicate the model with new information, restate or reword the essential steps in their own words, or engage in a small group discussion or group practice as a way to begin experimenting with and internalizing the skills.
Stage 3: You do, I help
In stage 3, the content and skills should be familiar to students after their initial explorations, and they should be ready to continue in pairs or small groups with more independence. Students are still in the development phase of their learning, so they may need additional support and will benefit from frequent check-ins, and suggested strategies — but here’s where we want to avoid returning to stage 1 supports. We’re looking for students to be engaged in a productive struggle.
Students may benefit from suggestions of “fix up” strategies or options for what to do if they get stuck. At this stage, we want to push students beyond replicating the model or the example by having them practice the skill or apply content with a new format, a new context, or by making connections to other topics within the discipline or beyond.
This is also a great stage to ask students to use one another as resources. While working in pairs and small groups is an excellent way to support students at their level and create opportunities for growth through collaboration, we want to ensure a high level of individual accountability so that some students don’t take on the burden for the group while others opt out of the learning process.
Stage 4: You do, I watch
In stage 4, students have been exposed to new content and skills, they’ve practiced working on a task informally with support, and they’ve begun making connections with other content information or demonstrating their learning through class activities and tasks. At this stage, it’s important to begin removing any unnecessary scaffolds to see what students can do independently.
In the You do, I watch phase, we recommend providing a short review of the process and previous work done up to this point in the learning experience. After the review, we can be clear with students that they’re ready to try it out on their own. Provide a clear task and an adequate amount of time to complete the task (3-4 times as long as it would take you to do it).
Students who are able to take on this challenge and demonstrate their skills individually prove that they’re meeting the expectations of the task and are ready to move forward to the next knowledge block or skill sets. Students who struggle at this stage help us to understand where and why they’re struggling, so that we can return to Stage 3 to provide targeted support.
How long does this take?
Like an accordion, this process can be expanded or compressed to meet the needs of your grade level and subject area. We might be able to move through the four stages within a single lesson, or it may be an expanded process that is organized across a week’s worth of lesson plans. Consider these two examples:
45-minute Lesson Plan Structure
5 minutes | Opening warm up: Inquiry question
10 minutes | I do, you watch: Mini-lesson modeling
10 minutes | I do, you help: Stop and jot, turn and talk reflection on the model
15 minutes | You do, I help: Small group practice
5 minutes | You do, I watch: Closing summary formative assessment
Week-long Lesson Structure
Monday | I do, you watch: Introduction, modeling, and reflection
Tuesday | I do, you help: Small group discussion and practice
Wednesday | You do, I help: Small group practice and connections, part 1
Thursday | You do, I help: Small group practice and connections, part 2
Friday | You do, I watch: Independent practice and formative assessment
The process of instruction and assessment is complex, especially when we’re trying to use data to inform instruction and support students who’ve struggled in the past. We want to be mindful to keep forward momentum toward rigorous learning goals while developing a clear path forward for students who begin at every level.
Three entry points for designing project-based, student-centered instruction.
With the amount of interruptions and disruptions to learning over the last few years, many schools and teachers are faced with the reality that their curricula and instruction may no longer be relevant or appropriate, given all of the learning that’s been missed. As a result, teachers are wondering how to best revive their curricula to make it more reflective and responsive to their students’ needs. Furthermore, they are concerned with how to best promote and maintain engagement of their students, and incorporate fun into their learning.
Project-based learning can be a powerful solution. Projects promote high levels of student engagement while also supporting the acquisition of academic skills and content knowledge, and also real-world, 21st century capacities and characteristics, including: critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and caring. Project-based learning puts students at the center, and are often inspired by real-world, community-based issues that matter to students, providing safe spaces for them to engage in meaningful reflection, and share their unique perspectives with the world.
How can we make our instruction more project-based? Where do we start? Many teachers I work with are eager and excited to transition to project-based learning, but struggle with knowing how to begin. Their excitement is often met with fear and apprehension as they feel bound to a certain curricula or scope and sequence. Use the three considerations below to imagine the first steps you might take in creating more student-centered, project-based instruction.
Consider: Student voice and choice
One of the core principles of project-based learning is student choice. As teachers, we want to be thinking about where and how students can make decisions about their own learning. But this doesn’t have to be overwhelming — we can offer students choice within manageable parameters.
A simple starting point can be to think about choice when it comes to topics, texts, or tasks. For example, if we know that students need to write a persuasive essay as one of our grade level or content area requirements, allow them choice in the topic they write about, or the texts they read as part of the process. Or, if we know that students need to read a certain text as part of a course, then allow them choice when it comes to the task of how they will share their learning (e.g. presentation, podcast, etc.).
Consider: An authentic audience
Another core principle of project-based learning is an authentic audience. Traditionally, the audience for student learning is the teacher, or maybe their peers. But how can we challenge this tradition and provide students with opportunities to write for a more real-world audience?
The ability to communicate with specific audiences is an incredibly important skill, and something that will serve them beyond the classroom. When it comes to identifying an audience, we can use questions such as: “Who would benefit most from learning about this topic or reading this work?”
Identifying an audience from the start, prior to launching into a unit, can support students in writing with this audience in mind, which should inform their tone, their language, and their vocabulary. But it doesn’t stop there — think about how your students can authentically connect with their audience, whether it’s through inviting them to a reading or celebration, posting their writing online, or even sending representations of their work in the mail.
Consider: A larger purpose
In line with thinking about an authentic audience, is connecting student efforts to a larger purpose. Most often, the purpose of student work is for a grade, or to pass a class. Projects, in contrast, have a deeper purpose that connects to the world outside the classroom, which can make them more meaningful and enjoyable for students.
Whereas we might talk about the traditional purposes of student work as being to persuade, entertain or teach, identifying a more specific purpose can strengthen students' skills as writers and communicators. For example, a purpose could be to call someone to action to resolve a community issue, to share advice, or to challenge perspectives. Being more specific and deliberate with the purpose can help inform and inspire how students understand their efforts.
These three considerations reflect just some of the essential principles of project-based learning, and are a great place to start if you’re looking for manageable entry points to this type of work. These project elements can serve to inform extensions and/or revisions that you make to existing curricula, without it feeling overwhelming or impossible, and most importantly, help revive your curricula to make it more student-centered and student-driven.
Make sense of your thinking as you articulate the what, why, and how of your lessons.
My most common resistance and response, when prompted by our director to articulate my next workshop plan in one of our templates is, “We don’t have time for that. I need to get in there and get the work done. I don't have time to also articulate what the work is going to be.” After I express my frustration with a lack of time, I take a breath and sit down with my thoughts, our goals, and the template.
Thankfully, the template has been through our usual practice of draft, revision, practice, and more revision, so that I’m working with a helpful, useful, and practical tool. As I move through prompts like driving questions, objectives, skills, activity, assessment, and resources, I see what’s in my head come together on the screen. By the time I’m done, I’ve experienced the magic of a pre-planning template. I’ve actually done all the work of thinking through what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, what skills I need to teach, and how I will confirm what students know and can do throughout the workshop.
Not enough time to plan? I actually don’t have enough time NOT to plan!
As it turns out, articulating my plan supports me in grounding the lesson in its larger context and provides a way to make my thinking visible to my students, my colleagues, and my supervisor. Bonus: I won’t need to reinvent an agenda the next time this workshop rolls around. I have a lesson plan I can reuse and customize going forward.
Our lesson planning resource supports teachers like you in experiencing this same process — moving your thinking from inside your head out into the world, and considering all of the pieces of a lesson, because the template reminds you with supportive prompts. You can leave yourself room to think more deeply about teaching and learning by relying on our preset categories to pull you through your planning time.
It’s important to be confident and clear about your plans, and articulating your thinking is an excellent way to get there. This is what will allow you to be more flexible, because you’ve got a plan from which to work. You know what’s essential and what might be able to shift when unexpected changes occur in your classroom, as they so often do!
You can use this resource as a tool for yourself as we teach, your students as they engage in the work, and your colleagues as you offer each other formal or informal coaching in this challenging and rewarding world of teaching.
How do we decide which words to teach our students?
In Including All Learners, a course I co-teach with my colleague Jacqui Stolzer, we design our content based on the questions we wonder about as teachers. One that comes up often is: How do we decide which words to teach our students? Asking this question challenges us to think about how to focus our instructional time, and nudges us to be more purposeful in designing our curriculum.
Understanding tiered vocabulary
One of the ways we decide which words to teach is by using the tiered vocabulary concept developed by Dr. Isabel Beck. Beck thinks of vocabulary words as belonging to one of three categories:
While it is interesting to group words into these three categories, how does this practice impact our instructional decisions?
Narrowing your focus
When designing lessons and prioritizing instructional time, it may be helpful to consider which tiers and key terms are worthy of classroom instruction.
As we can see above, Tier 3 words are easy to identify; these are the words that we need to teach in order for students to understand a particular concept. For example, in an ecosystem unit of a Living Environment course, words such as “abiotic” and “biotic” are Tier 3 words that are necessary terms in the unit; they are the specific words used to identify non-living or living parts of an ecosystem. In a sense, Tier 3 words are easy to determine in a curriculum because they are entwined with concepts in a particular unit.
Tier 2 words, however, are often not taught explicitly since the assumption is that students already know what they mean. It’s the Tier 2 words that need extra attention in our classrooms. These are the words to spend time teaching and modeling for your students. What this looks like will vary depending on your grade level and content area.
Modeling for your students
Consider a Tier 2 word such as analyze. Most students are familiar with that word by the time they reach middle school, but what does it really look like in math or science or English?
When students are asked to analyze a text, it’s helpful for teachers to model this work, demonstrating the pieces of a text analysis and sharing the tools students need to analyze a text on their own. Think about all the steps that are imperative for analyzing a text. If I were modeling how to analyze a passage, I might:
Analysis can change shape depending on the class — in science, analyzing lab data might look different from analyzing a passage in English. But in both cases, dedicating instructional time to demonstration of the term will help strengthen students’ skills, giving students access to academic thinking and language.
Tiered vocabulary can help you classify key terms for your grade level and content area, and as a result, make instructional decisions that hone in on teaching new or unfamiliar words for your students. Finding a balance between content-specific, Tier 3 words and more general academic terms like those in Tier 2 can help narrow your focus and increase student comfort with the words they encounter in your classroom.
Find practical ways to strategically customize learning pathways for your students.
Differentiating Instruction is the practice of customizing instructional resources, tasks, texts, and topics to meet the needs of students with different learning levels and academic needs. With good intentions, curriculum developers identify grade level expectations and design unit and lesson plans with the ideal student in mind. Those ideal students started the year meeting grade level expectations, speaking the language with fluency. They all attend class every day and comprehend the lesson at proficient standards. They carry with them all the skills from the last unit into the next, and they learn at an even pace throughout the school year.
The problem is that these ideal classes don’t actually exist! This is why it’s so important to differentiate instruction.
Students can’t learn when the course material is too difficult — they get frustrated, insecure, and eventually develop avoidance behaviors that cause learning disruptions or disengagement. But the flip side is also true — students can’t learn when the material is too easy! When there is no learning challenge, students get bored, overconfident, and they also develop avoidance behaviors resulting in learning disruptions or disengagement.
Differentiating instruction is about the art and science of matching students with their just-right task, text, and topic. When we begin thinking about what we need to know about our students to effectively differentiate, it can get very overwhelming very quickly. The idea of creating a unique lesson for 30 students 4-5 times a day is an insane amount of work. The good news is that highly effective differentiation doesn’t mean that we have 30 different lesson plans — but it does mean we are using data to inform instruction, and customizing learning pathways strategically for our students.
There is no one perfect way to differentiate instruction, which is one of the things that makes it challenging. Because there are so many options and opportunities for learning, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with all of the different types of choices that can be made when customizing instructional materials for our students.
Our Differentiating Like a Star resource is designed to help you streamline your thinking process, and provides a dynamic menu of options for teachers to use while planning differentiated lessons. On the matrix, there are four styles of differentiation: by data, by task, by text, and by team or group. The matrix provides recommended differentiation strategies aligned with each approach, and increases in complexity and effectiveness. If you are able to implement any strategy on the matrix, you’re differentiating! The goal is to develop our practices so that we not only use multiple differentiation strategies, but use them deliberately to meet a specific learning goal.
Tips & tricks
Differentiation done well appears effortless, but it takes a lot of work behind the scenes. Careful planning, analyzing student work, and setting clear learning objectives can help us to develop a pathway of differentiated experiences that are targeted to meet students’ needs.
Seamlessly navigate the pacing of your lessons.
When I was in college, I waitressed at a French bistro on the Upper West side of Manhattan. During my first couple of shifts, I made all of the quintessential mistakes — forgetting to put in orders, getting orders wrong, not being able to greet all of my tables, not knowing if and when to ask for their order or when to drop the check. I found myself overwhelmed! Over time, however, I learned that to be a really good waitress is a skill, an art, something that you can improve. As one of my favorite managers once told me: you’ll know you’re a good waitress when your patrons don’t even know you’re there, when you seamlessly navigate the pacing of their food and drinks.
It’s all about the pacing!
Foundations of timing
In my time as an educator, I have leaned on many of my waitressing experiences. Like waitressing, teaching is an art, and so much depends on successful pacing! How you pace your lessons, the order and flow of your instruction, how much time you dedicate to each task, and how you transition to each segment of a lesson are challenging yet crucial pieces of being a teacher. These actions have such important implications for student learning.
How can you tighten up your lessons?
Get started with our Foundations of Timing Instruction resource, which highlights helpful considerations and rules of thumb for timing and transitioning your instruction, including:
Whether you are just starting out, or are a seasoned teacher, your pacing can always be improved so that you are better able to serve your students.
Differentiating your instruction through strategic and flexible grouping.
From the one room schoolhouse to the giant lecture hall, the image we often conjure of teaching is of the sage on the stage, the professor imparting wisdom on the entire student body who are hanging on our every word. But the reality is that whole class instruction is rarely effective as a meaningful and sustainable learning experience. Students’ academic knowledge and skills grow more when they’re personally engaged in a task or challenge that meets their learning needs, supports their learning differences, and is customized to help them get to their next step.
Educators can often become overwhelmed with the prospect of differentiating instruction for every single student in the classroom, and often feel frustrated having to design 30 different lesson plans. The good news is that while students do need instruction to be personalized to meet their needs, many of their needs are similar. As educators, we want to better recognize our students’ academic, social, emotional, and skill-based needs and strategically match them with other students in the class.
There’s a big difference between working in a group, and working with a group. In an effort to increase group work and collaboration, we will sometimes push desks together so students are sitting in a group, and then give them permission to talk to their groups while completing an individual task. While this is community-oriented, we can differentiate it from working with a group on a shared task.
Strategic grouping is a key feature in teaching effective collaboration skills, and in streamlining instruction to meet the needs of our diverse learners. Strategic — or purposeful — groups demonstrate that we’ve put some time, energy, and thought into who students should work with. We can consider factors like literacy or numeracy performance, communication styles (introvert/extrovert), skills and talents (artists, writers, organizers), and even gender considerations for creating groups that are similar or mixed.
One of the reasons strategic grouping is so difficult is because it requires us to know our learning outcomes, and to develop a strategy about the best ways to achieve this outcome. If I’m working on a unit where students will need to write an essay from a text they’ve read, I have to determine:
We can only answer these questions in the context of the class, the unit, and the end goal of the assessment.
Flexible grouping: number, color, shape
One of the most effective ways to establish strategic groups is to create groups that are flexible.
Developing strategic groups requires time and effort! And once groups are established and the students begin their work, it doesn’t mean that it will feel immediately successful. Just like any teamwork approach, groups take time to develop relationships, build trust, and establish healthy and productive routines. When groups change rapidly, even groups that are strategic, it makes it difficult to see the return on our investment. That’s why establishing strategic (purposeful to the context and task) and flexible groups can be a major win.
One easy approach to flexible grouping is to design Number, Color, Shape groups. With a little bit of planning, we can set up three types of group structures at once.
To establish flexible groups, consider three types of groups that need to be made:
Having students work in leveled pairs is an effective way to differentiate. By working with a partner, students can tackle more complex tasks, collaborate with a peer, or edit and revise their thinking as they complete an assignment. Students will also be able to develop more personal connections, which keeps them engaged and interested.
To set up numbered pairs, look at a class list and divide the total number of students in half. 30 students = 15 pairs. Then, begin matching students based on data — performance, reading levels, and personality can all be helpful data points to make matches. Once every student is in a pair, introduce the learning pairs by passing out numbered cards and invite students to find their match. It may be helpful to place numbers around the room so students know where to find their match, or create a class challenge to find partners without speaking.
Once established, keep these numbered pairs for an extended period of time. Consider 4 - 6 weeks for pairs, given that it will take a few work periods before students feel comfortable, and once the pairs are working, making changes to the partnerships can derail the momentum. If some pairs don’t work out as planned, make specific changes in those situations.
After students spend time working in pairs, their collaboration and communication skills will improve over time with their partners. We can take our differentiation to the next level by joining the numbered pairs into small groups of 4-5 students with similar ability levels.
Maybe you’ll combine groups 3 & 8 to create a square group, and groups 2 & 9 to become a circle group. Same shape groups will create leveled groupings that allow us to differentiate topics, products, processes, and text levels by assigning a specific task to each group based on their Zone of Proximal Development.
If we know that groups 3 & 8 are composed of students who are reading 2-3 grade levels below expectations, we can assign the square group a text that’s at their instructional reading level and have them complete the same critical thinking task that the other groups are assigned. If we know that groups 2 & 9 are composed of students who are reading at or above grade level, we can assign them a more challenging text on the same topic, and have them complete the same critical thinking task that the other groups are working on.
Same shape groups work well because after their discussion and group work, the class can come together to discuss the larger topic, without limiting the contributions of students with below-grade level reading skills.
Many — but not all! — learning goals are best accomplished by having students work in groups with peers on similar levels. When students only ever see examples of tasks and work products that reflect the same thing they would produce, they don’t have an opportunity to visualize how they can expand their thinking, reading, writing, or reasoning skills. By working with students in mixed ability (heterogeneous) groups, students of all different levels can participate in a jigsaw discussion or group projects. Mixed groups allow students to learn from one another, and play an individual role towards a shared goal.
We can create Color Groups using our Numbered Pairs and Same Shape groups as a starting point! Color Groups will be strategic, data-informed heterogeneous groups that can meet together consistently through a unit or term. To create the Color Groups, review the students in each Shape Group and begin distributing them evenly into Color Groups.
Example: We can take one student from the square group, one from the circle group, one from the diamonds, and one from the hearts, and place them into the Purple Group. Because we’re mixing and matching from the Same Shape groups, we’re guaranteed a mix of performance abilities in the Color Blend Groups.
Bringing it all together
Strategic grouping requires data-informed decision-making to create flexible groups of students who work collaboratively for a specific purpose.
By designing these three sets of groups at one time, you can maximize your planning and minimize chaos! No more numbering off from 1 - 4 around the room. No more wandering around to find a partner. No more kids sitting in the back because they don’t have a group. If each student received a card on color cardstock, with a printed number, cut out in a specific shape, they could receive multiple group assignments within seconds. And after each grouping has been established, they’ll begin to learn how to work together for a purpose in each grouping they experience.
Thoughtfully design instruction that supports students at each stage of learning.
Differentiated instruction aims to meet the diverse needs of students, but it can be difficult to design lessons that support those who are struggling without restricting learners who are ready for more advanced study.
The Rigormeter’s spectrum approach, which re-envisions Bloom's Taxonomy, offers a straightforward outline of six learning stages, along with suggested actions for student engagement in each phase of the learning process.
Like an odometer, the Rigormeter measures progress that builds from one stage to another. By de-linearizing Bloom's levels of knowledge, the Rigormeter highlights that learning can occur along a continuum, which can be traveled in more than one direction, with stops along the way. This approach implies that once we’ve reached the end, we might easily begin again.
The Rigormeter is not just a method of measuring understanding — it can also be a map for planning instruction. If we conscientiously design our instruction to support students at each stage of the spectrum, we have the opportunity to see students thoughtfully engaging in the learning process, finding success at each stage along the way because they were properly prepared. Teachers who aim to challenge their students beyond their initial understandings can utilize the stages within the Rigormeter to design activities and lessons for further depth of study.
To access additional free K-12 resources from our team, please visit our Resources page.