BY LAURA RIGOLOSI & SHERRISH HOLLOMAN
Problems. There’s no shortage of them these days — the pandemic has spurred countless challenges and intense despair; there are too many to list. Teaching during the pandemic has been a challenge in and of itself, as we are always looking for ways for students to be engaged with curricula and drive their learning, and that’s hard to do whether we’re teaching in person or remotely.
If you think back to your college or grad school days, you may recall the constructivist thinkers, such as Jean Piaget, who believed that students learn best when they construct their own learning. Problem- and project-based learning offers teachers an opportunity to do just that — instead of telling students the answers, you can create a learning environment in which students learn through discovery, thinking, tinkering, reflecting, and developing answers on their own.
We may already be familiar with ways that we can bring this type of learning to in-person classrooms, but it can also be delivered to students who are learning in remote or blended environments.
Problem-based learning vs. project-based learning
Project-based learning is situated in real-life learning. The Buck Institute for Education defines project-based learning as a “teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem or challenge.” If you ever walk into a classroom and see students working on a project with an exciting buzz in the room, chances are, their teachers have designed a project-based learning task.
In our own lives, we know that when working on a project, we often discover a problem we didn’t realize we had — but once it surfaces, it demands a solution. (Remember those early pandemic days when we were acclimating to teaching remotely, but also trying to solve the problem of having no dedicated teaching space at home?) In teaching, this idea rings true, too. As we are learning more about a topic, we may discover a problem alongside our students, and this is the breeding ground for an exciting new project. This is the foundation of problem-based learning.
Problem-based learning also offers students real-life learning opportunities, as well as the chance “to think creatively and bring their knowledge to bear in unique ways” (2020 Schunk, p. 64). Problem-based learning can look differently depending on the content and grade level, but often includes group discussions that allow for multiple perspectives on a topic, a simulated situation that involves role playing, or group work that includes both collaborative work and time to complete tasks individually.
Problem-based learning promotes autonomous learning, self-assessment skills, planning time, project work, and oral and written expression skills. According to a July 2020 article from the Hechinger Report, problem-based learning has gained tremendous momentum, because it allows students to work more freely and at their own pace — a key advantage when learning remotely. In problem-based learning, the content and skills are organized around problems, rather than as a hierarchical list of topics. It’s also inherently learner-centered because the learner actively creates their own knowledge as they attempt to solve the problem.
Putting the “Problem” into Practice
As former English teachers, we both understand the challenge of putting new professional learning into practice. For teachers who need a refresher on how to design a problem-based learning experience for their students, Problem Based Learning: Six Steps to Design, Implement and Assess breaks down the steps to move PBL into practice as follows:
To help put these problem-based steps into perspective, we can look to our recent work with partners from a high school in the South Bronx. The chemistry team there decided to use an anti-racist lens while addressing a problem that was very real to their students — fireworks. During the summer of 2020, there was a record number of firework incidents in New York City. According to an article in the New York Times, the city received over 1,700 fireworks complaints in the first half of June alone. Our partners used this problem as an opportunity for students to research fireworks from multiple lenses, and imagine how they might present their findings and recommendations to local officials. After all, shouldn’t New York Governor Andrew Cuomo hear from high school students in the Bronx about the effects fireworks have on their communities?
Here’s what the framework might look like in this example:
From here, we can imagine the possibilities for this framework, considering how students might address the underlying problem from different perspectives and content areas:
Teaching and learning throughout a global pandemic has presented more than its share of challenges. Out of necessity, tremendous innovation has taken place with the use of technology, pedagogy, and curriculum. With problem-based learning, we can continue this innovation in our classrooms, offering our students opportunities to solve real world problems, demonstrate critical thinking, and collaborate with their peers. We would love to hear what problem-based learning tasks you are designing for your classrooms!
By COURTNEY BROWN & SHERRISH HOLLOMAN
The term “coach” often evokes memories of professional sports — like Phil Jackson and the Chicago Bulls in the NBA, or Don Shula and the Miami Dolphins in the NFL. Both coaches are credited with winning championships and encouraging athletes such as Michael Jordan and Dan Marino to become Hall of Fame inductees. But coaching is not limited to sports — and in schools, instructional coaches act as liaisons between research and practice, helping teachers learn to improve their practices in a reflective, supportive setting. Although instructional coaches may not enjoy the same salaries or notoriety as athletic coaches, they have become a policy lever for districts to improve instructional practice.
When establishing a coaching relationship or a professional learning community within a school, there are some essential questions to address: How does coaching work in educational spaces? What is the difference between coaching adults and teaching children? What are some of the practices that coaches use to support educators? How does coaching remain flexible and effective, regardless of whether the educators you’re working with are new to the classroom, or have spent years working as teachers, counselors, and administrators? No matter the situation, there is value in educators of all levels working alongside a coach for continuous professional improvement.
Student vs. adult learners
For most instructional coaches, the biggest difference in shifting from teaching children to coaching adults is recognizing the needs of adult learners. (For more on this, check out Stephen Brookfield’s work on Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learners). As educational coaches, we want to be as cognizant of what teachers need to learn, as well as how they will learn best. Our first goal is to create a safe and supportive community with multiple opportunities for reflection.
Educators often experience feelings of isolation or uncertainty as they confront new challenges, in both physical and digital classroom spaces. Our goal is to name these challenges and equip educators with a toolkit they can use while teaching. We recognize that coaching in education can look different depending on the context, needs, and desires of the educator — it may include 1:1 coaching sessions and reflective discussions, team-building with small groups, facilitation of teacher teams, or whole school or even district-wide professional development opportunities. However, one thing is true regardless of the context: adult learners often ask, what’s in it for me? before investing their time and energy. Their time is valuable, and they need the learning experience to concretely further their professional practice. Adult learners also bring more experience and expertise to the coaching relationship. Coaches should strive to honor this knowledge, while simultaneously offering engaging, effective facilitation and reflection.
Approaching vs. prescribing
A core component of coaching work is the relationship. Whether it’s between the coach and the teacher, the coach and school administrators, or the coach and the faculty community, we prioritize the professionalism and humanity of our partners as we strive to get to know them personally. When teachers invite us into their classrooms, into their lesson plans, and into their most challenging professional situations, we know how important it is to be trustworthy, to listen with empathy, to ask questions, and respect boundaries. We are there as thought partners who can offer an outside opinion based on research and our own personal expertise.
We recognize the strengths that each of our teachers bring and create opportunities to cultivate those strengths when in professional learning settings. Similar to students, no two teachers are exactly the same, nor will their approaches to teaching be the same — but we can support them in developing a teaching strategy and style that is consistent with highly effective instructional practices as they strive to meet students’ needs. Our work is guided by five principles of practice, also known as the 5Cs:
Knowing when coaching is working
How do we know if what we're doing is working? This is one of the best and maybe most challenging questions about coaching. In the context of many standards-based state and federal reform efforts, instructional coaches are playing an increasingly important role as “professional sense makers” who develop expertise in academic content standards to help administrators and teachers translate them into classroom practices. Because it can take time for a teacher to make the changes in mindsets that enable them to adjust teaching practices, instructional changes may occur in small increments. Therefore, measuring "effectiveness" is not a one-size-fits-all task.
While coaching is often unpredictable, it’s extremely important to have a plan and clear goals, developed collaboratively between school leaders, teachers, and their coaches. By monitoring our progress toward the goals, we’re able to track leading and lagging indicators that represent changing practices. Smaller shifts — such as shifts in mindsets, the language a teacher uses, or small incremental shifts in their practice — are recognizable when a coach is deeply engaged in a teacher’s practice.
In addition to tracking the leading indicators, or small shifts in practice, we can also look at the lagging indicators or larger moves that demonstrate significant changes over time. We look at three elements to determine effective coaching practices. First, we look to determine if teachers implement what they’ve been learning, or what they’ve been talking about with their coach. It demonstrates effective coaching if after a workshop or coaching session, the teacher begins implementing a strategy or practice they learned from the experience, even if it isn’t implemented with textbook precision. Trying something new is evidence that the coaching was impactful. Second, we look to see if the teacher begins to initiate requests for further support. Teachers who are finding coaching valuable often take the initiative to request additional support, articulate future goals, and ask specific questions to refine their practice. Finally, we want to be able to connect the dots between the coaching guidance, teacher practice, and an increase in student achievement.
Similar to athletic coaches that help professional athletes thrive and take their skills and talents to new heights, instructional coaches allow teachers to apply their learning more deeply, frequently, and consistently than teachers working alone. Coaching supports teachers as they improve their capacity to reflect and apply their learning to their work with students, and also in their work with each other. With supportive environments and thoughtful reflection coupled with sound facilitation practices, coaching can have a significant impact on teachers' practice.
By CRISTINA ROMEO COMPTON, JEN DECERFF, and SHERRISH HOLLOMAN
When a student writes for publication, there is a shift in the dynamic between the student and their work. Picture yourself asking a student whether or not they spent a significant amount of time on their writing, only to have them respond, “Why would I spend time on it? It’s just for you.” In contrast, consider a student, who previously considered himself anonymous, telling his teacher, “Mr. Nick, I’m famous now!” after the book he co-authored with his classmates was published. Two very different reactions to a writing experience. How do we understand these two contrasting responses from young writers?
Founded in 2002, the Student Press Initiative (SPI) was designed to develop, foster, and promote writing across the curriculum through student publication, and revolutionize education by advancing teacher leadership in reading and writing instruction. Students transition from “writing for their teacher” to writing for an audience of their choice. To date, SPI has published over 850 books representing the original writing of over 12,000 students. SPI’s core values — project-based instruction, real-world authorship, community of learners, and celebrating student voice — resonate throughout these books. The grounding of these values raise the bar for what, how, and why students write.
We believe in using publishing for a real-world audience as a means to design and shape curriculum and expectations, as well as promote student engagement.
We employ a backwards-planning model, where a final product is used to form an infrastructure for classroom instruction and activities. Through inquiry of the specific requirements and expectations of each project, teachers and students can better articulate the behaviors, artifacts, and customs necessary for the successful completion of the project — and being that publishing a book is a shared experience, students work together to support and encourage one another in new and powerful ways.
Publication projects help to shape the culture, rituals, and routines that take place in the classroom. At the start of a project, a large calendar often overtakes the walls of a classroom, and teachers and students work together to identify the genre, audience, and purpose of their project, as well as establish details and deadlines. This helps establish a strong sense of community and collaboration. This is project-based learning at its best!
Real-world authorship shapes our approach to teaching and learning. Whether the audience is a class of incoming freshmen or first-year teachers in training, we work to connect young writers with actual readers. In the SPI model, classrooms become publishing houses in which teachers and students collectively shape an editorial vision. By exploring questions, issues, or concerns that exist in the world, their community, or within a specific content area, teachers and students collaborate to define a meaningful genre, theme, and audience. Writers then work to understand the expectations of their audience as they craft pieces with real readers in mind.
No matter the content, there is always a real-world model that can demonstrate student learning with panache and voice that will engage readers. Through participation in a publication project, students develop skills and processes similar to those of professional authors. Students are supported through pre-writing and a gathering of ideas, drafting while consistently revising and editing, and finally, publishing, where they format and polish their writing to prepare for publication. Students experience “real” expectations and deadlines for publishing their book. Through these experiences, a strong sense of excitement, energy and urgency emerges.
Community of learners
SPI challenges traditional notions of “experts” in the classroom. Inspired by the work of Lave and Wenger (1996) and what they call “communities of practice,” we aim to cultivate students’ sense of expertise as writers by engaging in processes such as thoughtful inquiry of mentor texts, peer review, and peer editing. Through such processes, teachers and students work to establish a community of writers, consisting of many experts and many resources for learning and growing as authors.
We encourage teachers and students to engage with a variety of texts as they begin to define qualities and attributes of powerful writing. As students learn the skills needed to write successfully, they also become experts in the project’s central theme as they read mentor texts, break genres down into smaller components, and ultimately, craft pieces that represent their learning and culminate in a final publication. A project designed around an in-depth genre study and inquiry invites students into a shared experience, and allows teachers to craft a thoughtful curriculum that addresses specific content and skills.
Celebrating student voice
Every student has a unique voice. Rather than celebrate the work of select students, we aim to celebrate the work of all students, using publication and celebration as a way to leverage and encourage participation.
We believe every project should culminate in celebration — whether teachers and students decide to host a large-scale public reading at a local bookstore, smaller readings at locations such as their own school auditorium or classroom, or virtually with classmates, families, and friends. Celebrations — no matter their size or format — are powerful and rewarding experiences, and allow students to proudly share their writing with their community.
Writing can serve as a tool for creating awareness, raising social consciousness, and providing students with essential life skills. Our core values change the perspective and perception of writing for students around the world. These values, deeply embedded in our publications, reflect best practices for teaching writing in the 21st century, and help prepare students to succeed in lifelong learning.
To learn how you can partner with the Student Press Initiative and bring your students' writing to life, please reach out to us here.
By LAURA RIGOLOSI & SHERRISH HOLLOMAN
Literacy is defined as “the condition or quality of being literate, especially the ability to read and write”, and in education, literacy is often perceived as something teachers “teach” their students. But how can teachers increase their own literacy? And why is it important?
Along with a team of CPET educators, we recently partnered with teacher leaders in the MinHang section of Shanghai, focusing on teacher research. With the goal of preparing teachers to write a research proposal by the week’s end, we spent five days in December exploring the key aspects of teacher research, including research questions and rationale, data collection and analysis, literature review, and drawing conclusions.
During our week of preparing teachers for research, we were reminded of the various types of literacy which extend beyond traditional reading and writing to include digital, media, computer, and content literacy, to name a few. For our purposes, we focused on the “literacy” of research, and found that key concepts remained true, even in Shanghai.
Humor helps just about everything
As we explored the research process, we began by brainstorming various teacher research questions that interested our group. Since we don’t speak Mandarin, we needed a translator to communicate, and were lucky enough to have Kaya Wang alongside us, who loved to laugh and make our participants laugh! Kaya posed this research question in our brainstorm: In what ways does teacher humor impact student participation? As facilitators, we know a good question when we see one, so we highlighted this question and used it for the rest of the week as we modeled each aspect of teacher research.
What a difference laughter makes in any classroom! When we asked our group of teachers to complete a model review of literature on the impact of teacher humor, their research, in and of itself, became funny. By the time they began practicing research using questions of their own, they understood the process of developing and analyzing a compelling question, and they had a bit of fun, too.
As facilitators, we realized how powerful it is to sneak the concept of humor into our teaching. It made all of the participants want to participate, and allowed them to understand the concepts we were teaching within the context of humor. When others walked past our classroom and heard laughing, they took a look inside...was this the classroom for “teacher research?” Why was there so much laughter? It made us examine how crucial the model is, and how delightful classrooms can be if humor is involved.
If you don't know, you don't know
While in Shanghai, we spent one evening at a grand spa with pools, baths, reading rooms, a dining area — it was lovely. Remember, this was before Coronavirus, so we had none of the concerns we would now have about going to a spa.
When it was our turn to get a massage, the masseuse was asking questions (in Mandarin) and when we gestured that we didn’t understand, she spoke louder (we shrugged) and even slower (we shrugged again). We had no translation book and no phones on us (everything was in our lockers), so there was no way to translate. In an act of desperation, she took out a worn, laminated sheet to help communicate — except the characters on it were in Mandarin, so this did not help!
When we discussed our spa experience later, we laughed about the misunderstandings (did we mean to get scrubbed down with a loofah sponge?), but also discussed how often this dynamic happens in classrooms. There are so many students in our care who do not have a strong background in English, and while speaking slowly and loudly may seem like a way to bridge a language gap, it won’t be helpful if the listener does not have a solid foundation in the language.
If only there had been basic images or a few key words on that laminated piece of paper, we would have been able to better understand our options and the fees associated with them. (And I’m not sure we would have chosen the painful loofah scrub.) While this is not a new concept, we revisit it often, especially when creating curriculum or trying to reach online learners. When creating content, we remind ourselves of our time at the spa, and strive to incorporate clean, useful visual cues for those we're teaching.
Great teachers make great students
At its core, research is challenging. When factoring in our language barrier with the Shanghai team, the challenges increased. But time and time again, we were reminded of the importance of allowing ourselves to be students, as well as teachers. We learned as much from the educators in Shanghai as they did from us.
At one point, we ventured out to order dinner from the Pizza Hut beside our hotel. After fumbling our way through trying to order a cheese pizza from the menu, the waitress held her phone near us and we learned about a wonderful translation app that made ordering easy. We spoke in English, and the app translated our words into Mandarin. This gave us great confidence as we navigated through Shanghai on our own, and in our sessions with MinHang teachers. This interaction (at Pizza Hut, of all places!) helped remind us of the importance of providing multiple entry points when navigating new content and concepts, and allowed us to position ourselves as learners in an unfamiliar environment.
We found that everyone played the role of student at various times throughout the week — whether discussing research or language, we all experienced the challenges and benefits of learning. Our ability to reverse roles with those we were meant to be teaching served as a tool for professional growth, for all of us. K-12 classrooms can benefit from this role reversal, too — intentionally offering points in our instruction for student expertise to flourish will allow for increased literacy opportunities through modeling, and will offer everyone (teachers included) the chance to practice lifelong learning skills.
Our time in Shanghai broadened our own definition of literacy and how it can involve humor, visual elements, or at least a hefty dose of translations. What began as an institute focused on teacher research morphed into a collaborative learning experience that challenged assumptions and led us to conclude that there are lessons of literacy in many of our daily interactions — whether in your classroom, a local restaurant, or grand spa in Shanghai. As teachers become more entrenched in the literacy opportunities around them, they can expand their practice and deepen their craft.
TAGS: LAURA RIGOLOSI, LITERACY, SHERRISH HOLLOMAN
By SHERRISH HOLLOMAN
According to the glossary of education reform, student engagement “refers to the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education.” Evidence of learning and indicators of engagement can be commonly observed and relatively easily measured in traditional classroom settings — teachers can monitor students’ behavior as they raise their hands, participate in whole group discussions, or support their fellow classmates in small, cooperative learning groups.
During this time of remote learning, educators around the world are facing a student engagement challenge, as classrooms have transitioned to virtual learning spaces. Instead of in-person teaching and facilitation, computers, tablets, and phones have become the primary tools students use to engage. These changes have also highlighted issues around equity, as every home learning environment doesn’t offer students the same level of access to technology.
And yet, teaching and learning can and will continue — educators around the world have already been reimagining the ways in which they can engage their students. Without the limitations of a 45-minute classroom session, the challenge of hearing 25-30 voices during a short period of time, and the barriers of in-person, adolescent dynamics that make some students less inclined to speak up in front of their peers, new opportunities for engagement have space to emerge.
Zoom can be an excellent tool for engaging students. Teachers can create breakout rooms for small group discussions and pop in and out as a way to monitor conversations in the groups. Consider using student-generated questions or protocols as a way to invite discussion — in advance, students can submit topic-related questions via email, which is a powerful way to garner buy-in and interest. Zoom's chat option is another useful feature that allows students to create a thread of dialogue in the midst of their discussion, and may encourage participation from students who are hesitant to speak up. The chat can also be saved and archived for future discussions.
Google Docs can be a great way to generate conversation and dialogue. Students can be placed in small groups to respond freely to each other using the comment feature, or students can be tasked with responding to two or three other classmates. These comments can become a print-rich discussion that isn’t time bound, and they can allow for metacognition as students track threads of conversation and in turn, think about their thinking.
As a no-tech option, which doesn’t require on-demand access, students can use phone calls or WhatsApp voice notes as a way to have discussions. Consider having students use the technology of three-way phone calls as a way to both check in on one another as well as take part in an academic conversation. Roles can be assigned in each triad, allowing each student to be a facilitator, recorder, or reporter, who will be responsible for sharing conversation highlights with their teacher. If all students aren’t able to find a common time to talk on the phone, consider offering an old-fashioned game of telephone — student A can call student B to discuss the topic; student B then calls student C to share their previous conversation and so on. The last student in the chain of telephone would then be responsible for communicating the highlights of the discussion with the teacher. This process can be repeated many times, with roles alternating within each group.
Engaging the whole child
It’s no surprise that many students are experiencing challenges beyond access to technology during this time. They may have family members who are dealing with illness and unemployment, or who are risking their lives as essential workers each day. If we reflect on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we can remember that students will likely have trouble actively engaging with their education if their more basic needs of safety and security have not been met. It's important to recognize and acknowledge the social and emotional challenges presented by the pandemic. Consider engaging your students by making periodic calls to check in with them and offer support and encouragement. This one-on-one support, however brief, can help connect or reconnect students to the classroom community.
What if it’s not possible to speak to your students individually, on a regular basis? Educators can find opportunities to engage the whole child by incorporating family members into the learning experience. One way to achieve this is by using the Questioning Formulation Technique (QFT), a popular technique that helps students develop their ability to ask questions. Using resources such as photos, cartoons, letters, maps, and articles, students can work alongside a family member or caregiver to create questions around various sources of text that exist in their environment, and then analyze and share the thinking behind them. Alternatively, students can create a short video sharing highlights from their process.
TAGS: REMOTE LEARNING, SHERRISH HOLLOMAN, STUDENT ENGAGEMENT