Small Adjustments to Teaching Can Make a Big Difference in the Classroom (Opinion)

Small Adjustments to Teaching Can Make a Big Difference in the Classroom (Opinion)


There are no magic bullets out there but there are a number of relatively small “moves” we teachers can make in the classroom that have the potential of generating larger positive impacts.

A series from last year shared a number of suggestions, and here are even more (two contributors share the same suggestion, so that one might be especially worth paying attention to!).

Today’s contributors were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

‘Universal Response’

Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey are professors of educational leadership at San Diego State University and teacher leaders at Health Sciences High.

Universal response is an underused “small move.”

These are checks for understanding that allow teachers to adjust lessons in real time based on how students are responding to the lesson. Unlike calling on individual students to answer a question, universal response requires all students to respond at the same time. In this way, teachers can identify trends and spot individual needs rapidly. In general, we suggest that universal-response opportunities are provided at regular intervals, ideally less than 10 minutes apart. Some common universal-response opportunities include:

· Personal dry erase boards that students use to write their answer and then show their response to the teacher (or class) at the same time. The teacher scans the room to decide what to do next, which might include additional modeling, asking for explanations from specific students, inviting students to talk with peers about their responses, or moving quickly through the lessons because students have demonstrated understanding.

· Polls in which students select from a range of choices and then their responses are aggregated. There are several tools that allow teachers to rapidly poll, such as Kahoot, Mentimeter, or Poll Everywhere. The results of the poll might suggest additional instruction is necessary or that students are ready to move on. When there is a split in the responses, teachers can invite students to talk about the data and then poll the students again to see what changes. We especially like a newer feature in Kahoot that allows the teacher to turn off the timed-response points, thus reinforcing for students that accuracy, not just response time, is what is valued.

· Shared whiteboards such as Peardeck, Padlet, or Jamboard allow students to share their understanding in real time, enabling teachers to monitor responses. Again, adjustments in the lesson can occur based on student understandings.

· Physical responses, such as fist to five in which students hold up a specific number of fingers based on their level of understanding (0 = not at all to 5 = I can teach others), allow students to reflect on their learning and provide valuable input to the teacher. This works when there are high levels of trust in the classroom and students know that their responses can result in additional learning.

Each of these options provide an opportunity for teachers to check for understanding and then use the information they obtain from students to make next-steps instructional decisions. When universal-response opportunities are not provided to students, teachers have limited information about students’ understanding as the lesson progresses and run the risk of getting to the end of a lesson with students unable to use the information.

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Sentence Frames and Note-Taking

Jessica Fernandez is a full-time high school teacher and instructional coach near Chicago who specializes in teaching multilingual English-learners and in supporting colleagues to make small language shifts that will benefit all learners:

Two small teaching moves that oftentimes we realize we needed too late are to offer sentence frames and to explicitly encourage students to take notes, write outlines in, seek videos for references in, and collaborate with peers in their home language.

The first, offering sentence frames or starters, allows students to jump-start their thinking and their response. Sneakily, it allows us to incorporate academic language—Tier 2 vocabulary, which crosses content areas and is integral in taking complex thinking and translating it to writing, which is often a challenge for people of all ages. Subordinating conjunctions, conjunctive adverbs, transition words and their functions, these all help our students voice or even challenge them to consider more complex thinking. Most importantly for a “small teaching move,” these take little time to create, are reusable, and can be posted as permanent anchor charts to reference! What’s more, kids who don’t need that support generally won’t use it while kids who do will actually write something for you. If a teacher finds themselves concerned that they are “giving it away,” consider that content skills and language skills are two separate things. Even as an English teacher, I offer sentence starters—it doesn’t help them actually analyze evidence, but it does help them voice their analysis.

Secondly, just voicing that they can and should use their other language(s) to access or explore content is huge. Saying out loud, if you haven’t, that it’s awesome if they have other languages, that you do not want them to lose them, and that they should absolutely grow that other language so they can access academic skills in it, too, is empowering to kids. I don’t have to speak a student’s first language to encourage them to find a resource video in it or to write their outline in it. Their final product needs to be intelligible and, as an English teacher, typically in English, but as someone who studied abroad, even if you are fluent in your second-plus language, it is reassuring to confirm information, understand more comfortably and in depth, talk out ideas, or learn academic terms in our first language so that we can do all the same things in all our languages.

I find that of my high school students who began the year embarrassed by how little they can read, write, or speak in their first language, by second quarter, many are starting to reclaim that identity and understand how not to lose that piece of their culture and family. It’s so important to encourage them to either grow it or reclaim it. Small moves, from reminding them they can and should use it, to adding a “Translation” or “Illustration” column (I include “illustration” as a backup) on a vocabulary worksheet pushes students and requires no language knowledge from me. Is it right? Is it wrong? Do I care? No. I’m looking at the part I’m checking in or scoring, and the student is learning a word in two languages and is way more likely to remember it. I find kids are more interested and successful in learning English when they are referencing another language than when learning English alone.

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Wait Time

Alejandra Carmona-Guzmán has been a SIOP-trained, bilingual certified educator for the past seven years in Texas. She is starting her 8th year in education as a self-contained bilingual 4th grade teacher at Dale B. Davis Elementary School in Carrollton, Texas:

My teaching career started something like this: I was hired to be a writing teacher in May and I prepped from that moment on. Come September, though, through a district mandate, I was sent to be a math teacher on another campus. A subject I had run away from my whole life.

After dusting the disillusionment off, I was adamant about making it as a teacher and helping my students. They didn’t have another shot in 4th grade, and I needed to be enough for them at that very moment. Having that motivation, I attended, read about, and took notes on all the trainings, webinars, and blogs I could fit into my schedule.

Despite my go-getter demeanor, I was still easily outraged every time someone came to one of our staff meetings to present us with a “solution” that came in the form of a 300-page book. I am human after all. Also, I found that the more information I soaked up, the more overwhelmed I felt trying to implement all of it. I needed practical solutions for the now, not when I got around to reading a book or learning the art of pivoting. Teaching is rough, and it’s just a series of constant curveballs and clouds of doubt. We’ve all been there.

Speaking of curveballs, all this professional development didn’t prepare me for the strange phenomenon that was happening in my classroom. Every time I asked a question, the same hands would shoot up or the same mouths would blurt out the answers. It didn’t take me long to notice a high correlation between the hands that stayed down and low scores. Sure, the students answering rapidly were saving me instruction time, but I refused to continue teaching to a handful of students while the rest just sat there.

I started to look for answers and found one within the pages of my Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) book, specifically Page 166 of the 5th edition. Unbeknownst to many teachers, Echevarría, Vogt, and Short discuss an instructional strategy that can be used during whole-group instruction that requires zero prep time and can instantly change students’ quality and number of responses. It can also be used in any content area and in any grade. This move is intentional and targeted to support not only emergent bilinguals but ALL learners. This “teacher move” is called wait time and only requires the following:

· Slowing down lessons to allow time for student interaction

· Patience during implementation

· Breaking a culture of instant gratification

Think about this scenario: You are a student, and your teacher just gave you 15 minutes to read an article. The topic is not only new in class, it’s new to you. When time is up, she asks, what is the difference between this topic and the one discussed a few days before. Instantly, she takes out the Popsicle jar from which you draw a name, and as you sweat bullets, your name is called. You are trying to remember what you read, what was discussed last week, and compare both while trying to construct a coherent answer. And … she drops the Popsicle stick and calls out another name. Your eyes meet, and you can read a “don’t worry about it” in her eyes. The same thing happens every week.

Providing wait time for students does not require much from teachers and provides learners with the necessary time to construct meaningful answers. However, I do want to caution that some students are coming from a long habit of being called on and praised for their quick thinking and will have their hands up from the second they hear a question and will flap their hands incessantly until you cave. Don’t give in. Implementing wait time will make ALL learners feel at ease in a classroom where their voices are valued and their thinking is prioritized.

After months of errors in judgment, landing on the implementation of wait time forever changed the climate and culture of my classrooms while making ALL students accountable for their learning, and I hope it does the same to yours.

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Two Different Kinds of Wait Time

Daman Harris is the manager of the Professional Development Schools program and higher education partnerships in the Anne Arundel County public schools in Maryland. He is also the co-director of the Building Our Network of Diversity (BOND) Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to recruiting, retaining, developing, and empowering male educators of color. Harris’ book, The Antiracist School Leader: What to Know, Say, and Do, is currently available for preorder:

Wait time is a small teaching move that should be more commonly employed in classrooms. It deepens thinking, sharpens responses, supports active listening, and benefits students with a variety of needs.

There are two kinds of wait time, and they’re widely described as Wait Time 1 and Wait Time 2. With Wait Time 1, educators provide a prompt or ask a question and wait 3-5 seconds before asking students to respond. Once a student responds, teachers can employ Wait Time 2, which is waiting 3-5 seconds before reacting to the student’s response. That means no confirming, affirming, questioning, correcting, challenging, or any of the other “ings” that we educators like to do with immediacy. The use of wait time yields multiple benefits:

  • It allows students to think more deeply and enrich their responses.
  • It sends the message that teachers expect students to think deeply and respond richly.
  • Peers can reflect on their classmate’s responses. They might want to add to, agree with, or challenge the responses of other students.
  • It affords English-learners time to process multiple translations. Remember, ELs might have to translate your question into their home language, think of their response in their home language, translate their response into English, and verbalize the response to you.
  • It provides opportunities for neurodivergent thinkers and students with special needs to consider strategies and supports they’ve been taught to help them gain and retain new concepts.

Learners are more thoughtful and engaged when you let the class think about what was asked and how it was answered. Up to five seconds might seem like a long time, but it really amounts to three slow nods while maintaining a thoughtful expression, which I used as my go-to self-reminder early in my career.

Now, here is a word of caution. Wait time is not a magic formula that automatically leads to high levels of student achievement. Great instruction still requires alignment with rigorous standards, connections to students’ lived experiences, activation of background knowledge, differentiated presentation methods, intentional scaffolding strategies, and multiple ways for students to demonstrate understanding. Also, there’s still a danger that our biases increase our likelihood of asking more challenging questions to students for whom we have higher expectations. When educators combine wait time with random calling strategies, it sends the message that teachers believe that all students can think and achieve at high levels. Wait time is a low-cost, high-leverage tool that every educator should employ routinely.

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Thanks to Douglas, Nancy, Jessica, Alejandra, and Daman for contributing their thoughts!

The new question of the week is:

What is a “small teaching move” that you think is not as common as it should be? A “Small teaching move” in this context is an action that would require very little prep, can easily be made into a routine or habit, and is likely to result in increased student engagement and learning.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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