Get all students to participate in class discussion by taking advantage of the fun of writing and passing notes
Reader response compels readers to interact with the text and makes visible for readers and their teachers the depth of text comprehension. This is the fifth in a series on scaffolding writing-to-learn by teaching a variety of reader response strategies before, during, and after reading.
The Problem with Class Discussion
Thirty students in the classroom, all of them participating in an academic discussion … an unattainable goal? Most teachers acknowledge that when they hold class discussions, four or five students typically participate, and always the same four or five students. And it can take prodding and questions from the teachers to entice those few students to contribute to the conversation.
Discussion can be defined as students talking about a topic or a text without input or interjection from the teacher, a description most teachers would agree that classroom discussions do not fulfill. How can teachers increase student participation in discussions? And if a teacher can successfully encourage all students to participate in a text discussion, there are still problems:
- How do they find time for 30 students to discuss one topic?
- If student groups are discussing simultaneously, how can the volume of talk be contained?
- How do teachers discourage students from interrupting each other?
- How do teachers keep adolescents from making inappropriate comments to those whose discussion points are not considered accurate or clever?
- How can students have the time to construct responses to others?
Adolescents love to write and pass notes—secret missives meant for the eyes of one person at a time. And notes allow time to plan a response and the knowledge that the response will be read and considered. Also, the fact that they do not need to look someone in the eye when making a response is comforting to many adolescents. Teachers can effectively employ this technique in their classrooms through a during-reading discussion response strategy: notepassing.
The first step before holding small-group discussions is to teach students how to begin with comments or observations that will initiate discussion. When students merely repeat facts from the text, there is nothing to deliberate. However, when students use facts, quotes, ideas from a text to generate questions, inferences, predictions, or connections, a discussion can ensue—generating conversation by saying, "When the article stated , it made me think of ."
The next steps are to teach ways to develop and extend a discussion when participants agree and when participants disagree.
When students agree with the person initiating the discussion, they typically respond, "I agree," "Me too," or "That's what I was going to say," and the discussion ends there. Students need to brainstorm ways to agree, but to also add comments that extend and continue the conversation, such as I agree AND also thought about… (another example from the text, another text, or from life).
Students also need alternatives to "That's not right." Adolescents typically blurt out comments or employ body language that shows others that their ideas were not considered particularly respected, correct, or smart. Even more importantly, students need to learn tactics to respectfully disagree while effectively continuing and adding to the discussion, such as I think that is true; HOWEVER, I was also thinking…. Or That is a good thought, BUT did you consider…? Once methods of developing discussions have been taught, students are ready to participate in notepassing.
Notepassing Directions for Students (given orally)
- Divide into groups of three [the best number for this activity. If there needs to be 1-2 groups of four, those groups may make another pass—see #6.] After you divide into groups, there is to be no talking.
- Each student is to individually read the article (or textbook chapter or the next novel chapter).
- On a separate sheet of paper, write a two-minute response to the text. Think of something meaningful, significant, or interesting to write about—a good discussion point. Write or print legibly so what you write can be read by others. Then sign your first name. [When the timer signals two minutes, the teacher tells students to finish the sentence they are currently writing and sign their names.]
- Within your triad, pass your paper to the right. Write a two-minute response to the comments made by the person whose paper you receive, continuing the conversation as we discussed. Then sign your name.
- Again pass the papers to the right within your triad. Read the two responses. Write a two-minute response to the comments on the paper you receive, continuing and extending the conversation started by the first two responders; then sign your first name. [When the timer signals two minutes, the teacher tells students to finish the sentences they are currently writing and sign their names.]
- Return the note to its original owner who will read all the responses. [During this time, groups of four can pass and write one more time if the teacher wishes.]
- Your group should now talk about insights or points made in their comments.
- THEN each triad prepares to share with the class:
- The different topics of your "conversations"
- One point about the text on which you all agree and think is important
Examples of Notepassing Responses
Three different conversations held by a sixth grade triad on a social studies article Shattered Lives by Kristin Lewis in Scholastic Scope, January 2015:
|Group 1— Conversation 1
Refugees lives are, well, shattered because of crises, like the Syrian
Refugee crisis, happening around the world. For example Dania went from a
"spacious four-room home with a beautiful garden that bloomed with
olive trees" (6) to hiding in a hole during attacks to having to flee
the country to a little garage.
I agree that their lives are shattered. Refugees go from having a
normal, everyday life, school, friends to fleeing, escaping missiles and
the challenge of surviving. Can you imagine? They have to leave
everything they know behind and flee for their lives.
I totally agree with Alex that refugees get shattered by civil wars and
fighting between countries. I agree that one day your life is normal,
and then the next day it all changes. And instead of being able to go to
school with your friends, you have to try to stay alive every day. And,
as well, you never know when the last time you'll see your best friend
or family or have a home.
|Group 1— Conversation 2
In the article, "Shattered Lives," I can make a connection to the three
other books I have read this year. In all three books there is a refugee
family fleeing due to wars and bad things happening. For example, Dania
and her family have to flee the country due to a civil war in her
country just like in the books I read.
Hi, Evan, I completely agree. In the books A Long Walk to Water and
Refugee people have to flee due to wars and violence. The books are
rather similar. Also, in Refugee, Mahmoud has to leave because of the
Syrian civil war, just like Dania in the article.
Yes, refugees face danger and violence. Some face dictators, missiles,
and even Hitler. They are forced to flee to just survive. I agree with
you, Evan, that all the books we have read have the connection of
fleeing and violence and people are forced to become refugees or stay
and risk their lives. Refugees face many unimaginable dangers.
|Group 1— Conversation 3
Refugees are not alone. Many organizations, like the UNHCR, Save the
Children, and UNICEF dedicate their lives to helping refugees. For
example, Save the Children is working with a government to make sure all
refugee children receive an education, even when they have to go to
school in shifts.
Dear Ava, I totally agree with you that refugees are not alone. For the
same reason as the UNHCR, there are sometimes just people who have
sympathy for refugees and donate to organizations that help out with
Hey, Ya'll, I agree with both of you. Organizations like UNHCR and
UNICEF are helping with many things like education, food, water,
supplies, medicine, and even counseling services. I think they are
helping in a great way and are making a large impact on many refugees'
lives. Hopefully, one day those organizations will be able to reach all
An example of one of the conversations written by ELA students, responding to "The History Teacher" by Billy Collins:
|Group 1— Conversation 1
In the beginning of the poem you can see that this history teacher cares
about his students very much, for he even explains that the brutal Ice
Age was only a "chilly age" where everyone wore sweaters. Although in
the fifth stanza it explains how the kids treat others on the
playground. If the teacher cares as much as I believe he does, why is he
I think this is a very good point because of the interpretation of the
poem's tone. I did not notice how the teacher was very concerned with
his student's innocence yet still allowed the treatment they receive
from fellow students.
I see what you mean—why shield them from the reality of the past but
allow them to negatively impact the future? If he had told them the
harsh truth, maybe they wouldn't be so oblivious to what could happen.
Advantages of Notepassing
After participating in this activity, students were asked to share the advantages they noticed.
- There was time to think before "blurting out"—time to reflect on answers.
- You can look back to what someone said.
- I could revise what I said before passing.
- Everyone has a turn.
- I could jot down thoughts before forgetting.
After participating in this activity in their classrooms, teachers were asked to share the advantages that they noticed. These were some of their observations:
- Everyone participates; in typical discussions only three to five students participate, and it's always the same ones and usually in response to questions I asked.
- There were none of the typical non-verbal reactions, i.e., eye-rolling.
- Taking turns is built into the activity.
- The room is quiet even when 10 group conversations are being held.
- When writing for two minutes, there is more urgency to start writing, and when students "finish" and see that others are still writing, they tend to add more to what they wrote.
- Usually students do not write inappropriate comments—there is something about committing to writing.
- Students are writing comments for other readers, an authentic audience, and an audience other than the teacher.
Notepassing Across the Curriculum
Notepassing can be used as a reader response strategy in any discipline and anywhere there is a catalyst for reflection. Readers can use those reflections to begin discussions with other readers:
- Poetry, novels, short stories, plays, and informational texts of any length in ELA classes;
- Textbook, articles, visuals (visual literacy), in social studies;
- Textbook chapters, articles, or experiments ("reading" an experiential text) in science class;
- Mathematics concepts or problems;
- Musical scores, lyrics, or listening to a musical composition (another experiential, or aural, text);
- Reading visual texts such as anatomy charts, articles, and textbook chapters in health class;
- Artwork as visual texts in art class.
As a during-reading response, notepassing, similar to other response strategies, causes readers to stop and reflect on what they read. The interactive nature of notepassing begins conversations between readers, and considering text in a collaborative manner promotes deeper and more critical reading.
With notepassing, groups of students have developed a basis for oral conversation, and they discover points to share with the class. If a writing activity follows the text reading, triads have rehearsed their thoughts about the text in a low-stakes activity.
Lesley Roessing taught middle school for 20 years before becoming the founding director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and senior lecturer, College of Education, Georgia Southern University. Lesley has published four professional books for educators. The ideas in this column were based on The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension (Corwin, 2009).
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2018.
Create an instructional shift by letting go of these dated mentalities
"Student-centered" is just one set of new buzzwords in the education world. I remember sitting in a professional development session watching a video of students conducting the class with very little input from the teacher. I remember staring at the screen with disbelief. I internally questioned, "Where are those students from?"
I thought to myself, "That school must be nothing like my school. Those students are nothing like my students. There was no way my students would be able to do that."
Days, weeks, and months went by. I pushed the video out of my mind and thought nothing more of it. One day, I sat in my eighth-grade classroom watching one of my male students. Leon was facilitating the warm-up activity. He asked the class a question, to which multiple students raised their hands. Leon selected a student, Aaron, to provide the answer. After Aaron presented his response, Robin raised her hand and asked for clarification. Aaron then turned to Leon and asked him to present his journal to the class to demonstrate a model as to how he arrived at his answer.
It was at that moment, when it hit me. My students had become the students in the video. With a few intentional acts on my part and a release of power, my classroom became the model of "student-centered."
"Let it go," the title of this article, is not a tribute to the famous children's movie, but rather a directive to teachers. To create an instructional shift that focuses on students, there are a few mentalities teachers just need to let go:
If you're like me, you've wanted to be a teacher since you were a child. At the ripe old age of six, I arranged my stuffed animals in a row and provided instruction on the alphabet using my chalkboard.
Many years later, I recognize a few coherent differences between students and stuffed animals. Children tend to be less content with the idea of sitting silently without moving, watching me write on a board. If your middle school classroom follows the lecture model, you are missing a great opportunity to witness discovery and creativity.
When planning lessons, allow the lesson objective to serve as the final destination. How you and the students get to that destination is based on the questions and comments of the students.
There will be times when a student suggests a method of solving a problem that is not correct. Sometimes it is worth the journey down that road if a child discovers the error on his or her own.
While it is indeed important to plan thorough lessons, be prepared to be flexible. Drifting off-road may be necessary to clarify misconceptions. Allow students the opportunity to drive the conversation. This includes sitting or standing in the front of the classroom, potentially writing on sacred chalkboard. A student's handwriting may not be as neat as a teacher's, but it is extremely rewarding to see students excited to provide multiple models to prove to their solution for finding the sum of two integers.
How long after providing a challenging word problem do you see your students' hands in the air asking for assistance? Early in my teaching career, my students would generally complete about two minutes of independent work before calling for reinforcements. Although I would assist them on a particular question, I learned that when these same students were assessed on the material, they had not mastered the concept. That is when I began to see the value of productive struggle.
These days, during the first week of school, when establishing classroom norms, I ask students if they have ever been lost in the same place twice. After a few puzzled looks, the majority of students will say no and a few charismatic individuals will provide an elaborate example of where they lost their way. I would then ask those who said they have been lost in the same place twice, "Was it easier to find your way the second time?" The answer to that question is always, "Yes."
I use this real-life example to explain why I will not answer every question that is asked. There is value to self-discovery of solutions. When students determine an appropriate method of solving a problem on their own, that knowledge belongs to them entirely. Moving forward, students will rely on their own reasoning and connections to solve problems. That is what is meant by a productive struggle.
Gone are the days of teachers and encyclopedias being the only sources of information. At any given moment, a student can look up the value of Avogadro's number or the height of the Eiffel Tower in centimeters. Students literally have information at their fingertips.
Although the knowledge of the teacher still has value, the teacher's role must shift from the imparter of information to a more crucial role. The teacher's job is to teach students how to persevere and think critically. Additionally, students should learn that they themselves, in collaboration with their classmates, know enough to accomplish any task. Students can serve as a great resource for other students, providing models and explaining material in a way they understand. When students are pushed to use their peers as a source of information, true collaboration begins.
Now that you are prepared to let go of your former ways of thinking, please know that students independently running a class will not casually happen overnight. Students must be trained through modeling, clear expectations, and practice. Here are two strategies to begin the process:
Warm-ups are a great place to begin student facilitation. Students do not actually need to know how to solve the question in order to be the student facilitator. The student leader can begin by asking a member of the class to read the question. A follow-up question can be something as simple as, "Does anyone have an idea on how to solve this problem?" It is also helpful if a list of potential questions is placed on the desk next to the projector to support facilitators.
Middle school students naturally love to argue. One strategy is to use this adolescent interest and to shift the culture of the classroom to be more student driven by allowing students to debate concepts. You can establish this culture shift by selecting two student volunteers with opposing views.
Be clear to establish the expectations of the debate. Only debaters are allowed to speak, taking turns and allowing individuals to finish speaking. If students in the audience wish to assist with the argument, they should raise their hand and wait for an original debater to select them for help.
After the first debate, the teacher should have students reflect on the experience. As students analyze what worked well and what needs to be improved, they are shaping the rules for the next debate. A teacher can help students during an argument by asking questions such as, "What previous question have we done in class together that will support your argument?" or "What pictorial model could you create to prove your answer?" These questions gently push students to justify their answer. The more practice students have debating, the more natural justification becomes.
Ultimately, the goal is for students to have ownership of their own learning. For teaching and learning to belong to students, teachers must first let it go.
Vanessa M. Gibson is an instructional lead teacher at James Madison Middle School, Upper Marlboro, Maryland.
Published July 2018.
The power of reflections and experiences for a professor returning to the classroom
At last year's AMLE Annual Conference for Middle Level Education, I was surrounded by passionate, knowledgeable preservice and inservice teachers, veteran and new administrators, and early career and retired professors. We were enlightened with lively discussions that captured our hearts and minds with stories and data, and we were challenged to think and rethink how we reach out to one another and to our students.
For one of my presentations, I shared a professional activity I had engaged in for a year. I serve a university as a professor in the education department, and I left the university to return to the classroom to teach eighth grade math in a rural county in western North Carolina. The school I joined was in their second year as a middle school and their first year as a one-to-one school.
We were not a high performing school, and our population of children received free lunch and breakfast for all children. In addition, we were considered a full-service school; the support our children received ranged from food to medical assistance to social and emotional advocacy.
I worked on a five-person team of teachers and with faculty, staff, and administrators committed to collaborating to meet the needs of our students. As a school new to the middle school concept, our teachers engaged in teaming, collaborative team projects, advisory, and clubs. The students participated in Battle of the Books thanks to our librarian and Science Olympiad thanks to the science department and other teachers.
Students wrote essays, honored veterans, and participated in talent contests in our community. Two groups of teachers were given the autonomy to set up school-wide support groups. One group of teachers designed and implemented a club for young men and another group implemented a peer tutoring club. My team's students made banners to support Red Ribbon Week and Earth Day.
We were grouped by teams and were set up for professional learning communities by content areas. Our school improvement team created school-wide goals and worked with our PTA to support and celebrate our community.
At the end of the year, our school met growth, and 98% of our Algebra I students passed the end-of-course exam. I worked with dedicated teachers, a dedicated parent teacher association, and supportive administrators who embraced the challenges and opportunities associated with advocating for young adolescents.
My goals were to (1) embrace the experience to glean what is needed in teacher preparation; and (2) serve a school as an educator, walking next to those closest to the field. The following are my takeaways.
My first takeaway involved the power of reflection. I wrote 97 blog posts over the course of the year as part of my professional development plan. For each reflection I listed at least three pieces of advice. I used the 16 characteristics of This We Believe (NMSA, 2010) to label each blog. I wonder how many teachers reflect on their year and use the experiences to begin to plan for future years? I'm thinking—and hoping—that many do! Had I not purposely reflected through the year, many experiences, insights, and aha moments would have been lost. I highly recommend teachers reflect intentionally on their experiences.
Sharing and Learning with Colleagues
It's helpful to find someone to reflect with. Over the course of the year, I reflected with two colleagues intentionally. I drove to work with a colleague at least three days a week. The time we spent driving to and from work became a think tank, a reflection pool of our day, of our students and colleagues, and of our personal insights and dreams.
I also participated in a virtual reflection activity with a friend who teaches science in another state. We focused on "engaged learning" as part of her professional development plan. We celebrated successes, and sometimes just listened; well, actually we all were participant-listeners. I truly believe these two experiences made us more reflective, and gave us uninterrupted time to process our days and our ideas. We all agreed that we are better teachers because we had the chance to debrief, sometimes vent, and to celebrate and advocate for one another.
Keeping the Big Picture in Mind
There are so many facets to teaching, and so many expectations including, but not limited to, college and career readiness, critical thinking, literacy integration, technology, ethics, standards, objectives, civic engagement, social and emotional development, leadership, exploration, lesson planning, differentiation, assessment, parent involvement, homework, projects, communication, grading, collaborative planning, interdisciplinary units, clubs, safety and wellness, teaming, and mindfulness.
Focusing on academic excellence, developmental responsiveness, and creating environments that are challenging, empowering, and equitable can seem a bit daunting. Fortunately, there are tools to guide you. I recommend that you use This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents (NMSA, 2010) as an overview to give you a framework, a common language, and to remind you of the big picture.
Remember that teaching is a journey to embrace and grow. One thing we often forget is that along with teaching content, our job is to advocate for all of our students, our students' guardians, our colleagues, and ourselves. Find ways to celebrate and appreciate all who advocate for middle school students.
Finally, I hear from administrators, professors, and district personnel who say, "I wish I could go back into a classroom." I would encourage professors, administrators, and district personnel to find a way to become part of a team for a week, a semester, or a year. When I was teaching in Gainesville, Florida, my chair, Paul George, would spend two weeks teaching a social studies unit to eighth graders. He inspired me to seek ways to stay in touch with middle school students.
There is magic in classrooms. The true spirit of middle level education lives in the halls and classrooms and with teams of teachers across this country. Living this experience every day was powerful, inspirational, enlightening, and necessary to me as a professor of education. If not for an entire year, I recommend a semester, or one class for a semester, or work with a team to plan and implement an interdisciplinary unit, to revive your own knowledge and to live the power and spirit of middle level education.
Nancy Ruppert is a professor at the University of North Carolina, Asheville and serves as a trustee and past-president of the AMLE Board of Trustees. She has taught middle school math and science in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, coordinated middle grades programs at Shorter College and Charleston Southern University, and served as president of the National Professors of Middle Level Education (NaPOMLE).
Published July 2018.
Designing homework with students of poverty in mind
Homework, like taking a daily vitamin, is supposed to be good for us. So why all the angst over a seemingly benign antidote? For teachers, homework is frequently just another piece of paper to grade; for parents, another evening chore to be done; and for students, a competitor at odds with their extracurricular events.
But when properly planned and executed, homework can become a valuable part of a lesson plan that challenges students, extends the learning day, and informs the teacher.
Homework is generally expected by students, parents, and teachers but how to assign it, manage its completion, and review it for optimum results often escapes even the most enthusiastic educator. Homework that works ideally promotes student learning. It gives students the opportunity to practice skills just taught, prepares them for upcoming units, promote application of learned concepts to real life situations, and encourages creativity.
So why do we get it wrong so often? Much like an iceberg whose appearance makes one think that it is deceivingly small, there is more to well-designed homework than meets the eye. Give them a worksheet, assign a due date, grade it. Great practice right!? Not so.
Designing homework, like designing good lessons, requires an investment of time and planning. But teacher beware: if you teach students in poverty, as a growing number of us do, homework is particularly tricky. Students in impoverished homes have the potential to benefit the most from homework, yet these students often lack the resources to get it done.
Students from struggling homes often do not have the adult supervision needed to help with homework questions, do not have resources to buy supplies needed for projects, and are often laden with evening childcare responsibilities that make night time homework assignments unreasonable.
Despite these challenges, do not despair! With a little planning and a lot of thought, homework can be an important and fruitful part of your lesson plan.
Getting homework right for students in poverty means providing adequate timing for its completion, limiting the resources needed to complete it, helping students who have questions, pacing the work, ensuring follow-up, and giving generous feedback upon its completion. For teachers to create effective homework, each of these aspects must be considered in design and implementation.
Consider the timing and resource needs of homework assignments. It is often helpful to extend the due date for homework completion so that it spans a weekend. This allows students with limited access to adults during the week to ask questions over the weekend. This is particularly true of students who live in single parent homes where the adult is often too busy or working during the weeknights leaving only a grandparent, sibling, or the student himself in charge of the weekday evening schedule.
Ensuring that the homework assignment spans a weekend, also helps students in homes where custody is shared. Often, and for various reasons, students prefer doing homework with one of their parents. Increasing the time frame to complete assignments improves the chances that they will be able to work with the preferred parent.
Regarding tangible resources, teachers need to be sensitive to family budgets and make sure that homework projects do not require costly supplies but can be done with common household items. This also applies to assignments that require internet access in the home. Students who live in poverty do not have access to this luxury that many of us take for granted.
Consider the amount of assistance a student may need to complete the homework assignment. If it requires that each student have a firm understanding of the math concepts that were recently taught, then it is important that teachers give students a chance to get started on the assignment during class. This will give them the opportunity to make sure they understand the directions as well as ask any questions they have about the skill. Teachers can also build in the necessary scaffolding by providing examples of correct answers and the accompanying math work that is expected.
Students will also benefit from teachers who assist them in pacing homework assignments. Without reminders and encouragement, many students will put off even the largest of assignments until the day before it is due with dismal results.
While allowing a flexible time frame for homework completion is necessary for some students, others will benefit from help breaking homework assignments into manageable parts. If 20 homework problems are assigned on Monday, it can be helpful to require that 5 problems be completed each night.
It is critical that the teacher check for homework completion each day and respond to any questions about the homework. This ensures that the teacher identifies those who need help and clears up any questions. Despite this suggestion, there is only one constant with homework, and that is the need to remain flexible with scheduling.
To improve the chances that students do their homework and benefit from its completion, teachers often play the role of disciplinarian, cheerleader, and advocate. Sadly, students who live in poverty often lack an adult who has time to closely monitor assignments and continually push students to complete them. As a result, they lack the pressure often needed to get work done.
To more teachers can fill this role, the better. Providing these students with generous and positive feedback goes a long way to ensuring the current and future success of assigned homework.
Reality is such that students from impoverished households often lag their wealthier peers in academic performance. For these students it is important to do whatever possible to extend their learning time if we are to "catch them up." Designing and implementing effective homework is one way to do this. Considering these recommendations in your homework design will go a long way in helping students get ahead and stay there!
Mary Rollins is a sixth grade math teacher at the Health Sciences Academy at Monroe Middle School, Monroe, North Carolina.
Published June 2018.
Keeping students organized and in charge of their own learning
Where did I put those notes again?
Umm … I think I threw those notes away Ms. H.
I don't know how to study for this quiz!
Ugh, I hate taking notes!
When did we learn this?
Wait … did we even learn this?!
Does any of this sound familiar? These were phrases that I aimed to hear as little as possible (a tall task indeed) during my first year of teaching sixth grade science to a diverse and eager group of students. I didn't want to make multiple copies of every handout for students who would constantly lose or misplace them. I wanted to make sure that as many of my students as possible would not only take notes, but actually refer back to these notes when needed.
How could I have students take ownership in his or her own science learning? How could I teach students to be organized enough to keep all their science notes throughout each unit? And to not only keep these notes, but refer to them as a study tool?
Well, I didn't find the answer to all of those questions, but I did find something that worked brilliantly for my science students and me. This is the use of Science Interactive Notebooks. By introducing Science Interactive Notebooks into my classes:
- I gained a system for classroom management and organization
- Every lesson took advantage of a different learning style
- I found I could quickly assess students' knowledge of science concepts by peeking into their notebooks
- Students had much more ownership of the entire learning process
- Students became more responsible (they had to maintain and keep up with their own notebook)
Set-up is Key!
My students used Science Interactive Notebooks throughout the school year. The notebooks were set up within the first two weeks of school and maintained until the end of the school year. I cannot stress how important this step of the interactive notebook process is! You want to make sure that you and your students are all (literally) on the same page.
Each student was given a black and white marble composition notebook at the beginning of the school year. The notebooks were first set up by having the students sign a Science Interactive Notebook contract. This contract stated that the students were responsible for being neat, not skipping pages, and putting forth their best effort on every page. The students signed the contract, acknowledging that they would uphold these notebook rules.
We then spent classroom time to set up pages for our table of contents, as each page in the notebook was required to have a title, date, and page number. I thought this was important and time well spent because I wanted the students to value their notebooks.
To increase the value and ownership, I awarded $20 at the end of the year to the person who was the owner of the neatest Science Interactive Notebook in each class period. For future reference, I would recommend using something less costly as an incentive. Sixth graders are still very motivated by candy, so a jumbo-sized candy bar would work great as well!
- A notebook for each student
- A class set of glue or tape
- A class set of scissors
- Pre-printed class sets of handouts, notes, tables, etc. for the students to put in their Science Notebook
You will need a place to store the notebooks. I used a milk crate in the back of the room with labels for each class period. Students knew to put their notebooks neatly back in the crate at the end of the period.
What Goes in a Science Interactive Notebook?
The answer to that question: just about anything and everything! For the most part, class activities and class notes were placed in our Science Interactive Notebooks. Most pages looked different from one another, as we engaged in many different activities to reinforce the concepts of sixth grade science.
Using the Science Notebook as an Assessment Tool
The Science Interactive Notebook offers the teacher a unique means of assessing student progress in the classroom. The notebook can be used to assess the growth in students' understanding as well as their ability to summarize and express their thoughts and feelings.
This assessment can look different depending on the teacher, grade level, and class content. I personally, would take up the notebooks towards the end of every quarter and assess the students for an overall completion grade.
In all, the Science Interactive Notebook is a record of student work throughout the course of the school year. What better way to see growth or lack thereof? It's a powerful assessment tool.
Teaching Students Responsibility and Accountability
The biggest take away for me was the increase in student responsibility that I saw throughout the year with the Science Interactive Notebooks. At the end of the day, students were responsible for the upkeep of their notebooks, making sure they were labeled, organized, and included everything they needed.
The Science Interactive Notebook is a great way for students to stay organized. With all of their work in one place, all students have what they need. This has the added benefit of becoming a long-term resource. If students had a question on something we covered earlier in the year, or were trying to study for a quiz, they could easily turn to their table of contents to see where this information was located. It also saved me the headache of constantly being asked "When did we learn this? What page is that on?"
As you can probably tell, I am a big proponent of the use of interactive notebooks. I believe the notebook helped my students learn how to think as a scientist, record as a scientist, and reflect as a scientist. One of my favorite parts about the Science Interactive Notebook was that it chronicled almost everything we learned and did throughout sixth grade science. The students could look back in their notebooks to find the answer to a question instead of relying on me for an answer.
Ideally, the notebooks are used for both teacher and student input. The right side (teacher input) of the notebook could house information given to students from the teacher, including lecture notes, textbook notes, and lab activities. The left side (student output), is where students could demonstrate understanding of the notes taken on the right side. This can take on a variety of forms like questions, self-reflection, data from experiments, concept maps, and more. This is something I may try to add into notebooks in the future, but in my first year of teaching I found that the notebooks worked fine as a means to store information and to help students improve their organizational and recall skills while fostering the transfer of knowledge.
Alison Hoadley is a special education strategist at Emerado Elementary, Emerado, North Dakota.
Published May 2018.
Strategies for developing collaboration skills
As a robotics teacher at Pickerington Ridgeview STEM Junior High, one of the major skills I focus on building in my students is collaboration. Being able to work well with others to accomplish a shared goal is not just an academic skill, but rather a life skill. Life skills are the base that academic skills are built on.
In their groups, students are given a real-life problem to solve by building and programming a solution. These problem-based challenges are purposefully open-ended with numerous ways they can be solved. Below are strategies that have proved to be successful with this type of group work learning environment:
1. Groups of 2-3 students
Two students per group is best, three works well, and four students is too many. With four in a group, there is more of an opportunity for students to be off task and not focused on the challenge.
2. Purposefully selected groups
Below are types of groups I incorporate:
- Homogenous Groups — Higher level learners with other higher level learners, medium level learners with other medium level learners, and lower level learners with other lower level learners
- Heterogeneous Mixed Groups — A high level learner with a medium or lower level learner
- Completely Random — Have a random computer generator select the group members
- Student Choice — Students get to choose their group members
3. Groups working at their own speed
As students solve one challenge, they then move to the next challenge, whether other groups are done or not. For some groups, this allows more time to solve the problem at hand. For others it allows them to move to the next problem without having to wait on others.
4. Whole-class challenge
To further build collaboration, the next level of group work evolves from groups of students working independent of each other to all groups working together for a united cause. A challenge is proposed to the whole class and each group of students is responsible for a different part of the solution. These different components are then combined to solve the proposed problem.
For example, one challenge I propose to students is to build a life-size moving robot. The class is divided into seven groups. Six of the groups are tasked with building and programming the different body parts (head, chest, right/left legs, right/left arms). One group of all higher-level learners is designated as the "Troubleshooters Group." This group is in charge of combining the different body parts together and communicating with the different groups to make sure the parts fit together; for instance, the head isn’t too big for the chest, the right leg is not longer than the left leg. The Troubleshooters Group also helps the other groups with any issues that arise.
A similar project is the Amusement Park Challenge, in which groups of students design, build, and program different amusement park rides and then combine them together to create a class Amusement Park. Most of the challenges in my Robotics 2 class are designed this way.
Taking it to the Next Level
Looking ahead, the next level of building collaboration will be putting students in charge of determining the different roles for each group instead of me pre-determining them. In this case, the students will figure out how to split up the project into different components. Then once the roles have been determined, each group will be given a job to complete. Once completed, the different components will be combined together to solve the problem that was presented to the students.
For example, I would tell the students that they have one week to build a life-size robot that can move forward and backward, opens and closes its hands, and shows two different facial expressions. And with this, the students will figure out how to divide the task so each group is in charge of a different element of the robot.
The final level of building collaboration is for students to articulate their own problems and challenges that the whole class will solve in a similar fashion by breaking the challenge into tasks, then combining the different components to solve the problem at hand. In this case, students are engaging in service learning; they’re identifying problems in their communities and designing and creating a solution.
These strategies are not just applicable in a Robotics classroom, they're applicable in all subject areas. Incorporating a focus on collaborative problem-solving in the classroom is a life lesson that will help students no matter where they go.
Ross Hartley is a seventh grade automation and robotics teacher at Pickerington Ridgeview STEM Junior High School, Pickerington, Ohio.
Published May 2018.
Good note-taking helps students focus in class and learn organizational skills
As anyone who has taught middle school knows, seventh grade can be an interesting time for students and teachers alike. Some students arrive almost ready to move on to high school and start conquering the world, while others seem like they would be more comfortable in the warmer, friendlier confines of an elementary school. As seasoned educators we know that they aren't any more likely to conquer the world at this age than they are to return to elementary.
The demands of school can be a difficult balancing act. They are out of sixth grade and any sense of being an elementary student, but they are not yet in eighth grade getting ready to move on to high school. I've often felt that part of my job as a middle school teacher is to prepare my students for what they are going to encounter as they enter eighth grade and beyond. Their teachers will increasingly expect them to come into class ready and willing to learn and to have the required work ethic to succeed.
Unfortunately, many students are shocked and surprised at what they are expected to be able to know and do: they are expected to constructively manage their time and prioritize tasks; they are expected to have well developed study skills; they are expected to be able to work independently and with their fellow students on long- and short-term projects, all while using the latest technology. In short, they are going to be treated the way any adult who has a job would be treated. To many students this may seem unfair, and to a degree, they might be right.
So what is a well-meaning, well-intentioned middle school teacher to do? I tried to look at what I could do that would help my students, not only in my class, but also in school in general. Should I focus on test taking strategies? Maybe jumping in with both feet on technology usage? What about building up their self-esteem? How about making class nothing but fun, fun, fun?
After lots of thinking and debating, I decided on something that was simple and ordinary, but potentially powerful. I was going to teach my students how to properly take good, useful notes in class.
I know what you might be thinking, note-taking is not very 21st century … students don't like taking notes…they never use their notes … it's boring! I focused on note-taking because of the benefits to my students. Good note-taking can help improve focus and attention to what is being taught in class. It can help increase memory, retention, and comprehension, something many of my math students need. Note-taking can help students learn how to prioritize and organize material and discard unnecessary information. It can help them improve their organizational skills and can even help them increase their creativity.
Method to the Madness
I looked at different note-taking models to get an idea for what would be the best method for students in my class. I looked at several different types from the Cornell Method to mapping and charting methods and all of them had things that I liked, but didn't necessarily fit exactly what I needed in my middle school math classroom. So I decided to take some parts from these different methods and come up with a hybrid method of my own.
I started the school year by having all of my students purchase a college ruled notebook, not a spiral bound one (I keep each period in a separate crate and the spiral ones tend to get hooked on each other.) I told them that I would be keeping the notebook in the classroom but that they would be free to come in and get it if they needed it to complete an assignment or to study from for an upcoming test.
Every student labelled their notebook and created a pocket in the back for our (semi) daily warm ups. I had each student attach a blank table of contents page to be filled out as we finish a page or section and also a goals section that they could fill out and tell what they wanted to get out of their notebook. I also informed them that there would be periodic notebook checks so as to make it more meaningful to them.
On any average day in my classroom, students will have around four different parts to their notes: a warm up, topic heading, vocabulary, and examples or practice. On some days there may be a time when I have my students tape, glue, or staple a chart or graph into their notebook if it is something that is difficult to take notes from.
Most days we start with a warm up to get the math juices flowing, it is usually something that they know from a previous lesson that will tie in with what we're doing today like two problems on adding and subtracting integers or multiplying and dividing integers. Students complete them and share with a neighbor, then I ask for volunteers to share with the class. We do these on a separate page that goes in the warm up pocket in the back of the notebook.
When we start the lesson, I teach them from the start to write what the topic is at the top of the page or halfway down the page if that's where we left off previously. I limit any new vocabulary to no more than four words and their definitions; any examples that we do together are done under the vocabulary (if there is any) and so are any examples that they have to do independently or with a partner.
Learning As We Go
The first couple of weeks were a learning experience for many of my students, some of them tried to write down absolutely everything and would want to start over if they made a mistake or if it wasn't done neatly enough. So I had to teach them how to look for the important and relevant information, I even went as far as saying, "Don't write this down but do write this." I also had to teach them that it's ok to abbreviate as long as they know what it stands for and that if their notes are a little sloppy that's ok too as long as they can read what they wrote down.
As the year has moved along they have gotten better at recognizing what was important and what was not. They have gotten into good habits with their notes. The great thing about teaching note-taking is that I have also had many students come in and get their notebook to use when doing assignments and also to study when we have an upcoming test. Having them learn this useful skill will only continue to help them as they continue their scholarly journey.
Pat Edwards is a seventh grade math teacher at Andersen Middle School, Omaha, Nebraska.
Published April 2018.
Literacy strategies to transform instruction and deepen learning
Social studies instruction requires students to understand complex concepts, read dense primary source documents, and critically consider various perspectives. As a social studies and English language arts teacher, I have found that integrating writing and discussion literacy strategies into social studies can transform the classroom environment and help students navigate complex concepts.
Stopping to write and discuss content allows students to begin processing what they know before continuing to receive more information. Students also develop a more complete understanding of the content and increase their critical thinking skills when they are given consistent opportunities to write and talk about content.
Taking time to write and discuss may feel like an extra step in an already busy schedule, but taking a few minutes to implement these strategies can propel the curriculum forward because students initially develop a deeper understanding of the content.
Stop and Write
When students encounter complex texts, having them stop for a moment to write allows them to take a break from receiving new information and process what they have learned. As students write about content, they naturally discover their own level of comfort with the concept. The writing strategies can be used on their own or as a step toward another activity. Improving writing skills isn't the primary goal of this strategy but is often a positive secondary outcome.
Considerations for Implementation
- Think of it as writing to learn instead of writing for a grade.
- It is often helpful for students to share their writing, which motivates students and allows them to hear the ideas of their classmates, ask and answer questions, and promote continued critical thinking.
- It can provide students an idea of their own strengths and weaknesses while giving the teacher data to drive instruction.
- There are appropriate times for students to represent their ideas with pictures, phrases, or symbols.
- It allows the teacher to hold every child accountable for their response to complex questions.
- As students are writing, the teacher can glance at students' work to monitor their progress.
Implementing Writing Strategies
Begin by providing students with an open-ended prompt about the content. Student writing could include questions, opinions, connections, and predictions. I present this to students as time to think about what they are learning, not an assessment of their knowledge. I give them 1-4 minutes to continuously write about the topic.
The benefit of asking students to write without stopping is that they won't have a chance to second guess themselves and will get more of their ideas on paper. There are times when it is more appropriate to encourage "think time" and give them a few minutes to write without making time part of the assignment. It all depends on the content and the students.
After the time for writing is complete, students can be given an opportunity to process their writing using the Post-Writing Activities below or move on to the next part of the lesson.
- Students use their writing to create a more concise statement by taking out unnecessary information and synthesizing their ideas.
- Students mark any new ideas they thought of while writing and jot down lingering questions.
- At the end of a unit students look back at all their writing and create a document with information to review.
- Students close their eyes and raise hands if they included certain things in their writing to provide the teacher with a quick formative assessment.
- Students pick the most important sentence, phrase, picture, or word from their writing and share with a friend.
- Students read their writing and jot down anything they still need to learn to completely answer the question given.
- Students pass their written response to a partner, read the partner's response and then respond to it in written form on their paper. This can be done once as a partner activity or the papers can be passed in a circle between groups of 4-5 students, each time students continue to add to the ideas written by the person before them.
- Follow up with a discussion strategy.
Stop and Discuss
Many students benefit from writing their ideas before sharing them, while other students find it easier to develop their ideas while talking about them. Conversations between students provide an opportunity for them to speak, listen, and focus on critical thinking skills while developing a better understanding of the content. Engaging students in these types of conversations allows them time to process ideas, holds them accountable for supporting their opinions with facts, introduces them to new ideas, creates an authentic opportunity to use academic language, and teaches collaboration and communication.
Considerations for Implementation
- Students should consistently refer to the text to support their ideas during the discussion.
- Providing students with time to talk about their ideas may seem like an invitation for students to socialize, but if time limits and expectations are set, it can actually reduce the amount of unrelated conversation students have during class.
- Some students will need conversation starters when they begin to engage in collaborative conversations.
- Most of the small group discussion strategies require very little advance preparation other than constructing questions and setting up protocols for discussion. At any point in a lesson a teacher can stop and have students discuss. The majority of the "work" will be at the beginning of the year as students learn different discussion strategies.
- Timed Partner Discussion: Start with a specific question or idea that students should discuss. Set a time for each student to talk, depending on age or topic, around 1-2 minutes. Instruct students to talk for the entire time, trying to share as many ideas that they can within that time. While they are talking, their partner should be actively listening and taking brief notes on what they hear. When the time is up, the other student is given a little less time to talk and then they are instructed to share only ideas that their partner did not share. The activity can stop there or continue by allowing students to collaborate and come up with a summary of their discussion.
- Discussion Line: Students sit or stand in two lines facing each other. The teacher poses a question that is open ended and requires critical thinking. Students spend a few minutes discussing the question with their partner using evidence from the text. After a few minutes, the students rotate so they are facing a new partner. They then discuss the same question with their new partner. At this point, depending on the complexity of the question, students can rotate to another partner and continue discussing the same question or be given another question to discuss. This strategy gives students consistent fresh perspective and gives them a chance to move around a little.
- Discussion Stations: Set up enough stations around the room to have groups of 3-4 students. Each station should include a critical thinking question. Students move with their groups to discuss each question jotting down notes individually or collectively. The teacher will set a time limit for each station based on the question, text, and age of students. This can be set up so students visit all stations or only certain stations based on interest or as a differentiation strategy. Students can also share ideas with all of the groups by writing down some of their big ideas as they visit each station for other groups to read.
The potential success of implementing writing and discussion literacy strategies in social studies is described below by two of my students.
"When you talk about something it helps you find out if you understand it … and lets you hear new ideas that you hadn't thought of before … when I write out something it helps me remember and understand it better." Sophia, 7th Grade
"When you speak something out loud that you have been reading it will stay in your memory … you hear perspectives that are different from you own when talking to others about something you read … Writing about things you learn in social studies lets you find new ways to think about what you read and decide if you know enough to answer the question." Annabelle, 7th Grade
Kasey Short teaches English and social studies at Charlotte Country Day School (NC), where she also serves as English Department Chair and Spotlight Challenge coordinator.
Published April 2018.
Literacy as sustaining practice in every classroom
Régine recently decided to plant a flower garden. A friend, who was also a master gardener, volunteered to help. Immediately, this friend began talking about how plants create "themes" in a garden. Would there be a theme of color, height, or texture? That's when Régine nearly gave up before even starting. She didn't want a theme, she wanted flowers. When Régine asked her sister for advice, the response was perfect: "How about the theme of plants that stay alive?"
Creating Common Ground
To us, Régine's experience in the garden became a metaphor for why a "culture of literacy" creates anxiety for many teachers. While we all work to improve student learning, what becomes problematic is when academic "themes" or initiatives distract from our own class goals or curriculum. Although literacy instruction has always existed in content area classrooms, it has not necessarily been recognized as such.
In "Reading as Reasoning," Edward Thorndike noted that "it is in their outside reading of stories and in their study of geography, history, and the like that many school children really learn to read." Unfortunately, what Thorndike observed in 1917 has been replaced with another view suggesting that content area teachers are not doing enough to support the literacy development of their students. We should abandon that narrative, which is one of blame, and replace it with dialogue that shows how the disciplines offer a sustainable approach to literacy instruction.
Most teachers recognize that using meaningful reading, writing, and discussion strategies improves thinking and learning. Yet, when there is discussion of embedding literacy instruction in school culture, teachers often think that this requires significant knowledge of early reading instruction (phonics, syllables, fluency, etc.) It may, but, more importantly, often it does not!
How we think about literacy has expanded considerably over the years so it now reflects the listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills necessary for the effective, even elegant, communication and construction of knowledge in any field. Likewise, our ideas of what constitutes "text" have also developed to include maps, images, blueprints, performance, and other media. These new ways of thinking about text position teachers to use the unique materials and resources of their own disciplines to support literacy instruction. So, our concerns about implementing seemingly contrived reading and writing activities in our classrooms may be a thing of the past.
Innovative and creative instruction using texts that are more unexpected may be one way to keep things "alive." For example, clips from the movie Money Ball have helped us illustrate the need to approach problems flexibly and demonstrate the importance of knowing which data are most helpful when making decisions. It's not a matter of data being available, but rather having the data that's needed. In another class, we ask students to analyze several pieces of artwork that depict life in the Middle Ages to create a story of the time period—one that is shaped and supported by the art—before diving into textbooks and other challenging sources.
Sowing in Rocky Soil
We ask teachers and administrators to rethink how they define a culture of literacy. If it's packaged as another initiative to improve reading and writing scores on mandated testing, it's not surprising when efforts to embed one type of literacy instruction in all classrooms meets resistance. This resistance can become entrenched when certain issues are not addressed: time, a disconnect between content and "strategy of the month" models, and whether teachers feel they have the adequate preparation to take on this work. Thus, a singular approach to literacy instruction is unsustainable.
The Intellectual Greening of Our Classrooms
What we need is a renewal of literacy practices across the curriculum that returns teachers to their comfort zones of content expertise. This is not about complacency; it's about starting from what we're already good at. In this way, the emphasis shifts from targeting basic reading skills to one where teachers model how mathematicians, scientists, or historians contribute to their respective fields by using the language and methods that are distinct from other subjects—an approach embraced by many literacy researchers. With this in mind, two core beliefs guide our work in middle school: (1) content knowledge is valuable and (2) share what you value.
Content Knowledge is Valuable
Knowing what something is should be as important as knowing what it's not. In the era of Common Core State Standards, teachers may feel the need to leapfrog over literal knowledge so they can focus on questions considered to require higher level thinking. Yet, no inference or analysis can stand up to scrutiny if there's a wobbly understanding of the facts. And, yes, there are facts; it's how we order, reveal, and interpret them that create a narrative. Based on this narrative, we make decisions and act for good or ill.
Our interactions with students over time create another narrative, one that tracks their learning and engagement. Class activities need to be dynamic so they motivate students to take on challenging texts and concepts. For example, one reading activity involves having each student articulate one piece of newly learned information—ideally from a reading, video, or experiment—in one sentence or even just a phrase that can be revised, further developed, or corrected by other members of the class (including the teacher). In most cases, this information will include discipline-specific vocabulary that reinforces students' awareness and understanding of it. Scribing the facts so all can see makes this process easier. While some facts might be duplicated, the goal is to develop a more comprehensive overview of a topic by having numerous and different statements. You can also see whether students have been distracted by an incredible statistic or an edgy detail that's not really pertinent. Rather than putting students or the teacher on the spot, this sort of activity shows that learning requires community, collaboration, and the need to revisit a text. Finally, developing a written summary together supports content-based writing instruction, especially with transitions and academic language, until students are more adept writers.
Share What You Value
Some of our colleagues have argued that the internet makes the need to establish information in long-term memory obsolete. While the web can provide nearly instantaneous access to the content students might include in projects and papers, seeing and having does not make an expert. Information may be a prerequisite for knowledge, and students need to engage with the information they collect (or are given) every day in every classroom if they are to become knowledgeable.
Not Just Alive, but Thriving
One discussion-based activity that has worked well with our middle school students is called an "Exercise in Credibility." It allows us to learn what students believe is pertinent in relation to their understanding of topics, issues, and circumstances. It's straightforward and quick but reveals a lot about what students know, as well as their misconceptions. For example, a health teacher might pose the following query: "Being immunized for certain diseases means that you: _____." Typical student responses to this stem might include:
"won't get sick."
"might have a bad reaction."
"can show the school you're healthy."
"won't spread germs that are bad."
These stems quickly supply the teacher with information that shows students' understanding of facts related to different topics within a subject and what those facts could suggest or mean. We have found that stems specifically addressing content have led to discussions of how evidence is needed to support claims. Finally, this "Exercise in Credibility" is nearly limitless in its adaptation to multiple subjects. It can also help students argue effectively. For instance, in a social studies class, students might read Franklin D. Roosevelt's first inaugural address and respond to: "An effective leader is/does …" In math, a teacher can prompt: "To solve for x in 2 + 3x = 8, you must …" In physical education, a teacher can check students' knowledge of what different positions require after watching a soccer match: "Being a striker means …" Of course, these are just starting points. Teachers can make stems as sophisticated or text-based as they wish.
We do recognize that knowing something, however, doesn't mean you can put the information into practice. As Joe himself points out, "I know what a curve ball is but couldn't hit it and definitely can't throw one!" So, our primary goal with this user-friendly strategy is to jump-start thinking, discussion, and writing especially among students who are hesitant to participate.
Reaping What You Sow
Creating a vibrant literacy culture stems from knowing and valuing how each discipline can contribute to a student's overall development. Only then do we facilitate content area study, enable students to more fully participate in the classroom, and allow them multiple ways of demonstrating learning over time. Like soaking seeds the night before planting, subject-specific literacy practices prime students to learn more material, more quickly, and with the lasting understanding that sustains them.
Regine Randall, Ph.D., is coordinator of graduate reading at Southern Connecticut State University,
New Haven, Connecticut.
Joseph Marangell is the social studies instructional leader for East Haven Public Schools in East Haven, Connecticut.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2018.
Ideas for making co-teaching more effective in the middle grades
Co-teaching can be compared to preparing a savory meal for others. Every meal has some basic components: a chef who prepares it, ingredients, preparation time, and delivery. What makes the meal delicious, and not a pile of mush, is the time spent in preparation. Co-teaching is like that delicious meal being prepared. What happens behind the scenes is what makes or breaks true co-teaching.
All educators would recognize the two main cooks of the co-taught class, but there is a fundamental problem in most of the kitchens. These cooks did not go to school to cook with someone else. All the methods and strategies they learned focused on a single person managing and controlling the whole show. These cooks did not receive their training with the expectation that they would share the responsibilities of planning, managing, and delivering special meals. They were looking forward to the day when they could whip up wonders with and for their own students. They wanted their own kitchens. But suddenly when they do receive their own work space, they are told they’d have a co-teacher. For many new cooks, there is a measure of puzzlement and apprehension about what that looks like.
It is assumed that two highly qualified teachers would automatically know how to prepare and deliver those extra special meals. The reality is many do not, which leads most co-teachers to adopt the One Lead, One Observe model. This model is recommended to be used only 5% of the time but is often the primary model used by co-teachers. The overuse of this model causes students to perceive one teacher as their teacher and the other as a teacher’s aide.
The overuse of this model also causes the underutilized teacher to feel unneeded and unwanted. Those feelings can lead to disengagement, which causes the “main” teacher to feel like all the class responsibilities fall on them. They may even feel their co-teacher does not value their class or, even worse, that the other teacher does not take ownership of the class. These feelings from both teachers lead to a lack of trust and cooperation. Sadly, many co-teachers have fallen into this trap.
On the elementary level co-teaching occurs and develops organically. Many common spaces are shared, which leads the students and teachers to interact often during recess and throughout the day. This naturally opens opportunities for discussion about classroom management and lessons, and creates bonds, trust, and teachers’ recognition of each other’s strengths and the chance to use those strengths in a co-teaching experience.
On the middle school level teachers do not interact with each other as often, thus organic co-teaching occurs less frequently and takes longer to develop. The majority of co-teaching occurs because IEP students require co-teaching. Thus, our cooks are assigned together. It is not an organic development of a collaborative relationship built on trust. In this situation, both teachers are not always sure what their shared class should look like. They may have differing teaching strategies, teaching philosophies, and behaviors that their partner needs to adjust to. This requires more support to be successful.
How can middle schools make co-teaching more effective? Many things can be said about teacher communication, planning, and collaboration, but an often overlooked third party also plays a role: administrators. Building principals and special education directors can have considerable influence on co-taught classes. Below are seven ideas for principals and three suggestions for directors of special education to bring positive change for co-teaching.
Educate yourself – There is no shame in recognizing the need to educate oneself on any subject. Many principals do not start as special education teachers with an engaging co-teaching experience. Thus, it is not uncommon for school leaders to be unfamiliar with co-teaching. There are multiple resources online and books available from online book vendors on effective co-teaching. Many resources break it down into two major categories: co-teaching models and communication strategies for co-teachers.
Allow for shared planning time – Although not an end in itself, shared planning time is essential for fostering teacher collaboration. Shared planning time allows teachers the opportunity to plan as a team, strategize their instructional time, and determine the roles each will play in terms of material preparation, delivery, and grading. However, giving teachers a scheduled planning time does not guarantee they will know how to use that time together or that they will plan together. This is where they need communication strategies and accountability.
Share instructional strategies – Principals are instructional coaches who share effective instructional strategies, so why not share effective co-teaching models? This includes strategies for effective communication and planning for co-teachers. Also, it’s important to share your vision for what co-teaching will look like in your building.
Seek co-teaching professional development – Teachers who have fallen into the trap of One Lead, One Observe model can feel stuck. This may be the only way they’ve co-taught, and they aren’t familiar with other models. Professional development that focuses on co-teaching models and supports effective communication is a win-win.
Watch what you say – What you talk about, or your silence, speaks volumes. If you make co-teaching a priority, talk about and ask your teachers about their classes. It will become a priority of theirs. Silence speaks as well. If teachers never hear their leaders talk about co-teaching, then it becomes less of a priority and the status quo will be maintained.
Find a role model – If there are dynamic and successful co-taught classes, make them a role model for others in the building. Recognize the team for success or allow them to share an intriguing lesson that demonstrates their collaboration. This could be done briefly at a staff meeting. This could spark desire for change in other co-teachers. If it would be appropriate for your school, have the dynamic duo mentor a new co-teacher group or create a voluntary mentorship program.
Have a vision – Develop a personal understanding of what co-teaching should look like in your building. Share this vision and communicate your expectations to teachers. Then follow up with your co-teachers to find out their needs.
Directors of Special Education
Support the principal - Just as teachers need their principal’s support, principals need the special education director’s support. Principals who attend co-teaching workshops and seminars want to know about planning, supporting, and organizing inclusion classes. They need to be educated to be effective in leading their co-teachers.
Offer training - Consider providing district training for both co-teachers rather than only for the special education teachers. Give them time to learn together, dialogue, and consider ways they can implement new practices, models, and communication strategies in a safe and supportive training. Professional development with both teachers present is a great way to start the collaborative process and allows them a chance to dialogue about how they will apply what they learn when they return to the classroom.
Take time to talk with teachers – How you talk about co-taught classes influences the priorities of your special education teachers. Every year special education teachers listen to new information related to deadlines, funding, and other IEP concerns. While these kinds of meetings are important and create teachers’ priorities, little time is spent talking about what the classroom situation looks like. Ultimately it’s about the students. Take more time to talk to your teachers about their students and their learning. Make the students and their needs a priority. Balance the discourse. As for co-teaching, talk about it, or at least ask about it. Ask building principals how their co-taught classes are going. Get involved. What you talk about—or your silence—speaks volumes.
Co-teachers, for the most part, have been left to figure out how to lead in collaboration with another person. This can be a sink-or-swim situation for many, but the administrator’s role in the co-taught kitchens could greatly assist those who are struggling to make it work. Ultimately, students are the ones who benefit when you expand your knowledge and invest in your cooks.
Shawn Hemminger is a special education teacher at Central Middle School in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2018.