Second quarter, I was stuck. My class was reading the book Monster by Walter Dean Myers and it has so much timely content that I knew I had to get my students talking about it. I put together these elaborate (but very pretty) reading guides, put the kids in small groups for discussion, assigned roles, and set the expectations. Ready, set, discuss!
A mere two minutes later, I head those dreadful words… “What now? We’re done.”
After multiple tweaks and failed attempts, I went to my Instructional Coach, Ellen Harford, looking for help with making these discussions work. She said to me, “I have this book that relates to your problem. Look at this...”
Enter: The Best Class You Never Taught by Alexis Wiggins.
I love trying new things; I’m usually up for anything. I read this book over winter break--it was fast and easy to read. I came back from break ready to plan out my implementation of Spider Web Discussions (SWD).
At this point, you may be wondering just what this "SWD" is. Here’s the gist: it is a whole class discussion guided only by the students with no input or direction from the teacher. The entire class gets the same grade (in the gradebook, but no count) based on pre-established criteria and post-discussion debriefing. What does the teacher do? Write all the students’ names on a paper and note where they are sitting, listen to the discussion, and draw lines from one speaker to the next.
Starting in quarter 3, our class was reading the book Night by Elie Wiesel, and there is plenty of fodder for discussion in that book. I spent part of a class period introducing SWDs including the grading criteria and showing an example video. The next day, we got the desks in a circle, I took up my position at a student desk just outside the circle, started the timer, and told the students to start discussing the question.
I had two different sections doing the same discussion that day, and both can be described as…rough (to put it nicely). Both classes received an 'F'. They filled the 20 minutes, but did not meet almost any parts of the grading criteria.
Here’s why it was still incredible: we debriefed after. I took a picture of the diagramming I had done, put it up on the board, and let the kids take a look. It took a minute for the kids to understand what they were looking at, but when they did and they compared it to the criteria… light bulbs went off. They all had instant, individual feedback.
We did SWDs four more times for the book Night, plusI brought it into my writing class. We evaluated sample essays based on the essay rubric. The SWD had the same criteria and was graded every time. The kids flowed naturally into it in writing class because we’d had such consistent exposure to it in reading class while we were building the skills.
We just finished our final SWD for the year. The question? Who’s to blame for the death of both Romeo and Juliet? Both classes earned their first 'B' on the SWD and there were cheers by all.
The kids had had such quality feedback from me AND from each other in the debriefing that they knew what to focus on in the discussion. I didn’t have to point out the important details: they did that. I didn’t have to draw their attention to flaws in thinking: they did that. I didn’t have to encourage the quiet kids to speak: they did that for each other. I didn’t have to shush the dominating talkers: they did that themselves.
SWDs have changed the landscape of my classroom. The students know what to do for each discussion now, they enjoy having so much time to talk and debate, and they get the academic speaking practice they need in an authentic way. I have never read a book about my teaching practice that I could literally implement the next day until The Best Class You Never Taught. If you think it can’t work because Javier never talks or Samira never stops talking, Wiggins problem-solves that with you and it works! If you think it can’t work because the kids might miss the big ideas, the group grade forces them to be prepared, which allows them to reach the big ideas.
I’m telling you, this will be one of the first strategies I implement next fall because we’re going to do it all year long.
This post brought to you by Bridget Bordelon, English Language (EL) teacher at John Marshall High School
Feel free to connect with Bordelon via email
Chip In and Let's Get Started!
Setting the Tone
How class begins can set the tone for the rest of the class period. There are different strategies that can help get students into a focused mindset and allow for high productivity. Last year, I began the adventure of flexible seating. We’ve added short stools, tall stools, office chairs, bean bags, crates, floor pillows, benches, a work nook, and several other working areas. The goals of flexible seating were to:
Maximize Student Productivity & Inspire Creativity
Maximizing student productivity and inspiring creativity go hand-in-hand. As a teacher of writing, I know that it’s not a favorite or strong subject of many students. When I personally need to accomplish something (especially something that takes more sustained effort), I do not choose to sit in hard blue chairs. With this in mind, I set out to create options for students to select a seat that would allow them to be productive each day. When students feel comfortable, they often feel more inspired and creative. I’ve witnessed this first hand and been reaffirmed through student feedback.
Support and Encourage Personal Responsibility
As a middle school teacher (really the goal of any teacher), we want our students to become independent and personally responsible. Selecting a seat is a big responsibility. Students know that they have goals to accomplish, and their seat should help them achieve those learning goals. Choosing different seats each day is encouraged as opportunities to explore what works and what doesn’t work. Students can always discretely move during class if a spot isn’t working. If a student’s seat is not working, they know I always have the right to move them for the sake of their learning. They may hear me quietly ask, “Is your seat working, or would you like to try another one?” If students are moved, we try again the next day where they take personal responsibility to pick their own seat. In the end, we want students to have the life skill of making choices, reflecting on their choices, and adjusting to achieve success.
One challenge that came up with flexible seating and up to seven classes of students each day was how to take attendance. It was a laborious process to search the room for students or call off names to do attendance each day. What a waste of time! I set off to find a way to quickly take attendance which led to… Chip In!
As students enter the classroom, they put their assigned number chip into a bucket. I can quickly look at which chips are left on the counter, cross-check with the roster, and take attendance in a fraction of the time.
What began as a way to take attendance has morphed into so much more.
There are two response options, one in each bucket. This is a very quick procedure that can serve multiple purposes:
After students chip in and sit down, they have a bell ringer that is often connected to the chip in responses. This again gives focus and a really quick, meaningful formative assessment to guide future instruction, intervention, and enrichment. The Chip In! strategy works for ALL grades and ALL subject areas. Get some chips, a bucket, and create responses that fit for your class!
What if we knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that a particular practice would increase student learning in a profound way? What if this practice had no price tag and was readily available to teachers at all sites? What if we already had time set aside in our calendar to devote to this practice? This exists: we know what to do, it costs us nothing, and we have time set aside to do it.
The practice I am talking about is the powerful practice of developing and giving a common formative assessment, and then analyzing the collected data in Professional Learning Communities.
A Snapshot of How This Might Look in Practice:
My PLC teammate and I meet to discuss what we will be teaching and assessing coming up. We agree to focus on the Prioritized Learning related to creating a strong argument with text evidence.
We agree on a formative way to assess this skill: we’ll both use an outline format called a fishbone analysis. We decide how we're going to score it using the Proficiency Scale that aligns with the Prioritized Learning.
Individually, we both teach the lesson, give the assessment, and score our students' work.
Individually, we look for trends (areas of student success, student struggle, pockets of students who have excelled, pockets of students who seem to have really struggled, etc). Then, we each collect a high, medium. and low example of student work to bring to a future PLC meeting.
Together, we bring our student work to the table and analyze collective trends using our Proficiency Scale.
We create a reteaching and reassessment plan, as well as decide how we're going to continue to challenge those students who have already found success.
We repeat the process. Focusing on the plan created in 'Step F', we loop back to 'Step G.' Eventually. we bring student work back together again and look for new trends, improvements that still need to be made, or additional needs that have arose. The cycle continues until the whole class has mastered this Prioritized Learning and/or until the course comes to a close at the end of the year (or semester, in some cases).
Using and analyzing common formative assessments in this way is a research-affirmed practice. PLCs who engage in this practice consistently see higher student achievement and less of an achievement gap in their classes.
If your PLC is beginning this journey or deepening your practice and would like support, please reach out to any member of the secondary Curriculum and Instruction team. We’d love to help support your work!
This post brought to you by Heather Willman, APOSA overseeing Secondary Curriculum and Instructional Coaching
In my fifteen years in the classroom, I did manage to stumble upon a few time-saving ideas that didn’t compromise student learning; however, in my current role as an Implementation Associate I’ve seen many more than I’d have ever come up with on my own. My five favorites are noted below.
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For the first ten minutes of our math block, my co-teacher and I introduced polygons to our students. Ten minutes into the lesson, it occurred to me that we, the teachers, had been doing all the talking. We decided to have students do a quick Turn and Talk.
I told the students, “Tell your elbow partner the characteristics of polygons.”
Things started to go awry immediately. Immediately, we had students asking to go to the bathroom, some were looking at their iPads, other partner sets said one or two words to each other and then nothing more, while other students didn’t say anything at all but instead just looked at each other. My first thought was, I guess we need to keep teaching about polygons because they don’t seem to understand polygons yet. Instead, I should have thought, Did I teach our students how to Turn and Talk? That's where I went wrong: I had assumed our students knew how to speak in an academic manner to each other. I was very wrong!
So, here are some eight steps to help you not make the same mistake by instead creating an environment that teaches students how to build the skills needed to interact with one another and to use academic language (Echevarría and Short).
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Teach students how to listen to each other.
If we want students to talk, we need to teach them also how to listen. What does listening to each other look like? Model for students what active listening looks like. Have students practice listening skills using social conversations first (i.e. tell each other about their favorite TV show) and then move into more content-rich conversations.
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What types of respectful words or phrases do you hear (I agree with you because…, I don't know that I can agree with you, and here's why...)? Provide sentence frames and model how to use them. Hang them up or write them on the board for students as a reference or to keep in a journal.
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Make sure students know the goal of the lesson. That way they know if their academic conversations are on-topic or on-target. If they are not on-topic, remind them of the target or objective to help get them back on track.
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If you want students to increase their academic language, then make sure questions lend themselves to higher-order thinking skills. Questions should make students think, clarify, predict, or explain. A question such as “Tell your partner one fact about the Gettysburg Address” could be changed to “What do you think the reaction of the crowd was after President Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address and why would he have reacted that way?”
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Students often need to be taught how to keep a conversation going. Put question and sentence frames around the room that expand discussions, such as Tell me more about …, Why do you think… I heard you say…, That made me think of …, Do you think that …, or That idea connects to the story by …. These frames allow students to build on each other’s thoughts and create engaging conversations.
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Academic speaking and listening are deeply tied to reading and writing. Student discussions that are linked to text bring forth deeper academic discussions.
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Think about how long it will take students to talk to each other. Don’t let a turn and talk that lasts 1-2 minutes turn into 10 minutes. This creates wasted academic time and often leads to off-task behavior.
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Let students know that you are listening to them. Walk around and listen to what they are saying. Have a clipboard and write down what students say. Them, when the class is brought back together, talk about the great conversations you heard. Provide examples and discuss why these conversations were so powerful. This will motivate students moving forward because they know you are listening and sharing out their examples and ideas.
And, of course, feel free to connect with me directly. I would love to help you increase the academic talk in your classroom.
- Echevarría , Jana and Deborah Short. Making Content Comprehensible for English Language Learners: the SIOP Model, fourth ed., 2017.
- Homework — I assigned homework almost every day without ever considering the value or purpose of the assignment, a destructive practice by itself. To compound that mistake, I checked for homework completion religiously, assigning students 2 points if the work was complete, 1 point if it was partially complete, and 0 points if it was missing. I now recognize that unless my students took it upon themselves to check their work for understanding, the work I was asking them to do was essentially meaningless.
- Extra Credit — I provided students with a menu of options for earning extra credit. Included on this list was bringing a box of tissues for the class. I now realize there were both instructional and equity issues with my practice. Instructionally I was detracting from the importance of the course curriculum and awarding credit for work that may or may not have been connected to what I truly wanted students to know and be able to do. From an equity standpoint I never stopped to consider the fact that some of my students’ families likely couldn’t afford tissues for their own home, let alone my classroom.
- Academic Dishonesty — I employed a policy related to cheating that was likely very common at the time. If a student was caught cheating on an assignment or assessment they relinquished all credit and were not afforded an opportunity to complete a make-up. I realize now that my tactics were punitive and made the behavior and consequence more important than the learning.
- Late Work — Similar to academic dishonesty, I subtracted credit from students who submitted assignments after the stated due date, sometime to the point of awarding no credit. This practice prioritized “when” my students were learning as opposed to “if” they were learning.
So what questions would I pose to my first-year-teacher self? There are four of them—simple in nature, but can be very difficult to answer:
- Why do I assign grades to student work?
- Ideally, what purpose should grades serve?
- What elements should I use in determining student grades?
- How can I best represent student learning in my grading?
These are the four questions that were posed to the Secondary Grading Committee when they created the Purpose and Beliefs document related to grading, as shown below:
In subsequent blog posts, I will be sharing some tips and tricks within some of these key grading and reporting areas. In the meantime, I encourage you to talk about grading and reporting with your colleagues and, if you don’t mind a good dose of passion, contact me and I'll join the conversation!
Shared here are the basics of Fishbowl Discussions, combined with many of the alterations I have had the pleasure of observing district-wide.
Setting up the 'Basic Bowl'
Such a description often varies depending on who you ask, but the basics remain the same:
- The inner circle, often consisting of 10 students or fewer, discusses or works through a question/set of questions, a shared text, or a problem
- The outer circle, often consisting the rest of the class, observes, takes notes, silently assists the inner circle, etc.
Teaching Students How to Fishbowl
- Share an explanatory handout with them ahead of time—let them have this with them during the Fishbowl (one such example can be found here)
- Have the basic expectations up on the screen/board for them to reference during the Fishbowl discussion—an example of what this might look like is shown here:
- Share a sample Fishbowl with students (i.e. create a video that you can show students, such as the Chemistry Fishbowl shown below, created by Maria Tan): when sharing a video, try taking time to analyze with students what participants in the video are doing well or could improve upon
Ideas for Insuring Students are Prepared
- After telling students the over-arching topic/problem and/or providing them with the reading that will be the focus of the Fishbowl discussion, give students Bloom’s Taxonomy verbs/sentence stems and have them prepare questions from all/some of the various levels. Then, on the day of the Fishbowl, consider doing one or more of the following:
- Expect students to ask at least one of their prepared questions
- Have students track which of their personally prepared questions are asked by different students as well as which ones they personally ask, and then have students reflect afterward on why unanswered questions were left unasked
- Suggest that students use the questions they prepared but do not require it (their preparation alone will raise the quality of the dialog)
- After telling students the over-arching topic/problem and/or providing them with the reading that will be the focus of the Fishbowl discussion, give students the questions/unique sub-topic/critical lens that their group will be answering/focusing on. Then, have students do outside research or find direct text-support for that answers/supports their provided questions/unique sub-topics/critical lenses
Ideas for Structuring the ‘Bowl’
- Give each group a different problem/sub-topic/question/lens from which to approach the same over-arching topic and/or text
- Give each group a different over-arching topic/text on which to focus and then expect the outside circle to learn from the inside circle’s conversations
- Have students choose which group they want to be a part of (may be based on topic, on day the group will discuss, etc.)
- As a teacher, divide students into groups based on their participation tendencies (i.e. if you need three groups, divide students into those who tend to be dominators, be balanced participants, and be reluctant speakers)
- As a teacher, divide students into groups that are balanced as far as how much preparation students are likely to have done
- As a teacher, divide students into groups based on skillsets/ability (i.e. if you have students who are strong in the area that this Fishbowl will focus on, give them harder questions, a more challenging area of focus, and/or a more complex text to read)
Creating a 'Fancy Aquarium'
- Once students are familiar with Fishbowling, have two Fishbowls going at once (consider having students take over whatever role you typically play as teacher so that you can float between each conversation)
Inner Circle Modifications
- Chipping: To help students be aware of the types of contributions they are making and/or to help ensure balanced voices, try giving each students a certain number of disks (such as tiddlywinks or poker chips) or cards (playing cards or cut pieces of paper): each time a student speaks, he/she tosses a disk/card into the center. Students can no longer speak once all out of disks/cards.*
- Color-Coding: Take the concept of Chipping and kick it up a notch by giving each color/suit a unique meaning. This way, students grow aware of not only how often they participate, but also of how well they contribute.**
Green = ‘Contributor+’ comments (give students a majority of these pieces)
Red = ‘Contributor’ comments
Yellow = ‘Supporter/Peacekeeper/Gatekeeper’ comments (give students 1-2 of these)
* Put a blanket down in the center of the circle to keep the disks from bouncing/making noise--
it also makes clean-up easier
** When coding by color/suit, the first few times students try it you may want to hold up the color coinciding with each comment made so they develop an understanding of differences
- Co-piloting: Create copilots where each outer circle person silently assists an inner circle person by writing a possible question/point/quote on a note card/ sticky note and passing to their assigned person in the ‘Bowl’—in most cases there may be two students assigned to each inner-circle participant
- Tapping-In: Create partnerships of 2-3 students. ‘Partner A’ begins in the inner circle—after she’s made at least 2 comments but no more than 5 comments ‘Partner B/C’ taps and takes her place: this rotation continues until the conversation is over (a variation of this is shown in the above two videos)
- Feedback Providers: Have students in the outer circle provide feedback to those in the inner circle. Two common methods:
- Give students the same tally sheet that the teacher might use and have them tally during the discussion: this often provides a great conversation starter, as many students will not have the same results and you can discuss the subjectivity and difficulty of scoring a discussion
- Have students analyze only one inner circle student. Provide the observers with a few areas to focus on and/or questions to answer, and then after the discussion is over he/she gives feedback to the speaker he/she observed (consider pairing stronger discussants with weaker discussants)
- Back-Channeling: Set outside participants up with a “back channel”—a digital conversation that runs concurrently with the face-to-face activity—that they can use to silently discuss the topic-at-hand while the inner circle discusses aloud...just be sure to set up parameters ahead of time.* (Should you wish to try this strategy, don't let the logistics be your stumbling block--reach out to one of our Instructional Technologists. )
Some common back-channels are:
* It’s often a good idea for the teacher to be one of the active participants in these discussions
You can see in this short Fishbowl Sample video that teacher Matt Baier has his students using a Back Channel .
Ideas for Providing Feedback
Inner Circle Feedback
- Teacher Checklist: Have a teacher checklist where the teacher tallies each student’s contributions by noting what type of contribution he/she is making.**
- Video Reflection: Videotape the discussion and then share it with students. Then, have each student analyze his/her own contributions to the discussion. (Students can use the same categories as on the teacher checklist and/or a simple 3-2-1 reflection.)**
- A Quick-Write: Ask students one question pertaining to each inner circle over-arching topic/problem and/or text—have them draft a short paragraph answering each question.
Outer & Inner Circle Feedback
- Personal Metacognition: Have students complete a quick questionnaire or 3-2-1 reflection after they complete their Fishbowl discussion.
- Co-teaching: This coaching model consists of co-planning and teaching together. The teacher chooses a focus that they want to work on. This might be improving academic dialogue in their classroom. They work together with the coach to plan and deliver a lesson or series of lessons together and then reflect on what worked and what they might refine. This can be done in a single class period or over a longer period of time (a week or two).
- Co-Planning: In this coaching method, the teacher and coach plan a series of lessons together focusing on an area that a teacher has determined they want to work on.
- You Pick Two: A teacher selects two students who they are having trouble reaching. This might be students who need additional challenge, who they are having trouble connecting with, or students who need additional support in learning. The coach observes the students and helps the teacher plan additional supports for these students.
- Observe a Colleague: This coaching model involves observation of a colleague who may teach the same thing as you or use the same method of teaching as you do. The coach can cover your class while you observe the other class. Afterwards, the coach and teacher may have a conversation about what they noticed that they want to implement. In another variation of this model, the coach and teacher observe together and then compare notes about what they noticed.
- Coaching Conversation: The teacher selects an area that they want to focus on through a pre-conference conversation. They ask the coach to collect data on this focus area. This may be through video, notes from the classroom, or other methods that the team decides. The coach observes and then shares the feedback with the teacher. They have a reflective conversation about the data and determine next steps that may include both the coach and teacher.
The April 2016 edition of Educational Leadership offers several articles, perspectives, and strategies to enhance reviewing student work for increased student achievement. These strategies sometimes involve more time in class for feedback, but saves the teacher grading time outside of class.
- “The only important thing about feedback is what students do with it,” (Dylan Wiliam, page 10).
- “A few well-designed questions are better than many superficial ones” (Kroog, Hess, Ruiz-Primo, page 22).
- “Showing students other students’ work, critiquing it, and trying to make improvements is powerful because it is a way that most people learn” (Rob Traver, page 68).
- “As they approach a new unit, students should focus on what they’re going to learn. We want students to think about how they will be different after doing this project" (Guskey and McTighe, page 38).
- “If students aren’t skilled in listening, they won’t benefit from feedback” (Hattie, Fisher, Frey, page 16).
- “Grading is more of a challenge of effective communication than a simple documentation of achievement” (Guskey and Jung, page 50).
- “Learning progressions based on decades of research on how students learn can help teachers take a more fruitful look at student work” (Kobrin and Panorkou, page 32).
All ideas pulled from: The April 2016 issue of Educational Leadership, “Looking at Student Work,” (Volume 73, Issue 7).
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