Make time for one-on-one conversations

This is one of those that I must constantly remind myself about!

Today, my students were working mostly independently on a research project. I spent the entire class period rotating between my students. I sat down and talked to every single student in each class today.

I don’t do this nearly as often as I should. Every time I do, the conversation is incredibly valuable for both of us on many levels:

  • I learn more about each student as a person
  • I learn more about each student as a learner
  • I correct important misconceptions
  • I give valuable feedback to students about their learning
  • I receive valuable feedback from students about my teaching
  • I improve my relationships with the people whom I am privileged to teach
  • My reasons for loving teaching are reaffirmed

Even though today was not a perfect day in my classroom, it was an important one.

Make time for instructional agility

Last week I gave a quiz about natural selection and the results were not good.

The mean grade for the quiz was a D/ D+.

At that point, I had a couple of options, right? I could have moved on and said, “oh well. No time to reteach that concept. State test is coming whether we like it or not and there’s still a lot to cover.” OR I could have said, “Whoa! The kids didn’t get natural selection AT ALL. This is a crucial concept that I need to reteach!”

I chose the latter. We reviewed the misconceptions that arose on the first quiz. I then came up with a task that would require them to apply the criteria of natural selection to examples from nature. Each group then presented to their classmates and answered peer questions.

Tomorrow I will re-assess their understanding of natural selection and I know the results will be much better. They have had time to discuss, to process, and to ask questions. They have had to wrestle with the concepts in a different way than before.

My point is this: we often feel such pressure to “cover” material that we get poor assessment results and feel forced to move on in spite of the data. Either that or we blame the kids for performing poorly and we move on in order to punish them for not understanding the concepts the first time.

In the face of pressures and frustrations, it is critical that we make time in our schedules for instructional agility. We must be able to respond to the needs of the learners in our classrooms and adjust our instruction – even if it means taking a week longer to teach a concept than we had originally planned.

Make time for class meetings

Today my classes held their first class meetings of the year.

What do I mean by class meetings? All of my students (1oth and 11th graders) and me seated in a circle talking about our class.

I am now kicking myself for not having started this ritual much sooner. There is incredible value in sitting in a circle and discussing issues that are important to the group!

Class meetings serve four important purposes:

  1. Connecting (to each other, to the class, to the school)
  2. Deciding (making important decisions – whether the decision is made democratically or whether I make the decision after considering student input)
  3. Planning (upcoming class activities and lessons)
  4. Reflecting (looking back on previous lessons and activities)

The process of these meetings is critical. My goal is to establish a classroom culture where my students feel valued and respected. I want them to feel that they have some control over the direction of our class. I want to empower them to make important decisions (not just token ones).

It’s also a great chance to model and reinforce good behaviors and positive contributions to the group. Yes these meetings do take time. Anything of value does.

You can learn a lot by forcing yourself to be a listener in your own classroom.


More resources on class meetings:

Alfie Kohn – Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community

Donna Styles – Class Meetings

Make time for… FRUSTRATION!

My students were frustrated yesterday and today. I let them wallow in it.

This is a good thing.

Yesterday, I started the group on a whole class inquiry challenge with minimal direction from me. Students had to lead their planning discussion while I observed and took notes. This discussion didn’t go very well – especially from the perspective of the two class leaders.

In fact, they left my room a bit angry.

This is a good thing.


I think I saw this face in my classroom today...

I think I saw this face in my classroom today...

Because they were frustrated with their classmates. They were frustrated with those who were not engaging in the process – those who were not participating. They were frustrated with the complexity of the process and the lack of easy answers from the teacher.

Today, the students came in with a renewed sense of purpose and a desire to collaborate. The discussion was much more productive (even though there was one emotional outburst).

I love to cultivate an healthy level of frustration in my classes. I love to see my students struggle, fail, regroup, and try again. My students need this. So do yours.

Some of the most powerful learning I have seen has occurred when students were frustrated – angry even! – and were able to achieve a breakthrough on their own.

Do I need to step in sometimes? Of course. One of the best lessons that experience is teaching me is exactly when to intervene. Jump in to soon and the student never learns independence and the joy of the epiphany. Wait too long and many students will quit. Usually, though, a teacher’s instinct is to give the kids a boost way too soon.

We all need to learn how to deal with frustration, in school, in work, in life.

image used under cc license from the flickr photostream of MarkKelley

Make time for… inquiry

I love inquiry – obviously – I mention it in nearly every post. I’m also a co-founder of Inquire Within, a blog dedicated to the awesomeness of inquiry.

I’m not going to lie to you, though; Inquiry takes TIME.

You must hold inquiry as a core value; it can’t just be one of the topics of your course. You can’t pay lip service to inquiry with a flaccid unit about the “scientific method”


First, a confession: I used to do this!

A unit on the “scientific method” is code for:

this is the time of the year when I have my students do really lame ‘experiments’ that have nothing to do with science while forcing them to memorize a rigid and phony set of steps that goes something like observation -> question -> hypothesis -> experiment -> conclusion.


the owl of inquiry will each your eyes if you do this...

beware - the owl of inquiry will eat your eyes if you bore your students with a "scientific method" unit

Make time for inquiry throughout the year in repeated iterations.


Take a deep breath, Mr. Rice…

I’ll be okay. Now, where was I? Right, TIME.

You must commit yourself to allowing time for student questions to drive the curriculum. Allow them to generate questions and design experiments to answer their questions. Then, if you’re really serious, let the new questions that they derive from one experiment drive the next!

Crazy talk, you say?

Rebuttal: That is science! That is how students people actually start to see the process of science as organic and creative.

When they dive in headfirst into the inquiry vortex and let it spin them around a few times before emerging intact, you will be shocked at how much important science they learn. You will have rich conversations about content. You will have discussions – in context – about data analysis, about accuracy and precision, about calibration and controls, about reliability and repeatabilty, and all of those other things that we scientists hold so dear, my dear!

Your students will never see science the same.

Owl of inquiry image came from here

Make time for… conversation

small talk

small talk - from the brilliant

Who does the speaking in your classroom?

When students speak, to whom are they speaking?

When students are talking to each other, what are they talking about?

These are absolutely critical questions. The answers to these questions speak volumes about the level of student engagement in a class.

Who does the speaking in your classroom?

Is it you, or is it the students? If the teacher is the star of the show in their classroom, students are not actively engaging with the content. If students aren’t actively engaging with the content they aren’t learning – at least not with any depth; they aren’t building capacity for transfer. Transfer is the ability to apply learning to new situations, which truly demonstrates ownership of knowledge and depth of understanding.

When students speak, to whom are they speaking?

Are students talking to the teacher or to each other? If student conversation always passes through the teacher-gatekeeper, true discourse is not taking place. Students must be given the opportunity to ask and answer peer questions. The teacher should serve as a passive facilitator (0r even an outside observer) whenever possible.  One great way to get true student-student discourse rolling is with a socratic seminar; another is whiteboarding.

When students are talking to each other, what are they talking about?

When students are talking to each other, are they talking about class content or the latest mind-rotting episode of Jersey Shore? If class content is not engaging or students aren’t afforded time for their curiosity, conversations in your class will quickly veer off task. This is why many teachers hesitate to allow students time for conversation. It is also a great measure of student engagement. Give students a few minutes to talk about your current class topic. Do they talk about it? If not, do they need a more structured conversation protocol, or do you need to revamp your content?

How do you make time for conversation in your classroom?

comic used under cc license from