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Coming Soon to a Classroom Near You!

Summer is in full swing! That means vacation, catching up on rest, and summer blockbusters. This year’s crop of films range from franchise sequels,  like Jurassic Park and Terminator, to original films, like the family friendly Inside Out, to biographical documentaries like Straight Outta Compton. These films serve as a temporary reprieve from our daily life and give us the opportunity to be immersed in a story other than our own. The sights and sounds transport us to places near, far, and imagined. They sometimes make us feel that the impossible is possible.

The proliferation of smartphones and cameras has placed the power of the film into the hands of millions of people. In the modern age, anyone has the opportunity to capture and share a story of their own. Teachers have also jumped into the video trend. Many have found effective way to integrate film into their practice to enhance student learning.

Some teachers have become “producers” and create videos used to support the learning of content. Others have taken on the role of the “director” and capture their students at work using the footage to personally reflect on the effectiveness of the lesson. A growing number are “starring” in videos to share their lessons and practice with educators around the world. At BetterLesson, we have had the privilege to see how educators across the country are using video to improve educational outcomes for their students.

BetterLesson has done some filming of our own. Over the past two years, we’ve collaborated with hundred of teachers across the country and produced videos that showcase the various ways teachers leverage videos in their instructional practice. These strategies are then viewed and implemented by teachers participating in BetterLesson’s professional learning offering, TeachCycle. TeachCycle provides teachers with the opportunity learn new strategies and quickly try them out in their classrooms to see what works (or doesn’t) for their students. Strategies in video format allow participants a window into the practice of a fellow educator. The sight, sounds and emotions of the classroom come to life, providing a vivid model for what a strategy in action actually looks like.

While the videos we make don’t expose the genome sequence needed to bring dinosaurs to life or provide the trick to time travel, they may make a strategy that once seemed out of reach now within the realm of possibility.

Taking a Risk To Dive Into Learning

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Taking risks is hard.  Taking risks can seem impossible for teachers.  School days are packed with tight schedules, set routines, and high expectations for teaching and learning.  The fear of taking a risk can hover above your bright idea lightbulb like a lead balloon. How can teachers harness the power of taking a risk, seeing what works, and iterating practice to improve outcomes for students?  Where can teachers find support to take that learning leap?

BetterLesson launched TeachCycle to support teachers to engage in continuous improvement cycles.  Here’s a story about a TeachCycle team that took a risk and gained new insight about the age old problem of supporting students to engage in rich academic class discussions.  This team’s current reality for class discussions was lots of teacher talk (not by choice!), blank faces, one word answers, and a handful of off topic responses.  Sound familiar?  This TeachCycle team felt compelled to take a risk and try something new. So, we started our TeachCycle meeting by discussing a strategy that could have big impact for improving engagement and the quality of class discussions.  Enter Socratic Seminar, an inquiry based collaborative discussion strategy.  We talked through what we would measure to see if the strategy was effective, what we could learn if it worked and what we could learn if it didn’t.

Socratic Seminar was not an immediate success.  In fact, the strategy failed in our first TeachCycle loop.  It didn’t magically get students to engage in rich collaborative discussions but implementing the strategy helped us learn where to start to reach our goal.  The teachers noticed that students were more engaged when they were responsible for generating the discussion questions but that most students needed support to produce quality questions about the text.  A second learning was that students needed guidance to actively listen.  Students were giving one word answers and not seizing on the opportunity to build on a peer’s idea.  The identified student needs helped the TeachCycle team brainstorm additional strategies to implement such as accountable talk stems.  Suddenly, taking a risk didn’t seem so scary to this team.  They were learning about what worked and didn’t work for their students (quickly!) and they had support of each other in the process.

Taking a risk in your classroom might always generate a little fear.  Our hope at BetterLesson is that TeachCycle  will help you to take that dive into learning with support.  We believe in supporting teachers to engage in continuous cycles of improvement to find out what works best for students as quickly as possibly.  Ready to take the plunge into TeachCycle?

Growth Mindsets Key for Students and Teachers

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At BetterLesson we are constantly thinking about growth mindsets. As a small start-up interested in having an outsized impact on teacher learning, we have to tackle big challenges with limited resources. This means everyone on our team has to be ready to stretch themselves; evolving and growing professionally, as we work to launch our new professional learning platform, TeachCycle.

We aren’t alone in our interest in growth mindset development ( see millions of Ted Talks on the subject). Educators especially have become increasingly interested in developing growth mindsets in their students. Inspired by the powerful work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, teachers (and parents alike) are recognizing that students need the mental tools to tackle challenges inside and outside the classroom.  Students need to see learning (in any context) as an ongoing, ever-evolving process. Greatness, is something developed through hard work and dedication. No “master” ( think Michael Jordan, Beyonce, Charles Dickens) is born with all the skills necessary for success, everyone has to struggle, even fail, as a natural part of the learning process.

As educators, we value  grit and perseverance in our students. It’s only natural, that we should value the same traits in our teachers.  Teachers need support and training to develop these critical growth mindsets. After all, no teacher (no matter how masterful) ever bursts into the world (or classroom) fully-formed.  Likewise, no struggling teacher is doomed to failure. Teachers who embrace a growth mindset in their own professional life, know that even the best teachers make mistakes. What sets masterful teachers apart, is their ability to reflect and learn from mis-steps and course correct quickly.  In today’s ever-changing educational landscape, growth-minded teachers are better equipped to tackle new and varied challenges.

So how do you develop a growth mindset in teachers? At BetterLesson, we have been working on this particular professional learning challenge for some time. TeachCycle, our new professional learning platform, aims to empower teachers to quickly learn what works for their students (and what doesn’t). Shifting mindsets is a huge part of the process. During TeachCycle, teachers work with a BetterLesson coach and tackle a series of high-leverage teaching challenges. These challenges break down the myriad problems of practice a teacher may face at any time into discrete manageable chunks. By focusing in on a challenge, teachers are able to try-out new strategies in a targeted way, and learn “what works” for their particular students and teaching styles. Teachers use the principles of fast cycle learning, to implement and evaluate the effectiveness of these strategies. Sometimes the strategies work fantastically, other times strategies misfire, but because teachers are immediately collecting data, they can adjust quickly to both failure and success.

TeachCycle focuses on building steady positive momentum. In the face of challenges, there is ALWAYS, something a teacher can do (whether big or small) to impact student learning. Moreover, every teacher can learn something from the TeachCycle process. No matter where you are on the teacher development spectrum, newbie and sensei alike can refine and develop their practice, by honing in on their teacher moves and their direct effect on student achievement. This process of continuous improvement empowers teachers to develop growth mindsets. In TeachCycle teacher learning is never fixed or finished!

Teachers in our TeachCycle pilots often make their process explicit to their students and are transparent about their efforts to grow and evolve as an educator. In doing so, they model the growth mindsets they seek to instill in their students. This transparency is key and so valuable for teachers and students alike, together they are partners on a lifelong journey of learning and growth.

Learning from “Lesson Bombs”

In the age of digital sharing, there’s no shortage of ideas for the classroom. As a result, you’ve probably felt the buzz of finding the most incredible strategy that is so perfect for your classroom.  As a TeachCycle coach and former teacher, I know the mad rush to generate student interest and growth and the resulting experience of working quickly to fit a newly-discovered strategy into the next day’s lesson plan. You practically prance into school the next day: “Alright guys, I’ve got a GREAT lesson lined up for today!” And then…it bombs. Terribly. The kids don’t understand the lesson objective, and they’re off task or frustrated. Or, they do understand, but they listlessly complete the task, asking for the great activity you’ve been advertising.

What happened? How can we learn from the “lesson bomb”?

Big, blockbuster strategies sound amazing on blogs and lesson planning websites (like ours!). “Kids own their learning!”  “Students are engaged in high-level discussions!”  “They’re solving complex problems!”  The trick, though, is that these outcomes aren’t the result of one day’s worth of lessons. Complex strategies like hands-on investigations, silent discussions, and self-paced assignments require the development of shared expectations, engagement and ownership, student-friendly rubrics, and more. But, as our site acknowledges, it can be difficult to take the time to introduce each of these components. It feels snazzier to have kids jump right into writing blogs rather than spending the time clarifying expectations, building knowledge and skills, but we all know that  if those blogs are going to be worthwhile, students need to understand what’s expected of them.

TeachCycle can help you to implement pre-strategies so that your kids get more out of a Jigsaw than detention.  We understand, as you do, all the different steps required to implement student-directed learning strategies. We also understand how difficult it can be to map out those steps when you’re knee-deep in the school year. As a TeachCycle  coach, I helped my teachers implement high-leverage strategies at a step-by-step-pace appropriate to their classrooms. For example, when our goal was to have students meaningfully discuss novels in self-directed book groups, we focused on setting expectations for the unit and goals for reading in the first loop. In the second loop, we introduced accountable talk stems to increase students’ ability to speak productively in groups. Finally, in the third loop, students were able to engage in productive socratic seminar…because we had taken the time to set them up for success!

“Lesson bombs” happen to every teacher, but taking the time to plan and implement lead-in steps before introducing high-leverage strategies increases the chances that students will engage and grow from day one.

The Power In Owning Your Professional Learning

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How can you personalize your professional development to make it meaningful and actionable? TeachCycle is powerful because it supports teachers to own their professional development. Here’s one example of how some TeachCycle teachers personalized their professional development — with great results!

A TeachCycle meeting just started when a teacher wondered, “It’s the end of the school year and I’m beginning The Diary of Anne Frank.  This is a challenging text for my 7th grade students. How can I help them maintain their engagement and persevere with this text?”

The meeting was then abuzz. “Most of my students know very little about the Holocaust. How can I support them to build their background knowledge about an important and culturally sensitive topic?”, asked another teacher.

So… there were our teaching challenges: How to engage students with a complex text and how to support students to build background knowledge about a sensitive historical topic?

Once we uncovered the challenges that these teachers faced, the true power of owning their own professional development began. As a team, we brainstormed different ways to support students to build their background knowledge about this historical topic. One teacher said,  “I don’t want to create a powerpoint to teach students about the Holocaust. It would be too jarring to understand such sensitive information that way.”

I suggested to the teachers that problem-based learning could be a way to tackle this challenge. I showed them a video explanation of problem-based learning and the steps of the process written by two Master Teachers from the BetterLesson Master Teacher Project. The TeachCycle teachers loved the strategy and immediately started to think of implementation ideas, but there was some hesitation; “Could we incorporate the problem-based learning strategy into a unit that we have already developed?”

I assured them that there was no need to start from scratch– we could just add the problem-based learning strategy to their original task of writing diary entries from the perspective of different characters in the text.

The students would read the text and then, in order to prepare to write their diary entries, would ask questions about that character. For example, “Who was Albert Dussel in real life and why did Anne give him such an unflattering name in her diary?” Then, using teacher-guided internet research, the students would find the answers to their questions about the historical character. Students would use problem-based learning to come to the historical knowledge of the events of the Holocaust in a more personalized, less jarring, way.

Problem-based learning seemed to be a solution to the challenge of how to build background knowledge; but then, what about the first teacher’s challenge of student engagement in the text?

One teacher wondered, “Couldn’t the problem based learning approach be a way to measure engagement as well? Hopefully, students would be more engaged in the discovery process about the historical figures and perhaps it could increase their engagement in the text.”

So the same strategy could work for both teachers!

As our TeachCycle meeting wrapped up, I could tell that teachers felt much more equipped and excited to face both of their teaching challenges.

And at our next TeachCycle meeting, the teachers shared that they were thrilled with the results. One even commented, “This strategy showed more improvement in student engagement than any other writing or reading strategy we used this year.”

So, if you’re looking to work with a professional learning team to focus on real challenges in your very own classroom, give TeachCycle a try. BetterLesson launched TeachCycle to bring continuous improvement cycles to teams of teachers.  We, the TeachCycle coaches, are excited to engage in individualized, fast-paced professional development with you.

Supporting Collaboration in Math Class

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How can teachers and students stay engaged with teaching and learning in June? As a former fourth grade teacher, I spent large amounts of my already precious time planning and organizing end of year projects, such as Geometry Town. While the students loved the project, the planning was time-consuming and chaotic. So how can you plan engaging end of year projects in minimal time? I know it might sound impossible but BetterLesson can help.  We have thousands of engaging lessons and end of year projects written by Master Teachers for you to peruse and use!

Michelle Marcus, a BetterLesson Master Teacher, ends her school year by asking her students, “What do we know about bat homes that make them safe and successful as roosts?“. Michelle’s third grade students work collaboratively to apply measurement, geometry, and the math skills they have learned to create bat houses.  Students need to determine the amount of paint for the houses and plan for nail placement. This is just one of the many amazing lessons BetterLesson’s Master Teachers have created to culminate the year.

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So how can we support our students to stay on task in June or August?  How can we support students to collaborate authentically and effectively? How can we ensure that collaborative work in math continues to be effective and a rich learning experience?  Math group roles may be the answer. As a math TeachCycle coach, I worked with teams of teachers (elementary to middle school) to implement these roles in their classrooms this spring.

Math group roles provide each student with a specific task.  Group roles enable each student to be a leader in his/her own way, to be responsible for contributing to the task, and to be held accountable to stay on task. The four main roles are Task Manager, Resource Manager, Facilitator, and Reporter/Recorder.  Below is a quick explanation of each of these roles:

  • Task Manager ensures that everyone participates respectfully and reminds the group to justify their thinking.
  • Resource Manager manages the resources and asks group questions.
  • Facilitator reads the problem and supports the team to think through a solution for the problem.
  • Recorder/Reporter ensures that every member of the group has the same information on their paper and shares their thinking with the class.

A third grade TeachCycle team measured the percent of students who made one or more meaningful contributions during group work prior to the implementation and then after of group roles.  What did they discover?  All teachers noted an increase the number of meaningful contributions students made during group work after implementing these roles.  Students loved using the roles.  They collaborated more actively and they tried to solve their problems within the group rather than crowding around the teacher. (The task manager is the only member of the group that can ask a question after the group agrees it is worthy). [1]

As with any strategy we can continuously improve and refine the strategy to fit the needs of our students, but we can also try implementing an additional strategy.  Some of my teams opted to also implement a participation rubric.  This rubric helps to hold all students accountable to their roles and enables teachers to give targeted feedback for improvement. The teachers loved the rubric and noted how motivated the students were to score a four!

This is why BetterLesson launched TeachCycle.  We want to bring continuous improvement cycles to teachers by supporting teams to identify teaching challenges, to pick simple ways to measure progress and to implement strategies to see what is most effective for their students.

Together these two strategies offer structure and support for an effective, hands-on, collaborative classroom environment! Whether you are trying this strategy in June to support continued engagement and collaboration, or looking for a strategy to implement in August, math group roles and the participation rubric may offer an effective framework for providing students with the collaborative classroom that is crucial for our students.


[1]For more information on the TeachCycle process, visit my introductory blog here.

Finding Focus

dalai-lama-i-find-hope-in-the-darkest-of-days-and-focus-in-the-brightest

Celebrations, ceremonies, and assemblies crowd the months of May and June.  It should be a time for educators to celebrate a year of learning and growth.  But sometimes it’s not.  As a former teacher, parent and TeachCycle coach, each year I reluctantly stumble across the school finish line. Why is it so hard to celebrate as we culminate a year of hard work?  Could it be that as the school year ends everything seems important and it is difficult to find focus?

This May I was determined to find focus.  How could I use my experience coaching TeachCycle teams of teachers to focus and engage in my own fast cycle learning? You see, as the school year fades into the dark days of May and June what has always seemed hard (getting my kids ready for school on time), seems impossible.  My mornings are filled with treasure hunts for sneakers, my incessant nagging of “I’m leaving without you” which doesn’t fool anyone to full on sprints back to the house to retrieve the book report, baseball glove, and favorite pet. It is an endless whirlwind of chaos and stress that I want to stop.  My challenge is nothing truly earth shattering. Simply, how can I support my kids to get ready for school on time?

So, one fine crazy May morning, I tracked how many minutes it took us to get ready for school, mad dash and all.  Then I set a goal to reduce that time by ten minutes.  The first strategy I implemented was using a timer to see if the kids could get dressed in three minutes.  Guess what?  It worked.  PJs in the hamper, clothes on and ready to go in two minutes flat.  My next strategy is to have the kids organize their backpacks before bed. If this strategy doesn’t work, I will try a different one or differentiate my strategies because what motivates my son to get moving won’t always work for my daughter.  My hope is that a more peaceful morning exit will lead to more time to celebrate this school year and perhaps give us a better start to next year.

So, how can teachers use TeachCycle to survive the school year with a little less stress? Here’s an example.  A middle school TeachCycle team discussed this student need:  the sea of raised hands and blank faces after introducing a research project.  They wondered how they could support students to ask more specific and purposeful questions? So, one fine crazy morning they started the TeachCycle process.  They simply asked the students to share questions about the upcoming project. The data revealed that more than fifty percent of their students needed support to ask better questions.  The next step was to support more students to ask quality questions. They modeled and gave specific feedback to the questions that students were asking as the worked on the project.  Each time they implemented a new strategy, they measured student progress.  Sometimes the strategies they implemented were effective and sometimes they weren’t but the team continued to iterate and find out what worked best for their students.

This is why BetterLesson launched TeachCycle; we want to bring continuous improvement cycles within reach by supporting teams of teachers:

  1. To identify challenges based on student needs,
  2. Pick simple ways to measure progress
  3. Try new strategies to see what works!

We know supporting students to ask better questions is a small win in May but this team and others like them find great value in focusing intently on something small but high leverage. If you are interested in supporting your students to ask better questions, check out these BetterLesson resources and strategies (strategy 2) or if you are searching for some amazing and engaging  ways to end of the year, take a look at these lessons,!  Either way, try and spend a few minutes focusing on all the learning you supported this year.  Teachers are amazing and you deserve to celebrate before July!

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