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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

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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!

We’re Hiring a Blended Learning Instructional Coach!

Job Summary:  

Full-time opening in our sunny Cambridge, MA office for an individual who has been a successful teacher in a blended environment, strategically using technologies to personalize learning for students. Ideally, you’ve seen the power of Blended approaches to give students more control over their learning and allow teachers to focus their use of time and energy.

You will join the BL team to coach other blended teachers who want to improve their practice through TeachCycle. TeachCycle brings “lean start-up” principles to teacher learning by engaging school-based teacher teams in structured experimentation to address rich problems of practice. It’s awesome and if you’re awesome you should apply.

Role includes:

  • working closely with our TeachCycle design team as we engage in our own structured experimentation and iteration of our company model
  • virtually coaching teams of 3-6 blended learning teachers across the country as they engage in TeachCycle
  • collaborating with our Blended Master Teacher Project team to support Blended Master Teachers in creating content
  • Identifying strategies from our Master Teacher Projects to be used by teacher teams engaged in TeachCycle

You should:

  • have experience as a blended classroom teacher
  • love learning from and supporting K-12 blended teachers
  • be a skillful facilitator of adult learning
  • understand and follow the latest trends in teaching and learning, especially all things blended
  • be psyched to geek out with other adult learners about blended learning
  • be reflective about your practice and actively seek feedback for improvement
  • produce compelling verbal and written communication
  • be a self-directed, diligent teammate with 5+ years teaching/coaching experience
  • get along well with others and work calmly in a fast-paced startup environment :)

We offer:

  • Opportunity to work with an awesome team to solve important problems
  • Competitive salary
  • Health benefits
  • Generous equity
  • Great office near Porter Square
  • Many permutations of high quality dark chocolate, nuts, and dried fruit
  • Flexible schedule and vacation policy
  • Fun/weird/weirdly fun weekly team get-togethers
  • Chance to spend every day improving the lives of teachers and students

If this gets you fired up, come help us support teachers in taking charge of their professional learning. You know you want to. Apply here.

As always, BetterLesson is committed to maximizing the diversity of our organization. We are an equal opportunity employer and seek individuals of all backgrounds to apply to this position. Women and minorities are encouraged to apply.

Daily Data: How TeachCycle is Different

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Data. It may be one of the most controversial buzzwords in education, but can small data inform and enable targeted, meaningful changes in practice?

Even as a self-proclaimed math geek (…and one who loves data and numbers), there was indeed a time when I stressed about student data and the pressure often associated with it.

While big data from district benchmarks and summative assessments are important, teachers can’t always translate it into the classroom in an easy, concrete way. Small data, however, is immediately actionable. So, read on to find out more!

Thankfully, data is so much more than an end of unit assessment or a district testing score. Our teaching is about more than a single test, and our data should reflect that. Data should be about the teaching that occurs every single day, and the impact that intentional, informed instruction has on students’ mastery of skills. For example, did more of my students build off of one another’s ideas in class discussion today after I tried that new, “Silent Discussion” strategy?*

Data’s a lot friendlier if it’s about something concrete and immediately important to us and our students.

As educators, we all want what is best for our students. And, put simply, small data can  help us learn what works best for our students as quickly as possible. That’s why BetterLesson launched TeachCycle; we want to bring continuous improvement cycles within reach by supporting teams of teachers to:

  1. Identify a Teaching Challenge, based on key areas of pressing student growth.
  2. Pick a simple, intuitive way to measure progress (small data FTW!).
  3. Try new strategies, and see what works!

As a math TeachCycle coach, I’ve worked with inspiring teacher teams to use small data in their daily lessons — and what a powerful impact we’ve seen! Take my middle school math team for example. We’ve been focused on helping students stay on task and make meaningful contributions to their group discussions. Teachers each focus on a slightly different metric, for example: what % of my students can make one or more meaningful contributions to the group. The team discussed and defined meaningful, and then we set off to try some strategies with students to see how we could support more students to meaningfully contribute to a group discussion. This team implemented a “Participation Rubric” and “Group Roles,” and it’s been so awesome to see the number of students who made one or more meaningful contributions to the group increase each week. The teachers bravely narrow their focus, and “go small” in order to get some pretty cool, powerfully-big results. The team was thrilled with the results, but they were even more excited to see how quickly the students’ engagement in group discussions changed with the implementation of such an easy strategy. Now that the expectations for group discussions are more clear,  the team feels like group work is running more smoothly.

In TeachCycle, you get frequent, small data about which strategies best support your students’ learning. And as a teacher myself, I cannot count the number of times I thought I had implemented the best strategy to support my students understanding of a skill or skills only to be shocked at the results of the end of unit assessment. The power of small data, is that you are able to quickly determine if this strategy is making an impact for your students or if you need to tweak it or try a new one.

So whether you use TeachCycle or not, definitely consider joining the small data train. Small data lets us quickly determine what is and what isn’t working for our students. And what’s more powerful than that?


*This example shows an ELA class, but this strategy can be used in any class. Additional Silent Discussion Resources: Silent Discussion in Action, Why Try Silent Discussion?, Silent Discussion Directions

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