Want to Improve your Instruction? Ask These Questions

One thing that I notice the most when I watch others teach is this? What makes this teacher effective at instructing their students. Throughout my relatively short teaching career (8 years) I have been very lucky to be in the company of many great teachers.  For a few years I was an itinerant teacher and in this position went into other's classrooms and helped them modify and accommodate for their ELL students.  If you ever have the opportunity to do this then you should jump at the opportunity especially early in your career.  I was able to see a different teacher, in different grades doing amazing things, all day long.  I think I learned something from each of these teachers about how to be a better teacher myself.  What I learned was how to improve my instruction so that students could learn. Hosting student teachers, team teaching, and writing unit plans for TPT etc. also puts me in the position of having to explain my instructional strategies to another person.  Which is not an easy task when sometimes I just do it my way.  With some reflection, and discussions with my fantastic EA @tamihorning who often helped me to analyze what it is I do.  I think that I have the three questions that help me to explain what effective instruction looks like.

1. Do you Really Differentiate?

Differentiation can occur in three places of the teaching cycle.  The Content, the Process and the Product  Most of the time we differentiate what the student does.  But what about differentiating you instruction, how you present the information to students.  I have classes full lots of boys, often very active boys.  What do I find.  These boys are not auditory learners, they are doers, kinesthetic learners.  While some are also visual learners.  So when I teach I make sure important instructions involve all three sets of instructions.  I write it down, I saw it out loud and I associate movement with them.  The movement piece was the hardest part to get used to because sometimes you feel like a dancing fool up in front of your class acting out the instructions.  But guess what, using this helps students immensely and during tests you will often see them relying on these movements to help them remember the steps.  Or sometimes it is just that my movement help them to focus and remember.

  • Crazy Professor: One strategy I use is called the crazy professor. Given a list such as procedural steps, or rules I have students look at the list and act it out.  Everything is big and over the top with this strategy.  There is lots of laughter and silliness but it is also very effective.  I often use this when teaching students how to subtract with regrouping.  
  • Mirror: Giving instructions to students can sometimes be hit and miss.  With this strategy from Whole Brain Teaching. I give instructions, and key concepts in this format. I hold up my hand and say Mirror Up.  This signals the students to hold up both hands facing out.  They then copy my actions and words as I say them.  There is something about this strategy that just helps those multi step instructions or key concepts sink in.  

Question 2: Who is doing Most of the talking?

In a traditional classroom usually the teacher does most of the talking.  However I believe that students must spend more time engaged in their learning.  Additionally students in the elementary level just don't have the attention span.  We are talking to students who are used to getting their information immediately.  They really don't want to listen to us talk at them for 60 minutes.  However we also need to get our lesson across and guide students to learn new concepts.  Changing your structure of teaching is important for this as is trusting that your students can learn.
Mini Lessons: Keep your lessons short.  I find this easier if I have a learning goal and stick with it.  If you start your mini lesson with a narrow goal of what you are going to teach then you are better able to stick to a time frame and clearly express for your students what you want them to learn.  It is so easy to get trapped in the I have to take every opportunity to teach everything.  Let me assure you, you don't.  If you try to do too much then the power of your message is lost. I try to stick to 10-20 minutes of me talking at a time.  However there are times where more direct instruction is necessary so how do you stick to the mini lesson format.  I use some of these strategies.

  • Teach - Ok:  This is another whole brain teaching strategy that I use to break up my time talking and get students talking about what it is we are learning.  If is a much more active version of Think Pair Share.  Plus with the prompts TEACH/OK students know exactly what to do when they hear the prompt TEACH!  Students turn elbow to elbow or knee to knee and discuss the problem/question/ or teach their partner what you just taught them to reinforce the concept.  "Tell your partner all about the steps to write a summary...TEACH!" "OK" 
  • Small Group Tasks: While students are still learning a concept and are not yet ready for independence I feel that it is important for them to learn from each other and work together to practice a concept.  Using ideas like a KWL chart, Graffiti Write, Card Sort, and a Quick Write are some of the few.  

Question 3: Do you believe that your students are capable?

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A Typical Day

Teaching a split can be a complex juggling act.  I always notice a trend around this time of year with people asking about what to do on the first day of school.  There are lots of resources out there about what to do your first day.  Introduce yourself, establish your leadership, out line and practice routines, and play some games.  Day one will go smoothly...everyone is nervous.  It's the honeymoon period everyone will try to be on their best behaviour.  The day will fly by...

But the question is what to do the other 193 days of the school year.  Let me just preface this by saying that my personal feelings is that everything I do in my classroom should be an assessment opportunity.  EVERYTHING!  As teachers we have a lot to cover and really don't have time to waste on doing things in our room that cannot be assessed.  Now that doesn't mean that we don't have fun, or that we don't do some amazing things.  We do...but it is tied to curriculum or an assessment opportunity.  So with that being said I don't spend a lot of time playing games, or get to know you activities that are not tied to curriculum.  I get started right away with getting into my typical day.  Generally on day 2.

So what does a typical day look like...

I try to make my schedule as consistent as possible.  I have had great administrators that help to facilitate this.  My school functions on a balanced day we have 100 min of instructional time three blocks a day.  Each block is followed by 40min of break twice a day.


I always do math first thing in the morning.  Even if I have release time first period Math is still the first thing students do when they see me.  We have the same routine each day.  They walk into the classroom and pick up a morning math page and work quietly on the front page of the sheet while I collect information, take attendance, and complete other morning activities.  I also work with small groups of students reinforcing the previously taught concepts from previous lesson.  For example my first math unit of the year will be place value (if students don't have a strong sense of the value of numbers than all other math strands are compromised).  I use the same template everyday to create the morning math page.  The front always looks the same but the number changes.  This way students become very familiar with the questions being asked and applying it to different numbers each day.  Students place these pages in their math duo-tang.  

This is all part of my Three Part Math lesson.  The front of the page is the the practice component (the last part of the three part math lesson) it reviews what we learned previous days or serves as a diagnostic.  
Getting Started: this phase is a like a mini lesson and a model.  These are as short as I can make them.  I introduce a concept and model a problem for students.  We then complete a similar problem together and talk about the strategies that can be used to solve the problem.  
Working On It: Then we look at the problem of the day on the back of the morning math page.  Students then work on this in small groups or partners to solve this problem. 
Consolidation: We then come back together and discuss how we solved the problem.  We share ideas and I ask students to share their strategies. Asking key questions of students at this point is where true learning happens.  Sometimes students get it wrong it is important to challenge their thinking and encourage them to see their errors and learn from them.  

There are times with more difficult math concepts that we stretch one three part lesson cycle over two or even three days.  


Normally in the past I have tried to do language in the last block of instruction however I have found that this is problematic as students miss a lot of language time at the end of the day.  So I tried as much as I could to move language into the middle block with the exception of two days.  I have blogged about my language program many times before and you can read about it in more details 

My Language Blocks are split as follows

Science and Social Studies

I teach these to two different grades all during the same period.  This requires a balancing act, activities that students can complete without teacher support and guidance.  If you have seen my units on TPT then you know this is exactly what I have created to make this possible in a short amount of time.  I split the lesson in half.  Each grade gets 20min of time with me in guided lessons, facilitated experiments, or reflections.  We create WonderWalls and talk about what they want to know more about.  We work through these units together and focus on themes within the units that interest the students.  The other 20 min students will work independently.  Interactive notebooks are great for this.  Students have fun creating neat foldable and task cards, games, and independent research without me.  They work independently to learn something new or reflect on something learned.  They keep a record of these notebook pages in their scrapbooks.  

Other subjects

My students receive 200 minutes a week of French instruction - I do not teach this but I do teach core English to grade 2s during this time.  
I do not teach my own arts or Phys. ed.  These are also done by other teachers.  


Spelling and Grammar - How to Teach in Context

Spelling tests teach kids how to memorize not how to spell.  This is why I don't use spelling tests in my classroom.  I am sure that you have been told many times in your teaching career that you need to get rid of your spellers, stop doing spelling tests, and teach kids how to spell in context right?? Of course you have.  So you throw out your spellers and promptly never teach kids how to spell a word correctly again (primarily because you don't know how).  Ok maybe you try but really, you have read their writing...their spelling is horrible and grammar?? Who needs to know what nouns are anyways. But then you feel guilty because they don't know what a noun is sooooo....ummmm..... you teach a lesson on nouns.  Yes! Eureka! Teacher of the Year for Grammar goes to.....  Ok so perhaps this is me or you share a similar cluelessness about teaching grammar and spelling.  But you know what I am starting to figure this predicament out  I may just have a solution.

It has been my quest to solve the problem of how to teach grammar in context.  If you have read through some of my older blog posts you will know that I love picture books and use them in my classroom weekly.  You may also know that I have a slightly obsessive need for things to match and coordinate within my classroom. (Yes I colour my staples to match my Bulletin boards...but that is a different story) So this desire to have everything match in my language lessons persists.  If I am to teach spelling and grammar in context where is the context in which I am supposed to teach it.  Well I look at a whole picture book and wonder this is so large and there are so many concepts how am I supposed to pick just one to focus on? Which one should I focus on?  Then I came across a book by Jeff Anderson called Mechanically Inclined.  In his book he talks about teaching the concepts of grammar in context of good literature such as a picture book but that you need to strip back the layers of the book and just choose a sentence.  Just one sentence that highlights a concept in grammar or spelling that students are having a hard time with.  I teach junior so getting into the complexities of comma splices (something I admittedly struggle with) and clauses may be a bit beyond my students ability and need.   However they do need to know what a noun and verb is and how they are used in sentences.  How to make complete sentences and where to use a comma.  How to use quotation marks, spelling rules for suffixes, homophones, apostrophes for possession or plurals, etc.

Last year I started this with some of the grade 2 students I teach once a day for Core English.  (This is a prep coverage - no worries I am not leaving my 4/5 anytime soon.)  I started experimenting with simple grammar concepts like nouns and verbs, pronouns etc.  I WAS SO IMPRESSED with how well they were picking up age appropriate grammar concepts.  Sometimes I wondered if they had a better grasp of spelling and grammar than my 4s and 5s.  I only started using mentor sentences with junior students at the end of the year and although I didn't see the same progress because I didn't do it as regularly. These mentor sentence lessons did help students make specific corrections to our final reports that they were writing.

So Here is How it Works

A) Look at the curriculum 

get a general idea of what spelling and grammar ideas you are expected to cover.  Next look at the grades previous to you and determine what they needed prior the grade you are teaching.  Make a List.  Below is my developmental list for my grade four and five students.  Numbers four and five are for my class and the previous parts of the list refer to the grade level expectations prior to my grades.

Spelling and Vocabulary
  1. High Frequency Words Spelled Correctly short vowels and simple long vowel patterns, rhyming patterns, 
  2. High Frequency Words. Spell words out loud, segment words, sort words by common sound patterns. Follow rules for adding suffixes
  3. Spell familiar words correctly short and long vowel patterns, visual similarities, rules for changing base word when adding suffix
  4. Spell subject specific words correctly. Silent letters, syllables, Apply knowledge of vowel patterns to new words. Letter patterns and combinations regular and irregular plurals
  5. Subject specific vocabulary. silent p divide words into syllables, irregular plurals, 
Grammar and Mechanics
  1. A capital letter and an ending punctuation mark.  Nouns and personal pronouns
  2. use punctuation question marks, periods, exclamation marks, commas, some quotation marks
  3. quotation marks, commas, capital letters and final punctuation. Use the parts of speech appropriately Proper Nouns, possessive pronouns, action bears in present and simple past tense, adjectives and adverbs, and question words
  4. the apostrophe to indicate possession, and quotation marks to indicate direct speech. Common and Proper Nouns, Simple verb tenses.  Subject Verb agreement adjectives and adverbs, prepositions and conjunctions
  5. use of the comma beforehand or but used to join principal clauses.  Quotation marks for direct speech and punctuation marks placed inside quotation marks. Common Proper and Abstract nouns, collective nouns, adjectives, comparative adjectives, helping verbs. adverbs

B) Use a writing sample.  

Have the students write you something.  See what they need.  Look at the list above and try to determine if they have the grammar and spelling background knowledge to be able to meet your expectations.  If most do not then I would recommend started with a lower grades expectations are covered enough that you can move on with your curriculum.  

C) Choose a story and pick a sentence 

Choose a story that fits the other components of your language program.   From the story pick a sentence from the book that highlights that concept for your students need or will be learning about.  Post it for students to see and ask them what they notice about the grammar and mechanics of the sentence.  Only pick one focus a day.  One day you could focus on spelling patterns and the other day you could focus on grammar and mechanics.  Keep is Simple and just pick one spelling and one grammar concept per week/sentence to focus on.  Try to avoid the too much to soon trap.  

D) Mini Lessons and Independent Work

Because I am choosing to integrate these into word work centers.  I teach mini lessons (5-10 minutes) to work on the teaching phase of the mentor sentence.  According the Mr. Anderson this means getting students to notice things about the text.  There should but a guided focus on the teachers part to steer the lesson in a direction that is conducive your planned teaching lessons. 

In my Classroom

I have structured my language block to be able to accommodate word work centers.  Centers will focus on grammar and spelling (and some printing and writing because that is always a problem) Students will work through these centers during the week to supplement their Readers and Writers Workshop.  They have 40min of a 100min block for reading and writing in a day.  I only expect that these word work activity centers will take about 5 -10 min a day.  They are easily accomplished during a weekly writing cycle.  My centers are
  • Focus on Grammar - Using a Mentor Text Sentence
  • Focus on Spelling - Using a Word Sort
  • Focus on Writing - Imitation sentences that use the spelling or grammar focus in a new sentence modelled after the Mentor Text Sentence. 
  • Focus on Printing or Cursive - 
 I also will spend 5-10 min each day on a spelling or grammar mini lesson that uses a mentor sentence (both grammar and imitation), word sort, or printing/cursive writing.  If you are interested in seeing my Mentor Text Word Work Centers you can check them out here. 


Making a Wonder Wall

Wonder Wall, Provocation Table, Knowledge building circle, Inquiry....WHAT??? So I will start this blog post with an interesting story.  I returned from my maternity leave last January right in the middle of a pedagogy change.  We were learning how to teach using an inquiry approach instead of a teacher directed approach.  To be honest this was not completely new to me previous school I had been teaching in had adopted this early so I was familiar with the concepts but the words being used to describe different tasks were different.  Sometimes it felt like the people around me were talking in a different language.  I thought seriously about creating a teaching lingo of the past with teaching lingo of the present comparative dictionary to help me understand what people were saying.  The most ridiculous thing I heard (or so I thought at the time) was the term provocation board which as shown to me involved a table with random artifacts and the facilitators asking us to pretend that we are students and "wonder" about the objects on the table.  (ps...I hate when you ask me to pretend I am a student...) I was so annoyed at this activity as I left being so confused and really I couldn't see how this activity accomplished anything about inquiry.

Ok so as time passed I asked a lot of questions about this concept of a provocation board.  When talking to my principal one day he helped me to frame it so that I understood the reasoning behind it. Or perhaps I was just ready to hear it.  "It was about sparking interest, curiosity, and giving them a jumping off point so that they were in control of their own learning, but (and this is the big ah ha moment) it didn't matter how you did this" Finally I understood, I could use what worked for me and my teaching style to inspire enthusiasm, creativity, and interest in what we were doing.  So my next unit I tried what worked for me and out came my Wonder Wall.

This is an example of the board that I use for my wonder wall.  It is a trifold board.  One side is for my fourth graders and the other side for my fifth graders.  Sometimes I use these trifold boards and other times I just use my bulletin boards but this is great if you are lacking wall space and it also works to move around the classroom for students to use when you are working with them.  

Instead of artifacts most of the time I use pictures that I print out in colour.  If I have easily accessible artifacts like my rock collection or some small appliances from home I might use those as well.  

Another thing I learned while implementing my wonder wall is that when students ask questions I really really want to answer them.  I want to share my knowledge and have them soak it all in and teach them something.  I am a teacher!! this is what I do!! I know stuff and teach about it!! STOP STOP STOP.  I had to get myself to stop!  This was not what inquiry was about.  Sure, I am a teacher, but I am not as powerful or as knowledgable as Google.  I mentally needed to stop myself and concentrate on not answering their questions but to ask them to add their questions to the Wonder Wall and allow them to figure out the answers for themselves.  I  knew that I was going to lead them through my lessons to these answers but I needed to stop just giving them the information.  They would now have to start working for this information because I was not going to give them an easy way out.  Sure later on in the unit we would have discussion on certain topics and I would explain different concepts to them.  BUT we did this together.  I was not teaching them I was facilitating them.  Giving them the tools to let them find the answers to their questions on their own. 

And you know what...a funny thing happened.  They started learning faster than I had expected.  They took those questions home and found out the answers to them.  They would read books during independent time and find the answers to our questions.  They were discussing these things with their parents at home.  It was amazing to see how excited they were about learning these concepts which in turn also allowed our discussion at school to become more vibrant and engaging.  

Sure there were times when a teacher directed lesson was necessary especially in the technical aspects of the units.  But overall it was great to see them apply their learning in new and interesting ways.  So lesson learned, perhaps I am a convert and the "ridiculous" idea wasn't so ridiculous.  I learned that opening up my mind, listening and applying what I was hearing to my own style was probably the best course of action.  Lesson learned :) 

If you would like to see how I made my Wonder Wall for these units check out my Video below

If you would like to get started on using Wonder Walls and Inquiry in your classroom check out my units that have all that you will need to start and make your own Wonder Wall and Inquiry Science Unit check out my two new Science Units below.  



How to Schedule your Language Arts

Every day I am given 100 minutes of uninterrupted language arts time in my schedule.  In that time I must plan out how to get everything done.  My goal is to plan all of my lessons so that they flow together and fit, not so that they are a disjointed mess of "LETS CRAM IT ALL IN"  I do this by focusing on Themes, Mentor Texts, and Student Choice.

One of the things that I am asked most by new and old teachers is how do I structure my language block so that it makes sense and is not a planning nightmare.  This is especially important in a split grade because in reality you are dealing with twice the curriculum.  (this doesn't affect my planning as much as it does my assessment of language skills)

If you haven't already read how I set up my physical classroom space for literacy instruction check out my previous post here

What does my Literacy Block Include

  • Read Alouds
  • Shared Reading
  • Student Conferences
  • Independent Reading Responses
  • Creative Writing/Writers Workshop
  • Grammar and Work Work
  • Reading Mini Lessons
  • Writing Mini Lessons
  • Guided Instruction
Yes all of these things are included in my language arts time.  However not everything happens in one day.  I take a whole week to make sure that I do these things.

Here is a sample of my schedule

So a brief overview of this schedule. (perhaps some future posts may be needed about these elements in more detail.

1) Independent Reading - I strongly believe that students need to read for enjoyment everyday.  I don't monitor it, I don't track it, I don't value one type or reading over another.  Students read what they want to read during this time for fun.  This also serves as a quiet activity after recess to help them regain focus and prepare for their language arts time.  As a student I loved reading but hated that teachers ruined my reading time by making me write down what I was reading or picked what I should be reading.  So I don't do it.  I monitor the students, especially my struggling readers, and make sure that they are reading.  I have a larger classroom library that I am slowly weeding out old books (I am a bit of a book hoarder) as students are using more digital books and materials to read. Some of my students favourites last year were TinTin, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Video Game review sites and forums, and Wonder.

2) Read Aloud -  I LOVE PICTURE BOOKS!!! honestly I think this is my favourite teaching material in my classroom.  I use picture books as my read aloud/Mentor Text every week.  I choose books that fit my theme for the month (see my long range plans) and I focus on specific reading strategies such as determining importance, finding the main idea, making connections, making inferences, point of view, synthesizing (putting it all together).  My read aloud is the basis of my entire language program.  I usually take about three days to read a picture book because I only read what I need to that day to help the students focus on the mini lesson that I am using.  I know in my schedule above it has read aloud and mini lesson but really these two components work together.  My time between these two components is flexible.  (see my post on my language unit on questioning and predicting)
Reading independent practice is a time for students to apply previous lesson independently.  I like to think of this as a two week cycle.  I teach them through modelled shared and guided instruction how to do something in week one then they practice this in guided or independent time the following week.  Their independent activity each week is always based on something I taught them prior to the beginning of the week.

3) Word Work - Mentor Text Centers - If you haven't heard of mentor sentences they are based on a concept by Jeff Anderson. After reading his book I was inspired to integrate some of his ideas in to my word work centers.  It essentially helps students learn about grammar in context of well constructed sentences.  I am sure that you, like me, have been told that teaching spelling and grammar out of context is pointless as students do not internalize these lessons and apply it to their writing.  ME TOO!! My dilemma was that my use of mentor sentences needed to rely less on photocopy handouts and more on interactive centres.  Think Daily 5 meets Mentor Sentences.  Here's how it works:

  • Look at your students writing samples, or formal writing assessments and determine a grammar or spelling rule that they are struggling with. 
  • Go to your read aloud and choose a simple sentence that has a spelling pattern or grammar concept that want to cover. 
  • Print out that sentence on chart paper (and with younger students make a copy that they can glue in their book) 
  • Read the sentence with students and have them "Examine" the sentence (and when your principal walks in you can even tell them you are doing inquiry learning in language too) Have them look for parts of speech, suffixes, rhyme, or whatever else is appropriate for your grade level.  Use this sentence to form the jump off for your word work centres or activities.  Use word sorts, practice cursive or printing with the sentence, build a word wall, etc. etc. 
  • Then students develop their own look alike sentence based on the mentor sentence and using the key learning from the week in their look alike sentence.  So if you focused on adjectives then their look alike sentence would have lots of adjectives.  Or if you focused on suffixes then they would try to integrate words with suffixes into their sentences
  • For example "Whisker's claws caught on the string, scattering buttons like sunflower seeds" - Memory String by Eve Bunting.  Students would notice the parts and elements in the sentence you might focus on similes or irregular past tense verbs or suffixes, and then finally their look alike sentence could be "Joe's long jagged toenail tore through the sock, ripping a hole as big as the Grand Canyon " 
Writers Workshop - I have really come to enjoy this time with students.  This part of my writing time is also focused on student choice.  (Which I firmly believe increases student engagement)  I have a wheel of writing (found for free in my store) I show students the various options and then they vote and choose the three that they are most interested in. These are what we focus on.  I may do guided writing activities when they are writing or whole class lessons based on the student interest.  I post this wheel in my classroom and students can write any form that is on the wheel but they always have a choice.  When students are ready they move on to another form of writing.  Students also write a different draft of writing each week for me.  This can be intense and sometimes it is almost two weeks for a draft but they are drafting constantly.  This means that not everything goes through the writing process.  Once per term (we have two terms in a school year) students will choose a piece of writing and take it through the writing process.  This way students learn to love writing and not worry so much about the tedious parts of editing and revision.  It also allows them to choose a writing sample that they are very passionate about.  

My writing Mini Lessons are a combination of what I need to teach and what the students need to learn.  Much of what I teach during this time is generated by the information that I gather from reading student work.  For example last year my students struggled initially with organizing their ideas, gathering data, and asking questions.  This was a main focus.  

Shared Reading - This so far has been the most frustrating part of my language program.  I have many shared reading posters and workbooks but they all seem a little disjointed.  Shared reading for me is reading that the students do with me that is much more focused on a particular reading strategy. My frustration is that these seem very disjointed from the rest of my reading program.  This is a goal of my to remedy this year.  I will let you know how this goes as I am developing as I go :) (who knows perhaps there might be a product in there that I can share with you too) 

Well I can already tell that this is something I need to revisit again...if you would like more details on any of the above please leave a comment below and I will address it in future posts.  


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