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Equity Resources, Teaching Tips & Tricks, Podcast Articles   |   Sep 22, 2019

4 myths about great teaching debunked

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

4 myths about great teaching debunked

By Angela Watson

You might know Jennifer Gonzalez from her incredible website and podcast–both are titled Cult of Pedagogy and are a wealth of information on the topic she’s most passionate about (apart maybe from CrossFit).

And that’s helping teachers develop and implement amazing lessons.

Jenn draws from her experience as a high school English teacher and a professor as she researches best teaching practices and shares them in a way that is practical and easy to implement in the classroom right away. If you like Truth for Teachers, I think you’ll find Cult of Pedagogy is a great complement to it: I help you develop the mindset of a great teacher, and Jenn helps you develop the instructional strategies of a great teacher.

I consider her to be one of my closest friends. We talk throughout the day on Voxer and I’ve been on her podcast three times, but this is the very first time she’s been on Truth for Teachers, and I know you’re going to love hearing our conversation.

Here are the main points we discuss, with a full transcript below:

MYTH #1: Traditional teaching methods should be replaced with more innovative, student-centered approaches.


  • Teaching practices should be examined, but innovation isn’t necessarily the goal, and sometimes an “old school” method is still worthwhile.
  • Short lectures/direct instruction can be an efficient, effective way to deliver information.
  • Worksheets can provide valuable practice and are not synonymous with busywork.
  • Integrating technology does not automatically improve student engagement or learning.

MYTH #2: Lessons should be as creative and fun as possible to increase engagement.


  • Engaging kids is different from ensuring they’re having fun.
  • A lesson can be fun yet not deepen kids’ understanding of the topic (i.e. Grecian urns).
  • Gamifying important topics can detract from the relevance, and taking a serious approach can actually be more engaging.
  • Simulations and re-enactments can cause trauma, and often there are better ways to make the topic “real” and meaningful to students.

MYTH #3: Including elements of students’ cultures in your lessons is the best way to teach a diverse group of students.


  • Representation is valuable, so thoughtfully selecting texts, artwork, and other materials with that in mind will be appreciated, but it’s really not the heart of culturally responsive teaching.
  • If your style of teaching isn’t reaching students of color — in other words, if your students of color are not succeeding academically — then your teaching is probably not as culturally responsive as it could be. In addition to building relationships with and getting to know our students, we need to be using teaching practices that work for a wider variety of students, such as cooperative learning and story-based teaching. Zaretta Hammond’s book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, is recommended.
  • Authenticity is key — it’s important to be yourself and show appreciation for kids’ home and community cultures, rather than trying to adopt their cultures as your own (i.e. allow students to create a rap as an option for student-directed projects, rather than you writing and performing a rap for them).

MYTH #4: Planning great lessons always takes a lot of time and preparation.


  • The amount of planning for the teacher can decrease as student ownership increases.
  • Look for open-ended, versatile activities you can use over and over instead of always hunting for something new (i.e. the TQE method, which has caught on like crazy in the last year).
  • There are simple, easy ways to plan lessons where kids get to move or are just more interactive, such as Chat Stations, Write to Learn, and retrieval practice.

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ANGELA: We are going to be debunking a lot of popular ideas in education that you and I have discussed at length over the last couple of years.

What we tried to do here is categorize them and condense them into four main myths, and then we’ll talk about our take on them.

So let’s jump right in with this first myth, which is that traditional teaching methods should be replaced with more innovative student-centered approaches. This is a myth that I see perpetuated at times by folks who I think are rightfully fed up with outdated boring teaching methods that just aren’t meeting kids’ needs.

Sometimes, teachers get the message that everything that they’ve been doing for years is suddenly wrong. And it all needs to be tossed out, it all needs to be replaced with something more innovative. It’s been my experience that the self-reflection piece is really the key. We want to examine our teaching practices, and through that process, we often realize that many of the tried and true approaches do still hold. So I’m wondering what are your thoughts about this myth?

JENNIFER: It actually reminds me a lot of my daughter who just finished her freshman year of high school, and in her favorite class — she describes it as old-school — this guy just taught English really basic. He did basic lectures, they had reading, they had a little bit of class discussion, and they had tests over stuff. She loved it because she was learning.

I think that’s the piece we forget a lot when we talk about innovation, creativity, and making things relevant is that the most satisfying experience in a classroom is when a person feels that they are learning something.

So yes, a lot of our sort of more traditional methods, like lectures, can be pretty effective in terms of delivering instruction.

Now, there’s a whole big question about what should we be teaching students, and shouldn’t we be having them explore things on their own, and all of that stuff is valid for discussion. But there’s also something to be said for just teaching them some stuff that they can use, making them feel confident that they’re growing, and just doing it in a way that’s been effective for centuries.

For example, the lecture has gotten such a terrible rap over the years that I think some teachers feel that they just can’t ever, ever lecture. And I think the pushback on lectures has been the teacher standing in front of the classroom for all 45 minutes just running through a PowerPoint, and the kids just sitting there with their mouths open, and just sleeping basically through that. That is not effective, but there are so many other ways that you can deliver a lecture in maybe just 10 minutes that is really powerful, and also just really efficient.

If we know they need to know X amount of information, we could chase it down over the course of a week of having them explore stuff, and hoping they find the stuff that we’re wanting them to learn. Or we can just knock it out in 10 minutes, and then maybe have them do something with that information once we have delivered it to them in a short, powerful lecture.

That’s such a good point about efficiency. Some of the things that we have kids do–and I’m sure we’ll get into this more–really just take up so much class time when we’re waiting for kids to discover things, and really you can just tell them. Some things you can just tell them and then they can go DO something with that information, instead of this long wandering process.

I know for me as a learner, I actually really like direct instruction. If I go to a conference or something, I like when the speaker spends the majority of the time teaching me.

There are some people that do more things that we are “supposed to do,” like do the turn and talk, and spend 10 minutes discussing with the person next to you. But you know what? I’m there because I want to learn as much as possible. And if the person who’s up there instructing is super knowledgeable and has information that I don’t have and that the person next to me doesn’t have, I’d rather just get it right from the presenter. And then we can go do something with that information afterward and apply it.

Sometimes, the most efficient way to learn is to just teach it. Make it really interesting, meaningful, relevant, and just say it right?

Yes, and we also give a really bad rap to this idea of the “sage on the stage.” But the truth is if we have gone to college and studied our subject area, we probably do know some stuff about our subject area that our students don’t know.

It sort of reminds me of when I go to the hairdresser and they say, “Well what do you want me to do?” And I say, “Well what do you think I should do, because you’re the one who knows about hair. If you do exactly what I tell you to do, my head’s going to look stupid.”

So I think it’s an important balance, because it’s not just a matter of being up there and droning on. You can tell stories to illustrate things. I just put out a post like 10 minutes ago about the effective use of slideshows. There are so many terrible slideshows out there, and little tweaks that we can make so they’re more powerful and effective for delivering our message.

It’s an art to be able to give a good lecture. And some of the stuff that you’re talking about, the turn and talks, those can be used to supplement a lecture really well to break it up, to give people a chance to process.

But yes, I agree with you, there’s a time where you just want to sit and get the information. And I think a lot of our students feel that way, too. If they’re just constantly being put in groups to figure stuff out on their own, I think that can make them feel a little bit unstable. So I think the point in terms of lectures anyway, is that we don’t necessarily need to throw them out. I think they have a place in a nicely balanced set of learning and teaching strategies.

And then there are some other things, like the worksheet, that have gotten a terrible reputation. I certainly contributed to that with a post that I put out about a year ago called, Frickin’ Packets, which is all about this sort of trend that we have of teachers just making these massive packets of worksheets and just handing them out to students, and that’s sort of the way they deliver instruction.

Those are terrible, but just because an activity is on a piece of paper and it’s called a worksheet doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily bad.

You can use those things for lots of different stuff. They can be used as a graphic organizer to sort of sort out information that you’re learning. They can be used for higher-level note-taking. They can be used for recording data in an experiment, or another hands-on activity.

So I hate the thought of teachers just saying, “Oh I never use worksheets for anything,” and sort of patting themselves on the back for that. It really matters what’s on that worksheet. They can be very powerful and very effective if they’re used thoughtfully and not just as a way to keep kids busy.

You mentioned when we were talking about lectures that there is an art to a good lecture. And so if you are a person who likes to lecture, then figure out how to do it well and figure out how to make it really engaging. Learn from the best, watch some Ted Talks, for example, and really make it something fascinating to listen to. There’s a reason why the Ted Talk Podcast is one of the most popular. People actually enjoy that style quite a bit if it’s done well.

And I feel like the same thing can be true with worksheets. If you are a teacher who can see the value in worksheets, then learn the art of what makes a worksheet really meaningful for kids, and make them good, rather than just passing out whatever.

Exactly. And one of the things that I will often ask teachers who are frustrated, or who say, “Oh, I heard this doesn’t work,” is ultimately, are your students learning?

I think two different teachers could approach their instruction in completely different ways. And if they get the same result at the end, which is that students who have learned and can demonstrate that, then both of those methods worked. But if you’re just hammering away at something, and you’re seeing that your kids are just not learning. Then whatever you’re doing isn’t working.

Yes. And one of the other things that I’ve seen happen with worksheets is in the attempt to get rid of them, a lot of schools are moving towards basically a digital worksheet. We’re just turning it into something that kids are doing on a SmartBoard, or on an iPad, or whatever.

But the method of teaching and learning has not really changed, we’ve just involved technology, which slows things down in some ways, introduces more potential for problems, more potential for disruptions, and the learning’s not any deeper.

Right, absolutely. And just this whole idea that if we are becoming more high tech then students are going to learn more–I’ve seen in some cases where the kids are sort of like in The Matrix. They’re just plugged into a device, and they’re still just answering lower-level questions, and  doing test prep basically.

Or they’re spending tons and tons of time on creative projects where, for example–and I’m kind of now dating myself–but I’m going back to even when we first started letting kids use Microsoft Word for stuff. Which was great, except for when kids would spend 30 minutes choosing a font.

It was just like, “This is not why we’re doing this. That’s a fun little thing that you can do, but if it’s going to take so much time, then it might not actually be worth it.”

But yeah, the switch over to technology, if they’re not doing any deeper thinking with it, or if they’re not creating something new, or if they’re not really building their skills in some way, then you can just as easily do something with paper and pencil as you could with the technology. So it definitely does not automatically improve student engagement or learning.

I think what we’re saying here with this first myth is that traditional is not uniformly bad, and innovative is not uniformly good. That effective instruction is just a lot more complex than that, and we need to offer some room for nuance and individual teaching styles.

Absolutely. And returning to some of those basics, the basic structure of a lesson plan, there is a lot of good there. There are a lot of brilliant people walking around the world right now who were taught with those methods. So they should not be tossed out at all. I think there are ways to just sort of update them a little bit, but not get rid of them.

The second myth that we’ll cover then is about creative and fun lessons. I think there is a big trend right now in education to make lessons as creative and fun as possible in order to increase engagement. And I think you and I both believe that that’s a myth. So let’s talk a little bit about the difference between engagement and fun.

It’s tricky because I think when a student is learning and they feel that their confidence is building, that is a certain type of fun. This is what I was talking about before about my daughter liking this English class, but it’s not the same as, “Oh we got to play with Oreos and M&Ms today.” Or, “We sang a bunch of songs, and we danced around, and we built stuff with Popsicle sticks.”

And when I say all of those things, I’m actually thinking of specific lessons that I’ve seen that actually were very good. But sometimes, you can have a classroom that looks super fun and engaging because there’s all this stuff, and the kids are really involved, and it’s hands-on, and it’s creative. But ultimately, they’re not really learning anything at all. And they’ve spent so much time on this stuff.

I’m guessing some of your readers have heard this analogy, but I use the term Grecian urn to describe this. Where that came from is one of my student teachers was working on a unit plan about ancient Greece, and he had to teach students about the culture. And in this five-day lesson plan, three of the days were students making paper mache urns in the style that they made them in ancient Greece, and then they had to decorate them in a personal style.

I looked at his standards because the students were supposed to be comparing the culture of ancient Greece to our culture now. I think the value of comparing cultures is having a better understanding of your own culture, and the decisions that we make as a people. And it’s a way of really having a more mature, rich understanding of what it means to be human, and all these really deep things, but he was having them work with paper mache.

The problem with something like that is that it keeps kids busy, and they’re having fun. From the outside of the classroom, it looks great: “Wow, look how active that classroom is.” But they’re not learning jack squat. And I see those kinds of activities a lot, and so I just gave them the nickname of a Grecian urn.

Sometimes, we have activities that are very creative and very time-consuming. And if they’re really time-consuming and students aren’t really learning much, then maybe there’s a way of scaling back.

I think that teacher, for example, could have just given students a worksheet maybe that had an outline of a Grecian urn. Where maybe the students were given five minutes to color in something personal, so that they would still be basically doing the exact same thing, but it wouldn’t take three days.

And so I think with a lot of things, with technology, with a lot of activities, because they take up a lot of space on the daily lesson plan, sometimes we’re drawn to them because sometimes, we want things to take a long time, we want to fill up lots of days.

Also, we fall in love with these activities that we’ve been doing for years and years, and they ultimately don’t actually meet our standards or give students anything valuable to learn.

When we talk about being creative and being fun, there can be lower-key activities that students will come away from feeling really excited about. Ifyou just have a good class discussion about something where you’re treating them like they have important thoughts, and they’ve got something important to say, a lot of time students will come away from that like, “Wow I felt like I was in a college class. That was great, can we do that again?”

You didn’t pull out any paint or anything for that, and it was still a really enriching experience. Sometimes, the things that look really creative and fun from the outside aren’t necessarily satisfying. And I’m going to use a word that somebody else that I interviewed used, which is “educationally nutritious.” And I think those can be a lot more satisfying than the stuff that looks fun and creative from a distance.

I really like what you said about making kids feel like they’re in a college class sometimes. I think sometimes some of the most “creative” lessons that I’ve seen are around topics that could be inherently interesting to kids. Things particularly around history, and social studies, and current event topics, those can be really sensitive topics that don’t necessarily need to be “fun.”

And I think most kids enjoy tackling difficult and serious things. That’s been true in my experience. I know you taught at the secondary level, I taught Pre-K to third, and this was true even with the littlest kids. I mean my four-year-olds would just come out of nowhere with these really serious anecdotes that they wanted to share, sometimes really disturbing things. And then everyone else chimes in, and the next thing you know we’re talking about some really hard stuff with pre-schoolers. Every single child is completely engaged, hanging on every word, totally focused for really as long as I would let it go on. So they do have the attention span and the ability to engage in these kinds of things.

I think kids have an innate sense for when adults are patronizing them, and for when they’re hearing real talk. And kids, like adults, crave real talk.

I taught my third graders about really hard topics. We talked about slavery, for example, and I didn’t do anything fun to get them to care about it. I would just say things like, “Most people don’t know this, but …” or I’d be like, “A lot of adults don’t tell kids about this stuff, but I think YOU can handle it.”

When you approach these topics with gravity and deep interest, it pulls the kids in, they feel like they’re learning something very grown up, very important. And they were able to stick with me through a lot of really lengthy and deep discussions, because they were emotionally invested in the topic.

So I would encourage anyone hearing this to do some real talk with their students, and just see how they respond. Often the things that we think are too hard for them and need to be sort of gamified, or made into something more fun, are actually topics that they will be emotionally invested in without any sort of gimmick.

Absolutely, yes. The word gimmick is huge, too. There has been a lot of discussion about that recently, especially when it comes to slavery, the Holocaust. In history classes, there have been a lot of teachers who have made that mistake of doing sort of simulations or games where the students take on the role of people in these situations, and they can become really harmful and traumatizing to kids.

And it’s understandable, the place where they’re coming from is trying to develop empathy in kids by putting them in the role of people in these situations, but with subjects like that, it can be more effective to do what you’re saying, to just have a conversation about it, or to even read stories, or read firsthand accounts and then discuss those.

I think kids really crave those kinds of conversations, particularly now where conversation is becoming more and more scarce, just actual live human interaction about things. And so yeah, we don’t necessarily always have to go for the fun option. Especially if the topic is something serious, we should not go for the fun option because students need to understand that some topics are not going to be fun.

On a less serious note, there were times when I would work with my students and we would be getting ready to read something that wasn’t really designed for 7th graders to read, something that was a little more challenging. And I would just be upfront with them, and I would say, “This is going to be harder than the stuff that we read. But you need some practice at reading stuff that’s a little more difficult, and so we’re going to tackle it together, and we’re going to get through this together.”

So it wouldn’t just be like, “Oh, why can’t you read this?” Things don’t need to be dumbed down just like vocabulary doesn’t need to be dumbed down for them. You just teach them the words.

So I’m kind of going off-topic at this point, but I think it’s all sort of part of the same idea that maybe we need to give them more credit for being able to handle stuff that is maybe a little bit less bells and whistles.

Yeah, that’s a really good point. It is sort of patronizing to make an assumption about kids that if it’s not like a video game, that they’re not going to be engaged with it. That’s just not true.

No, it isn’t, and I think they would tell you that, too. But sometimes, when you move your own self into a new generation, you start looking at the one underneath you saying, “Oh look at those kids and how they …” and people just really don’t change that much from generation to generation. There are some basic things that just really hold over time.

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And I think that’s why it’s so important to really get to know the individual students in your classroom and their personalities. And that leads us into our third myth to debunk, which is that if you want to reach kids of different cultural backgrounds, you should include elements of their culture in your lessons. And I think there’s a lot of misunderstandings about culturally responsive teaching, and let’s unpack that little bit.

I think what we have in this country in particular, but in a lot of other countries too, is we have a teaching population that is overwhelmingly white and female, and yet our students are way, way more diverse than that. Not only are they many, many different races, but we’ve got an increasing number of students that are coming to us from other countries with really noticeably different cultural backgrounds. And so I think among teachers, in general, there’s been a lot of awareness that has grown about this idea that we need to change the way we’re doing things in order to meet the needs of a more diverse population.

So that’s a good thing, but some of the approaches have been a little bit misguided. For example, just adding African decorative border around your bulletin boards is not necessarily going to do much for your students, or going through your worksheets and changing the name Joe to Jose. Those are nice things to do in terms of kids seeing themselves represented in some way. I think it’s really important for any teacher that has a classroom library, for example, to really look critically at those books to see if you’ve got a good amount of titles with characters in it that have similar backgrounds to those in your classroom. And there are some people out there doing such good work on that, on helping people grow really good classroom libraries that have a diverse set of voices. That is definitely important work.

It’s important that the artwork in your classroom, that you take a look at if you’ve got pictures of children, or students, or people in your classroom, do they look like your students? Is there a way to swap out some of that stuff so that there’s better representation? So that is all-important, but that really is just one small thing. That’s really not what culturally responsive teaching is all about.

Right, that’s a baseline expectation. That’s what I was taught to do when I was in college in the 90s—that’s multicultural education. We’ve got to be way past that at this point.

Yes, and I would have to say probably the person I’ve learned the most from about true culturally responsive teaching is Zaretta Hammond, and you and I have both had her on our podcast, so people can keep learning. She wrote a book called Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. What she does is great because she sort of combines neuroscience with this idea of culturally responsive teaching. And her main point is that if our students of color are not learning, then whatever efforts we’re making towards culturally responsive teaching, we’re not doing it right.

And she talks way more about sort of the actual teaching and instructional strategies that we’re using. One of the things that she taught me is that kids from a lot of other cultures, especially if they have sort of an oral history background, their brains tend to respond more quickly to stories than just flat out information. So if there is a way to turn some of your instruction into something that’s more story-based, they’re more likely to remember it.

The nice thing about that is that your other students, your sort of mainstream American kids who are not coming from any other culture, they will also respond well to storified instruction.

She also talks a lot about cooperative learning, where obviously we’re talking about high-quality cooperative learning, not just throwing stuff out there and having the kids do whatever they want. But a lot of students come from cultures where it’s not quite as competitive and looking out for number one [individualistic] as mainstream American culture is. And so they don’t necessarily respond to these competitive measures that we put in so many of our schools. They may be more likely to respond to sort of team-based learning.

And so I’m really only skimming the surface here on some of what she talks about, and there are other people out there too who are doing really good work with culturally responsive teaching.

Then also, of course, building relationships with these students, getting to know them individually, learning what makes them tick, feeling that you see them as individuals. Learning how to pronounce their names correctly, so on and so forth, all of that is so much more important than hanging a sombrero in your classroom, for example. Just decorating your classroom in a way that you feel is going to reach students of different backgrounds, especially with the kind of diversity that we have now, we’ve got kids coming from countries that some of us are just hearing about now. And so, there’s really almost no way to gather up enough artifacts to make them feel at home.

What we really need to do is just get to know them as individuals and teach in ways that are going to help them learn, and then grow and feel more confident, and feel that they belong.

Right, it is a complex topic and I found that when we have complex problems in education, there tend to be pre-packaged solutions available for purchase to solve complex problems.

And that’s one of my biggest concerns when I think about designing lessons that are culturally responsive is realizing that it cannot be done through a pre-packaged curriculum. It is about the individual human beings in your classroom. There’s not a one-size-fits-all response like, “Buy this product, now you’re culturally responsive.”

I’ve seen the same thing with restorative justice, that I think there are people that want to see, “Okay, tell me the two techniques. Okay, we’re doing circles, we’re doing this, we’re doing restorative justice.”

It’s like no, no, no — it’s going to take you a couple of years to get there. You need to slow down and learn, and take this slowly and carefully, because it’s way more complex, which is great because I think a lot of times in education, we’re so busy, and we’re so overloaded that we do look for those quick fixes.

And when you’re dealing with people, nothing is a quick fix. Maybe it will be for a few kids, but then you have all your other kids. So if we can just take a breath, and learn from each other, and try to just slow down a little bit.

Yeah. This is one of the few areas that you really can’t standardize, or I should say that it’s more difficult to standardize, and that teachers maybe aren’t given something that is standardized, like with restorative justice. You’re not going to be given a curriculum, a step-by-step guide: here’s what to do.

It’s really a lens through which you approach your teaching, and the same thing with being culturally responsive. And there’s some freedom in that, there’s some ability to be student-centered and be tuned into your kids’ needs, which is what teachers want to do.

They don’t want to be told step-by-step, like we’re robots and the kids are robots. So maybe embracing that instead of trying to make it into a yes and a no type of thing, or right and wrong.

Because even kids within the same culture are not monolithic. And I think sometimes with trying to make lessons culturally responsive, we end up stereotyping and assuming, “Oh they’re Hispanic or they’re Latinx, so they must like this music.” Or, “They must use this word.” And that can completely backfire, because it’s not going to resonate with all the kids, and it’s going to feel out of character for you.

And that might be the even bigger point, that kids don’t need teachers to be just like them. They need their teachers to be authentic, and real, and respectful of them.

So I can come into the classroom with my clothing styles, and my choices of slang, and my musical preferences, and so on, and I don’t have to mimic the kids to try to seem cool. If I’m being me, then that realness is going to be more important than relatability.

And I think it’s always more comfortable to be around someone who is comfortable with themselves, even if they’re very different from you, than to be around someone that feels like they need to somehow be like you, and they don’t have any idea of how to do that.

I think that’s what happens a lot of times when we attempt culturally responsive lessons is it’s the teacher trying to be like the kids, and not really knowing how to do it because the teacher’s coming from a different background. So in my experience, it’s better to be yourself and show appreciation for kids home and community cultures, but not necessarily trying to adopt it or incorporate it too much.

It can be more student-led. You don’t need to rap, you can let kids come up with their own raps. That can be one of the choices for a student project, for example.

You don’t need to use their slang, you can let the kids use the slang, and you seek to understand it and validate it.

So, find authentic representations of their culture to include in your curriculum, including your book choices, as we’ve sort of talked about in the beginning part of this. So they’re seeing their culture, but it’s from a fellow member of that culture. It’s an authentic voice, rather than from you as someone who is an outsider to their culture, who’s just sort of appropriating it. So I guess what I’m saying is be authentic to you, and let the kids be authentic to themselves.

Yes, absolutely. And it really can be as simple as that in terms of not trying to go so far out of your comfort zone.

Alright, so the final myth that we’re going to cover is this, planning great lessons always takes a lot of time and preparation. This is a tough one.

What I’m hearing from lots of teachers is that the amount of planning can decrease as student ownership increases. So it takes a big investment of time upfront, particularly the first few times that you do things like project-based learning. But as the school year progresses, the kids can take more ownership, and then the teacher is doing a lot more facilitating rather than instructing.

So for example, you might need to create all of your rubrics in the beginning of the school year, but later in the year, after kids have had some practice self-assessing with rubrics, that’s something that you can turn over to them and do as a whole class activity, or if your kids are younger, or if they’re older, they can do it in groups.

They can take an old rubric and they can adapt it. They can identify what would a level five project look like and write the criteria. So some of the things that the teacher would have to ordinarily do on their own outside of class, can become part of the instructional activity. Instead of the teacher determining what a good project is and telling the kids, students begin to develop the criteria themselves.

So that’s one example of how over time student ownership can actually make planning great lessons a little bit easier on the teacher, as you’re giving more ownership over. But I know that this is not an area that you feel is your strength. I’m guessing you could still speak to this, maybe share some examples of what not to do.

Just the idea of student ownership, in general, is probably the thing that I would do the most differently if I went back into full-time teaching, would be to do less stuff myself and give them more stuff to do. I just was a control freak really, and I was the one who knew how to do things best.

And so I do think that I would be more willing to go through that messy process of showing them how to do things, like do really good peer assessment. I think I would have them do it, and they wouldn’t do a good job, and I would sort of throw my hands up and say, “Well I guess …” instead of being a little bit more patient with that process and realizing it’s going to take a few tries before they get really good.

I’m going to probably have to give them a lot of feedback at first, but then the payoff, like you were talking about, is going to come later once they really get the hang of it. And I just was never patient enough to work through that process. I think there’s a lot of value in that, in the kids having more ownership over a lot of different things.

This idea of co-creating criteria for an assignment, I pretty much just said how it was going to be. And the thing is not only is it more work on me, but it’s less thinking for them. They always say that the hardest worker in the room is the one who’s learning. So my classrooms were more passive than they should have been.

I feel the same. I think that this has been a more recent shift in education, as well. An understanding that we can turn more of these things over to kids–that’s a process for teachers. It’s a painful process to learn, it does require giving up control, and it also requires a pretty steep learning curve and a lot of investment of time. So I’m glad that you’re encouraging teachers to stick with it because what we see in classrooms is that it’s worth the payoff.

The thing is, if a lesson takes three days at the beginning of the year because it’s a lot of feedback, redirection, and correction, I think a lot of times we get freaked out because we’re getting off of our pacing guide, and this is taking too long.

But it’s one of those things where if you’re teaching them a method, and a process, and a way of thinking, it’s going to pay off so beautifully throughout the rest of the year once they really sort of have it down.

I guess I’m still thinking about peer assessment of writing or something like that. It would be a lot of leg work at the beginning, but many of you can just sit back later and let them really do a lot of good work.

And there are other strategies. There’s a strategy that an English teacher in California introduced on my site last year that has taken off like gangbusters. She calls it the TQE Method. She teaches books, students have reading assignments and that sort of thing. They would go home and read, and then they’d come in and she would quiz them on the reading, and everybody was sort of droopy, nobody was enthusiastic about it. And she thought, “There’s got to be a better way for me to teach a book.”

And so she started assigning the students to come in with a lingering thought, a question, and an epiphany. And once they did that, those questions that they brought in would make up the class discussion. So it was the responsibility of the students to actually provide the thoughts, questions, and epiphanies. They would get into groups, they would share what they brought in, and then each group would choose one thought, one question, and one epiphany. They would throw them up on the board, and then as a class, they would just work their way through that stuff.

And she said it was the greatest thing because they came in with such good questions, and that’s the thing. She said over the year, they got better and better as she taught them what’s a good question, and what’s kind of a blah question. And she said there’s no prep. She said, “The only prep I have to do is to read the chapters that we all decided we were going to read, and I come in and I enjoy the conversation. And my assessment is basically they get a participation grade for that class,” because this is how she does her speaking and listening standards.

So if you can find these simpler ways of planning lessons that do put more responsibility on the students, and then you can just repeat them throughout the year, you kind of have it made then.

Right, I agree that that is the goal, instead of always looking for something brand new to do. I think a lot of times, we get sort of shiny object syndrome — we want to find something new because we get bored with the lessons. We don’t want to do the same thing over and over again.

But there’s a lot of other ways to get your creativity fix, and mix things up and keep things fresh and interesting for yourself, other than just spending hours online looking for something new and different all the time.

If you can have a few tried and true versatile open-ended activities, you can use them in lots of different lessons. So there may not be thousands of things like the TQE method that are super effective, and that are minimal prep. But you don’t need thousands of activities, that’s the thing.

No, and teachers that are using something like TQE, they use it all year long, and they just switch out the text that they’re talking about. That’s where the novelty and the variety come in is that they’re reading different, interesting books, and they’re having conversations about all kinds of different things. It’s just that this structure is in place, and then they just reuse it.

One of the things I try to hammer a lot on my site is that kids are just so passive a lot of times in class, just sitting there all day long. And there have been studies on this about how long (especially high school students) just sit, and sit, and sit. And there are really simple ways to just get them up and moving.

One of the strategies I share with teachers is called chat stations, where instead of having them answer 10 questions on a worksheet, you could literally take that worksheet and cut it up and put those questions around the room on the wall and have students get into small groups, rotate, discuss the questions, and answer them on a sheet of paper. Or you can have the answer on a flap underneath it or something, so that they’re actually moving around and having conversations with each other instead of just sitting there answering it on a sheet of paper.

There’s also a strategy called write to learn, which is super simple. If you’re watching a movie or doing a lecture, you just occasionally stop and have students write a couple of sentences about what did they just learn, and they can share those with each other. And it’s just a way of mentally processing what’s going on.

Another thing I don’t understand why more teachers aren’t doing simulations, I’m not talking about large scale historical simulations, but just really simple things, especially if you’re a science teacher or even social studies, you’re trying to explain concepts about, “This thing here did this, and then this thing reacted that way.”

Whatever it is, whether it’s a scientific concept or a historical event or something like that, why more teachers are not just grabbing kids and having them stand up, and, “You be the sun, and you be the moon, and you be the Earth. Now let’s stand here, and I want you to spin, and I want you to … .” It’s super simple, you don’t need any equipment, you don’t need any technology.

But that simple kinesthetic moment there is going to stick in the minds of the kids who participated, and in everybody else’s mind too because they’re all going to remember that Jordan was the sun that day, or whatever it was. Jordan was the queen that day, or whatever the situation was. They’ll all have a little laugh over it, but they’ll remember it so much better than just sitting there taking that information in. And that’s not something that really requires much planning at all.

This really circles back nicely to a lot of things that we’ve talked about earlier about how simple is often better. You don’t have to do flashy, you don’t have to do gimmicky. It’s about doing things that are meaningful, and getting kids actively involved. There are lots of ways to have kids not be passive learners, other than doing these elaborate games and trying to make things super fun for them. Just getting them involved so they’re not just sitting there I think is a huge goal.

And the thing is, in classrooms, if there is a foundation within that room where number one, the kids sort of respect you as a person, they feel that you respect them. There’s been some effort to get to know each other so everybody feels academically safe in the room, you can do stuff like that. You can say, “Jordan, get up, you’re the queen now,” because everybody in the room basically trusts each other.

And you can have these deep conversations about serious issues because you’ve built those relationships with each other. Without that piece, a lot of the stuff that we’re saying should be easy, isn’t as easy because the kids don’t trust you. So that’s another thing, but yes I’d say that as sort of an overall thing … well hold on, are we ready for this? Are we moving to the final question?

Yeah, we can move right to the final question. Tell us what’s something you wish every teacher knew about designing effective lessons.

Okay, because this really does wrap up all of this — I think teachers do put a lot of pressure on themselves to come up with this new, different, flashy, innovative thing. Start with what you’re already doing that is working well, or what other people do that is working well. And what you said too, it can be something that’s very, very simple.

And in fact, because teachers are so strapped for time and energy, simple should be the priority, not just the consolation prize, like “Oh, today I’ll do it simply.” The more you can simplify the way you’re doing it, and the more you can find things that you reuse over and over again, the better instruction you’re going to end up having.

Visit cultofpedagogy.com to get more teaching ideas from Jen from her blog and podcast! 

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This episode is sponsored by UL Xplorlabs, a free STEM-focused experience to build scientific knowledge and passion among middle school students. UL Xplorlabs makes it simple to implement hands-on investigations in the classroom and is aligned with NGSS. Get your students solving real-world problems by going to https://ulxplorlabs.org/.

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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