Educators, Disrupt the Status Quo

I really must have messed up during the spring when I was in 8th grade. I can recall my teacher drawing a circle on the blackboard and telling me to put my nose in the circle and to stand in the same place for ten minutes. Also, I have vivid memories of the school administrator giving me a small shovel and making me dig up dandelions for a half an hour as a punishment to a long forgotten mistake I made. Unbeknownst to me, I was experiencing consequences that were probably used over and over again, for no real reason other than it’s the way we do things.

Do things such as what I recall still happen? They very well may. My journey into administration gave me opportunities to see and help to change some practices carried out for no real reason, practices not good for students. As leaders, teachers or administrators, we need to have honest conversations to bring about positive change.

Many of the practices I am highlighting you, and I both experienced when we were in school. Some may even bring back fond memories, but this does not mean they are good for today’s students. “Disrupt the Status Quo” is my exploration of some classroom practices educators need to explore further and change.

How we grade: Grading is a challenging conversation to have. Fortunately, there is much research on best practice and how grading can inform what a student knows in comparison to the curriculum. My experience is few teachers come out of school with a deep understanding of best grading practices. To be honest, for me, when I was a teacher I graded based off my recollections on how my favorite teachers graded me. In some instances this was fine, others not so much. Use of zero’s, averaging, point systems, failure, punishment using grades are a few quick topics that come to the mind. These and other grading topics should be discussed and compared to best educational practices.

Extra Credit: Bringing a box of tissues to class is a nice thing to do, counting it as a test grade will create an inaccuracy about a student’s knowledge of the curriculum. Grades should reflect what students have mastered; they should not be influenced by extra credit. Most readers grew up with extra credit, and many parents will ask for ways to earn extra credit. But this does not mean extra credit should continue.

Notebook checks for grades: Do students need to learn how to organize for class and school? Absolutely! Notebook checks can be valuable, but they don’t need to be graded– and that’s okay. Everything a teacher assesses does not need to be recorded in a grade book. An organized notebook communicates very little about a student’s knowledge of the curriculum.

Changeover: Grading, extra credit, notebook checks are all great topics for faculty study groups. Book studies, article sharing, coupled with courageous conversations in person or online can lead to effective change. An open mind and a willingness to do what is best for students–these are the prerequisites needed to start a process towards change.

Planning is needed for teachers to do great work with their students. I am sure all readers would agree with that simple statement. However, sometimes planning can go in the wrong direction, a direction we need to question.

Two types of planning come to my mind when I question the status quo.

No planning at all: Throughout my career, I have encountered a few educators who did not plan at all; they winged it. I am sure no person can be an effective teacher if they wing it. Kids deserve better. Does this exist in your school? Is it being addressed or is it allowed?

Teachers who plan for every day a year in advance: Great teachers plan and have larger outlines of where their curriculum is going over the course of the year. But each class is different. Well designed formative assessment can serve as an indicator of which groups can move forward and which groups need reteaching. Such assessment, coupled with other types of feedback, help a teacher plan. Planning each day for the entire year makes no sense; it negates and rejects the value of using student learning to guide the planning of the teacher. This type of rigidity can be harmful and often allows a staff member to say, “ I taught it; they didn’t learn it.” Great teachers can say they taught it and provide evidence to show whether students learned it.

Changeover: Empower staff to have conversations about how they plan and assist staff to create a professional standard for what effective planning is and equally important, what it is not.

Closing Thoughts:
Sometimes we continue methods that are harmful. The punishments I received in school were harmful. Anything harmful to students should stop immediately. But some, as I have reviewed in this post may not appear that harmful, but they still need to change. Take an honest look at practices and disrupt them. Work as a team, ask hard questions, and make adjustments for the best interest of students. Be willing to let go.

Check out some of my other articles on reading at Edu@Scholastic

Or, my book, The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook, Scholastic- Evan Robb

THE SECRET TO Meaningful Discussions?  

Try These 5 Techniques that Ensure Students Do the Talking

We all know the statistics and, well, we talk right over them! Teachers do far too much talking in the course of the day, and students do far too little.  I don’t say that to teacher-bash, but rather as a way to invite you to hit the pause button on over explaining and over guiding, and try these techniques that lead to student-driven, amazing discussions about the content you teach.

  1.     Model the mindsets. You gotta be all-in! Fully commit to the goal of your students controlling the learning conversations. Talk about and co-construct charts of the characteristics of productive dialogue. The key characteristic? Active listening, which means students concentrate on what the speaker is saying and push aside distracting thoughts. Active listeners learn to respect theories and conclusions that differ from theirs—as long as the text provides adequate support for the assertions.
  2.     Remember, old habits die hard. Raising hands doesn’t cut it during student-led conversations, so you’ll have to wean students off of that tradition. Instead, students talk, one at a time, while peers listen and process ideas. Once a student finishes, a peer jumps into the conversation. Tempted to rescue the conversation? Hold your breath, count to 10, trust your students. With practice in whole group, small group and partner discussions, your students will thrive in a month or two.
  3.     Equip students with an arsenal of question types. Model what it means to arrive at a guiding question, and then coach students to develop their own.  Guiding questions are those that can go broad and go deep, and align with students’ authentic curiosities about an issue.  For example, fourth graders were investigating self-selected books on natural disasters. Students agreed on this guiding question: How do natural disasters affect people’s lives? Even though each student read a different book, the guiding question was broad enough to stimulate rich conversations. Interpretive questions are also open-ended and have more than one answer. Have students consider verbs that will help them pose interpretive questions: analyze, examine, compare and contrast, evaluate, show, classify, I hand out lists of prompts to keep discussion flowing to each student, so they have this concrete support at first.
  4.     Find your new niche. During discussions, especially as students are just getting the hang of purposeful dialogue, listen from the sidelines and every once in a while, and only when absolutely necessary, pose a clarifying question—one that nudges students to get back on course or go deeper in some way. For example, maybe the question gets a student to say more, define a term, go back to the text, or think about whether he or she still believes his position. Author Renee Houser reminds us that a lot of this nudging can be done without our even talking! Think about non-verbal gestures and facial expressions that might work.
  5.     Be a social engineer. One of the many benefits of student-led discussions is that they allow you to listen and look at your students in new ways. Ask such questions as: Who is doing most of the talking? Which kids are obsessed with the same authors or topics? Who is particularly adept at active listening or posing questions? Which students have natural rapport? Who might I pair that may be in different groups of friends, but I now see will be great talk partners?


Laura Robb is a renowned literacy author, whose most recent book is Read, Talk, Write: 35 Lessons That Teach Students to Analyze Fiction and Nonfiction.

Flip The Traditional Teacher Read Aloud

By Lester Laminack

Enjoy, as Lester guides you from teacher-centered to student-centered teacher read alouds!

When you reach the end of an article, a story, or a book do you reach for your notebook to answer a set of questions written by someone else?  Do you feel that your understanding of what you have read, your worth as a reader, hinges on being able to give the answers to someone else’s questions?  Probably not.  Yet it seems that much of our reading instruction relies heavily on having our students answer a set of questions after they complete a reading assignment.  Following reading with a set of questions is a longstanding practice in literacy education.  In fact, many commercial reading programs follow this pattern.  One well-known program assigns a point value to each title, then has the children read and log on to a computer to read and answer a set of 10 multiple choice questions. Other programs have students read then write answers to similar questions. And if we are teaching from a literature-based approach that doesn’t rely upon a commercially produced program we tend to have our own questions to hold our students accountable.

Questions Can Create Patterns

As teachers, most of us were introduced to Bloom’s Taxonomy as undergraduates in a teacher education program.  We likely practiced developing questions for each of the levels in the taxonomy and began our teacher careers believing that it was our charge to develop good questions that would hold our students accountable and yield proof that they read and understood the assigned text.

We sat with our notepads at hand and read the books, articles, poems, and various other texts our students would read across the year.  We paused at various points in the text to draft the questions we would give our students.  We were attentive to character traits, shifts in the plot, nuances in word choice, the author’s use of simile and metaphor and figurative language.  We noted allusions to cultural references and other literature.  We were alert to the role of setting in the text, the way the author used dialog, bias, and narration.  We read closely and synthesized as we developed the questions we would present to the students.  Questions, whether presented by the program or developed by the teacher, may fall into a pattern or categories.  For example, questions about the main character, physical descriptions, main idea, vocabulary, opinion, evaluation, analysis, synthesis, inference, etc.

As students read and respond to the questions presented they begin to recognize the patterns as well.  Does this impact the way they read?  Does it shape what they tend to notice and pay attention to?  In other words, are they reading with the pattern of your questions in mind?  If the answer is, yes, then what are they failing to notice?  What is the cost to comprehension and attention and engagement?

Get In Touch With Ways You Read

Consider your own thought process as you read a text with the intention of writing questions for students to answer.  Are you beginning with a frame in mind? That is, do you begin with thoughts focused on Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How?  Or do you begin with the intention of finding three detail questions, two questions about the character’s motives, three questions that require the reader to interpret, two that require analysis, and one that calls for synthesis?  If the answer is, yes, then how does this frame influence YOUR approach as a reader? How does that process differ from the way you approach a professional text or a book you have selected to read for pleasure?  How does the approach effect your engagement with and your comprehension of the text?  Chances are that you read differently when you read for pleasure than when you read with the intention of developing a set of questions for your students.

Who’s Doing All The Thinking?

I have come to believe that the person who is asking the questions is the person who has done the thinking.  As you read to develop the questions for your students you were summarizing the text at critical points.  You were evaluating the merits of details and the use of Literacy devices.  You were synthesizing information and generating new thoughts.  You were noticing were the text called for an inference or expected you to have adequate background knowledge to connect to a metaphor or allusion.  In short, you were doing the deeper thinking, the more thorough analysis as a reader in service to the development of questions that would yield the proof of your students’ connections and comprehension.

Time To Flip the Read Aloud

I invite you to try something the next time you are reading aloud to your students.  As the story draws to a close and your voice delivers the last line simply close the book and exhale.  Pause for a few seconds and let silence settle over the group.  Then, look at them and speak quietly:  “Think for a few seconds.  Don’t speak yet, just think if you could speak with (author, illustrator, character, expert—beekeeper if the story is about bees, etc) what are the three best questions you could ask?  Think about that, please.  I’ll ask you to share your questions in just a moment.”

Have your notebook ready to jot down the questions as they share. At the end of the day when the students have boarded their buses to leave, revisit those questions and place them into four categories: Vocabulary, Background knowledge, Schema/conceptual frame, and other.  Take note of where the majority of the questions fall.  Think about what this reveals to you about their understanding of the text.  

I’ve come to believe that I find out more about where their understanding fails by examining their questions than I ever got from checking their answers.  

Lester’s books are on Amazon!

Learn more about Lester Laminack, check out his website!

Follow Lester on Twitter @lester_laminack

Is Something Holding You Back? Educators Time To Let Go

A new year is starting, 2018. What can you let go of?  Metaphorically speaking our plates only have so much room to add more and more. At times we need to let a few things go to make way for the new.  I suggest letting go of what might be dear to you but no longer serves a purpose or something that is holding you back for the goal you have set for yourself.


Years ago I was told a story, a story I will now share with you. It is a story that can change you.  The story starts with a group of people on a boat a few miles off the shore. There is a party going on. People are having a great time and admiring one lady who has a huge precious stone on her neck. It is clear to everyone the pride the lady has in her necklace.  


The water starts to get rough, but the party continues.  Many, including the lady with the necklace, are dancing right by the railing of the boat.  Suddenly a wave hits the boat; the lady screams as she falls overboard. Three people rush to find a life preserver.  With a life preserver in hand, a man leans over the railing in an attempt to toss it to the lady; she is starting to go underwater.


At that moment the man yells to the lady, ” Get that big necklace off your neck and you will be able to float towards the boat. Then I can save you!” The lady goes underwater and comes back up and yells back, ” I’ve had this necklace my entire life, I can’t do it.”


That is the end of the story.  The lady faces a choice: she could die or free herself by letting go of what she holds dear.


As 2018 begins, what necklaces are you wearing and how are they holding you back? Free yourself and let go.  Take an honest look at the five questions I often ask myself and others:


  1. Is it good for students today, or did it work better years ago?  

There are often things we do or curriculum we cling to that has no relevance to students today. When I was an English teacher, there were a few books that I loved and taught every year.  Eventually, I learned my passion for those books simply was not resonating with students.  I moved to new books and made much better connections with my students.


  1. Are certain strategies or practices no longer effective?  

I will have an entire blog on this topic, but many teachers like to lecture.  Often they idolized teachers who taught them with lecture and with pride carried on the tradition.  All traditions are not good.  Classrooms defined by lecture have no place in our schools; it is time to change.  Have the courage to do so.


  1. Do I cling to practices that tie up my time but serve little purpose?  

Years ago I knew a teacher who would come in tired a few days a week.  One day I asked him why?  He said he was up all night grading journals.  I thought about it for a minute and suggested he not do it anymore.  It was not received well.  His necklace stayed firmly in place.


  1. What can I let go of to bring more technology into my classroom?

Classrooms of the future will use technology to transform learning.  I do not see technology taking the place of a teacher, but I do believe all great teachers will effectively use technology. What can you change to make technology a more viable part of your classroom? What do you need to let go of to allow this change to happen?


  1. Is my attitude holding me back?

We control our attitude. Being a positive person is a choice, so is the opposite.  Positive educators can change lives and change the trajectory of students.  Take an honest look at your attitude and the mindset you choose.


As you move into 2018, don’t let fear prevent you from dropping what is holding you back.  Grab some of the fearlessness our students have, take some chances, be intrepid. Take risks and make a difference in the lives of those you teach and in the lives of everyone you know.

Learn more from my book The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook, Scholastic