6 Ways to Gain Academic Ground NOW!

It’s no secret that education, and so many of the sweet students in our education system have been seriously affected by the events of the past few years. While there was already a significant achievement gap for a number of our students, that gap has only widened since 2020.

No matter your opinion of how education was handled during 2020-2021, the bottom line was that virtual learning, mostly independent work, and a lack of responsiveness in teaching due to the circumstances were not the best educational practices for the majority of students, and the results of this are still being felt.

Unfortunately, as I’ve been in several schools and classrooms this year, many of the practices that we adopted during the 2020-2021 school years are still being used – and they still aren’t best practices. Students working independently on computers, cutting out collaboration because “students can’t handle it”, and a “one-size fits all” approach that is continuing to leave kids behind.

Now, I want to be clear. I also see teachers working harder than ever – covering classes, adapting to more students in class than they’ve ever had due to shortages, and teaching more than one (or two) content areas. I know that things are not ideal in so many schools.

But we’ve got to have a sense of urgency right now. Students need teachers more than ever right now, and they need them to be designing lessons that lead to the most amount of learning possible.

So let’s talk about 6 ways that teachers can ensure that students are making growth and closing gaps.

  1. Have teacher clarity – know what the students need to learn, how they are going to show you that they’ve learned it, and have a plan for those who didn’t get it. Every day.
  2. Know these things about every student:
    • Reading level, language proficiency level, any IEP accommodations
    • Pertinent cultural beliefs/family structure
    • Hobbies/interests
    • Preferred learning modality
  3. Plan scaffolds into Tier 1 (first-teach) for language and struggling readers
  4. Focus on vocabulary
  5. Facilitate literacy
  6. Plan cognitively engaging lessons at least 3x a week

Let’s take a look at each of these points.

Teacher Clarity

Teacher clarity is imperative for moving students. As a teacher who primarily taught in the special education and ESL realm, I understand the tendency to naturally plan lessons that shoot below the standard. We want to plan lessons where students will feel successful and where we are not pushing them too much. If we, as teachers, are not clear on what we want the students to learn (based on the state standards), we will often not even give students the opportunity to get to that level of thinking. Every day, I encourage you (or your teachers) to create a learning objective based on the standard. This learning objective should be something measurable that the students can understand. “Good morning, class! Today, before you leave 3rd period, you will be able to explain to your neighbor how ____ event led to ______.” And then the teacher can check that the students understand the objective.

The next part of clarity is intentionally planning a way for students to show their learning. Observing students in cooperative groups may not give a fair picture. I typically recommend that this measurement have these qualities:

  1. It is done independently
  2. It aligns to the learning objective
  3. Eventually, it needs to be done without assistance (if students are allowed to use their notes, are you measuring their knowledge or their note-taking skill?)

And then finally, teachers need a plan for quickly bringing those who didn’t get it back into the learning. I liked to use warm-ups for this the next day. If I had a group of students who didn’t quite get it, I’d pull them during bell-work. If a lot of students didn’t get it, I knew I needed to re-teach it in a different way or give them more practice. (We have a resource to guide teachers through Teacher Clarity – Teacher Clarity for Student Success. You can click here for more information.)

Know these things about your students:

  1. Reading levels, proficiency levels, IEP accommodations
  2. Pertinent cultural beliefs/family structure
  3. Hobbies/interests
  4. preferred learning modality

Now, you may be thinking, “Don’t you know how busy I am?” Yes, I do! But if we want to see real growth in our students, we’ve got to know who our students are. When we know and understand the important learning and language levels, we can be proactive in scaffolding lessons. When we know the cultural and some personal details about the student, we can differentiate the context in which we are wrapping up the learning! When we can present the learning in context the students connect with, they make the learning connections so much quicker. When we figure out the preferred learning modalities, obviously we can create lessons that match those modalities, or at least make sure that at some point we are giving the students the opportunity to learn in their best way. When they can understand their best way to learn, this can give them some ownership of their learning as well.

This is the basis of being a responsive teacher, but gathering this information doesn’t have to be daunting. Use people in your district or campus to help you. Create a quick survey or questionnaire to give to the students (and even their families). Using that information to plan lessons will make a huge difference.

Plan scaffolding into Tier 1 (first-teach) lessons.

Yes, there are a lot of students who are behind. And yes, there are a lot of different levels sitting in your class. This is where scaffolds come in so handy. Here are some common, easy-to-implement scaffolds:

  1. Chunking the reading or task (and instructions). Just give a little at a time.
  2. Sentence frames for speaking and writing
  3. Visual vocabulary (word wall or anchor chart)
  4. Repetition – repeating key words and meanings as a class out loud
  5. Total Physical Response – put a hand motion with a meaning and have students do the motion every time the word comes up.
  6. Wait time (or think time) – post a question and give students time to think!
  7. Post questions and directions.

You will be amazed at how much learning occurs when a few scaffolds are used proactively.

Focus on Vocabulary

Typically, when students are behind, they are behind in vocabulary. When they can explain the concepts (in history, science or ELA) and explain the process (in math), they are going to move along in their learning. A lack of vocabulary stops this process of learning. Here are a few ways to increase their vocabulary:

  1. Teach word parts
  2. Repetition – see it, say it, see it, say it
  3. Use the vocabulary authentically (students, not the teachers). Students need to use it in order to understand it.
  4. Play games!

Let’s talk about what not to do – copying definitions takes a lot of time and does not promote learning. I understand at times there is a need to gather the information, but we waste precious time copying. If they can’t gather the definitions in about 15 minutes, try to figure out another way to get the definitions to them. We need to be spending class time on meaningful learning!

Facilitate Literacy

There is much to say about literacy, and that is for another article, but bottom line is that if students leave school illiterate, really not much else matters. We’ve got to be facilitating the opportunity for them build their skills and confidence reading texts they are interested in. Why do you love science? Can you find an interesting article that is relevant to students? Why do you love history? Please don’t make it boring. There are so many resources that can hook students into the learning.

Plan Cognitively Engaging Lessons at Least 3x a Week

Bored kids don’t learn. In a time where we need students soaking in and producing as much language as possible, we have too many kids bored in class. When students are bored, their affective filter goes up and learning and language stop.

Our job as teachers is to facilitate learning. If the way the material is being presented is not cognitively engaging students (meaning engaging their brains), then they aren’t taking in the information. Let’s talk about what this looks like:

  1. I’ve already mentioned this in this article, but we need to differentiate the context. Our teaching needs to be relevant to students. Think about it – have you ever sat through a PD that doesn’t relate to you? How engaged were you? Have you picked up a book that you didn’t connect with? What did you do? Probably put it down. So many of our students are sitting though hours and hours of classes every day where they are finding no relevance. This is sad and unnecessary.
  2. We want students to take ownership of their learning – this does not mean solely taking ownership of their grades. This means engaging in their learning process – asking questions, trying new things, figuring out difficult things, coming to a consensus and debating a point. In fact most of student ownership is not about grades. If students are making a bad grade because they haven’t turned things in, my guess is that they are not engaged in the learning…aka – they are bored.
  3. Movement – students need to move. “Sit and Get” does not work in the brains of today’s students. Cut a worksheet up and tape it up around a room and have students walk around with a partner. Have them stand up if they agree with a point, or squat down if they disagree. Thumbs up if they agree, thumbs down if they don’t. There are a hundred ways to move, but again, think about a meeting that goes to long or PD that doesn’t let you get up and move around. It’s hard for adults. Now put that for 6 hours a day on students.
  4. Vary up the learning modalities – Routine is good, but having the same learning modalities every day creates a cognitive disconnect (for example – we watch a 10 minute video, then students take notes, then they practice through a worksheet independently). We are missing a lot of learning modalities this way.

We are just touching the surface here! Responsive teaching is not easy, but it produces great fruits for the labor. I mentioned this resource above, but here at The Responsive Classroom, we are doing something we’ve never done before – we are going to open up the doors to our Clarity Resource again for a limited time. Normally, we only open up the doors once a year, but we know that students (and teachers) need help to tackle the challenges, and this program walks them through each of these points above. Click here to get more information! Doors will only be open for a limited time!

Also, if you are administrator, our next Virtual Administrator Symposium is October 20th at 7PM CST! The topic is – you guessed it – Gaining Academic Ground Now! We will have a panel of innovative administrators with creative and effective ideas on how to move students into success now! Register today! The event is free, and a replay will be available, but space is limited! Click here to register!

For more information on The Responsive Classroom, head to www.theresponsiveclassroom.org.

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