The Amazing Power of Teachers’ Words

Dr. Debbie Silver is an award-winning educator, 30 year veteran of the classroom, staff development instructor, and university professor. Her numerous recognitions include being named the Louisiana State Teacher of the Year. She’s taught on almost every grade level.

This article is adapted from her book Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight: Teaching Kids to Succeed (Corwin Press, 2012). Read our MiddleWeb review here.

by Debbie Silver

I grew up hearing the adage, “It’s not so much about what you say as how you say it.” I generally agreed with that idea. As a positive, enthusiastic teacher I often used effusive praise and all kinds of “rah-rah” exclamations to boost my students’ self-esteem and willingness to participate. I bubbled out meaningless phrases like, “You are so smart!”  “You’ve got a natural talent!”  “You are the absolute best ever!” with little regard to whether or not these particular phrases did anything to enhance self-efficacy in my learners.  I just wanted them to feel good.

Whenever my students failed I would quickly try to cover it up or minimize its importance so they wouldn’t lose any confidence by saying things like, “Oh, that test was really hard,” or “Well, maybe science is not your thing.” However, through my studies on the art and science of engaging learners I have come to believe that our choice of words is an often overlooked critical factor for inspiring learners to be independent, self-motivated students.

It really IS about what you say

To understand the damaging effect of inappropriate word choices, it is important to examine a psychological concept called attribution theory. Bernard Weiner (1980) asked subjects why they were or were not able to achieve certain goals. He recorded all their responses. He was able to sort the participants’ responses into what later came to be classified as one of four groups:

• Task  (“That assignment was so easy.” “The textbook was way too hard to read.”)

• Luck (“I guessed correctly about what to study.” “She only asked about stuff I didn’t know was going to be on the test!”)

Innate Ability or Talent (“Being good at sports just runs in my family.” “I can’t draw anything – never could and never will.”)

Effort (“I studied really hard, and I was prepared this time.” “I didn’t put the time into this assignment I needed to.”)

The four factors listed above represent the primary causal factors cited by individuals as explanations for their success or failure on certain tasks. Three of the four of these have something in common that should be particularly enlightening for teachers. The first three attributions are all beyond the control of the learner. They are external factors that cannot be influenced by the student. If learners attribute their success or lack of success to one of the first 3 factors, they are basically giving up their locus of control (their belief that they have power over what happens to them).

The singular attribute a student can influence is the fourth one, effort. Thus, effort is the only factor that can be controlled by the learner. The ramifications of this research are essential to consider when choosing our classroom comments.

When teachers praise innate talent and/or luck, we are basically diminishing the student’s role in her own success. If we allow kids to dismiss their low achievement as a result of the task difficulty, we are complicit in “letting them off the hook.” After all, they cannot control their genetic make-up, fate, or how hard or how easy the undertaking is.

What is important about understanding attribution theory is that adults can use it to help children accept responsibility for their successes and failures. Students can learn how to empower themselves rather than feel entitled or victimized. They can do this by attributing their success or lack of it to something they can control – their effort. Our feedback needs to address only things over which they have control – their choices and their effort.

Effective Feedback

Effective feedback starts with carefully selecting words that are honest, specific, nonjudgmental, and specifically chosen to help the student figure out how to get better. It should inform them about their progress. It should not judge, label, accuse, excuse, or even praise. It provides instructive knowledge that will enhance the student’s performance.

It is important to remember that inefficient learners often have no idea what the adults mean when we say, “you just need to work harder.” We need to provide modeling and incremental steps to help them understand the preparation we want them to use. We have to guide them with specific words towards helpful techniques for practicing efficiently and effectively.

Students thrive on individual, specific attention from caring adults. It is one of the greatest gifts we can give them.

Additionally, adults often fail to realize that some of the most effective feedback does not come in the form of statements but rather as questions. Learners appreciate having a fully focused non-judgmental adult interested in their work. The teacher can ask questions such as, “Ramon, how did you decide on that particular design for you paper airplane?” “If you could change one thing about your design, what would it be?” “Can you walk me through your thought process?” Students thrive on individual, specific attention from caring adults. It is one of the greatest gifts we can give them.

Effective and Ineffective Praise

Here are some examples of ineffective praise — and of praise that promotes appropriate attribution.

Ineffective: Restricted to global positive reactions. “Good job!” “Awesome!” “Number One!” “You Rock!”
Effective: Specifies the particulars of the accomplishment.
“You finished the exercise on time with 90% accuracy.” “Your project meets the highest standards on 3 of the 5 criteria on the rubric.”  “You turned in your assignment every day this week without having to be reminded.”

Ineffective: Shows a bland uniformity that suggests a conditioned response made with minimal attention.Oh, that’s good.” “It’s fine.” “Uh-huh.” “Way to go.” “Okay.” “Awesome.”
Effective: Shows spontaneity, variety and other signs of credibility that suggest clear attention to the student’s accomplishment.
“The details you included in your theme made me feel like I was right there.”  “The way you played that ball showed some quick thinking.”  “That example you just gave was one I never would have thought of, and you’re exactly right.”

Ineffective: Provides no information at all or gives students information about their status.Okay, turn it in.” “Yes, I see you’re done.” “Don’t worry, you’re fine.” “It’s acceptable.”
Effective: Provides information to the students about their competence or the value of their accomplishments.
“This paper clearly demonstrates you’ve attained mastery in this concept. That is something to be proud of!” “In your group today I noticed it was you who smoothed over the argument and got things back on track.” “It seems like you’re the one everyone turns to with their computer problems. Thanks for sharing your skills with your classmates.”

Ineffective: Orients students toward comparing themselves with others and thinking about competing.Can you make that a little more like Charlotte’s?”  “You’re not keeping up with the other G/T students.” “You still didn’t make the top score in the class.”
Effective: Orients students toward better appreciation of their own task-related behavior and thinking about problem solving.
“Do you realize you just exceeded your own personal best record?” “Show me how you solved that difficult problem.” “Let’s take a look at the progress you’ve made these past few weeks.”

~ adapted from Brophy, JE (1981)

Tricky business

Communicating high expectations is a tricky business. The subtleties of our words are not lost on students, and those words carry very strong messages. While it is indeed desirable to let students know we believe in them and their abilities, it is equally important that we use the appropriate words to direct their attention to attributes that help them build a sense of self-efficacy and self-motivation.

We need to choose our words carefully and use effective feedback to help students learn to succeed. While middle grades teachers always need to be mindful of the manner in which we communicate with our impressionable young learners, we must also be aware that what we choose to say is important and part of the teaching act.

Think twice before you speak, because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another. — Napoleon Hill

Learn more about the research behind attribution theory in this excerpt from Silver’s book.


Ames, C.A. (1990). Motivation: What teachers need to know. Teachers College Record, 91, 409-421.

Brophy, J.E. (1981). Teacher praise: A functional analysis. In Review of Educational Research, Spring, 5-32.

Silver, D. (2012). Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press/Columbus, Ohio: AMLE.

Weiner, B. (1979). A theory of motivation for some classroom experiences. Journal of Educational Psychology, 71. 3-25.

Weiner, B. (I980). A cognitive (attribution)-emotion-action model of motivated behavior: An analysis of judgments of help-giving. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39 (2), 186-200.

Connected Professional Learning


The Connected Educator:  Learning and Leading in a Digital Age
By Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Lani Ritter Hall
(Solution Tree Press,  2012 –  Learn more)

Reviewed by Fran Lo

The authors call this book an “interactive professional development experience,” and throughout there are questions to reflect on (as well as some exercises using technology to do, see below.) For somebody looking for a way to become more connected to other educators using digital tools, there’s plenty of meat here.

If you already buy into the value of connecting to other educators and just want some ideas for how to do it, then see chapters 5 and 6 (“using tools” and “building your personal learning community”). Chapters 5 and 6 provide concrete practical tips, including  twitter and RSS basics, writing a blog as well as commenting on blogs, and how to decide who to “follow” (make a part of your network).

Short exercises at the end of most chapters  will give less technically inclined teachers a chance to experiment with a few online tools.  The authors have even provided a website with links to encourage experimentation with these and other free tools. There are quite a few war stories, too, with tangible examples of teachers’ experiences. The authors have also provided lots of references to research, so if you want to read more, the information is readily available. And if you just want to know what a technology term means, there’s a helpful glossary at the back.

A connected learning model

Unless you really love taxonomy, skip the chapter on “developing a connected learning model.” Here’s what you need to know: while most of the world uses these terms interchangeably, in this book  professional learning communities are within your building, personal learning networks are outside your building, and communities of practice are outside your school but focused on a specific issue for “systemic improvement.”

While the authors begin with talk about creating your own learning network, they talk almost as much about change and reform. Certainly anyone looking for broader change in education will find ideas here.

The authors are not alone in looking at using tools like Twitter to develop personal professional development. Through my own personal learning network, via an email from NCLE (National Council for Literacy Education), I discovered a blog post called, “Can Twitter Replace Traditional Professional Development,” regarding a recent conference at which this topic had been discussed. Then MiddleWeb’s John Norton pointed out this link on a U.S. Department of Education website via his Twitter feed about a book club that included asynchronous and synchronous discussions (now archived) with one of the authors of The Connected Educator. I didn’t search for these resources; they found me.

You can lurk first

One group who might feel less comfortable with all this collaboration might be those who aren’t naturally outgoing. For these teachers, lurking (being present and reading what’s going on, but not participating by tweeting or commenting on blogs, for example) is also valuable and might be an easy first step.

Regardless of how deeply you want to become committed to the constantly available professional development that’s available – free – for anyone with time and access to the Internet, you’ll find something of value here. The authors do a good job of laying out both the why and the how-to of connected learning.

Fran Lo teaches English, Social Studies, and Computer Skills to middle schoolers in Connecticut, where she enjoys blending technology into her classes.  One of her other hats is technology guru for teachers and staff.  Prior to teaching, she helped people cope with technology in small businesses, health care, and the financial industry. Besides using technology, she writes about her experiences teaching in the blended environment (part face-to-face, part online) using tools like Moodle on her blog Adventures in online teaching. Find her MiddleWeb review of Frank Buck’s Organization Made Easy! Tools for Today’s Teachers here.

In another MiddleWeb review, read Anne Jolly’s take on The Connected Educator.

Secrets of Strong Partnerships

A MiddleWeb Blog


In last week’s post at Two Teachers, Elizabeth Stein opened the door to the co-taught classroom and found some elephants. In a great article, Elizabeth stressed that a successful co-teaching partnership must begin with a frank conversation about teaching philosophies, strengths and weaknesses, and instructional best practices. To help promote this key discussion of “difficult truths” (and ultimately draw positive energy from it), Elizabeth suggested four places to start the dialogue.

In this post I want to write from my own experiences with some of the co-teaching elephants — and share some additional thoughts about the key elements of strong partnerships.

Finding balance

Because no two teachers bring exactly the same philosophies or strengths and weaknesses to the table, co-teaching is always about finding balance.

Some of us are more “warm and fuzzy” — some of us are more firm and strict. These two personalities can actually complement one another. Some kids need a combination of both, some need more of one than the other, depending on the situation. It helps to have discussions ahead of time about the what-if’s. For example, if a student is complaining that he or she is afraid of tests or speaking in front of the class, who will speak privately to the child and what is a fair resolution?

I work with one colleague, a man, who is firm and structured, yet he has a wonderful sense of humor and will suggest to a student that they come to his room at lunch to present his/her monologue, project, etc. instead of during ELA class. He will also joke with the student to make them more relaxed. Because I’m soft-hearted, I can be guilty of “giving away the farm,” as one of my colleagues pointed out. He’s my reality check, and I don’t take his comments personally when we discuss how best to approach the delicate situations.

Here’s another example of balance: Over the years, my math partners and I have frequently had to “negotiate” acceptable errors in math. I’m lucky that my partner this year believes that the right answer is not the beginning and end of assessment; she agrees that it’s just as important for our students to get credit for work that shows they are mastering the concepts and process.

I’ve worked in situations where the co-teacher and I needed “marriage counseling,” and a principal had to step in and mediate because kids weren’t meeting their goals and objectives of their IEPs even with numerous accommodations and modifications. I consider this a last resort. Once an administrator steps in, it can become uncomfortable. But sometimes it’s necessary if balance can’t be found voluntarily.

Planning together

Shared planning time is one of the biggest challenges co-teachers face because often they aren’t in control of their schedules. In my building our special education teachers teach a study skills class when our general education teaching partners have their prep periods, and we have a break during their “double block” periods. We have tried to fit in four periods a week when we’re all free at the same time so each of us can meet individually with a subject teacher. Sometimes it works and sometimes we have to be creative.

Not long before Halloween, I called my math partner after I visited a pumpkin fair — thinking it might be fun for the kids if I brought in a pumpkin and we had them estimate how much it weighs, to the nearest tenth of a pound. We were starting fractions on Monday and our common planning time wasn’t until Wednesday. So we actually planned a quick activity on the phone.

Sometimes we do the same with tests and projects using e-mail at night or on weekends, or we have a “working lunch.” We use whatever time we can steal. It can even be a hallway chat between classes. With all of the technology available to us as 21st century educators, why not text or Skype if you’re both comfortable with the particular tech? I think the goal is always to plan lessons, activities, projects, etc. before the kids walk in the room, even if it’s a “rough draft” of what we want to accomplish.

Ideally, if teacher teams can meet with their principals before the kids receive their schedules and block out even two periods per week when everyone is free, it makes the year (and the teaching) a lot better. In my situation, four periods a week is ideal: one for each of my co-taught subjects, and one to meet with exploratory teachers (art, PE, computer, music, library, reading, etc) as well. Sometimes, if the common planning time is limited, or a colleague has to cover for an absent colleague, we can split a planning period in two: half for one subject and half for another.

Sharing responsibilities

When I first started co-teaching, it was a real insult to me when I was asked to copy handouts for colleagues who didn’t feel like waiting in line or “didn’t’ have time.” I felt as if I was being viewed as an office assistant, not a teaching partner.

Looking back, I think it was also a lack of communication on my part. As I’ve worked with various colleagues over the years, I got better at having a frank discussion about responsibilities, if needed. These days, my co-teachers and I share equally if possible. It really doesn’t matter as long as we it get done.

I work with some colleagues who need a break to stretch their legs and grab a cup of coffee, use the restroom, etc. If so, I’m there to present the lesson. I’m not the complete master of the copy machine (jams, toner cartridges, yikes!) If they’ll do that, I’ll volunteer to grade the latest project or quiz.

When we co-plan, we discuss who is doing what in terms of presenting big ideas, labs, etc. We play to our strengths. I’m not strong in grammar, but I love writing, so in ELA I will create the journal prompts and writing projects. My partner Paul is strong at coming up with activities that get the kids moving (pantomiming verbs and playing concentration games for test reviews) so we often divide things up that way.

I love life science, but I’m not so good at teaching the physical science standards (water and nitrogen cycle, or the phases of the moon, which I’m mastering finally after 20 years in 6th grade science), so I’ll offer to go shopping for the candy when we do our solute/solution lab.

As Elizabeth wrote in her first post, it really doesn’t matter who does what, I’ve learned, so long as there is a shared sense of responsibility for getting the work done.

Gaining mutual respect

It’s really hard when two teachers work together in the same room and have very different teaching styles, personalities and belief systems. It is often like an arranged marriage — plus kids. As Elizabeth has said, our goal is “working toward creating an effective co-teaching experience, and to find a way to communicate, plan, share, and respect the roles, responsibilities, and personalities of one another.”

If you think about it, most teachers in America seldom see other teachers teaching. They’re isolated in a room with kids, doing their own thing. I’ve learned a lot from my colleagues that’s helped me improve my teaching practice, and that is one of the best benefits of co-teaching.

I co-teach with a 54-year veteran (she’ll be 77 on her next birthday) who does weekly trivia in Ancient World History. I was always terrible at social studies, never good at remembering the facts, names and geography. But I learned that not only is her activity fun and ‘sticky’ for the kids (they create the questions and answers for their peers), but from a special education point of view, it’s also an opportunity to address the “review and repetition” that shows up on almost all of the students’ IEPs.

From a second-year science teacher, I learned how to set up a classroom to accommodate a student who had Asperger’s syndrome and would become stressed when he lost his science notebook. (She designated a spot on her counter where his notebook and handouts would always “live,” so he always knew where to find them.)

I could go on and on about the things — both simple and profound — that I’ve learned from co-teaching colleagues. I feel as Elizabeth does that the collaboration and the communication make all the difference between a mediocre co-teaching experience and a powerful one.

When the co-teaching is going right, I feel just like my 54-year veteran teaching partner, who I often hear say: “When I wake up in the morning,  I don’t feel like I’m going to work. I feel like a student who’s excited because he’s going to learn something new at school.”

Images: Bigstock

How to Plan STEM Curriculum

A MiddleWeb Blog

1 stem_design_logo

Good news arrived via email this morning! Change the Equation has determined that the EYE Middle Grades Modules I wrote about in last week’s post meet the high standards for inclusion in their STEMworks Database. I decided to check out the Change the Equation website and look at the principles they use for including resources in their database. These principles, I figure, would be handy for teachers who want to work on STEM lessons.

Why would teachers want to write STEM lessons anyway? Why not leave this to the folks outside the classroom? If you’re a teacher, you already know the answer to that question. Teachers are the people closest to the learners. No one knows the students better, and no one knows better what works in real classrooms.

The most workable, insightful and effective lessons I taught in middle grades science were lessons I got from my teacher colleagues. I scavenged lessons from teachers in my school and district, and I eagerly shared lessons with teachers at state and national science conventions, such as the National Science Teachers Assocation.

Teachers can be a continuous resource for one another. When we grow our skills, document our successful lesson plans, and share the knowledge we accrue, we leave a lasting heritage. Even more important: we ensure that everything we know and have done during our careers lives on — it doesn’t retire with us when leave the classroom and tuck our boxes of “stuff” away in storage.

10 Principles for Developing STEM Lessons

So, having gotten that off my chest (smile), back to the Overarching Principles established by the Change the Equation organization.  With apologies to the CTEq folks who developed these great design principles, I’m liberally paraphrasing — and I’m posing some of them as questions. I think this can be a useful starting point for teachers in building effective STEM lessons.

For best results, form an interdisciplinary team of teaching colleagues (you might include an engineer in this group as well) and tackle some of these questions. They are not necessarily in order.

  1. Why do our students need STEM lessons? (In other words, what added value would these lessons provide?) Check here for some ideas.
  2. What do our students need to learn? In addition to the STEM thinking and engineering process skills, students need specific content in math and science. For each lesson, see how you can align math and science; then come up with a real world problem that uses that math and science to solve the problem.
  3. What students are we targeting with this lesson? Ideally, STEM lessons are inclusive of groups that are underrepresented in STEM fields, such as girls and low-income students. All students need to become more critical thinkers and problem-solvers.
  4. How will we involve students in learning through inquiry and hands-on learning? Students need to be able to pose relevant questions, seek multiple possible explanations, test those explanations, and evaluate the results. They especially need to know that it’s okay not to get it right. (They often learn more from what doesn’t work than from what does work. ) The idea is to rethink, redesign, and keep on working to improve a solution. So make sure that your lessons offer open-ended research activities.
  5. Do our lessons include a focus on “21st-century skills?” Do we even know what 21st century skills are?  A conversation with corporation and business folks could serve to provide you with valuable insights and to let business and industry know what you’re doing. Once they know what you’re about, they may provide resources and assistance. No one wants you to succeed in preparing a 21st century workforce more than business and industry.
  6. What information and expertise do we need to create STEM lessons and where can we gain knowledge and skills? I always wish knowledge and expertise would just drop into my lap (or brain) out of the sky. That won’t happen. Take some time to research information about STEM and STEM lessons. Gain a deeper knowledge of the engineering topics you want to build the STEM lessons around. Explore the technology possibilities. Then roll up your sleeves and begin working to develop a lesson. Try it out. Then adjust it so that students will be even more successful. Keep at it until it works as intended, and then document it.

The information you learn can come from various places. The expertise will come from your personal interactions with the lessons and students.

  1. How will we gather data on the effectiveness of these lessons? Continuously collect data by observing how the students interact with the project, what questions they come up with, how they approach solving problems, their level of enthusiasm, and how well they work together. (Remember, teamwork is a part of STEM.) Of course, you can use written assessments to determine their mastery of STEM content, but your primary goals for successful STEM curriculum include the problem-solving approaches and habits of mind students build while engaging in the work.
  2. Are our lessons written so that other teachers can understand and replicate them? In other words, do the lessons include enough detail and resources that other teachers can be successful with them? Are any student handouts written in “kid speak?” Be sure to ask a couple of folks to read the lessons and point out areas that may be unclear.
  3. Do we have the conditions and support in place for the lessons we are writing? Consider the number of days the lesson will take, the equipment you will need, and any outside help from parents or businesses that you will need when you implement the lessons. If you lack equipment, you have a solid reason to communicate with parents and businesses.
  4. How will we communicate and share these lessons? That’s the fun part. Put on your thinking caps and you can find many ideas for sharing lessons. One thing to consider . . . submit them to MiddleWeb. We’re always looking for good teacher resources to share.

Resources for STEM Lessons

Lots of resources exist to help you as you develop STEM lesson plans. I’ve shared several in previous posts. I’ll add a few more here:

If you need help in guiding students to ask good questions, try this article from Mind/Shift.

I-STEM boasts a list of STEM lessons.  Here’s the link to their middle school lessons.

The National Science Foundation provides a lengthy list of Resources for STEM Education.

Go for it!  Kick off a STEM initiative in your school . . . one STEM lesson at a time.

New Teachers: Listen to the Goddess of Good Advice

 I’ve known Cossondra George since the early days of MiddleWeb’s online community, where she was a regular and wise voice. For several years in the 2000s I was privileged to be her editor on a series of articles she wrote for Ed Week Teacher.

Cossondra has a knack for giving good teaching advice, as you can easily learn by googling her name. (The unusual spelling is a web-searcher’s delight.) And unlike the mythological Cassandra, her accurate predictions of things to come (in the new teacher’s classroom) have been embraced by many. 

Cossondra’s insights can be found in high-readership articles at Education Week, including: Taming the Dragon of Classroom Chaos, After the Honeymoon, Teaching Students How to Learn, and most recently Ending the Year on a High Note. Her teaching blog, Middle School Day by Day, from a Teacher’s Point of View was recognized with a 2011 Fascination Award.

Cossondra has spent her 18-year teaching career in the small town of Newberry, Michigan, where — as she tells us in this recent interview — she’s worn quite a few hats, from middle & high school special educator to content specialist, teaching her favorite subject — mathematics.

1. You’ve written several popular articles about classroom organization, behavior management strategies and your techniques for establishing student routines. Novice teachers are eager to read them, we know. We’d like to focus some questions around your advice. But first, tell us about your teaching career.

I currently teach middle and high school special ed. When I finished my bachelor’s degree in elementary education, with emphasis in math and social studies, I wanted to get my endorsement in learning disabilities. So rather than seek a full-time teaching position, I continued to work towards my masters in special education while I subbed.

Once I received my masters degree, I took a position as a middle school special ed teacher at Newberry Middle School in Newberry, Michigan. After several years as an inclusion special ed teacher, I was asked to teach 8th grade history. While I was teaching history, I searched online for resources to help me engage students. I discovered MiddleWeb. (This was more than a decade ago!) After my one year of 8th grade history, I was moved to 7th grade where I mostly taught math, but some years I also taught social studies and technology classes.

Two years ago, another special ed position opened up and I took it. Now, some of my day is spent in inclusion classes (in both the middle and high school) and some in my own MS resource classroom.

As you can see, after nearly 20 years in public education, I’ve had lots of experience in the upper middle grades, in a variety of teaching roles.

2. In general, what would you say is your philosophy of teaching and learning? Talk about the fundamentals. What understandings about young people and adult-student relationships have shaped your teaching practice?

The most important thing I’ve learned about teaching is this: Building relationships with your students is the key to engaging them in the content. Until you can connect with them on some personal level, whether it is talking about football, hunting, pets, or some television show, students rarely will engage with you meaningfully about content. Once they feel a connection with you, that’s when learning starts. They trust you, they want to please you, are willing to struggle along on the journey beside you.

Teaching kids that learning goes hand in hand with struggling and failing can lead to a wonderful experience for both your students and yourself. Being honest about your own shortcomings, allowing students to see you learn and grow — learning to laugh with them at your own mistakes — will go a long way towards building trust.

3. Thinking about the first 4-6 weeks of school, what key steps do you take to establish a positive learning environment where students are respectful and eager to learn? What are the elements that must be in place, in and out of the classroom, for this to work for all students?

I’m not big on classroom rules. I think middle grades students know what is expected RULE-wise, and I enforce the basics: self-respect, respect for others and for property. Where I am really “strict” is on procedures – how we do things, when we do things, and where things belong. As our classroom procedures begin to become second nature to my students, the positive learning environment emerges.

Cossondra’s students – 2005 service-learning project

I build a structured routine of how I envision our classroom looking and functioning, and I model that over and over, helping students create their own method for fitting into the picture. I explain to them why I want things the way I want them and help them see how working together can create a more comfortable place for all of us to be.

One of the most important things a teacher can do is to meet and greet students at the door every day, every hour, by name. Smile, say “hello,” “good morning,” “Hey, I like your shoes (haircut, t-shirt),” “Don’t forget your book and a pencil…”. Anything to happily greet them as they walk in the door. I even post pictures of students from the local newspaper, along with comics, sports news, and other interesting information on the door so they want to stop, look, read and chat about what’s new.

Relationships, relationships, relationships. It really is all about relationships.

4. One of your most popular online articles is one for Education Week titled Taming the Dragon of Classroom Chaos. You admit in that article that you’re not naturally “neat.” Give us the essential strategies you use to create an “organized” classroom.

A place for everything – a place to turn in work, a place for supplies, a teacher-only space, a place for today’s handouts, a place for attendance, a place for EVERYTHING. Otherwise, I would never ever know where anything is. Learn what your weakness is, and create a location to solve that problem. Create a routine for you and your students that leads to learning.

My best organizer is the bell-ringer assignment students find on the board when they walk in. It gets the kids engaged right away, and gives me three precious minutes to take attendance and deal with all the little nit-picky stuff that has to be taken care of some days. It takes time to create meaningful math starters or social studies questions that tie yesterday’s lesson to what we’ll do today, but the bell-ringer can provide valuable instruction as well as organizational support.

I’ve also learned to let go of things that don’t matter in favor of things that matter more. At one time, I took over writing the quote of the day on this blackboard in the hallway. It was fun but took time I discovered I needed for other things. Now I write on it once a week or whenever I get around to it. No one seems to care that there is not a fresh quote every day. Let go of things that don’t matter so much in favor of things that do.

As far as classroom organization, that will look different for everyone depending on your room, what you teach, and your style of teaching. But the basics include things like supply locations, where it is easy for students to grab their own notebook, paper, markers, etc. Organize so that it is easy for you to scan at the end of the hour to make sure things are taken care of. That kind of organizing keep me sane!

It can be little things like turning our supply cubbies on tables away from students so they don’t get filled with trash. Big things like investing in different colored Expo markers for different classes or topics so my boards are not just a huge conglomeration of stuff with no rhyme or reason. Passes hanging by the door for bathroom or hall travel so I don’t have to write on one every time a student leaves the room. Seating charts – made by me or by students, but a place for every student and that student in their place – takes care of attendance quickly, lets subs know who, what, when and where, and also helps solve the mystery of whose book, or hat or sweater has been left behind.

At the end of the Dragon article you mentioned, I wrote:

Amid the chaos that is my classroom, a sharp observer will see these little islands of organization, floating in the clutter and disarray. My students and I spend our time together engaged in learning, and for the most part, things run smoothly.

Most of the ideas in that article aren’t original with me. But I’ve certainly put them to the test! As I said there, anyone who suffers like I do from chronic disorganization can make good use of them.

5. Finally, how is teaching different today than when your began your career? And how does that change the teaching job — or does it? When you began, you no doubt weighed the positives and negatives of a teaching career and the positives won out. Do you think that would be true if you were starting out today? If not, what needs to change?

Much has changed since I began teaching. Technology has taken over every aspect of our lives, and school is no exception. Some of those changes are welcome. We have the ability to access unlimited information quickly. We have the ability to communicate with people around the globe in real time. Those new capacities make learning exciting and meaningful in ways never before possible.

On the other hand, technology often becomes a distraction for students who are not mature enough to filter out the digital buzz and focus on their learning. They think they can multi-task, texting and chatting, and still learn. For some students, this is true. Unfortunately, it’s not true for all. Many students become so bogged down in the social aspects of technology, education suddenly takes a back seat.

Teachers are being held more and more accountable for student learning and achievement. In theory, this is a great idea. I think all teachers should be held to high expectations and kept on track, and should assume responsibility for the success of students in their classrooms. But students are not widgets, and many outside factors influence learning.

We are not all-powerful, able to transmit knowledge and understanding into the brains of our students by touching a button or uttering a magic word. When students are disengaged, we can try all the tools at our disposal, spend sleepless nights coming up with new strategies and ideas, try everything and then some, and still be unsuccessful.

All students are not created equal and to expect them to all arrive at the same destination on the same time schedule is unreasonable. To hold teachers solely accountable for the outcome of that journey is also unreasonable. There has to be a middle ground of spreading the accountability to include other people who make decisions that affect learning — from students themselves, to parents, to school leaders and board members, to politicians, and to the larger community.

Teaching is a wonderful, challenging and sometimes frustrating profession. We need good teachers who will stand up for kids. If that’s you, then chances are the positives will outweigh the negatives.

Would I become a teacher again, given the circumstances in public schools today? Probably. I love my job most of the time. The kids are great. I love the light bulbs that come on in their heads, the positive bubblings they emit, and the feeling that sometimes, I actually do make a difference in their lives.

On the other hand, I would strongly caution anyone considering teaching as a career choice to make sure you are up for the long haul. The pay is marginal. The perks that attracted career teachers in the past — good health insurance, retirement benefits and job security — are no longer guaranteed. If you truly aren’t willing to work 60 hours a week, if you aren’t willing to fight with parents, administrators and politicians for what you believe is right for your students, then consider a different career option.

Teaching is a wonderful, challenging and sometimes frustrating profession. We need good teachers who will stand up for kids. If that’s you, then chances are the positives will outweigh the negatives.

Thanks so much, Cossondra. We’ll watch for future advice and good luck in your next decade of teaching!

4 Critical Co-Teacher Conversations

Editor’s note (October 2021): Elizabeth’s reflection on the promise and challenges of co-teaching continues to be a sought-out post here at MiddleWeb. We hope it will inspire co-teachers to continue pressing for full status and partnership in their classrooms and schools,

A MiddleWeb Blog

By Elizabeth Stein

I always knew co-teaching gathered like-minded thinkers who share a similar vision, and our discussion so far supports this reassuring fact.

Thanks to all who are visiting, posting, and taking a part in pushing our thinking forward. Your perspectives add a lot of value to this blog and they offer the opportunity for us to take our discussions to new levels!

I recently read a quote from the 2012 National Teacher of the Year, Rebecca Mieliwocki. She says that teaching is a team sport.

That means we can’t just row on our own. We need to row together in the direction of something bigger. I have to talk to you, I have to learn from you, I have to listen to you, I have to say difficult truths to you at times, and you to me.”

Her view clearly supports teaching in general, and easily resonates with co-teaching as well. As we think about the value derived when co-teachers achieve a shared outlook on teaching, it just makes sense that listening to one another is the first step to ensure a smooth journey.

And while we’re on this journey, we have to include “difficult truths” that may be spoken to one another in an effort to iron out the wrinkles in the educational process.

Drawing energy from difficult truths

Of course, grappling with difficult truths is the most difficult thing to do. After all, who wants to discuss a difficult truth when one can just carry on and avoid it? I know I am not alone when I say, I do!

It’s obvious that avoiding difficult truths (those elephants in the room) will only lead to status quo teaching, at best. And status quo teaching is just not good enough. We must strive and reach beyond the status quo. When we reach the place where all difficult truths are on the table, we can put all of our energy into doing what needs to be done for students.

My most successful co-teaching relationships have been when my co-teachers and I have made the time to create lesson plans, discuss student progress, and figure out our own personal strengths and weaknesses.

Some difficult truths have come into play when we discussed the need to adjust the instructional pacing, rethink some specific instructional strategies, or develop the sensitivity needed to guide diverse thinkers to learn within a positive classroom environment.

But once that kind of open and constructive co-teaching relationship is established, the rest falls into place. And those “difficult truths” help drive a powerful personal and professional growth for all.


4 elephant-in-the-room conversation starters

Let’s face it: we know that not everyone will reach this pinnacle of positive communication. But here are a few things that all teachers can discuss to keep the co-teaching partnership on an upward swing:

1. We can gather and discuss resources about co-teaching – Over time we will uncover many valuable co-teaching resources. One I’d like to offer now outlines five models of effective co-teaching that teachers should use to ensure that they are indeed sharing the planning and responsibilities.

2. We can talk about personal strengths and weaknesses – Teachers should discuss specific roles that each will be responsible for. What parts of the planning and instructional phase will each teacher take charge of? How can each teacher support the other in ways that guide students to achieve?

3. Discuss ways to stay flexible and proactive – Co-planning lessons ahead of time is a must—and so is the need to stay flexible and make appropriate adjustments while we’re in the act of teaching. Teachers should remain connected during the instructional time so they support students all along the way. In addition, teachers must use the information they gain from students’ performance to plan for future lessons.

4. Discuss the learning environment – Co-teachers must discuss the learning environment. What classroom procedures will ensure a positive learning experience? How do the personalities of each teacher contribute to creating optimal learning for students and ourselves? How can each teacher support the other in making the learning exciting and meaningful?

The bottom line, I think, is for every teacher in a co-teaching environment to do what it takes to maintain the commitment, passion and energy required to keep communication flowing and make learning matter.

Looking forward to your connections, questions, comments, and contributions as we continue our journey together. What would you add to my list of critical discussion topics?

The Creative Lives of Children

School Play: A Professional Development Package (DVD)
72-minute DVD + study guide
By EyePop Productions
(Stenhouse Publishers, 2012 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Lyn Hilt

School Play, a documentary by Eddie Rosenstein and Rick Velleu, captures the essence of imagination, the rewards of hard work, and the demands of childhood. While viewing the film I giggled, cried, pondered the role of creative arts in elementary schools today, and longed to be eight years old again, reenacting scenes from The Wizard of Oz with my two younger brothers in our family’s living room.

The film follows closely the experiences of five children — fourth and fifth graders whose elementary school careers are soon ending — each of whom land a role in the school’s production of The Wizard of Oz. As the characters were introduced, I associated their stories with former students. We’ve all known and loved these children: the overachiever, the class clown, the misunderstood outcast, the wanna-be-actor, and the precocious young actress.

What so compels the viewer to continue watching a film about an elementary school production is the way the filmmakers spend time spotlighting the children as individuals. You grow to know and appreciate each child’s unique gifts.

The children

As an elementary school principal I spend a lot of time with the “Jeffries” of the world. A young man who is brazen, loud, sometimes defiant, an outcast, and a troublemaker. He tells the cameras “a lot of the kids don’t like me, and they bother me.” Will the play be a way for him to develop new friendships? His mother, who continues to support him, seems to think so. One of my favorite aspects of the film was the reemergence of Jeffrey’s dad in his life through his volunteerism with the production. It’s clear that family involvement is encouraged throughout the production and students who experience success have a strong support system at home.

You also meet Joey, the class clown and “troublemaker,” an amusing young man who uses theater as an outlet for his creative energies. Nick admits he wants to pursue acting because he loves when he can perform for people, and says “I do break off from the mainstream because I don’t want to be like everyone else.”

Isabel is an overachiever, a perfectionist, and a student with whom others enjoy spending their time. She is cast in the play’s lead role as Dorothy, and through the film you are able to witness the anxieties that even a gifted young child feels when faced with the pressures to perform to a certain standard. Elizabeth, the youngest student featured, is a natural performer who enjoys dress-up (and makeup) and losing herself in her imagination.

The production

As you begin to watch rehearsals, you quickly come to realize that bringing this performance to life is no easy feat. The director reflects that many children won’t know what their inclusion in the production means at the start of the process, but they sure realize it when it’s over. She emphasizes the need to think about the children as young adult performers, and never to underestimate what they can do.

The director, music teacher, and all adults involved in the production stress the importance of hard work and dedication to task. This is more easily achieved by some students than others. At one point during rehearsals the entire group is addressed and issued a warning that if the students’ work is not taken more seriously, the production may not go on. You can probably guess how students respond to this type of feedback, but for each performer the learning and reflection process is a very personal one.


Using School Play in PD settings

Accompanying the documentary is a School Play Study Guide (Stenhouse, 2012) which provides resources for school administrators and teachers to use when planning to include the viewing of the film in professional development. The guide provides a context through which to view the film as well as an explanation of the film’s relevance, requiring participants to activate their thinking about the content and themes they’re about to view.

The guide also provides a helpful workshop schedule. Discussion groups are included as part of the day’s schedule, and the guide creators offer a discussion tool adapted from the “Save the Last Word for ME” protocol developed by Patricia Averette through the National School Reform Faculty. This protocol is helpful to ensure all participants are given an equal voice in the discussion and can build off of one another’s ideas.

The guide provides event organizers with workshop topics that can be tailored to school needs, complete with resources and recommended readings. Topics include Knowing Children, Keeping It Real: Creating Authentic Learning Opportunities, Building Our Repertoires: Matching Responses to Children and Situations, and Involving Parents to Promote Student Learning.

No matter what your needs and reasons for including School Play in your school’s professional development sessions, the accompanying study guide provides organizers with the quality resources to do so.

A celebration of creative arts

School Play is not just a film about an elementary school dramatic production. It helps to celebrate the importance of the infusion of creative arts opportunities for all students. It allows you to understand the differences among the lives of children and the ways their unique gifts combine to create an entertaining, heartfelt production.

It makes you long for your childhood, because, as the film closes, a student reminds us, “I don’t want to throw my whole childhood away. When I’m older I’ll regret doing that, because I won’t ever get to do it again.”

Lyn Hilt is principal of Brecknock Elementary School, located in beautiful Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The K-6 school community is comprised of enthusiastic student learners, dedicated staff, and supportive parents. Lyn has an affinity for educational technologies and infusing 21st century skills into the curriculum. Before becoming a principal, she taught grades 5 and 6, served as an elementary technology teacher, and coached field hockey. She blogs from time to time at The Principal’s Posts, at Voices from the Learning Revolution, and at Connected Principals.

7 Secrets of STEM Success

A MIddleWeb Blog


1 stem_design_logo

I’m hoping you didn’t click on this post hoping to find a quick recipe for a STEM program. Although successful STEM is doable – in fact essential – it will require you to roll up your sleeves. STEM is not a prescription. STEM is not an education fad. You’re going to need plenty of determination, persistence, and patience. You must be willing to experiment, analyze, and change things that don’t produce the results you want.

You’ve heard this refrain repeatedly because it’s true: STEM is the doorway for our students into a powerful 21st Century workforce. It’s definitely worth the effort. So what are some ideas for developing a successful STEM program?

The good news is that I can offer an example of a successful systemwide STEM program that continues to evolve, change, and grow. I’ll share some secrets and a solid to-do list, based on the aha’s and lessons learned by this program’s creators. And I think these same insights can be applied (with some modification) to a single school and can even be useful to a single teacher.

The story I’m about to tell is certainly not the only STEM success story out there. If you have one of your own – classroom, schoolwide, or systemwide – I invite you to tell us about it in the Comments section.

A strategic STEM partnership

The setting: The successful STEM program I’ll describe involves two entities. The Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS) is the largest school system in Alabama, with over 63,000 students in 100-plus schools. The Mobile Area Education Foundation (MAEF) is an independent, non-profit education organization that focuses on building community responsibility for improving public education outcomes — both in the Mobile County schools and in other districts in the Mobile region. It’s also important to know that MCPSS and MAEF have a long history of strategic partnership and effective collaboration.

The background: One of MAEF’s largest current initiatives is a program called Engaging Youth through Engineering (EYE) – the brainchild of Dr. Susan Pruet, who began her career as a middle grades mathematics teacher. Area business and industry leaders asked MAEF/MCPSS to develop EYE to help prepare a highly skilled, engineering-oriented regional workforce, and they provided seed funding for the first three years of the effort.

7 secrets of a strong STEM program

If Dr. Pruet wrote an advice column about STEM program development, it would probably include these seven points:

1. Know why you want STEM in your school system. Happily for me (a former middle school science teacher), this EYE program focuses on students in grades 6-8. Why middle school? The goal is to encourage students to choose and be successful in challenging high school coursework — the kind needed to become knowledgeable, technology-savvy workers for major industries located in Mobile, including aerospace and shipbuilding. Notice how specific that purpose is? EYE is not preparing students for a hypothetical workforce. It’s for preparing them for a local workforce. Of course, this high school preparation also prepares students to be successful in challenging STEM coursework in college.

2. Get information about successful STEM programs. The first step Dr. Pruet took was to put together an EYE planning team that included all stakeholders – business leaders, teachers, and administrators. The team investigated STEM programs, made onsite visits, and then adopted Engineering is Elementary as a pre-STEM starting point for involving elementary school students in thinking like engineers. In the early years, EYE experimented with STEM lessons in several middle schools and gained important perspectives on the professional development needs of science and math teachers.

3. Put together a thoughtful and systematic STEM approach that accomplishes specific outcomes for your students. After several years of experimentation, the EYE coalition sought and secured a National Science Foundation grant. Dr. Pruet put together a STEM writing team and a team of evaluators to research, develop, and evaluate the development of 9 STEM Modules – 3 each for grades 6, 7, and 8. The planning team developed learning outcomes and the writing team began looking at the MCPSS pacing guides in math and science to see how to integrate the learning objectives for a particular quarter into a real-world challenge so that teachers would not be expected to teach “extra” material when leading a STEM module.

4. Start small: then test, revise, and evaluate before scaling up. Working inside a system with 19 middle schools, each EYE module has been piloted in two middle schools and then field-tested in three representative middle schools. The number of module revisions has been mind-boggling – from totally throwing out a whole module and starting again, to making substantive changes to the piloted module. (No module ever worked as intended the first time.) Once the impact of the modules is externally evaluated and shown to be successful in improving student outcomes, the scale-up process begins. That leads to the next point.

5. Make STEM curriculum doable and affordable. The EYE modules include self-explanatory lesson plans, detailed instructions for teachers, and copies of all materials that need to be reproduced. Equipment and materials for hands-on implementation are relatively inexpensive. This helps to ensure successful replication.

6. Provide professional development and ongoing support for teachers. This is probably the key to ensuring sustained, successful implementation of STEM in schools and classrooms. In a recent blog post I mentioned that most teachers are not adequately prepared and equipped to teach STEM. This is a relatively new adventure. I suggested several possibilities there, but two key elements, from my standpoint, are these:

Provide intensive training on teaching the particular STEM lesson/module upfront. This may take a couple of days, as you want to clearly lay out the rationale, the “how to” process, and the pay-off for students.

Set up cross-curricular teacher teams. Then provide time during the school day for these teachers to work together to implement, assess, adapt, and even build new STEM lessons. In other words, build a process by which teachers can support one another and hold each other accountable for results.

7. Keep STEM education on the front burner. STEM attacks a deeply ingrained, status-quo way of teaching and learning. We must keep STEM front and center.  Fortunately, both the Common Core Standards for Mathematics and the Next Generation Science Standards are a great fit for STEM, so a perfect storm is building that can finally get us over the status quo hump. That’s going to take persistent effort on all our parts, though.

Helpful links: Building a STEM program

8 Keys to Success with STEM. This blog post by Diana Layboy-Rush actually provides the first 4 Keys to successful STEM implementation. Diana’s blog is a good one to follow for STEM ideas.

Roadmap for Success in K-12 STEM Education. This article from Science Daily offers good information and other links to improving STEM education.

Successful K-12 STEM Education: Identifying Effective Approaches in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.  Although I mentioned this in my last post, it bears referencing again. This free-for-download publication from the National Academies Press lays out some clear pathways schools and districts can follow to build successful STEM programs

I hope these ideas help you strengthen your own commitment to developing a strong STEM program in your school or district. If you have thoughts about anything I’ve shared here, please leave a comment!

Teaching Kids to Succeed

Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed
by Debbie Silver
(Corwin Press, 2011 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Susie Highley

“Do you believe students today are less motivated than students in the past? Explain why or why not.” This was author Debbie Silver’s opening question as AMLE’s MiddleTalk listserv group discussed her book, Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed, and it triggered a memorable chat.

I’ll just say it upfront: I love this book. It was a pleasure to read, and after I finished it, I felt obligated to share it with anyone I could. I took it with me to meetings, conferences, and informal gatherings. I read passages of it aloud to friends and family. I posted a picture of it on my Facebook page, complete with my color-coded post it flags.

I often think about what I learned from this book as I choose my words in speaking with students (or my own children). Fall Down is an ideal blend of theory, common sense, research and humor as it deals with finding effective ways to help students scaffold success.

Interaction and feedback

In my years of teaching in numerous schools, I’ve grown somewhat weary of various systems (often very time-consuming and expensive) designed to motivate students, often with wide-ranging use of extrinsic rewards. Silver’s book focuses on human interactions rather than “things,” and effective feedback rather than effusive praise.

Here’s one of my favorite passages from the book. It’s Debbie’s “wake up!” question:

We have given trophies to players who just show up, and we told our children they are the best when clearly they are not. We have led them to believe they have a right to be comfortable, to be untroubled, and to be constantly entertained. In an effort to ensure they feel good about themselves, we applaud, we excuse, we rationalize, and, when needed, we intervene on their behalf. And I ask this question, “How has that worked out so far?”

Fall Down 7 Times, Get up 8 is efficiently arranged into chapters dealing with such things as self-motivation, attribution theory, mindset, autonomy, failure, and rewards. I really appreciated the way Silver integrates so much research into the book, including Vygotsky, Bandura, Dweck, Tomlinson, Kohn, Marzano, Goleman and Csikszentmihalyi. Rather than simply reciting their conclusions, she effortlessly interweaves their findings into easily-understood scenarios.

The book’s chapters include classroom situations (more realistic than in many books), strategies, conversations, and specific ways to model what she is proposing. Each chapter ends with a conclusion offering a concise yet thorough summary. The final chapter has FAQ’s, which included many of the exact things I was still wondering about, or things educators or parents might ask. As Silver explains, “I want to assure you that I did not initially embrace some of the concepts I present in this book, nor did I accept all of them with equal ease. These are the best practices I know for now.”

Silver’s take on student motivation

So, how does Debbie Silver propose we help students become independent, successful learners? If children struggle a bit on the way to success, they will be more motivated to continue, because they will realize a feeling of achievement; if things come too easily, where is the sense of accomplishment?

If we tell students they will do fine because they are “smart,” “talented” or “bright” and they later fail at something, they often think that maybe they’re not so great anymore. It is more important to specifically praise an effort, not the result. As Silver summarizes, most writer/researchers “hold a common belief that the most powerful motivational reinforcer is for students to experience earned success.”

The chapter on self-motivation has a spot-on series of statements that demonstrate the difference between empowering and entitling children, while the chapter on attribution theory has examples of effective and ineffective praise. Carol Dweck’s research on “mindset” is highlighted in the next chapter, with many applications that include G/T and struggling students. “What Do I Get for It?” details Silver’s own experience with realizing that the use of rewards can be manipulative and controlling, yet she also gives examples of instances where rewards can be affirming (largely when they are unexpected and after a task is complete.)

Debbie Silver up close

I am frequently jealous of fellow educators and speakers who name-drop titles of recent books they’ve read. It seems like I can barely keep up with my workload, let alone complete outside reading. But when the MiddleTalk listserv (a member benefit of the Association for Middle Level Education) offered a chance to have an asychronous chat about the book this summer, complete with Debbie Silver herself, I decided I could find the time. What followed was a lively online conversation that could easily be duplicated within a school (with or without Debbie).

Last fall I attended the Kappa Delta Pi Centennial Convocation in Indianapolis, where I heard Silver deliver a fabulous keynote. I don’t know how I’d managed to attend various conferences in my 30-plus years in education without seeing her before. KDPi’s attendees were chiefly pre-service teachers, and I thought to myself, “Wow, what a perfect speaker to inspire future educators. They’re starting at the top.”

This book would be ideal for a teacher discussion group, parents, or text for pre-service teachers. It also includes a detailed glossary of theories, research and vocabulary, as well as discussion questions. I “Highley” recommend it.

Susie Highley is a library media specialist for several schools in Indianapolis and former science teacher. She is one of the co-authors of Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools–Now and in the Future and member of the Teacher Leaders Network. She has a passion for almost everything connected with middle schools, and serves on the board of the Indiana Middle Level Educators Association (IMLEA). She occasionally has to put herself on twitter “diets,” as her PLN shares so much valuable information, she can’t get anything else done. (You can follow her at @shighley)

The Art of Connected Coaching

A MiddleWeb Interview



Lani Ritter Hall is a leading expert in the relatively young field of professional coaching within virtual education spaces and communities. After a 35-year teaching career, including National Board Certification in 2003, Lani retired from her Ohio school system and joined Powerful Learning Practice LLC, where she serves as Director of Connected Coaching and community leader for PLP’s Connected Learner Experience, a year-long program for teachers learning to integrate technology and social media into their professional practice.

Lani has taught in the middle grades in urban, suburban, and independent schools in the U.S and Canada, and she began collaborating with teachers online in the late 1980’s, when she also found ways to connect her students to distant classrooms. She is the co-author, with Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, of the recent book The Connected Educator: Learning and Leading in a Digital Age (Solution Tree, 2011), and she blogs at Possibilities Abound.

Lani also teaches a popular online course on becoming a Connected Coach. The next class begins in early January 2013. Learn more at the PLP website.

For our “5Q Interview,” Lani talked with Kansas middle school teacher Marsha Ratzel, also a Connected Coach, who wrote about her own shift to connected professional learning in a June 2012 article for MiddleWeb.


Marsha Ratzel: You’re a 35-year veteran teacher, NBCT, online coach and now author. Did you imagine yourself co-writing such a powerhouse book like The Connected Educator? How did this happen?

Lani Ritter Hall: Imagine? Never! Where and how did it begin? A series of serendipitous connections with Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach led to our sincere friendship, continued collaboration and always—learning. And then ultimately The Connected Educator.

My journey is a story filled with masterful educators. It’s a story that dramatically illustrates the potential of deep online connections and their capacity to transform lives. And it’s story of some telling; you can learn about the beginnings here.

Sheryl and I had been collaborating for some time when one day, during a Skype conversation, she suggested that we share what we had learned about online communities of practice in the form of a book. I thought she was kidding at first. She wasn’t; she was serious. The very thought of it scared me to death; 65,000 words is a lot of words. Yet there was no way that I could pass up an extraordinary opportunity to learn more, stretch, and grow.

Following Sheryl’s unbounded enthusiasm, I jumped in too but likely not in the way you might imagine. I live in Northeast Ohio and Sheryl in coastal Virginia. So two connected learner leaders, separated geographically by more than 500 miles, availed themselves of technology to collaborate, share insights, and gen­erate ideas. Our use of Skype led to words flowing on Google Docs as each chapter of our book emerged and evolved. The priceless comment feature let us unpack and repack and finally brought us to publication. In the true spirit of connected learning, neither the book nor its ideas touched paper until Solution Tree’s presses began to run.

Marsha: You used the term “connected learner leaders.” Can you talk a bit how “connectedness” has changed learning and leading for you?

Lani: The potential of “connected learning” first hit me in the face in the late 1980s, when I and my students participated in collaborative projects with other classes from Germany, Lithuania, Canada, Australia and Britain via email.

Student writing dramatically improved as did their general interest in learning. One student who had failed English repeatedly remarked when we finished: “This project gave juice to my writing.” My students began to develop a global awareness; they were dumbfounded to learn that in Lithuania, a messy home was considered the sign of a dysfunctional family. When they read accounts of winter from Australian students, in the months when we were approaching summer  in America — and when those accounts arrived from an Australian classroom in the middle of our night — they began to realize how vast and complex the Earth really is.

Fast forward to my own professional connected learning: it’s commonplace for me to collaborate with people who live in my tomorrow! I’ve Skyped at 7 p.m. my local time while John in Australia was drinking his morning orange juice. I’ve risen at 2 a.m. to attend a webinar with an Australian team of educators as their coach. With time and distance blurred, I’ve commiserated with colleagues in the far southwest about the constraints imposed by high-stakes testing and brainstormed strategies to work around, in, and outside the system.

At every time of day and night, I’ve participated in online sessions with experts, authors, and teachers as we sought to understand more fully how to influ­ence the educational policies that affect our children’s futures. In online communities, I’ve developed significant collegial relationships that I cherish. The opportunities to engage in difficult discussions around practice have kept me from sleep. Through networks on Twitter and in blogs, I’ve explored resources (ones I likely would never have discovered on my own) that have profoundly affected my beliefs about teach­ing and learning.

My journey into connected learning has been compelling, sometimes daunting, often exhilarating, yet always fueled by passion. And it’s my firm belief that the diverse group of educators with whom I’ve connected has stretched my thinking and enabled me to move outside of my comfort zone to consider new ideas and remix them to improve my practice.

I’ve embraced the exponential potential that connectedness has to transform learning. I’ve learned far more in my time as a connected learner than in the many years before.

That extends to connected leading too. In the Connected Coaching eCourse I facilitate and in the communities I lead, I’ve connected with accomplished educators from China, Denmark, Norway, and many parts of Canada, Australia, Central America and the United States—all from my home. In Blackboard Collaborate we share virtual drinks– and engage in deep discussions around learning, coaching and transforming education given the affordances of technology. I ask questions, I share my thoughts through audio, images, text and video as we find our way. Adopting perhaps a different perspective on leadership, I see myself there as a co-learner, a curator, a network administrator.

Marsha: Tell me more about Connected Coaching— how do Connected Coaches differ from the school- or system-based coaches that often enter classrooms?

Lani: For Connected Coaches, gone is the need to travel to meetings; gone is the need to obtain building permits; gone is the need for boxes filled with folders of activities, binders filled with observations, plans and reflections. Coaching relationships are no longer nurtured and developed exclusively with people in proximate geographical spaces, or only through face to face interactions.

In Connected Coaching, we use the tools of virtual connection: video, Skype conversations, shared images, collaborative Google Docs, threaded discussions, voices in Voicethread, AudioBoo, and Vocaroo. Connected coaches meet from home, in PJs with a favorite beverage of choice, using Google+ or Blackboard Collaborate. They have opportunities to engage others 24/7, live or asynchronously, irrespective of time or place.

Connected Coaches need a well developed online voice/personality, and the ability to move beyond text to communicate in online spaces. The affordances of technology necessitate new mindsets, new skill sets, and new dispositions for those who coach other practitioners in connected spaces.

We see Connected Coaches as “social artists” who help people think deeply about learning that takes place in shared online spaces. They assist educators in becoming more self-directed, in realizing previously unrecognized potential in themselves to effect systemic change in education.

Coaches as social artists– immersed in collaboration in online spaces– epitomize a coaching approach that is an art, a wayfinding, not prescriptive and surely not from a deficit perspective.

Connected Coaches engage in wayfinding, an architectural term appropriate to the learning that occurs in connected spaces. Pathmarkers guide us in our role as coaches. These markers light the way as coaches facilitate the journey of others toward a more accomplished reflective practice. This journey is as much self-directed as it is collaborative. The objective: to create momentum for purposeful inquiry around a shared goal of self and school improvement.

Connected Coaches are skilled at inquiry, asking good questions. Unlike coaches in other models, Connected Coaches share less information and opinion. Often their efforts focus on helping teams and individuals recognize and appreciate diversity found in connected spaces. As well, they concentrate on the development of relationships that leverage an environment for positive growth and self-directedness. Through this appreciative inquiry/strength-based approach, Connected Coaches understand that as they help members realize their own potential over time, innovation follows.

Marsha: What in the coaching model engenders the types of trust relationships that grow during your course?

Lani: One of the most critical elements of the Connected Coaching model is trust building –growing and nurturing relationships. In face to face spaces, coaches and those they coach often share coffee; they chat about where they’ve taught and lived; they share recent photos from their cell phones of activities and family. From these initial interactions, trust begins to develop. Conversations turn to stories around experiences in the classroom. And only then can the real work of the coach begin. It’s no different in online spaces, especially for coaching from an appreciative inquiry perspective.

Building trust online becomes very intentional—creating opportunities for social interactions is purposeful and ongoing. And it is from these that coaches develop meaningful relationships with those they coach.

I’ve designed the Connected Coaching eCourse to model an appreciative inquiry journey similar to the one coaches take with their teams. Very purposefully, I include trustbuilding activities throughout the course, especially at the beginning. We share images that represent how we are feeling; we create 6-word stories around a set of given images; we share passions (other than teaching); we use audio files to share stories.

At the beginning of each webinar, we participate in brief activities that offer opportunities for each one to share a little about themselves in fun ways. We create a collaborative presentation together. Throughout the course, we engage in appreciative language, we recognize and celebrate each other’s strengths. We’ve (all of us) been amazed and totally delighted at the depth of the relationships developed in such a short time—relationships that continue long after our formal time together in the course ends.

Marsha: You mentioned self-directed and self-directedness? In what ways has that been important in your learning? Is that a key characteristic of connected learners?

Lani: Long before DIY (Do It Yourself) became a household acronym, I was a DIY learner. I was self-directed. I didn’t know it then. I just knew I wanted to learn; with every new interest, I sought out my own opportunities for that learning to happen. In high school, years ago at the height of the Cold War, I decided I wanted to learn Russian. It wasn’t offered in my school, so I signed up for adult education in night school—not for a credit, but because of my interest.

When I began teaching, years of top-down “in-service” days seemed to focus only on procedures, new policies and dealing with stress.

With the belief that my students deserved better, I initiated my own self-directed DIY professional development that was focused primarily on teaching strategies. My tunnel focus during those years was teaching and learning. Only later, following significant reflection, did I attribute the enormous effect of my learning on my classroom practice to DIY — to me as a self directed learner.

With a growing interest in facilitating online learning, I stumbled upon an online course entitled MOOM (Moving out of the Middle) hosted by the Concord Consortium. I then embarked upon an incredibly frightening and exhilarating journey into inquiry learning. That learning experience had a profound impact on me and my practice and intensified my quest as a DIY learner. I was hungry for learning, yearned for opportunities to stretch and grow on topics for which I had a passion.

My successful pursuit of National Board Certification followed. In portfolio entry 4 of the National Board certification process, an entire section was devoted to the “teacher as learner.” The evidence gathered for that entry and the accompanying analysis had to make a clear case that my personal learning had directly affected my classroom instruction and students’ learning. The NBPTS candidacy process challenged me as a learner in many ways I previously could not have imagined. I learned so much more about how I learn. And even at that point in 2003, I didn’t know I was self-directed or that I was a DIYer— I only knew that the more I learned the more I wanted to learn.

DIY learners use technology to become connected to resources, including people, as we search for answers. Now that I’ve been deep into connected learning, my strong sense is that self-directedness and connectedness go hand in hand. Why? Because “connected learners take responsibility for their own professional development. They figure out what they need to learn and then collaborate with others to con­struct the knowledge they need. Instead of waiting for professional learning to be organized and delivered to them, connected learners contribute, interact, share ideas, and reflect.” (The Connected Educator, Nussbaum-Beach & Ritter Hall, 2011, p. 51)

The possibilities for self-directed learning in a connected world are astronomic. And the very best parts, other than the learning, are the relationships we develop with smart, passionate people the world over who join us in DIY learning.