Instructional Strategies Are Not Created Equal






How many of you use this strategy to check for understanding?

Professional development sessions have touted this strategy as an effective method to check for understanding. I have used it with fidelity in my classroom. It has only become apparent to me of late, as I observe and coach, that this is probably not the most effective strategy in a teacher’s toolkit.

It is so very important to gauge students’ understanding when presenting new content. Everyone learns at their own pace and it is an educator’s responsibility to monitor that learning. Some students come to class with background knowledge of the skill being taught, while others have never been exposed. Between these two poles, there are varying degrees of understanding. As an effective educator, I need to know at what learning stage each of my students finds him/herself.  

What can be wrong with this method of checking for understanding? Here’s what I’ve observed:

  1. Students want to be part of the “in” crowd. No one likes to admit they don’t know. When I ask for the thumbs indicator, eyes start looking around, heads turn to see positions of their friends’ thumbs. Some thumbs go up one way initially and change direction based on the thumb position of their peers. Some thumbs move from 0 to 30 before I’ve had an opportunity to fully scan the room. At the end of the check, I’m confused. I really don’t know who knows what or to what degree they think they know what they may or may not know.
  2. Nothing happens after students indicate their understanding. Teachers continue along the trajectory planned for the lesson. It is rare to see a teacher differentiate instruction based on student response. There is no “turn and talk” to clear misconceptions. I’ve rarely heard follow-up questions such as, “Ayja, you had your thumb raised that you understand. Based on what we’ve shared, what would you say is a character trait of the main character.” Possible responses include: 
  • “What? I don’t understand the question.”
  • “She was late to school.”
  • “I didn’t have my thumb up. I had it to the side.”
  • “Could you repeat the question?” 

I acknowledge this may only occur in my classroom and my pedagogy is the problem, but, I don’t think so. If you too find this happening in your classroom, maybe this strategy is not effective for you and your students either. Methods to check for understanding are plenteous. This one, however, may not be best. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts. 



Facebook: FosteringTeachers@urbanschools1

It’s Not Hard. It’s Just New.

I recently had the pleasure of teaching integer rules to 7th graders. I want you to know I have tried several strategies to teach this concept, all of them easy to me, all of them frustrating to them.  While I was excited about being in the classroom again, I was apprehensive about teaching the concept. Right before I started to teach, I walked into an epiphany. I tried a different approach; something very familiar to them, resonated with them, something they all understood:  feelings!!!! Ding, Ding, Ding, Ding, Ding!!!

Now, before I share the strategy, I’d like to preface my understanding of the necessity for mathematical vocabulary and mathematical reasoning. I teach in a district where students come to middle school without much exposure to either. This lack of exposure propels me into the realm of “oh yes, you will learn this concept and be able to explain it” with expediency.  My students will learn and they will understand!! Maybe this strategy will help you with your budding, struggling mathematicians.

I state the objective for the day: I can add and subtract integers using integer rules. I presented three scenarios:

A. You wake up in the morning and as you walk out the door on your way to school you see a package with your name on it.  You open the box, and to your surprise is the pair of shoes you admired at the store, but didn’t ask for because you knew your parents couldn’t afford them. Are you feeling positive or negative?

Answer: Positive

As you are walking to school in your brand new shoes, you look down and there on the curb is a $20 bill.  There’s no one around, so you pick it up. You’ll decide what to do with it once you get to school.  Are you feeling more positive or less positive. 

Answer: More Positive

B. You are ironing your uniform shirt when your cell phone rings. You rush to your bedroom to answer, speak with your mom and assure her you are up, getting ready for school, and will not be tardy. You hang up, return to the ironing board and there is a hole in your shirt. You left the iron sitting on your shirt. Are you feeling positive or negative?

Answer: Negative

You are three minutes from your little brother’s school when he looks at you sadly and says he forgot his school project. Initially, you refuse to walk back home for it, but when the tears begin to roll down his face, you take him back home. You’re going to be late for school after all. Are you feeling more positive or more negative?

Answer: More negative

C. It’s your birthday!! Birthdays are big deals in your family and are always celebrated in a big way. You put on your new birthday outfit and head for the car. You’re getting a ride to school this morning too!! Are you feeling positive or negative?

Answer: Positive

You get in the car, smiling and excited. Before you get out, your dad informs you that he and your mom have to work late and your birthday celebration will need to be postponed. How are you feeling?


It is here the conversation becomes a student-friendly debate. Some feel more positive than negative, some feel more negative than positive, and some don’t know how they feel.


We then go on to relate feelings to integer rules.  No problem with positive plus positive. No problem with negative plus negative. But what happens when you’re feeling really positive and a little negative comes along? What happens when the feeling are reversed, and you feel really negative and something positive happens? What happens when the positive feelings equal the negative feelings?


They got it! They can explain it! It’s introductory, it’s simple, it’s relatable. It’s a beginning!!


Hope this helps another teacher!!




I Am Not A Racist

I have often mused with my non-white, suburban, educator friends how I, this melanin-clad, over forty, urban, middle class teacher would fare in suburbia. Would my no-nonsense, you-are-going-to-learn-today attitude meet with resistance in a school where poverty is a discourse and performance is without question? Of course, they assure me I would be just fine. I’m a bit dubious.

What I am sure of, however, is that far too many of my non-melanin popping sisters and brothers may NOT ask themselves the same questions before taking on the arduous task of teaching in an urban school. 

Intentionally, I digress to share background information for those of you visiting this blog for the first time. Now retired, I have made a lateral move from teaching students to teaching teachers. As consultant with Fostering Teachers, I work primarily with new teachers who teach in high poverty, low performing schools and are not having success. I save districts time and money by assisting these teachers. I save new teachers their sanity.

At Fostering Teachers we believe that Failure Is Not An Option and Zip Code Doesn’t Matter. The mission we embrace is Equipping Life-Giving, Passionate Teachers With the Skills and Strategies to Sustain Mastery Teaching and High Academic Performance. Inoculating oneself with these core beliefs ensures endurance at a minimum and success at its pinnacle in challenging schools.

While the research appears inconclusive, ( I speak here of what I have witnessed in my tenure: There are white teachers in urban schools who teach well and are highly regarded. There are white teachers in urban schools with tenure who are sarcastic and unimaginative. There are white teachers in urban schools who are there solely for the pay. There are white teachers in urban schools who understand the struggle and face the challenges undaunted.

I know, I know, I know! There are black teachers who fit the bill as well. However, there is USUALLY one criterion that sets the two apart, an undeniable advantage: Black teachers understand the struggles and challenges faced by students in urban schools. Despite being a teacher, despite being middle class, Black teachers are not removed from racism, scrutiny, and disadvantages. They are intricately familiar with the struggles students in urban schools face on a daily basis. They have the ability and the consciousness to be intimately empathic to their students’ needs. The six degrees of separation we have with our students is the reason we are so demanding each and every day. We are keenly aware that if one is to gain a semblance of equality on an uneven playing field, our students must have the deck stacked in their favor – education, and a quality education at its best!

A MESSAGE TO MY WHITE COLLEAGUES: Embrace the struggle. Know that you can be successful. You can reach your students. What you can’t do is bring white, middle class values into an urban school. Seek the help and assistance of your African American colleagues. Ask question. Be willing to learn. Make adjustments in your thinking. If, however, you find you just can’t, that the work is just too much, PLEASE QUIT! Don’t kill our kids. They already have a target on their backs.



Mind Your Manners

I am an assertive, jump-right-in-there, no-time-to-mince-words individual. This approach is evident in daily interactions, including text messages and emails. Thank goodness for good friends!

To what, you ask, am I referring? MANNERS. I have some friends who aren’t bothered by my direct approach. However, there are a few who rightfully remind me of the importance of manners when communicating with others, especially when emailing or texting. Maybe you, too, need to conduct an internal evaluation of your manners protocol.

Why is a pleasant acknowledgement important? 

Reason #1:

a. It maintains the standards of basic civility that we’re all entitled. Like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, these two little words also go a long way towards improving communication and the overall atmosphere.

b.  ’Good morning’ humanizes the recipient.  We’re real people, not just cogs in a pointlessly spinning wheel.  Show some humanity.

c.  Provides for a more democratic environment, a leveled field, where everyone from the Superintendent to the cafeteria worker gets to share in a friendly two-second exchange.

d.  It’s quick (and relatively painless).  If it is painful, you should probably be looking for a new career or scheduling time for some serious self-reflection.

e.  It’s free.

f.  Acknowledging the mere presence of someone is interpersonal communications 101. Don’t YOU want to be noticed? You might tell yourself otherwise, but at the end of the day, we all want to be recognized.  (


a.  We must teach our students. Based on the way I (and probably those of you reading this) was taught, manners are on the endangered list. ‘Please’, ‘thank you’, ‘yes ma’am’, and ‘no sir’ have fallen by the wayside. I am actually appalled, and a bit miffed, when I pass a person in the hallway or on the street and no glance, nod, or other form of acknowledgement is exchanged.

b.  Manners expressed by our youth garner attention. When a student responds with a ‘yes ma’am’ my ears perk up and I silently thank his/her parents. This child has the evidence of soft skills which will place him/her a rung higher in social settings.

c. We are the examples. I know your plates are already full to the point of regurgitation. However, if it’s in you, and it probably is, it will take little effort on your part to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to your students. It won’t take much to respond to them with a ‘yes ma’am’ or ‘no sir.’ Your classroom may be the ONLY place these words are uttered.

d. Acknowledging the mere presence of someone is interpersonal communications 101. Don’t YOU want to be noticed? You might tell yourself otherwise, but at the end of the day, we all want to be recognized, especially those young ones whose lives we influence in a lasting way.



When Building Relationship Fails

Building relationships in the classroom is vital for a successful school year for students and teachers. Everybody knows that!! We execute team building activities. We introduce and practice Kagan structures. We create beautiful “getting-to-know-you” activities. We spend a significant amount of time during the first week of school on these exercises to ensure a pleasant and satisfying end-of-year peace.

Yet sometimes, despite all our valiant efforts, nothing worked. The classroom is in disarray. The most egregious offense is a common occurrence – disrespect. Students talk out-of-turn, throw objects at the teacher and each other, mimic, refuse to participate….the list goes on.

Now what? Is all lost? Should you quit? ABSOLUTELY NOT!!! There is a very strategic and calculated solution to the problem: REGROUP.

Something went awry during those first days of school and it’s probably not the students’ fault. For some reason, students do not feel it’s necessary to be respectful.  You probably spent a fair amount of time getting to know your students and making sure your students knew and appreciated each other. But, how much time did you spend in ensuring your students knew YOU? We often forget it is equally important that students know who we are. They need to relate to us on a teacher/student level. Here are my suggestions to turn this situation around.

  1. Admit there is a problem – Be honest with your students. The troublemakers do not represent the feelings of the entire class community. There are quite a few students who are already committed to learning.  The reality is, it’s our job to correct the problem. Although we would like to have that brave student who speaks up condemning the abhorrent behaviors, it is not the responsibility of students to confront disrespect in the classroom; it’s ours!

2. Take time to build teacher/student relationships – Inform students of your mistake in not allowing time for them to get to know you. One activity to try serves a dual purpose: building community and trust among students while simultaneously building community and trust with you. The assignment looks like this:

  • Use a team building activity to put students into work groups.

  • Display the following prompt: WHO IS (your name)?

  • Allow student groups to write on chart paper, create a slideshow/video, or prepare a skit about who they think you are. I warn you, this can be very difficult to see and hear, but the end results are truly worth the painful experience.

  • Allow students to share their work with the entire class.

  • While students present, take note of their misconceptions.

  • When presentations are completed, gently share the reality of who you are. Acknowledge their misconceptions, but share the truth of you.

  • There are bound to be some commonalities between you and your students. Capitalize on them to further build relationship with your class.

I would like to say this activity is an original idea, but it’s not. The book, Keeping It Real and Relevant, by Ignacio Lopez, contains this activity and more. I am so impressed with the first chapter,  I ordered the book for myself.

So, whether you find yourself pulling your hair out and it’s only the second week of school, or if school has not yet begun, do not underestimate the value of ensuring students know who you are as their teacher – your likes, dislikes, family, dreams, hobbies, etc. As you share remember you are their teacher, not their friend. Your relationship may never become that of friends, and that’s OK. However, you have a significant role in their lives, and they need to know who stands before them!!


Failure Is Not An Option and Zip Code Is Irrelevant


Connection vs Relationship

I have enrolled in a class, WIBO (Workshop in Business Opportunity) to bolster Fostering Teachers and my understanding of how to have a successful business. We meet on Mondays, and at the conclusion of last night’s meeting, I had an epiphany: There is a significant and major difference between connection and relationship.



The pictures look very similar, and indeed, without giving the two interactions much thought, one might assume they are the same – but they’re not. What I have come to understand is that I can connect with another based solely on commonality of experience. For example, a classmate shared some challenges she had faced during the day. In particular, she received a ticket in her haste to arrive at class on time. I connected with that. I too have had a similar experience. I connected with her, but we do not yet have relationship. Yesterday was only our second class together.

While connections can be made instantaneously, building relationship has a different set of dynamics. Relationship building requires willingness, time, commitment, honesty, and trust.

A relationship is work, and it changes. And you go with the changes. It’s more good times than bad times, but it’s not always good. You have to overcome those issues and move on.

David Burtka

How is all this connected to education? Building relationship with students is hard work. I’ve heard and read educational conversations that say spend the first week of school building relationship with your students. Really! The first week? Why would we think that time spent building a relationship with a husband or significant other would be any different from building relationship with students? The same amount of time, commitment, honesty and trust we devote to adult relationships is only a fraction of the time needed to build relationship with our students.

This is reality – teacher/student relationships take longer than a week to develop. Relationship building is on-going. When a teacher is willing, devotes time, and is honest, students may begin to trust around the end of first semester.

I encourage all teachers, especially those new to the profession to commit to building student/teacher and student/student relationships the entire school year. One week is NOT ENOUGH.






What If It’s Not the Teachers??

I have worked enough years in the education system to recognize good practice, especially those practices related to instruction. Teachers are often blamed for low test scores, in some cases justified. However, when a district’s state assessment scores consistently range in the below basic category, or growth from year-to-year is minimal, the issue is more than likely systemic.

What, then, are the characteristics of an effective instructional system? From a teacher’s perspective and backward design, the system would follow these guidelines.

  1. Use of the state’s assessment blueprint to determine standards being assessed along with the percentage of items being tested for each standard (power standards).
  2. Use the state’s blueprint to develop district benchmark assessments.
  3. Determine assessment frequency. Determine standards to be addressed on each benchmark assessment (pacing).
  4. Share pacing guide with teachers.
  5. Teacher teams determine instructional pacing and develop units of instruction. It is at this level curriculum guides should be developed.
  6. Collect proficiency data for each standard assessed and each student’s academic performance.
  7. Districts analyze data for each standard, each grade level; teachers analyze data for each student.  Teacher teams determine what’s working and what’s not.
  8. PLNs identify instructional strategies for student scoring proficiency as well as those needing additional assistance.

The value in this model is accountability on all levels – district to teacher, not teacher to district. When calculated, on-purpose, and deliberate communication between all stakeholders is not aligned, students suffer. Instead of the buck stopping with the teacher, scrutiny should be placed on the superintendent as instructional leader. Yes, teachers are the direct deliverers of instruction. What instruction, however, are they to deliver?

Superintendents are the heads of their districts. Principals are the heads of their buildings. Teachers are the heads of their classrooms. When the head operates effectively in his/her capacity, the remainder of the body performs well, as well.

The Resurrection of “Why?”

Why is the sky blue? Why do I have to go to bed? Why can’t I have more ice cream? Why do birds fly? Why is red, red and not blue? Why, why, why?

If you have ever had the wonderfully amazing experience of interacting with a two or three year old, you have been bombarded with one particular question, “Why?” No matter the race, color, culture, ethnicity, or socioeconomic factor, children are curious beings. They question everything. Questioning allows them to make sense of the world. Being inquisitive is a desirous trait; one that is valuable throughout life. Why then, would such a valuable and necessary characteristic be practically non-existent in the middle school classroom?

Last school year, I began to seek an answer to this question. My students were engaged, active learners. They performed well on common, benchmark, and state assessments. They were well behaved, participated in academic discussions, and were respectful of each other. Yet, there was something amiss. I rarely heard them ask me, their teacher, “why?” Despite many conversations where I quickly informed them I didn’t know everything and no adult does; despite many conversations where I encouraged them to “call me out”; despite me giving them the “ok” to question me, I rarely heard, “Why?”

What have we done to the children? I can vividly remember my response to my own children’s “Why?” When I’d worked eight hours, prepared dinner, assisted with homework, bathed, and read a bedtime story, my response was too often, “Because I said so,” or “I don’t have time to explain, just do it.” Those responses equated to “Don’t ask me questions, just do as I say.” Over the course of only a few years, “Why?” died, and it was me who caused its death.

Have we taken the concept of authority too far? Are we, unconsciously and unwittingly, raising a generation of young people who are accepting the hand they’ve been dealt. Who will be the challengers, the resistors, the ones who ask questions and demand answers? I taught my students to look me in the eye when speaking. At the same time, I taught them to make sure they DID NOT look a police officer in the eye, just in case. A middle school student once shared, “If I ask my mom why, I might get slapped.”

I wanted my students to challenge me. I wanted them to beg the question for skills I taught.  I longed for a “Why?” that rarely happened. It was during my reflective time that I began to ask myself a question, “How do I resurrect why?”


  • As you model procedures and expectation, require that students ask the reasoning behind the procedure.
  • Assure your students that it’s OK to question you.
  • Set an expectation that each student MUST ask a minimum of one “Why?” question per week, or ideally more frequently.
  • During instruction, ask more “Why?” questions.
  • Teach situational discernment on when to ask “Why?”
  • Teach the relationship between advocacy and “Why?”
  • Teach the difference between an insolent “Why?” and an inquisitive “Why?”
  • Encourage students to challenge each other by asking “Why?”

Having students ask “Why?” can seem daunting. I can hear the insolent tone of a misbehaving student even as I write. However, using a positive approach and good instruction, can only yield growth and development for students who need it most. I challenge you. Why?





Why I Didn’t Quit Teaching

There is a plethora of articles, posts, tweets, discussions, and comments regarding why teachers leave the profession. Facebook carries daily posts concerning what you can do with an education degree other than being an educator. Negative responses are rampant to “back-to-school” ads. Parents are becoming delighted while teachers are feeling dismayed. Standing outside, looking in, it would appear as if teaching is the worst profession in the world. Standing outside, looking in, it would appear as if teachers are actually miserable and despise their jobs. While this may be true for some (and if that’s you, PLEASE LEAVE THE TEACHING PROFESSION), it’s not true for all.

Teachers who love their job are busy, right now, mentally preparing for the start of the new year, walking the aisles at Walmart, or actually in their classrooms setting up for the new school year. Lovers of teaching have little time to express dismay. Instead, they are preparing for what’s ahead. Here are some of the reasons why these teachers do what they do:

  1. They are walking in their purpose – When you are aligned with purpose, everything falls into place. You are happy in your job, with your family, and with your income. Every need you have is taken care of. You may not have everything you want, but you do have everything you need. You could complain, but you don’t because you know how well you have it. For these teachers, teaching children is not a job, it’s a passion.

  2. They are life-giving and passionate – These teachers genuinely like kids. They enjoy the antics. anticipate the failures, and applaud the successes. They are energetic and enthusiastic. These are the teachers who spend time during summer break being perfectly content improving their skills – taking a class or reading a new resource/technique to improve instruction – BECAUSE THEY WANT TO.

  3.  They seek opportunities to try new approaches in their classroom – These are the teachers who enjoy professional development. They enjoy faculty meetings. They want to learn. They understand their students can only grow as far as their teacher is willing to grow. These teachers rarely use the previous years’ lesson plans verbatim. They may tweak previous lessons, but primarily create from scratch. These teachers are not lazy instructors.

  4. They recognize the importance of the work – These are the teachers who realize the students they teach today are the citizens of tomorrow. They teach each student as if he/she was their own. They establish boundaries for children, always act in the best interest of students, are unafraid of administrators, parents, coworkers. Because they walk in purpose, they recognize they are completely protected. These teachers maintain balance in their lives, recognizing the importance of the work they do for others as well as the necessity to work on themselves, holistically.

  5. They share – These are the teachers who want to see all children succeed, not just the ones in their classroom. That’s why they share instructional activities and resources. They open their doors to anyone who wants to observe, critique, or evaluate. They are not afraid of feedback and actually relish such. They are open to suggestions and will make suggestions to those wanting to receive. They share strategies that work; they share strategies that don’t. These are the teachers who are givers and give freely, expecting nothing in return. These are the teachers who advocate for students.

    While there is a lot of conversation right now about “back to school,” there’s also an EXCITEMENT

    in the air!!!  


Chunk Independent Practice????

We know the value in chunking text for our struggling and advanced readers, but what about chunking independent practice? Consider this:

I just read the article (below) by Dave Stuart (I shared in an earlier post how much I respect his work). What if we chunked independent practice into short spans of time? What if we broke the teaching objective into discrete steps of mastery along Bloom’s hierarchy?

This is what I mean: Let’s say we’re teaching subject/verb agreement. Well, we need to know if students can identify a subject and verb before we ask them to determine agreement. So, after we instruct and model identifying each, we would them say, “OK, class, for the next ten minutes I want you to deliberately focus on nothing else but identifying subjects and verbs in the following sentences. Go!” Once ten minutes are up, we could give a mental break – a quick Socrative quiz or maybe a discussion for clarity. Next, we would instruct and model agreement. “OK , class, now I want you to deliberately focus for the next ten minutes on nothing else but whether the subjects and verbs agree. Go!”

Our exit slip would consist of questions that check for identification as well as agreement and could be differentiated based on the different levels of student understanding.

These are my initial thoughts, and I’m sure they’ll be tweaked in the days to come. It never occurred to me to chunk independent practice.

Your thoughts????