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  Closing the Gaps

I believe all kids can succeed. So, now what?

Two cheers for believing; but believing is not enough. We also need to know how to make it real in the classroom.

In his new book, Doug Lemov, who was featured in the New York Times Magazine article Building a Better Teacher, has authored dozens of techniques used by some of the best teachers in the country. (Doug Lemov, Teach Like a Champion; 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College, Jossey-Bass, 2010.)

Lemov offers five concrete techniques related to setting high academic expectations. In very basic form, they are:

  1. No opt out. Any scene that begins with a student unable or unwilling to answer a question should end with the student giving the correct answer.
    Teacher: What is three times eight? Jerome.
    Jerome: I dunno.
    Teacher: What's three times eight? Sarah.
    Sarah: Three times eight is 24.
    Techer: Good. What is three times eight? Jerome.

    When the teacher circles back to Jerome with the original question, she communicates there is no opt out in this class. The subtext is: “I believe in your ability to answer correctly. I expect you to learn this.”

  2. Right is right. Anything less does not meet the high standard we demand. When answers are almost correct, it’s important to tell students that we like what they’ve offered so far, but that there’s something missing. We have to hold out for exactly right.
    Teacher: Explain how the Monroe Doctrine informed President Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis. Ginny.
    Ginny: President Kennedy said the Soviet Union had to get its missiles out of Cuba.
    Teacher: OK, but there’s a bit more to it than that.
    Ginny: President Kennedy’s actions were consistent with the Monroe Doctrine, which holds that the United States won’t tolerate colonization or other interference in Latin America by outside powers.

    Here, the teacher expresses appreciation for Ginny’s initial answer in simple, positive terms, plus the expectation that Ginny will give an answer that is 100% right.

  3. Stretch it. Follow up a correct answer with questions that extend knowledge and test for reliability.
    Teacher: How would you describe the personality of the Grinch? Emma.
    Emma: He’s mean.
    Teacher: Why do you think he’s mean?
    Emma: He wants other people to be unhappy.
    Teacher: Read a sentence from the story that shows us that the Grinch is mean.
  4. Format matters. Lemov says, “Strive to give students the maximum amount of practice building complete sentences on the spur of the moment.” We might correct an answer by:
    • starting a sentence
    • prompting (“Complete sentence, please.”)
    • by initial framing: “Who can tell me in a complete sentence, …?”
  5. No apologies. Don’t apologize for the curriculum or pander to the students.
    • Don’t suggest that a subject is boring: “I know fractions are dull, but let’s just try to get through this.”
    • Don’t blame it. “Photosynthesis is probably going to be on the state test, so you just have to learn.
    • Make material accessible. “This gets more exciting as we come to understand it better.” Or, “Lots of people don’t understand this until they get to college, but you’ll know it now.”
    • Challenge kids and explode negative expectations. “It’s okay to be confused the first time through this, but I’m going to stick with you until everyone gets it. So, let’s take another try.” Or, “This is one of the things you’re going to take real pride in knowing.

So, I recommend that you put Doug Lemov’s book, Teach Like a Champion, on your summer reading list. If you are like me, it will make you more thoughtful about your practice as a teacher.

Furthermore, it’s a great “group read” with questions for reflection and practice at the end of each chapter. If you would like to do a book study at your school and earn free clock hours, contact CISL today.

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