The Struggle is Real


I work with teachers every single day. I work with veteran teachers, new-to-the-profession teachers, highly skilled teachers, and teachers who are still learning the craft. Teachers most often feel confident about teaching the content they are required to teach. They tend to struggle more with classroom management/organization, classroom discipline, and providing for the multiple needs of their students on a routine basis. Another area of challenge for many teachers is allowing students to struggle.

Teachers by nature want to see students succeed; so much so that all too often teachers don’t allow students to struggle long enough to build deep understanding. Whether one calls it “productive failure” (a concept coined by Dr. Manu Kapur) or “growth mindset” (Carol Dweck) or something I like to refer to as “effort creates ability”, giving student time to struggle is a challenging instructional concept for many teachers.

Allowing students to struggle is different from intervening with struggling students. We know students will come to us with learning gaps. In education, we tend to think of struggling as something we need to eliminate or remove from the equation of learning for a student. In fact, if you do a Google search on “helping students struggle” you will find pages and pages of links to help the “struggling student”. We know we have students who struggle to learn and reducing the learning gaps that cause that kind of struggle is necessary. However, the purpose of this article is to help educators think about how they can build “struggle” into the learning process in order to help all students build knowledge, competency, and confidence in their academic pursuits.

Letting students struggle has some very important, and lasting, effects on students. Students who are given time to struggle with content, concepts, and critical thinking benefit by:

  1. orienting students to a focus on learning over knowing
  2. engaging in challenging tasks that help the brain make new connections and, thus, become smarter
  3. seeing how a “work hard and get smart” approach allows them to overcome many challenges
  4. learning that is easy isn’t usually a good use of their time
  5. developing a sense of academic pride and self-confidence in tackling and resolving challenging problems
  6. seeing the value in embracing mistakes instead of avoiding and covering up mistakes as a necessary part of learning
  7. gaining motivation and interest in the learning process as they seek solutions to mistakes and unknowns

Allowing students to struggle in the learning process promotes the process of studentsimage working hard at reasoning through challenging problems in order to gain new knowledge and understanding. The process of struggling will oftentimes include failure as students try out new thinking and apply prior learning to novel experiences. Students need to engage in difficult experiences where solutions and answers don’t come easily. They need to experience failure and frustration as part of the problem solving and learning process.


How can teachers help students embrace “the struggle”? What are some ways in which teachers can foster, in students, the appreciation of struggling to find answers and make learning connections? A few easy strategies include:

  1. Design the questions you will use as the teacher in a way that requires students to think more deeply about the problem or make connections to other content or concepts.
  2. Have students articulate their thinking process to their current point of struggle or even ask them “what would you do if you knew what to do?” Sometimes thinking from the endpoint to the point of struggle allows students to see new options.
  3. Utilize classroom routines that promote and develop struggle while providing a structured process to move students towards a solution. As the teacher, see how you can teach a concept/skill without explicitly telling students what they need to do.
  4. Utilize small, incremental goals throughout the learning process to help students see their progress and understand that success can occur throughout the struggle.
  5. When students succeed, praise their efforts and strategies as opposed to their intelligence.
  6. Design classroom activities that involve cooperative–rather than competitive or individualistic–work.
  7. Include student choice and voice in the learning process. When students can choose their topics of interest and evidence of learning, they are more likely to persevere during challenging learning experiences.

Helping students understand that struggling is part of the learning process is an essential consideration for all educators. Students need to understand that learning can sometimes be very difficult and answers don’t always present themselves easily or clearly. When we rely on the typical process of “I do – We do – You do” for our imageinstructional delivery, we may inadvertently shortcut deeper learning available to our students. Implementing the strategies mentioned above can help your students understand more deeply, persevere more consistently, and grow more fully. How will you help your students struggle this year?



Low SES and Minority Students More Likely to Have Inexperienced Teachers–How to Address this Challenge!

A new White House report reveals what many of us in education have known for a long time: our most needy students often times have the least prepared and experienced teachers.  The report states the share of first-year teachers was strongly correlated with the share of black and chart3_k12_sharefirstyrteachersHispanic students.  Nearly twice as many first-year teachers are teaching in predominantly minority schools (which are often times low SES as well) compared to schools with no minorities.

We know that teaching is a very difficult profession to gain mastery in and that it takes teachers 5-7 years to develop the content knowledge, pedagogy, and skill sets to become a master teacher.  For minority students, the constant revolving door of first-year teachers comes with the reality that their academic gaps will most likely not be closed with novice, inexperienced teachers.  Many schools and districts compound this challenge by placing minority students, often the ones with the most academic needs, in the most inexperienced teacher classrooms.

Our minority students deserve to have the same access to high quality teachers and resources as non-minority students.  Our low SES students, which often cross over racial demographics, deserve the very same access to high quality teachers.

Districts and campuses that serve minority students and low SES communities have to begin to think about providing the in-service support new teachers need in order to develop competencies and confidence as quickly as possible.  A well implemented teacher induction program is not only the best way to support new teachers in those crucial first years but it will also help improve the likelihood that new teachers stick around longer and become the invested teachers these campuses and districts need if they are to truly turnaround the achievement gaps in their system.

Here in West Oso ISD, we are trying to address this very need through our teacher induction program, Bear TIPS.  Our program seeks to provide 3 years of in-service support teacher-induction-logoto our new teachers.  We begin with a First Year Teacher Academy (FYTA) that meets with teachers six times during the first year.  We follow that up with a FYTA2 in year 2 that focuses on deepening teacher understanding of best practices and effective instructional strategies.  FYTA3 is in year 3 and focuses on assessing for learning.  The program also has specific mentor training so that our new teachers are supported by an experienced colleague on their campus in addition to the FYTA supports and the site leader support.  We add to these components a periodic newsletter that lets the entire district know what the FYTA teachers are working on and how to support our new teachers in those crucial first years.

We were fortunate enough to be recognized by Texas School Business magazine fobragging10r the Bragging Rights 2016-2017 issue as an innovative program.  We’re humbled to be included with the other 11 districts recognized in the issue.  We accept the recognition as proof that when district leadership wants to take specific steps to address the staffing challenges and the academic challenges that can come with minority dominant communities, great things can happen.

We know that much work remains and the struggle to provide our students with the highest quality teachers available will exist for some time.  We hope that we have at least modeled a way in which districts, small or large, can begin to address the needs of all students and create the equity we know should exist across the educational spectrum.

Data Review: Have a Target, Have a Purpose!

Well, it’s the middle of September and for many teachers and campus leaders that means the school year is beginning to settle in to a routine.  It also means teachers are starting to get some data on how students are doing.  The data can be studestudent-datant daily work, formative assessments, project based learning product, or performance assessments just to name a few.  The question then becomes, “what do we do with the data?”

An effective data review process will look at all available data (including individual and collective data) on the campus with the express purpose of guiding intervention support.  An important consideration beyond just looking at data and deciding on interventions for students is the process by which interventions will be monitored and reviewed.

Allow me to share with you a 3 phase process to guide your data review efforts.  I call the guide a “Target for Purposeful Focus”.  Phase 1 is Key Data and focuses on gathering and organizing your data in order to accurately understand current performance levels and trends while alsrti_3_tierso prioritizing performance concerns.  Phase 2 is Intervention and Supports and focuses on setting performance targets, identifying solutions and action
steps, implementing intervention and support systems, and pursuing a problem of practice. Phase 3 is Monitoring and Review which focuses on identifying measurable objectives, using on-going progress monitoring, and identifying critical evidence of intervention success.

The graphic below illustrates how the 3 phases work together to frame your data review efforts.  As with any on-going or cyclical process, there is no rigid or linear structure to which phase comes first, second, or third.   In fact, effective teams will take aim at multiple areas of the target throughout their data dig, intervention support, and monitoring or review process.  Student performance and the effectiveness of your intervention supports will drive where your focus is during the process.  As you begin the process you will typically start in the center with the data and move outward on the target but your student and campus needs may dictate you return to another phase (or ring) on the target.  Effective use of data will utilize all 3 phases of the target and allow teachers and leaders to develop a more focused intervention plan while supporting those efforts with clear evidence of success or a need for further adjustments.



Hope for Texas State Accountability Reform

Very hopeful that the “Next Generation” commission will provide our state leaders with some very practical and necessary changes to the state accountability system and the STAAR test.  They are currently meeting and will provide a comprehensive list of reform items in the Fall of 2016.

The test covers too many standards as it is right now and teachers do not have the time nor the resources to effectively teach critical, foundational skills to the depth and complexity necessary for students to have mastery of those essential skills and knowledge.

The test is also too punitive and we should not be determining if a student in 5th grade or 8th grade (even the EOCs in high school) should move on to the next grade based on the results of one test (even with re-tests) and basically diminishing that student’s academic work and learning for the year and perhaps even dismissing a student’s need for additional time and support to meet mastery. All students do not learn at the same rate and to shoehorn every one of them into the timeframe of learning that equates with a standardized testing schedule is absurd.

The commission has a very balanced make up of educators, leaders, and parents. It will be up to the TEA commissioner and our legislators to trust this committee and to do what is right by students.

The 10% Running Rule…for Teaching!

If you’re a runner there’s little doubt that you’ve come across a training principle called “The 10% Rule” or 10PR.  The idea behind the principle is that when training for a running goal, especially longer ones, a runner should never increase their weekly mileage10PR  by more than 10% over the previous week.  This principle has value to runners because most injuries in running come from overuse.  They symptoms start out as aching or throbbing and eventually lead to limping and even periods of rest to recover.  Often times, these overuse injuries are the result of great exuberance at the prospects of a race or some personal goal but, alas, the best intentions are derailed by poor or ineffective planning.

So what does The 10% Rule have to do with teaching?  How can it help teachers plan for more effective and successful teaching while contributing to increased student learning? Most teachers each day have anywhere from 375 to 420 minutes of instructional time.  For elementary grades these minutes can  be blocks of 30 minutes all the way up to 90 or 120 minutes, depending on the content area.  For secondary grade levels, these are typically 45 to 90 minute blocks per day or every other day.  Trying to improve and maximize the instructional time can be a daunting challenge if we consider several hundred minutes a day, five days a week, and six to nine weeks per grading period.  It’s enough to make some teachers shy away from ever even wanting to attempt to improve their instruction or classroom structures.

I propose taking The 10% Rule (10PR) and using it to breakdown the instructional block into more manageable chunks, over a more manageable amount of time.  The goal is to take 10% of the instructional block and look at how teachers are using the time to explain the learning objectives, build context for the learning, engage students on the learning objectives for the day, allow for student collaboration, and monitoring or measuring student mastery.  If a teacher tried to tackle all of these things at once, they would most likely get overwhelmed or frustrated or suffer the teaching equivalence of a runner’s “overuse injury”.  The risk is teachers will return to old habits or structures and lose out on the chance to improve their skills and create a richer, more engaging learning environment for their students.

Some possible steps to take when implementing 10PR in the classroom could be:

  1. Examine the opening and closing activities students are engaged in while in the classroom.  Typically, the first two to three minutes andEngagement the last two to three minutes of an instructional time are the least organized and instructionally productive times for many teachers.  Harry Wong says, “The most essential thing for a teacher to do is to structure an assignment the second the students walk into the room.” I would add that having a culminating or reflective task for students to participate in is just as critical.  These 4-6 minutes (the beginning and ending of a class) constitute 10% of a typical class period or lesson and, if well planned, can be essential to building student engagement for the entire lesson while ensuring a time for a quick assessment for understanding.
  2. It’s important to keep in mind that each time a teacher takes on the process of adjusting 10% of what happens in their classroom, they may need a week or two or more to master that aspect of their teaching time.  That’s ok and just as runners might need to stay at a certain mileage for a couple weeks or more before using 10PR, teachers should be confident and successful with the 10% of their instructional time they adjusted before moving on to the next 10%.
  3. After making adjustments to the start and end of a lesson, teachers can then begin to look at the questioning that will occur during the lesson.  Again, using 10PR means teachers are looking at about 4-6 minutes of a typical lesson or up to 10 minutes for a double blocked class.  This amount of time often aligns well with the discussion portions of many lessons.  Unfortunately, most discussions in classrooms call for simple recall or perhaps the application of an idea or a skill and rarely moves into deeper, questionsintellectually challenging interactions.  By taking the time to examine how questions can promote deeper thinking and more consistent student engagement, teachers can begin to build on the successful start that students have as a result of the previous 1oPR actions.  Teachers have many resources available to them to help in designing quality lessons.  The most successful teachers I’ve worked with take the time to pre-write and think through the questions they will use during the course of instruction.  They identify the issues or skills to be learned.  They craft the questions carefully so that questions elicit multiple responses.  They think through possible student responses.  They ensure that the questions will promote equitable student interactions and participation.
  4. Again, a teacher might need to stay on the 10% of the instruction that focuses on questioning for a a couple weeks or so.  That’s perfectly fine and it’s essential that they are confident and successful with this 10% of their instruction before moving on to the next 10%.  At the end of this time, 20% of the instructional time has now been improved upon and just as runners gain confidence and stamina with their running by following the principles of 10PR, teachers too will begin to feel more confident in their teaching and energized by the conversations and interactions taking place in the classroom.
  5. Teachers can then begin to look at the remaining portions of their instructional time and use the concepts I shared in “Chunk and Chew”, for example, to adjust their actions and the student learning activities in 10% intervals until the entire lesson cycle or instructional period has been revised and improved.

When runners want to improve their endurance and prepare to be their best when it counts, race time, they follow the principles of 10PR.  It allows them to systematically and methodically improve their running while giving their body time to adjust, heal, and grow stronger.  Teachers can use the same principles in 10PR to breakdown their instructional time in a way that improves student learning and grows them as educators.

If you found this article useful, please consider sharing it with other educators and use the comment features of Facebook or Twitter or other social media to begin your own dialogue about improving teaching and student learning.


Chunk & Chew: Giving Learners Processing Time

How brain friendly is your classroom?  In the race to cover material and teach concepts/skills, do your students have time during their “learning” to actually process the things being taught?  In almost any lesson there is new or essential information presented to students.  Some times students are able to acquire this information without much difficulty while other times, it can be quite the challenge and even interfere with mastery of the essential learning goal.

In Robert Marzano’s seminal book, The Art and Science of Teaching, he shares one strategy that can prove to be very effective for students when trying to help them acquire new information or essential concepts/skills.  Instead of forcing large amounts of new information on students at one time or during an extended amount of time, he recommends “chunking” the information.  Chunking is the process of taking essential information and breaking it into small, digestible bits that allow students to understand the information more deeply while also making connections and building context for deeper understanding.

Spence Rogers adds to this idea by allowing for processing time as well and calls it the “10-2 Rule“.  For every ten minutes of instruction, students should be given two minutes to process or interact with the information.  I like to think of this in t10-2erms of pouring a bottle of soda into a glass.  At one point the glass will be filled and there will still be soda left in the bottle to be poured (more information).  You can either keep
pouring it and spill the soda all over the counter OR you can take the time to drink some from the glass which will allow you to pour more soda into the glass.  Our students, all learners really, are like that glass.  They must be given the time to process the information we are sending their way.  For younger students, this time can be even shorter than 10 minutes.  Another good rule of thumb to use is no more than one minute per year of age before taking a break for processing.  So if you’re teaching an 8 year old (2nd grade), you should be stopping every eight minutes or so to give them a couple minutes to process the information, concept, or skill.

I tend to use the term “chunk and chew” when I refer to this processing time within instruction.  There are lots of ways in which teachers can chewimplement a processing time within their lessons.  It doesn’t have to just be a stop, turn and talk, then back to the lesson process.  A few other examples of effective processing strategies include:


  • Think-Pair-Share:  Teacher teaches.  Teacher asks asks a question or gives a problem.  Teacher asks partners to think about it on their own.  Partners take turns sharing their thoughts.
  • Mix-Pair-Share:  Teacher teaches.  Group mixes around the room (music playing in background helps).  Teacher tells students to pair up with nearest student.  Teacher gives them a topic to discuss.  Mix again and repeat.
  • Round Robin:  Team numbers off (1-4).  Teacher assigns a task, question, or problem.  Teammates answers question in turn order.  Teacher leads a whole group discussion to verify and clarify.
  • Four Corners:  Teacher has the room divided into four areas/regions/corners with a theme or answer choice (stongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree).  Teacher gives a prompt and students move to the corner that aligns with their their thoughts/understanding.  Students form groups of two or three in their corner and discuss their ideas further.  Students can then report out their ideas to the whole class.  (A spinoff or extension of this could be to let the students choose a new corner after hearing from all of the groups to see if they have changed their mind.)

These are just a few simple and fairly common strategies teachers can use with their students to give them processing time.  Some of them even have the added advantage of being kinesthetic and tapping into multiple learning styles which is also an important consideration in helping students master new information, concepts, and skills.

I hope you’ll give this notion of “chunk and chew” a try in your classroom and if you have other strategies or ideas, please share them as comments to the blog so others can learn as well!


Make your Faculty Meetings Count!

A really good read.  This is one of ED Week’s top 20 op/ed posts of the year:

3 Reasons Why Faculty Meetings Are a Waste of Time.

Campus (and district) leaders would do well to heed this advice.  Avoid anything in a faculty meeting that can be accomplished via email (I came to this realization a long time ago and stick to it today).  I also don’t ready anything to my staff or leaders (because I assume they can read and can be counted upon to read it).  Secondly, give teachers or teacher teams some say in the faculty meeting agenda.  I used this process as well.  I would add that having a standardized agenda each month with “standing topics” helps your staff to know what’s coming, stay engaged, and leave with
specifics they can use right after the meeting.  Lastly, make sure there is learning in the faculty meeting.  In fact, I quit calling my faculty meetings those words and used the term “faculty PD”.  It’s a great time to model best practices you want to see in the classrooms and it helps your teachers see you as a learner and educator as well.  I used an 80/20 ratio and tried to keep all of the “nuts and bolts” items to less than 20% of the meeting with a learning focus for the other 80%.