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Answer Sheet: The Kind of Teaching Kids Need Right Now

How should teachers deal with the academic deficits that many students developed over the past 15 months? It’s a topic dominating much of the national education conversation these days — and, as with everything else, there isn’t anything approaching a consensus.

This post is one teacher’s approach to helping students at this unique moment. He is Larry Ferlazzo, who smartly looks at the difference between the buzz words being tossed around and what actual practice could look like in classroom.

Ferlazzo teaches English and social studies at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento He has written or edited a dozen books on education, writes a teacher advice blog for Education Week Teacher and has a popular resource-sharing blog.

By Larry Ferlazzo

“Accelerated Learning” appears to be the buzzword of the day in education. It’s what all schools are supposed to be doing to help students recover from another buzzword — “learning loss.”

Accelerated learning is apparently an education version of business’s “just-in-time” inventory system. In the for-profit world, they produce what customers want when they want it instead of having lots of products waiting in the warehouse.

According to advocates of accelerated learning, instead of trying to “start from the beginning” to help students make up for what they allegedly missed, teachers are supposed to figure out what they don’t have but need to access the grade level content that is going to be taught now. Then, through various strategies such as scaffolding, teachers help students gain what’s needed when they need it.

I suspect that a fair number of people are going to try to make a lot of money off of “accelerated learning” products and professional development over the next year and more.

And, though I agree that accelerated learning is what is called for right now (and always!), I also don’t think it’s anything new, don’t think it’s anything magical, and don’t think it’s anything that districts need to spend a lot of money to learn about.

It is, in fact, what good teachers of English Language Learners have been doing for years. Good ELL teaching is good teaching for everybody!

When teaching ELLs, teachers are challenged to make grade level content accessible in English, while at the same time helping students to gain English language proficiency. Many ELLs come from countries where the education system is limited, or have had to miss years of education because of economic challenges, gang violence or military conflict. There just isn’t time for ELLs, especially those who enter the United States on the secondary level, to review everything they might have missed.

What are the key elements that drive an ELL teacher’s and student’s success? (Please note that though the seven elements are listed separately, many blend together.)

Looking at students through the lens of assets and not deficits

ELL teachers know that whatever kind of schooling their students received or did not receive in their home countries, they nevertheless bring a wealth of experience and knowledge into the classroom. This knowledge includes social emotional learning skills like resilience, and understandings that can be connected to academic content (they might not know specifically about Mardi Gras, but they will know about cultural celebrations; they may not know about the American Civil War, but they will know about conflicts in their home country/region; they may not know about the specific details of climate change, but they may know that one of the reasons their families were forced to leave their country might have been due to more recent drought conditions).

During the pandemic, in addition to the academic knowledge ELLs may have gained through less-than-ideal school conditions, all of our students have acquired an enormous amount of other knowledge and skills.

Here are just some of the things my students have said they have gained over the past 15 months: A greater sense of independence and responsibility (often gained by needing to work at a job to help support their family during the recession and/or through needing to care for and tutor their younger siblings); better abilities in time management; tech skills; and an increased sense of empathy after seeing African Americans, Latinos, and Asians targeted in quick succession during the past year.

All of these learnings — and others — can be leveraged by teachers and students alike to enhance instruction and learning in the coming school year.

Emphasizing social-emotional learning

Many ELL students have experienced trauma in their home countries and in their journeys to the United States. Many social-emotional learning strategies (you can read here about some specific ones I used during this past year and which I plan to apply next year), including emphasizing relationship-building, organizing predictable classroom routines, and using stress-reduction techniques (such as visualization), are all concepts many ELL teachers often use to help students get through these challenges.

The past 15 months have been traumatic for many of our students — and our society. This kind of trauma-informed instruction definitely has a place in most classrooms next school year and beyond as we deal with its effects.

Creating the conditions where intrinsic motivation can thrive

Teachers can’t be “pushing a rope” if we hope to encourage students to gain needed skills as soon as possible. Instead, we want students pulling it themselves. Researchers have found that there are four key elements that help create the conditions that promote the development of student intrinsic motivation:

  • Autonomy, where students feel like they have some control over what they are being taught and how they are learning. Providing choice is an easy way for teachers to incorporate this quality, including writing instruments to use (laptop or pen), homework options (“answer any three of these seven questions”), and topics or chronology of study.
  • Competence, where students feel like they are capable of successfully learning and completing assigned tasks. Research says that, no matter how much we say that people learn a lot from failure, most do not, and that includes our students. Sharing student work examples, providing graphic organizers, and providing supportive and specific critical and positive feedback are all steps we can take to provide opportunities for success.
  • Relatedness, where students feel like the work they are being asked to do is bringing them into relationship with people they like and respect. Extensive research and direct teacher experience highlights the pedagogical effectiveness of small group work, as well as the previously-mentioned importance of the teacher/student relationship. Learning about students’ lives, regularly checking in with them and showing concern and interest, and demonstrating flexibility on just about everything can solidify teachers’ relationships with students, as well as generate important information that can inform instruction.
  • Relevance, where students feel that what they are studying is either aligned with their interests or can clearly help them achieve their goals and dreams. Getting to know students can help teachers tailor lessons that connect with students goals and interests. An example I like to share is when my ninth-grade class was writing an argument essay about what they thought was the worst natural disaster. One student had his head down on the desk. I knew he was a football fan, and I asked if he would rather write one on which NFL team he thought was the best. His eyes lit up, and he produced an essay using all the appropriate argument conventions. As the civil rights ballad says, we have to “keep our eyes on the prize.” In this case, the “prize” was learning how to write an argument essay, not writing about natural disasters.

Frequently using formative assessments

Formative assessments are low-stakes tools to gauge student mastery of skills and knowledge. Mini-whiteboards where students are asked to respond to questions and then raise them up, Quizizz or Kahoot online games, Exit tickets, and anonymous notes where all students give themselves a numerical rating of understanding are just a few formative assessment tools.

The results then help both the teacher and the student identify where both need to revisit content — though not in the same way as the first time. A non-ableist version of the old saying goes: It doesn’t make sense if we are “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Activating and providing prior knowledge

Prior knowledge is not just what students bring to our classrooms. It is also knowledge that we strategically provide so they can access even newer content that we will be teaching. As research shows, we are better learners of something new if we can connect it to something we already know.

K-W-L charts are one tool to use that can hit “a lot of birds with one stone.” [These charts help students differentiate what students already know about a lesson, want to know, and will learn.] After students have completed them, they can provide critical data to teachers about what students know and don’t know so we can plan our lessons accordingly. They are also excellent opportunities for students to act as co-teachers and those who have more knowledge on a topic can share with those who have less. Finally, the questions that students ask can help us identify student interests, which we can also use for our planning to make lessons more relevant.

There are many other ways to activate and provide prior knowledge. What is most important is that it’s done often, not how we do it.

Providing scaffolding to maximize the odds of student success

As mentioned earlier, research demonstrates that our students are more likely to learn from their successes than from their failures. During my 19-year career as a community organizer (prior to becoming a teacher 17 years ago), we used to say, “People don’t need our help to fail — they can do that well enough on their own.”

Scaffolds in education are strategic supports that move students in the direction of being able to learn and accomplish the task eventually on their own. K-W-L charts and graphic organizers are two types of scaffolds that have already been mentioned. Sentence-starters, note-taking strategieswriting frames, use of Google Translate, and pre-teaching vocabulary are just a few of many other types of scaffolds.

Working with students to help them identify which scaffolds work best for them in which circumstances, cooperating together to determine when teachers need to provide them and when students can create their own (such as graphic organizers after they become familiar with different types), and creating the conditions for student agency so they are able to determine when they no longer need them are all critical “teacher moves.”

Personalizing instruction

Personalized learning these days often refers to the use of algorithms in tech to deliver adaptive lessons. For many ELL teachers, it really means getting to know students, fostering active learning, and emphasizing differentiation.

Tech can have a role in personalized instruction. For example, online tools that have an adaptive feature, which adjust the questions based on previous responses (I like Quill for English and there are several math sites that do the same), can be very helpful to students. But, to modify an old community organizing saying: Tech has its place in education, and it also has to be kept in its place.

And, really, if we were going to be able to “technify” ourselves to academic excellence, wouldn’t that have happened in many places over the past 15 months?

I’m not suggesting that everything (or even most) said in the name of “accelerated learning” is a scam, especially as it relates to math instruction. Nor am I saying that these seven elements are the only instructional strategies that teachers should use.

Writer Seth Godin shares a fair amount of misses, but also makes some hits. One of the latter, I think, is his recent observation that we should spend less time on items that we consider “urgent” and are likely to disappear, and more effort on things what we consider “important,” which are likely to be around for a while.

We teachers are regularly bombarded with urgent “flavors of the month” — this strategy, program, textbook, academic lingo.

What I am suggesting is that we might have more to learn from ELL teacher colleagues — and others — who have been using these seven elements for years. There is a wealth of experience waiting to be tapped by district leaders and school administrators.

Students hearing that they are doing “accelerated learning” is certainly better than hearing that they are being treated for “learning loss.” Having that kind of “mindset” instead of a remediation one can’t hurt teachers, either.

But let’s be clear: What our students really need is just good teaching, not new buzzwords.

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The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is the Washington Post education writer.

Larry Ferlazzo

Larry Ferlazzo has been a high school teacher since 2003 after spending nineteen years working as a community organizer. He teaches Beginner, Intermediate, and Ad...