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Want to spark rich discussions in your classroom?

By Matt Mangan, ANet Michigan coach

When I was a teacher, my favorite moments were listening to my students. Their ability to push one another, and me, is something I carry to this day. I learned that in order to create these moments in a sustained way I had to better prepare, plan, and facilitate the discussion to a place where I became just another piece of furniture in the room and nothing was lost.

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Discussion is a necessary piece of learning to fully understand, challenge, and support one's ideas and evidence about a given topic or text. At University Prep Academy High School in Detroit, Michigan, the leadership team wanted to take this head-on. Principal Derrick Kellam, Assistant Principal Chris Waston, and Assistant Principal Elizabeth Hubbell centered their instructional priority on the ability to have text-dependent discussions as a fundamental part of the classroom.

“Last year, teachers felt the need to lead a lot of discussions. We saw that student engagement wasn’t at the level that we wanted,” Chris recalls. “Teachers were working hard and doing a lot of the heavy lifting in the classroom. Both [leaders and teachers] would agree that learning wasn’t being maximized by students.”

To address this concern, the team developed a vision they called Teachers as Facilitators (TAF). “As a school, we asked, how can we work smarter and give students more control of their learning, more voice in the classroom?” Chris explains. They centered their school work plan—a living document that maps out the school’s goals and professional development—on TAF. I collaborated with them to identify the throughline between their goals and my coaching.

Text-dependent questions are key, but so is support.

The team and I revamped the school’s lesson plan templates to include text-dependent questions. Crafting text-dependent questions is crucial in pushing student thinking and helping them meet the demands of the reading standards.

This was a new expectation for many teachers. When I was a teacher, leaders often set new requirements and provided little support, expecting us to just “make it happen.” Now, I always remind leaders that when setting high expectations for teachers, you also must provide the support necessary for them to succeed. Derrick, Chris, and Elizabeth understood this, and, together, we planned professional development to support their staff with text-dependent questions. I pulled resources from ANet’s Hub to further support teachers’ efforts.

See a sample of slides from Matt’s “Intro to TAF” session!

One thing I love about University Prep: they have incredibly dedicated teachers who truly care about their students. Every time I facilitated a PD, teachers wanted to know concrete ways they could adjust their instruction to engage students. They were open about their concerns and where they needed support. I brought back more planning resources in response to teachers’ feedback and hunger for learning.

Videos are powerful PD tools.

The leaders and I introduced new planning “protocols”: a text-based approach in ELA and the 5 practices method in math. Classroom videos played a key role in University Prep’s PD. Rather than telling teachers to use the protocols, we were able to show teachers how they work.

“We started videotaping and having teachers record themselves. We’d have whole group and small group sessions watching the videos and providing feedback,” Chris explains. “[This] allows teachers to see and know if [instruction] is meeting the mark. They can see their teaching through a lens they may not have previously looked at before.”

University Prep’s leaders wanted teachers to feel safe being videotaped, so they led by example. “We got videos of a lead teacher using the protocol. It was good, and we still gave feedback on things he could do better,” says Chris.

Teachers find the videos valuable because they’re not generic footage of some distant school: they’re examples from peers within their own building. Instead of leaders telling teachers how to teach, teachers help each other improve their practice through open dialogue.

Students speak more than ever before.

After just a month, the team’s collective energy started to benefit students. “It's really cool to see and hear students voices in the classroom,” Chris shares. “The feedback from people who were at the first walkthrough was like, ‘Whoa.’ We saw students happier, gleaming, talking about texts...I think that's a win.”

Personally, I’m enjoying listening to the students grow in their abilities to discuss texts, too, just like I did back when I was a teacher.

Want to spark rich, text-based discussions in your classroom? Check out these free resources and videos!

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