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It's All About the Process: Three Ways to Build Academic Muscle Within Students

"If we are going to be successful, we are going to have just trust the process." 

—Sean McDermott, Buffalo Bills Head Coach; Joel Embiid, All-Star Center for the Philadelphia 76ers; Marcus Lemonis, Star of CNBC's 'The Profit'; Many coaches and GMs throughout sports

Do you remember your first year as a teacher?

Mine was a blur of effectiveness, anxiety, excitement, and fear (I had the dreaded 'I overslept beyond the first period and didn't call in' nightmare). It was also a time of fits and starts. One day was full of very successful classes and the next day, I would leave the schoolhouse contemplating my career choice. As I have written previously, it was the steady hand of a great principal and an experienced mentor that helped me demonstrate consistent work in those early years. My experience would have been much worse if my former principal saw my failures as final and my potential as limited. In fact, my experience would have been worsened significantly if both my principal and mentor sought to simply correct my mistakes and tell me my errors rather than build my capacity as a teacher. The tension between helping someone get it right versus helping them detangle their logic and reassemble a more effective perspective is profound.

The struggle is real.

The tension between these two orientations to helping students (and teachers) learn lies at the heart of the equity conversation. If I teach a group of traditionally underserved students who demonstrate low mastery of grade level concepts, does highly effective instruction equal highly efficient instruction? 

It would be more efficient to assign vocabulary lists and grammar drills, but would that build deep roots of knowledge in my students? The class would flow more smoothly if I just read to my students aloud instead of assigning complex text to students who are reading below grade-level. But, when do they get the chance to practice this skill independent of my hand-holding? How do we make students stronger if they do not productively struggle?

I submit to you that low expectations for black and brown students grow and thrive in an atmosphere nurtured by the desire for the smooth lesson, the quiet child and the lecturing teacher. Too many of our black and brown students are college and career-ready copiers. They can perfectly capture every correct answer a teacher eventually writes on the board by just writing it, typing it or texting it. Although teachers do not bear the brunt of the responsibility for this all too common practice, we alone have the power to change it. And change it we must. 

If students cannot own their learning, they cannot own their future. When students cannot own their future, they become indebted to others for their learning and development. The danger of this instructional phenomena cannot be understated. If teachers continue to value destinations over journeys, students' academic strength could be irreparably damaged. We can turn our precious students into powerful academicians by valuing the process over the product.

We have to trust the process.

In this sense, we have to welcome the interruption, frustration and jaggedness that deep learning brings with it. Deep learning is often times disruptive before it is generative. In that vein, teachers can best partner with students to build  academic muscle by knowing their content well, preparing lessons with multiple opportunities for students to create and revise meaning as well as assessing, giving feedback and then re-assessing student work. The latter of these three strategies will be the focus of our action section below, but before that, I would like to emphasize something.

For every teacher or leader that is reading this blog, if you do not remember anything else from this entry or any of my other entries, remember that inviting students into the rigorous process of making meaning and then guiding them along that path with ongoing feedback is one of the most critical ways to help our students realize their full academic potential. Their future absolutely hinges on this. Let's get to work. 

Classroom Instruction Principle

Students build capacity through repetitions of practice-feedback-better practice assessment loops. 

Three Actions/Strategies to Implement Today

1. Script out your assessment loops. When a lesson is in progress, the action can be funny, unpredictable and intense all at the same time. Developing the skill to think on your feet and ask questions via the Socratic method comes with experience, practice and preparation. As you are planning your lesson, write out the questions and answers that will provide you with real-time feedback of students' progress towards mastery. You want to make sure you not only write out the answers that you are looking for, but possible wrong answers from students and the next activities students should engage in or reference if they are stuck at a particular point. A good lesson has at least three such cycles over a 90-minute period. 

2. Compose your exemplars. We cannot lead students anywhere we have not gone first. It is essential that you write out the exemplars for your unit assessments, but also the formative assessments and possibly even the Warm-Ups before you assign them to students. This work will help inform your assessment loops and help you teach more intentionally in the direct instruction portion of your lesson.     

3. Make your case to sudents; repeatedly. If given the opportunity, students will choose the path of least resistance when you present challenging work to them. So, have your reasons ready for why owning their learning is the surest path to them owning their future. You have to always have your 'why' ready for their 'why.'

4. Bonus—use incorrect answers. Students can learn a lot from non-examples. We tend to value the smooth lesson and the correct answer; but learning occurs when we can analyze where we went wrong. Introduce the concept of 'wrong week.' Every fourth week of the month, only accept (or highlight) incorrect answers. Each time you go over these wayward responses, ensure that students are explaining why it was wrong and what the student would have to do to correct their response. In fitness and training, I believe this concept is called muscle confusion. You target the same muscles in different ways in order to make them fuller and stronger (if you are a fitness person and I botched this example, I apologize). 

Two Resources for Further Study

1. Getting Better Through Authentic Feedback (classroom video featuring 2014 National Teacher of the Year, Sean McComb)

2. How One Teacher Conducts Checks for Understanding (classroom video and blog from Teach Like a Champion's Doug Lemov) 

One Inspirational Quote/Video

Which Student Are You? by Fernandel Salomon

"For they are all our children; we will either profit by or pay for what they become." —James Baldwin

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.

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