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Teacher to Teacher: What We Need to Know and Be Able to Do

By Lynne R. Dorfman


Teaching today looks very different than it did when I started teaching in the 70s. We closed our doors and we were alone, for the most part. We didn’t have opportunities to share our thinking with others. We spent a great deal of classroom time delivering the content. Our principals, our rating officers, were often management leaders but not always instructional leaders.

Times have changed. Today, teachers must develop a collective teacher efficacy by going to conferences, reading professional journals, belonging to groups such as PCTELA (Pennsylvania Council of Teachers of English Language Arts) and Keystone State Reading Association, an organization that includes membership in a local council. Becoming a fellow of the National Writing Project by attending the graduate level course for the invitational summer writing institute is a path to continuing staff development by participating in events such as Continuity Days and PAWLPdays, offered by our site, the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project. From these conferences, courses, and readings, teachers need to take back information to their colleagues, talk about it, implement it, and decide what worked and what didn’t work. Ongoing collaboration through study groups, grade level meetings, and district professional development keep us honest, current, and cutting edge.

Three leading questions help us guide the work we do with our students. These questions are appropriate for both teachers and their students:

  • What am I learning today? (content)
  • Why am I learning this? (relevance)
  • How will I know that I have learned it? (criteria for success)

How do we deliver content while making sure we are relevant and real world?  What measures do we use to know that we’ve learned something and/or that our students have learned the content, strategy, or structure?  There are clear pathways to success. They include the following:

  • Teachers know what students need to learn.
  • Teachers know why students need to learn it.
  • Students need to know why they are learning it.
  • Teachers communicate learning intentions to their students, stating the purpose.
  • Both teachers and students know the criteria for success. Students know where they’ve been, where they are now, and where they need to go.
  • Teachers make sure students understand what success looks like.

Healthy, productive relationships between teachers and their students help students undertake challenging tasks with the stamina and endurance to complete them. Students build stamina by carefully trying it out and thinking, “How would this work for me?”  They have to be risk takers. Not trying or attempting to problem solve — or just giving up before they even get started — breaks down stamina. Students begin by setting a purpose and figuring out what they already know (prior knowledge), then learn to plan their next steps and gather their tools and resources. They find a smart place to work where they can concentrate, spread out, and organize. Finally, they continuously make decisions about what will be the most effective strategies to use to complete the task. In other words, they remain active learners throughout the journey.

At the Keystone State Reading Association Conference in Hershey, Pennsylvania (2017), Doug Fisher spoke about the importance of both surface learning and deep learning. He stated that students do need a literal level understanding. Teachers help develop surface learning by leveraging prior knowledge, providing vocabulary techniques, delivering comprehension instruction, teaching students how to summarize through modeling and practice, and providing myriad opportunities to read widely on a topic of study. Reading volume matters greatly to develop reading rate and reading competence (Kelly Gallagher in Readicide, 2009).

How do we grow the volume of reading for our students?

  • Provide access to books in school and at home (Students need to be able to borrow books from the classroom library to take home to read).
  • Students must have choice in selection for personal, independent reading (and I would like to add, for summer reading incentives as well).
  • Students must have time to talk about what they are reading in book clubs, through book talks, in P.A. announcements, written book reviews, literature circles, and reading partnerships.
  • Teachers should talk about three to five books each day – these as “Blessed Books” (Fisher, KSRA 2017 Conference) – that teachers should display prominently in the classroom and allow students to take these books home to read.

Our universal principle in education is transfer – the goal, for students to own their learning, continue learning skills and content, and be able to apply skills and strategies. Deep learning will help students achieve transfer. It includes practice in making connections, understanding relationships, and schema to organize skills and concepts.  Deep learning is important, too. Opportunities for rich class discussions, the use of metacognitive strategies and reciprocal teaching, guiding students to ask essential questions and use visual representation (graphic organizers) to understand concepts and relationships can help students take on challenging tasks successfully while continuing to learn and grow. Here is an example of how two third grade students collaborated to use a concept map on killer whales to plan and organize ongoing research.

Abilities (1)                    Description (2)

Kill for food                      warm-blooded

Detect aspirin-sized.        30 foot long

pebble in 30 ft water        dolphin family

echolocation                       blow holes

find food in cloudy water

breach to snatch seals      10, 000 lbs.

protect young & ill orcas                                                                         2nd smartest                                                  animal after                                                     humans

                       KILLER WHALES

Location (4)                                  Food (3)

all oceans                      small dolphins,                                                sea lions, seals

sea worlds &

marine parks                   carnivorous                                                     (meat-eaters)

in captivity

– bad for health of orcas                                                                             400 pounds                                                     salmon daily

Students’ Summary:    Killer whales are warm-blooded mammals and are part of the dolphin family. They are the second smartest animal after human beings.  Like human babies, orcas are born alive and nursed by their mothers. Eventually they grow to be 30 feet long and weigh 10,000 pounds.  They breathe through blow holes.  These efficient predators eat as much as 400 pounds of salmon a day and sometimes breach to snatch a seal or sea lion from an ice floe..  Amazingly, they can detect a pebble the size of an aspirin in a 30 foot tank. These whales use echolocation to feed in cloudy waters.  Killer whales are located in all oceans. Because they are so intelligent, they are often used in sea worlds for entertainment.  Today, orcas are still held in captivity in places around the world. There is a growing concern to release them into the wild.

Fisher concluded that task difficulty and task complexity are different in several ways. He defined difficulty as a measure of the amount of effort required to complete the task. Difficulty is assessed by how many people can complete the task, On the other hand, task complexity should align with the phase of learning. He defined complexity as a measure of action, thinking, or knowledge that can be assessed by how many different ways the task can be completed.  So we can promote creativity by asking our students to imagine the possibilities!

Here are some favorite sources for professional reading:

Beers, Kylene and Robert Probst. (2017). Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters.

Gallagher, Kelly. (2009). Readicide: How Schools are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It.

Fisher, Douglas, Frey, Nancy, and Stefani Arzonetti Hite (2016). Intentional and Targeted Teaching: A Framework for Teacher Growth and Leadership.

What are you reading to help you imagine the possibilities for your students?


Lynne Dorfman is a 1989 PAWLP fellow. She currently teaches graduate courses at Arcadia University and serves the PA Writing & Literature Project as a co-director. Currently, Lynne is working a book with Stacey Shubitz titled Welcome to WritingLynne headshot3 Workshop, out in spring 2019 with Stenhouse Publishers. She enjoys attending Continuity Days at the Writing Project and will keynote with Rose Cappelli on “What’s New with Mentor Texts?” at the March PAWLPday at the WCU Graduate Business Center.

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