5 Tried and True Teaching Methods

New Teaching Methods

One of the benefits of being a blogger is that my finger stays on the pulse of what’s happening. I am able to stay abreast of new technologies, I learn of new practices, and I hear of the ways in which teachers are creatively conquering the obstacles in their way. And with all these new teaching methods coming into fashion, the range of what is possible in the classroom has expanded, benefitting us all.

It is invigorating to think about what we can do, and the multitude of ways in which we can do it. Nothing seems impossible.

In the past few years I have experimented with the flipped class, student blogs, project-based learning, genius hour, and while I have not dove in head-first into the no-grades section of the pool, I have dipped my toes.

Yet each change I made marked the end of something, an old approach, an old teaching method. What was once a part of me was shed in favor of something new. Many of those choices I made made me a stronger teacher. The willingness to experiment energized my classroom at critical moments.

But not all that is old should be forgotten.

When we follow the fads we run the risk of shiny-object syndrome, rushing to get a hold of the newest and brightest thing, and failing to realize what already working. It worries me.

And I must admit, at times I feel like a dupe. I wonder if I have been manipulated by a corporate presence in education whispering in my ear about new technologies, better data points, and a la carte learning. This is a part of my teacher tension. While experimentation has led to new ideas, new approaches, and new success, I wonder, what have I lost in the process and at what cost?

Sometimes, all a student needs is for a teacher to look them in the eye and tell them that they are capable of something great. And that is something that no app can do with sincerity.

Here are five teaching methods that I hope I never abandon regardless of what happens along the technological landscape.

5 Tried and True Teaching Methods

1. Putting Fiction First

If you are an English teacher, do you feel guilt each time you crack open another class novel or begin a new poetry unit?

Its hard not to. As the Common Core has placed a greater emphasis on informational texts (non-fiction), and with the big state and national exams following along, at times it feels like that is that we should solely focus our efforts on.

Yet, fiction has a place, a prominence in the English classroom. The writer Krys Lee said, “The best fiction is different. It combats our hunger for facts and clarity and reveals most clearly how ambiguous are all our institutions, beliefs, our very selves. The solidity of us is thrown into relief and questioned. When an intelligent critic tries to articulate and give expression to the fictional world, that intelligent analysis will also feel somehow reductive. The best fiction raises questions, creates shadows, brings to relief the uneasiness in us.”

That is why I’m putting fiction first. I owe it to my students to give them more than facts, figures, and arguments. I owe it to them, at this critical stage of personal development, to wrestle with the ambiguities of Boo Radley, the questions of humanity raised by Frankenstein, and feel the horror of a night in Auschwitz.

2. Cold Calling

As Doug Lemov states in Teach Like a Champion 2.0:

When you cold call, you call on students regardless of whether they have raised their hands. It’s deceptively simple: you ask a question and then call the name of the student you want to answer it. If students see you frequently and reliably calling on classmates who don’t have their hand raised, they will come to expect it and prepare for it. Calling on whomever you choose regardless of whether the student’s hand is up also brings several other critical benefits to your classroom.

He lists four benefits to cold calling:

  1. It allows you to check for understanding effectively and systematically at any time whether the student is offering to tell you.
  2. It increases speed in both terms of your pacing and the rate at which you can cover material. No more waiting for students to offer up a response. Keep them on their toes and ready to answer at anytime.
  3. It allows you to distribute work more broadly around the room and signal to students not only that are likely to be called on to participate, and therefore that they should engage in the work of the classroom.
  4. It helps to distribute work around the room not only to those who always raise their hands, but as an authority to reach out to individual students whom need to be more engaged.

3. Debates

Discussions are great, but debate teaches a depth of knowledge that goes beyond rote memorization or formulaic thinking.  When engrossed in debate preparation, students must investigate and understand a topic from a variety of perspectives. Debaters must be aware of their audience as they carefully gather information and marshal it for persuasive appeal.

The critical thinking during debates is dynamic, challenging, and nimble. Debaters learn within the crucible of competition, they only way to succeed is to cooperate with your debate partner. The level of critical analysis and deconstruction necessary to unpack ideas has far reaching consequences for student development across subjects and time.

4. Recitation

Elana Aguilar suggests that poetry:

“builds resilience in kids and adults; it fosters social and emotional Learning. A well-crafted phrase or two in a poem can help us see an experience in an entirely new way. We can gain insight that had evaded us many times, that gives us new understanding and strength. William Butler Yeats said this about poetry: “It is blood, imagination, intellect running together…It bids us to touch and taste and hear and see the world, and shrink from all that is of the brain only.” Our schools are places of too much “brain only;” we must find ways to surface other ways of being, other modes of learning. And we must find ways to talk about the difficult and unexplainable things in life — death and suffering and even profound joy and transformation.”

I still remember please excuse my dear aunt Sally (P.E.M.D.A.S) and King Phillip came over from Germany swimming (K.P.C.O.F.G.S). Through repetition and recitation, these nemonic devices have been imprinted on my memory. Why wouldn’t I want my students to take the heart of great poems with them beyond the four walls of my classroom.

e.e. cummings suggested that we can show our love by taking the things we love with us. We can carrying them in our hearts so that we are never without them and anywhere we go they will go, too.

His poem, [i carry your heart with me(i carry it in] is a good place to start.

5. Pen and Paper Writing

Even though my students have voted our blogging unit as their favorite each year, it does not mean that I am looking to my district or Donor’s Choose to transition to tablets or Chromebooks anytime soon. Rather, its the opposite. Blogging is the only time I have my students type their thoughts.

The New York Times reported in 2014:

The effect goes well beyond letter recognition. In a study that followed children in grades two through five, Virginia Berninger, a psychologist at the University of Washington, demonstrated that printing, cursive writing, and typing on a keyboard are all associated with distinct and separate brain patterns — and each results in a distinct end product. When the children composed text by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas. And brain imaging in the oldest subjects suggested that the connection between writing and idea generation went even further. When these children were asked to come up with ideas for a composition, the ones with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory — and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks.

They do plenty of texting, Tweeting, and and typing on their phones, they probably don’t need me to add greater frequency. What they do need is someone to encourage them to slow down their thinking, chew on ideas, and scratch out things on paper and see how they look. After all, you can’t open a new tab and see the latest baseball scores when only a pen and paper stare back at you.


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5 thoughts on “5 Tried and True Teaching Methods

  1. I was never one for gimmicks or trends in teaching AP English. Teaching is really a relationship between the teacher and his/herstudents. It’s an exploration
    of learning together, investigating great fiction and non-fiction together. I always thought of myself as a facilitator and empowerer of students rather
    than someone who was teaching kids something. My job, as I saw it, was to open minds and hone critical thinking, reading and writing skills. It was to guide them on the way to their own relationship with the written word, their own impressions and interpretations—grounded in the text, of course. The class discussion part is easier than showing/teaching them what analysis is and how to write it. Even if they can analyze orally, they might not be good at effectively putting thoughts on paper. That’s where the really hard work of AP English teaching comes in, and it’s not the least bit trendy IMO. It’s “nose to the grindstone” difficult. And it often takes “one on one” interaction between teacher and student at tutoring. Now if we could only find a way to get them to come to AP
    English tutoring rather than calculus tutoring!

  2. Hey Brian, I appreciate your thoughts on the value of fiction and debate, and I see some value, albeit limited, in writing with pen and paper and in recitation. I would, however, argue vehemently against the other “tried and true” method you mention–cold calling.

    Like several other practices Doug Lemov encourages, cold calling is something I’ve admonished new and veteran teachers to avoid, and I’m saddened that the practice is still used by so many teachers. The potential harm a teacher can do to shy kids and students, who may already fear being wrong, by putting them on the spot in front of their peers is far too great to risk this highly questionable strategy. Cold calling creates an environment of stress, and there’s no place for this in learning, which should always be fun.

    Ironically, Lemov describes the problem with cold calling–inadvertently I’m certain–with one of his so-called benefits listed in your post: “It increases speed in both terms of your pacing and the rate at which you can cover material. No more waiting for students to offer up a response. Keep them on their toes and ready to answer at anytime.” I would be ashamed to write such a thing in a book that is supposed to champion good teaching.

    Thanks for this thoughtful post, which I hope generates more debate–something that helps us reflect on best practices and be the best educators we can be.

    • I have had great success with cold calling. With that said, it is important to note that it is not achieved immediately, but rather comes as a result of creating a comfortable environment in which all students are able to express themselves freely. The achievement of cold calling is multi-dimensional. First, it establishes equality as it conveys that I value the thoughts of all students — not just the smart ones or the out spoken ones — and gives each of them equal voice. My fear is that if we don’t call on all students, some will feel disillusioned, unimportant, and disengaged. It also shows students that I am not looking for a specific answer to questions, I want to hear their thinking and use that as a springboard to larger conversations. Socratic Seminars are great examples of ways in which students can be brought into the fold and given the freedom to express their ideas.
      Also, it does, in my opinion, foster greater engagement. Students need to stay thoughtfully involved in a lesson because they know that that may be called upon to share their thoughts at any time.

      • You make excellent points about equality and engagement, Brian, but all kids can feel engaged and valued if the discussion is moved to small groups and/or facilitated with a digital tool like Todays Meet, Twitter, or Voxer. All kids will participate in the digital world. I’m not a fan of the whole group discussion, even minus the cold call. Rarely does it bring much value and it’s nearly impossible to attain 100% participation in whole group chats, but it is easy in small groups or online. I’m sure you’ll test this further in your classes and report back. I’ll look forward to it.

        • I believe cold calling suffers from bad PR more than bad practice. It conjures up images of annoying telemarketers and sleazy stock brokers trying to sell you things you don’t need. While cold calling may imply putting students on the spot, if Lemov had called it “Everyone Participates” and encourage teachers to aim for a wide-range of student-involvement by incorporating more voices in the room, it wouldn’t be so negatively viewed.

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