Breathing New Life Into Instruction

The new district-wide initiative to improve classroom instruction takes the director of instruction and three specialists to a summer institute for professional development. After learning about exemplary instructional practices and watching them modeled in demonstration classrooms, the team returns to Cantor City Public Schools to "breath life" into classroom instruction.

Karen Lawrence, the new Director of Instruction for Cantor City Public Schools, wants to focus district-wide professional development efforts on effective classroom instruction.

Cantor City Public Schools is a moderately-sized school district in a suburb of a large city in a Mid-Western state. This year, the superintendent has hired a new Director of Instruction, Karen Lawrence, to ratchet-up instructional practice in grades K-12. Because the district attracts very talented and well-educated professionals it has a history of not providing a lot of staff development training for its educators. Although the staff is highly qualified, many teachers have participated in only minimal if any formal training in instructional practices and techniques since their initial preservice training. Therefore, many teachers are not familiar with current best practices in instruction. Most teachers’ curriculum planning is quite good, hours of classroom observations over the past few months have led Karen to believe that many classrooms need “a breath of fresh air” where instruction is concerned.

The instructional staff at the district-level includes three specialists, one each at the elementary, middle, and high school levels who work with Karen to oversee instructional practice in the Cantor Schools. Each instructional specialist provides support and guidance to teachers at their designated level in order to enhance instructional design and delivery in all classrooms. Since coming aboard Karen has asked the specialists to start “coaching” teachers in exemplary instructional practices by modeling strategies in their classrooms. Karen believes that first her staff must be proficient in instructional practices themselves before they can lead others.

Working diligently for almost a year, Karen Lawrence secures funding for professional development for her instructional staff. She has arranged for her staff to attend an established summer institute on the east coast that specializes in effective instructional practice. During the week-long experience, participants attend sessions by outstanding K-12 teachers regarding specific exemplary instructional techniques each morning and observe the modeling of effective practice in demonstration classrooms with children in the afternoons. Although the classrooms only contained K-5 children, it was obvious that watching the implementation by any teacher would assist in the eventual implementation of practice in all classrooms. Immediately following the classroom visitations, participants have opportunities to ask the instructors questions about implementation. Accompanying readings are distributed to participants for added understanding of each instructional practice.

As the institute nears, the Cantor team is excited about learning more about best practice for classroom instruction. In particular, they feel fortunate to have the opportunity to witness “modeling” first-hand as they will need to do the same for the teachers with whom they’ll work in their school district. After modeling, the specialists will “coach” the teachers in order to enhance their competency in instructional design and delivery.

See information on coaching below:

A team of instruction specialists attends a summer professional development institute in order to learn more about exemplary instructional practices.

The Cantor group of instructional leaders arrives at the summer institute on Sunday afternoon. After settling into a hotel, they attend the program orientation. They soon learn that the format of the training consists of several workshop strands in elementary, middle, and high school levels. This is perfect for the Cantor group who already divides itself among levels of specification. Therefore, the Cantor team will split-up and each specialist will attend training sessions specific to their grade-levels of responsibility. They hope to learn a variety of instructional practices individually, and then collectively bring them back to their school district.

The elementary instructional specialist finds several promising strategies at the summer institute.

One of the first training sessions selected by the elementary specialist was interest centers. For elementary teachers who typically work with most of the same students all day, learning centers provide an instructional outlet all of the time. Additionally, the use of centers can differentiate instruction for different kinds and levels of learning. Therefore, the specialist thought that perhaps centers would be widely accepted by the staff in Cantor’s Schools.

The elementary presenter at work in the classroom

First, she spent about 90 minutes of a presentation by the presenter. Over lunch she read a description about learning centers as an instructional technique. That afternoon, she watched the teacher use the technique in a classroom. During the course of the day, the specialist learned many things about the use of centers in the classroom. However, what was most surprising was to learn that there were different types of centers, both learning and interest centers.

Read about centers below:

Clearly the instructional strategy to most challenge and be of interest to the elementary specialist is “concept attainment.” She is shocked, in particular, to see young children work so well with this instructional technique. All too often teachers of younger children teach concepts to children rather than guiding their own attainment or development of deeper understandings. The later instructional technique relies on higher level thinking and self-guided understanding.

See description of concept attainment below:

Related Web Sites: 8-10.html


Supplemental Resources:

Joyce, B. and Weil, M. (1986). Models of Teaching (2nd ed.) Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Simon and Schuster, 25 – 39.

Marzano, R. and Arredondo, D. (1986). Tactics for Thinking, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and Mid-Continent Regional Educational Laboratory, 16 – 20.

Martorella, P.H. (2001). Teaching Social Studies in Middle and Secondary Schools, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall, 192-195.

Maker, C. June. (1982). Teaching Models in Education of the Gifted (2nd ed.) Austin, TX: Pro-Ed, 237-259.

Additional Comments
Provided that the strategy is properly linked to the content of the social studies curriculum, it exists as an excellent tool for teachers to use in order to develop the thinking and reflective skills of their students.

On one of the last days of the institute the elementary specialist attended a session that really excited her. She felt uplifted as she began to think of the varied applications of “learning contracts” as an instructional strategy in classrooms of all levels, but especially for elementary classroom teachers. Often teachers don’t try different levels of learning, alternative activities, or differentiate student products because they are unsure about how to manage the various experiences for students. Contracts, on the other hand, might serve as an effective instructional technique for managing different types, kinds, and levels of students’ learning.

Click here to see a description of learning contracts.

The middle level instructional specialist attends several training sessions on model classroom practices.

The middle school level training session

One of the first session that the middle level instructional specialist elects to attend is independent study. Often students in the middle grades have developed rather sophisticated interests of study.

Further, by the middle grades, students have varying levels of previous knowledge and experience in a variety of subject areas. Therefore, conducting research and developing sophisticated and complex learning on a given topic can be a challenge in a heterogeneous classroom. The specialist hopes that independent study is an instructional strategy that middle grades teachers will embrace because of the potential to different learning for students with varying levels of readiness and experience.

See a description of independent study at elementary level below:


Click here for a description of independent study at secondary level.

The very next day the middle level specialist is equally pleased with her choice of training sessions–graphic organizers. By the middle grades it is quite obvious that many students do not know how to organize their thinking. A framework upon which students can “wrap around” their ideas enhances their understanding of the ideas as well as serves to increase memory. The use of a graphic or visual representation of ideas for writing, mathematics, understanding historic timelines, and many other uses makes the strategy appealing to many teachers in all subject areas.

See a description of graphic organizers below:

The high school instructional specialist comes across several effective instructional techniques while attending training sessions.

The high school instructional specialist is somewhat reluctant about selecting sessions given that the demonstrations are occurring only in elementary classrooms. The first selection seems very high level–synectics. This heuristic is a multi-step process for developing creative thinking. The processes involved primarily focus on making the strange more familiar, and making the familiar seem strange.

Teachers attend the high school level training session.

One of the steps in the process involves the use of “direct analogies.” The specialist is particularly pleased that some of the synectic strategies can be used singularly. The school district still teaches in short class periods and he wants to be sure to use instructional strategies that lend themselves to this tight schedule.

See a description of synectics.

See a second description of synectics.

See description of direct analogies.

Karen pulls the instruction team together to plan for disseminating staff development for enhancing classroom instruction in the Cantor Schools.

Upon their return to Cantor, Karen quickly gathered her team to discuss their summer training. In preparation for the meeting, the instructional team collects their materials, reviews their notes from the training strands, and re-reads the material distributed by presenters. They met several times a week for three weeks sharing information and developing a plan to begin assisting classroom teachers.

Karen asks her specialists to each select one teacher with whom to initially work. Their plan is to first model several instructional strategies in the designated teacher’s classroom, and to begin to coach her implementation of the strategy. Each specialist began by asking a teacher for an upcoming lesson plan.

The elementary instructional specialist first contacts Katie Wilcox, a first grade teacher, who is particularly interested in learning new instructional techniques. In particular, Miss Wilcox is frustrated by the extreme reading levels among her 24 first-graders. She wants to find instructional techniques that might address the disparity among the reading levels of her students. The specialist obtains an upcoming lesson from Katie.

See a First-grade reading lesson below:

The middle school level instructional specialist meet with a sixth-grade teacher, Sharon Conklin, about changing the instruction in her science class. Ms. Conklin is not excited about her whole-group direct instruction format now that she has an honors class. Specifically, she is interested in several techniques used specifically to keep the gifted students working more independently. The teacher gives the specialist a lesson from the next unit of study.

See sixth-grade science lesson below:

Lesson Extension:
Have students access the following web site: . Ask students to write a 1-page paper to address the following questions:

  1. What is Pangea?
  2. How do we know it existed?
  3. Who is Alfred Wegener?
  4. Explain the continental drift theory.
  5. Describe convergent, divergent, and transform boundaries.

Assessment: Observe students during the “egg activity.” Collect students’ worksheets to review students’ understanding of the interior sections of the Earth.

Useful Internet Resources:
Surface and Interior of the Earth

Plate Tectonics

Sixth Grade Plate Tectonics Homepage

The last instructional specialist who works with the high school teachers contacts Nate Baker, a high school history teacher is hesitant to try any new strategies. He is worried that is 55 minute class periods are too brief to infuse too many higher order questions or graphic organizers, however, he is open to trying something new. Gladly, Nate gives the specialist a lesson on the stock market from his ninth-grade social studies class to consider for the modeling lesson.

See a stock market lesson below:

After reading the lessons, the specialists are disappointed at the one-dimension of the instruction incorporated into the lesson. Each begins the difficult challenge of infusing new instructional strategies into the lessons and breathing life into the classrooms. Individual specialists ask themselves: What strategies will work best? How will the lessons need to change? What is the best way to begin?

Suddenly, the enthusiasm of the summer institute was waning. The work of the team is getting serious!