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Hechinger Commentary

Instruction: Part 1

Students in this third-grade classroom—and any visiting journalist—will have no doubt what this writing lesson will cover. The teacher explains everything as clearly and precisely as possible so that her students—many of whom do not hear English spoken at home—will pick up not just the gist of the lesson but also academic language such as “topic sentence” and “supporting detail.”

The teacher starts the lesson teaching the concepts to the whole group. Then, students work on their own and in pairs, as she moves among them giving individual assistance. Notice that while the teacher coaches one girl, she gives her time to think. She then leaves her with an assignment as she moves on to work with others.

The group comes back together so the teacher can respond to the student work she had seen. They are working on the lesson—topic sentences and supporting details—in various ways, but the lesson as a whole is coherent and focused on a type of writing that the state’s standards expect third-graders to learn.

Did you hear the teacher say, “I’m going to ask you to go back ... and work on your very important writing”? She is telling her students that the work of learning is important and worth their effort.

This lesson makes the theory of academic standards real. Journalists can use such scenes to explain to readers (parents, business leaders, policymakers) that using academic standards to guide instruction does not have to mean dry, boring drills. Plenty of creativity has gone into the lesson to make it interesting, engaging, and educational. After observing such a lesson, you might ask the teacher how long it took to plan.

This is hard work, as the segment illustrates. If this is what it takes to teach one important but discrete aspect of writing, think how difficult it would be for a teacher to meaningfully teach the long lists of items that characterize many sets of state academic standards. When legislatures or governors or business leaders or educators propose adding more items to these lists, scenes portraying classrooms can help provide a valuable context for the policymakers’ deliberations. Such lessons also illustrate the importance of providing teachers with the support and training necessary to make standards-based teaching more than just a slogan.