March 2022 Teacher Talk

Kelly Harmon & Associates Educational Consulting

Dear Friends,

I can't believe it's already March! The last two months have flown by. Are we finally taking off the masks and getting back to normal? Our learners still have a lot of time for growing before summer gets here.

In this newsletter, you will find ideas for helping your students get into a relaxed state for learning and helping students build background knowledge. You will also get ideas for monitoring for learning and increasing student thinking in the math classroom.

I hope you find an idea or two you can use immediately! Please reach out if you want to explore any of the ideas in more depth. I'd love to visit with you in person or on Zoom.

Happy teaching,


Why Aren't Our Kids Learning Like They Were before the Pandemic?

Are we stressed out? Every time I turn on the news, a new wave of fear and anxiety wash over me. We were forced into a "new normal" in our lives and schools. Many of our children are going through a lot of stressful situations and this impacts on their learning.

This new normal demands that we pay special attention to getting rid of the "bad" stress and creating "good stress" in learning situations. Bad stress overworks the amygdala in our brain. When a person is in a state of bad stress, the amygdala sends information to a lower part of the brain. This part of the brain sends us into fight, flight, or freeze. We can't logically process or evaluate the information. Thus, we don't learn anything new. Fear or concern about "being behind in learning" essentially causes our brains to regress even further! Only the person who thinks, learns. You can’t think when you’re in a state of emotional stress. According to Judy Willis, neuroscientist, turned elementary teacher, our brains react to boredom exactly the same way it does to bad stress. According to Dr. John Hattie, If our children are going to learn, we need to make sure to create lessons that are "not too hard, not too easy, and not too boring."

Here are 10 ways to help our students relax and get into a productive learning mindset.

1. Just BREATHE! We can all benefit from taking some deep breaths, especially before taking on new learning. Start each lesson with a moment of breathing and mindfulness. Have students inhale and as they look around the room noticing little things in the environment, exhale. This mindfulness brings us into the present and helps us let go of all the negative noise going on in our heads.

2. Breathe belief into your students. Have you seen the show Ted Lasso? I highly recommend it! The first thing Coach Lasso does is hang a "Believe" sign in the locker room. As a first time coach of a professional soccer team, he may not know much about soccer, but he believes he can learn it and he also believes in the players on the team. This is a powerful message that our learners need.

3. Have frequent, short conversations with students about their progress toward a learning goal. These conversations only take a few seconds. It’s critical to give students timely feedback in order for them to keep moving forward. They need to realize they are making incremental progress towards a learning goal as they are learning.

Think about video games for a second. When you’re playing, the game gives you incremental feedback on your progress towards the goal. It is this feedback that helps you adjust your strategies. The more feedback you get, the more thinking you do and adjusting your next steps.

In the classroom, it’s critical to be specific with feedback. I like to utilize the success criteria for giving feedback to students. Every time we tell them “look at the thinking you are doing right now,” we are helping them build their self efficacy. We are communicating that they are on the right track. If they are not on track, we should give them feedback about what is the correct course and offer a prompt or cue to get them to think about next steps.

Many students develop learned helplessness due to lack of feedback. We all want to know if we are on the right track. The words of a teacher/coach is exactly what we need so we don't give up.

4. Disrupt the learning situation with novelty. Change the students’ expectations of today’s lesson. Do something new and novel. For example, have a students stand up and create a freeze frame (act out without language) to show a previously learned concept or skill.

Another ideas is to show a photograph or short video that seemingly has nothing to do with the content of the lesson. Generate interest and conversation around the media. Then ask students to think about how the picture is related to the new content.

5. Always connect to the students' background knowledge. Start class by activating prior knowledge related to the topic. Have students pair up and and share things that each one knows about the topic. This type of activity doesn’t have to take a long time. Just a couple of minutes of social interaction can get the brain ready for the new learning. When we start with something students already know, they feel safe and confidence.

I recommend not sharing your lesson learning target until after the students have activated any related knowledge they have to the new learning. We want to keep kids in a state of low stress, so keep the conversation grounded in ideas that everyone has experienced. Monitor the conversations and note ways that you can bring in their background knowledge during the direct instruction of the new content.

6. Create curiosity. For students who don’t believe they are capable of the new learning, start the lesson with wonderings. Ask students to generate questions about the topic or situation. Have students make a prediction that will be confirmed or modified throughout the lesson. Be sure and have every student make the prediction in a private way. Many students fear being wrong, so it’s important to stress that a prediction may need to be changed at some point. Provide students wipe off boards to write on and then erase as they have new ideas through the lesson.

7. Create a safe environment for making mistakes. My friend Ryan Doetch had a bulletin board outside his classroom for years. It said "Mistakes are expected, inspected and respected." Let students know that we learn more when we make mistakes. Mistakes are not an indication of our intelligence, but rather of our current thinking. We must start communicating this belief to students very early in the year or in their learning careers.

8. Avoid the cognitively heavy new learning on Mondays. Many of our students may have had a weekend in which the bad stress level was incredibly high. We need to spend time helping our students relax and get in a state for learning.

9. Monitor self-efficacy. Do your students believe that they can figure things out? Do they have strategies? We might not know something right now, but we believe we can learn it. If they don't believe in their own ability, this must be one of our goals for them. See #3 for how to help students build self-efficacy.

10. Celebrate learning effort! Be sure to close each learning session with a celebration of the learning effort. Tell students exactly what you noticed about their thinking and willingness to take a learning risk. Ask them to reflect on new learning. Ask students the following closing questions:

  • What did you learn?
  • How has your thinking changed?

Don't miss the opportunity to give students a verbal high five.

If we’re going to help children overcome the bad stresses in their lives, it’s critical that we create environments in which they feel safe, loved, heard, and respected. We need to be breathing belief into our children daily.

Counting Down To State Testing Time

It's not too late to help our students down the final stretch to STAAR. In this seminar, we will plan for six weeks of targeted reading instruction and interventions based on student data. We will break down the readiness TEKS student expectations into learning targets and success criteria. We will determine exactly what students need to learn and practice.

Read more about this workshop...

March 26, 2022

9AM to 12PM Central Time

Monitoring for Learning

Douglas Elementary School in Tyler, Texas is a great example of professionals who focus on intentional teaching and learning. Under the leadership of Christina Roach, the Pre-K through fifth grade teachers have worked diligently over the past six years to refine their practices of using learning targets and success criteria, along with formative assessments to partner with their students for learning. The staff members are truly experts at intentional teaching.

This year, the Douglas staff has worked to refine their skills of intentional monitoring. The teachers take the success criteria for each learning target and create monitoring charts they use as they observe students and evaluate student work. By monitoring minute-by-minute throughout the lesson, teachers can take action quickly. Sometimes, just a quick micro-intervention gets students back on track for learning, while some students benefit from other Tier 1 interventions such as small group coaching.

By taking action quickly, they are closing the daily learning gap and preventing bigger gaps from developing. Here are some examples of the ways they monitor all of the children during core instruction and in small group instruction.

What is Missing in Reading Instruction?

When I began my teaching career in 1991, guided reading was a new practice that was being introduced in schools across the country. The focus of the guided reading groups was to help students develop metacognitive strategies they needed to process a text on their instructional reading level. In these groups, the teacher provided necessary scaffolds. It was up to the teacher to decide the type of scaffold the student might need. For example, a student might not have background knowledge related to the events or topic of the text. The teacher would then provide some background information to support comprehension.

A few years ago, after six hours of zoom sessions with the staff at Student Achievement Partners, I came to a realization that the metacognitive strategies were only a part of the process that students need to learn. For many students, inferencing comes easily when scaffolded by the teacher during small group reading time. But given a cold read, those same students did not always transfer the skill.

The key reasons for lack of transfer are that our students don’t have the background knowledge related to the topic of the new reading, nor do they have a scaffold to provide that knowledge as they process the text.

So what do we do when students lack background knowledge?

1. Assess Background Knowledge

The Qualitative Reading Inventory 4 (now in 7th edition) was the first assessment I used to monitor prior knowledge related to the passage to be read. Before reading, students are asked four questions about the concepts in the text and the answers are scored on a 0 to 3 level. A score of zero meant the student had no background knowledge and a score of three meant the students had extensive background knowledge that would help them comprehend the text. When working with even the most dyslexic of students, if they scored more than 50% on the concept knowledge assessment, their comprehension was always at 70% or better. It is impossible to make inferences without using some background knowledge.

On a daily basis, we can quickly assess background knowledge. Prior to reading or studying a new text or topic, activate any and all related background knowledge. Ask students 3-4 concept questions related to the topic. Give students those same questions after learning about the topic. The questions cue students to focus on specific information about the topic. The picture below is an example of questions to use to help students assess and build background knowledge before and after reading.

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2. Teach students to make the connections to their background knowledge. Skilled readers always start with activating prior knowledge using questions like the following:

  • What do I know about the situation or topic?
  • Is my background knowledge related to what I’m reading?
  • How can my background knowledge help me make sense of what this author is trying to tell me?
  • How can my understanding of the words being used help me to understand this author's message?

Some students have what we call an "unearned advantage" in that they’ve had a lot of experiences and read a lot of books. They have been engaged in many learning experiences and have been read to extensively. These children have a lot of background knowledge about a lot of topics. Unfortunately many students have an "unearned disadvantage." They just haven’t had the opportunities that other students have had.

3. For each unit of study, create a real world-based theme or topic study. We must integrate science and social studies into reading, language arts, and math instruction. Throughout the unit, students will learn the skills and strategies while learning about the world.

For example, during a unit on argumentative writing, students can pick a social studies or science-related topic and create a public service announcement or "Ted-like" talk. They research the topic to explore all arguments, facts, details and examples related to the topic. The goal is for the learner to become an "expert" on this topic prior to giving their talk.

We should go back to thematic teaching. I’m not talking about teaching apples in September and bats in October. I’m talking about diving deep into topics such as the climate or why it’s necessary to reduce recycle and reuse. We need to create units of interest that will generate curiosity about a topic. Students will have multiple opportunities to use comprehension strategies and skills to process the text and videos on the topic.

So what topics will you introduce to your students? Let's make sure that learning about the world becomes as important as learning reading and writing skills.

Join Kelly in June to Explore Ways to Build Our Students' Background Knowledge

June 15, 2022 ONLINE

9AM to 11 AM Central Time Zone

This science of reading-based seminar focuses on how skilled readers utilize background knowledge to support comprehension and what to do if students lack it. Educators will learn ways to help students build and use their background knowledge to efficiently make inferences and synthesize text information. We will explore direct and indirect ways to help students strengthen their schema and vocabulary.

We will plan effective ways to level the playing field for our students who lack experiences and topical knowledge, as well as for those who are learning English as a new language.

Let's level the playing field for our students who lack experiences and topical knowledge, as well as for those who are learning English.

Find out more...

Building Thinking Classrooms

Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics by Peter Liljedahl is one of the most powerful books I’ve read in my entire education career. Many of the practices apply not only to math, but many content areas! My friend, Ann Elise Record wrote a wonderful blog about the strategies in the book. I highly recommend you read her blog. Then join the FaceBook group to collaborate with other math superstars!
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Upcoming Seminars, Institutes, and Conferences

Strengthen Your RTI Program! Powerful Strategies to Increase the Success of Your Current Response to Intervention Program

Learn how to better lead your school or district RTI program whether online or in-person in this strategy-packed, two-day institute led by nationally acclaimed presenter and RTI facilitator, Kelly Harmon. Specifically designed for school teams who are using the RTI model and are looking for ways to strengthen it, this two-day institute will help you look at new and different ways to refine and build your RTI model to better focus on planning learning goals that meet the needs of your students.

Discover strategies to increase all students' success at the Tier 1 level and interventions that work for those students who need further, small group instruction at Tiers 2 and 3. This is a unique opportunity to take a closer look at your RTI program, identify the most effective, research‑based, instructional practices and learn how to implement them in your own school or district.

You and your team will walk away with dozens of research-based strategies and an extensive digital resource handbook to help you refine and strengthen your RTI program.

March 9-10, 2022 Online

April 19-20, 2022 Online

Guided Math Conference: Using GUIDED MATH to Catch Up Students Who Have Fallen Behind and Accelerate the Progress of All

Choose fro 21 Strategy-Packed Sessions presented by 3 International Math Experts!

Sessions include:

  • Using Guided Math To Catch up Students Who Have Fallen Behind and Accelerate the Progress of All!
  • Unlock the Power of Guided Math Groups! What All the Books Did Not Tell You!
  • Building Confident, Enthusiastic Problem Solvers in Guided Math! (Grades 3-6)
  • Setting Guided Math Goals and Tracking Student Progress
  • Developing Computational Fluency Through Number Talks and Number Strings
  • Organizing the Math Block to Incorporate Guided Math Instruction
  • Not-to-Miss Math Learning Center Activities
  • AND Many more!

You will receive extensive resources to help you get ready for a super successful school year!

March 14-15, 2022 Online

June 29-30, 2022 Online

STRENGTHENING YOUR GUIDED MATH PROGRAM: Practical GUIDED MATH Strategies to Increase All Your Students' Math Achievement (Grades K-6)

Practical Ideas and Strategies

Learn how to better lead your school, grade level or district math team in this strategy-packed two-day institute led by popular national presenter, Kelly Harmon. You will discover how to work with teachers to identify and implement the most effective cutting-edge, Guided Math instructional strategies to greatly increase student math achievement in grades K-6 whether teaching in-person or online. Kelly will share strategies for organizing the math block from beginning to end, as well as ideas for planning and implementing more intentional small Guided Math groups that meet the needs of all your students – from those who excel in math to those who struggle with concepts and basic skills. You will leave equipped to assist your teachers in using the top, research-based instructional strategies that will help your students learn and retain key math skills and concepts, as well as how to transfer these skills to math problem solving, all in a Guided Math format.

This is a unique opportunity to evaluate your own Guided Math program in light of current research that identifies the most effective math instructional practices and gain an in-depth look at how these practices can be applied to your classrooms, school or district. You will walk away with dozens of practical strategies and an extensive digital resource handbook to help you lead and teach your teachers.

Bring your math team to join Kelly for two, fast-paced days packed with the best strategies to increase the math achievement for all your students.

April 11-12, 2022

Catching Up Students Who've Fallen Behind in Reading or Writing (Grades 3-5)

Practical Ideas and Strategies

In this NEW strategy-packed seminar by Kelly Harmon, an international educational consultant with extensive experience working with Grades 3-5 students, you will discover how to empower learning for your students who have fallen behind. In Kelly's seminar, you will discover the most effective, cutting-edge instructional strategies to catch up third, fourth and fifth graders. You will learn dozens of ideas for accelerating the learning of your struggling students. Join Kelly to explore the newest ways to monitor and adjust instruction based on student results. You will leave this outstanding seminar with renewed enthusiasm for teaching and learning as well as a wealth of ideas for innovating the learning opportunities for your Grades 3-5 students.

This fast-paced day, packed with the best research-based and classroom tested strategies, will provide you with the tools you need to catch up your students who have fallen behind! You will walk away not only with an extensive digital resource handbook packed with dozens of practical, easy to implement strategies but access to Kelly's online resources designed specifically for Grades 3-5 students who need to catch up. The day will focus on the practical strategies needed to catch students up and will include strategies that work whether you are teaching in-person or online.

No matter your experience level with struggling learners, you will leave this seminar with a wealth of practical, use-tomorrow ideas.

March 28, 2022 Cherry Hill, NJ

March 29, 2022 Long Branch, NJ

March 30, 2022 Newark, NJ

March 31, 2022 Long Island, NY

April 1, 2022 Hartford, CT

April 25, 2022 Burlington, VT

April 26, 2022 Albany, NY

April 27, 2022 Syracuse, NY

April 28, 2022 Rochester, NY

April 29, 2022 Detroit, MI

May 4, 2022 Online