Today on the podcast we’re joined by Wendy Ward Hoffer, Senior Director of Content Development & Publications at the Public Education and Business Coalition, and most recently the author of Phenomenal Teaching: A Guide to Reflection and Growth. Her book charts a pathway for teachers to cultivate agency and foster understanding for every learner.
She spoke with our colleague Brett about how these core values of agency and understanding lead to effective teaching, and ways we can use them to help us while teaching remotely.
Brett: So let's start with this. This book feels slightly different from your past work at Heinemann. You've published several titles with us in the past with a more math or science focus, but this one feels a little bit more broader to me. Can you tell me a little bit about your journey leading up to this book?
Wendy: Sure. I had the good fortune of working at the PEBC, which is a Denver based nonprofit that supports instruction at all grade levels and across the curriculum. And my area of focus for the last 15 years there has been math and science instruction. But over the last decade we've really collaborated to develop this framework of what high quality teaching looks like regardless of the content area. And so that framework is really the backbone of this book. And in developing the book, I've made an effort to bring together examples, ideas, resources, that spread across the curriculum and really address that framework. So it's been an honor to be the spokesperson on behalf of the organization where this framework that we collaborated with lab hosts and researchers and colleagues to create.
Brett: And if I understand correctly, you serve as the senior director of content there. And I just want to give to people, PEBC stands for Public Education and Business Coalition, is that right?
Brett: And from your introduction to the book, there's quite a history there of really great minds that have come in and out of PEBC. Can you talk a little bit more about the organization, the work they've done over the years?
Wendy: Gladly. I feel so fortunate that I landed with PEBC a couple of decades ago. The organization began in 1983 at that time when the proficient reader research was hot off the press and a group of teachers and other educators were gathering together to say, "Well, what can we do to bring us to life in the classroom?" So Ellin Keene, who's a great researcher and writer, also a Heinemann colleague, she was one of the leaders of that time and really started the organization with a focus on elementary literacy. But then across time we've acknowledged that some of those approaches that were really serving to develop those elementary educators could also be valuable for teachers of all grade levels and all content areas. And so we have quite a big lab classroom network, a group of exemplary teachers who are featured in this book and have been working with us for many years to grow their practice as long as we provide institutes and seminars both in Denver and around the country for professional development, and then work with clients, schools in... I think we're in about States right now.
And so the great opportunity of this book has been to gather together all the learning and thinking not only across time but also geographically of my colleagues as they've traveled and worked in schools and districts in really diverse settings. Both super urban challenge settings, as well as North Dakota where we have kids in super rural environments and all different socioeconomic statuses. And what we're finding is that this approach can really apply and support teaching for agency and understanding, no matter where you're from and who you're working with.
Brett: Well, I'm glad that you mentioned teaching for agency because there's a great line in the book where you write teaching for agency and understanding works for everyone. Start where you are, use what you have, teach whoever comes through your door. And that really sort of speaks to me right now especially because students aren't necessarily coming through doors, but we are talking about different situations with how we're teaching right now. How can these principles be used for where we are at the moment?
Wendy: Excellent question. Here we are with so many of us making the transition to distance learning and I think so many of us feeling a bit at a loss. And yet what we're seeing with the teachers that we're continuing to support is that all the same principles of believing in kids, creating wonderful opportunities for their thinking, celebrating their success inside that community of learners, can still be fostered. One recent example I've really enjoyed is the way that some teachers are using Flipgrid to invite kids into a challenging problem, to think about that work, go ahead and create their own explanations or solutions, present those on Flipgrid and then come back together for a shared conversation. So they're creating a workshop, which is the pedagogical stance that we promote and that's in this book, they're creating a workshop, they're creating opportunities for discourse and engagement as well as assessment. All these pieces can come to life, for example, through that distance learning lesson.
Brett: You opened the book with a great Don Murray quote and I'm not going to repeat the quote because I want people to read it. But about teachers essentially not being magicians but knowing their craft and I really think that was such a perfect setup for the framework and the work that you're trying to do in this book. Can you talk a little bit more about how the framework is applied throughout the book, but also what you're hoping the reader will do as they go through the reading, how you want them to essentially participate? The book feels very interactive and how you write prompts in the space that you give us as readers as we go through the book to be engaging in our learning as we read. How do you want people to sort of engage and interact with the book as they read?
Wendy: Yeah, I have to give credit to my colleague Lori Conrad, who shared with me that Don Murray quote, because it's so appropriate, it talks to the magic, speaks to the magic that we see in a master of their craft. And so often we walk into the classroom of a highly effective teacher and it looks like magic. It looks like this all just happened with a wave of a wand. And yet my effort in this book and the effort that my colleagues and I have been engaged in is to really articulate what are the steps, what is the process that these highly effective teachers are going through in order to achieve what appears to be conjured out of nothingness? So that's the goal of this teaching framework, is to really create a pathway forward for teachers who aspire to more effective and more joyful instruction and provide clear, concise, accessible steps.
As you notice Brett, the book really is written to be interactive. It's designed, I say, as a workshop in a workbook, and so throughout their many invitations for the reader to do some writing, do some responding, disagree with me on the thoughts that are there and really craft their own path forward as they consider what this teaching framework might mean to them. So I invite anyone who's looking for some professional development right now during this pandemic time. It will be a fun interactive learning perhaps to get a hold of the book and really go ahead and write in it. I know a couple of people have said to me, "I don't want to write in it. It's so shiny." I said, "No. You have to." [crosstalk 00:07:52] That's the whole point, is to be engaging because that's so much of what we know makes learning stick is when we're having our own experience and doing our own thinking, not just sitting back and reading and listening and being passive, but to be really deeply engaged. And so that was the goal of the structure of this book.
Brett: Well, and within that structure, each chapter is very clearly defined. And then you've got great sort of set up questions to frame our thinking as we go through each chapter. Could you just sort of walk us through a little bit of the framework and just sort of how the framework is laid out throughout the book?
Wendy: Sure. As I described earlier, the book is really based on these principles that we've found cut across grade levels and content areas. And each chapter highlights one of those principles and breaks it down. The framework is really designed as an attitude rubric, and in that it invites folks to think about, "What are my first steps?" Let's say I want to really cultivate a classroom where students are more deeply engaged in academic conversations that help them grow their thinking. I want to cultivate discourse. So then what might I do first? And so the chapters pick that discourse for example apart and say, "Well first we've got to have some norms." Okay. So if we're going to create norms, what might be some steps to developing that? What might that look like early on in the year and how might we grow it over time? And then here's some examples from some teachers with whom we've worked of the ways that they've developed norms. And then once we have those norms, what's next? We might need some conversation structures, et cetera.
And so in each chapter it really breaks apart that bigger framework into strands and then those strands into what we call elements, and then each of those elements into really small stepping stones with the purpose of supporting any aspiring teacher to look at that tool and say, "Ah, I see myself here and so a next step for me might be here." The framework is definitely not designed as a sort of external evaluation tool. The purpose is not for other administrators to come in and say, "Oh check, check. You missed this, you missed that." But rather as a coaching tool, as a guide, as a reflection tool for teachers themselves in collaboration with colleagues to really consider where are my strengths and how I like to grow.
Brett: I love that you mentioned the thing about what you just said because you have a perfect line in the back of the book that says that it's really about that guided professional development that you're trying to get across. So I love that you mentioned that. You really build the foundation at the beginning of the book with creating a foundation for effective teaching and exploring purpose and belief. Why was that important to ground it with purpose and beliefs to get started with?
Wendy: Yeah. One thing we've seen visiting so many classrooms in so many parts of the country is that our beliefs as educators are the most important element to our practice. And we know some of us cultivate those beliefs intentionally and really say, "I know every student can, and so therefore I will..." Whatever they may choose. And yet others of us kind of fall into our instructional practice, perhaps mirroring what was done on to us, or perhaps just picking something up without necessarily thinking, "Hmm, what am I really saying to a child when I take the pencil out of their hand?"
And so in thinking about this notion of phenomenal and really engaging students as thinkers, it's important to think about what our beliefs suggest in terms of our behavior. So if I would say my belief is every child is a capable writer, well then when that one child is struggling and maybe hasn't put their pencil down on the paper yet, I might be tempted to say, "Oh, let me help you." And get them started. And sometimes that's absolutely appropriate. And yet sometimes we convey our belief and faith in children by stepping back and letting them struggle and letting them grow their strength through that difficult challenge. And so that's just one example of a belief and how it plays out. And the whole book is really designed as a pathway to engaging students in ways that support them in growing agency and confidence and reflective capacity as thinkers and demonstrating our faith in them as future leaders.
Brett: We touched on this a few moments ago, but as we record right now, teachers in the United States are at about six weeks into the remote learning or distant learning situation with the COVID-19 pandemic. How do you see this framework applying in a remote learning situation?
Wendy: Yeah, that's been a good question I've been thinking about recently. I think the framework absolutely applies. I mean one of the foundational notions of the framework is this faith in students, right? This belief that they can be the actors and we can trust them to do the good work of thinking. And so as we think about designing remote learning experiences, we can continue to engage students in deep and meaningful work in that way. I had the good fortune of seeing a video of one of my colleague's fifth grade writing workshop, mini lesson introduction yesterday, of how she was leaning into the camera and she was saying to the students, "I can't wait to see what you come up with today." Supporting them, encouraging them, talking about norms and the ways that she was going to expect their participation and attendance. This is Kirsten Myers-Blake at Brown Elementary.
And then she went ahead and facilitated that writer's workshop online, remotely, encouraging the students to spend their work time writing, bringing them back together for sharing and conversation. So although awkward and fraught with peril, this approach can be enacted remotely through some of our distance learning channels online. Now a different challenge might be thinking about those students who don't have access to technology of this sort and how we might engage them in this kind of learning. And yet still, I think it's all about creating invitations for original thinking in response to challenging content. And I think we can do that with or without face to face contact and with or without remote technology. It's a matter of teacher creativity right now. And so I would add too that for every teacher that's listening to this during the pandemic, I absolutely salute you. We miss you, we appreciate you, we know it's a really challenging time and I'm so grateful not only as a parent, but as a fellow educator for the tremendous effort that I see teachers putting in.
Wendy Ward Hoffer is the author of the new Cultivating STEM Identities, as well as Minds on Mathematics and Science as Thinking, all published by Heinemann. She is also the author of Developing Literate Mathematicians. Wendy serves as Senior Director of Education for the Denver-based Public Education and Business Coalition (PEBC), and travels nationally to provide professional learning to math and science teachers at all levels. She is passionate about promoting rich thinking in all content areas, especially math and science. Wendy received an MA in Science Education from Stanford University and earned National Board Certification while teaching middle school math and science.
Follow her on Twitter @wendywardhoffer