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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Young girl with glasses writing in a binder and yawning

The lesson has gone smoothly. It's time for independent work, and students sit with pens poised, ready to write. Most students, that is. One student, let's call him David, picks up his pen, then puts it down, folds his hands over his chest, and slumps. Another student, Lisa, furrows her brow and stares long and hard at the paper, looks up, then back at the paper. She does this several times. Alex, though, grabs her pencil, starts writing, and doesn't look up for about ten minutes.

Three high school students. One assignment. Fifteen minutes left in class. What to do?

It's time for the individual check-in. It's that time when the teacher can circulate, observe, and individually work with students. It seems like a self-evident, natural thing to do, but like much in the classroom, check-ins can have a rich, deep impact, and can help support student engagement both short- and long-term. They can also be used as a tool for assessment and relationship building, and should always start with the belief that each child is doing the best he or she can. As the task of the lesson shifts into independent practice, our work transitions into the role of coach -- we guide, redirect, and question, and undergird those stances with a deep belief in student capacity. In my work as both a teacher and peer coach, I've seen that effective check-ins have several important functions.

1. Refocusing Students

A student like David is having trouble approaching and sustaining the task. You might open with a friendly question to assess his mood or comprehension. "How's it going, David?" might be a way to ease into the conversation. After listening carefully and responding accordingly, tell him that you will return to him in a few minutes to see his work. Then do so, and affirm his progress (even if it's just writing his name or the assignment title). Affirming student progress is important because:

  1. It builds task persistence.
  2. It checks for understanding.
  3. It validates student effort.

You might also need to redirect the student's behavior or help him take out needed materials. Doing this quietly communicates your belief in the expectation that a student like David is capable of the work -- as well as communicating your helpful alliance.

2. Clarifying Instructions

Lisa is perplexed. She's thinking, but she's not writing. As you approach her desk, her brow is furrowed and she's staring at the paper. She's willing to try, but she needs some guidance. Lisa needs a gentle opening question or comment to check for understanding. One way to start might be: "I see you're looking at problem #3. Any questions about it?" After hearing her response, home in on an area of confusion and guide her to the next correct step. Once you've checked for understanding by having her repeat or clarify directions, move on to assist others in the class. Observe Lisa, and note her progress. Circulate back to check in after a few minutes.

3. Affirm Progress

Alex is confident and usually speeds through her work, often finishing early. She's also the kind of student that, due to her independence, may learn to slide under the radar and resist taking risks. She gets it but goes no further. With Alex, you can build rapport by validating her strengths and then asking higher-level questions to extend her thinking. "What if" and compare/contrast questions would be good places to start. One other thing: before asking a student like Alex to publicly share her work, get her permission. She may be an introvert, and that too needs to be honored.

4. Assess and Reteach

As you complete the circuit of student conversations, you will probably find commonalities in questions and performance. Talk about those with the kids. Open up the classroom for discussion about challenges and ask successful students to voluntarily share their solutions. In that closing dialogue is a thread that, articulated, tightens the circle around learning and trust. Your whole-class feedback, based on one-to-one check-ins, can help struggling students feel less alone, and high achievers feel accomplished. And you can use this information to plan forward.

While the purposes of these check-ins are primarily academic, the underlying tone of the teacher has a profound and lasting impact on the classroom community. Student by individual student, we have the opportunity to build not just attention, which implies duty, but connection. Connection is what "How's it going?" sounds like. It's the genuinely stated invitation of "Talk to me about this part." When we observe, talk with, and listen to our students, we can strengthen the bonds that bridge us to each other and to the poems, problems, and laughter that school life brings.

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Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

I encourage students to share their work, in this way students acquire a sense of community linked to reading and writing. I provide my students specific guidelines for peer review so that students can reinforce discipline specific approaches to reading and writing.

Johanna Rauhala's picture
Johanna Rauhala
Peer Coach, Teacher, Writer, Parent

Reading and writing are important ways to build a shared classroom experience, Farah. Sounds like you are structuring feedback to both support rigor and a safe community.

Mark Story's picture

I have found lately, that this is the trick to education. As a teacher for six years, this is the battleground and so important. I have sat back at times and not 'gone out' to check what the students are doing at times. However, going out and talking to them makes all the difference. You can address issues there and then. Also, it is the manner you talk to the students. I also think the students appreciate the effort to check-in and push them along. The only issue is that checking in with students takes time and some miss out. I make a list (based on feedback the students leave). That feedback governs who I check in with.

I really like the post and its reference to staying positive. Often when I check in, other students can disengage. Yet, a positive comment to a student that rightfully deserves it can send them into a spin. They realise your attention is on the good.

A most thought provoking piece.

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Johanna Rauhala's picture
Johanna Rauhala
Peer Coach, Teacher, Writer, Parent

Thank you, Mark. As you mention, the manner in which students are spoken to is an essential component of classroom tone and in building relationships. Keeping a list of student names is an excellent idea for both equity and data purposes. I wish you continued good skill.

ReneeB's picture

This is great information that can be used at all levels. I teach first grade and I have noticed that those struggling writers will sit there staring blankly and need a little encouragement or nudge to begin. I have been trying to do exactly what said and "check in" with students to keep them moving and on track. This has been effective in my classroom. I also use these conversations to reteach or clarify instructions when it seems that a few are having the same questions. I always say "that's a great question and I bet you aren't the only one who is wondering that..." and then I will address the question and discuss with the whole class. Great information! Thanks for sharing!

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mrsdittmath's picture

These are great suggestions and have been effective in my middle school classroom. Students how are unsure of what do to or if they have the "right" answer can discuss with you their thinking and you can guide them down the right road. It also prevents students from blending in missing out on the content.

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