Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

A Dozen Promising Practices: Great Ideas for Great Schools

Twelve techniques, alone or in combination, can have a profound impact on student achievement.

August 5, 2003

Innovative educational leaders are abandoning the "closed box" type of school for a building that encourages collaboration.

Credit: Brant Ward

Despite numerous efforts to improve what happens in classrooms, many schools continue to follow decades-old models and roles. The traditional classroom is a closed box, sealed off from access to people, ideas, and experiences beyond its walls. All knowledge is contained in the teacher's head and in the textbooks and other materials inside the classroom. Students sit at desks arranged in rows and work individually. Roles are confined to a strict hierarchy -- the teacher's job is to teach by talking; the student's job is to learn by memorizing.

As many have noted, the twenty-first century requires very different kinds of classrooms bearing little resemblance to their ancestors. Here we present twelve tips from leading teachers and exemplary schools around the country that can break down the isolation of the classroom, open up its four walls, and breathe new life into teaching and learning.

Many of these innovations introduce new roles for students and teachers and address how time is used during the school day. They all lead to closer relationships between students and teachers and among students themselves. Perhaps surprisingly, many of these practices do not require more funds, if any, but only the willingness to "think outside the box."

Cross-age tutoring benefits both older and younger students.

Credit: Edutopia

Peer Instruction

Two or three times a week, the students in Kristy Beauvais' honors and Advanced Placement physics classes at Concord-Carlisle Regional High School in Massachusetts teach each other. Using a method called "peer instruction," designed by Harvard professor Eric Mazur, Beauvais poses carefully constructed questions to her class before she begins to teach the topic. She then tallies the student answers and asks students to try to convince their class neighbors that theirs is the correct answer. "More often than not, the kids who are right are able to convince the other kids," says Beauvais .

Besides the fact that the students are learning from peers who are "closer to their level of knowledge," she has witnessed a number of benefits with the method, including many documented by Mazur in his own research. Rather than tuning out long lectures, the students become involved. "The kids love it," Beauvais says. "It gets them talking, discussing. They're much more interested than if you just write something up on the board, and they remember it more than if you just tell them."

Beauvais' experience backs up Mazur's research on his own introductory physics classes at Harvard, as well as the experiences of other college instructors. Mazur found that because students are forced to think through the arguments being developed, they make significant gains in conceptual understanding and problem solving. They can also assess their own understanding of a topic while in the classroom rather than try to puzzle out a complicated concept by themselves or, worse, learn that they don't understand a topic until it's too late -- on the test.

Cross-Age Tutoring

Four days a week, sixteen seventh and eighth graders from Abraham Kazen Middle School in San Antonio, Texas, walk to a nearby elementary school to tutor younger children. The middle schoolers, designated by the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program as being at risk of dropping out of school, are paid $5.15 an hour for their labors, but the remuneration amounts to much more than dollars.

Teacher Cathy Meyer, coordinator of the program at Kazen, says she has seen remarkable transformations of youngsters -- from shy to confident, from uninterested in school to eager to do well, from gang members to respected school leaders. The act of teaching others is empowering, since the best way to learn something is to teach it. The younger students also look up to their older tutors and are eager for their leadership. The Intercultural Development Research Association, which created the program, reports that 98 percent of students in the program stay in school.

Students thrive when working on solutions to real problems with adult experts.

Credit: Learn & Live

Bringing Local Experts into the Classroom

Throughout New York state, members of the Performance Standards Consortium rely on experts from the business and academic world to evaluate student work and to bridge the gap between school and the larger community. At Urban Academy, a small alternative high school in New York City, outside experts -- from attorneys and actors to historians and business managers -- play a critical role in classroom learning and assessment.

Students present their culminating project work (part of a performance system of assessment) to a panel that includes experts in the relevant subject. "Outside experts ask questions that teachers might not pose," explains Urban Academy co-director and teacher Ann Cook, "and open up the educational activity or enterprise to the world." In addition to having local experts work with students in classes and on long-term projects, the school invites a member of the New York community to come and speak with students once a month. At these gatherings, called "conversations," the visitors talk about themselves and answer questions from students and staff. Says Cook: "It's a way of helping students to be more exposed to people with [a variety] of life experiences."

Multiage Classroom

It may mean more work to make sure all topics are covered and each student is learning at an appropriate pace, but teacher Deborah Goodman is sold on grouping students from different grades in one class. In her class of eight kindergartners, five first graders, and five second graders at White Oak Elementary School in Edenton, North Carolina, students learn from each other, and help each other. The younger kids tend to catch on more quickly, and the older kids cement their knowledge by teaching others and becoming leaders -- an opportunity less available in a more competitive single-grade class.

Because she has the same children for three years, Goodman can look at the curriculum over a three-year span and advance the kids as quickly as they are able to master the curriculum. Research on multiage classrooms has pointed to such advantages as allowing for differences in learning styles and pace, giving older children leadership experience, and creating an environment with less competition and more cooperation and nurturing among students.

Cooperative learning teaches both social and academic skills.

Credit: Edutopia

Cooperative Learning

What cooperative learning is not, says English teacher Pam Hankins, is group grades, with the inevitable loss of individual responsibility that group grading entails. With group grades, she says, one or two kids always do most of the work and the slackers reap the benefits.

In Hankins' sophomore English class at Kickapoo High School in Springfield, Missouri, students learn essential twenty-first-century skills of working together and training in equal participation -- in a format that allows each one to receive useful feedback on success and need for improvement. "If we don't prepare our students to work in teams, we are selling them short," Hankins says.

A likely assignment on Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is for a group of students to create a newspaper based on the play -- news, fashion, sports, weather, op-ed, obituaries ("Everybody in Julius Caesar dies," deadpans Hankins). The students work together on assembling a cohesive newspaper and on design, layout, artwork, and even the paper's name (Roman Times and Toga Tattler are favorites). But Hankins keeps track -- through different colored pens, bylines, and other means -- of the work each individual student contributes.

In the seven years she has used cooperative learning, Hankins has seen that a full class participates rather than the one high-achiever who always gets a hand up first, and that students get more excited about the work "because the most important relationships that help with learning are student-to-student and student-to-teacher." Hankins is so impressed with the results of cooperative learning that if told she could not use it in the classroom, "I would go sign up and be a greeter at Wal-Mart."

Class-Size Reduction

Classes with sixteen rather than twenty-eight students "give us time to get to each student," says Marsha Fritz, a second-grade teacher at Webster Stanley Elementary School in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. "You can be more specific with each child and pick out exactly what they need to achieve." Webster Stanley is a participant in Wisconsin's Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) class-size reduction plan. SAGE provides state funding to help reduce class size to a student-teacher ratio of 15:1 in kindergarten through third grade in schools with large concentrations of children from low-income families.

For three years in a row, University of Wisconsin researchers found that students of all races and socioeconomic levels in SAGE schools outperformed students in comparison schools in all three grades, even when SAGE students started out the school year behind their peers in comparison schools. Another research study found less bullying at SAGE schools.

Fritz says she sees these positive academic results in her classroom. For example, when second graders in non-SAGE schools were given ten minutes to write as many words as they could from memory, they averaged forty-two words. Fritz' students averaged sixty words. Besides giving her students more individual attention, she can give their families attention, too. And when there is frequent communication with parents, they participate more in their children's education and provide information about the youngsters' special needs and interests. "You get to know grandparents. You know whether they have a cat or dog," all of which helps her tailor her instruction to the individual child. Class-size reduction, Fritz declares, "does make a difference."

Team teaching can reduce a teacher's sense of isolation and provide students with two, rather than one, role models and instructors.

Credit: Steve Klein

Team Teaching

Tina Prary and Beth Henry started team teaching out of necessity, but they kept up the practice because of the benefits to them and their students. Nevada's answer to mandated class-size reduction and absence of extra classrooms was to pair two teachers in a class of thirty-two, thus cutting the student-teacher ratio to 16:1. Prary and Henry were drawn to each other because of similar discipline styles and educational philosophies.

After six years of teaching a second-grade class together, they like the camaraderie and the practicalities of sharing a classroom. Unlike some team teachers, Prary and Henry, who teach at Agnes Risley Elementary School in Sparks, do not specialize in particular subjects. They each teach all subjects with a system so polished that when one teacher is instructing the whole class and the other teacher feels she has something to contribute, she politely breaks in and adds her two cents.

They organize reading and math into two groups, but otherwise all students are taught together. When one teacher is teaching the whole class, the other teacher can provide individual attention to a student or a small group of students -- either for academic or discipline reasons -- or can attend to paperwork or other school matters.

These teachers enjoy having another adult to chuckle over something or commiserate with. In addition, they appreciate each other's feedback on lesson plans, educational theory and research, and individual student weaknesses or strengths. And they believe they provide good examples for their young students of how adults can treat each other respectfully. As Henry says, "It's like a marriage."


At Sherman Oaks Community Charter School in San Jose, California, the practice of looping -- teachers staying with the same students for two or more years -- helps not only to smooth the bumps of each new year but to build positive relationships between teachers and students throughout the year. After two or three years with the same group of students, the teacher loops back down to start the process again. At her previous school, Principal Peggy Bryan tracked the progress of classes with and without looping and found that student gains were greater in looped classes.

So when Bryan and several teachers from that school came to Sherman Oaks, they brought looping with them. They felt more than vindicated in their decision. Because teachers and students don't lose weeks at the start of school getting to know each other, "students know what your procedures are and you know what their learning styles are, so day one, you're off and running," says teacher Sandra Villarreal. The relationship with the students' families also is strong with looping, adds teacher Osvaldo Rubio.

Since this article was written in 2003, founding principal Peggy Bryan and teacher Sandra Villarreal have moved on from Sherman Oaks Community Charter School, but current principal Irene Preciado carries on the school's original vision.

Grouping students into teams at large schools gives them a better sense of belonging.

Credit: Kathleen Duxbury

Block Scheduling

Test scores are up and discipline referrals are down at Space Coast Middle School in Cocoa, Florida. Assistant Vice Principal Timothy Hurd attributes much of the good news at Space Coast, which gets its name from the nearby Kennedy Space Center, to block scheduling.

Instead of six forty-seven-minuite class periods, the school now offers four ninety-minute periods, which include two core courses (one in math or science, the other in English or social studies) plus two electives. Because of the longer class time, students receive a more comprehensive lesson that often includes hands-on learning, such as going outside and measuring the building for a unit on weights and measurements or putting on a play.

The forty-seven-minute period led to traditional lectures and students passively taking notes, Hurd says, which didn't keep them interested and forced teachers to truncate lessons that could have used more time. Student failure rates decreased from 13 percent to 5 percent after block scheduling was instituted in 1996. The percentage of students on the honor roll increased by 10 percent. Test scores increased by 12 percent on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

An added benefit includes fewer discipline problems because less time is spent in the halls moving from class to class. And because students don't take math and science or English and social studies in the same semester, extra books allow students to have a set in the classroom and at home.

School Teams

To value each individual student, build group cohesion, and ensure that students don't fall through the cracks, Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Ridgewood, New Jersey, divides its student population into two houses, each with its own administrator. Each house has about 300 students, who are further grouped by grade (sixth, seventh, and eighth) into teams of 100. The student teams are housed in the same area of the school and are paired with a faculty team consisting of English, math, science, and social studies teachers, plus a learning specialist and counselor.

The faculty and student teams spend the year together, both in classes and in a variety of school activities. Parent conferences include all of a student's faculty team. "It's a great way of getting a sense of who your kids are," says Principal Tony Bencivenga. Lunch hours are arranged so that faculty team members roam the cafeteria and make themselves available to their student team members on a more informal basis.

Community service gives students a sense of their place in society and of their capabilities.

Credit: Kristi Rennebohm Franz

Community Service

"What we're here for is to help young people develop skills and commitments so they can create a more just, sustainable, and peaceful world," says Hudson Public Schools Superintendent Sheldon Berman. "If we simply look at test scores and don't think about ethics and people's ability to contribute to others, we've lost some of the basic building blocks of helping people understand the common good and what our democracy's about."

The Massachusetts educator backs up his words by having every teacher from kindergarten through high school integrate service learning into the curriculum. Kindergartners take part in an integrated language arts and math project to produce a quilt and books for homeless women and children. Fourth graders target their yearlong environmental science study to protecting local wetlands. Ninth graders develop individual projects to assist the community, such as a workshop for fifth graders about the dangers of stereotypes. "When young people are involved in making a difference to the world at large," Berman points out, "their participation continues far into the future."

Schools Within Schools

Patterson High School Principal Laura D'Anna is a believer in breaking up large high schools into smaller academies. "I've seen the improvements we've been able to make in attendance, achievement, and the dropout rate," says the Baltimore educator.

In 1995, Patterson, with a student population of about 2,000, was reorganized into five academies of 350 to 400 students: the "Success Academy" for freshmen plus academies in arts and humanities, business and finance, health and human services, transportation and technology, and sports. Each academy has its own assistant principal and secretary, as well as teachers for programs such as pharmacy technician or consumer services management. D'Anna also beefed up the college preparatory program, adding Advanced Placement classes and encouraging students to take more language and advanced math.

The academies, she says, meet students' requirements for a relevant curriculum with the potential to land them a job right out of high school or send them to college. Equally important are high expectations and the supportive environment created by being a member of a smaller learning community -- each with different colored uniforms and teachers who stay with the same students for three years. "Kids have to feel like they belong," D'Anna says. "The teachers know these kids. They mentor them. They're there for them in good times and bad."

An overall increase in the percentage of Patterson students passing the Maryland Functional Test, including a jump in math scores from 36 percent in 1993 to 63 percent in 2000, is one confirmation of D'Anna's belief in the schools-within-schools concept. In addition, the dropout rate fell to an all-time low of 1.8 percent.

Milton Chen is executive director of The George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Diane Curtis is a veteran education writer and former editor for The George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Roberta Furger is a contributing writer to Edutopia.

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