George Lucas Educational Foundation

Schools That Work | Practice

Cochrane Collegiate Academy

Grades 6-8 | Charlotte, NC

How to Engage Underperforming Students

Guided by research, educators at Cochrane Collegiate have honed in on ten top teaching methods, and teachers receive weekly PD to help them implement the practices. 

Related Tags: Education Equity
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How to Engage Underperforming Students (Transcript)

Shana Oliver: For about eight or nine years, we were considered a failing school and we knew that we had to restructure in order to keep our school open.

My name is Shana Oliver and I'm the academic facilitator here at Cochrane Collegiate Academy.

Joshua Bishop: The big part of what we do here is the professional development piece.

You know, the way we do professional development and training is very specific on enhancing their skill set.

Shana Oliver: -- the key learning and the unit essential question. The concepts are going to change because we're going to look at so many different components of professional development as we go.

My job here is to provide our teachers with professional development strategies that they can learn in here, through modeling, through experience, and take those out to our students to help our students to be successful in the classroom.

We have to have them say and do from beginning to end. And that's why we call it interactive learning. It's just not interactive when it's time to work on the independent practice.

The non negotiables are, I guess, like the rules that govern our classroom practices. Every day, every teacher in every classroom must adhere to the non negotiables. These are the things that we learn that we have to do in order for our students to be successful. The essential question is the big question that the students have to be able to answer at the end of the lesson. That's the first of our main non negotiables. That's how we know whether our students got it or didn’t get it.

Angela Johnson: It says, how do character motivations and character traits work together to help readers better understand a character?

Why does a character behave in a particular way? Why does a character say the things that they say?

Shana Oliver: An activating strategy is the thing that gets the students motivated about the lesson. What are you going to do, as the teacher in the classroom, to whet their appetite to want to learn whatever you're teaching them?

Angela Johnson: All right, so this is what we're gonna do. We're going to look at some characters that you may be familiar with, or you may not be familiar with, and gonna look at some of their attributes.

So for my classroom, you may see a movie clip, or you may see a clip of the 'Fresh Prince of Bel Air.' I want them to interact and see things that are relevant to them.

Gimme some basic characteristics of Urkel.

Shana Oliver: One of our non negotiables is limited lecture. Research says that students can only maintain their attention span for their age plus two or three minutes. So when that time has elapsed, teachers must stop at that point and have students do something.

Angela Johnson: I know my attention span is pretty short, so I definitely know my students' attention span is short. So I probably talk for maybe three or four minutes, and then I let them have a conversation.

I'll tell your group the character type and then you guys have to draw your representation and your scenario. Any questions? Everybody understand what they're doing? Okay, I'm gonna allow you to choose your own groups, groups of three. Let's move.

Shana Oliver: One of our most important non negotiables is the use of graphic organizers.

Rosalyn Alston: I want us to go and walk through the graphic organizer that you're gonna make. It's gonna be in the form of a Frayer diagram.

Shana Oliver: We know that it's important for our students to be able to conceptualize whatever information we're giving them, and that doesn't happen with pages and pages and lines of notes and copying.

Rosalyn Alston: In the middle, you're gonna put FOIL.

That graphic organizing frees them up from taking notes, allows them to plug and play and still be involved with the lesson.

Shana Oliver: When I do the professional development sessions with teachers, I set it up exactly the way that it should look in a classroom.

It should look similar to this in your classroom, whether you're working it down or across. So for our classroom in here, this is going to stay the same, the key learning and the unit essential question.

Rosalyn Alston: The modeling that is done in our profession development interactive learning has the teacher have to flip in their mind from teacher to student, which is a very interesting mindset--

Angela Johnson: Learning focus and those non negotiables has been phenomenal for our school, because it allows the students to collaborate and the teachers to not only involve the students, but to engage them. I think that was the piece that was missing before.

Joshua Bishop: In the 2006, 2007 school year, we were listed as one of the 30 worst performing schools in the state of North Carolina. We have more than doubled what our percent on grade level is since that point in time. This is the success. This is what's making a difference in our students' lives.

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Video Credits


  • Zachary Fink


  • Mariko Nobori


  • Daniel Jarvis

Associate Producer

  • Doug Keely


  • Hervé Cohen
  • Zachary Fink

Production Assistant

  • Brett William Hunter

Video Programming Producer

  • Amy Erin Borovoy

Executive Producer

  • David Markus


Narrowing the Achievement Gap

By focusing tightly on instructional strategies and PD, educators at Cochrane Collegiate Academy saved their school from closure. In just three years, they have doubled student performance, and they continue to reach higher.

The educators have developed an instructional model called Interactive Learning (IL). It is a collection of their ten best practices, which they call their non-negotiables, and teachers must implement them in every lesson, every day.

Shana Oliver, the school's academic facilitator, runs the training sessions for these best practices, and she helps the teachers see and experience how they can incorporate all ten into one lesson. 

How It's Done

Interactive Learning Non-Negotiables

Essential Question

What is the intended goal of the lesson? Remember, there is one essential question per lesson, and students must be able to answer this question by the end of the lesson.

With essential questions, teachers really have to be intentional about what they want the students to be able to do, and it has to be at the highest-level of learning. The students have to be able to analyze and apply; they cannot just answer the question with a yes or no. It has to be an extended response. An essential question must be "multi-skill" in order for it to be a good one.

Activating Strategy

An activating strategy is something that gets students actively thinking or making a connection with the material being presented that day. Make a connection to the content or to the outside world to see how much the students already know or remember.

One of the main things used at Cochrane is to show video clips. Students love it when they see their favorite show or cartoon. Initially, they don't know what they're about to learn so they focus on that video clip. Then the teacher uses that engagement to link to the lesson, and the students realize that their likes or interests can channel a learning experience.

Relevant Vocabulary

Relevant vocabulary must be present in your lesson. Keep your vocabulary limited to what your students are able to handle and make sure that it is actively used in context throughout the lesson. Also have your students interactively use the words during the lesson.

Use vocabulary that's relevant. Teachers must pick and choose what is going to be most important and most effective. They must teach vocabulary through a graphic organizer, through an experience, or whatever they need to help the students get it.

Limited Lecture

There should be limited lecture time. After 12-15 minutes of lecturing, you should engage your students in some type of activity, even if it's for only a few minutes. The teacher can then go back to lecturing for another chunk of time.

Examples: Have students talk to their neighbor, draw a picture, write a few sentences that summarize or describe the lecture, finish an example problem, or get in a discussion with their group.

Graphic Organizer

Use of a graphic organizer allows students to visually categorize new information or review old information.

Students need to be able to conceptualize whatever information we're giving them. The graphic organizer is student friendly. When they look at information that's organized, it's easier for them to retain and remember that information. And when they go home, it is less intimidating to look at that information as opposed to pulling out a notebook that has pages and pages of notes.

Examples: Have students record information in colorful charts in their notebooks, use computers to create graphic organizers, or create a "foldable."

Student Movement

Student movement is a must. Students need to be mobile at some point during instruction to ensure they're actively engaged.

This one is probably the most challenging for Cochrane teachers because it can be intimidating to have students moving. But student movement can look a number of different ways, and it doesn't always mean students have to get up. They just must be physically engaged in whatever the teacher is doing. It's important because students don't like to sit still, especially male students. They ahve found that when the male students are up and moving around the room, they are totally engaged in what the teacher is doing.

Examples: Students do a gallery walk in which they move in groups from corner to corner, answering questions or analyzing things posted on the walls; they work in teams or at rotation stations; they raise their hands or give the thumbs-up or thumbs-down; they answer questions with their body, putting their left foot out if they think the answer is A and their right foot out if they think it's B.

Higher Order Thinking Questions

Present your students with at least three higher-order-thinking (“HOT”) questions during the lesson. This is proof that you are presenting all your students with challenging work.

The HOT questions are Cochrane's signature element. The rationale behind them is we want to give the kids an opportunity to be challenged in the classroom. The way the teacher presents these questions varies, and students' responses can be indicative of their learning pace. The same question should be used for all students, but advanced learners may be required to respond in a different way. Students can respond on paper, as part of a classroom discussion, in paired discussion, or through homework.


Summarize to bring the lesson to a close. This is when you can assess your students' abilities to effectively answer the essential question, and you can find out whether you need to extend or refine the skill.

Teachers must find creative ways to have the students answer the essential question at the end of the lesson. A student's ability to answer the essential question at this point is a way for the teacher to assess the student's learning. In most instances, this is the point when a teacher can determine whether she needs to go back and reteach or needs to accelerate student learning.

Examples: Have students use a writing prompt, short activity, discussion, or illustration to summarize, or have them summarize on an exit ticket.


Lessons must be rigorous. The activities should be challenging and move at a brisk pace. There should not be opportunities for students to get bored or periods when they have nothing to do. The entire lesson should be an active lesson.

Teachers should strive to take students to the highest level of knowledge. There are only 180 days in the school year, and a lot of the students do not come in at grade level, so we've got to move them with the 90 minutes that we have each day in the classroom.

Student Centered

Your entire lesson should be student centered. The ways that we instruct our students must demonstrate that they are our focus and that what we do is centered on their success. The use of technology as a tool is a critical component of this. It provides students with 21st-century skills that are both engaging and relevant to real-world applications. It is a partnership: If you effectively and successfully plan, your students will effectively and successfully work and learn.

Take a step away from the learning process to become facilitators rather than "givers of all knowledge" in the classroom. 

Comments (13) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Ken Morrill Jr's picture

I can see in the video that there are a lot of teachers who care about raising student achievement. I'm very happy to see that this staff wasn't all about test scores in the video. The focus on strategies is inspiring.
HAving said that, and having looked at your school's data, I'd like to know if there was any change in parent involvement over the course of the three years. I've noticed at my school (in SC) that there is a drastic increase in the number of parents who show up for conferences, who have rational conversations with teachers when they call home about student behavior and performance, etc. At my school, I don't think that teachers and administration should be able to take all of the credit when we see a rise in student achievement at the end of the year.
I know that we must give credit where credit is due. If we see an increase in student achievement, we must thank parents, students, teachers, administration, and everyone else involved in the lives of our students.
Again, you did an amazing amount of work which shows that you care as teachers. That is truly inspiring. Keep up the good work and keep inspiring the rest of us.

Josh Bishop's picture
Josh Bishop
Principal at Cochrane Collegiate Academy a Charlotte Mecklenburg School

Ken ~

Let me start by saying that I don't have any hard data to justify my response but I would say that we have seen parental involvement increase slightly over the last few years. It remains a high priority for our school because without parental support, a culture of learning can only go so far. While I would really like to see more parents coming to conferences, I would state that the vast majority are very supportive when we reach out and call them. I believe that they see and can sense the changes that have happened here and are more apt to support the school in these changes.

Tejas's picture

Inspiring story
Will try the same with my students and would like to share the results with you all.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Powerful story. These are great strategies, but probably the most critical piece here is that professional development is a priority. Great things happen when teachers have the time and resources to work together for their kids!

Kevin Jarrett's picture
Kevin Jarrett
Maker Educator, Google Certified Innovator & Trainer, Dreamer, Doer. Learning experience designer, workshop leader/speaker, author. Stanford #Fablearn Fellow. #GoogleEI #GoogleET

Love this video, the story behind the school's success, and the way the information is presented. It all seems so ... easy. Why aren't most schools doing these basic things? Is it money? Time? Other priorities? What could be a better use of resources than investing in your teaching staff?

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

Great Success Story with passionate teachers. Curriculum Coordinators needs to be unchained from the paperwork to get into the classroom to teach teachers on a long term basis throughout the year. This is the reason for the success.

After watching the video, I can see how teachers (new teachers and elementary teachers) might be intimidated by the planning for a lesson like this. Time wasn't mentioned in this video, but i would suspect that these lessons with the ten non-negiciables might span a couple of days or more (depending on the class period time).

And as for elementary teachers...they must be thinking, "I teach math, writing, reading, spelling, phonics, science/social studies every day. How can I plan a lesson like this every day?" Good question. There are many ways to implement this way of teaching. It will all depend on time and scheduling, but you also have to remember that kids need time for the "doing" for than anything else. Time to write, read, prove math equation, etc... The lessons in the video train the students to think in a certain way. I think elementary teachers could stretch these lessons, hitting the ten over a span a days, giving more time to each category (or, at least the categories that need the time.)

Just a thought.


Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Not Howard, yes, "home" will also work, but we specifically chose "hone" in order to signify refinement over time. The connotation of constant examination and crafting was important to us in choosing the word.

areswhy's picture

Gee, why do you have to wait until your school is failing to implement practices that have been known for a long, long time. Better late than never, I guess.

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