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Academic Spotlight: A Cleveland Teacher Stretches Her Students’ Answers—and Herself

A few weeks ago, a student in Molly Hanna’s first-grade class at St. Thomas Aquinas in Cleveland answered a question correctly—something that happens hundreds of times a day in our schools. This time, it was a question about vowel sounds. Molly explains: “I wrote down the words ‘port’ and ‘part’ on the board. I asked my students to hold up 1 finger if ‘port’ was the correct way to spell ‘part’ and to hold up 2 fingers if ‘part’ was the correct way to spell ‘part.’”

While Molly sometimes tells students “correct” or “good job” for getting the right answer, this time, she rewarded the correct response with another question. “Tell me why,” she asked one child.

“The student was able to tell me that “part” was spelled with an ‘ar’ because it makes the /ar/ sound that is in the word “part” and the “or” doesn’t make that sound.” Molly didn’t stop then; she asked him what sound “or” makes. He got that right too.

While these few seconds of a first grade class may seem simple and routine, they didn’t happen by accident. That week, Molly had intentionally decided to choose moments in her lessons when she would ask students to stretch correct responses for an important reason: she wants students to “further their understanding of the content I’m teaching.”

Molly Hanna, teaching this winter at St. Thomas Aquinas, Cleveland.

In the Partnership, we talk about having a vision for excellent instruction, and it is in hundreds of small, crucial, intentional teacher moves like Molly’s questions that such a vision comes to fruition. Like athletes who achieve excellence by mastering the fundamentals of their sports, teachers can hone the most basic tools of the classroom, like questions, to amplify student learning.

The strategy for deepening student thinking that Molly deployed in that moment is called “Stretch It” by our professional development partners at Teach Like a Champion. In January, it was among the strategies Molly and all the Partnership-Cleveland teachers learned in a day of professional development.  In reflections at the end of the day, a few teachers shared a thought that many might have after a PD day: These techniques look promising, but how will they work in my class?

That’s a crucial question, and we asked Molly and a few of her Cleveland colleagues to let us know the answer several weeks after our professional development session.

As Molly’s next move revealed, her students didn’t just magically begin answering lots of questions correctly when she started using Stretch It. After her student successfully answered three questions, she asked him to stretch again: “I continued and asked him to read the word ‘port.’ While he struggled to read the word without guidance, by the end of the interaction the student felt proud of himself and continued to participate throughout the rest of the lesson.”

As that first grader’s reaction demonstrates, Stretch It’s value as a strategy doesn’t come from eliciting lots of right answers, but rather from its capacity to whet students’ appetite to know more and to increase their persistence through challenging lines of inquiry. After a few right answers, the student had built enough confidence that he could struggle a little without giving up. If he and his classmates learn from Molly’s questions both how to recognize vowel sounds and how to trust that they can keep learning even when material gets difficult, then they have key tools to thrive as students long after they leave her class.

Molly was also stretching herself in using the strategy. In previous days, she had focused on two other TLAC techniques, No Opt Out and Break It Down, to help students who did not know correct responses engage with and gain mastery of the material, so she was asking herself to take on another strategy that was new for her.

She shared with us candidly that Stretch It didn’t go well at first. “The first few times I used Stretch It in my classroom, my students were a little confused about why I was continuing to question them instead of moving on to the next question/student.”

Yet rather than conclude from those confused faces that the strategy wouldn’t work for her class, Molly came up with a modification. “I started to change up how I was questioning them by clearly communicating with them that they were correct and that I was going to ask them another question relating to the original question.” And over just a few days, it began to work: “By the end of this week, Stretch It became more of a norm in my classroom. My students were not frazzled when I continued to question them when they were correct. This newly added practice inspired me to strive for more than just accepting a basic correct answer. Giving my students a chance to rise above the expected gave them more confidence in their responses and excitement in their learning.”

As helpful as it can be, Stretch It—like many teaching techniques—needs to be used thoughtfully in order to be effective. As Molly notes, “I will need to be mindful to not use it just because I can. When prepping my lessons, I will go over some questions that would be beneficial to stretch out if the opportunity arises.”

We are so grateful for Molly’s willingness to try new techniques and share the journey with us, and we’re thrilled that she’s found the effort worthwhile: “It could be daunting to learn many different strategies at a given time, but when you focus on one or two at a time to try, you can really see how each individual strategy has its own merit and can be used in different ways. Learning to use these different strategies purposefully takes time, but I’ve learned to trust the process and spend time working through them in my classroom.”

There are many aspects to the work of Partnership Schools, but the success of all our efforts depends on one activity: student learning. Everything we do must, in the end, foster “great instruction and lots of it,” as Partnership Cleveland Superintendent Christian Dallavis says. If great instruction doesn’t promote deep learning of rigorous content in our schools, then little else we do matters. And as Molly shares with us, even small changes to teacher practice can produce promising results when they are intentionally and strategically deployed.

Nehemie Villarceau is Director of Talent and Teacher Support for Partnership Schools.

Beth Blaufuss is Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at Partnership Schools.