Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

11.21.14Brightening Lines (Video)

uncommon loves practice

Uncommon Loves Practice

Spent the day leading a workshop on Pacing with 60 or so amazing teachers from around the Uncommon Schools network today.  Lotta fun; lotta insight; lotta practice. (So Uncommon).

One of the things we’ve been studying  is using different types of activities to pursue a single objective to keep students engaged and to engage their minds in different ways.  Another is Brightening Lines—taking steps to make the transitions between lesson activities bright and clear.  We re-planned lessons to include different types of thinking for students and got all muscle-memory about making our transitions pop with Brighten Lines.

Folks did some amazing practice in small groups and afterwards a few of them* even took their practice public. We taped that, of course, and it was too good not to share.


*Specifically, Toussaint Lacoste of Roxbury Prep Lucy Stone; Shadi Kafi of Rochester Prep high school; Megan Sullivan of Troy Prep Middle School; Robin Satty of North Star Academy Vailsburg Middle School.

At the workshop today participants emphasized the power of economy of language while brightening lines and how much a half-second delay created suspense and excitement. Also how a tone shift could really lock kids in.  See if you can see those things in the video.

In case you’re not familiar with it (and even if you are) here’s a discussion of the technique adapted from Teach Like a Champion 2.0:

By calling attention to shifts in activities you ensure that your students can perceive mileposts clearly, and make it hard for them not to notice that something new is occurring. This results in greater engagement. 

The first way to Brighten Lines is with the clean startshifting from one activity to another on a cue. Starting everyone at the same time with a statement such as, “Okay, scholars. You have three minutes to write a response to this question. Ready? Go!” has several advantages.

First, making the beginning of an activity “pop” makes the activity itself feel a bit like a special event. It suggests that, as with a footrace, you are not allowed to start until the teacher tells you to; otherwise, you might be tempted to race ahead and sneak in some extra writing. Not only does this implicitly frame the forthcoming activity positively, but it also causes everyone in the class to start exactly on cue. That half-second delay causes students to work more industriously once they are “allowed” to. Plus, students see all of their peers snap to it—normalizing the idea of snapping to it and making productive use of time.

In addition, you build a strong disincentive against malingering—gazing around the classroom and then, gradually, getting out a pencil and paper. If it’s unclear whether everyone else has actually started something, there’s an incentive to take your time so as to avoid being the outlier (the first to start), or to make the optimum decision from a social standpoint: experimenting with answers to the age-old question, “What rate and degree of action will communicate maximum status to the cute girls/boys sitting next to me?” If everyone begins on cue, there are no grounds for strategically managing the optimum starting point. Everyone else just started. Better catch up!

You can use the same pacing tools to make “slower” work more reflective and engaging by the way; some simple adaptations to the clean start can help. You might, for example, encourage deeper, more reflective thinking by prompting students with a slower, quieter cadence, “Ah, a fascinating question: Just who is the hero of this book? [Pause] You have three minutes to reflect in writing. [Pause] Who is the hero, and how do you know?” Now perhaps you’ve dropped your voice to a whisper. “Pencils ready? Begin . . .” This approach still socializes efficient use of time by getting students started right away and as a group, but your slower and quieter pacing can communicate something about the tone of reflection you expect. Even using the cue “Begin” as compared to the cue “Go!” suggests less a race and more of a journey. This way, you get the benefits of everyone starting on cue and making good use of time, as well as clear and efficient communication of the key idea: “I want you to think deeply here; I am looking for thoughtfulness as much as productivity.”



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