Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

04.11.16The Starfish: Katie Yezzi on Creating Academic Thresholds

My colleague and Practice Perfect co-author Katie Yezzi was the founding principal of Troy Preparatory Charter School here in upstate New York and is now a senior instructional leader at Uncommon Schools. She recently visited a school and observed one of those “might have been” moments–a lesson that was so close and yet so far. She’s been reflecting on it for a while and shared this guest post:


I recently watched a middle school science lesson in which the students had the opportunity to dissect starfish.  There are a couple important details to know here:

  1. Starfish are really cool looking.
  2. I didn’t get to dissect anything until I was in high school, and then when I did, I thought it was really cool.


So here I am observing this class, amazed and frankly jealous that each group of three had their very own starfish to dig into.


The thing is, the students didn’t seem to think it was cool, amazing nor exciting.  They were completing the dissection – no one was ignoring the work or checking out—but in my mind this lesson was magical, and the students did not appear to feel the same way.


The teacher had passed out all the materials – the packet of work, the lab kit with procedures, tray and tools, and the starfish.  It seemed like there was very little differentiation made between those objects.   The teacher hadn’t gently held up one starfish, and said in a slightly hushed yet excited tone, “In a moment, you will each have the rare opportunity to dissect your own starfish to observe what we have up to this point only seen in our textbooks.” Or “I will call each team up, and once you demonstrate your knowledge of the procedures, you may select your starfish from the container.” Or even just, “Now you get your starfish to dissect.”

With no guideposts from the teacher to start or mark this activity as something special, they drew smiley faces on their diagrams, picked random tools and began cutting, many before they’d even read the directions.   And I am not faulting the students – they hadn’t had to prove their science chops and demonstrate they were ready to dissect an organism.  The teacher hadn’t made them earn their shears, or the right to pick out their starfish.  The starfish was a handout. Humdrum.  An entitlement.


As a result, students had only completed about half of their written lab work and more than one group had pretty badly mangled their starfish.  In place of the magic I expected was a messy pile of remains, and little sense of missed opportunity.


As I reflected on everything I’d observed, I thought about what had made similar experiences magical for me.


What I remember from my time as a student is that the teachers created a buzz, an anticipation for what we would eventually get to do when we dissected.  When dissection day came around, (we were dissecting mudpuppies, or necturus, a decidedly less beautiful creature than the starfish) we felt as though we had earned our way to this special moment.  We’d been building up to it all year.  I didn’t grow up thinking mudpuppies were amazing creatures.  No one had ever lectured me that mudpuppies were a treasured animal and to dissect them was a special gift (thank goodness, because it would not have worked). Rather, the magic of the moment had been manufactured by our teachers because it was something that we had to work for and earn.  We handled those brown, slimy, outsized salamanders carefully because the teacher had cleverly conveyed the value of this activity to us.  This was a precious moment. Something we would want to do slowly with reflection and respect.


Reverence for content is hopefully something that teachers generally all feel.  Ideally it’s a big reason why we become teachers in the first place: we think dissecting mudpuppies or reading Invisible Man or learning to factor a polynomial is kind of a big deal, actually.  And it’s part of our job to transfer that reverence to our students, through the structure and design of our lessons.


I think of this as a kind of “Academic Threshold.”  When teachers set up a threshold to their classrooms, and require students to greet them with a hand shake and eye-contact before entering, the teachers are establishing the notion that classrooms are special places where we have new, different, and elevated ways of conducting ourselves.  We don’t assume students will automatically know a classroom is a new and special place, so Threshold teaches them this and reminds them each day.  This lesson would have been entirely different if students had needed to pass through a similar threshold by showing their teacher thorough written work before they could get the procedures, and if they had had to demonstrate mastery of the procedures to earn their starfish.   As teachers, we have to set academic thresholds: both in terms of signals that say “What you do in this room is special” and in terms of benchmarks or standards that students must reach in order to earn the reward waiting in the heart of the lesson.  In this way, the best teachers transfer the value that they experience in their content to the students.


And really, there is a starfish waiting in most lessons – a shiny piece of content, text or skill to be mastered that we can imbue with magic by asking and expecting our students to work for it, by creating a threshold for students to cross.   Watch this classic video of Julie Jackson handing out vocabulary words to her students for example.  “Here is a word for you, but don’t open it,” she says.  In her class getting a vocabulary word is a big deal. “Who wants the first word?” she asks and all hands shoot up.  When you communicate that what you are about to learn is valuable, kids tend to want it more.  They earn their word (there are not quite enough for everyone), and those students who hold a word open their envelope like it contains a gift.  Which of course it does in a way, and as viewers we half expect rays of light to burst forth from inside when they do.


Some thoughts on creating Academic Thresholds:

  • Tell your students at the beginning of class what is waiting for them.  Use some Vegas – you don’t need a lot, but communicate that the heart of the lesson is something no one would possibly want to miss.
  • Create benchmarks, mile posts or interim goals to mark progress toward earning the starfish (“You can’t go on until you get this!”).  It could be individual or group targets such as neat and complete answers to background knowledge questions, success on a two question oral quiz on procedures when one student is chosen at random from each group, correct answers on questions that are the base-line for the more complicated question that awaits them.  Think levels on a video game.
  • Build in ways to ensure they are successful on the benchmarks so they earn the starfish.  The trick is not lowering your standards.  This could mean giving additional feedback, narrating the positive progress of the class, or more intensive supports for individual students.


What are the ways that you create these thresholds in your classroom?





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