Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

06.19.17Unpacking How Will Beller Unpacks All Quiet on the Western Front

Image result for all quiet on the western frontWe spent some of last week watching footage of teachers from Partnership for Inner City Education– a group of Catholic schools in NYC whose mission is to develop outstanding schools that serve low-income students.

We love their work generally- what’s not to love about insightful, mission-driven people making every school a little better every day- so we were really happy to spend a few hours watching video of some of their best teachers with members of their leadership team. We focused on what their top teachers did that worked and how they could replicate and adapt those things throughout their schools.

One of the highlights was the teaching of History teacher Will Beller, whose thoughtful and rigorous study of All Quiet on the Western Front had us quietly buzzing.  We loved how Will had his students respond directly to text using writing and Turn and Talk. Quickly unpacking a key scene and then getting back into the text.

There’s so much of value in what Will does that I thought I’d post this clip alongside the commentary of a few folks who were at the session, from my team and the Partnership team, so you could see some of the strengths of Will’s teaching through their eyes as well.

First, Here’s Will:

Beller.’Im not going to react.’Clip2650 from TLAC Blog on Vimeo.

Notes from Steph Becker, Academic Dean Mt. Carmel-Holy Rosary School

Some reasons why I love this clip:

Will crafted a perfect Everybody Writes opportunity to jump-start students’ thinking: “What was the narrator’s impression of the Kaiser.”  Students then wrote a response using textual evidence. His next question took the Everybody Writes  moment a step further when he asked why would the soldiers’, impression of the Kaiser be important?  Already having established what that impression is, he’s now getting at the “why” behind it–why would these impressions be significant? What’s the bigger impact? Why is this something important we should be dwelling on?

This was the perfect moment to insert a Turn and Talk, so that students had an opportunity to refine their ideas with a partner before sharing out to the full group.  Knowing Will, I’m sure he was scouring the room listening for those responses he wanted to share out.

The students’ responses not only highlighted their analysis, but also I think demonstrated how reading and writing up-front prepares students to have a meaningful discussion.  Last, I also loved how the discussion question he planned had purpose–it set the stage for jumping back into the text and seeing how these impressions bear weight on events to come in the novel.


Notes from Colleen Driggs (team TLaC):

With his Cold Calls, Will warmly invites students to enter into the conversation. He genuinely wants them to feel included in the conversation and his phrasing makes that message clear.

  • “I’m going to call on a few people and I’m not going to react. I just want to hear what they thought and give you a chance to compare yours to theirs to see if we can come to a consensus. Ricardo, let’s read it!”

Asking a student to share what they think is a low stakes invitation into the conversation.  It may not be right, but it’s important. Your response matters and we’ll all learn from it.

Without missing a beat, he calls on Ricardo with enthusiasm, “let’s read it!”  It sounds inviting, and it also implies that this is a team effort.

Why would soldiers’ opinions of the emperor be significant? Turn and Talk.

  • [After the Turn and Talk] “Jordan, what were you and Jennifer kicking around?”

“Kicking around” implies that the goal of your Turn and Talk was to start forming ideas, and he’s excited to hear them even if they’re not perfectly fleshed out yet. Together, he’s saying, we’ll do the work of refining.

Including Jennifer’s name in the Cold Call is important because it reinforces that Jordan’s response was influenced by his partner. Will shines a light on the contributions of two students.

  • “What do you think Jonathan? Louder,

Again, Will simply asks Jonathan to enter the conversation by sharing his thoughts. And then warmly prompts him to make his voice louder. Jonathan’s thoughts matter, so everyone should be able to hear him.

Notes from Karen Cichon, Partnership’s Co-Director of Literacy Achievement

My two favorite things about Will’s footage:

1) I really like Will’s use of Turn and Talk, and the conversations it prompted.  His students are used to this routine — they jump right in and start talking with their partner.  Students were immersed in the content and were eager to engage.  I also love the way Will facilitated the discussion after the Turn and Talk. It felt scholarly, respectful, warm, and polite.  Students referenced their partner in the answer (Jordan included Jennifer, Jonathan referenced Melissa).  That’s a tiny detail but I think  it shows how they’ve been socialized to value the collegiality of the Turn and Talk and to seek to listen as carefully as they speak.  I even loved that one student asked “How do you say that?” She cared enough to say it right but it also shows it’s safe to not know the answers right away in Will’s classroom.

2) Another thing I love about that clip is how well it demonstrates the use of our reading guidelines in the content areas.  You might need to remind your viewers/readers that this is a history class!  I love how he embraces the message that every teacher is a reading teacher.  No doubt about it, content is king to our “humble historian”– but he knows one of the most important ways to get his students to the content he loves is to help them become analytical readers.



Notes From Dan Cotton (Team TLaC)


One of my favorite moments was when Will told his class: “I’m going to call on a few people I’m not going to react. I just want to hear what some people thought and check your answer against theirs.”

Here Will is being transparent with his scholars about “Managing His Tell.” (Not reacting in a way that gives away what he thinks of the answer).  This furthers his general reinforcement of intellectual risk-taking (he tells students to “give it a go” when they are asked to share; he casually asks “what are you kicking around? As if it’s inherently preliminary.  His students understand that they can share initial thinking without fear of judgment or need to be “correct.” The phrase “I’m not going to react” also helps Will remind himself that “managing his tell” is what he’s striving for in this moment.


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One Response to “Unpacking How Will Beller Unpacks All Quiet on the Western Front”

  1. June 26, 2017 at 1:30 pm

    Will is seasoned! He directs the interaction by practicing this interaction frequently in his class. His students know they are responsible for responding. It takes a while to achieve this seamless interaction, and Will has done this. His students “own” their discussion and response, and they have permission without judgment to share responses, stating, “I’m not going to react.”

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