Teaching Practices in
America's Best Urban Schools


Making students feel valued and capable

Educators demonstrate that they care about and value their students by knowing and valuing individual students, modeling courtesy and respect, praising and acknowledging students, transforming classroom practices in ways that helped students succeed, and creating attractive and educationally rich physical environments.

Caring enough to know and value individual students.

Example: During passing periods, the art teacher stands at the door and greets students as they walk by. The teacher’s quiet, sincere, and personalized greetings and questions help students know that the teacher cares about them individually.

Missing opportunities to let students know that educators value them individually.

Example: During passing periods, the art teacher stands at the door and does not say anything as students pass by, except to tell students to hurry to their next class.

Caring enough to model courtesy and respect.

Example: The fifth-grade teacher asks the students to please turn in their homework. Without warning, one of the students yells out, “Bitch!” The teacher calmly finishes giving directions to the class and then walks back to Mark (the student who made the remark) and whispers for him to follow her into the hall. When the two are in the hallway, the teacher asks, “What was that about?” Mark answers, “I just got a text from my grandmother.” Mark shows his cell phone to the teacher, and she sees the text message explaining that Mark’s mom was back in jail. “This is the third time she’s been in jail,” Mark explains with tears rolling down his cheeks. “I’m sorry to hear about your mom,” the teacher says. The two of them talk for a minute, and then the teacher asks if Mark needs more time to get himself together. “No. I’m OK,” he decides. “So, am I going to have to stay for after-school detention?” Mark asks, before he opens the classroom door. “Absolutely,” the teacher responds. “You broke a rule. But, it will be OK. The detention will give you time to work on some math skills.”

Missing opportunities to demonstrate courtesy and respect to students.

Example: The fifth-grade teacher asks the students to please turn in their homework. Without warning, one of the students yells out, “Bitch!” The teacher yells back, “If you didn’t do your homework, it’s your own fault. How dare you call me a name! Get out of my classroom and march yourself down to the office. I don’t care if they never let you come back!”



Educators work to ensure that all students master the essential concepts and skills associated with the lessons by designing objective-driven lessons that generate deep understanding and maximize the time spent on the objective. Throughout lessons, teachers carefully monitor what students understand related to the lesson objective and sometimes adjust lesson designs midstream in order to increase the likelihood that every student achieves mastery.


Focusing on getting students to understand specific content or skills.

Example: The objective posted on the board read, “Students will make and justify logical inferences based upon nonfiction, grade-level text.” At the beginning of the lesson, the teacher discussed the objective with the students and helped them understand what they should be able to do by the lesson’s end. At various points during the lesson, the teacher reminded students that they were becoming more skillful at making and justifying logical inferences. Throughout the lesson, the teacher asked questions and posed tasks designed to get students to demonstrate their understanding of the concept of inference. As well, the teacher’s questions helped her understand how well students made and justified inferences based upon the nonfiction, grade-level text they were using.

Focusing on “covering” a set of concepts, skills, or pages during the period/day/unit.

Example: The objective posted on the board read, “Inferences.” While the teacher covered information about inferences from the teacher’s manual, she never explained the objective to students. She covered the material without ascertaining if students had any understanding of the concept or any ability to make and justify logical inferences.

Planning collaboratively to ensure that students understand and master key academic concepts.

Example: A team of high school biology teachers met to discuss how they would get their students to understand and master concepts that influence how the characteristics of one generation are passed to the next. Team members worked together to define what students would need to understand in order to achieve the level of mastery they expected. Utilizing their definition of mastery, the teachers created formative assessments that would help them gauge student progress. Before the teachers planned a series of lessons, they looked at the results from assessments given in prior years. Together, they considered what concepts were difficult to teach and thought about the factors that might have impeded student understanding (e.g., difficult vocabulary, potentially confusing concepts, challenging texts). Then, they worked collaboratively to create model lessons intended to increase the likelihood that students would understand and master the key concepts. The teachers even created sample questions they could ask students throughout the lessons to determine if students truly understood the key concepts.

Planning solo with the hope that one’s planning ability will be better than it was the prior year.

Example: The biology department chair announced that lesson plans for the genetics unit were due on Friday afternoon. Each biology teacher, working in isolation, took time at home or during their planning period to plan lessons. Some biology teachers found last year’s genetics lessons and made a few cosmetic adjustments.

Teaching Practices In America's Best Urban Schools


promoting clarity

Educators deconstruct complicated concepts, algorithms, and processes in ways that seem logical and understandable to students. Students understand 1) what the teacher wants them to learn, 2) why it is important, and 3) how success is evaluated.  Teachers help students avoid common misunderstandings.  Also, teachers do not provide lengthy lectures, choosing instead to spend a high percentage of time engaging students in meaningful interaction with the lesson content.

Helping students develop a clear understanding of what they are expected to learn as a result of a lesson.

Example: When the teacher asked her third-grade students to describe planets, students answered by citing planet names (e.g., Mercury, Venus, Earth, Jupiter, Saturn). When the teacher asked students how planets were different from stars, it became clear quickly that students could not articulate the distinction. Then, the teacher explained that, by the end of the lesson, students would be able to define planets, define stars, and describe the ways in which planets and stars differ. Also, the teacher explained that students needed to be able to describe at least one way in which planets and stars were similar. Then, the teacher led the students in a discussion about why it might be useful to know the differences between planets and stars. The teacher asked students to work in groups to develop lists of questions they should be able to answer at the end of the lesson. The teacher explained that their questions had to address 1) the characteristics of planets, 2) the characteristics of stars, 3) the differences between planets and stars, or 4) the similarities between planets and stars. The whole class discussed the questions the groups developed and the teacher affirmed which questions students should be able to answer by the lessons end.

Engaging students in a lesson without ever giving students a clear sense of what they are expected to learn.

Example: The teacher organized the class into small groups. Each group was expected to read a chapter in the science book concerning stars and planets. As groups finished reading, the teacher asked students to work together to answer the questions at the end of the chapter. Students followed the directions, but they did not know what they were expected to know or understand as a result of reading the chapter.

Breaking down complex tasks or concepts into a logical progression or sequence that students are likely to see as rationale.

Example: The history teacher wanted students to understand that human needs and desires influence political decisions (including some decisions that might seem counterproductive). First, the teacher engaged students in reading and discussing articles that described how people in Germany admired Hitler in the late 1930s. Then, the teacher asked groups of students to discuss why German citizens chose to follow Hitler. Student comments suggested that the German people were hateful, bigoted, evil, or crazy. Next, the teacher led students to review and discuss a series of articles about the sanctions the allies placed on Germany at the end of World War I and the economic impact of those sanctions. Then, the teacher engaged the students in discussions about the impact of the Great Depression on Germany and the lives of the German people. Finally, the teacher invited student groups to reconsider the reasons the German people admired Hitler in the late 1930s. Students recognized that many German citizens saw Hitler as someone who would help them regain economic strength, reduce poverty, and restore Germany as a respected world power. While the students still understood the evils of the Nazi regime, the students understood how ordinary human needs and desired influenced the German citizens’ willingness to accept Hitler as a leader.

Teaching complex concepts without identifying, distinguishing, or sequencing the elements or the steps involved in understanding.

Example: The history teacher presented a chapter on the causes of World War II as one lesson with a huge mix of facts, dates, personalities, and contexts. Students completed the lesson without understanding why the German people chose to follow Adolph Hitler.

Teaching Practices In America's Best Urban Schools


Ensuring culturally, socially, and personally responsive teaching

As educators pursue challenging academic objectives, they plan and deliver lessons that resonated with their students. Students are more likely to understand and master lesson objectives because they see connections between the lesson content and their interests, backgrounds, cultures, and prior knowledge. Students are less likely to perceive new concepts as foreign and more likely to believe that they have the capacity to master new objectives.

Planning lessons that will teach important academic objectives by including activities, examples, or resources to which students are likely to relate.

Example: A biology teacher engages students in a discussion of people they have encountered who have various genetic disorders. They talk about the prevalence rate of each type of disorder for the general population and for specific racial/ethnic groups in the population. Then, the teacher assigns various small groups of students the task of finding the genetic source of a specific disorder. Students must create presentations that explain the genetic cause of the disorder and illustrate the genetic dysfunction. They must explain how one might predict the likelihood that various pairs of parents would have a child with the disorder.

Assuming students will relate to and understand abstract presentations of information.

Example: A biology teacher has students read Chapter 4 of the biology book, which focuses on genetics. After students read the chapter, the teacher provides a lecture that reiterates the major concepts presented in the chapter.

Getting to know one’s students.

Example: A middle school teacher stands at the classroom door and greets students as they come into his science class. Before he asks one student to remove the headphones from his ears, he asks the student what song is playing. Quietly, he asks another student how his evening went. Then, as students are sitting down, he asks, “Who likes their music loud?” When almost all of the students roar affirmatively, he asks, “How loud is loud? How do you know how loud you like it?” Students can’t figure out how to respond. Then, the teacher explains that by the end of the class period, the students will know how to measure volume and pitch and assess risks to hearing.

Not taking time to get to know one’s students.

Example: The middle school science teacher asks a student to remove his headphones and reminds the student of the rules. The teacher then presents a lesson on sound volume and frequency by covering a worksheet that displays the typical decibel range of various types of noises and the sound frequency range of various symphonic instruments.

Teaching Practices In America's Best Urban Schools


Checking for understanding, providing feedback, and adapting

Educators frequently check to ensure that students understand the content being taught. They use a variety of strategies to determine what each student understands related to the lesson content. They listen attentively to student responses, carefully read student writing, and watch deliberately as students perform assigned tasks. As teachers acquire information about student understanding, they use the information to refine lessons (often immediately) in ways that increase student understanding.

Checking each and every student’s level of understanding.

Example: In a middle school math class, a teacher presents x-y graphs that illustrate hourly wages, hours worked, and bonuses earned. The teacher organizes students into small teams of three and designates each student as Student A, B, or C. The teacher asks the students to work with their teammates to explain what the graph implies about salaries. Then, the teacher asks Student B in each group to stand and explain the graph to their team. Next, the teacher asks each Student A to answer specific questions about data points on the graph (e.g., How much did this person earn and why?). Finally, the teacher asks each Student C to explain how the graph would change if either the hourly rate changed or the bonus changed.

Checking only a few students.

Example: In a middle school math class, a teacher presents x-y graphs that illustrate hourly wages, hours worked, and bonuses earned. The teacher presents each graph and asks questions about specific data points, trend lines, and so on. A few students raise their hands or blurt out answers. The teacher calls upon the students who want to participate in the conversation. Other students sit quietly and wait for the period to end.

Checking for higher levels of understanding.

Example: As students sit in a circle and read Charlotte’s Web, the teacher asks a variety of questions intended to promote thinking about cause and effect relationships. For example, the teacher asks, “Why were the animals worried about Wilbur? What did the animals think would happen if Charlotte wrote words over Wilbur’s head?” Then, the teacher asks students to share the cause and effect questions they wrote on sticky notes as they read the chapter. As students read their questions, the teacher guides students in considering if the question examines cause-effect relationships. Then, the teacher invites students to answer the question using specific evidence from the text.

Asking questions that require only the recall of facts.

Example: As students read Charlotte’s Web, the teacher asks students multiple questions about details in the story (e.g., Who was Charlotte? Where did Fern live? What was the first word Charlotte wrote in her web?).

Teaching Practices In America's Best Urban Schools


Building fluency with gatekeeper vocabulary

Educators help students practice using the vocabulary that is central to the lesson content. Teachers help each student become comfortable using the lesson vocabulary in conversations and in writing.

Pre-identifying the vocabulary students must learn in order to achieve the lesson objective.

Example: A statistics teacher considers the vocabulary students need to master in order to have a deep understanding of the concept of standard deviation. The teacher identifies a list of critical terms, including some that students should have already learned (e.g., mean, median, data set) and some new words (e.g., frequency, standard, deviation, normal curve, distribution). The teacher plans a lesson to ensure that students have multiple opportunities to demonstrate that they understand these words before she introduces the concept of standard deviation.

Starting a lesson without considering which vocabulary words might become stumbling blocks that impede mastery.

Example: A statistics teacher introduces a lesson on standard deviation. The teacher wants students to understand and be able to use the concept of standard deviation. The teacher methodically shares with students the procedure for calculating the standard deviation of a data set. To help make the lesson interesting, the teacher uses data sets that are familiar to the students. Learning, however, is limited because students are not conversant with several of the terms the teacher uses, including distribution, deviation, and frequency.

Making new vocabulary seem familiar.

Example: An alternative high school teacher is endeavoring to get his class to understand the concept of “hesitation” because a key aspect of the climax of the novel they are reading is the wolf’s hesitation before racing away from the hunter. As the teacher anticipated, the students could not pronounce the word “hesitation” accurately and were not certain of the meaning. “How many of you like basketball?” the teacher asked. Instantly, there seemed to be more raised hands than there were students in the room. What does the term “hesitation dribble” mean in basketball? A few of the students responded accurately that a hesitation dribble was a basketball technique in which a player with the ball slows momentarily and then bursts past the opponent at full speed. “So, why does a player use a hesitation dribble?” the teacher asked. A student explained, “It’s a way of faking out your opponent.” Then another added, “Yeah, you hesitate to make the other guy think you’re going to stop, but then you blow right past him!” “Wait, I get it,” another student chimes in. “The wolf was outsmarting the hunter. When the hunter slowed down, the wolf was going to zoom past him.” “Let’s keep reading to see,” the teacher suggested.

Introducing important new vocabulary in ways that are not likely to connect with students’ cultural, social, or personal backgrounds.

Example: An alternative high school teacher is endeavoring to get his students to understand the concept of “hesitation.” He asks students to find the word in the dictionary, copy the definition, and write an original sentence with the word. When the students approached the word in the story, most students still could not pronounce the word and they were uncertain about the meaning, in part, because the dictionary definition referred to an act of hesitating and included unfamiliar words like “faltering.” Other students were uncertain because, in their minds, it seemed illogical for the wolf to pause or hesitate, considering the hunter’s proximity.

Teaching Practices In America's Best Urban Schools


Promoting successful practice

Educators allow students to practice skills independently only when they know that independent practice is likely to be successful. Lessons are carefully structured so that students experience a balance of struggle and success that results in each student reaching mastery. By asking questions frequently, engaging students in discussions, asking students to perform small tasks, and correcting misconceptions early, teachers monitor students’ readiness to perform tasks independently.

Guiding students as they learn and practice new concepts and skills.

Example: A kindergarten teacher works to guide children to retell the major events of a story in proper sequence. The teacher reads the story once and then leads the students in discussing the important events in the story. Students have difficulty ascertaining which events were important. The teacher explains that one way to decide if an event was important is to determine if the ending might have been different if the event did not occur. As students mention various events, the teacher helps them use this decision rule in deciding if the event was important. The teacher reads the story a second time and asks students to raise their hands when they hear the teacher mention one of the important events they had discussed. As students identify the important events, the teacher hands children large hand-drawn picture cards that represent each event. The teacher asks students to explain which major events came before and after each event discussed. The teacher models and directs students to practice describing the various events in complete sentences. When the story is finished, the teacher asks all of the students with picture cards to stand up and organize themselves in proper sequence. The students who do not have picture cards are asked to check to be sure the pictures are in the proper sequence. Individual students are then asked to share their major events in proper sequence.

Quickly pushing students to work independently.

Example: A kindergarten teacher works to guide children to retell the major events of a story in proper sequence. The teacher reads the story to the students and notes the important events. The teacher discusses the order in which the events occurred, using words like first, second, third, and last. Then, the teacher sends students back to their seats to color pictures that represent the major events in the story (without evidence that they are ready to work independently). Students must then cut out the pictures and paste them on construction paper in the proper sequence.

Monitoring student performance as students complete independent work.

Example: After teaching his seventh-grade students how some authors use precise verbs to influence the mood of a story, the teacher asks students to annotate a passage and note the mood created/influenced by the author’s choice of verbs. After giving the assignment, the teacher circulates and observes students working. The teacher notes that most students are performing well; however, three students are missing important examples of verbs that influence mood. Also, the three students are making annotations about words that are not verbs. The teacher quietly asks these three students to join him at his desk. While the other students continue to work independently, the teacher guides the three students through the assignment.

Assigning independent work without monitoring student performance.

Example: After teaching his seventh-grade students how some authors use precise verbs to influence the mood of a story, the teacher asks students to annotate a passage and note the mood created/influenced by the author’s choice of verbs. After giving the assignment, the teacher returns to his desk and begins correcting last night’s homework papers.

Teaching Practices In America's Best Urban Schools


Leading students to love learning

Students become excited about learning academic content because their teachers help them understand how the content is relevant to their current or future lives. Teachers overtly explain the importance of lesson objectives to their students or they lead students to discover the importance/relevance on their own. Teachers pursue challenging objectives and frequently used materials, technology, projects, and class discussions that students are more likely to find interesting and relevant.

Teaching enthusiastically.

Example: The teacher began a review of metric measurement concepts the fourth graders had learned. “Remind me of times you might need to know something about metric linear measurements.” Students quickly gave answers that included references to foreign travel, the use of tools, watching the Olympics or other sporting events, repairing a car engine, and so on. The teacher responded, “Yes, those are great examples! And, you’re going to be ready to do all those things and more, because you know a lot about metric linear measurements.” To demonstrate to the students they had learned a significant amount, the teacher began asking questions such as, “Which is longer: a centimeter or an inch? Is an inch a little longer or a lot longer than a centimeter? How many centimeters are in an inch? Which tool would be longer: a one-inch wrench or a one-centimeter wrench? Which is longer: a yard or a meter? Which race would be longer: a hundred-yard dash or a hundred-meter dash? How much longer? How could you figure it out?” The teacher asked the questions quickly and responded positively whenever students answer correctly. “You are becoming experts in metric linear measurement!” the teacher exclaimed. “I’m proud of you. I think you’re ready to learn about . metric liquid measurements!”

Teaching without enthusiasm.

Example: The teacher began a review of metric measurement concepts the fourth graders had learned. She stated, “Take out a piece of paper. Write your name at the top. I’m going to ask questions that require you to convert metric linear measurements to standard linear measurements. You can use the charts at the front of the room to help you. Ready? Number one: Ten centimeters equals approximately how many inches?” The teacher continued asking nineteen additional similar questions.

Leading students to perceive the content being presented as relevant.

Example: To introduce a unit about the causes of World War II, the teacher engaged students in a discussion about the economic difficulties of their community and how some political groups were quick to blame various demographic groups for their economic woes. Using newspaper websites, the students found quotes from various politicians who implicitly or explicitly blamed certain groups for the nation’s or the community’s economic difficulties. Then, the teacher had students work in groups to read different speeches that Hitler gave in the early 1930s. The groups were asked to identify similarities and differences between Hitler’s use of blame and the ways contemporary politicians use blame.

Assuming that students will perceive the relevance of the content being presented.

Example: To introduce a unit about the causes of World War II, the teacher presented a lecture on the rise of Hitler in Germany in the 1930s. The lecture described Hitler’s skill at convincing the German people that their economic problems were due to the unfair practices of other European nations and the wealth of Jewish businessmen.

Concourse Village Elementary School
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