THE CULT OF PEDAGOGY PODCAST, EPISODE 199
Jennifer Gonzalez, host
GONZALEZ: We’ve talked about a lot of different ways to differentiate and personalize instruction, methods for giving each student what they need when they need it, rather than planning the exact same learning experiences for everyone, every day. The good news is that there are so many ways to differentiate, and in today’s episode we’ll focus on another strategy that we’re calling seminars.
I say “we’re calling it that” because I assume you’re already familiar with the word seminar — a short-term gathering of people for the purpose of learning about a given topic. Typically, adults attend seminars. University students attend seminars. What we’re talking about today is offering a version of that concept to students within your own classroom. These seminars are mini-lessons given during class time, but the key is that most of the time they are optional — students only sign up to attend if they have an interest in or need to learn more about the topic. And yes, they could just be called mini-lessons — in fact, I heard about this same concept years ago from the high school teachers at the Apollo School in episode 62 — but something special is added when you call them seminars.
That’s what today’s guest calls them. Melanie Meehan is a Connecticut-based elementary writing and social studies coordinator who has written three books about teaching writing and contributes to the collaborative blog Two Writing Teachers. She appeared on episode 192, where we talked about backward chaining, another differentiation strategy. While working on that piece, she also mentioned the seminar strategy, and I liked it so much I thought we should give it its own separate space.
Today Meehan is going to talk with me about the logistics of how she sets seminars up in her classroom, and what an effective tool they are not only for differentiation, but also for building student agency. And just like with backward chaining, seminars can be used in any subject area and any grade level.
Before we get started I’d like to thank EVERFI for sponsoring this episode. Do you want to prepare your students for career and life success, but you’re short on time? Busy teachers use EVERFI’s standards-aligned, ready-made digital lessons to teach students to thrive in an ever-changing world. Interactive, game-based lessons designed by experienced educators help you engage students at all grade levels and bring critical real-world skills like financial readiness, emotional literacy, STEM, and much more to your classroom. Thanks to partners, all K-12 schools and students have access to EVERFI’s lessons free of charge. Join the 60,000+ teachers who used EVERFI’s award-winning lessons this past school year to serve over 5.5 million students! With fall semester officially in full swing, now is the perfect time to give your students a jumpstart on their future. Go to cultofpedagogy.com/EVERFI, and sign up to get a virtual swag bag full of free goodies to get the school year off to a great start.
Support also comes from Studyo. Today by Studyo is a planning tool that allows students to track and plan all of their classwork by estimating how much time a task will take and dividing larger tasks into smaller steps. Teachers can track how each student is handling their workload over time. This is a valuable tool to support parent conversations and help each student plan their work and pace themselves, and coaching students on better organization has a direct impact on their grades as well as their long-term success. Today offers a free plan for individual students and parents to enter their own tasks. With an inexpensive subscription, school work from Google Classroom can be automatically imported. And school and district plans come with added features like timetable import, workload management, and more LMS integrations. Visit studyo.co/pedagogy to create your free account now and get your students planning!
Now here’s my interview with Melanie Meehan about seminars.
GONZALEZ: Melanie Meehan, welcome to the podcast.
MEEHAN: Thanks for having me, Jenn.
GONZALEZ: So this is actually the second of two podcasts that we’re doing because you shared two different strategies with me, and I loved them both and I want to share them with my audience. So the other one was on backward chaining, and today we’re going to be talking about seminars. So before we get into that, just tell us a little bit about what you do in education.
MEEHAN: Sure, so during the day, like I have different, different compartments of my professional life in education. My professional job in a town is in Simsbury, Connecticut, and I’m the district’s writing and social studies coordinator, so I write curriculum and coach teachers and work in classrooms side by side with kids. And then I also blog at Two Writing Teachers, which is an online platform, totally free. Come and read our posts. I do that with a number of other people. And I started with reviewing book proposals a few years ago and had an editor say to me, “When are you going to write a book?” So I also have written three books about teaching writing.
GONZALEZ: Three books, yes.
MEEHAN: So that’s me.
GONZALEZ: And the book that today’s strategy is going to come from is called “Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Writing.” So what is the, what’s the audience and the purpose of that book?
MEEHAN: So that’s my most recent book, and it is, it’s part of a series that Corwin did. So there’s answers to your biggest questions about teaching reading, answers about math, answers about whatever. I think they’re up to six. But we really distilled out the most critical components of writing instruction that we could think of, and when I say “we,” before I started writing, I worked with a lot of different people to be like, “If you were going to say, what would it be? We’ve got five chapters.” And so once we boiled that down, we thought about what are the questions that the people who are new to the profession or who are thinking about honing their practices would want to ask and have answers to? What has been really nice, you know, it just came out a couple months ago, but it’s been really nice to watch both people who are new to the profession read it and integrate some of the ideas into their practice but also teachers who aren’t new read it and be like, I forgot about that. So that has been, that has been fun to talk about with people.
GONZALEZ: So in the book, you introduce this idea of giving seminars as a teacher, and these are seminars that students select themselves, they opt to take them.
GONZALEZ: So tell me about, about seminars and how they work in the writing classroom. Then we’re going to also try to imagine how they could work in any subject area.
MEEHAN: It can 100 percent work in any subject area. But basically seminars are small group instruction, and that is, as far as I’m concerned, the sweet spot of differentiation and meeting kids’ needs and thinking about what kids really will benefit from in terms of instruction and the work that they’re doing. So I think if you think, okay, it’s really a fancy word for small group instruction, I think more importantly it’s a word that kids love.
MEEHAN: Because I’ll introduce it as, “My daughters, when they were in college, went to seminars, and those were sort of where when they got really good at something, or it was the special classes where they got to really work on what they were interested in.” So I’ll bring them up as seminars in terms of what are you really interested in learning about? And it just generates some excitement and some joy around the whole process. And I think also, you know, when you say they are students, they are self-selected, there are a few different things about seminars and small group instruction, I’m going to use the word seminars going forward. But teachers can assign them. Right? We can say, you need, this is what, I’m the teacher and you’re going to come to this seminar, my friend.
GONZALEZ: Okay, yeah, okay.
MEEHAN: But I think in the book “Answers to the Biggest Questions,” we move you toward more and more student agency, and that’s always the goal. Ultimately the goal of learning is transfer, and it’s owning your learning and being a learner out in the world without a teacher at your side. So I love having kids sign up for their own seminars. You can make it so manageable. Because I’ll just make a chart on a piece of chart paper that has a header, you know, what are today’s seminars. And I will take, I forget that I’m not on a camera, but I’ll just take the longer sticky notes, like the ones that are with lines. I think they’re 4 by 6.
GONZALEZ: Okay, yeah.
MEEHAN: And put the titles of the seminars at the top of those sticky notes and ask kids to sign up underneath them for the day.
GONZALEZ: Got it, got it.
MEEHAN: So I can just pull that sticky note right off of the chart, and be like, oh, okay. You four needed to work on ways to help your introductions. Great. Seminar’s going on about hooking introductions. I’ve got Jenn, Melanie, Garth, and Julia, you four come on up. I’m giving that right now. And I might have told Garth, you really need to work on hooking, so make sure you sign up for that one.
MEEHAN: And the other three might have signed up on their own.
GONZALEZ: Got it.
MEEHAN: So that’s kind of a nice way to bridge that agency gap.
GONZALEZ: You’re strongly recommending it until they start signing up on their own.
MEEHAN: You can strongly recommend a seminar. Although I will say, I haven’t always agreed with kids’ choices, but I can move them along quickly through the choice that they’ve made and honor that choice.
MEEHAN: And then they’re much more pliable toward my recommendation for the next one.
GONZALEZ: Can you give an example of a time when that happened?
MEEHAN: Yeah. Like I had a kid sign up, I can’t remember what Olivia originally signed up for, but I had read her writing and I was like, oh boy, we need to work on fluency and maybe some sentencing.
MEEHAN: And she had signed up probably, I don’t know, it doesn’t matter what she signed up for.
GONZALEZ: Was it a little too advanced, is that kind of where you’re going with that?
MEEHAN: It was actually a little too basic.
MEEHAN: I was like, you have that.
GONZALEZ: Got it.
MEEHAN: But she signed up for something she had. She came to that seminar and sat in it, and she was able to see in her writing she had it. I was able to kind of high-five her, and then be like, why don’t you sign up for this other one next? That might be a really good one for you. And she was happy as pie to do it.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. So it was a little self-assessment that has, that goes on maybe sometimes, which is I feel like that’s sort of part of scaffolding learning anyway. Sometimes if you do it like a tiered assignment and you had students choose a level and they realize, wait, this is way too easy for me. Like I need to go a little bit higher, sometimes there’s that trial and error.
MEEHAN: You know what, Jenn, that’s a huge thing, and I touch on it for sure. Part of my assessment as a teacher is assessing whether you can self-assess as a learner.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. Yeah, that’s huge.
MEEHAN: It’s huge, right?
GONZALEZ: It’s part of that transfer.
MEEHAN: Are you able to recognize what you need as a learner, and what you have intact as a learner?
MEEHAN: And that, in some ways, is bigger learning than how to hook somebody in an introduction.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, absolutely. Well, and even recognizing. Well, I was going to get into like what are some of the topics for a couple of examples just within a writing class that you offer? Because I think that’s also, for students to understand that writing can be broken down into all these separate skills, and I might be great at these things, and I just need to work on these things, instead of it just being like, I’m not a good writer, period.
MEEHAN: A lot of the seminars, well, for all of the units that we have, I have learning targets that go along with them. So it can be any of the learning targets that align with the standards that the unit’s going after. So that could be developing sections for my writing, it can be making sure that I have enough information in a given section. It can be making sure my reason’s clear. Depending on what genre they’re working on, those seminars can be content-specific. But they can also be writing behavioral. They can be, I’m having a hard time getting to work. I’m having a hard time staying on task. I’m having a hard time with spelling or with using, figuring out where my end punctuation goes. I’m having a hard time knowing what commas I’m supposed to use. So sometimes I’ll put those up too, and it’s interesting to watch who will pick out those sessions. It’s, a lot of the seminars will come from kid-watching. If I send my kids off to go and start their writing, and I watch them, what’s getting in their way?
MEEHAN: What do I want to teach more than one of them?
GONZALEZ: Right, right.
MEEHAN: I can put that, I’m going to just put a little advertisement out for an additional seminar if anybody’s interested.
MEEHAN: So sometimes that’s how that will be, but the nice thing about using the sticky notes is it’s easy to jot that topic down at the top and keep rotating them that way.
GONZALEZ: Right. I have a logistical question.
GONZALEZ: This is in a writing class. How long of a class period are we talking about? And how long are the seminars? And what is everyone else doing while you’re giving a seminar to a smaller group?
MEEHAN: I love that you’re asking that. One of the chapters in this book is about instruction and instructional models. So when I’m envisioning a writing class, I’m envisioning 45 to 60 minutes, and I’m envisioning a 7 to 10 short, what we would call a mini lesson. So a quick, here’s your learnings for the day. You don’t necessarily have to do it today because you might be in a different place in your writing process, but probably at some point in this unit, you are going to need this teaching point. And, you know, off you go, and you’re working on your independent pieces. So during that independent time, and in my head, there are two 20-minute solid blocks of independent writing time. So you’ve got your 7- to 10-minute full group lesson that everybody’s listening to, you’ve got your 20 minutes of independent writing time, during which time you have the opportunity to teach kids as small groups or teach kids individually. I like to challenge the teachers that I work with to think about having in those 20 minutes one small group and one conference, at least.
MEEHAN: So if you can fit those in in those 20 minutes, then you’re doing a good job being efficient, because after that 20 minutes, you’ll do a quick interruption. You might highlight something that you saw, great. You might have an additional teaching point; you might ask somebody to share what they’re proud of. That’s the two-, three-minute interruption, which sometimes kids need, right? Sometimes it’s like, just give me the brain break.
MEEHAN: I can sustain for this many minutes and I need a break. Great, everybody. Back to work. You got another 20 minutes, and teacher, you’ve got another opportunity for another seminar and another meeting with the kids.
GONZALEZ: Got it. So everybody else is doing independent work during that time.
GONZALEZ: And then you’re just, okay.
MEEHAN: And if you’re looking around and you’re seeing that there are four or five kids who aren’t, you’ve got a seminar.
MEEHAN: Like, hey, friend —
GONZALEZ: So that can help you figure out what, where the gum in the straw is.
MEEHAN: — have I got a seminar for you. It is, I’ll stay on task while I’m talking and working with other kids.
GONZALEZ: Interesting, okay. I love that.
MEEHAN: Yeah. This one’s going to be mandated.
GONZALEZ: Oh, I love it. Okay. And so then the seminars are just like a little mini lesson, and then back to work with them?
MEEHAN: Mhmm. If I’m going longer than 10 minutes, I’m going too long.
GONZALEZ: Okay. Talk to me a little bit about the Google Form because you had sent that to me to show me, and that was another way of determining who might be interested in seminars or what topics are most urgent.
MEEHAN: Right. I love the Google Form. If anybody out there’s listening and they want a copy of it, I’m happy to share it, just tweet it out to me.
GONZALEZ: I can put it on the blog post.
MEEHAN: Yeah, share that.
GONZALEZ: I’m going to have some notes with this, yeah.
MEEHAN: But basically what I created is a Google Form that asks kids to share their name, asks kids to share what they feel like they’re doing well. That can be in a checklist, or it can be in the short answer, and ask kids what they feel like they need work on. Again, it can be short answer. It can also be checklists. So once I have that information, of kids checking what they feel like they need to work on, I can establish seminars based on that.
GONZALEZ: Right, got it.
MEEHAN: If I get four kids who have checked that they need some work on including small stories into their argument pieces —
MEEHAN: — you guys, I’ve got a seminar going. I’ve got you four. You all checked that. Basically they’ve self-selected it.
MEEHAN: It’s really a digital representation of the sticky notes.
MEEHAN: You can also do digital representation with a Jamboard, like you can create a Jamboard of sticky notes and ask kids to sign up below it too. That’s another way of doing that.
GONZALEZ: Right, right.
MEEHAN: The Google Form, they have to be more reflective, and you have that as reflection data, which is a really nice thing to have.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. So there’s some stuff in our notes I want to make sure that we get to. One is about student-selected seminars versus student-run seminars, and at some point, I also just want to ask you a couple questions about let’s envision what this could look like in some other subject areas, especially social studies. Sometimes I feel like social studies, we see it as just like facts, facts, facts, facts. Would there be places for seminars in a social studies class? So why don’t we start, since we’re already talking about logistics, talk about this idea of a student-run seminar. How would you make that work and what would that look like?
MEEHAN: Right. I think if you think about student agency as a continuum, and you can have at the far, at the left of the continuum is the buddy, this is what you need. Like, sign up for that seminar, go.
GONZALEZ: Right, right.
MEEHAN: And, you know, as they move along, what are you working on? Okay, that might be a seminar to sign up for. Oh, you know exactly what you’re working on, and you’ve signed up for that seminar.
MEEHAN: And then at the far end, you know that stuff so well, could you offer a seminar on that? And that’s where you can really, you can capitalize. I think that we run past the power of the abilities of some of the kids in the room. Kids are sometimes really effective teachers to each other. So one thing I’m noticing, like, you’ve used transition words brilliantly in your piece. Could you run a seminar on that for your friends?
GONZALEZ: Such a great opportunity.
MEEHAN: Yeah. So you can also have some sign up that way, and that’s a nice thing to do. So a kid might have a specialty or a strength that they want to develop, and that also forces them to kind of prepare for it and make sure that they’re extra good.
GONZALEZ: Right. They have to really know their material then if they’re going to teach it.
MEEHAN: Yeah. Let me make sure that my writing’s really clear and that I really have those transition words loud and proud in that piece.
MEEHAN: It’s a nice way to push like really emphatically mastery for them.
MEEHAN: And to get to other kids, so.
GONZALEZ: Right. So let’s take it away from a writing situation now, and let’s look at other, other subject areas. And I brought up social studies. So what would be an example of some seminar topics in a social studies class?
MEEHAN: If I were doing it as a social studies class, I would change it up a little bit. It might not be a seminar as much as a work group.
MEEHAN: And I think that sometimes, and I’m guilty of this, sometimes my small group instruction is more one and done than it needs to be, or it also is more teaching oriented than it needs to be, whereas it can be a goal group, or it can also be a project group or a research group or a study group. So if you have four kids who are going to become specialists on a topic, then they can really get together and they can work on that together. So, you know, I have a class next to me that I’ve been listening and they keep checking in and showing me their work who are working on, you know, there’s four of them who are working on colonial kids’ games, and they’re doing a lot of research around that, and they’re working on creating a presentation about it and inventing some different games that kids who lived during the colonial period might have played and done. And so it’s not, it’s more of a work group than a seminar, I would say.
GONZALEZ: Mhmm, okay.
MEEHAN: But super effective and also really honing in on the capital of kids and the power of inquiry and exploration and letting them go and ask the questions and go figure things out.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. I’m wondering too, if there’s, I’m thinking if you sort of look at a nine-week course of study in a history class, for example, there might be some piece of it where you’ve breezed past it and you could have a seminar just on that topic for either somebody who’s very interested in learning more about it or for kids who say, you know, when we did that, I just didn’t get it at all, and I could use a review on that topic or that particular incident or whatever it is. And so I could see maybe doing special seminars just on topics, you know, to do deeper dive.
MEEHAN: You could totally do that.
MEEHAN: You could ask kids to run that.
MEEHAN: Like, you could ask kids to become the experts in certain parts of history and topics within a social studies unit, and they could then create a seminar that they would give. That would be a really cool thing to take informed action, you know.
GONZALEZ: Right, right, yeah.
MEEHAN: But they would understand, if you were doing it in other content areas, if you were doing seminars in reading or writing or math or whatever, and they were understanding what a seminar is, they would have that knowledge and understanding in order to be giving it for social studies. I think it would really add to the power.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. Now I’m thinking too about Edcamps and that sort of thing, where we have teachers, they can choose these boutique style PD. I can see even offering that on a school-wide level for certain days where there are seminars that offered to anybody in the building that wants to learn about this thing or that thing.
MEEHAN: Make it a whole learning community, right?
GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah.
MEEHAN: Tap into the power of the curiosity of the community, yeah, for sure.
GONZALEZ: It’s nice because it’s just, it’s a short period of time, it’s low commitment, it’s not something you’re getting a grade on, and so that takes away a lot of the drudgery and the pressure from what is essentially still just academic learning.
MEEHAN: You know, I also think, Jenn, there’s power in having it be 10 minutes, both for kids and for adults.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah.
MEEHAN: And I think sometimes when kids are doing some of their genius hour presentations or their invention conventions or whatever, they get going and it becomes longer than the average attention span. I really like the idea of saying to them, you have to do this presentation in 7 to 10 minutes. That’s all you got. There’s so much importance and power in being concise.
MEEHAN: And deciding what your big points are going to be and sticking with them.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. Anything else you think teachers need to know about seminars before we wrap up?
MEEHAN: You know, I think channeling what I just said is keep it concise.
MEEHAN: It is a teaching point. You’re not trying to fix an entire piece.
MEEHAN: You’re teaching one thing. One of the things that happens frequently with small group instruction, which is what seminars are, is that you end up having four conferences going. It ends up being, I’m going to teach you this, Kid A. You this, Kid B. You, and you kind of are going all around with all four of them, and you’re not teaching all four of them the same thing in a cohesive way. So I would just say guard against that. You know, it’s not, it’s not pulling four kids up and trying to teach their different needs. It’s pulling four kids up with the same teaching need or the same instructional interest and sticking with that.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. That actually makes me want to ask too, what if you have 17 kids sign up for a seminar? Like, do you just have to have a cut-off point and say, we’ll have to just do it again?
MEEHAN: I’ll run two or three.
GONZALEZ: Okay. It’s important to keep the groups small.
MEEHAN: And sometimes, yeah, like I’ll keep it four to six.
MEEHAN: Sometimes I will ask a kid, and this is how I’ll differentiate sometimes when I know the kids well to listen like he’s going to teach it. So as I’m teaching it, I want you to learn and participate as somebody who’s going to turn this around and become the teacher. So I almost play telephone with them, right?
MEEHAN: I’ll be like, you know, Jenn, you’re going to be the one who listens and then turns it around because we’ve got so many other kids who need it. So you’re going to become my teaching partner, and at the end of this, you’re going to off and teach it to another group, and I’ll teach it to the other group.
MEEHAN: So it kind of, or if I have somebody who I know is bright but doesn’t always pay attention, that’s an effective little thing to do when there’s little management 202 there.
MEEHAN: Like when there’s a lot of kids who are signing up, and I’m like, oh. I think that the other thing is that when you have the whole class signing up, or almost the whole class signing up for the same seminar, then it’s not really a small group instruction that needs to happen. I do it as a teaching point the next day, the whole group instruction.
GONZALEZ: Sure. Right, that’s a really good assessment, that everybody needs this. Let’s just all do it, yeah.
MEEHAN: Yeah. Like, you know, I wasn’t expecting this one to be such a hit, so since it was such a hit, we’re going to make this be the focus of tomorrow’s whole group instruction lesson.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, that makes sense. Thank you so much. I mean, the amount of ideas you have, I really think that if people are listening and they like what you’ve said, they should go and get your book, because I’m guessing it’s packed full of all kinds of ideas that they can use.
MEEHAN: I hope it is. I’d like to believe that.
GONZALEZ: So remind us again where can they go to, where can people go to find you online?
MEEHAN: Right. So probably the most global place to find all of my places where I am is at melaniemeehan.com.
MEEHAN: But you can also find me on Twitter. If you follow me, I’ll follow you.
MEEHAN: And you can send me a request for something I mentioned, and I’m happy to send it your way. So I’m there, @MelanieMeehan1.
MEEHAN: And then also you can find me at Two Writing Teachers.
MEEHAN: But with there, I share that website with many other people.
GONZALEZ: It’s a lot more than two, isn’t it?
MEEHAN: It is. It’s not just two.
GONZALEZ: All right. Thank you so much.
MEEHAN: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me.
GONZALEZ: I really appreciate all of it.
MEEHAN: I appreciate all the work you do, Jenn.
GONZALEZ: Thank you.
For links to the resources mentioned in this episode, visit cultofpedagogy.com, click Podcast, and choose episode 199. To get a bimonthly email from me about my newest blog posts, podcast episodes, courses and products, sign up for my mailing list at cultofpedagogy.com/subscribe. Thanks so much for listening, and have a great day.