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Learning from the 2018 Finalists' Classrooms, Part II

Second Visit: Vanessa Ko, Palm Harbor Middle School, Palm Harbor - Palm Harbor Middle School is a beautiful school. Bright posters and student work adorned the walls showing their Panther Pride. The office staff was very friendly and employed students as office assistants to check-in and escort visitors across campus. The young man who accompanied me was very friendly and made polite conversation as we walked to Vanessa’s class. Palm Harbor Middle School has received the Golden School Award and Five Star School Award for years which attests to their community and volunteer support. The school offers industry certification in Microsoft and Woodshop and hosts a variety of clubs, athletic team sports, AVID, and music programs. Simply put, the school is a very warm, busy, exciting learning institution.

Vanessa is the co-director of the AVID program. This year she is teaching the seventh-grade AVID class. AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) is a college and career readiness program, specifically recruiting the school’s academic middle who show potential for success in advanced courses when given support through the AVID class. PHMS currently has five sections with approximately 125 students enrolled. The students work on inquiry-based tutorials twice a week with high school or college tutors. The other days are focused on developing higher order thinking skills, critical reading, and writing to learn as well as spending time on soft skills, such as time management, organization, effective communication, public speaking and goal setting with action steps. The students also explore college and career opportunities.

This year Vanessa is piloting a new program, a block class of eighth graders who achieved Level 3 in mathematics for the first time as seventh graders. She is teaching these students both Pre-Algebra and Algebra I Honors. This is the class Vanessa was teaching when I arrived. It was easy to see many instructional strengths, but I want to specifically share two of these: using cooperative structures and asking questions. As I walked into her classroom, the students were working collaboratively to complete the bell ringer concerning types of solutions for systems of equations. This was the first of many cooperative structures in her instruction. She engaged the students in a card sorting activity, 25 Cent Pyramid, Turn and Talk, See, Say, and Draw, and other cooperative structures when students were practicing previous material, reviewing algebraic vocabulary, learning new material, taking notes, and checking for comprehension of the new concepts.

Vanessa was constantly asking her students questions. They ranged from recall to synthesizing material to simply asking if the students had any questions of her. When she asked recall responses or multiple-choice responses, she asked for the students to give kinesthetic answers such as putting up fingers to make a product or other arithmetic answer with her fingers or clapping a certain number of times or going to a corner of the room. She made a big deal about discussing errors and having students verbalize their learning with academic language. She even had students sing some responses. I really appreciated how she called upon students. Sometimes she called on students with hands up, and sometimes she called on students without hands up. Vanessa also had craft sticks with students’ names printed on them, so sometimes she pulled a stick and called on that person. She put the stick back into the can, so that all students had to be ready with a response even if they had already answered questions. The sheer number of questions was impressive. The students were forced to think, write, and talk about algebra during the entire class period.


There are many advantages to using cooperative structures during instruction, especially if the students are grouped heterogeneously and each made accountable to the group as Vanessa did during my observation. Students know that they must perform their parts for the success of the group, yet the students can also help each other as needed. The activities keep students engaged and promote deep critical thinking and problem-solving techniques. Using cooperative learning really helps students to interact both socially and academically and really promotes a positive classroom culture. Research shows that all levels and types of students benefit from using cooperative structures. Jeanie Dotson did an in-depth study with sixth-grade social studies students using Kagan Cooperative Structures along with control groups not using the structures. Students using the structures who were mentally impaired showed a 22.5% increase in performance over the control group. Likewise, students with learning disabilities showed 10.3% increase, students with 504 plans showed 7.8% increase, and gifted students showed 3.5% increase. In a different study by Dr. Spencer Kagan and Julie High, ELL students benefitted greatly when their teachers used cooperative structures to learn new material and practice new skills. I personally use cooperative structures in my own high school classroom and my students have found success as they learn together. I find I am talking much less and students are talking much more. Besides the social and academic benefits, my students really enjoy using the structures to enhance their learning. Their favorite structures are Showdown and Quiz-Quiz-Trade. I learned both at a Kagan Professional Development Workshop.

I was equally impressed with Vanessa’s constant questioning. Our students’ brains respond to questions and challenges that help them learn. Teachers need to intentionally ask open-ended questions and follow-up questions, both of which encourage students to think more deeply about their understanding and encourage them to analyze and synthesize information. Specific examples could be comparing characters or events, evaluating themes, creating examples, forming judgments, making inferences, relating new material to previously learned material, drawing conclusions, and so much more. These examples clearly show the difference in close-ended questions that just ask for recall or ask for a yes or no response.


Vanessa’s students were either engaged in mathematical cooperative structures or answering mathematical questions. It was obvious to see how much Vanessa enjoyed discussing and teaching math! Her enthusiasm and excitement were contagious. Vanessa is a gifted mathematician who first set out to use her degree in mathematics to become a college professor, but after working with her church youth group she found herself wanting to teach teenagers. She told me, “Their inquiry levels were limitless, and it was ever refreshing in contrast to my own experiences.” She actually was preparing to work with a program called Mission Year to serve an inner-city community when a death in the family called her home to live in Florida. She was surprised and delighted when a former teacher turned administrator, unaware of her circumstances, contacted her to find she was returning home and offered her a job. She knew that God was confirming her decision to be in Pinellas County. Florida is blessed to have her as a superior instructor, not just because of her mathematics expertise, but because she loves her students and believes in their potential. She said, “My ‘why’ of teaching has been to let students know they are loved and they were created with great purpose and for good works. I’ve truly met my calling when they leave my classroom knowing their incredible value and are willing and able to reach their potential with mathematics and beyond.”

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