Teaching with FOCUS, Part 2


Instruction with FOCUS

In Teaching with FOCUS, Part 1 we FOCUS’ed on the role that our curriculum plays as we plan for instruction. In Part 2, we are shifting our FOCUS to what our instruction must include. According to Schmoker (and many others…myself included) authentic reading, authentic writing & purposeful talk is the backbone of all content instruction. Schmoker goes on to state that this cannot be accomplished through worksheets, a basil reader or through isolated skill-based instruction (i.e. “Today we are going to talk about making connections.”). While this might appear a daunting take, Schmoker FOCUS’es us in on 4 main areas:

  • Close Reading (interactive read alouds, shared reads or in small group instruction)
  • Annotation (stop/jot, post-its, coding texts)
  • Discussion & CFU’s (turn/talks, hold-ups)
  • Reading Response (journaling, retelling, synthesizing, summarizing)

Close Reading: The first area of FOCUS is close/analytical reading of authentic texts. As students read (or are read to, in the case of our read alouds) there are many routes we can take based on student needs, the standards, the Continuum, etc. As students read closely though, Schmoker FOCUS’es us in on four main areas that students must work with as they read, write, and speak in ALL content areas. This includes:

  1. Discussion/Debate
  2. Drawing inferences/conclusions
  3. Resolving conflicting views/documents
  4. Problem solving/synthesizing

As you plan for purposeful talk and reading response prompts, consider what each of these points would look like through the lens of different content areas and through our 3 schoolwide essential questions. How would you scaffold and model this type of thinking/writing for students across grade levels? How does this impact text selection & planning…and what texts are we already utilizing that support this?

Annotation: Purposeful talk and questioning are essential components of close reading; however, simply tossing “beach ball” questions to the class & seeing who raises their hand to “catch it” doesn’t promote deep thinking & engagement for all of our students. Whether you refer to “total participation techniques” or CFU’s (checks for understanding) our goal must be to ensure all students are interacting with the text. In other words (to quote Danielson): Are we providing students the opportunity to make their thinking visible? This is where our annotation (or “stop & jot” routines come into play…so get those post-its and white boards ready!

See below for some fantastic examples of stop & jot anchor charts below! Notice that this is differentiated based on the type of text & that there is a “home base” for students to place their post-its (consider how this can support formative assessment as you quickly review student contributions). What does annotation look like in your classroom during whole group instruction? What does it look like during independent reading or guided reading…or during math (mind blown)?


Discussion: As we noted above, stop & jot/text-coding/note-taking ensures that student thinking & engagement is visible. The other side of this coin is purposeful talk, which is an essential part of supporting our students as they make meaning. Charlotte Danielson often states that 3c (student engagement) is the “heart” of her framework; if this is the case, then 3b (questioning & discussion techniques) is the “main artery.”

Purposeful talk starts with developing deep “unanswerable” questions that are worthy of student debate. This is no small task and should be the main focus of collaborative planning across all content areas (along with “stopping points” when working with texts)! Once our questions are established we must provide opportunities for students to turn & talk, followed by classwide discussions. Time for discussion must also be included in our planning routines. If we have a 30-minute read aloud block, for example, we may only plan on reading for 20-minutes on a given day, allowing the remaining time for student-student discussion. This way we are not constantly feeling rushed trying keep the schedule moving.

As you reflect on this area of FOCUS, consider what purposeful talk looks like throughout your instructional day (small group, for example, definitely has different time constraints). How are you modeling what good speakers (and listeners) do? When questioning students, are all students participating in the discussion or do you tend to call on the “raised hands?”

TPT’s/CFU’s: One of our reflective questions above asked: When questioning students, are all students participating in the discussion or do you tend to call on the “raised hands?” This is, of course, is one of the main ways we assess our students; however, if we are calling on raised hands, not only are we are missing the majority of our students, but we are certainly missing students that may struggle with a particular concept/skill!

Whether you refer to CFU’s (Checks for Understanding, as Schmoker does) or TPT’s (Total Participation Techniques) our goal must be to ensure that every student has the opportunity to make their thinking visible. This is of particular importance during whole group instruction. In establishing CFU’s, our goal is to:

  • Ensure evidence of active participation & cognitive engagement from every student
  • Provide every student the opportunity to read, write, and say the answer (THE TRIFECTA!)
  • Establish a mindset in ourselves & our students where we are always asking for evidence!

As you reflect on the TRIFECTA, consider where you can easily work TPT’s into your instructional routines (My motto: Always have your dry-erase boards at the ready!)…and if you are already utilizing TPT’s, what do they look like in your classroom?

Synthesizing: The final stop on our teaching with FOCUS journey deals with giving students the opportunity to synthesize their learning. As teachers we often find that students make good use of strategies/skills when working with us; however, when it is time to transfer these skills they may struggle. Whether you refer to is as generalizing, synthesizing or reflecting (as Danielson does in 3c) we must engage students in this metacognitive routine!

This can be accomplished through the use of student-friendly rubrics and/or checklists (such as write-on bookmarks), teaching a partner, or by stating what strategies worked and why! Simply put, our students must see where their learning fits into the BIG picture so they realize that the strategies we are teaching them go beyond any one text, one piece of writing or one math problem!

Consider which tools/strategies you currently utilize to support synthesizing and how we can get into the habit of doing this regularly. Also consider what opportunities are available to make this learning visible and the role it can play in communicating with parents (4c).

As we conclude our “Teaching with FOCUS” series, take a moment to reflect on all four areas and consider what they look like in your classroom. Which ones are areas of strength for your and/or your team? Where would you like to place more of an emphasis as you plan and collaborate…and (most importantly) what is the impact on student learning?


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