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Cottonwood Heights Journal

This optional program is helping Brighton teachers gauge learning and understanding by evaluating student responses

Feb 29, 2024 01:23PM ● By Julie Slama

Some Brighton High teachers are realizing it’s a good thing when their classroom is silent after they ask a question. Others may be reviewing how many students use the same standards-aligned vocabulary. Other teachers, too, will evaluate if the response is measured by one student versus a group discussion.

Measuring student talk is on the forefront of Brighton High teachers’ professional development.

“There’s tons of academic research about student talk; it increases performance across every subject,” said Brighton Instructional Coach Jackie Ricks. 

While Canyons School District administrators regularly review teachers’ practices, their reviews don’t measure student talk.

“Our administration evaluates twice per year for all teachers, four times for first-year teachers,” she said. “One of the things that our District evaluation doesn’t have is student talk; we haven’t been able to measure it well in the past.”

That measurement became apparent to Ricks, who, as a first-year instructional coach in 2021, saw a need for increasing student engagement following online instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID was hard because teachers were trying to replicate what happens in the normal classroom in an online environment and they were trying to find ways for students to interact with the content and assessing who gets it or not. What couldn’t be replicated well on the computer was that student dialogue. When students came back, our attendance wasn’t great, and some students weren’t engaged. We needed to check for understanding in real time, instead of waiting back and forth in between assignments,” she said.

Ricks learned about the web-based application, TeachFX.

“It provides teacher with instructional feedback privately and gives information about portions of class time when the teacher talks, students talk, groups talk and waiting time. Teachers can evaluate their questioning technique, the academic vocabulary, participation, and the ratio of teacher versus student talking to improve their practices,” she said.

In spring 2021, the program was piloted by a few Brighton High math and English teachers. With a $70,000 schoolwide grant from the Utah STEM Action Center, all Brighton teachers can use TeachFX through next school year.

“The STEM Action Center is allowing us to use it across the subjects with their funding because they believe in how impactful student talk is increasing those scientific practices, collaboration, communication, inquiry,” Ricks said. “With what usage we’ve had from the beginning of last year, teachers were talking two-thirds of every class period on average. Now our teachers are talking approximately one-third to one-half of each class period, which has increased the opportunity for students to process their understanding.” 

At Brighton, the program is optional for teachers.

“Teachers have so much put on them right now. It’s a tricky balance how to introduce it to them without making it required. We had about half of our teachers who recorded at least one last year, and about one quarter of our teachers who are using it regularly We have a lot of interest across English, science, math and cores subjects, about half of our world language teachers wanting to use it,” she said.

Ricks has seen the benefits of the program. 

“One teacher came to me and said, ‘Look, I’m grading so much I can’t keep up with it.’ And I thought, ‘You know what? The students probably can’t keep up with it either,’” she said. “We looked at her practices and talked about checking for understanding in class. How you get that information from them? Sometimes it’s writing, but sometimes it’s also speaking. We worked on ways to increase opportunities for students and all of a sudden, she wasn’t taking home stacks and stacks of papers every night. TeachFX provided a way for us to measure the impact of the students’ understanding because there’s no other program that measures student talk.”

The program reevaluated instructors’ teaching methods and delivery.

“Using their phone or their iPad or their computer, it records and collects that dialogue and delivers a report to them, telling them how much of the period they talked, how much their students talked individually, how much the students talked in group, how much silence there was and the ratio,” she said, adding that there are no names attached to students so it maintains their privacy. “It also gives teachers information about the types of questions that they’re asking and provides some coaching to the teacher. The program calls it ping pong questions when the student answers a really quick answer, and it comes back to the teacher, and they just play ping pong with each other. Or volleyball questions when the teacher asks a question, a student answers it, it passes to another student before it comes back to the teacher. It’s a method to get more students involved.”

Another benefit of the program Ricks likes is that it identifies questions students asked during the class period. 

“Teachers can look at that report and review patterns and types of questions students were asking. With the recording on their device, they can make note if a student asks a question that they want to circle back; the program does a good job of picking out those snapshots for them,” she said. “It functions as an instructional coach for the teacher in a private way because the teachers receive the report, nobody else—admin, me as a coach, nobody—has access to them. TeachFX allows them to look at their practice with this kind of microscope to help them improve.”

The report also creates a word cloud revealing the words the teacher used frequently and the words students use. 

“The takeaway was that some teachers were using the academic-rich vocabulary, but their students weren’t. So now the teachers see that word cloud and can implement strategies to get students to use that vocabulary,” Ricks said. “Another thing the program does, which is powerful, is measuring wait time. Sometimes it’s awkward to be the person asking the question and have that silence afterwards. Our teachers are discovering by using that silence, it allows students to think deeper about it rather than just the first two kids who shoot their hands up in the air every time. Often by waiting, it can increase the talk that happened afterwards.”

Ricks said teachers are improving their own methods to better help students learn.

“We’re seeing students have that ability to communicate in real time and formulate their thoughts. That dialogue is so important. It is a way of improving our writing. When you can talk through your thoughts first then you can write better,” she said. “Every core subject has some common themes that they can use throughout their whole unit. In history, they’re looking at cause and effect and change over time. English is examining author’s ideas. Sciences evaluate cause and effect and patterns and math is making sense of problems. All our teachers are trying to engage students, to have them verbalize their thoughts, which provides feedback in the students’ understanding.”

While only Brighton and a couple schools in Canyon District uses TeachFX, Ricks said it is used districtwide in nearby Jordan, Granite and Alpine districts.

“It’s mostly used at the district level. They have cohorts of teachers like they’ll have their district level math specialists, working with a cohort of teachers from the district,” she said.

However, by having the option to incorporate it within the entire school, Ricks said at Brighton, there already has been a 7% improvement in active student engagement.

“When administrators go into a classroom, they measure active versus passive engagement. Active engagement may be when students are doing something with the information like reading, writing, speaking versus passive when they’re sitting there and maybe listening, but it’s hard to tell what’s happening in their brain because they’re not doing anything with it,” she said, adding that the increase may not be entirely because of the program. “They could be reading, writing or speaking, but a portion of it might be because of this as teachers are saying, ‘I need to increase the students’ use of academic vocabulary.’ So they intentionally go back to the classroom with that information and have students write this or talk about it.”

To support the program, Ricks offers teachers a monthly, optional 30-minute professional learning opportunity. 

“They bring a report, they have an option to share, they talk to each other. They bounce ideas off each other and then they focus on those things for the next month. It’s a good reflection and summary opportunity and it keeps it in the forefront of their mind,” she said. “If teachers are finding success with it, if they’re still interested in pursuing it, then I would absolutely recommend that we continue refining and reflecting.” λ