Engaging Instruction Is Key to Freshman Success

It really does always come back to the classroom and the teacher.

We talk about a lot of things when we look at success in school and they all are very important.  The most important, though, is what happens in the classroom, and the relationship between teacher and student.

This week, Principal Matters! has been highlighting the Freshman Experience.  We’ve looked at the four pillars of building an effective ninth-grade program:  Design, Support, Culture, and today Instruction. 


Here’s a look at ten highlights of an effective ninth-grade instructional program that defines and guides academic success. 

  1. Instructional Strategies that work for ninth-graders  We need teachers who like ninth-graders to be the ones who teach them.  It really matters.  Beyond that, we need teachers who employ instructional strategies that are going to support the learning styles of freshmen.  We need to change what we do to fit them, not the other way around.  Too often, we want freshmen to “learn to adapt” to our way of doing things.  What if we met them where they are?  More than anything, if teachers of ninth-graders are leading engaging, hands-on, active learning that encourages creativity, curiosity, and creation students are going to do well.  Build an exciting classroom experience and you’ll have learning happen and students will succeed.  That simple.
  2. Homework  If making “zeroes” on homework takes freshman students down a path that leaves them failing classes, and by failing those classes they end up dropping out of school and not graduating, then those homework assignments must be really really important!  So, we can debate homework at another time.  It has its place, but it really doesn’t need to be the determining factor for a young person’s financial destiny.  Again, that would have to be some really important homework to do that!  Instead, what if you insisted that students complete the work rather than give them a ‘0’   More on this later, but think about the value of zeroes vs. “Not Yet” or “Missing.”  Is it really about the work and about the learning?  Then the grade book should reflect so.
  3. Academic Rigor  Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  Not too hot; not too cold; just right.  We should be focused on a continual quest for ‘just right’ in the level of work we ask our ninth-grade students to do.  We should always be stretching their reach, getting them to do more than they’d done on their most recent attempt but not as much as they will do on the one to follow.  The level of rigor should be differentiated for the student, but the culture of the Freshman Experience should be on having serious students doing quality work.
  4. Study Skills; Organizational Skills  Your freshman program can be enhanced with the addition of instruction on organization and in how to study.  These are best done, in my opinion, as a part of the work you do in your academic courses rather than as a separate event.  Imagine the powerful learning that takes place when all the academic teachers are focused on the same note-taking skills on the same day.  Learning in context like that?  It can help your freshmen become excellent students.  Organization is also an area in which many ninth-graders struggle.  Rather than their disorganization adversely affect their grades, what if we spent time working with them to become more organized?  We can use the Freshman Year as a months-long orientation into the skills of a good student.  Wouldn’t that be valuable?
  5. Life Skills; School Survival Skills  We can help our ninth-grade students become more successful academically if we help them with direct, explicit direction and support in areas critical to surviving school.  How to get along with others? How credits work?  What to do if you miss an assignment?  Where things are?  Taking time to process through the concrete pieces of one of life’s most angst-filled transitions?  That’s time well spent.
  6. Developing Appropriate School Behaviors  We need to instruct our ninth-graders in what is okay and what isn’t.  Getting some of the upperclassmen to lead the instruction in small groups would be very impactful.  Sometimes they don’t know.. what they don’t know.  Being intentional is always a good thing.
  7. Successful Strategies to lead ninth-graders to do quality work  As part of your instructional strategy for the ninth grade, what will you do to move your students out of the mindset of compliance and into one of personal pride in performance?  How can you leverage their peer relationships to support an overall culture of excellence in academics?  How will you connect your freshmen to their peers in other places to help them see a broader picture of the world?
  8. Project-Based Learning  If you want active instruction, focus on learning that ends with a presentation, a product, a performance, or a publication (publishing to a blog or YouTube, for example).  If we can hook students when they’re in the ninth-grade, we stand a greater chance of keeping them moving forward academically throughout their high school years.  If we bore them to sleep with what looks like a remake from the Economics class in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?  That’s on us.  Let’s reshape learning with engaging assignments and tasks that mean something.
  9. Using Data to Design Delivery   Instructionally, we need to use data to design what we do.  Too often, ninth-grade becomes a place of sorting and separating.  We roll out an instructional program and figure that some students will make it and others won’t. That’s not good enough.  We need to track progress, use what we find to drive what we do, and shape our work to meet our students’ needs.
  10. Grading and Growth  Our goal at the Freshman Academies that I was a part of was pretty simple, instructionally.  Every student pass every class.  What does it mean to ‘pass a class’?  We focused on mastery of the standards, which meant that our grades reflected both growth and learning.  During freshman year, if we can work to get our students in the right habits of learning we will have done a good thing.  If they’re almost 1/3 of the way to a diploma while we do it?  That’s even better.




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