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I’ve been reflecting recently on the importance of models in my life. Not runway models, but rather examples that have guided me in everything from writing presentation proposals to house projects. I’ve read many conference proposals, looked at furniture showrooms for redecorating my living room, and analyzed pictures of quilts to help me create a T-shirt quilt for my daughter. Just as models support me in my daily life, they are critical for successful teaching—especially for teaching English Language Learners. Without a strong model, ELLs may not understand the expectations, the process, or the purpose of an assignment. As Ron Berger explains in his 2014 book Leaders of Their Own Learning, “For all the correcting we do, directions we give, and rubrics we create about what good work looks like, students are often unclear about what they are aiming for until they actually see and analyze strong models” (pg 133).

I had the opportunity to observe the power of a strong model in a third grade classroom this fall at Highland Elementary School in Colorado. The teacher, Katie Snead, was guiding her budding writers in revising their narratives. (Her classroom is comprised of 60% English Language Learners.) During this lesson, she focused on helping them create strong closures for their stories. She had already provided them with a model story that they had critiqued as a class. They had looked closely at what made the conclusion in the example effective and she had typed up these key elements on the poster on the wall (see featured image).

While I was observing, the students highlighted their own conclusions in their narratives and decided if their concluding sentences fulfilled the elements of a good closure. After revising their endings, they shared their closures with their partners. Then, Ms. Snead shared a few strong endings she had read while circulating through the classroom. Finally, the students went on a ‘treasure hunt’ walking around the classroom to read and record examples of great endings that they discovered in their classmates’ narratives. By the end of the class, Ms. Snead had several new examples of closures from student work to post on sticky notes to share with the class.

Fellow consultant, Ava Lanes, believes that examples of good work may not be enough to support student learning. The lesson that Ms. Snead facilitated to help her students get the most out of model narratives is the critical difference between an example and an exemplar. An example is provided without explanation, but an exemplar explicitly defines the characteristics of good work. Students can analyze the dimensions of good work in a specific genre from a lab report to a news report and list these features to support their own writing. Once the class has identified the essential elements, the teacher can post the exemplar with the elements highlighted and explained.

In Leaders of Their Own Learning, Ron Berger also describes the importance of creating exemplars in the “Gallery Critique Lesson,” which is similar to what I observed in Katie Snead’s class (pg 143). In the Gallery Critique Lesson, the teacher guides a third grade class in a critique of story openings. He helps them define what makes a great opening and lists the elements the students discover in the examples provided. The motivation and enthusiasm described in Berger’s book were mirrored in Ms. Snead’s classroom. Ms. Snead’s lesson described above is just one reason that she won Educator of the Month at her school.

Thank you, Katie, for being an exemplary teacher and a role model for me.

Berger, Ron. Leah Rugen and Libby Woodfin. Leaders of Their Own Learning. Jossey Bass, 2014.

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