How a Master’s Degree Changed My Instruction

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glassesIt was the end of the first quarter and Travis, a hard working kid who struggles with reading, was sitting on the floor with the three other students. A large sheet of white roll paper spread out between them. Markers of various colors littered their work-space, but nothing had yet been put upon paper.

“How’s it going guys?” I asked as I approached, kneeling down to their level.

Travis spoke for the group. “Mr. Wondra. We don’t get it.”

“What don’t you get, Travis.”

“We don’t know what to do,” said Travis, frustration wrinkling his brow. I could tell the rest of the group was getting a little stressed as well. The class had been working on this assignment for ten minutes, and many other groups were by now well on their way.

The activity I had assigned that day was a creative expansion of a reflection I had done with some colleagues during one of my St. Mary’s weekends. The activity we had done called for us to look back at a semester’s worth of learning and then visually represent that learning by creating a large poster or mural using a road and traveling metaphor. I thought the activity was great because it gave us a chance as learners to come together, each remembering and relating to the instruction in a different way, and create a product that helped us to cement this new information by attaching it to a metaphor.

If Howard Gardner were to talk about this activity he might say that it encourages deep learning or understanding by revisiting the information through the interpersonal, intrapersonal, spatial, and visual intelligence lenses. Daniel Pink, Thomas Friedman and Yong Zhao might call this a perfect example of “mashing” by using new information to create a novel story of our semester of learning—blending logical, analytical and creative thinking

Anyway, I thought the activity would be a great way for my students to reflect on their first quarter of eighth grade—particularly the experiences and learning that took place in language arts. Our St. Mary’s facilitators asked us to relate to our learning using a “journey” metaphor. While I could have done this, some of my pre-assessments, indicated that most of these students didn’t yet fully understand what a metaphor was—to say nothing about how to use one.

This presented me with the unique opportunity to combine new learning (metaphor), with recent instruction (what we learned in the first quarter). So after some additional instruction on metaphors and how they can be used to create understanding, I asked students to come up with their own metaphors to represent their experiences of the first quarter—linking important language arts concepts to it.

Also realizing, however, that as eighth graders, my students were also having countless meaningful experiences outside of my classroom, I invited them to include/attach other important events, milestones, and learning that they experienced in other areas of their lives as well, be they family, extracurricular, or social. In this way I hoped to honor, validate, and link their lives holistically to my language arts curriculum.

But Travis and his group were struggling, so I chunked it up for them.

“Well, what do you remember learning in here so far this year? What do we do in here every day? What does language arts in the eighth grade look like?”

“Um. Well, we do planning pages every day,” said Travis.

“Great! What else?”

“We have vocabulary,” said Sarah.

“Now you’re getting the hang of it. Alex, start a list.”

“Ok. What about mind-maps. Does that count? And the multiple intelligence stuff? And the important pattern? And chapter club?”

“Awesome. Now, I want you to keep brainstorming. Then once you get your list, see if you can come up with an image that all of these ideas can be a part of.” I then gave them another example and let them have at it.

About a week later, each group having had the opportunity to share and explain their metaphors, all the posters hung around the room. It was quite a sight and a fun way for the parents, who where coming and going during parent-teacher conferences, to see what we had been up to during the first quarter. But I didn’t fully realize the impact that this simple activity had had until I met Travis’s mom, and she asked if she could have the poster when it was done hanging in the room.

It turns out that Travis was so excited and had taken so much pride in their creation that he had talked about it at home and wanted to keep it and hang it in his bedroom.

It’s possible, but I’m not sure this level of excitement would have manifested through my teaching before I started the program. While my curriculum remains the same, the instructional tools I now have at my disposal have been greatly enhanced. In addition, a deeper understanding of both theory and practice has given me a confidence in myself as a professional that I’ve never experienced before.

Among other things, this new-found clarity stems from an understanding that:

  • Backward design works and that I can (and should) shape my units around essential concepts and understandings. Allowing the content of my instruction to flow from a limited number of core concepts has helped me to stay much more “on message” or focused throughout the course of a unit of study.
  • Reflection will slow the pace of instruction but allow for deeper understanding. I am now allowing more time and space in class for reflection of various forms—products (as in the above example), surveys, exit slips, critical incident forms as well as written and discussion.
  • Formative assessment creates a valuable ongoing loop of feedback, decreasing time between an event and the feedback and increasing feedback opportunities, which, in turn, increases student engagement and motivation. I am now developing and using many more rubrics, checklists, and peer assessments and activities than ever before in an effort to make assessment more useful.
  • Written instructions and “half-sheets” are valuable instructional tools for clarity. Instead of only verbally explaining what I may feel is a fairly simple assignment or activity, I now also find myself typing up a simple explanation in much the same way that my St. Mary’s facilitators do. These simple adjustments to my instruction have greatly increased students’ confidence in that they understand exactly what is expected. This is another example of a practice that also makes sense on so many theoretical levels.
  • It is more important than ever to meet students where they are. Allowing opportunities for students to succeed using such theory as Multiple Intelligence, Meyers-Briggs personality, Brain Gym, Essential Understandings, Brain Based, Gender Based and Emotional Intelligence has become a major part of almost every lesson for me. Maybe one of the most valuable parts of the St. Mary’s experience for me is how it has helped me to better see my teaching through the critical lens of my students. Allowing students to access learning through their own aptitudes as well as encouraging them (by allowing play and failure) to experiment with abilities with which they are not as proficient greatly enhances their engagement levels in my classes. To this end, I now search for ways to include movement and technology as much as I can in my lessons. Skits, Web 2.0 technology, graphic organizers, and storyboards and varied reading topics as well as other environmental parts of my physical classroom have greatly enhanced my instruction.


  1. Chris, this is an amazing article. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Having finished my master’s degree this spring as well, I can relate to what Chris wrote in this post. Taking a snapshot of my teaching now versus where I was at before I began my master’s would be like looking at the beast before the beauty

  3. Beast before beauty. It might look like that to you, Jeff. But as a Kohl Fellow, I highly doubt anybody else would think that. They don’t hand those things out to just anybody.