Skip to main content

Pop Quiz: Who is the Greatest Teacher in Cinema History?

No, its not Mr. Chips, Mr. Keating, Mr. Holland, or even Mr. Shoop (Summer School anyone?).


The greatest teacher in cinema history has to be the piano teacher from Groundhog's Day as played by  Peggy Roeder. (Forgive me if I'm stealing this argument from another person, I did a cursory search of the internet and didn't find anyone mentioning this.)

If you forgot her already, maybe this short clip will jog your memory.




For those of you who haven't seen Groundhog's Day (I doubt you are out there), let me give the one sentence premise. A superficial man, Phil Conners, lives the same day over and over until he is able to learn to better himself by providing service to those in the community around him.  In the clip above, Phil hears a piece of music and is driven to learn how to play the piano.  Each day, Phil goes to see the same piano teacher and by the end of the movie he has mastered piano playing.

So what makes her the greatest teacher in cinema history and a model for all teachers? Well, it's not because she kicks that poor student out for a fatter paycheck.  Watching the movie again, I was struck by the fact that every lesson begins with an assessment of her student's ability.  Then, the results of the assessment determine the instruction  she will deliver.  She is able to adjust her lesson plans at a moments notice and design a lesson that is tailored to the student's needs.  Think about it, if she was providing the same lesson every day, Phil would never get any better.  Each day Phil's performance is improving, and she is able to adapt her lesson.  Remember, she has never seen this student in her classroom and everyday she is providing him a personalized lesson based on his current ability.

Dynamic lessons based on student progress towards learning goals should be the goal for all teachers. Technology has come a long way to create a system in which a teacher can administer formative assessments to a class and get immediate feedback as to individual and class performance.  In my class, I have a set of Smart Response remotes.  But, tools like Google forms and Poll Anywhere are great ways of leveraging student mobile devices to get the same feedback.

I usually do this formative assessment 4 to 5 times during a unit (6 - 10 days). I call this a "quiz".  You've heard of quizzes before and students hate them.  They have to study for the quiz and although it is not a summative assessment, it still counts towards the student's grade.  I have made it part of my mission to have my students question the use of quizzes in their other classes. I doubt any of them do; teachers can be quite intimidating and defensive about their practices (I am too).

When I give a quiz it has several functions, none of which are to determine a grade.  The first is for the student to determine his/her current level of mastery.  I have students rate themselves on a scale of 0 - 4.  The scale breaks down as follows:

4 - I can answer all problems without errors and help others
3 - I can answer all problems on my own with minor errors
2 - I can answer all problems with minor assistance
1 - I can only answer problems when given assistance
0 - Even with assistance, I cannot complete problems

You may be thinking how can they help others and how do students get assistance during a quiz. Well, during quizzes students are allowed to reference their notes or ask neighbors for assistance.  It is an environment where learning actually occurs.  It is the student's job to rate themselves honestly and record their progress in a Google spreadsheet that tracks all of their progress in the unit in addition to commentary on what areas s/he needs to work on.  They get a few practice points for completing the spreadsheet at the end of the unit and it goes in their ePortfolio (to be discussed in a future blog). Points in the grade book are for completion of the quiz progress sheet, not how well they score on the quizzes.

The second function is for me to see where we are as a class.  The quiz tells me when I can give my students a greater challenge or when we need to pull back.  I don't have to wait until the following day when I have corrected all the quizzes, we can address issues then and there.  The quiz questions are not a secret and do not have to be protected. The last function is for me to identify students who may need assistance but are reluctant to ask for it or individuals  who are ready for a greater challenge.

My students always give me positive feedback about our quizzes.  They admit that quizzes help them learn the content. So, although it is an assessment, students are able to learn while being assessed.  And since it is a formative assessment, I think that is valid.

The fact that I still must remind my students that quizzes are nothing to be worried about and that they are practice, means that there are a lot of teachers who are using performance on formative assessment as a part of a student's grade. The primary reason for a formative assessment is to determine progress in a unit and drive instruction.  The piano teacher in Groundhog's Day doesn't have a name, but I know there are a lot of teachers who could learn from her, myself included. Unlike in Groundhog's Day, our students won't be with us until they are masters.  It's our job to get them to mastery before they leave us. I believe true quizzes are a powerful tool to this end.

Popular posts from this blog

Waves of Innovation in Elmbrook Part 1

As a part of a graduate project, I am looking at innovations in education within my school district, Elmbrook Schools. I am specifically focusing on those looking to provide learners with more ownership over their own learning (a.k.a. personalizing learning). I've completed 4 interviews so far.  I had no intention of sharing them via this blog.  But, I think the stories and insights of these educators really are important for all.  They were vulnerable in a way that shows their passion for what they are undertaking.  They want the best for all learners not simply students, but educators who may hear their words.  So, please take the time to listen to their stories.  


In this video, Jeff Ortman a teacher in his 22nd year, discusses implementing strategies to give students ownership of their learning in his high school English classroom.  He discusses why he wanted to change his learning environment, his first steps to bring change, how choice and feedback are key to his classroom, a…

Can I Believe These Numbers?

Our union put out the results of a recent district survey.  The number of those who responded to the survey was low in comparison to the total number of certified staff. But the number and comments related to personalized learning struck me as troubling.


Based on this data, over half of the district staff polled are not onboard with the district's vision for personalized learning.  I would argue that not knowing the district vision for personalized learning is synonymous with not understanding what personalized learning is. The mission of the Elmbrook School Districtto inspire every student to think, to learn and to succeed.  By personalizing learning, we hope to achieve that mission.
I begin to question have we put the phrase before the meaning?  Have we thrown out this word without intention?  Have we made it to much of another thing to do rather than a method to achieve our shared vision.
These numbers shake me to the core.  After the recent presidential election, I realized I was…

How to Personalize Learning Part 3: Knowing How a Classroom Learns

Now, it may seem contradictory to state that teachers should create a classroom learner toolkit.  All individuals in our class have their own profile. We can’t simply design on blanket profile for the class.  That is very true.  That’s why Bray and McClaskey take a different approach to what a classroom learning toolkit looks like.  It is a 3-step process Class Learning Snapshot Preferences and Needs Class Learning Toolkit

Class Learning Snapshot In this model of designing tools for a whole classroom, the authors first recommend the teacher identify 4 learners who are diverse.  The Class Learning Snapshot records the specific strengths, talents, interests, and challenges of those four learners. If a teacher could meet the needs of these diverse learners through UDL, the needs of the other students in the class would probably be met.

Student Strengths, Talents, and Interests Challenges 1 It's easier for me to understand content when I am taught by a teacher and then am able to get informati…