Building Students’ Success - Steve Barkley

Building Students’ Success

Steve Mintner, a science educator and teacher trainer colleague, has had some amazing success with increasing student achievement.

In spite of some very challenging circumstances where there were zero prerequisites, his AP Biology and AP Chemistry classes had unprecedented success for his school in the number of passing scores and the number of students scoring “5’s”.

When Steve moved to a high poverty middle school (nearly 10% of the student population was homeless) to become department chair, the school went from being near the 50th percentile in science to the 99.6th percentile in three years in spite of  poverty and large teacher turnover.

I asked Steve to provide a guest blog identifying some keys to his students’ results. Here is his response:

“I have always been one to shy away from pushing the idea of a “magic bullet” in education.  Too many people, under the guise of “best practice,” tell teachers that if you only do these things, everything will be perfect in your classroom. I physically shuddered when an administrator once told me that the only difference between teachers like Jaime Escalante, Rafe Esquith, Ron Clark and the rest of us was that they followed “best practices” with fidelity and we did not. 

 Teaching is an art and everyone has to work on his or her craft with their own unique talents.  You wouldn’t get greatness if every artist had to paint by the numbers.   That being said, I have identified some practices that I used that I think made the most difference in my classroom:

 Relationships:  I believe the best way to get student success is through building relationships with students.  Go to after school events, talk to them about the things they are passionate about, and take time to listen to your students.  I once read a study that said that teens were listened to less than three minutes a day by adults.  It makes a difference to know your students. You prepare better lessons for them and they will often go above and beyond to have success in your classroom because they want to do well for you.

Teach for Mastery:  Rigor is not a number (like 95% is an “A”).  Rigor is not strict standards such as not accepting late work under any circumstance or giving one chance on extremely difficult assignments or tests and letting only the strongest survive the cut.  Rigor is not assigning hours of homework.  Rigor, to me, is setting the bar high and not letting anyone fail to meet that standard of excellence.  If a student fails to do well on a test in my classroom, they are expected to come get help and take another test.  This process will continue as many times as it takes to get the student where he or she needs to be.  No excuses, no exceptions.  We will work together until we find that success.  It isn’t their failure, it is OUR failure and we will work together until we make it OUR success. 

 This only works though if you work on the relationship part of the equation.  By the way, parents love this.  They know that their child can earn an “A” with hard work regardless of their past shortcomings.  Grades should reflect what a student knows and not how long it took them to get there.  In life, it is ok to fail.  It is often necessary to fail and learn from it to become successful.  I wonder what life would be like if we were not allowed to retake a driving test to get a license or if we were not allowed to bat again if we struck out.  It is important to teach students to work through difficult situations to become successful. 

  No material is ever “old material.”   Every test, every quiz, every lab, every assignment can and will include elements from everything we have taught all year.  In addition, we will take it even further and always try to make connections between topics that are not made in traditional textbooks or teacher materials.  For instance, in 7th grade science, what are the relationships between Newton’s laws of motion and plate tectonics?   What about Newton’s Second Law and density?   Helping students see relationships between topics ensures that they own the material in a way that no textbook can provide.  

   An active classroom is an engaged classroom.   I believe you learn science by doing science, otherwise you are just learning about science, and there is a big difference.  (It is the same in other areas too….you learn writing by writing, you learn math by doing math…not by watching the teacher.)   I try to do labs a minimum of once per week, but many times it is far more often than that.  What’s more important than the labs, are the types of thought that students must participate in.  My labs are often inquiry based.  They are searching for answers and not just verifying the “right” answer.  They are solving problems.  In addition, we make use of technology when we can.  We do classroom gaming with web based applications like Zondle and Kahoot and I make You Tube videos to help students with concepts we are learning.  Because of this, I rarely assign homework.  They want to play Zondle on their own at home and will often watch the videos so they can solve the labs they will be doing the next day.  To me, this is more authentic than questions at the end of the chapter or worksheets.  I have taught long enough to realize that they will copy those from each other.  If I give them access to something they will enjoy, they are more likely to do it at home.  In an age where drilling for tests has become the norm, I buck that way of thinking and make the learning more active and meaningful. 

Data, Data, Data:   When students play video games, they get immediate feedback and make adjustments.  This is the life that they know.  It is ok if they fail in the game.  It is expected.  They make adjustments and play until they master a level or even beat the entire game.  They can’t win without feedback.  I can’t make adjustments to my teaching without feedback.  I mentioned Zondle and Kahoot as ideal platforms to provide feedback to both the student and to me.  In addition, I use web based grading software called Gradecam.  It gives me immediate feedback and I can see trends on test questions before students even leave my classroom.  All you need is a web cam and the internet to use it.  I can give students immediate feedback and can go over topics that need it before they leave the classroom on the day they test. It has been a game changer in how I teach. In addition, I spend less time grading and more time planning and the grades are automatically put into my electronic grade book with the touch of a button so parents also get immediate feedback.  Critics in the 60’s said we would never be able to land on the moon because of the distance and the fact that both the earth and the moon were in constant motion.  They reasoned that if we couldn’t shoot a bullet and hit a bull’s-eye 100% of the time, that this task was infinitely more difficult and just a fraction of a percent in error would make us miss the moon entirely.  NASA didn’t achieve this milestone by shooting directly at the moon and hoping for the best.  Instead, the ship would frequently take measurements and adjust its flight pattern.   We must not only take those measurements to adjust our teaching, but more importantly provide that frequent data to the students so they can adjust it themselves.  Whether it is chemistry or Call of Duty, they will make the adjustments if they are given the feedback and the tools.” 

Steve Mintner is currently teaching in Newburgh, IN and is available to help schools increase science achievement.  He can be contacted at

Share Button
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Blog: Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud

Share Button
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Listen to Steve Barkley’s Latest Podcast

Share Button
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Academy for Educators

Become an expert in instructional coaching, blended and online learning strategies, engaging 21st Century learners, and more with online PD from PLS 3rd Learning.
Learn more

Share Button
Print Friendly, PDF & Email