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Deana Senn

With more than 15 years of education experience, Deana Senn, MS, is an expert in instructional strategies and classroom assessments. Her curriculum and instruction experience span the United States and Canada, in both rural and urban districts, from the school level to regional level. She actively develops content with the Marzano Center team and trains nationwide. She is a graduate of Texas A&M University and received her master’s degree from Montana State University.

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Q&A with Deana Senn on
Identifying Critical Content: Classroom Techniques to Help Students Know What is Important

Author Deana Senn has more than 15 years of experience as an educator and trusted expert in instructional strategies and classroom assessments. She is the co-author of Identifying Critical Content: Classroom Techniques to Help Students Know What is Important, a USA Best Book Awards finalist and bronze winner of the Independent Publishers Book Awards.

When speaking with Senn, it is obvious that teaching is woven into the fabric of her life mission. Here are her thoughts on why and how we need to academically prepare the next generation.

What is the goal of teaching students to identify critical content? Is it to help students identify critical content within standards, or is it broader than that?

Identifying critical content is really the beginning of students taking ownership of their own learning. They have to know what’s important about the lesson each day so they buy into learning. We start with the standards because that’s what students should know and be able to do. But it’s important that the students learn that the purpose of the worksheet isn’t just to finish the worksheet. There is something bigger than the activity in front of them. There’s more that they’re supposed to get out of the lesson. They are supposed to be able to demonstrate that they know and are able to do the critical content of the lesson.

How does this skill prepare students for success in the global workplace?

All of us identify what is critical when information comes at us. Those of us that learned the game of education understood that to some extent. That idea translates into everyday life. We don’t spend the same amount of attention on every bit of information we receive. We need to know what to let wash over us versus what to focus on. There’s only so much energy we have to devote to anything. Teachers need to help students understand more than the critical content of the lesson. Students need to understand that this is a skill they are learning, and they have to reproduce that skill on their own. Some students who are more adept at navigating the educational system have been better at identifying critical content. It’s important to teach all students that skill and how to apply that skill even when they aren’t prompted to do it.

Out of the seven instructional techniques you’ve developed, do some work better in elementary classrooms, while others are more impactful in secondary classrooms?

No, the intention is not that they would be more influential in different grades. They are all useful in every grade, but the way they play out in a classroom varies by grade and subject matter. For instance, if I was using storytelling for critical content, the story I’d tell in kindergarten would be very literal, and I’d point out what the critical content is. If I was teaching 8th grade English, I could be subtle about the critical content, and I may ask the students to point out the critical content. Although in the book we target K-12, the techniques can apply to any learning situation.

Is it necessary for a teacher to use all of the instructional techniques in her classroom over the course of a school year, or can she focus on a few that she is most comfortable teaching?

The intention is to help teachers get better at what they are already doing. A teacher can use the techniques to see if there’s something that will up her game and to see if there are ways to be more intentional in the implementation of the techniques. With that said, why not try something new? Why not put variety into teaching? It makes sense to try something you may not be as comfortable with as long as it’s planned out and it’s implemented in a safe environment. There’s no expectation that a teacher would use all seven just to use them. It’s about choosing the right technique for the critical content you are trying to identify.

Are there subjects that lend themselves better to certain instructional techniques, such as using storytelling to cue critical content in an English class?

None of these techniques are specific to a subject. Teachers tend to feel more comfortable with one strategy than another. For instance, storytelling is often more comfortable for English teachers, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work well in other classes, such as chemistry and math. The purpose of storytelling is to tell something interesting that ties to critical content that makes the students remember it. The story can be a sentence or two. I’ve seen math teachers have students act out [dramatic cueing] the critical content with angle sizes. One of the powers of learning multiple strategies is that we can learn more about a technique that we’re not comfortable with and say, “How does this relate to my subject?”

If a teacher finds her students don’t respond well to a particular instructional technique she’s using, such as dramatic cueing, does that mean she should focus on other techniques? Or should she find a different way of using that same technique?

First I would ask myself, “Did I do the technique correctly? Is this the appropriate time to use the technique? Is this the right technique for the critical content I’m trying to convey?” Inherently, it’s easier to switch techniques, but you probably didn’t use the wrong technique. It’s probably that you used the technique incorrectly. That’s why each chapter in the book has common mistakes that will help teachers learn from other teachers’ mistakes.

What is the significance and impact of monitoring while implementing these techniques?

Monitoring for identifying critical content entails noticing if students know what is important in today’s lesson. Monitoring really is a game changer in education. Monitoring is so powerful because until I monitor, what I assume is that if I said it, my students learned it. That’s not always correct. I don’t know to do something different until I monitor. The power in monitoring is I’m not waiting for a quiz three weeks from now to inform me that some of the students didn’t understand the lesson. I can make small course corrections during the lesson. If I wait three weeks, I have to make big course corrections. I don’t have to create entirely new lessons, and I may not need to pull students out for RTI if I’m doing small course corrections along the way.

How does the information within your book tie in with scales?

The first step of all the techniques in this book starts with the teacher being able to identify the critical content for themselves before sharing it with students. When a teacher identifies the critical content for any lesson, that content should come from the learning target for the lesson. Learning targets are what students should be able to do leading up to and including demonstrating the standards. Performance scales are created when learning targets are scaffolded to standards. Therefore, critical content of any given lesson comes from the learning targets in performance scales.

For a teacher to get the most out of your book, should she work on the techniques alone or in a peer group?

Ideally, peer groups are good for support, guidance, and those critical conversations we need to have with our peers. If we have that option, why wouldn’t we take it? Hearing someone else’s take on how to use these techniques is powerful. Having said that, we know that is not the reality for many of our teachers. If they don’t have that community, the book can be a standalone for their benefit. Several teachers have told me they’ve read it from cover to cover in a quick read. The book is intended to be picked up again and again; and thumbed through and dog-eared throughout the school year as new techniques are tried. It’s meant as a resource, not a novel. When it’s used as such, peer groups can add even more value.

One reader, Maryann Woods-Murphy, 2009 New Jersey Teacher of the Year, said, “Identifying Critical Content grabs your attention and holds it because the examples and non-examples ring so true to me as a lifelong practitioner. I can hear and see my colleagues and myself in the narrative.” This sentiment seems to be shared among many of your readers. Would you expound on the significance of understanding examples versus non-examples?

Examples versus non-examples is a perfect way of using storytelling to convey critical content. You can see what works and what doesn’t work so you can glean the critical content from the examples. All of the non-examples have one of the common mistakes for why it didn’t work in the classroom. This allows you to see how it could go wrong in a classroom before it goes wrong in your own.


I would like to use Organizing for Learning for my pre-service teachers who are studying to be elementary teachers. The content would be helpful to role-model teaching and learning for their future success!
Daniele A. Massey, 2013 DoDEA Teacher of the Year
I knew just a few pages into the manuscript exactly how I could use its contents to
grow in my profession. I learned a great deal about effective delivery of critical
content, am now able to better identify potential mistakes, and have a new toolkit
full of monitoring strategies.
Tiffany Richard, 2012 Kansas Teacher of the Year
Identifying Critical Content grabs your attention and holds it because the ‘examples’ and ‘nonexamples’ ring so true to me as a lifelong practitioner. I can hear and see my colleagues and myself in the narrative.
Maryann Woods-Murphy, 2009 New Jersey Teacher of the Year

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