I had such a good time at Wells Elementary School last Thursday. It’s difficult to explain the feeling I had after spending time in classrooms watching the interactions between our students and their teachers. Changing our instruction to student-centered practices is not easy work and the Wells teachers want to do it well. Albert Einstein said, “I never teach my pupils I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” We are on a journey to create those conditions that allow students to drive their own learning. My hope is that the Wells teachers realize they are firmly on the path to rigorous standards-based, student-centered instruction. This path is not linear, and it can be messy. But that’s part of the fun – taking risks, planning with colleagues, and experimenting with these practices in real-time.
The first classroom I visited was a great example of the work that is done though planning with colleagues and risk taking. Before students started working in groups, their teacher exhibited some risk-taking. Mrs. Manis had a unique way for students to identify their groups. She had a star on a certain number of papers that were in front of each student. She asked the students with the stars on their paper to get with two students that did not have a star and begin their work of looking for text evidence to support their answers. The students started looking for partners and there was almost no downtime in the process. Mrs. Manis shared that she and her colleague Mrs. Nelson were using checklists as success criteria for their students to guide themselves and offer feedback for their classmates. Below is a picture of the checklist they were using today. This classroom was also using the language of learning we see in our student-centered environments. I heard students say to the teacher, “I have to find text evidence to support my answer.” I also overheard students talking amongst themselves questioning their neighbors’ evidence. It was clear this language is used and expected in Mrs. Manis’ 4thgrade classroom.
My next visit was to Mrs. Wallace’s kindergarten where they were working on main idea and key details. The teacher had a fun activity to engage the students by putting a blank cover on a book and telling the students they were going to read part of a “top secret story.” Once Mrs. Wallace finished part of the story, she asked students to get in their groups to work together to identify what kind of bird their story was about using key details from the story. After the teacher asked each group for answers, she then gave them more text evidence (and used that term) from the story to see if they wanted to change their answers. The groups again went to work before the teacher brought the students back where all correctly identified the type of bird as a penguin. Mrs. Wallace started a class discussion on penguins and “key details.” She told the students they were going to work in their collaborative groups to write down the key details they already know about penguins before going back to the story to see if they were accurate. Before they started, the class had a brief discussion on the success criteria for group work and the students gave examples of what that looks like in their classroom. The students quickly moved back into their groups and started to write down key details on what they knew about penguins. Our kindergartners were not only engaged with the teacher, but they were immersed in their task as a group as well.
The next classroom I had the opportunity to visit was Mrs. Drake’s second grade. This was an ambitious lesson as the students were listening to two different versions of the same story and had to work in their groups to compare and contrast the stories. From the outset it was clear this classroom used language that reflected student-centered practices. They talked about their purpose, the goal for the day, and what success looked like at level 3 on the learning scale for their standard. Mrs. Drake is extremely skilled at creating an environment for collaboration. Her students knew what was expected in their groups and it was evident this is a normal practice for her classroom. To promote collaboration in their groups, the teacher created a bookmark that served as a prompt for the compare and contrast lesson. Each student was expected to drive the discussion around their highlighted prompt. I didn’t get the chance to talk with Mrs. Drake after I left, but I thought it was an excellent way to promote the expectation of collaboration among all team members. This lesson took a lot of work and she was going to make sure her students were successful getting to level 3 on the scale.
The last classroom I visited was Mrs. Pearsall’s classroom. The standard the students were working toward was summarizing or retelling a story. From the outset the students were engaged, and Mrs. Pearsall had them eating out of the palm of her hand. It was clear the students had a great deal of background knowledge as they did an activity together where they used hand signals to identify the components of a summary. I have seen hand signals used in kindergarten to help with beginning reading sounds, but I had not seen it used in this inventive way. While at the carpet in front of the Smart Board, the teacher asked the students to “turn and talk” before coming back to the whole group with her questions on what summarize means or again to discuss the components of a summary. Mrs. Pearsall then provided an example and shared her “Snow Day Story” with the students. She discussed sequence with her students but not before they discussed it in groups first. The students then summarized her snow day story using this strategy and applied it on the Smart Board. The students then took that knowledge back to their desks to summarize a story that challenged each collaborative group. While the teacher directed much of this initial discussion, it highlights just how much up-front work is often done by our teaching professionals. When we get that up-front work done and conditions are right, students can work in their collaborative groups and apply that knowledge in new ways. This lesson was a great example of that work.
Being a teacher in a school district with almost 40 different languages is a wonderful, amazing challenge. We don’t lower expectations for students because of challenges, we raise them. Our students can do great things and it’s because of the tremendous work our teachers do to create the conditions for learning. The staff at Wells are taking risks, doing intentional planning with colleagues, and experimenting with student-centered practices in their classrooms. Our journey is not a linear path, but one that will make a positive impact on each child that is entrusted to our care. That’s what teachers do, make a mark that lasts long after the child has left their classroom. It’s a lot of work but the benefits will last a lifetime.
I am really looking forward to visiting Hillcrest Elementary on Thursday morning.