Month: February 2014

Visible Thinking

I was seated in the Hussey Commons at Presbyterian Day School today listening to Jim Reese and Ron Ritchhart set the stage for “Project Zero Perspectives: How and where does learning thrive?” Before we began observations in the classrooms, we were reminded that the opportunities to go into a classroom and observe are rare and there is so much to see. So, we needed to focus our observations. We were challenged to look into the classrooms to see where and how thinking is valued, visible, and promoted.

1. Determine if Thinking is Valued

  • What specific kinds of thinking are the focus of the lesson?
  • Where and when did you see the teacher curious about students’ thinking?
  • How will the learning tasks yield understanding, promote original ideas, or engage students in creative problem solving?

2. See if Thinking is Visible

  • What routines are used to encourage thinking?
  • How does the physical environment reflect thinking?

3. Decide if Thinking is Actively Promoted

  • Are students required to elaborate or reason?
  • Does the teacher challenge students’ ideas?
  • How does the teacher provide space for students to extend, elaborate, or develop their own ideas?
  • How does the teacher provide space for students to build on their classmates’ ideas?

These focused questions made time in classrooms purposeful.


What do innovators and mathematicians have in common?


Innovators explore and experiment in a climate of change. They build resilience through risk-taking and setbacks. Innovators create unique ideas with value and meaning.

What do innovators and mathematicians have in common? Everything. The math learning program that we are developing at Mount Vernon requires students to take the posture of an innovator as they see the world through a mathematical lens. Children learn mathematics by actively investigating realistic problems. Long gone are the days when teachers are the transmitters of information and students are the receivers. And long gone are the days where the algorithm is taught first by the teacher, memorized, then applied by the student.

While it may seem contrary to the model of math instruction that you or I received in elementary school, we now provide students the opportunity to engage in disequilibrium, reflect, and explore numbers. We believe that this not only builds resilience in our students but also helps them create knowledge rather than merely receive it. We inspire our young minds to solve and pose problems.


Instructional Rounds Debrief, Take 1

Cultivate a culture that is hungry for feedback. When I met Tyler Thigpen, head of upper school, he encouraged me to do just that. I did not know how when I heard his phrase three years ago, but that did not stop me from trying. I tried the line, “May I give you some feedback?” Then I changed my wording to, “May we collaborate on something?” I tried group think, one-on-ones, and dedicated reflection assignments. I tried modeling by asking others for feedback on my work. Regardless of my intentions, however, feedback still became known to some as the “F” word in our community.

Today, however, I can share an approach to feedback that has excited a small group of educators that we at Mount Vernon call Heads of Grade. After studying the process of Instructional Rounds through the work and coaching of Bo Adams, we attempted our first round two weeks ago. Four of us, three administrators and a current teacher/head of grade set out with our laptops. Our objective was to record dialogue of learners, space configurations, student roles, student engagement levels, instructional methods, and demonstrations of Mount Vernon Mindsets (21st century skills). Observation forms were shared with the teacher immediately after the completion of the round.  The observational notes were meant to be clinical in nature, not evaluative. Observers could add questions in parenthesis around their comments, however, to promote future conversation.

The morning following the rounds, we met before school in the Teacher Collab to debrief these notes. We found this article helpful to prepare for the debrief.

With the opening question posed, “How was this for you?”, we set the timer for 10 minutes per teacher. Sherri spoke first using a scan and respond method. “This was good feedback for me because it helps me know what to look for next time. I love that you all noticed my one student, John Smith. Does anyone have any ideas for how I can serve him better?” One idea that Sherri realized included not assessing work students were doing in centers other than the teacher-facilitated center. I am excited to see how she responds to this realization.

Andrea shared next by digging deep into one area of her observation. After being asked, “How was this for you?” She shared with the others that her lesson was about feedback in her second-grade classroom. Students were in control of peer feedback and she removed herself as the expert in the room. After reading the reflection, Andrea asked, “Should I have had my students write the feedback down?” Together, the team brainstormed a before and after chart that could serve as a visual to help students see how their writing improves after collaborating with another on it.

Lastly, Jenny answered the question, “How was this for you?” She shared that she was glad one observer caught the point of the lesson. She realized how long she spent going over the directions. She also realized her use of the word “perfect” and thought aloud, “Is that a word I ever want to come out of my mount?” We brainstormed some words that would better articulate the message of encouragement she attempted to convey.

Overall the team commented that they appreciated the clinical nature of the observations. It required time for reflection, a discipline we all too often preclude from our practice.

After the teachers returned to their classrooms, the admin team remained to meta-debrief. We explored questions like: How do we really measure engagement? Are we looking at desk or body arrangement when marking space configuration? We also asked questions about comments we made in the document and in person to make improvements for next time. This was a great learning experience for the observers and those observed. Feel free to review the observational notes attached.

Instructional Round Observation Notes

Kirbo –  McCranie  Farnham

Innovation stems from Wonder

How Might We be a community – home, school, work, and play – of innovators? Below is an excerpt from my January letter to families.

“In the spirit of starting with questions, what do you hope for your child to learn this semester? The Lower School teachers returned on January 6 and reflected upon this question. How might we intentionally use the 94 remaining days of this school year to inspire and encourage our children to pursue their unique passions and gifts? Specifically in the month of January, Lower School will focus on the Mount Vernon Mindset, Innovator.

Innovators explore and experiment in a climate of change. They build resilience through risk-taking and setbacks. Innovators create unique ideas with value and meaning.

Regular practice of these skills builds curiosity, so much so we would like to join you in celebrating your child’s sense of wonder as you encourage him or her to observe and experiment at home. Embrace the endless “Why?” questions, and make associations between the strange and the familiar. Finally, collaborate with your learner and encourage him or her to collaborate with other people who may have different perspectives.

If you would like to explore one of our favorite resources on this topic, check out The Innovator’s DNA.”

So much of what I read and listen to, in a addition to common sense, supports the need to inspire learners to be innovators. Innovation skills can be developed and used to deepen understanding in any area.  If what Nussbaum says is true,”Only 9% of all US public and private companies are doing any serious innovation,” we should spend more time allowing and encouraging children to tinker and to make. Students should be engaged in Design Thinking. Students should be involved in DIY and shop. We must dedicate time to these experiences which we believe will promote and encourage an entrepreneurial spirit in our children.