Month: March 2014

Teacher Recruitment Practices; Thoughts from Students

At Mount Vernon we continually seek student feedback to shape our instructional and programmatic decisions. Teacher recruitment should be no exception.

In the past, I have included student interviews as part of a candidate selection process. This usually occurs in the final stages and involves students generating questions they want to know of a teacher candidate. The children record their ideas and practice initial and follow-up questions in the classroom and at home. Then, the candidate has the opportunity to engage with students as well as ask his or her own questions of the children while I observe with as little interference as possible.

After the brief interview, students are able to share with me their thoughts on the candidate’s performance in response to my guiding questions.

While I find that this a great experience for upper elementary students as well as important feedback to better inform my decision making, I had not yet figured out a way to involved our younger learners in this process. While writing a recent blog post on exit slips, however, it hit me.

All teacher candidates are required to teach a 20-30 minute lesson to a classroom of students. This year participating students will each complete an exit slip on their experience during the teacher candidate’s lesson. This is a great way to give students a voice and ensure we have all five-star hires!


Setting Readers up for Success

Everyone who has paid any attention to recent research knows the value of giving students experiences with nonfiction text. As a matter of fact, some researchers suggest that 50% of reading material should be nonfiction. Does simply changing out book titles, though, ensure students are growing as readers?

Harvey Daniels and Nancy Steineke share some great pointers for teacher of reading in Text and Lessons for Content Area Reading (Heinemann, 2011) and Text and Lessons for Teaching Literature (Heinemann, 2013).

  • Text should be shorter, not longer
  • Readers should self-select their text, not read teacher-assigned material
  • Readers should have background knowledge on the subject, rather than be exposed for the first time through heavy print
  • The reading material should be of personal interest to the reader
  • The text should contain visuals
  • Readers should be proficient in visualizing, inferring, questioning, and rereading, not just scanning for answers
  • Readers should be allowed to mark in the text, not prohibited
  • Readers should be able to discuss the text before, during, and after reading, not reading in isolation
  • Readers should have experience writing in the same genre, not just reading in the genre

While a print-rich environment can literally change a person’s life, adding nonfiction titles to classroom or home library is not enough to build a reader. Reading experiences, even SSR/DEAR times, should be intentionally planned and scaffolded.

Happy Reading!

Unpacking Successful Practice

We expect our teachers to know what innovative and engaging instruction looks, sounds, and feels like. We expect administrators to know how to recognize effective instruction and coach teachers in their bettering practice. However, how do we ever define successful practice? How clear are we in our criteria and communication of criteria?

“Engaging Students, Exceeding Standards” (2012) by Harvey Daniels (@smokeylit) outlines seven structures of best practices.

1. Gradual Release – This cycle of teaching begins with teacher explanation or demonstration of a skill. Then, learners are invited to join the teacher. Next, students engage in carefully planned guided practice before they are finally released to work on their own.

I am sure you have heard this system before: I do it for you. You do it with me. I do it with you. You do it. (At Mount Vernon, we also like to add a fifth level – you do it for someone else.)

2. Workshop – In a workshop model, the student works alongside the teacher like an apprentice would a master. Students in the workshop model are actively engaged from beginning to end and have choice. The teacher acts more like a coach here.

3. Strategic Thinking – If we get nothing else right, let us teach children to ask good questions, analyze ideas, and inquire about a topic. You will not hear students memorizing in this structure, but you will see deep thinking on puzzled faces and hear rich questions posed to the other learners in the room. We assume you know, of course, the teacher is considered one of the other learners.

4. Collaborative Activities- Offering student the opportunities to work on team as co-researchers and partners fosters social energy to learn both about the topic and the importance of teamwork.

5. Integrated Units- Teachers provide the most authentic and complex opportunities for children to explore what really matters in the world. A well-designed integrated unit of study does not end with a classroom prototype but impacts the world beyond school.

6. Representing to Learn – Children using this structure are required to make their thinking visible (or audible) by sharing thoughts and processes in verbal explanations, art, writing, or by using movement.  (At Mount Vernon, we talk about requiring evidence from our students by asking, “What makes you say that?”)

7. Formative- Reflective Assessment – Teachers and students alike benefit from taking the time to understand what learning has happened and what remains to be learned. Reflection must be intentionally planned and shared. Formative assessments is an important practice that should be frequently seen in classrooms and learning experiences.


Student Engagement Plan, Part II

At Mount Vernon we are charged with creating a model that systematically seeks feedback and measures attitudes, perceptions, and beliefs of students about their work, the School environment, and their participation and contribution within the School community.

Part I of this model includes student surveys. One survey we are designing focuses on: perceptions of learning, feedback, instructional strategies, and student involvement in questions and discussions. Future surveys will include student perceptions of home learning experiences (also known as homework) and ideas for summer reading and math learning experiences. I would love your ideas on additional areas we should focus our survey creation.

Part II of the model, which perhaps should be part I, is more immediate feedback on daily classroom learning  experiences and procedures. These models are based on the work of Nicole Vagle and used with permission. For more research, read her and Chapman’s book Motivating Students: 25 Strategies to Light the Fire of Engagement.

Student reflection journals are effective for students to wrap their heads around a big idea (We call this practice “Creating a Headline.”), record a new idea and the evidence learned (We call this practice “Claim, Support.”), realize how our perceptions change (We call this practice, “I used to think, now I think.”), or wrestle with some further inquiry or curiosity about the day’s learning (We just call this, “I wonder…”).

In addition to reflection journals, teachers and students benefit from exit slips that ask students the best and hardest part of the lesson or provide a quick 1-5 scale to represent their attitude after a lesson.

Younger students may be able to share their attitude by coloring a smiling or frowning face at the bottom of an assessment to indicate how they feel. Here is one simple example.

Another opportunity for student feedback is to ask their confidence level by circling the phrase that best describes how a student thinks he or she did on the assessment. This scale would appear at the end of an assessment.

Imagine the impact on teacher planning and student learning as we increasingly solicit and reflect upon student feedback.

Student Engagement Plan

Is there a more accurate indicator of success than student engagement?

At Mount Vernon we are charged with creating a model that systematically seeks feedback and measures attitudes, perceptions, and beliefs of students about their work, the School environment, and their participation and contribution within the School community.

Lately, our focus on instructional rounds has provided lots of teacher-to-teacher feedback. However, I am excited to launch Student Engagement Surveys this spring. Hattie, in his book Visible Learning (2009), suggests valuable learning happens when students provide teachers with feedback. Apart from noticing children’s obvious smiles or tears, how often to we really take the time to learn about our practice from our students?

Using some of the work designed by Nicole Vagle along with some mission-specific areas of focus for our school, I am trying to create a tool to measure student’s perceptions about themselves as learners. Additionally, we want to better understand student attitudes about school.

Here is the first prototype if you want to take a look. Feedback welcome!

The Impact of Research and Design, Part II

“What innovation are you known for?” When is the last time you had to answer a question such as that one?

As representatives from Preschool through Grade 12 met together during our Social Science Research and Design meeting, we were each challenged to share an innovation that we had launched. It did not matter if the initiative had succeeded or failed, but the expectation set with that opening question was clear.

After starting with questions, our time was intentionally spent. Check out the desired outcomes of the day.

Desired Outcome 1: Stoke the vision of what our R & D could and should be.

Desired Outcome 2: Create a culture that reflects Innovator’s DNA. (Association, Observing, Questioning, Experimenting, and Networking)

Desired Outcome 3: Do something no social science educator has done before; create a new product or process.

Desired Outcome 4: Write learning outcomes that infuse mindsets, including a global mindset.

Desired Outcome 5: Create a scope and sequence for learning outcomes for 2014-15 fall and spring organized by real-world, integrated units.

Desired Outcome 6: Map your best unit including assessments for the desired learning outcomes.

Desired Outcome 7: Create proficiency scales for each one of your learning outcomes.

Desired Outcome 7: Group learning outcomes into 6 mindsets.

Desired Outcome 8: Rewrite the learning outcomes as essential questions.

Research and Design Team Members have their work cut out for them, but what exciting work!

The Impact of Research and Design, Part I

I love that I am part of a team that unapologetically launches many initiatives as we discover and uncover ways to redesign the school experience for learners. One very important structure that we put in place to support an innovative learning community is our Research and Design Teams.

The Social Science R/D team met recently. To focus our efforts, Chip Houston started the meeting by asking, “What are we doing?” and “Why are we doing it?” To answer this question we searched the Plan17, our school’s strategic plan. Highlighting points of the strategic plan that directly related to the role of research and design was a powerful exercise.

We see our strategic plan as the blueprint. And just as builders constantly consult a blueprint, we are regularly referring to our strategic plan to ensure we are building a dream house.

Instructional Round, The Debrief

According to the work of Elizabeth City, Richard Elmore, Sarah Fiarman, and Lee Teitel in their book Instructional Rounds in Education, A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning, the debrief is a time to reflect on practice, discuss observations, analyze work, and grow from it. Three simple steps are described to accomplish this.

Taking the time to describe what the observed realized from his or her observation is an important but easily skipped first step. It is necessary to describe the recorded data by starting with questions. Each teacher needs time to reflect upon and gain more understanding about the observations that were made.

Through this intentional study and discussion, observers will also learn more about the practice of making observations, while the observed will realize what others see in his or her classroom.

Next, careful analysis should occur. The group may look for patterns. Patterns may exist in teacher language, student language, questioning techniques, space configuration, the role of the student, instructional modes, or student engagement levels.

The observers may also notice patterns in the way they recorded their own notes compared to another’s style.

After careful analysis, the group should predict how the task and teacher’s instruction relate to the learning. What are students learning? How do we know if they are learning it? This will bring awareness to areas for improvement. The group is challenged to predict the specific behaviors of students and teachers which promote or inhibit learning.

Finally, identify the work that needs to be done.  Considering current initiatives and available resources, a detailed plan of improvement should be agreed upon.  The book suggests exploring the following questions, which I am pleased to say that Mount Vernon can answer “yes!” to each:

  1. Do the hosts have common planning time? (Our teachers meet at least weekly, some daily, as a grade-level team along with our Director of Teacher and Learning)
  2. Are faculty meetings used for professional learning? (Faculty meetings are always used for professional learning. This year we have  explored assessment through the essential question, “How might we accurately communicate student achievement and promote more learning?”)
  3. Do teachers have a formal means for communicating across grades? (Every teacher is involved with at least one Research and Design Team with representatives PS-12 who focus on innovative practice in each discipline.)
  4. Have all of the faculty  members received training? (All teachers in Lower School, to varying degrees,  have received UbD, Project Zero, Design Thinking, Orton-Gillingham, Number Talks and Algebraic Thinking Investigatory Math trainings.)

We are reminded that improvement occurs (in students and teachers) when ideas and feedback are specific. We must push each other for detailed suggestions. The debrief is not about “fixing” the problem. It is about  developing clarity around what a rigorous and relevant learning environment looks like. Then making a plan to become one.

Instructional Rounds Part II, Thoughts on Kindergarten Cafe

Last Friday our team of 3 administrators and 1 Head of Grade set out at 1:00 to observe the learning that was going on in Lower School. While part of the intent of Instructional Rounds is to gather data about pedagogical practices occurring, I came away with more questions than answers that Friday afternoon. Some questions arose about my role in the process.

  • With so much going on in a classroom, I wonder where I should focus my attention.
  • I wonder where I should zoom in to most help this teacher.
  • I wonder how I can improve my observational and note-taking skills.

Other questions arose about instructional time in general.

  • How many kindergarten students can successfully learn under the direction of one teacher?
  • How might we measure learning and engagement of students more precisely?
  • How might we hold every child to the same expectation?
  • How many “silent thumbs” should a teacher see before she calls one one student to share?
  • How often do we reveal the learning objective or learning outcome with our students?
  • Should the teacher be the only one aware of the desired outcome of the lesson?
  • If students are not following classroom management routines, should a teacher stop to reinforce the routine, (like 1,2,3… eyes on me) or continue with the planned lesson?
  • How much time does the brain need to transition between and experiences such as an author study and a math lesson?
  • How do we harness the energy of the few students that dominate the discussion to allow time and opportunities for others to think and share their thoughts?
  • How does the way the teacher responds to a student comment effect the next contribution made by a student?
  • Before reflecting on the Instructional Rounds data, what would the Kindergarten Team have identified as a Kindergarten Cafe problem of practice? After reflecting on the data?

After reflecting on this list, I realize that Instructional Rounds are accomplishing their purpose. The answers to these questions are important, but it is more important that we will engage in collaboration and brainstorming around these ideas in a debrief with the Kindergarten team. I look forward to that discussion and observing the way Kindergarten Cafe grows as a result.