She asked…

After a recent classroom observation, one growth-mindset, goal-oriented teacher asked me for feedback. Normally, I write up my notes on an instructional rounds tool and add an “I like, I wish, I wonder” component to the FOLIO page. I always offer a 1:1, face to face, meeting to debrief the notes, but few teachers take me up on my offer.

This teacher, however, initiated the ask before I even extended my offer. After we discussed our individual reflections on the lesson, I offered some additional insights. We focused on four areas.

  1. Classroom Practice
  2. Classroom Culture
  3. Programatic Design
  4. Leadership

We discussed strengths and identified opportunities for growth in each category in her role as a teacher-leader. This reflective, collaborative, and strategic discussion was a great reminder of the many facets of an educator’s role. These conversations are a great reminder of what I love about my job and my School!


A Tough Conversation

Tough conversations are usually a sign of growing times. When a team needs to work through a difficult issue, it is important to follow our assume the best protocol. In an attempt to do that in a recent situation, I have a few great take-aways to share.

  1. We must celebrate successes first. Each person should be able to recognize strengths in the other and share those.
  2. Based on our own reflection and the feedback of others, we need to take ownership of our own growth – determine our own goals and hold ourselves accountable.
  3. We must be open to the feedback, even if we were not expecting it to go that way.

So I began a recent meeting by establishing the purpose:

  1. We want to be our best individually and as a team in accomplishing the mission and vision of our School.
  2. We want to show that we care for and respect each other as a valued member of the team.
  3. We want to agree on an outcome that requires change on everyone’s part.

So, we sought to sort through differences and identify what keeps us from doing our best. We shared stories or specific times, rather than blanket statements. We exchanged, “What I need from you is__________” statements.

This was a good reminder to all involved that the need to get things done does not equal a partnership, so we cannot value tasks over relationships.

Learning Walks are Scaling Up

More and more parents are expressing their interest in the daily Lower School experience. So far we have had three successful learning walks with parents. The goal is to share the open-door culture and practice of classroom observations with our parent partners. We also seek to receive feedback and grow from this process. Observing the flow of learning kindergarten through fourth grade brings many “I likes” and “I wonders” to an engaging debrief.

Some of the insightful feedback we have received includes:

I like

  • “Learning at Mount Vernon is extremely different than my school experience. It is so respectful of children.”
  • “I was surprised to see that learning is tactile all the way through fourth grade. I saw lots of math tools and lots of connections being made between math and science.”
  • “I saw how students were encouraged to think differently and allowed to enter the thinking at different times or using different methods: verbally, on ‘spider legs,’ or on post-it notes.”
  • “The centers in first grade. Everyone was doing something different, but they were all engaged and learning.”
  • “Rich vocabulary was everywhere even for the classroom helpers like electrician and tailgunner. This makes kids feel important.

I wonder

  • “Why do you teach nonsense words?”
  • “Why do some fourth grade classrooms only have math resources and others only have Language Arts?”
  • “What is this?” (a rekenrek)
  • “When do we start teaching US History and wars?”

We are excited to continue this practice with more learning walks being offered in the second semester.

The Worst of Me

If you work closely with a team, you would benefit from some of the exercises that our strengths coach, Elizabeth Payne, has used to build the relationships on our team. We believe that relationships are foundational for learning, and they are also foundational for leading. Taking time to reflect on your strengths and your passions, as well as the strengths and passions of those on your team, could help you go much further faster.

Understand yourself. Develop your strengths. Develop your team. Ask your teammates for feedback on what they see as your strengths. Consider completing and sharing two transformational statements together:

  1. You get the best of me when…
  2. You get the worst of me when…

When you are ready to take this team building to the next level, consider exploring these two statements:

  1. You can count on me for…
  2. I need you to…

This process should empower individuals on a team and accelerate growth.

Expanding Learning Walks Scaling up the practice of learning walks to include all stakeholders

Since participating in an all-school read of Tony Wagner’s Global Achievement Gap about five years ago, our school has embraced the practice of learning walks. This practice is part of a larger effort to transform school culture from a closed door, master teacher mindset to an open door, teacher as collaborator mindset. Additionally, schools tend to look out to find experts in the field, but we are finding that looking in and observing the high performing faculty with whom we share a campus may be more valuable.

We began learning walks by encouraging teachers to stop by a classroom for 1-5 minutes after dropping students off at PE or art. Administrators and teacher leaders modeled how this looks by popping in and spending a few minutes as a fly on the wall. Wanting this to be a positive experience, we left post-it notes or shared tweets that highlighted a bright spot from our observation.

Learning walks starting catching on and teachers became more and more comfortable with opening their own doors and welcoming unannounced visitors. At the same time, teachers grew to appreciate the opportunity to observe a colleague and refined their own observational skills. As a matter of fact, we replaced the word tour in our Mount Vernon vernacular with “learning walk.” When other schools requested a tour of our school, we offered them a learning walk. Our admissions tours became learning walks as well. We feel that this better communicated the purpose and intentionality around hosting visitors.  

This year we decided to take a risk and include families in learning walks of Lower School classrooms. We invited parents representing grade levels K-4 including new and returning families. We started small but hoped the experience would be a positive one, worth scaling up.

Five moms met on campus at  8:15 last Thursday morning. We sat in a circle in our Kindergarten Commons and exchanged introductions to build some community among the parents. As part of the introduction, we each contributed to the visible thinking routine, a process for developing habits of thinking and making our thoughts visible – usually on post-it notes. The prompt was I think I know…  Some of those responses included:

I think I know…

  • ideas around culture
    • that I am about to see excited children
    • that it is going to be a great day
    • how the flow of the day happens
    • why people love Mount Vernon
    • there will be a morning meeting
    • the children will be having fun
    • elementary school looks different today
  • ideas around instruction
    • there will be small groups and whole groups
    • phonics will be happening
    • classes will be using the Box Light
    • some classes will be working in centers
    • what happens in my son’s classroom

Next, I led the group through some background information about the development of our growth-minded, open-door culture and the role that learning walks played in that. Parents were very impressed that our teachers regularly participated in the process of observing teaching and learning among their grade level colleagues as well as between grade levels as a strategy for professional learning and professional collaboration.

We asked our parents to begin the learning walk with the thoughts of I like, I wish, I wonder. Then, we divided up the group and jumped into classrooms beginning in kindergarten and hitting each grade level in order through fourth grade. There were a few questions between classrooms and a few moments where clarification was given in the rooms, but for about one hour, there were just quiet, independent observations going on. Parents entered the classroom, faded into the background or looked over a student’s shoulder and took notes on the learning – maybe learning reflected through student comments, conversations, or questions. The learning that was observed may have been evidenced in the writing on the tables, the student work hanging on the walls, or work in journals.

We saw small group phonics instruction in kindergarten. Some students were finding letters that said /k/, /a/, /b/… and blending such a word. Others were sky writing and identifying letter names, sounds, and keywords. In first grade numeracy games were being played with 10 frames, rekenreks, and a tie in to whale watching in one classroom and the Daily 5 literacy centers going on in another. In second grade, we saw word detectives on the hunt for -ink, -ank, -unk words. Some third graders were collaborating as editors while others were in the hall having number corner. Finally, fourth graders were rotating through inquiry stations exploring questions like, “Where did Magellan go next?” in one classroom and publishing their final copies of a writing piece in another one.


After completion of the walk, we all gathered back together to debrief. Two visible thinking routines were now in use: I think I know… Now I know and I like, I wish, I wonder. Opening with the simple thought of, “Well, what did you think?” opened a flood gate of impressions, questions, and excitement of what was observed. The feedback from the parents included:

I like:

  • phonics was fun with kids writing in the sand
  • phonics was much more in-depth than I thought
  • that students are learning about short and long sounds as well as terminology like the breve
  • that learning math was tactile all the way through the grade levels, not just in K
  • connections between math and science being made
  • seeing how kids are taught to think differently
  • what K students knew about coins
  • that math was made relevant to the students’ world, like with the tooth chart
  • connections between social studies and literacy
  • that teachers can project their phone on the Box Light
  • visuals around conflict resolution
  • teachers offered lots of different ways for students to complete a writing piece like post-it notes or spider legs
  • kids can add post-it notes at any time, not just on the spot
  • seeing kids working together so often

I wish

  • we showcased more of the reading, writing, and math that we saw today in promotional and admissions materials
  • the learning coaches could teach more of our families about the Mount Vernon instructional practices

I wonder

  • how third grade uses the Chrome Books
  • how many other preschool and kindergartens use multisensory phonics instruction like ours
  • why some fourth grade classrooms only had literacy or math resources
  • what grade US History and wars are taught explicitly
  • about nonsense words in second grade
  • how students know how to work with partners
  • what a document camera is and how it is used
  • how often teachers do learning walks

These observations opened the door for some rich conversations around learning in Lower School. In response to some questions and comments we were able to zoom out and explain about the research and design work that goes on school wide at Mount Vernon. We were able to share brain research and pedagogical practices. On other topics we were able to zoom in and drill down to understand the heart of our curriculum. Each parent left with a much richer understanding of who Mount Vernon is, how dedicated and passionate our teachers are, and why our students love their school!

As an exit ticket, parents added one more post-it in response to the prompt,

Now I know…

  • how teachers use innovative techniques to solidify foundational skills
  • differentiation comes in many shapes and sizes in Lower School classes
  • the social studies curriculum is dispersed through grade k-4.
  • kids learn a lot in the morning!
  • how phonics practice looks in the classroom
  • how bright kindergarten children are
  • kids are engaged in what they are learning
  • that the children are learning why, not just the facts
  • about the way Chromebooks are introduced, implemented, monitored, and utilized
  • that children are learning to think and problems for themselves

Each parent agreed that we should continue to offer learning walks to our parent body. It was a great day to take a peek inside classrooms and receive feedback from a different perspective. We plan to open the invitation to anyone who is interested. I will be interested to see how the next couple of rounds go.

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!

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 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

Instructional Rounds

I love that fact that we at Mount Vernon are redefining the purpose of school. Being a learning organization does not only mean that we support the learning of children as our students, we also embrace the responsibility of developing every member of our community – students, parents, teachers, neighbors, and people around the world.

We are committed to doing the hard work, taking risks, failing, reflecting on our failure, and trying again. and again. and again.

Instructional Rounds were launched in the Middle School last semester, and have begun in Lower and  Preschool this semester. This process involves a set of protocols for observing, analyzing, discussing, and understanding the instruction and learning that happens in our classrooms. We look forward to the professional conversations that will begin around these observations and reflections.

Three observers became my mirror last week during our first attempt at Instructional Rounds. Here is the reflection of the Lower School faculty meeting. I invite you to join us on the journey of the practice of Instructional Rounds.