Grandparents are Curious

While much of our Grandparents Day messages concentrated on connections between their grandkids today and their own childhood, we also pointed out some of the differences as a result of our changing world.

Grandparents know more than anyone else how much the world has changed, and how schools need to change in response. So unlike the teachers each grandparent recalled from his or her own childhood, our Mount Vernon teachers…

not only teach children to find their voice as writers of stories                                    but they also teach children to write code                                                not only teach children to read books                                                                                    but they also teach children to read and analyze blogs                               do not teach about science through textbooks                                                                    rather, they invite children to observe and question their world,                      create and conduct experiments in a lab, and analyze results like                    scientists and engineers                                                                                     provide opportunities for students to develop the skills of design thinkers            digital citizens, and global citizens

We hope this sets each child on a journey to do whatever he or she wants to do and to be whatever he or she wants to be. And as we told the grandparents, the brightest of the bunch want to grow up to be…

Just like their Grandparents!


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.

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.


Who is a leader? In our work with Elizabeth Payne, our strengths coach, we have learned: A leader might be defined as anyone who has responsibilities that impact others. Leaders support and serve. They read people. Leaders inspire others to follow them. They take risk. They care. They are driven by a purpose, yes/and they prioritize the greater good over individual needs.

So, what qualities make a leader effective?  Effective leaders offer stability and have earned the trust of those whom they lead. Effective leaders show compassion. They also offer security and provide hope.

We know that high performing people feel safe in their working relationships and need that security to take risks. They need to be known and understood to be happy. We must be able to separate who a person is from what they do but also know that some of our work is a direct reflection of who we are.

To lead a division well, we try to start with wins, say thank you, and have fun when we are together. We use our strengths to contribute and ask for the strengths of others to round us out. We overcome obstacles together. We strive to set, express, and evaluate clear expectations.

Leadership is a journey, and each of us is the master of our own journey.

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.

My Notebook, Part IV

What do strengths-minded teachers do differently?

In a strengths workshop lead by Elizabeth Payne, we were challenged to produce a list of up to 10 roles we play in life and a separate list that revealed 3 things that make us come alive. Elizabeth pointed out that what we do in life is different than who we are. This was a strong opening to the meeting that got everyone thinking and reflecting.

Next we shifted focus form ourselves to our team. Elizabeth revealed that teams who are strengths-based:

  • have core values
  • discover and develop each others strengths
  • share common language
  • value the team
  • collaborate in community through engagement, investment, and commitment

4 essential elements of a team include:

  1. “We before me”
  2. connection to the larger group
  3. Open Mindedness and curiosity
  4. Positivity

My Notebook, Part III

Notes from a leadership meeting:

Quality Classroom Assessment

  • designed to serve information need of user
  • have achievement targets
  • accurately reflect student achievement
  • effectively communicate to users
  • involve students (in assessment, record keeping, and communication)
  • assess to gather evidence on student learning
  • have a clear sense of achievement expectations
  • use student-friendly language

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!

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.