Start with Questions

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!


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.

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.

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.

a new year; a new opportunity

January 6 offered a new opportunity as a leader and as a learner. I stood before our Lower School Team on Monday morning to kick off the second semester of the year of “How Might We?”. I recognize that everything I did last week sent a message about the way I think and feel about our second semester together. So, I started the year with questions: 1. Would I be doing this work even if I weren’t getting paid? 2. Am I doing this work as unto the Lord? I  shared the well by serving warm coffee and a sweet treat. We had fun together by taking time to laugh. And I took risks with my team even failing in my risk taking. Welcome back!