Because Counting Our Blessings Just Isn't Enough

Archive for January, 2012

Walking the Learning Walk

What do six teachers, two members of our educational leadership team, four reflective prompts, two educational foci, one ten minute orientation, five minutes in each of seven classrooms, and one twenty minute debrief equal? A moving professional learning experience!

We set off on our school’s first teacher led learning walk armed with information from a brief orientation along with the following reflective, nonjudgmental statement and question prompts:

I wonder if . . .

What if . . .

I noticed . . .

How might . . .     

Entering classrooms as a group of professional learners, with eyes and ears and minds wide open, we sought insight on two carefully selected foci: student engagement and differentiated instruction. We strove to witness student engagement via levels of participation, attentiveness, observable indicators of a commitment to learning, and focus on task. We looked to recognize differentiated instruction via the range and levels of learning activities and supports available, groupings of students both with the teacher and with peers and independent learning experiences in which students participate.

Our learning walk included not only observations, but also interactions. As possible we spoke with students and teachers in the classrooms we visited, asking them to reflect on their experiences. To students we queried, “How do you know if you do good work in this class?” “If you need help, where can you go?” We refined our questions in response to the specific learning activities we witnessed, asking students to explain their learning and to share and discuss work in their portfolios and notebooks. To teachers we asked questions to help us place our snapshot view of learning into the bigger story of ongoing learning in the classroom.

While we focused our attention primarily on the students, the learning environment was also part of our reflection. We “walked the walls” of the classrooms and hallways to see how visuals speak to learning: what kinds of charts and other visual aides are present and what models of good work are available to students. We explored the physical arrangement of the classroom, wondering about how the organization of space facilitates learning. We examined classroom resources such as libraries, computers and interactive whiteboards, considering whether the arrangement of books facilitates good use by students and how computers and the class interactive whiteboard are used to promote learning. We compared resources from classroom to classroom, pondering whether adequate resources are equally accessible to all students.

After each visit, potent and meaningful, came the heart of the learning walk experience: the hallway huddle. We gathered outside the classroom and crafted thought-provoking, reflective questions and wonderings, aimed not to offer feedback to those visited, but to spark walkers’ thinking about our own teaching and our own students’ learning. Some examples of questions and wonderings included: I wonder how the teachers’ assessment of student learning will be used to guide further learning. I wonder if students in my own class could answer questions about the purpose of instruction. What are alternative ways in which the interactive whiteboard could have been utilized? What if a learning strategist had not been present as a push-in classroom resource during this particular lesson? I noticed lots of interaction between students and teachers and between students and peers. I noticed the teacher asking “what do you think?” questions. How might seating arrangements impact how students seek assistance from each other? How might different layouts of student activity sheets support learning?

As a principal, I listened, awe-struck by our teachers’ insights and their openness to reflection and learning. As if looking into a mirror, rather than observing a peers’ classroom, our wonderings and questions reflected not sage guidance we could offer others, but thoughtful musings on how we could improve our own practice. At first I was quiet, too quiet, taking in classroom experiences through the lens of our teachers, amazed by how much more I can absorb when buttressed by the perspectives of teachers than I can on my own solitary daily classroom walkthroughs.

Our courageous faculty leader, Brandi Minchillo (@MrsMinchillo) reminded me of my role as a participant, gently pointing out to both our Assistant Principal, Ilanit Cury-Hoory (@hoory1) and me that we are allowed to share. I smiled, grateful for the reminder that at times the silence of a leader is welcome and at other times it can be distancing. I jumped into the conversation as an equal, not as a supervisor, in the process gaining understanding into how I can view classrooms more reflectively along with more thoughtful ways I can phrase and communicate what I notice and wonder about on my walkthroughs.

The learning walk ended in my office with a debriefing at which we discussed take-aways and insights. We concurred that we were surprised by how much one can learn from even a five minute visit to a classroom. We remarked on how important it is to utilize prompts to formulate nonjudgmental questions and wonderings. We noted that the learning walk supported us to consider what we can change in our own practice in order to enhance learning. We recognized how enlightening it is to observe classes at each grade level, K-5.

The mandate to be nonjudgmental aside, we indulged ourselves a bit, allowing for celebration of learning occurring in our school. All noted how impressed we are by ways teachers we visited engage students and provide differentiated learning experiences. Perhaps most significant for us was our awareness that in every single classroom we visited, we saw evidence of students becoming independent learners, one of the primary school-wide goals this year associated with our reinvigorated approach to literacy learning. To our delight, we witnessed evidence of independent learning regardless of whether or not we were observing a literacy lesson. We observed teachers transferring pedagogic skill from one curricular area to learning across the disciplines.

We had prepared for the learning walk for months, explaining to teachers in both spoken and written format what would happen. Still, the reality of eight adults entering a classroom can be overwhelming and walkers expressed empathy for those observed, demonstrating sensitivity to the courage required to open the doors of one’s classroom to adult visitors. We agreed that although we were not giving feedback, teachers deserve a thank you e-mail from me.

There are seven more learning walks scheduled throughout the academic year and we plan for each teacher to have the opportunity to be a walker and for each class to be visited. As a start, we visited teachers we perceived would be among the most comfortable and selected as walkers those who had eagerly volunteered. With positive feedback from our learning walk pioneers, we hope our faculty will be reassured and enthusiastic. Our aim in implementing learning walks is to support our efforts at nurturing a self-reflective collaborative culture, breaking down the isolation teachers can experience. Learning walks are one important component of our efforts to transform our school into a learning community in which we focus relentlessly on improving student learning and in which we do so together.

What Will Be Different in 2020? What Will Be The Same?

What is the one most important thing that will be different in our school in 2020?” This profound question was asked at our headmasters’ tea welcoming parents new to our school.  Referring to a substantial ten year strategic plan, lovingly called Vision 20/20 because its realization is anticipated in 2020, this wise parent put eighteen months of strategic planning and another year of beginning strategic implementation into perspective. My mind raced; arriving at an understanding I had been grasping at, but had been unable articulate without the prompt of a meaningful query. Our strategic planning and implementation, impacting so many aspects of school life so substantially can, in my opinion, be described in its essence in one sentence.

In 2020, our focus will have shifted from teaching to learning.

 To some the answer may sound trivial; to others nonsensical; and to still others mere semantics signifying nothing. To me, the answer shapes a process of cultural change and school reform that has paradoxically been grueling and invigorating, oppressive and freeing, painful and joyous, and perhaps most meaningfully, transforming and eternal. Walking the narrow bridge balancing that which is in the process of being transformed and that which is eternal, I could not with integrity explain my answer to this parent’s question without first posing an additional question. What is the one most significant thing that will remain the same in our school in 2020?

In 2020, we will continue to be guided by the core values of our ancient, enduring Jewish tradition. Regardless of how much we change, our essence will remain the same.

Tradition and change has long been a tenet at the heart of Conservative Judaism, the Movement in which I was trained as a rabbi and with which my school is affiliated. But, I don’t believe I am being defensive of my theological heritage when I state that in today’s educational landscape, healthy schools – Jewish schools regardless of denomination, parochial schools of various religions, independent, public and charter schools – will need to balance all that must change with all that must remain the same. As we experience the tremendous responsibility to prepare students for a future we cannot imagine, in which many perhaps even a majority of our students will one day embark upon careers that do not yet exist, we must remember that values; enduring, eternal values, will continue to ground us, serving as a moral compass to help us navigate our rapidly changing world.

.There is no recipe for change just as there is no recipe for how to keep our core values central to all we do. Remaining the same does not mean mindless adherence to practices that no longer make sense, but rather embracing enduring values that are lived in the reality of our daily experiences. Changing does not mean throwing out all of the old, but rather carefully examining ourselves and our practices. We will have to reconsider curricula, the types of learning experiences we provide, student support models, assessment practices, educational technology and other resources, approaches to school leadership, and more. To be successful, we will have to shine the spotlight on the learner rather than the teacher, making each child the star of his or her own educational experience.  No matter how compelling or riveting a lesson may appear, no matter how interesting or engaging a curriculum may seem, we will have to be honest about how deeply students have understood, made our learning their own, and found a place in which their own curiosity, wonderings, talents and passions can emerge.

What will be different in 2020? What will be the same? Please join in this important dialogue and share your thoughts and reflections.

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The Greatest Gift of No Office Day

Our principal will be spending the day with us. What do you want her to learn?

Leading a Reading Group on No Office Day with Our Fifth Grade

The potent question, “what do you want our principal to learn?”, posed by one of our teachers to her class at the beginning of my No Office Day with the second grade last week, not only served as a short journal writing prompt for students to begin their day, but also deepened my understanding of No Office Day.

I love No Office Days! I get to spend the entire day, from arrival to dismissal, with one grade. I’ve scheduled six this year, one for each of our grades – kindergarten through fifth. With each No Office Day I celebrate, I gain greater perspective and insight on the tremendous value of the practice.

I’ve written about No Office Day before in a guest post on the PEJE (Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education) blog here as well as on my own school blog, Perspectives From the Principal here and here. I’ve been interviewed on an Eduleadership podcast along with my talented colleagues Jessica Johnson and William King which you can listen to here. And, I’ve been privileged to collaborate creatively with many inspiring educators on No Office Day, some of whom have shared their reflections on our  No Office Day wiki, which was honored as a featured wiki by Wikispaces and described in a guest post I authored for the Wikispaces Blog.

Don’t misunderstand. No Office Days are not the only times I am in classrooms.  I deliberately schedule two hours every day – No Office Hours – during which I escape the gravitational pull of the office: the meetings, the phone calls, the e-mails, the planning, and the communications, making sure I am present where it matters most, among students and teachers. I’m also out of the office other times: leading student council, covering or co-teaching a class for a teacher, participating in assemblies and programs, interacting with students at lunch and recess, and more. Yet, while I strive to spend much time throughout the school, No Office Days are special. I do no supervision or evaluation of teachers on these days. Instead, I participate actively in learning and teaching as a peer. Sometimes I teach a lesson a teacher has planned and sometimes I teach lessons I have designed myself. Sometimes I provide student support – taking on a small group or assisting an individual student. Still other times, I am simply present, participating enthusiastically in whatever the activity.  

OK, I carry my cell phone and ipad with me throughout the day and have responded to texts from my administrative assistant with questions she needs answered in order to support management of the school while I am out and about. I’ve replied to e-mails from parents or members of the educational leadership team that appeared to require a quick response. Some teachers have sought me out during No Office Day when they feel they need immediate direction on a challenge they face. Our Director of Admissions has introduced me to prospective parents while I am in a class on No Office Day.  I’ve even received calls from the nurse at my own children’s schools and have dashed out of the building, dropped one of them off at home, and returned as if there had been no interruption. Life, both professional and personal, happens. But, mostly, on No Office Days I’ve managed to be present for our students and teachers, actively engaged in learning.

So, back to the profound essential question posed by a second grade teacher – Our principal will be spending the day with us. What do you want her to learn?

What students wrote was potent. What they shared was even more powerful.

Second graders wrote that they wanted me to learn about their centers, their class library, tens and ones, math, reading, writing, how we do tefillah (prayer), good things, what we are learning about nonfiction books, and naming stuff (i.e. text features) in nonfiction books like bold words and headings and captions. One particularly curious child astutely wrote, “I wonder what our principal noticed about our class.”

Students have shared with me on No Office Days even more, including the best place on our campus to build a fort, global variations on the Cinderella story, the status of a child’s sister struggling with an illness, insights on Jacob’s ladder described in the book of Genesis (Bereisheet), favorite football teams, how to have fun solving word problems, ways our pets make us laugh, games to play in Hebrew, areas on our campus that suffered erosion after Hurricane Irene, what the shapes of the continents remind us of and how to critique a friend’s writing respectfully.

With each No Office Day I’ve not only learned more, but as the wise second grader quoted previously wondered, I’ve noticed more. I’ve developed greater respect and understanding for the rhythm and nuance of our students’ days. I’ve gained deeper insight into our students’ school experiences, from their perspective, in their terms. I’ve seen school through the eyes of our students. I’ve been transformed from the leader to the learner; paradoxically helping me to become a far more effective educational leader. That transformation from leader to learner to more effective leader has been the greatest gift of No Office Day, making the time devoted simply to being with students and teachers absolutely indispensable.

Introduction of a Reluctant Blogger

My almost sixteen year old daughter and I recently shared a good laugh (deservedly at my expense) remembering the time I told her she was never ever to blog. It must have been about five years ago, which now seems an eternity. Listening to nervous naysayers rather than investigating and learning for myself, I perceived blogs to be personal diaries inappropriately and self-indulgently shared with the world. I openly confess; interacting on the internet frightened me. Web 2.0 was a term I only vaguely understood and I had not yet heard of a “digital footprint” or “digital citizenship”. As an educator and a parent, I was warned by wise experts in the field to teach my students and my children Internet safety. Dutifully, I brought in speakers about internet safety to school. Like so many parents, when I allowed my daughter to  have a Facebook page I reviewed with her my expectations, which included that she never ever accept a friend request from anybody she hadn’t actually met. Be careful, I warned. The advice was heartfelt and appropriate. It’s just that I hadn’t yet recognized my responsibility also to support her, along with my son and my students, to be creative and collaborative.  Sharing, albeit with appropriate caution, is vital.     

In time, I realized how misinformed I had been about blogging and social media, developing the habit of reading the blogs of educational thinkers from around the globe on a daily basis.  I can no longer imagine professional life without interactions with a wide network of individuals writing from the trenches – principals, teachers, instructional coaches, parents and even students.  These reflective musings have become a blessing to me, as I have learned from the successes and also from the mistakes of others willing to share. And so, albeit a reluctant blogger intially, I join in conversation, hoping to reflect, struggle, dream and engage with others exploring ways to nurture our children’s learning and support our children in building character.

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