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The Learning Walk Shuffle

“What are all these teachers doing here?” more than one child asked as a group of nine adults filed into the classroom. “Just learning about the great learning you do,” we answered with a smile.  “Shuffling up our professional learning,” I happily thought.

Learning walks have shuffled our professional learning, moving us from our expected “spaces”, or rather classrooms, into our colleagues’ classrooms. This year to date our faculty has celebrated five learning walks (with more to come); in which a group of teachers visit classrooms in each of our grades K-5 along with one specialty class. Our purpose – to break down the isolation of educators, moving us into each other’s classrooms to notice and wonder about learning in our school as it is and as it might someday become.  We plan to make it possible for every teacher in our school to participate in at least one learning walk per year.

What on our learning walk looks different than it would have looked five years ago?  What might look different on our learning walks two years from now?

I posed these two questions during our learning walk debrief. It was the first time I had asked in quite that direct manner. The answers were insightful.

What on our learning walk looks different than it would have looked five years ago?

Whether in kindergarten or fifth grade, and indeed any grade in between, regardless of subject, we saw a similar sight – students spread throughout the classroom working in combinations of small groups, partners, and independently. Teachers were either guiding a group or conferencing with individual students. In only one class, other  than in physical education, were students participating in a full class experience and in that case it was a debrief on work they had  been engaged in independently prior to our visit.  Classroom furniture was arranged to promote collaborative learning and there were comfortable corners for students to read independently or with a partner. There was a relatively noisy buzz of students speaking with one another. There was a mix of required learning activities and opportunity for student choice among various options. There was ample evidence of differentiation and student engagement, the two foci of our learning walks to date this year.

Five years ago, had we participated in learning walks, we would have observed far  more full class experiences led by the teacher and far fewer opportunities for students to choose from among different learning experiences.

What is the same?

While interactive white boards are in each class in the school, in many classrooms we visited they were not being used. Students did not have technology, whatever the specific device, flexibly available for their use. Bulletin boards, for the most part, displayed class expectations and learning resources important all year, as well as substantive, completed student projects which might or might not be connected to current learning experiences. Bulletin boards did not, for the most part, display the most recent student work along with rubrics explaining specific learning goals, with expectations and resources that change as student progress unfolds.

Two years from now we anticipate seeing on our learning walks many more technology tools (whether iPads, laptops, or other devices) available to students in our classrooms, not merely in our computer labs and media center, actively utilized in fluid, flexible organic ways to support student learning. We anticipate seeing evidence of student work in progress, along with rubrics and shifting resources based on student progress prominently displayed and recognizable as the basis for instructional choices, with the spot light visibly on student work to drive instruction. We anticipate even more differentiation and opportunities for choice in learning experiences.

While learning walks are non-judgmental, human emotion and our passion for our craft are not ignored. We huddle in the hall after each classroom visit and reflect using the prompts, “I noticed”, “I wonder”, “What if” and “How might”. The reflections create an opportunity for celebration – joy in our progress along with excitement about possibilities for continued growth.

We notice what we value.  Our recognition of evidence of differentiation and student engagement, the two foci for our learning walks to date is potent. Similarly, our ability to imagine a not so distant future with greater educational technology integration and more substantial focus on student work in progress to drive instruction speaks to our self-awareness as professional learners and reflective educators able to envision learning goals not yet accomplished.

Just as a strategy of good readers is to visualize what they read, a strategy of good educators committed to growth is to visualize school as it might become. By filling in the prompts “I notice”, “I wonder”, “what if?” and “how might?”, our learning walk shuffle not only brought us into “spaces” in our present reality, classrooms of our colleagues, but also shuffled us through the boundaries of time, bringing us to “spaces” of our future, enabling us to envision what we anticipate we will notice on learning walks of our future.  Those images fill us with excitement and energy.

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.

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