A couple of weeks ago, I had an opportunity to return to visit several schools in Fresno, California. Fresno Unified School District is working hard with their school leaders to develop collaborative schools. Many of you know that I often share their district’s mission statement with others: “Every student can and must learn at grade level and beyond”. In my opinion, that truly sums up what school improvement really is about; creating opportunities for each and every student to master what is considered grade level expectations and, for those who can, we want to stretch that learning to beyond. So in this tenth blog I am going to tell you about a classroom in Fresno where student learning is truly what the work is about. Meet Aida Flores and her 5th grade class at Bakman Elementary School…
The first thing that you notice walking in to Mrs. Flores’ room is her tree! Right now, it is full of lovely Valentine hearts. She keeps it up to date with the current holiday theme and it just adds such a sparkle to her room. So many teachers, like Mrs. Flores’ share their personalities and love with their students. They create warm and inviting safe spaces for children to learn. And, that is a good thing. But, as we often talk about in conversations about improving schools, we cannot just nurture and love the students, we have to make sure that they are learning at high levels. We want them to be successful, confident learners. And, with many students this takes a great deal of work.
One thing that I really loved about being in Mrs. Flores’ room was the way that she had the students own their learning. Now, what do I mean by that? As she worked through her lesson, the students were the ones doing the thinking. She asked thoughtful questions and waited for the students to answer. For us educators, that is a hard thing to do! So often, we ask a student a question but we don’t wait for the answer. We either move on to another anxiously waiting student who is waving his or her hand at us or we answer it ourselves. There is so much research today around the art of questioning, our wait times and ensuring that the students are doing the thinking. Mrs. Flores’ was really great at putting the work back on the students, waiting for their answers, affirming what they knew and challenging them to continue to think and stretch their learning.
At one point in the lesson she asked the students to share out their answers to a problem that they were working on. One student was called upon to explain her rational and Mrs. Flores asked all of the students to indicate if they agreed. We call this checking for understanding and what I really, really loved, is she actually used the information that the students were giving her about whether or not they understood. You see, I spend a great deal of time in classrooms and I see many teachers use different strategies to be “formative”. In other words, informed about what students know or don’t know but what I often see is the teacher asks but doesn’t really acknowledge the information that she or he received or they really don’t do anything about it. So many times, teachers feel pressured to move on with or without the students. And, this really makes it difficult to have students reach grade level expectations.
Mrs. Flores made her way to this blog because of the very moment that she did this check for understanding. She looked around the room and obviously used her magical teacher “memorizing skills” or maybe like so many of us before her, “she has eyes in the back of her head” (I used to love it when my students accused me of this!). The point is, she actually saw and knew what was up with her students in that moment of their learning. After the student explained the rational and she checked to see who agreed, Mrs. Flores questioned, reflected, modeled and dug deeper with the students on the thinking behind the solution to the problem. And here is the golden moment, she checked again with the students to see who still agreed that the solution was correct, she noticed that one student had changed his mind and she acknowledged this with “Des, I see you changed your mind”. So, why is this so important? Why did it stick with me? It really meant that her checking for understanding was authentic. She was working very hard to know, in the very immediate moment of the lesson, which students were learning and which ones were not. It informed her of what to do next and who she had to spend more time with. She didn’t have to wait for a humongous unit assessment, her daily practice was giving her lots to work from and students were getting immediate feedback on their learning.
So, as I close off for another week, I am reflecting on the work of turning around low performing schools. We have to work on cultural issues, like gathering the collective commitments, collaborating and setting goals as I have talked about in other blogs AND we have to work on classroom practice. Effective instruction and assessment practices in the classroom are not an option, they have to be non-negotiable. So, while we are increasing shared ownership, establishing common, overall school goals and building understanding of the value of collaborative efforts, we have to help teachers be better at engaging students in owning their learning. The students have to go home tired too… not just the teachers. Thank you for being part of my Saturday morning reading group. I really appreciate all of your feedback. Happy Valentine’s Week!