If you have been a reader of my weekly blog on school improvement, I am sure that there have been times that you have wondered what the subject that I introduce has to do with improving schools! If you have stuck with me, I hope that the connections have become clear to you and this week, I am going to beg your patience with me. Secretly, I wish that this situation that I am describing had been part of my elementary school experience! My learning lessons come from many people and places and this week it is all about the “deep end of the pool“.
On the road, I work mostly with school administrators, instructional coaches and teachers who are part of collaborative teams. These educators are usually teachers of Mathematics, Science, Social Studies and of course, English Language Arts. For the most part, I work with the teachers of the core subjects that are heavily assessed for college and career readiness. Sometimes, however, I meet and work with the other adults in the school that, collectively support and create learning for our students. Often, these teachers attend professional development sessions with colleagues and I know that, for many, it is hard for them to connect what we are trying to do to impact reading, writing and mathematics with what they do. But, often I see that they understand the big picture- the need for ALL staff to share ownership of the work to be done. This week, I had the very best example of this and I am extremely proud to introduce you to Chris Wood!
I have had the good fortune of knowing Chris for the past two years. He is the physical education teacher (PE as we call it) at Cherokee Heights Elementary School in St. Paul, Minnesota. This elementary school is blessed with a swimming pool and so the students rotate through three weeks of swimming instruction (four times a year) as part of their PE classes. This is not, however, how I have come to know Chris. I met him first, because, he is part of the leadership team, the guiding coalition, at the school. Principal Rivera had the great insight to include specialists on her shared leadership team. She knew, that to really move her school, she needed their voices and guidance as part of the team that would support continuous improvement. Every time I visit that school, we start the day with a 7:15 am meeting with this team and this is how I first met Chris.
For the past two years, Chris has attended leadership and all summer or after-school professional learning that I have done with the staff. He is, for the most part, a quiet learner. He never misses the learning opportunities and he listens and asks great questions. That is what he did this week. At our early morning leadership meeting, he asked all of us a very reflective question about the trends in the data we were looking at that really impacted our conversation. Honestly, he made us all sit up and take notice and so I started to explore what he was really doing with all of our learnings. And, this is what I found out…
Chris has taken it upon himself to apply effective instructional practices to his instruction. He develops amazing lesson plans that include activating ways to make students think for themselves and self-assess. He was telling me, that for volleyball, for example, the students are given the rubric of what they have to do to excel and then they have an opportunity to videotape their performance (their serves, their bumps, their volleys, etc). Chris has set it up so they self-assess and then email their videos to him for his feedback as well. This all fits with what we know about engaging students in their own learning journey. We often talk about how they have to see the target as it has to be visible and clear to them and that we want them to really understand what they have to do to improve. Chris has listened, read, studied and applied this to his teaching! He also is supporting the overall focus of improving writing in the school and has students write in class (sometimes an exit ticket on the way out of class) to support the overall school goals. And remember, this is in PE classes!
What I really loved about my conversation with Chris this week, is his “deep end” goal for his swimming students. Chris has intentionally explained the goals of the swimming instruction and through the six levels of swimming progression, what the student must do to reach the next level is crystal clear to them. It is, as we say, a “visible target”. There is no guessing, if I am going to get to swim in the deep end of the pool, here is what I have to do to get there. And, guess what? When I make it to the deep end, I get to wear a bathing cap of a different color. The teachers were telling me that Chris’ students LOVE this. They are super excited when they come back to class with this new colored cap! And what I love is that the students know what the target is and they can work their way towards their goal. Isn’t this what we want in all of our classes? That students can own the learning and be part of the responsibility for getting there?
I asked Chris about how he uses all that he has learned to improve instruction. We talked about how he might have decided that the work that we were doing was just for the classroom teachers, that, indeed, he could have checked out of this learning. I asked him why he works so hard at these instructional practices and he explained to me that he 1) always seeks to understand what students can achieve outside of the gym or the pool, 2) that he gives very clear expectations of where students are going because that is how self-reflection and learning really occurs (he even has a great rubric for how to improve on the backstroke!), 3) he wants to support the overall school goals of school improvement and lastly, his fourth comments says it all, he loves his students and wants to see their full potential.
For me, as a school improvement coach, it doesn’t get any better than this. A teacher who sees the bigger vision of shared ownership- of all of us owning the work to be done in a school and knowing that it isn’t just the English Language Arts teachers or the Mathematics teachers’ responsibility to ensure deep learning of essential skills. He understands that it is about the students and he contributes as a leader in and out of his classroom. And, I know that there are Chris Wood(s) in all of our schools. We just have to believe in them, support them and help them see their impact. Including everyone in the messaging, the learning and the high expectations for implementation is what the school improvement journey should be all about. I will leave you with this thought… is that what it looks like in every nook and cranny of your school? Is there focused, intentional learning everywhere? Chris has challenged himself to continue to be a lifelong learner; student by student/skill by skill and he is making a difference! Thanks for reading. See you next Saturday.