Last week our school had its second annual In House Institute during our professional development days. The theme was “Sharing our Practice” and it was organized for language arts teachers in the lower school over a day and a half. Teachers presented to other teachers in small groups on various reading and writing workshop related practices they were amazing again! I feel so lucky to be working with such a dedicated group of teachers.
The large group focus was on taking walk through observations into each other’s classrooms. Since this was the first time our staff had done this kind of thing, I asked for volunteers to open their classrooms to both their team, and to the grade level above and below them. We had 2 one hour sessions of walk through observations with debriefing afterwards. So, for example, Grade 1 walked through three grade 1 classrooms and three grade 2 classrooms in an hour. The next day grade 1 walked through the same grade 1 classrooms and three kindergarten classrooms.
There was a specific protocol for the walk through and a guide sheet that served as a way to focus our attention on key practices in reading and writing workshops. To be clear, there were no kids in the building. We were just looking at what was present in each room. We focused “The Big 5” in reading and writing, which is something that AJ and CM heard talked about at Teachers College at the coaching institute. For reading, the 5 things we focused on were: structures and management for independence, matching books to kids, stamina and volume of reading, charting, and collaboration/partnership work. For writing: structures and management for independence, examples, charting, stamina and volume, and feedback.
The purpose of these observations was for teachers to get an idea of the bigger picture of where their instruction fits in with the grades before and after them. Also, as a staff, we were able to have a focused discussion about the key practices we have identified as critical in workshop teaching and to begin to think about the purpose of each of these key practices (more on that in my next post).
When the walk throughs started, I was really nervous, even though I was not opening up a classroom (as a full-time literacy coach, I don’t have a class of my own). I wanted everyone to have a really positive experience and feel good about their rooms/teaching. However, and this was/is the tricky part, I also wanted everyone to see new possibilities for their own teaching without feeling overwhelmed or bad about what they already had going on. So there we were, pawing through each others student notebooks, scrutinizing each others charts, and digging through student book boxes. When we started in the first room, the air was a little tense (and the protocol called for silence)… but by the second room, the tension began to dissipate. I am so grateful to the brave colleagues who opened up their rooms (1/2 of each grade level) for this great experiment.
In the end, it seemed like people had a generally good experience, though you can never be entirely sure. A couple of take-aways that seemed to span grade levels:
- Consistency between rooms, structures, and grade levels was celebrated. People really understand how much easier it will be for students because we are using a common approach to the teaching of reading and writing. This represents a change from several years ago when people were afraid of being ‘too consistent’ and therefore somehow losing their individual voice as teachers. I think as a school we are at a place now where people understand that you can be consistent and unique at the same time.
- Teachers recognized that what students are doing in the grade below is more rigorous than they originally thought. This realization will help them lift the level of their teaching from the get-go next year. Students know more and need to be held accountable for what they know.
- Collegiality is high. Teams have always shared at our school. But now the sharing is going vertical, and this can only mean good things for students. People are sharing structures, tools, formats, and ideas with people from other grades.
There’s more to say, but this is probably enough for now. I am making a reflection tool for our teachers so they can walk through their own classroom looking for some of the things we saw across grades on our walk throughs. The tool also includes questions for consideration, so no matter where teachers are at in terms of developing their practice, there are ideas to help them continue to refine their teaching practices. If you are interested in this document, email me and I will send it to you.