I had the good fortune to spend about three hours this morning with seven of my teachers as well as my instructional coach who are part of an intra-school “pilot” project inspired by Richard Elmore’s Instructional Rounds in Education. It’s a big chunk of my day, but this is the work that instructional leaders should be doing.
I have a personal goal to support teachers in talking to each other about their practice. As Elmore points out, “one of the greatest barriers to school improvement is the lack of an agreed-upon definition of what high-quality instruction looks like” (p. 3). The rounds process is intended to bring conversations about instructional practice into the school improvement process. The rounds process is adapted from the medical rounds model and includes “observing, analyzing, discussing, and understanding instruction” (p. 3).
My hope is that I can expand this school-wide next year, but I wanted to start small. I worked with my instructional coach to solicit seven teacher volunteers to be part of this pilot. I have a cross-section of disciplines, grade levels, and experience and we meet biweekly for a total of seven sessions. Each teacher will open their classroom to the group one time and have the opportunity to observe the other six over the course of the pilot.
In Elmore’s parlance, I have a theory of action that looks something like this:
If we develop and nurture a school culture that supports collaborative inquiry and the sharing of best teaching practices, then classroom instruction will be strengthened and students will learn in deeper, more authentic ways.
The participants voluntarily come in to pre-brief at 6:45am on lab days. They have no incentive other than coffee and conversation along with their commitment to improve their practice through sharing in the lab experience. Though all participants are observing the same class at the same time, each bring a different inquiry question to the lab experience. These questions run the gamut and are highly dependent on the teachers’ interests and perceived areas for growth.
Some examples of inquiry questions from this group:
- How can a teacher foster global citizenship in his or her students?
- What strategies do teachers use to get students talking about text?
- How can social studies teachers more effectively include historical fiction in their units of instruction?
- How can I move students from external accountability to intrinsic responsibility for their learning?
- How can I ensure that my lessons are authentic and connect students with the larger social context?
The teacher being observed may also pose a specific question related to their class being observed. These questions are posted on our neopolitan-colored “Board of Inquiry.”
At our pre-brief, we also assign people to track specific data that the host teacher requests. For instance, this morning we tracked:
- Use of vocabulary by teacher and students that indicates “global literacy”
- Connections from historical fiction text to self
- Wait time between posing a questions and selecting a student to respond
The most challenging part is arranging class coverage for the observing teachers so that we can all be together to observe and de-brief the process. I am very passionate about the success of this pilot and have committed to using a chunk of the sub dollars allocated to me for professional development. On lab days, we use in-house coverage only when absolutely necessary, instead bringing in four or five half-day subs to cover for lab participants.
Following the one-hour classroom observation, we take a short break, top off our coffees, and re-convene for a de-brief.
Once everyone is back together, we sit silently for a few minutes to reflect on our initial observations. We go quickly around the table, sharing an objective, non-value-laden observation about what we’ve seen. Our instructional coach then leads the group through a discussion connecting one or two of the principles from the Elmore book to the lesson we observed.
It is at this point in the process that the requested data is shared and processed, along with other relevant information. For instance, this morning one of the participants noted that the host teacher had asked 70 questions in a 60-minute observation.
The hour-long debrief process usually flies by, and ultimately ends with each participant sharing something that they believe they have learned about the host teachers core principles. Examples include:
- Ms. X seems to value every student’s contribution to her class.
- It seems very important to Ms. X that her students access their personal experience to build background knowledge before tackling new text.
- Based on the discussion, it seems like Ms. X has high expectations that students are able to connect course content to real-world contexts.
Final Thoughts (For Now)
We are two lab cycles in to our pilot project and we continue to re-visit the norms we established at the outset. It is incredibly courageous of the teacher participants to open up their classrooms to their colleagues, and all have expressed their nervousness to do so.
All in all, I think the two teachers who have hosted to this point have come away feeling positive about the experience. My hope is to generate enough energy and momentum to roll this out school-wide next year. The logistics of pulling this off with 44 full-time faculty will be a bit of a challenge, but I believe passionately that this is the work we should be doing so I am committed to figuring out how to make it happen even if it means I’ll be covering classes.