The Educator's Classroom

Join me as I explore education. As a passionate educator, I am determined in helping prepare students for global competitiveness!

I am currently a Director of Gifted/ELL Education. Although these two groups may appear as divergent as any, they are two populations of students who need extra services in order to be successful students, and more importantly citizens of our world. I am always looking for ways to provide all students with opportunities for them to find their individual success.


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Round 2 of Instructional Rounds occurred this past week at our school.  If you remember from the first time, it was our first real experience to invite people in and receive feedback about what we are doing with our students.  Although we had some good feedback, it was hard to take. 

As a staff, since that point we have continued to challenge ourselves and determine how to make this process benefit our instruction, and therefore the experience for our students, as much as possible.  To do this, we started out by briefly training the entire staff on Instructional Rounds.  We watched a video of a teacher outside of our program in small groups.  The groups were each given a 20 minute segment to mimic the process as much as possible.  They then came back as a group and went through the process.  After that, they re-evaluated our definition of strategic thinking and what we were looking for in our own collegial walkthroughs.  Finally, they refined our “lookfors” and the way we would ask Instructional Rounds participants to graph data.  This process, therefore, got reevaluated by the staff, modified by themselves, and produced a great buy-in after truly understanding the process.

Then we had our experience…  We started with a review of the norms, as we had decided would be helpful for the group.  We split up, had an organized schedule that meant every classroom was observed by three groups for a total of 45 minutes, and took our notes.  When participants came back to our debriefing room, we asked them to delineate what they had seen by “lookfor” categories that are on the collegial form.  They would then indicate whether it was student or teacher demonstrated.  Each group could also provide other indicators that were noticed but didn’t apply and make immediate suggestions.  We moved through the classes as a group and placed our feedback on the board. 

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So, what did we notice this time?  Well, we were aware that we have some areas where teachers are doing most of the strategic thinking.  We also noticed that we had some obvious holes in what is occurring in our classroom.  This process, with this interaction, brought many questions to the forefront for our group.  We have questions about specific indicators/“lookfors” and what they mean for us… perhaps we don’t even know what we are looking for.  How can we become more aligned?  We also decided we need to compare Instructional Rounds data with collegial walkthroughs and my walkthroughs to get a better picture.  This is a definite next step for us as a staff, along with bringing their specific feedback.  Additionally, we started talking about the difference of levels that were posted; for example, creating a brainstorming list and creating a movie are two different tasks but represented the same.  How do we ensure that we are requiring our students to really put forth high levels of strategic thinking?

All of these items are great questions for us to consider as we continue with our work.  Instructional Rounds has made us think, made us question, made us evaluate our work… Shouldn’t this be part of every educational practice?

As an English Language Learner (ELL) department we have realized that our current programming model is not necessarily working for our students.  We see our students gaining English proficiency, but we are missing the mark in helping our students achieve in other areas of measurement.  It’s not that we don’t want to help students become successful, it’s just that we don’t have a model conducive to integrated instruction. 

Currently the program operates, at the elementary level, under a premise that we will service all ELL students in their neighborhood communities.  Teachers travel from school to school, with school enrollments ranging anywhere from 2-38 direct service students.  We currently have five certified ELL elementary teachers and 1 teacher’s assistant.  With a district that is composed of 20 elementary schools and 250 direct service students, this means a teacher’s caseload consists of 2-7 schools and 35-54 direct service students and an additional 7-11 students at the maintence level.  As we try to ensure that students receive minutes respective to their English proficiency level, factoring in travel time, caseloads, and when/how to appropriately service students get’s a little tricky.

We started our discussion as a program with this “perfect” storm of obstacles… Is there a way that we can better service our students than what we are now?

A team of staff members, myself, and TA formed together to conquer this obstacle and are right now in the process of trying to make a switch.  Thus far we have researched about ELL student growth in the U.S., types of program models, and best teaching that can occur for ELLs to gain English proficiency and content vocabulary as efficently as possible.  After the research, we decided that a center-based approach would be our best alternative.  The center-based approach we are consider is not one center, but rather small, neighborhood centers-5 or 6 across the district.  That led to our next step…  Pros and Cons of our model, other models, and the center model.

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As we thought and discussed all of the various pros and cons of each model it became very evident which arena appears to work better for us.  Yes, neither model is completely perfect, but weighing each option brought us to the decision that a center-based approach is where we are headed.

So, what now?  Well, now comes the hard work.  Where do we locate our centers? How do we communicate and get the “buy-in” from the parents whose children will be bused to another location?  Do we go full-blown, district-wide, or start small?  How do we train regular education and ELL staff to understand co-teaching?  All of these questions are next on our list to tackle… We’re pushing ahead, we’ve got to make a change to help our students achieve and succeed.

There is so much talk today about data used in education to help inform and transform what we do with students. Data is a huge part of our world today… the expectation is that we, as educators, are using data to guide our work with our students. Thinking about the vast amounts of data that we have at our finger tips, I believe that it’s not all about the data, but it is to an extent.

Working in a program where data is scarce helps to indicate the need for data. How do we measure students? How do we know when they have learned? How do we notate progress to help guide our teaching and instruction? If there is no data to help guide these efforts, how do we know that what we are doing is working?

This year we have implemented the use of data. Teachers are creating common formative assessments that are built around standards and big ideas to help us know if our students are learning. The teachers and students are using their work on these assessments to help guide their learning process. The teachers use these assessments as part of a portfolio to help us determine the progress of our students… have they mastered the standards necessary?

As part of our “compelling conversation” process I have asked teachers to bring their portfolios to our meetings and we look at the assessment indicators and multiple data measures to help us understand student progress and make predictions for their learning. As we began to look at the portfolio items and the data, teachers began to notice the big picture: student progress and/or lack there of. They knew what direction they needed to continue on, and what was working to engage and motivate, promoting transfer of learning. This was the first time that they had looked at each piece and really assessed what was happening.

Conversations around our students is changing. Teaching using formative assessments to help guide instruction and learning is changing. So, it’s not all about the data, but the data does help.

Pre-Assessments…

At one point in my career I was told that pre-assessments were useless because we already know kids don’t know what we are going to teach them. I beg to differ with this position: what about the students who do? How are we assessing what they know to better determine what we do, and do not need to teach them? Pre-assessing is an important piece of learning… It’s critical in our understanding of our students!

As part of my own PD, I work with a small group of principals in my own district and we practice the format and learning of instructional rounds. If you are unfamiliar with this, it is much like rounds in the medical field, but instead center around what is occuring in education. I admit, this is my first year really working in this group, understanding this practice, and breaking it down into something usable, but it is a great practice with a lot of reflection.

As a group, we’ve developed our problem of practice, which is the first step in the process. We know that we are trying to increase opportunities for students to think strategically in the program. We’ve had a hard time truly determining what stategic thinking looks like in education, but we feel we might have good grasp on that now too… And with that came the first instructional rounds.

YIKES, this is hard! A group of educators from the other schools participating came to our program, listened to what our problem of practice is, and then began doing rounds of 15-20 minute observations in the classrooms. Once rounds were complete, we came back and plugged through our observations to understand where instruction and learning truly are occurring at the strategic thinking level (DOK 3). As the data began going up on the board it became evident… we are not there. That’s a hard pill to swallow, no matter if you understand it previously or not. Everyone likes to be validated… it’s hard when it doesn’t happen.

So, here is where the work begins… We aren’t there… Our students are receiving most of their instruction from the teachers with little opportunity to guide their own learning and we aren’t pushing them to think strategically consistently. Here’s where the work gets harder. Now we must determine what to do to help us help our students.

Instructional Rounds—-Tough, but well worth the learning and impact it will have on instruction and learning!

When evaluating our goal for the year we began looking at data and talking about what we feel is important as a schooling team. Strategic thinking and getting our students to think strategically and at high levels every day became our area of focus. We plunged into this goal, feeling that we had a pretty good understanding on it and what we were trying to accomplish… and that is where our trial begans.

How do you define strategic thinking?

Define this idea for businesses, easy; there is a lot of research to support the need for strategic thinkers in the world we know today. But define this idea for schools and working with children, hard; there is no real definition available that is completely applicable to what we are doing with children. Here in lies a small, but significant problem, for us… how do you work towards something when you have nothing to support you? If we really believe this is important for our students, as evidenced by support in the working world, where do we begin to help our students understand?

How do we move forward?

We used our best understanding based on research articles, websites, and books that we had read. We created a definition for the way it “should” look and we brought these ideas to our staff in our Prezi on strategic thinking. The staff started out on the same page-“Yes, thinking and pushing our students’ thinking processes is important.” Then, however, we got to the definition… Here in lies our second problem: if the rest of our staff does not understand our definition and what it means in our classrooms, how do we move forward? We create a shared idea, right? One that we can all agree on… And so we did.

Strategic Thinking Definition in Relation to Education:

Students will approach a learning opportunity with prior knowledge of skills, connections, and strategies, and be able to apply them to new situations.

It took us a lot of work to get to this point… we had to work backwards: what do we expect from our students when we say that they are thinking strategically? How do we define it so that staff, students, and parents understand our goal?

What are your thoughts on this 21st century skill? How do you define strategic thinking? How do you help students to understand the importance of this high level thinking skill?

As part of a district initiative, all principals have been asked to have “compelling conversations” with teachers.  In turn, principals will also have these same conversations with their supervisors.  The point is for clear communication to occur in an aligned manner where the focus is on what is happening, or not happening in the classroom to help students achieve success. 

I will admit, as a new administrator I was a bit nervous about these conversations.  I believe in two-way communication, but I was worried that my conversations might lack the substance that other, more experienced administrators have. Now, after completing half of the conversations with my staff I will say I LOVE the purpose behind the conversations.  This has really been a great way for me to get to know my staff, what their expectations are, and what they are worried about.  Additionally, it has been a way for us to focus on a group of students per teacher and discuss openly about what my expectations are for them.  These conversations have taken about 1 hour per teacher, but I am thrilled with the depth of conversation that is occurring.  We will continue these conversations throughout the year with one in January as a check-in and then one in May to finish out the year.

My favorite moment occurred with one of my first teacher’s conversations when we were discussing her students she picked to focus on…  She had pinpointed areas that she felt they could use the most assistance with based on know the student and data, developed one type of lesson and assessment to assist in that goal, and created a goal setting opportunity to have with the student. 

Listed below are the questions that I used for our first conversation:

1.      What do you consider the strengths of the program?  What areas do you see for improvement?

2.      What is something that you are working on in your classroom that you would like me to watch for during walk-thrus/observations?

3.      What supports do you need to assist students in learning?  To assist you in learning?

4.      Please choose 6 students to focus on for this semester.  Please consider why you have chosen those students and how you will help them achieve success.  These are students you will keep an eye/focus on their progress. 

5.      What would you like to see me work this year?

This past week the staff and I met as a team to evaluate data pulled from standardized test scores.  We have several students who did not perform as expected.  This was the first time that the staff had seen this type of data about the students.  In the past the staff was using their own created scale to monitor students.  Interestingly, the students who performed under expectations were not identified by the created system.  While we met, I asked them to consider the how we can help these students and how we can measure the progress they are making on these goals.  This was something new, something tough, something that takes deep thinking and reflecting.  Yes, I believe they were apprehensive, but overall they started the tough discussions and want to keep these going.

As I went home after this experience, I began reflecting.  This is a new staff for me, and I am a new leader for them.  I have brought a couple new pieces to them: PLCs and now using standardized data to help us, as one piece, educate our students.  The staff has been willing to try to new things, willing to do what’s best for our students, and willing to reflect and yet I believe I have failed to tell them enough how much I appreciate them.

I’ve decided that it’s time I remember to focus on relationships, it’s time I remember that everyone deserves to be appreciated and so I’ll start with with this:

"As we near the end of the second month of school, it’s hard for me to believe how fast time has flown.  I started to reflect on these past two months and I realized that I have not thanked you all enough.  You are an amazing group of educators and I feel fortunate to work with you, so I would like to say THANK YOU!

Thank you for caring so deeply about all of our children.
Thank you for always bringing your very best to school everyday.
Thank you for your constant reflection on how you can improve your classroom and the schooling experience for our students.
Thank you for welcoming me to your “family.”
Thank you for helping me to learn about the program, how it runs, and why it’s so special.
Thank you for being open to try new things.
Thank you for the extra effort you give because you care deeply.
Thank you for everything that I cannot remember right now, but for which you deserve credit.

 I cannot begin to tell you how much I appreciate each and everyone of you!”

As someone who has spent the majority of her career working in gifted education, I strongly believe in the power of questioning. The types of questions that you ask in your classroom can provide students with the opportunity to think critically about what they are discussing, or they can take minimal effort to provide a surface level answer.

As I’ve been visiting classrooms on my learning tour, this is something I have taken a particular interest in. Are we asking students the right questions? Are we asking them to think, defend their ideas, and provide supporting details to align with their answers? If we are not asking these questions, I fear that we have missed a valuable learning opportunity; one that promotes critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.

Yes, these types of questions are more complex. Higher-level questions will often require pre-planning to ensure that critical thinking is encouraged. This may mean that you develop a list of questions prior to lesson instruction that align with what is being taught.

So, as you ask questions in your classroom as part of your daily instruction, I challenge you to evaluate the types of questions you are asking. Do your questions have students reaching higher-levels of thinking?

The gifted child has specific social and emotional needs that must be considered in any educational environment.  There is a plethora of research available on this topic.  I am also very aware of this having taught gifted education for so many years and being part of a program fortunate to house our own counselor, an expert on counseling and gifted children.  Recently, however, I have been thinking of these needs more as I ran our summer enrichment program.  There were a couple of instances that happened that caused me to think… we must always make sure that we are addressing the social and emotional needs of our gifted students, as well as the academic needs.  

One of my first thinking moments occurred with a kindergarten student who is constantly worried about problems bigger than himself.  This student has severe allergies, so ensuring that we setup a learning environment conducive to his safety was a priority, but in addition to him worrying about an allergic reaction, he also worries about other events. He participated in a class that solved a crime: the stolen teddy bear.  The class setup and execution was amazing… the students were constantly involved in an scientific investigation.  This student, however, took it that the fake “sleeping potion” might in fact be real.  He was very upset by the situation and did not want to come back to class unless I could talk to his teacher and assure him that it would not put him to sleep.  I did as I told him I would, talked to the teacher and then called to let him know.  The mom of this student was very complimentary to that simple task…  she was so happy that during our summer program he could be who he was, worried about large life events, and that we embraced his uniqueness and helped him feel successful.  

Another time I was working with a group of 3rd-5th graders creating art projects.  We had decided to create “ME” boards.  The purpose of the boards was to get them thinking about who they were and what characteristics they embodied.  So often gifted children are told they are smart… but we often fail to recognize other qualities that they hold.  The boards were a way for me to get them thinking about 10-20 qualities that they possess that go beyond their intellect.  We talked about the words they chose and why they believed they held those qualities.  It was a powerful moment to see them reflect on their strengths as individuals as they made them.

Then, I noticed an article about a school district in New Mexico.  In order to serve their gifted population they are going to start meeting their needs with online classes.  This made me think…  Great, this school district is taking a proactive stance on meeting their students’ academic needs, but what about their social and emotional needs.  How can a student who is in an online environment have their unique, often asynchronous, social and emotional needs meet?  

My brief examples are only two small ways that demonstrate the uniqueness of growing up gifted.  Talking with a behaviorist the other day he mentioned the uniqueness of the gifted students that he had noticed in his work.  He said, “Being extremely smart is not always what everyone should want for their children.  Being gifted comes with some unique challenges and some of those are that asynchronous development that leaves a gifted child needing assistance and development of their social and emotional needs.”  

In education, as you work with our gifted kiddos, please remember that they too have unique needs and just because they’re smart, doesn’t mean they are perfect. They need your assistance in navigating the murky waters of their individual social and emotional needs, while understanding who they are.