NEIHOF: Shelby teachers model teaching and learning

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One of the Board Goals last school year was to “Enrich and grow Thinking Strategies teams at each school to develop Model Lab classrooms” – otherwise known as workshop models.

By James Neihof

When you hear the word workshop, you might envision a carpenter’s bench, hammer and other tools where products are crafted. I know because I dabble in construction as a hobby.

However, I do more than dabble when I visit schools in Shelby County on the lookout for a workshop classroom.

Let me explain.

One of the Board Goals last school year was to “Enrich and grow Thinking Strategies teams at each school to develop Model Lab classrooms” – otherwise known as workshop models. Three core elements of a workshop are:

1.    Crafting – Students see teachers’ thinking in action.

2.    Composing – Students practice thinking.

3.    Reflection – Students reflect on what both the teacher and they did.

A recent classroom visit to West Middle School allowed me to see a model in action. It is something of beauty to behold when three or four middle- school-age students lean over a table and discuss the differences between qualitative and quantitative data, agree on solutions for problems and pose arguments – all while the teacher, Melissa Hutchins, responds with even deeper, more probing questions.

Teachers in Shelby County must be drinking the same Kool-aid or hanging out at the same coffee shop or reading the same books. Something is going on, because I am seeing similar patterns of student learning and engagement across the district.

Tracy Gayle’s fifth-graders at Wright Elementary were discussing the previous day’s assembly when I walked in on a recent Tuesday morning. The desire to share opinions was nearing a fever pitch when Ms. Gayle unveiled a writing prompt. As students prepared to prewrite with shoulder partners, she reminded them of the high expectations that existed – telling them they were all proven great writers.

On another day, I stopped by Kelly Arnold’s reading class at Shelby County High. The posted College/Career Readiness Reading Standard asked students to cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from text. Wow, did she ever pick a high-interest text for them – Zombies!

She asked, “Is it appropriate to kill zombies if they are in a video game? If it is wrong, would it be more or less wrong if you recognized the faces of the zombies?”

I watched as students, even a few who looked grumpy at first, were drawn to read and mark the text. Why? Because it was a topic they all knew and cared about and because they couldn’t get their opinion into the conversation without citing text and writing a response to the text in the margin. Ingenious!

Teachers across the district are teaching our students to think. They are doing so with a common selection of strategies – Thinking Strategies. I applaud this work, realizing they see the perfect way to start is with the workshop model.

Some expectations for workshops – at all levels and in all schools – are:

1.    Teachers presenting a concise and well-crafted mini-lesson to kick off the composing time for students.

2.    Composing has an allotted amount of time as the teacher stays on schedule and on task.

3. Reflection is the component that should be prioritized. This allows the teacher to have a formative assessment with which to plan individualized instruction for the next day. This eliminates planning a more general, one-size-fits-all lesson for the next day. Instead, students receive finely tuned and personalized lesson based on what they knew and could demonstrate the previous day.

I wanted to get you acquainted with the workshop model classroom because more and more are being developed in our school district, based on the Board Goal I mentioned earlier.

A total of 350 administrators and teachers have been trained in the Thinking Strategies practices. Instructional coaches at every school coach teachers daily in a cycle of continual improvement. Next school year, Shelby County Public Schools will be a Thinking Strategies training site, which means there will be 30 classrooms ready for two institute visits in the 2013-2014 school year. That means we become the workshop in which other teachers from across the nation can see how students can learn and master content.

By no means does this mean that we have scores of teachers who are perfect and have all the answers. It does mean that we have scores of teachers who are so committed to continual improvement that they are willing to open up their doors to inquisitive visitors, not only to share their methods but also to improve based on the feedback of other learning and growing peers.

Reaching this point is a milestone for our school district – a milestone worth noticing. Sure, we have miles to of climbing ahead, but it is great to pause, look over our shoulders and recognize that the road behind is downhill.

This month we pause to celebrate this milestone and the achievement of this Board Goal, so we can strive for new, more challenging goals in the coming school year.