Kevin Agtarap is a third grade teacher at Ka’imiloa Elementary School, a K-6 school on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. When Ka’imiloa embarked on their Visible Learning journey in 2014, Mr. Agtarap was a curriculum coach. We sat down with Mr. Agtarap to get his perspective on Visible Learningplus both as a coach and as a classroom teacher.
Q: What is your role at Ka’imiloa? How did your Visible Learning journey begin?
A: I am currently a third-grade teacher, but I was a curriculum coach when Ka’imiloa began implementing Visible Learningplus. I went to the Foundation Day workshop with an open mind, but I was apprehensive at first. I was worried that Visible Learning would be something extra for the teachers to do. Teachers have so much on their plates, and it’s hard to connect all the dots. My goal as a coach was to help the teachers connect everything they did to the state mandates.
Even with my apprehension, I left the Foundation Day renewed. The practices were streamlined so we could easily see which ones were proven to be most effective and least effective. The teachers were already doing many of the practices. What Visible Learning was suggesting was that teachers focus on a few practices that will give them the most bang-for-their-buck.
We began rolling out Visible Learning by focusing on the learning journey and the concept of “the pit” (students are in the pit when they are struggling with new concepts). We also received training on feedback, which was huge. Most of the feedback I heard, and even the feedback I gave to my students, was very surface level. The Inside Series Feedback workshop made me realize that feedback is much more than praise alone. There are appropriate times to give different types of feedback if you want to help students make progress.
Q: How were the Visible Learning workshops different than other PD sessions?
A: The Visible Learning workshops were related to what we were already doing. Other PD sessions I’ve attended were very “sit-and-get” and not always well received. Visible Learning PD is about honoring teachers’ successes. Our presenter was energetic and really made us think. She helped us make connections and get excited about our journey.
Q: Ka’imiloa just completed their second year of Visible Learning implementation. This time, you were in the classroom. What did you work on?
A: This year, teachers worked on giving students a voice. As a teacher, you are focused on what lessons the kids need to learn to do well on assessments. In the middle of all that, you forget that students have questions and want to have a say in their learning. I used to find myself saying, “Put your hands down and ask me after the lesson,” but it’s important to honor those questions during the lesson so we can address misconceptions and have further discussion.
We also worked on teacher clarity and co-constructed success criteria with our students. The learning target is where you are going and the success criteria are how you are getting there. Before this year, we were just giving our students the target and not giving them a path to get there. Co-constructing success criteria with students was difficult at first because we were just beginning to develop a shared language of learning, but the kids became more invested in their learning and eager to learn as a result.
Q: How did you create a shared language of learning in your classroom?
A: As a school, we formed a shared language using learning targets, success criteria, and feedback. With my class, we took what we learned and dug into it on our own. For example, I would write a word or phrase such as “What is a good learner?” in a circle, and we would brainstorm what characteristics made a good learner. At first, students were able to tell me surface-level ideas, such “a good learner sits quietly.” But after more discussion, they told me that a good learner sets goals and monitors their progress. Digging into these concepts with my students really helped us create a shared classroom language.
Q: What are you doing to measure your progress?
A: This year, we began a series of Impact Cycles. An Impact Cycle begins with teachers gathering evidence of students’ learning needs. This year, our Impact Cycles were centered on teacher clarity. At the end of each Impact Cycle, we evaluate our progress and the progress of our students’ learning. Teachers take the time to figure out why students do not understand certain topics. We look at the class data, put students into groups based on their level of understanding, and adjust teaching based on how each student learns best. Students who still don’t understand receive more individualized attention. Visible Learning has been a game changer for how I manage my classroom since it is filled with learners at all different levels.
Q: What do you plan to focus on in the coming school year?
A: I want to encourage students to be confident when self-assessing their work and the work of their peers. This will include encouraging students to share their assessments with each other, which I believe will help build a community of trust among the students. I also want to help my students track their dreams and aspirations to see if there is change over the year.
Q: If someone came to you for advice on creating a Visible Learning classroom, what would you tell them?
A: It all starts with having a growth mindset. When faced with many state mandates and initiatives, it’s easy to lose hope. You need to ignore that voice in your head that says, “I can’t do this.” Also, don’t try to do everything at once. Visible Learning is so impactful because it allows you to make small changes along the way and celebrate your progress. Celebrating the little accomplishments helps boost morale!