What do all learners want and need to perform well? Maslow (1943) affirms that next to one’s basic psychological needs, learners require physical and mental security. Furthermore, as Hattie mentioned in a recent keynote, people crave a sense of belonging and love, especially when schools, rightfully so, command excellent instruction and extensive learning. Muhammad (2009), moreover, echoes such thought when he states “substantial cultural change must precede technical change. When a school has a healthy culture, the professionals within it will seek the tools that they need to accomplish their goal of universal student achievement; they will give a school new life” (p. 16).
All learners, little humans and grown humans, want a welcoming relationship with the people around them. All learners also long to know the performance expectations. Furthermore, all learners desire to know how they are progressing (formal assessment). Lastly, all learners crave to know their strengths and ways to improve (feedback). The way in which educators and educational leaders cultivate a culture of well-being and trust is pivotal to such profound learning.
Deep learning expands, and probably can only thrive in classrooms emulating a true community. I define community as a place where every student receives that “quality” instruction and can improve one year or more, academically and social-emotionally, in one year’s time. As John Hattie (2009) explains, there are no magical ingredients to sprinkle in a classroom to nourish student learning. Marzano (2012) further writes that there are no high yielding strategies independent of other moderators such as timing and delivery. Scholars and practitioners, even when they disagree about research methodology, can agree that clarity anchors a community in trust and in rigorous learning. For example, an expert teacher starts the school year by communicating both the behavioral and academic outcomes. The students and staff may then engage in a dialogue around the learning and behavioral expectations. Next, the staff and students may practice these social and behavioral norms in the context of learning the essential academic skills and concepts. Reinforcement or feedback can also crystalize student civility, well-being and academic learning, especially when used appropriately. While interventions and performance may vary in students, all students consistently detect genuineness within people.
While exceptional educators might innately possess some of these communicative traits, we can all develop and grow these characteristics through ongoing research, training and practice. In honing this language of love, teachers break down the strong peer relational barriers, and build an inviting and welcoming class culture of progress and achievement. Graham Nuthall spends a whole chapter in The Hidden Lives of Learners, talking about the need to effectively manage the students’ learning opportunities while in the classroom; and to create a powerful classroom culture that overrides the natural peer culture (2007, p.105). Another words, Nuthall expects educators to create a culture where content knowledge and learner capacity become esteemed in the eyes of the students.
The Language of Love and Learning
Teachers can foster and manage such healthy and positive class cultures by being intentional with their language. For example, instead of a teacher saying “did you do your homework?” a teacher might say, “please place your homework on your desks as we review problem #7 together.” While the order of the words is subtle, the undercurrent of positive intent is substantial, especially over an extended period of time. Teachers build authentic relationships by applying such specific language, again in the context of the academic instruction.
Let’s examine a probable scenario. A teacher tasks students to work independently for the last 20 minutes of class. She periodically roams the room to facilitate independent learning. They are using notes from their outline (created as a class just prior to the independent time) to write a quality grade level paragraph. The students have the checklist at their desk stating the criteria that defines a such a paragraph. The teacher offers her services in a small group setting. Five students seize the invitation to work with their teacher. She asks the students to show where they are in the learning progression (pointing to the rubric listing the criteria under surface, deep and extended learning). The teacher delivers various friendly yet critical responses (also known as feedback), such as:
- Your first paragraph indeed hits all the success criteria. Continue applying those processes as you write paragraph two.
- Write the topic sentence from the outline here on line five and write it in your own words.
- Take a minute to self-grade your paragraph against this rubric while I grade your paragraph against the same rubric, and then we can compare notes.
The teacher upheld the behavioral, social, and academic standards while utilizing formative assessment and feedback to yield noticeable learning. This genuine community was the handiwork of a fellow teacher and myself during the early 2000s when we taught 7th and 8th grade students together in the Southside of Chicago.
The prelude to the above scenario was gaining credibility with our students. For the two of us, this meant greeting our students at the door each morning. For my first two years on the job, I also ate lunch in the cafeteria with my students. My teaching partner often worked with students on their writing assignments during the lunch break. Once the morning bell rang, I often dedicated the first five to ten minutes as a class “set aside.” During this time, students could ask their classmates or me questions, share something weighing heavily on them, or share something light and funny. These examples won’t resonate with everyone’s situation nor personality; yet these routines can spark possible ways for educators to gain the confidence and trust of their students. Such gracious rituals are meant to lift students and staff into the complex yet exciting stratospheres of learning.
The School District as a Community
Just as educators build a sense of community within their classrooms, instructional leaders must also shape a true community in their schools and school district, not just amongst the students but also amongst the adults. Listening to a recent keynote by John Hattie, I am reminded how critical one’s school climate is when launching visible instruction and visible learning. In regards to culture, Pink writes “as the size of the groups increased, it required more sophisticated understandings and interactions with people” (2010 p.77). Many school districts offer regular collaboration and professional development as a viable channel for staff to develop that contagious culture of trust and learning. Such a platform gives people a voice, yet commands student learning and instructional practices be the nucleus of the conversation. The purpose for each collaborative conversation is centered around student learning and instructional practice. Before the dialogue can be steeped in evidence–evidence in student progress and student struggle–the team members must weave collegiality and connectivity into the fiber of their collaborative existence. When such teams start the conversation by identifying “quality” instructional strategies that caused student improvement and achievement, staff feel affirmed, spurring confidence in their individual and collective abilities. From there, staff can acknowledge their struggles with certain students, realize they are not alone in the struggle, and use the conversation to draw upon the collective wisdom of each other. By doing so, staff can either refine current instructional strategies or even discover new instructional strategies so as to return to the classroom and reach students never before reached.
Let’s take a closer look at an existing situation in my own school district. The conversations were sculpted from DuFour’s inquiry cycle.
- What are students learning?
- How are students doing in their learning?
- What are staff continuing, instructionally, for students achieving/improving?
- What are teachers adding to or revising in their instruction for students not adequately improving?
At the start of the collaborative conversation, an administrator can stand back and observe people leaning in toward one another, people nodding and mirroring each other’s body language, and evidence scattered on their tables. As this observer sits with a team, he or she hears a conversation that sounds something like this:
“Students were asked to select one of the five American principles. The one that was most important to them. Then students were asked to justify that principle as being the most important by using evidence from the textbook,” shares the teacher.
“How did the students do?” asks the facilitator.
Teacher: “These students performed well as a result of my clear expectations. Take a look (passed out the student samples). I also shared the rubric in advance.”
Facilitator: “What are you doing for the students still struggling?”
Teacher: “I am going to meet with them in a small group and show them a modeled example that had been completed by a student of mine the prior year. We will rewrite the first paragraph together line by line. The students also submitted a rough draft in which I wrote feedback that they then used to re-write their responses. The remaining students can rewrite their second draft while I work with the small group.”
The overture to such rich conversations emerged after a long two years. During this two years, the district direction shifted to monitor growth in students instead of proficiency. People watched how this new course unfolded. The district kept its word two years running, celebrating and emphasizing its students’ progress over achievement. Now, do not get me wrong, my district still values grade level academic performance. But the distance between students’ current performance levels and grade level was so wide and far, a goal to ensure one year’s growth or more each school year seemed more appropriate and more motivating. With such a doable goal in place, we knew the percent of students reaching grade level would also rise over the subsequent years. The integrity of the district’s mission, matched by its actions, lead to more trustworthiness, and, therefore, meaningful collaboration.
A team of teacher-leaders, the high school site instructional coaches, and the director of curriculum and instruction gathered each month to prepare for and to reflect upon district collaboration. In the preparation, we agreed and reviewed the purpose of district collaboration. One teacher surmised it best when he said, “Collaboration leads to the success of adults, and, then to the success of students.” Tapping into prior knowledge, past experience, and recent training, the teacher-leaders co-constructed the attributes for a high functioning team as well as the descriptors of a high impact conversation. With the purpose and expectations in play, the team could then lean into their collaboration time. As Muhammad theorizes, “if we are going to produce better and more prepared students, school culture must become aligned in purpose and a collective focus on student achievement” (2009, p. 87). With sound instruction strengthened through collaboration, staff and students know the runway is secure, the cabin is stabilized, and they are lifting off into a partnership of observable instruction and profound learning.
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