I just finished reading this blog post on twitter from Kristen Swanson with her perspective on classroom walk-throughs. She motivated me to form my mental ramblings into some (hopefully) coherent thoughts on the subject.
I haven’t discussed this topic with colleagues in a while but it truly excites me. I can’t begin to explain the joy and pride I feel when I walk through my school and stop into classes to talk with students, parent volunteers, Educational Assistants and teachers. In my opinion, it’s what makes an administrator’s work meaningful.
There is more to be gained through these observations than I can possibly share in one post but here are a few of my thoughts on walk-throughs.
What is/are the purpose(s) of walk-throughs?
There are as many answers as administrators, but I believe that as long as there is a predetermined purpose and this purpose is shared with teachers the value is there and the opportunity is exciting. I have shared with my staff each August what I am generally looking for when I conduct a walk-through and why I do them. I will do the same this year but writing this post and reading on the topic has led me to make one slight change to this conversation which I will share to conclude this post.
During a walk-through upon entering the class (hopefully somewhat discretely… almost impossible in a Kindergarten class where my legs receive several hugs immediately upon arrival) I try to scan for student engagement. Seems easy, but engagement can take so many forms that it does truly require a discerning eye. If the teacher is “lecturing” (yes I do believe that in small doses with particular information there is a purpose for this) are students focused on the teacher? Do I see head nods (in agreement, not head bobs – indicating something completely different)? Are kids formulating and asking questions? If kids are engaged in group work is it purposeful? Does each have a voice in the discussion? Does each have a role in the group activity? After watching for engagement I take a moment to ask a few questions of some of the students (depending on the learning activity I sometimes need to return in order to not disrupt – these tend to lead to the best conversations).
“What are you learning?”
I can’t recall who I got this one from (Anne Davies? Carolyn Downey?) I really like the language of the question though – the key is LEARNING. All too often I hear from the students what they are DOING. “I am doing this math sheet.” or “I am writing this poem”… but when prompted further, the vast majority of students can tell me what they’re learning if they have been told. With prompting, I hear “I am learning how to do multiplication” or “We are figuring out how to use strong words in our poetry”.
Some teachers have told me that their students are too young, or that due to various learning or behavioral challenges some kids in the class will never be able to answer that question. My experiences on thousands of walk-throughs (Thousands? Absolutely… even just three or four in a day adds up) have shown me that all kids can answer this question in some way at some point with practice and coaching.
As teachers we SHOULD be coaching our kids on what they are learning. I have seen teachers write “I Can” statements on the whiteboard, SMARTboard, or chart paper. I have observed entire bulletin boards dedicated to learning statements, others in middle years state the learning outcome at the beginning of the lesson and kids write it down to refer back to at the end of the lesson or the end of the week. I have seen archery style targets with the learning goal in the centre. If kids know the target, we increase the likelihood that they will meet it.
After discussing what kids are learning I follow up with…
“Why do you need to learn this?”
Again I really like this question because we all know that if students see a purpose in their learning they are more likely to engage with it. I have heard answers like “Because Ms. so and so told me to” to “I don’t know” to “Because I might use it later in life” and on and on… but I have also heard things like – “Well you need to know how to make patterns because patterns aren’t only in Math, they are in Art too and I want to be an artist!” While walk-throughs certainly help me to understand WHAT learning is happening in my school, and HOW the learning is occurring, they provide me with much more.
Walk-throughs allow me to engage with kids in a different way than through discipline or supervision or during coaching etc. Good teachers know that building relationships with kids is critical and they do it in a variety of ways, teaching being only one. Good administrators know that these relationships with kids are equally as important but often times more challenging to form.
During walk-throughs I am also able to chat with parents, volunteers, presenters, community members etc. who are in our school. These conversations prove invaluable!
I also believe that walk-throughs support strong admin/teacher relationships. I want to be able to discuss student learning and achievement with teachers having actually seen it! I want to be able to share with other teachers in my building the exciting learning activities I see in classrooms that they are not able to be in because they are engaged with their own students. I want my teachers to know that I am not forming judgments when I come into the classroom. If anything, I may be forming questions that I am hoping to answer for myself in future walk-throughs or through an informal conversation later with the teacher.
This is an extremely important benefit of walk-throughs. Consistent, purposeful walk-throughs allow me to support my teachers more effectively. When I hear a question from a parent it’s amazing how often I am actually able to answer it because I’ve been in the classroom. If it’s a concern brought forth I am able to honestly and respectfully say “Well you know, I have been in there several times over the past week and I really haven’t seen that, but I will definitely ask the teacher to call you back to discuss your concern.” Often times many of these parents who are willing to take the time to phone or email with a concern are the same parents who are volunteering in our school and who see me on my walk-throughs.
I said earlier I would be changing my conversation with my staff in August as a result of some reading and reflection…this year, in addition to discussing the above ideas on walk-throughs, I will be asking my teaching staff if there is anything in particular they would like me to be observing for. It’s a small tweak, but it could be extremely meaningful for the teacher, our students and myself.
Please take a moment to share your thoughts and insights on walk-throughs. Send me your blogs or articles… I would love to learn refine my own thinking.
In the meantime… back to summer holidays!