From Shared Agreements to Changes in Practice
Rowland (CA) Unified School District’s Framework for Efficacious Instruction is an example of how one school district is beginning to enact shared agreements about what quality literacy instruction looks like (see my first post in the Building Collective Capacity series for background on this framework). “Enacting Shared Agreements” is one domain in the National Center for Literacy Education’s Framework for Capacity Building. During the 2011-2012 school year, the district expected each school site, under the leadership of its School Instructional Leadership (SIL) team, to create learning opportunities for staff members to make meaning of the framework and to hold reflective conversations about their instruction in light of the framework. In June, I spoke with Nancy Padilla, principal of Nogales High School (one of the district’s three high schools), to hear how this process unfolded at her site.
In October 2011, every school in the district, including Nogales, used an early-release day for an introduction to the framework (for more, see this post). A design team comprised of educators across the district designed the introduction in order to create coherence across all sites. Each site’s SIL team would then facilitate the learning for its respective staff. “It was a good strategy, and it worked well,” Nancy told me, “but I didn’t want people to just stick it on a shelf and say that’s nice and move on. What I wanted to do was make it real.” So she and her leadership team decided to connect the framework to the school’s learning walks.
Every month, as part of its school improvement plan, Nogales holds at least one learning walk, where teams of teachers walk through classrooms to gather data about what instructional practices teachers are actually using with their students. In 2011-2012, there were five learning walks per semester, and every teacher had to participate in three of the five. For the learning walks in October and November, Nogales’s leadership team created a template that included the five domains from the Framework for Efficacious Instruction and, for each domain, a list of examples and descriptors specific to Nogales (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Learning walk protocol based on the framework of efficacious instruction
After the two learning walks in the fall, Nancy noticed two patterns. First, teachers did not want to point out anything that was not happening in a given classroom. Second, teachers tended to use the template as a checklist, marking something as present even if it was only tangentially related to the descriptor. “I didn’t know what data I was getting,” Nancy told me. “I saw a lot of check-offs, but little reflection or discussion.” At this point, she and her leadership team realized that they had to narrow their focus. They chose to spend the rest of the year working on two of the five domains: Design for Invested Cognition (Engagement) and Gather and Respond to Feedback (Figures 2 and 3). These two areas fit nicely with the school’s ongoing efforts to engage students more effectively to increase their learning.
Figure 2: Designing for invested cognition (engagement). Figure 3: Gathering and responding to feedback.
In January 2012, Nancy facilitated a staff meeting to make the Invested Cognition domain more than just a checklist. Teachers came to an emerging consensus about what invested cognition would look like and sound like in the classroom. They created a list of behaviors and actions that students and teachers would exhibit if invested cognition were taking place in a classroom (Table 1). From January to May 2012, each learning walk focused solely on invested cognition and gathering and responding to feedback.
Table 1: Nogales faculty discussion about invested cognition
“At first,” Nancy shared, “it still looked like a checklist. But we made a few more changes to the template to encourage more conversation and reflection.” These included creating more space in the template for “comments and wonderings” and making the simple change to take out the bullet points on the list of descriptors (Figure 4). “It sounds so trivial,” Nancy added, “but [taking out the bullet points] helped us remember that we were not going in and checking off all the things we were doing. Rather, we focused on how do we know—in the true sense of knowing—that when we walk out of a classroom, there was invested cognition.”
Figure 4: Learning walk template from spring 2012
Nancy told me that, according to an end-of-the-year survey, one group of teachers felt that “one of the best pieces of work we did all year was all of our walkthroughs,” while another group felt “the least effective thing we did was walkthroughs.” Many teachers still see the process as evaluative and don’t like going into somebody else’s classroom. “We don’t come back and say it was good or bad. We describe what we see. And when you don’t see something, that makes some teachers uncomfortable.”
Nonetheless, she is proud of the work her school did in making the RUSD framework come alive in classrooms. “It helped us narrow our focus. It helped us gather our data so that we could be more specific about what kinds of behaviors, what kinds of actions were the students doing, and what kinds of functions were the teachers engaging in.” The learning walks gave Nancy and her faculty evidence that invested cognition and gathering and responding to feedback were taking place in more and more classrooms. Her challenge for the 2012-2013 school year is to dig into the two areas more deeply, to expand her teachers’ repertoire in those areas, and identify more practices that everyone should be doing. “For example,” Nancy said, “we are getting better at gathering feedback, but we are not yet getting much better at responding to feedback.”
Nancy’s story shows that the district’s framework for efficacious instruction was just a beginning point to building capacity. Educators must then invest time to understand together what student and teacher actions should like in the classroom. In that way, a shared agreement about instruction can become more than just words, but actual instructional practices that support student learning.