What I Learned from Two Top Schools

What I Learned from Two Top Schools

This week I got the opportunity to travel out of state, to evaluate and learn from two of our nation’s highest performing urban schools. Representing the National Center for Urban School Transformation (NCUST), I was able to get ‘up close and personal’ with these schools, their leaders, the teachers, and the families that put their trust (and their kids) in them.

NCUST exists to improve (and transform) education by identifying, celebrating and studying elementary, middle, and high schools that are among the most effective in the country.  Schools awarded by NCUST are not just good. They are exceptional. These schools are creating school cultures and implementing strategies that are working. Schools are seeing historically under-performing populations of students beat the odds. In these environments, English Learners are proficient at eye-popping levels.  Students who receive free and reduced lunch are out-performing many of their peers.   And ethnic categories are not predictive of assessment scores.

NCUST’s 2016 National Excellence in Urban Education Symposium is just around the corner. And after more than seven years of this work, NCUST released a book detailing best practices.  But there’s nothing like spending a day at one of their award-winning schools. After visiting two schools, on consecutive days, here’s what stands out to me:

1. Everyone feels fortunate to be at their school. Administrators rave about the their “family.” Most teachers have long tenures at the school and many enroll their own children. When talking about her pre-k daughter, one teacher shared, “I know she’ll be successful here. And that’s what I want for her.” Parents share that they “chose” the school, even if it was their neighborhood school by default.

2. School leaders are strong but trusting. Leaders at these effective schools know that teachers excel when they are trusted, challenged, and noticed for their efforts. An Assistant Superintendent of Instruction relayed, “While the ‘what’ [of teaching content] is non-negotiable, the ‘how’ is totally negotiable.” Teachers in these exceptional schools feel that the administrators trust them to meet the needs of their students, without prescriptive approaches. One teacher went so far to say, “Because our administrators trust us, we trust them when they ask us to try something out.” Teachers shared that they were visited quite often by administrators. But the visits were not threatening because administrators communicated a focus beforehand, provided feedback almost immediately, and pushed their staff improve, with great tact.

3. Children aren’t allowed to hide. Texas schools have small class sizes. This, no doubt, increases the chances that teachers will know their students well. But these exceptional schools make purposeful efforts to know their kids, and their skills. They have systematic ways of assessing students and monitoring their progress. They have small groups, inside and outside the classroom, to target student needs. And they keep parents in the loop. In short, students are known well and expected to achieve.

4. Community partnerships are nurtured. One school capitalizes on willing mentors, from a nearby church. Another uses trusted adults to help at pick-up and drop-off. Voting booths crowded the main hallway of one school, serving as a critical “Super Tuesday” community hub. In both places, value-added opportunities are offered to students as a result of the school’s posture and relationship with their communities.

5. Teachers are usually skilled, but always committed. We saw incredible teaching and learning. We saw effective strategies employed that gave students access to curriculum. Admittedly though, we saw a portion of mediocre teachers. But students are still achieving success. I attribute it to the teacher’s commitment. Teachers stayed after school to tutor their students. They naturally and openly collaborated with their colleagues. And they demonstrated a commitment to continual improvement.

6. Data analysis leads to individualized approaches. Student achievement data is taken seriously, analyzed frequently, and used to plan for instruction. Often, teachers form groups of students with similar needs for re-teaching. One grade level utilizes color-coded spreadsheets so that everyone could visualize the progress toward mastery of standards. This grade level ‘just happened’ to see 100% of their students achieve proficiency in math. Another grade level involves students in the tracking of their progress, using Data Folders.

7. Opportunities for enrichment abound. In both settings I observed, students had opportunities for further academic support and enrichment. From Lego clubs to ballroom dancing lessons, student curiosity had room to grow.  Many of these students would not have these kinds of opportunities, absent the school’s offerings.

8. English Learners have low-stakes opportunities to practice language.  The schools I visited had large percentages of English Learners. Amazingly, English Learners at these schools were performing at impressive levels.  I believe these students achieved, in part, because they were afforded low-threat opportunities to practice language skills.  Students often sat in groups.  Their language production was guided by teachers.  And ‘goofs’ weren’t punished with discrete snickering or permanent grades.  These students saw the classroom as a practice field.

Teaching Kids with Alarms Going Off:  Trauma-Equipped Educator Part 2

Teaching Kids with Alarms Going Off: Trauma-Equipped Educator Part 2

Bluuuooop! Bluuuuoooop! Bluuuuuooooop!

One moment I was teaching, pointing out brilliant uses of figurative language in literature. The next moment, I was flustered, confused about the piercing noises. Once I remembered that the fire alarm was indeed scheduled to occur, I was able to locate the emergency backpack, line students up, and get them to their designated safety location.

By the time I got students back into our room, the class’ limitations became apparent. Learning for that period was over. Soon enough, the passing bell rang, desks were straightened, and students filed out.

Fire drills occur roughly once a month in schools across America. But what would it be like if these were daily occurrences at our schools? What if alarms sounded multiple times throughout your school day, often without warning? Would you switch schools? Would you contemplate a career change? At what point would you deem it intolerable?

This is, in fact, how many of our students experience learning in our classrooms. Despite their best efforts, students find that their learning is too frequently disrupted by internal alarms, rooted in childhood trauma. These early life experiences, some of them in-utero, have fundamentally changed their brain make-up and wiring. Working with these children, educators and leaders must work to recognize the look and sound of these alarms. We should also work to understand what sets them off, wherever this is possible.

Despite their best efforts, students find that their learning is too frequently disrupted by internal alarms, rooted in childhood trauma.


What Happens in the Brain
Daniel Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D, in The Whole-Brain Child describe two floors of our brains. The “downstairs” brain is formed at birth and functions for the purposes of survival. The “upstairs” brain isn’t fully formed until the age of twenty-one and is where thinking, decision making, emotional control, empathy, self-understanding, and morality happen. Humans need to access their upstairs brain to engage in deep learning and excel our classrooms.

The amygdala, an almond-sized part of the downstairs brain, is a key player in the limbic system. It functions as a watchdog, sensing possible danger and quickly alerting the body to either fight, run away or freeze. The amygdala pulls the fire alarm of the brain and effectively cuts off the upstairs brain. While this function is critical for human survival, it happens all too frequently for children who have experienced trauma in their lives.

Humans need to access their upstairs brain to engage in deep learning and excel our classrooms.


Impact on Learning
In our classrooms, hardly noticeable interactions or even environmental factors, set off alarms in the bodies of children. Students go from engaged learners to prehistoric dinosaurs, in a moment’s time. In the words of Siegel and Payne Bryson, “…not only is the upstairs under construction, but even the part of it that can function becomes inaccessible during moments of high emotion or stress.” It’s helpful for us to remember that this shift is often outside the control of our students. They are often stressed, anxious and dysregulated for reasons that even they are unaware of.

Students go from engaged learners to prehistoric dinosaurs, in a moment’s time.


Recognition is Key
If we, as educators and leaders, acknowledge that this dynamic is occurring frequently, for students we serve, then we are closer to supporting them. When we recognize fight, flight or freeze responses in our students, we know that self regulation is needed before deep learning can happen.  And if we recognize that, “….kids are often doing the best they can with the brain they have,” then we are that much closer to increasing learning for our kids!

“Kids are often doing the best they can with the brain they have.”

Image by Jim Nix via Flickr.