One day last fall Meghan Rosa was having an ordinary class with her 12th-grade English students at University Park Campus School (UPCS).
They’d just finished digging into the second act of Hamlet, taking notes in the notebooks each student keeps. Rosa divides her students into small discussion groups called “tutorials.” The assignment was to come prepared to lead tutorial discussions with at least one probing question of the sort that promotes the school’s signature strategy, deep thinking. (See last week’s column.) Any kid who knows how to ask probing questions and how to find solid answers can learn pretty much anything.
UPCS’s 12th-grade teachers have a unique charge to teach their content area – history, science – at the same time as weaning the kids from the intense scaffolding, support and TLC they get from their remarkable school. Fully 95 percent of UPCS’s core-urban students get into college, so the seniors must learn to become completely autonomous readers, writers and thinkers.
The visitors expected that day were no big whup to these students. Lots of people troop through their classes to admire the school’s amazing success.
But unbeknownst to the kids, that day’s visitors were not the ordinary assortment of educators and journalists. A team led by Dr. Thomas Del Prete would be conducting “Grand Rounds.” The Rounds Leader is an education expert, analogous to the star cardiac specialist guiding interns in a teaching hospital. As many as 8 grad students, university and school faculty, or others fill out the team.
Now the Chair and Director of Clark University’s Urban Education Department, Del Prete developed the technique in collaboration with the school when it first opened in the late 1990s.
Back then, UPCS’s founders were hugely concerned with how to promote teacher learning. If the adults are going to model the robust appetites for learning that they hope to see in the kids, how do you feed and care for them so they don’t burn out? Teacher quality depends entirely on each teacher’s ability to be engaged with reaching for new levels of mastery.
Intuitively, it seemed like promoting teacher learning would be at least somewhat similar to helping kids learn. Rounds function much like good teachers, offering different perspectives, tailored to the situation at hand, in a supportive environment. Like kids, teachers need substantial, practical feedback, kudos, and also warnings, when appropriate.
But mostly UPCS wanted to spark an on-going, evolving conversation, among the whole school community, about the nature of great teaching.
Much like the conversation Rosa was prodding the kids to have about the mysteries of the Danish Prince.
Was she nervous?
Well, outsiders would observe her work and discuss it with her. How would you feel? But unlike other team-observation protocols, Rounds ask the teachers what they’d like feedback about. What might a fresh set of eyes observe that teachers are too close to see clearly? These are my strategies; are they working?
Rosa filled out a Rounds sheet which posed her questions to the team. She titled hers: “Shakespeare Is Confusing and That’s Okay: Facing Difficult Texts Head-on Through Tutorials.”
Her first question was: “What ‘college-ready’ behaviors do you see exhibited? Please include the names of students.”
Once the visit begins, the teacher steps aside. Instead of peering at her, the team focuses on the effects of her efforts to inspire the kids’ curiosity, their ability to work together, their willingness to dig into the text for evidence, and so forth.
In Rosa’s class, the outsiders dispersed among the tutorial groups. They asked the students questions of their own and took copious notes. The kids were able to laugh at themselves trying to make sense of the Elizabethan language and world. Even with the strangers in the room, they were easy and playful with one another as they pursued a heavy-duty conversation about the masterpiece.
So yes, as the team said in debrief with Rosa, the kids were remarkably autonomous and responsible for their own learning. The Rounds team gave her very specific responses, with names and evidence – just as Rosa would have required of her students.
Rounds are not exactly a teacher evaluation, at least not the sort that districts are rolling out to their faculties now. To me, most evaluations seem for all the world designed to get rid of the worst teachers by forcing administrators to collect evidence that can withstand challenge. Nor are Rounds professional development, exactly, at least not in the sense of bringing expertise from the outside and imposing it.
Del Prete says, “A teacher invites you in and she frames the inquiry. It’s not done to her. She owns it. Rounds are about getting better together.”
UPCS Principal Ricci Hall says, “A typical evaluation is focused on what the teacher is doing. The teacher is feeling awkward. There’s a lot of focus on the negative. Are the objectives posted as rubrics? Check. Here at UPCS we ask what the students are doing. Rounds focus on teacher outcomes. Did they set up the conditions of learning? Did the kids write to the prompt? We’re about making student learning more powerful.”
The deep-thinking vibe at this school is intense. It’s fun, though. There’s a joyful culture of hard work. Once teachers have set the right conditions, the real work is on the kids.
Which is as it should be. Terrific school.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.