Teachers and administrators all over are trying to figure out how to support English learners (ELs). One of the schools I work with, United for Success Academy (UFSA), in Oakland, California, has launched a concerted effort in the last year to address the needs of their ELs, who comprise some 90 percent of the student body.
Teachers at this middle school have engaged in professional development on a range of instructional approaches, including explicit academic vocabulary instruction, the use of sentence stems, and various structures for small group discussion.
This staff has been working diligently, but it’s been hard to measure the impact of their efforts. Written assessments don’t give us a complete picture of what students can verbally express—of course, the intention is that spoken language will translate into high written performance, but these are also two separate things.
Enter instructional rounds: a process adapted from the medical rounds model that doctors use in hospitals. Instructional rounds help educators look closely at what is happening in classrooms in a systematic, purposeful, and focused way. Given where UFSA was this winter—well into implementation of a number of strategies to support ELs—trying instructional rounds seemed worthwhile.
The first step in an instructional rounds process is determining a problem of practice. This is often framed as a question around which a site wants to gather some data. UFSA’s instructional leadership team proposed the question, “What are our students saying?” Almost all of the teachers, as well as the administrators and a site coach, participated in the rounds that took place over three days. In small groups, teachers visited four of their colleagues’ classrooms for 20 minutes each, looking for evidence related to the problem of practice.
One of the most challenging aspects with rounds is that the evidence must be observational and non-judgmental. When visiting classes, UFSA’s teachers took notes on anything related to the question, “What are our students saying?” This included direct quotes from students, teacher directions related to discussion and dialogue, and quantitative data on how many students responded to a teacher’s question or engaged in a group discussion. Noted were pieces of evidence such as: “teacher asked a question and called on a student,” “student glanced down at the sentence stems that were taped to his desk before responding,” and “student said....”
After visiting classrooms participants engaged in lengthy reflection and debrief protocols. They tried to make sense of the data they’d gathered without jumping to conclusions or solutions. They discovered that there were many ways that students were engaged in discussion, (whole group, small group, partner talk) that some students demonstrated developing usage of academic vocabulary, and that teachers were using a number of effective strategies such as equity sticks, sentence stems, and modeling by using academic language. Teachers felt good; they saw evidence that they were on the right track.
A Big Question Emerges
Looking at the data, one teacher posed a question that caused much reflection: Is it possible for one of our students to come to school on Monday morning and not speak for the entire week? Could they actually travel through all their classes and never speak?
Most teachers nodded their heads. One thing they’d all noticed was that there was less student talk than they’d expected, assumed, and hoped for. There were invitations to speak, some structures established, but there still wasn’t as much talk as they wanted. And then as they thought about specific kids in their classes, they reflected that, yes, it was possible that some students could go for a week, or two, or maybe even a month without speaking. Teachers began to think and talk about how to address and change this.
As a school improvement coach, I’ve been in dozens, perhaps hundreds, of classrooms where ELs predominate. Over and over I notice that kids aren’t talking much. The research also says this. It seems as if every other week there’s an article saying that ELs need to speak more, need structure and support and a bank of words to choose from, and more than anything, they need to speak to each other more. I often want to tell teachers, “Just let them talk,” but I know how that might be received.
Instructional rounds was a powerful process at UFSA for teachers to get in to each other’s classrooms and see what students are saying, doing, and learning. After rounds, many teachers reflected, “We need to get our kids talking more, every single one of them.” I’m excited to see what happens in the next few of months as they implement more refined strategies for ELs. And in mid-April, they'll engage in instructional rounds again.