Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

01.08.18How Freedom Prep’s Jasmine Howard Checks for Understanding

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Students at Memphis’  Freedom Prep


We’ve spent this past year working with Freedom Prep, a network of 4 high-performing schools in Memphis.

The goal  for us is to help them take their program to the next level, and the journey has been a rich one–the team at Freedom Prep is dedicated, smart and insightful and their schools are bright, warm, welcoming places with strong academic cultures where students are prepared for college. So while we hope we’ve helped them assess their schools’ needs, plan top-quality PD, and refine their tools for improving teachers, we also know we’ve learned a lot.

One example of that is this video of math teacher Jasmine Howard, which demonstrates what we think is really first rate Checking for Understanding. In the video below Jasmine has added a question into her lesson just before before independent practice specifically to assess whether students are ready to work productively on their own.

EA.CFU.GR8.Howard.’College bound.’Clip2749 from TLAC Blog on Vimeo.

Independent practice is hugely important but only if students know enough to do most of the work successfully. So Jasmine here sets out with the mindset that part of her lesson design to to allow herself to gather real time data on student mastery and use it to make decisions–even before the lesson has ended.

Once she’s assigned the problem, Jasmine starts circulating intentionally and methodically.

She’s not just giving students individual feedback and encouragement but she’s gathering data on who is where in terms of progress. You can’t necessarily see it here–we edited the video for length–but she gets to every student in the class in just a few minutes, in part because she has Standardized the Format (technique #3 in Teach Like a Champion) and this has made her observation efficient.

Next Jasmine stops, calls the class together and reviews briefly. She gathers data one more time, this time using ‘hand signals’–a version of the Show Me technique (Technique #5 in Teach Like a Champion) where students present objective data to the teacher in unison to double check how many students got the problem correct.

Most of the class has solved the problem so she knows the right move is to push ahead with more challenging work done independently.  But… what’s best for most of the class may not be best for all of the class. While most students need the challenge of next steps, a few students are struggling, so as Jasmine sends the class off to independent practice she says, “If i need you I’ll tap you for my back group.”

As she circulates around the room she subtly taps four students’ desks, calling them to the back table for extra help. The majority of students get the practice they need while a small group that’s having trouble gets extra support from her.

Her instruction breaks down the original problem into component parts; they practice each in simple form before adding complexity. But even then gathering and assessing data is a critical part of what Jasmine is doing.

My colleague Darryl Williams, who is leading the work our team is doing with Freedom Prep, described it this way:

When working with her small group, Jasmine inserts specific points in the lesson where students must get confirmation that their work is correct before moving on. Jasmine says, “Look at function 1, and circle your rate of change.” As she looks at each scholars’ work for accuracy, she says “perfect” for each and then says, “Now, in the table, find your rate of change.” This Affirmative Checking allows her to gather data on how her scholars are progressing towards mastery while also ensuring that they will be truly prepared for more rigorous/complex work. Her goal is to send scholars back into their independent practice with the confidence and skills necessary to achieve mastery.

Perhaps what’s most noticeable is the tone and culture in the room. Jasmine is calm and supportive with her strugglers. There’s a Culture of Error (technique 8) in the room wherein it’s safe to be wrong and therefore students comfortably discuss their errors with the teacher.  And of course there’s also a culture of mutual respect. No one giggles or judges when four students are called to the back table. She’s established that some get called to the back table for extra help and some for extra challenge and everyone will be back there for one or both during the year–so life goes on a normally as could be–each student gets what they need and misunderstandings are caught and addressed right away–before the lesson is even over. All of this only happens because the classroom is warm, orderly, safe, structured and academic.

It’s impressive work from Jasmine and I’m proud to share it with teachers who I know will adapt and borrow her ideas.




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