Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

06.06.14Postcard From Houston: Observations on HISD’s Application of TLaC Techniques

The Teach Like a Champion team has spent the last few years working with teachers in a group of schools in Houston Independent School District.  We end each year with a site visit to observe and learn–how are schools using the techniques? What makes training effective? What are the challenges? TLaC team members Rob Richard and Dan Cotton led this year’s visit in May and offered these reflections:

Our trip to Houston provided a great opportunity to learn about how school leaders and teachers in our 16 school TLaC-HISD partnership are implementing the Teach Like a Champion techniques. On previous visits, one of the consistent challenges schools and HISD faced was dedicating time to practice. During our two days, we visited four middle schools — Hartman, Deady, Revere, and Clifton. Each of the schools had solved this challenge. The result: A shift in staff culture from resistance to eagerness for more opportunities to learn TLaC techniques, and a collaborative commitment among teacher leaders and school administrators to developing the talents of their teachers.

Below are four broad take-aways from the visit, and then some shout outs for specific teachers we observed.

  • Each school recognized the value of setting aside dedicated weekly meeting times for teachers to analyze video, discuss the techniques, and practice. School leaders and lead teachers are thinking carefully about how to make these practice sessions a sacred time for the staff’s schedules. For example, one challenge schools face in creating time for teachers to collaborate is coverage – Who will be teaching the students while other teachers are meeting?  At Hartman, teacher leaders and administrators invested many hours last May-July to solve this challenge: They reconfigured their master schedule to move from four periods a day to five periods, and from four lunches to three lunches. The changes allowed grade level teams, led by a teacher leader, to meet weekly to exchange ideas and practice together. Looking ahead to next year, Deady Middle School has already decided they will double down on their 30 minute weekly TLaC sessions for new teachers – so they can bring new teachers up to speed on techniques introduced this past year during one session– and maintain their weekly 30 minute sessions for all teachers to support everyone’s improvement.
  • We were encouraged by the level of collaboration and mutual respect shared by principals and teacher leaders. From our discussions and observations, it was clear  that these genuine partnerships were essential to engaging teachers across the school. “We have a great team here.” “Without these teacher leaders, it wouldn’t have been possible this year.” “I’m not going to lie…it was tough at times. The principal’s support was essential.” We heard variations of these comments at each of the four schools.
  • The folks we met with expressed three benefits provided by the shared language of the TLaC techniques: (1) Efficiency – the common language allows feedback to be quick and precise. (2) Consistency – it supports more consistent teacher practices from room to room – to the students’ benefit. (3) Team Spirit – it contributes to a positive staff culture of collective striving for instructional improvement.  At Revere, the common language exists not just among staff, but with students too – so that students understand what “voice” and “Cold Call” mean as they move from classroom to classroom.
  • Getting buy in from teaching staff is key to successful implementation of any initiative, including the TLaC techniques. Some resistance and skepticism at the outset is understandable. However, the best antidote to resistance is experiencing success. School and teacher leaders persisted in their belief that once teachers experienced success using a technique in their class, they would embrace it. In each of the schools we visited, that shift had occurred. At Deady, teachers were initially reluctant and resistant to having the anchor teacher come in and observe for the TLaC techniques worked on in previously weekly sessions. By the middle of the year, the anchor teacher (lead TLaC initiative coordinator) shared that teachers were sending her clips of themselves teaching and digital photos for posting on their internal blog. At Clifton, teacher leaders invested one highly effective, more experienced teacher in contributing to less experienced colleagues’ development with this line: of persuasion: “Think how much time you currently invest at the beginning of the year brining students up to your behavioral and academic expectations. Think about where you’d be able to get to with your students if they came in with those habits because they had learned and mastered them in 5th, 6th, and 7th grade?” Multiple teacher leaders told us that teachers began to embrace the techniques after seeing them work in their classrooms.

Those are some school-level observations. We also wanted to shout out a few individual teachers for their efforts. If you’ve been to one of our workshops, you know that one of Colleen Driggs’ favorite props is the “Cheese Grater.” Hold up your imaginary block of cheese in one hand and your grater in the other. Get ready to give it up for these dedicated teachers of HISD:

Hartman Middle School

Props to:

  • Ms. Hardy, 8th grade reading teacher, for unbundling her Cold Call questions – soliciting a character each from five different students.
  • Ms. White, 7th grade science, for insisting her students used precise scientific terms for the parts of the atom rather than “them”
  • Ms. Adcox, 8th grade social studies, for a textbook Self-Interrupt during an enthusiastic review challenge

Paul Revere Middle School

Props to:

  • Mr. Cruz, 6th grade math, for keeping the Think Ratio high: “”What do we do now?,” “What’s next?,” and, “How did you get that answer?”
  • Ms. Kraft, 6th grade math, integrating Cold Call and Stretch It, to keep her class rigorous and engaging, and employing Standardize the Field and Circulate to Check for Understanding.
  • Ms. Arterburn, Art Teacher, for excellent Threshhold – building her relationships with her students and setting clear behavioral expectations for inside the classroom.

Deady Middle School

Props to:

  • Mr. Chadwick, 7th grade Band Teacher, for using Break It Down and Cold Call to ensure his musicians understood the meaning of the dynamics symbols and could play the piece with the intended dynamics
  • Ms. David, 8th grade Language Arts, for close reading Chinua Achebe’s poem, “Vultures,” with her students, shifting between small group and whole class discussion to keep Participation and Think Ratio high
  • Ms. Vonder Haar, 7th grade Art, for strong Systems and Routines, resulting in gorgeous “Do Now” books developed over the course of the semester
  • Ms. Haber, 6th grade Language Arts, for a beautiful No Opt Out, calmly and persistently shifting a reluctance students’ mood from resistance to sustained engagement.

Clifton Middle School

Props to:

  • Ms. Dixon, 8th grade math, for her Stretch It, rewarding a correct answer, with a confirming question, “Where the lines intersect, what type of angle would they form?”
  • Mr. Gonzales, 8th grade technology, for Checking for Understanding during a multi-step project: “So now that you’re here, what step are you on?”
  • Mr. Pratt, Band Teacher, for his crisp directions combined with Wait Time — ”Track me….Think…Raise your hands when you have an answer” – and his use of Do it Again to include the students in solving the challenge of tapping toes to keep time, but doing it silently.

The genuine eagerness of teachers and school leaders in Houston to strengthen the craft of teaching in their schools inspired us, and we were excited and honored that the Teach Like a Champion techniques are contributing to their growth. We’re looking forward to returning.  Next time we’re bringing the cameras to tape their practice!

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