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Thomas Fowler-Finn, Ed.D. 
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NYC High School Improving Instruction and Learning

by Thomas Fowler-Finn on 05/25/17

We had an eye-opening instructional rounds session last week in a small high school in New York City.  The staff's change efforts are paying off.  Improving the interactions between the academic content, students and teachers requires a concerted and persistent effort. Significant change is hard work, and the staff has been buoyed by what is taking place.

In 2014 the school's focus of their problem of practice was centered on student engagement.  Upon visiting the school, the network classroom observations revealed a student body and staff focused on external motivators (Regents grades and diplomas) in classrooms that were teacher-centered and dominated by lecture with procedural directions.  We recorded such patterns of interactions as: all student talk was in response to a teacher; teachers helped students without evidence of student need; state test content and assignments dominated lesson focus/rationale; the pattern of interactions were teacher/student/teacher as students followed teacher directions through activities.  

As a result, the focus of the network's recommendations and the school's focus turned toward internal motivators.  The school began to enhance strategies that supported students as self-directed learners.  Teachers restructured lessons, redefined the student's role in learning, developed greater opportunities for authentic learning, and began conducting internal rounds for all school staff in job-embedded professional development.     

In our rounds session last week, the school's problem of practice had been revised to focus network observations on the level and extent to which students take responsibility for their own learning.  The descriptors observed by the network have changed dramatically from our first visit.  The observation evidence showed that: teachers used a substantial increase of descriptive feedback to comment on student work; students interjected their own content-based ideas during the course of instruction; students began their work without prompting; teacher remains the main source of ideas but elicits some student ideas.
The school recognizes that there is more work to be done.  After each rounds, the host school team and I usually engage in a debrief of the network rounds to review the patterns and the take-aways.  The host school focuses on what they have learned and their next level of work, while I also focus on the network lessons and the network's next level of work.  In this case, the school is planning on developing a school-wide rubric to be implemented next year.  As for the network, we will give increased attention to network-member questioning techniques that elicit more useful information from students while we are observing in classrooms.

The needle at this high school has moved significantly, and the staff is encouraged.  Improving instruction and learning takes a minimum of two to three years to show results school-wide. Due to comprehensive actions implemented by the school, the state test results and the school's state ranking also have risen dramatically.

Just as the staff and students at this school have benefited from the work of instructional rounds, so too have the network members.   Network members learn from every school they visit, taking that learning back to their own schools and using what they learn from each session to reform their own professional practice.  Future learning for both the school and the network members is promising. 

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