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09.03.15“The Front Table”: A Post from Nicole Willey’s Classroom, or, Tales of a Positive Outlier (with Video)

Over the next week or so I’ll be sharing a series of four blog posts about Nicole Willey, a third grade teacher at Leadership Prep Ocean Hill Elementary Academy in Brooklyn.  Each post features a short video of Nicole at work- three of her teaching and a fourth a clip of a development meeting with her principal, Nikki Bridges.

I’m writing these posts because I want to share the things she does as a teacher. I think you’ll find her class warm and rigorous and that she executes ideas—sometimes simple ideas–with craft and intention.  These things are critical to explaining Nicole’s success.  You see, Nicole runs an incredibly high achieving classroom.  She’s one of the lead third grade teachers at LPOH, and hers is one of the highest achieving classrooms in one of Uncommon’s (and New York City’s) highest achieving schools.

This year, 100% of LPOH (and Nicole Willey’s) students passed the NY state math test.  That more than doubled the state average of 42% and exceeded the NY state average for non-disadvantaged students (59%) by a wide margin.  More importantly 89% of 3rd graders were advanced in math.

In ELA, her students passed at a 76% clip, again more than doubling the state average (31%) and dramatically exceeding the non-disadvantaged average (46%) as well.  In other words, Nicole’s third graders perform much better than you would expect them to if not one child came from an economically disadvantaged background. But in fact, more than 80% of the students in her school qualify for Free or Reduced Price Lunch.

The deal was the same last year: 100% passing rate in in Math (vs a state average of 42% and a non-disadvantaged average of 59%) and 80% passing rate in ELA (vs a state average of 32% and a non-disadvantaged average of 47%).

In short, Nicole is a positive outlier- a humble one who would never say as much about herself, a hard working one who tries to get a little better every day, but an outlier.

As I’ve written before, there is no achievement gap some teacher somewhere hasn’t closed. It’s just a matter of finding and studying her. And since Nicole is one of these gap-closing teachers, I’m going to use my posts about her to study, and learn from some apparently humdrum (but in fact, remarkable) moments of her teaching.


Post #1: The Front Table Within the first 10 seconds of this clip from Nicole’s classroom, we see two of teaching’s most important elements in action: Ratio and Check for Understanding.

EA.CFU.GR3.Willey.’Front table.’Clip2349 from Uncommon Schools on Vimeo.

The clip opens with Nicole giving her students 15 minutes to solve three problems.  And when Nicole says, “Go!” every kid gets to work right away—silently and industriously for the full 15 minutes. What we see is high participation ratio—every single student engaged in the work for a sustained period of time—and a high think ratio—with challenging quality work.  A teacher’s ability to make this happen with consistency is a crucial driver of achievement. Throughout the clip you can see there’s a culture of follow-through and orderliness.  Pencils are busy across the room the whole time.   One reason her students are so productive at this block of time is that they do it nearly every day. It’s a habit. Another is that Nicole has installed routines for independent work very carefully.  It’s a testament to the importance of establishing an orderly classroom to enable rigorous work.

At a more sophisticated level, Nicole noted that in choosing what work students will do during this session, she chooses standards and question types that allow her to challenge students who are already proficient with harder problems, as well as re-teach students who have not yet mastered a skill. In other words, the problems vary in difficulty and complexity, so everyone is challenged and fully engaged.

But what I think stands out the most is how Nicole has designed her classroom around the idea of Checking for Understanding- the ongoing use of real time data to assess and ensure mastery from every student.  To do this effectively, she simply but brilliantly calls three students up to the front table for their work.  We asked Nicole about it and she wrote:

Sometimes—especially for story problems, [which they are working on here]—it’s important to watch the student thinking/strategy process more closely. We debriefed that problem type the day before and these 3 boys still struggled to nail the strategy. I pulled them to the front so I could stop them in-the-moment, if necessary, and be sure they were using the strategy we had discussed the day before. Since we already spent time debriefing this problem, I wanted to be sure they were practicing correctly to solidify the skill.

In other words, Nicole observes all students carefully, but she also structured her classroom so she can do so efficiently and effectively. As a result, everyone gets real-time feedback; but this clever move allows her to give a double dose to those who need it most.  And you’ll notice that they do get a ton of feedback—positive in tone but rigorous—and they get the implicit feedback of knowing—when they go back to their seats–that they’ve gotten it right.

One of the most important things Nicole does to make this kind of thing work is to build what we call a Culture of Error (technique 8 in TLaC 2.0) —there has to be no judgment, no stigma, no snickering about being at the front, or indeed about any kind of struggle. Making it safe to get it wrong ensures that everyone gets it right over the long haul. Nicole’s careful messaging sets that up.  She told us:

In our classroom, pulling a small group has never had a stigma. I think it has to do with how we frame it as teachers—this is a moment to get extra practice one-on-one or in a small group with your teacher. We never make this time feel negative in any way and students leave feeling successful, after getting the problem correct. We use stickers or smelly markers, along with high fives and smiles, to commend them for showing grit through a tricky problem that was not easy at first. In addition, the scholars who come up to the table are different based on the data. Sometimes it is students who are on the higher end of the math success spectrum, too. This helps to normalize the idea that everyone struggles and that this struggle is a part of the process that leads to mastery. 

In terms of the vibe and culture of focus for the rest of the class, that norm was also set early in the school year. I try to stand at a vantage point where I can see that all students are working before I begin to circulate. I have specific pathways to check every single student multiple times—at least 5—during this block. I first mark for procedural norms, including marking up the problem and labeling work. Then, I circulate for conceptual understanding and record which students are on track, which students have basic mathematical errors, and which students might have a deeper conceptual misunderstanding. This helps to make the plan for the post-spiral discourse and also helps build accountability around student work. When students know you’ll be circulating to them every couple of minutes, they work quickly and efficiently through all problems so they can be rewarded (by a smiley face on their paper or a high five) as they complete each problem.

I’ll also add that there is a lot of celebration around success and growth during this block, which is likely another reason students are eager to work in a small group. At the end of the spiral block each day, I announce which students achieved 100% on the quiz, as well as which students improved their score. Students are highly invested in this moment of public recognition across the week. We also have group goals that if, as a class, we get 100% on each of the quiz questions the class gets a special prize. These incentives, while external, build a sense of community and showcase that, despite moments of failure, working hard leads to long-term success.   

Notice how intentional Nicole is about what she’s looking for each time she observes student work.  You can read about that more in Technique 4 of TLaC 2.0, Tracking, Not Watching.

By the way a couple of other favorite Teach Like a Champion moments: Nicole uses Brighten the Lines, (technique  28), when she uses the prompt “Go!” after her directions to help ensure that students jump right into their work.  She also uses What to Do (technique 57) beautifully to make sure one of her front table scholars is listening to her feedback.  The student looks like he wants to start going before he really hears what she’s saying, so she says, “look at me” (twice!), in a warm a supportive tone backed by a smile. Love that.

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