Spent some time a few days ago observing teachers at Success Academy Harlem East. I was there because their results are consistently off the charts so I was interested to observe and potentially learn a little something. I also wanted to go because there’s maybe a bit of skepticism out there in some quarters about Success’ work. People ask, Is it real or is it some kind of test prep gaming? I’d never been and was excited to have a chance to see what it was like there. My sense from an admittedly short visit is: “Yes, it’s real.” It’s a school 1) the adults spend a majority of their time talking about and trying to develop a vision of rigorous, quality teaching and 2) also care a lot about the richness, quality, and consistency of WHAT they teach and 3) the kids love learning and struggle (of the academic variety). Here are a few vignettes:
Teacher Show Calls two student answers to a problem, projecting them side by side from his document camera. Problem asks students to figure out how many DVDs a group can buy with their budget.
Teacher: “So. We have… [Pause. Self-Interrupt here for full attention]… we have two answers to the problem and they are different. Why are we getting two answers? Does that mean there are two right answers to the problem? I don’t understand. [Pause.] One minute to discuss with your partner. Go.” [Partners established in advance. With the academic routine for Turn and Talk carefully installed and made automatic, the kids snap into action].
Teacher: Calling them back crisply from the Turn and Talk in about a second: “What did you think?”
Takes two or three student critiques of the work on the board. “Yes, mathematically, 8.5 is right. But you can’t buy 8.5 DVDs.” Who can summarize all that and explain why Leshora’s work is is wrong? [Leshora’s hand goes eagerly up.] “Oh, why were you wrong Leshora?” She explains. So interesting to see a culture where kids weren’t defensive about being wrong. The girls in this example was really positive about spotting her own error in thinking. Saw that throughout the school.
Discussing a lab in which students added a base to neutralize and acid.
Series of questions reviewing what happened, roughly: “Ok, what ions do I add when I add an alkalide? Yes OH- and what do OH- and H+ combine to form? And what’s the PH of water? Yes and what do we call that? So who can summarize?”
Hands shooting into the air as she asks. On three of six questions, she takes an eager hand. But on three, she Cold Calls, normal as morning, and with a smile. The kids are ready for it—normalized to it—and give their best, generally doing pretty well. The beauty of it is in the steady warmth of her smile as she teaches. When you’ve got the benign accountability of Cold Call you don’t have to be harsh and her smiling eyes add caring to balance the rigor of expectations. When your teaching systems are the muscle you can be warm thoughtful and caring in your demeanor. Oh for a video camera!
Teacher calls on student to answer.
Teacher [managing her tell so it’s impossible to tell if student is right or wrong.] “Evaluate…. [choosing a student] Carly.
Carly: I agree with Martina and want to give another example.
I heard this prompt (see Stretch it 3.0 in the new TLaC) “Evaluate” over and over in classrooms and finally asked students what it meant. “When our teachers ask us to evaluate it means to say whether you agree or disagree. If you agree you say why. If you don’t you fix it.” That’s an academic routine- a transparent one. They established what the phrase meant and practiced responding to it. This makes it efficient.
David Noah, the school’s principal described their model as ‘exploration and inquiry based teaching.’ But it’s full of the structures great teaching too-systems and routines and the structure to make sure kids use their autonomy in just the right way. Made me so happy to see a school demonstrating that TLaC techniques can support an inquiry-based academic culture. At every turn beautiful application of the structures great teachers rely on allowed them to reliably give away the “center” of the classroom to the kids. Another key point is how carefully curated the lessons are. They’re planned for all teachers in the network by content experts. Teachers start with those lessons and make adaptations and changes from there. Their planning time is about tailoring and adapting something of high quality more than designing straight out of the box.
Inspirational teaching; inspirational morning.