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01.19.14The Stack Audit: Bad Name Big Value

paperI just finished a chapter on writing in the classroom for TLAC 2.0.  In the chapter I describe a scene in which some teachers and I realized we needed more powerful tools to hold students accountable for their written lives in the classroom.  The solutions to that challenge are a big reason why there’s a whole chapter on writing in TLAC 2.0—one of my self-criticisms of the first version is that it’s a very good tool for managing the verbal lives of students in the classroom but not as much for managing their written lives, which are at least as important.

Re-telling the story reminded me of how much I value the tool that revealed the need for better tools in the classroom as well as about a thousand other small and useful so insights: the stack audit.  I thought I’d take a few minutes to share a bit about it.

The name audit implies scrutiny and compliance but really it’s a tool we use in a climate of mutual trust and respect to understand what we do and how to improve aspects of our everyday practice.  It can be done as a school, as a department or for a single teacher.

Let’s take a whole-school example.  On the days I’d be visiting one of our schools I might ask the principal to gather the homework every teacher assigned over the past two days, or the most recent two tests everyone had given, or the Do Nows from all of that day’s lessons, or all of the Exit Tickets.   We’d put them all in a stack in the middle of the table and myself and members of the school’s leadership team would take ten of fifteen minutes to silently read and reflect.  You’d pull two or three from the pile and make some notes on strengths and weaknesses and then put them back and take a few more.  As we worked we’d all keep a big T chart: What were the best things that people were doing that could be replicated across the school? What were some problem points we could fix?  Then we’d go around the circle and share our best observations about bright spots—thirty second each to share one thing, then it was he next person’s turn, around and around we’d go.  Then the same for trouble spots.  Someone would keep a list.  Finally the principal would look at the list and name a few points she thought were priorities. We’d all weigh in with feedback. She would produce a set of notes for sharing with her staff, maybe the outline of a training, maybe just an email: essentially a how-to guide for whatever the topic was: Exit Tickets or writing prompts or Do Nows or tests. Whatever it was it focused as much on strengths a anything else: “Here are 5 great things I saw; hope you can use them.”  Right out of the Heath Brothers’ playbook.

A particularly useful variation was to collect not just what the teacher handed out but what students actually wrote.  We collected, for example, every piece of homework students did in one of our schools one day. It was all in a big pile and away we went, subject by subject. Our big takeaway was that kids were doing minimum possible compliance.  They’d get it done because they had to get it done but some kids were producing—and practicing producing every night—awful quality work: scrawled, done quickly in terrible handwriting with poor or un-grammatical sentences.  A wave of reforms swept the school- teachers read exceptional homework to classes, posted exemplars, set more rigorous standards for what “done” meant.  They assigned shorter but more rigorous homework with clearer expectations for what quality meant. Two weeks later I read through homework again and the results were incredible. (The process of collecting HW was easy, by the way, because at the school in question students turn their HW for that day in as soon as they hit the doors, putting it in wire baskets by subject. The baskets are on tables at the front of the school.  A staff member can quickly grab the stacks and know by 9am who has to be at HW Center that evening.  As a side benefit stopping and reading homework for 10 mins was always one of my most useful tools for understanding a school.)

We’d also do stack audits at the teacher level. A teacher might bring all of the writing her kids did from class that day, or the essays they’d written or their Do Nows, and we’d look through them and make observations. It was almost always up to her to decide what to take action on. We gave insight- the decision was hers and she’d send us her action steps for feedback.  My sense is that people found it incredibly useful. I know I did. And now I hope it will be useful to you, too.

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