As a school administrator at a place such as Renbrook School, it’s easy to spend entire school days sequestered in front of a computer or in meetings. However, best practice dictates that I should get out of the office each and every day for “walkthroughs,” and this is a practice that I very much enjoy.
Walkthroughs are short, focused, informal observations of teaching and learning that typically range between two to ten minutes in length. Now you may be wondering… how can five minutes be enough to get a sense of teaching and learning in a classroom? I can tell you from personal experience that five minutes is actually a lot of time observing in a classroom, especially when you consider the aggregate amount of time clocked over the course of a week, month or school year at an elementary or middle school.
According to Nancy Protheroe, Director of Special Research Projects at Educational Research Service, walkthroughs are fundamental to capturing “a schoolwide picture made up of many small snapshots- providing a school, not an individual teacher, feedback about what it’s doing or not doing.”
I’ve found so many benefits from these types of observations. Among them: more familiarity with curriculum and instructional practices; the ability to connect with and gauge both classroom and school climate; and the opportunity for students to see that I value instruction and learning.
Here is an inside view diary account of my most recent walkthrough that lasted approximately 30 minutes and took me through a variety of classrooms from Preschool to Grade 5:
In an early childhood classroom I observed students spread out among all dramatic play areas. My assessment was that all were fully engaged in play with their classmates or teachers. There were a few students in the kitchen area making French Toast and serving sides of apples. They negotiated who “microwaved” the toast and who served. One student taught the other two about maple syrup and tree tapping. There were students in the block area working on a bridge design that would keep their cars off the “soupy, scary ocean” and were having difficulty with the current design that made the cars fall off the ramp. I then watched as one teacher sat with several students working to support their puzzle work with brief and subtle reminders about turning the pieces and taking the time to really look at the shapes to connect them. Finally, just before leaving, I stood behind the other teacher who was working with a child at a table in a more structured manner. The student was forming letters using special blocks from the Handwriting Without Tears curriculum and let out an excited cheer of pride.
I then walked through the halls of Kindergarten through 3rd grade into a Kindergarten classroom where I observed the class working as a whole group on the carpet. A teacher was sitting beside an easel and was writing in large manuscript the words and spellings the students were providing. They dictated a sentence and then used both their knowledge of phonics and the research-based practice of inventive spelling to tell the teacher what to write. Once their sentence the written, they read it aloud and then the teacher demonstrated the corrections to the invented spelling words modeling how to fix “kande” by thinking of the two letters the /ck/ sound makes and that the long e sound at the end of a word is made by using the letter y. There were a few “ews” and “ahhs” after that little tidbit of knowledge was shared and the word was corrected to read as “candy”.
In another lower school classroom, I arrived to find the students spread out all over the room with clipboards and pencils. The teacher was sitting on the floor next to a student and it looked like they were conferencing. Most all other students were engaged in their work and did not notice my presence. One student however looked up when I entered the classroom and then back down again at their clipboard. A few moments later that student got up to get a tissue and then sat back down, and then a few seconds later they were up again and headed toward the cubbies area. At that moment the teacher intercepted the student and I overheard the invitation for the student to grab their clipboard and meet at the table near where I was sitting. Once seated together, the teacher began assessing the student on their understanding of the differences between adjectives and verbs (which was the content on the practice page on their clipboards) and quickly realized this student was lost and therefore was avoiding the work. The teacher immediately began re-teaching the content and asked if I would help by getting some materials from the closet. I returned to hand them a bin of laminated picture cards and title cards labeled “nouns”, “verbs”, and “adjectives”.
I was then off to another Renbrook classroom which drew me in because of the sounds I heard coming out of their classroom as I walked down the hall. There was a brief period of ruckus followed by a longer period of almost silence. When I entered the classroom, I learned that the students were practicing their math skills by playing a game where they needed to make their way through the classroom tables completing a math problem correctly before moving to the next table. The level of engagement and perseverance was palpable, as well as the focus that immediately ensued when the students made it to the next table. The teacher smiled brightly as they rang the chime signifying when students could move on to the next table and as I walked out of the classroom I overheard a student say, “This is the best math lesson ever!”
Finally, I made my way down to the 4th and 5th grade hallway. I was greeted in that hallway by one student holding the door open for me as I passed through, and another student acknowledging my presence by saying, “Hello Mrs. Schlossinger. How are you today?” The amount of students at Renbrook who greet me first and who engage in conversation with adults is a true testament to the modeling and coaching by our teachers and staff at Renbrook School.
After a brief conversation with that student, I walked further down the hallway and came to witness a teacher and student sitting together up against the wall. In order to allow for privacy, I quickly stepped into a classroom. While I wasn’t privy to the content of that conversation between student and teacher in the moment, it was obvious that the teacher identified the need to problem solve an issue with a student. After a follow-up with the teacher, I learned that the student was struggling with regulating their emotions during a collaborative academic game and needed both the time and space to reflect and discuss strategies for the next time they are in a similar setting.
Back to the classroom I quickly stepped into, I found the class broken out into small groups of three to four students and spread around at desks, tables, and the floor. They were trying to create a structure with a limited amount of materials. This team building/STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) activity was well underway when I arrived and the students were in full-on design and engineering mode as they attempted to create the tallest tower. Right before I left the classroom, I stopped at a group near the door and listened as they debated the feasibility of adding another item to their tower. While I can’t remember the exact conversation, I can remember being impressed with the words (stability, force, load, structural etc.) used so naturally by the students as they worked,
Ultimately, I use these walkthroughs to ensure consistency between what we promise and what we actually deliver to students and their parents. On this particular walkthrough, I was able to confirm that Renbrook preschool to grade 5 teachers are:
● Planning and executing engaging learning opportunities for their students;
● taking the time to support students with self-regulation and behavior;
● creating opportunities for students to work individually, in pairs, and in small groups;
● motivating students to take risks and in turn, experience both failure and success;
● providing both extension and reinforcement of concepts for all students (differentiation); and, ultimately, making learning fun.
Walkthroughs are a critical part of the Renbrook lower school’s own formative assessment process that helps inform professional development and guide conversations during faculty meetings. Just as teachers use assessment to help inform lesson planning and determine when their students are ready for more or when they need re-teaching, my walkthroughs help me gauge where we are as a faculty relative to student needs and how we, as educators, can grow alongside our students.