On the Ground

VMS Community Blog
Posted October 16, 2017
by Julie Schlossinger, Lower School Director

As a school administrator, 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 or a month.

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.

Last week I went on a walkthrough that took me to four classrooms. I started in a kindergarten classroom where I found the teacher kneeling, surrounded by their students who were super-focused on the new language arts activities being introduced by their teacher. I heard “oohs” and “aahs” and saw kids eagerly inching forward, excited to dig into a large bin full of beans and other objects that would help the students develop phonemic awareness of the letters “E” and “F.” I even heard one student say, “When can we start?”  

Next was third grade reading. Again, the teacher was on the floor with several students. Others were scattered throughout the room in various locations—some on the floor, some in cubbies, and some cross legged in child-sized furniture. Several were reading silently while others were reading to a partner in a low, whisper voice. When my attention went back to the teacher on the floor, I observed her flipping through phonics cards. The pace was furious, and the work elicited smiles from both the teacher and her students alike. It was obvious these students had been working on this skill and had built up the confidence to quickly shout out the answers with spirit and accuracy. On my way out, I was struck at how focused all the other readers were on their books, not at all distracted by the small group shouting out phrases like, “igh. Night. End of word.”

Second grade math was my next stop. Again, I found the teacher on the floor helping a student sort through a pile of math cards. I noticed pairs of students spread out around the classroom—some on the floor, some at tables playing Coin War. Each student had a deck of cards with several different coins on each card. Each played a card and then added up the value on their card. Whoever had the greater amount won the pile of cards. I heard counting by ones, fives, tens, and quarters. I heard hearty celebrations and graceful concessions to the luck of the draw. And again, I saw highly engaged, excited students, almost oblivious to the fact that they were actually learning a math skill. Finally, I made my way over to the teacher who was now sitting at a table with three other students. They were cutting out paper coins and the teacher was explaining how they were soon going to glue the paper coins into the right spot in their Math Thinking Journals. This particular group of students needed more direct instruction and practice with learning the coin values prior to being able to play Coin War, and this review activity would be a great resource for their future practice and learning. This is a perfect example of differentiation, and direct evidence of our PLCs at work.

Fourth grade science was my final stop on the day’s walkthrough. At this point, you might not be surprised to learn that yet again the teacher was on the floor, on the level of the students, really in the learning with them. The group was looking at photographs of various plants and the teacher was explaining that these plants adapt to help them survive grazing by animals and an adverse climate. I also observed students working in small groups at tables. They all had Chromebooks open to online texts and there were piles of same photo cards I saw earlier. The groups were tasked with categorizing the plants on the cards. “It’s a carnivore,” I heard one student say about a pink flower that resembled a Calla Lily. Another student quickly and firmly responded with, “Flowers aren’t carnivores!” and the debate was on. A third chimed in, “No, it is a carnivore. Look back here,” as the student tilted their Chromebook toward the naysayer. “Oh, cool!” the naysayer responded as the tide of her resolve quickly changed direction.

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 VMS lower school teachers are:
  • Planning and executing engaging learning opportunities for their students;
  • relating to students on their level (literally) and are engaged in learning “shoulder-to-shoulder” with their students;
  • creating opportunities for students to work individually, in pairs, and in small groups;
  • motivating students to take risks and in turn, experience success;
  • providing extension or re-teaching of concepts for all students (differentiation); and, ultimately, making learning fun.
Walkthroughs are a critical part of the lower school’s own formative assessment process that helps inform professional development and guide conversations during meetings of our PLCs. Just as teachers use periodic assessments to help guide learning 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.
 

About Vail Mountain School

Founded in 1962, Vail Mountain School is a K-12, coed, independent school in Vail, Colorado. Our philosophy is to provide a demanding, college preparatory, liberal arts education in an atmosphere of mutual respect between faculty and students, where nurturing a healthy self-concept and stimulating academic inquiry are parallel objectives. Intentionally designed cross-age programs promote role modeling, responsibility, self confidence, and a sense of community. Our location in the Rocky Mountains allows us to integrate the outdoors into the academic and cultural fabric of the school through hut trips, all-school Ski Fridays, and other experiential learning opportunities. The result: our graduates possess a quiet confidence that serves them well in college and in life—confidence to assert themselves in their first college level essays; to raise their hand in a class of hundreds; to live on their own for the first time, to meet with and engage their professors; and to lead among their peers.