JCECA science teacher, Amanda Bednar, second from left, provides an overview of her lesson to a group of educators.
In October of last year, educators gathered in a crowded room at Johnston County Early College Academy in Smithfield, NC for a study visit. They came in teams of three from schools and districts across eastern and central North Carolina to learn alongside the staff and students of JCECA – looking for insights they might apply to their own classrooms, schools, and districts.

JCECA, located on the campus of Johnston Community College, is one of 125 North Carolina Cooperative and Innovative High Schools. The schools’ 250 students, many of them the first in their families to attend college, take college courses concurrently with their high school classes. The early college structure and the schools’ historically underserved population are central to the school’s identity, as is an innovative approach to teaching and learning that integrates project- and competency-based learning. Undergirding all of this innovation is a deep culture of collaboration and coaching.

Triangulation

The idea that teachers and other educators need time, space, and tools to learn from one another continues to gain traction, though the irony in the above cartoon is still painfully real for many, if not most, educators. Researcher John Hattie has argued that a focus on collaborative expertise is not just a good way for schools to meet the needs of all students, but the best way. Yet, for numerous reasons, creating effective and sustainable learning experiences for educators remains a challenge. The collaborative coaching practices used at JCECA and school study visits are two ways to meet that challenge.

Principal Clint Eaves begins the October study visit by welcoming the visitors, and providing an overview of the day’s agenda, which consists of three main activities: a feedback process called the Charrette protocol, instructional rounds (classroom visits with pre- and post-visit conversations), and a student panel discussion.

The Charrette process and instructional rounds are part of JCECA’s collaborative DNA, and allow teachers to give and receive feedback at different stages in the development, delivery, and discovery of learning. They are not used, like the fancy dinner china, only when visitors stop by.

Each activity is a variation on a simple and powerful foundation: a learning goal is identified, evidence (a lesson plan, classroom data) related to the goal is collected and/or considered, then the evidence is discussed in a structured way relative to the goal. In his book, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, Matthew Crawford captures the crucial role that collaboration and conversation play in “getting things right” in any field:

“Getting things right requires triangulating with other people. Psychologists therefore would do well to ask whether ‘metacognition’ (thinking critically about your own thinking) is at bottom a social phenomenon. It typically happens in conversation – not idle chit chat, but the kind that aims to get to the bottom of things. I call this an ‘art’ because it requires both tact and doggedness. And I call it a moral accomplishment because to be good at this kind of conversation you have to love the truth more than you love your own current state of understanding.”

JCECA English teacher, Dawn Blankenship, provides an overview of her project plan on data visualization and literature. 
Making Good Work Better

The Charrette process is designed for giving and receiving feedback on in-progress lesson and project plans. Instructional coaches Steve Hauge and Melody Casey serve as facilitators. On this day, English teacher Dawn Blankenship provides an overview of a new project in which students will use data visualization techniques to explore the question, “What makes a good novel?”

After Blankenship introduces the project, Casey prompts her to ask the group for the feedback she wants. Blankenship responds simply, “I’m looking for ideas to make it better. How do we improve this?”  After a round of clarifying questions, Blankenship sits down to listen and take notes as her peers and the visitors provide ideas and suggestions.

Casey sets the tone when she says, “The idea is to take up the work for Dawn…to make a good work even better.” As her peers discuss the plan, often building off of each other’s ideas, Blankenship listens and takes notes, not entering into the conversation. There are suggestions for connecting the project to other curriculum areas, and ideas for data visualization resources such as the website FiveThirtyEight. Many of the comments begin with the sentence starter, “I wonder,” and carry with them the authenticity and weight of true questions. The process ends with a brief reflection on some of the ideas she heard, and a thank you from Blankenship.

JCECA teachers and visitors provide feedback to Blankenship on her project plan.
Instructional Rounds

Following the Charrette and a break, teachers form small groups to visit classrooms. The host teachers begin by sharing an overview of their lessons. Visitors are then free to visit one or more classrooms over the next 90 minutes. A common evidence collection form is used to guide the process, and provide the basis for discussing the classroom visits later. Over lunch, participants discuss what they saw and heard with one another and the host teachers in a manner similar to the Charrette, but in smaller groups. The whole process, a classroom visit bracketed by pre- and post-conversations, is known as an instructional round.

JCECA English teacher, Alvetta Rolle, second from right, shares an overview of her lesson with visitors. 
Debrief

The day concludes with a student panel discussion and a debrief. Educators take time to reflect on what they’ve learned, what they would like to learn more about, and what they are planning to implement when they get back to their schools and districts. Comments run the gamut. One teacher is interested in using an activity called a Wagon Wheel as a form of test review. Other teachers are interested, more generally, in strategies for implementing competency-based learning in English and project-based learning in math.  A district director is interested in using the Charrette in his work. 

So often, we rob our students, and our teachers, of the opportunity to make sense of the information they are given. We do this by interpreting what the information means, and telling them why it is important. We then rationalize these decisions, at every level of our educational system, by saying we are acting efficientlyIn his PowerPoint presentation of the Gettysburg Address, Peter Norvig brilliantly captures the absurdity of the approach, and its ultimate inefficiency.

Study visits serve as primary sources for educators. The data is raw. Educators get to observe real teachers and students in real schools. Then, through conversation and reflection, teachers are able to make sense of what they’ve seen and heard. Teachers find value in this approach. As evidence, I offer the picture below: three teachers talking long after the bell has rung.

(L to R) Science teachers, William Kahan, Hertford County Early College, Amanda Bednar, JCECA, and Kerrion Clarke, Franklin County Early College
Next Steps

Constructive Learning Design is pleased to partner again with JCECA, and for the first time with Tri-County Early College in Murphy, NC, for study visits on March 20 and 22. Click on the images below to learn more.

If you are interested in developing a culture of coaching in your district or school, please check out our Coach Academy program.

Contact Jay Korreck at jkor[email protected] with questions or comments.