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March 5, 2008 > Observation for success

Observation for success

By Shari Wargo

Somewhere between doodling your favorite cartoon character and listening to the teacher's assignment for the day you decide to write down your own list of thoughts. Of course, it's just then that the teacher decides to give you a list of instructions you are to write down for today's extremely important assignment. So you feverishly scramble to note the life altering instructions while writing your own mental notes in the margin lines during momentary pauses in the teacher's speech before the thoughts escape you, when you notice a change in the room. Someone has just entered. 'Who is that? It's the principal, what is he doing in my class? I wonder if someone is in trouble.'

Do you remember being in school and having something like this happen? Thinking to yourself that the principal entering the classroom must mean that they are there to make sure no one does anything they shouldn't be doing, or that they were just coming in to intimidate you? Then they would leave after a few minutes and you would wonder, "What was that about?"

Well, if something like this has happened to you, or your kids, chances are that the principal didn't go into the classroom because someone did something wrong, and they definitely didn't go into the classroom to intimidate or scare anyone. Actually, principals and assistant principals have been going into the classrooms of their schools for many years now to spend more time with students in the classrooms and observe the students' interactions and reactions to the course curriculum.

In the Tri-City area, most school districts have what they call a "walk through" or "visit" where a principal or assistant principal will visit and sit in a classroom for a few minutes to observe the students. In the New Haven Unified School District (NHUSD), these are called "quick visits." Glynn Thompson, Executive Director of Elementary Education for NHUSD, said that these walks are not evaluative, but help principals to "identify what additional support our teachers need to support student achievement."

In Sept. 2007, NHUSD decided to add another dimension to this educational tool in order to find out how students were responding to their classrooms. They adopted what they called Action Plan 1.8. "In the NHUSD Strategic Plan, Action Plan 1.8 is the implementation of the top 10 research-based instructional strategies identified by Dr. Robert Marzano. He is one of the educational leadership gurus. Our middle schools are studying Marzano's book, 'Classroom Instruction That Works' and have selected two of the strategies, summarizing and note taking, to implement this school year," said Thompson.

At the beginning of the school year, NHUSD continued to have "quick visits" where principals and assistant principals visit the classrooms alone and then report their findings to the school district in order to inform them of the students' response to curriculum and discuss whether more materials or support is needed for the teachers. However, they also began to implement "instructional walks" where teams of administrators visit classrooms as well. These tools were added to ensure that students are excelling in specific areas. These areas vary depending on the grade level and school, but some items that may be looked for are summarization, English language arts and note taking. Action Plan 1.8 has been implemented in schools at the elementary, middle and high school levels throughout NHUSD.

Lisa Metzinger, Director of Professional Development in NHUSD, said that at the middle school level, she and four administrators (which usually include someone from the district office and the principal or assistant principal as well) visit schools based on a schedule. They are at the school site for a morning, and so have to be efficient with their time and observation. The visiting administrators divide into groups to allow for two administrators per classroom, and then observe the students. Metzinger said that the group often asks students about the material they are learning, especially if the students are already in small groups for an assignment, and visit with each class for about 5-10 minutes. By going on these "instructional walks" administrators from NHUSD are able to add their own perspective of the classrooms to that of the principal from their "quick visits."

"It gives us information from a variety of perspectives so that you have input from administrators throughout the district looking at the curriculum. Together, we look at what teachers may need to improve the strategies of curriculum," said Metzinger. "It also validates the great work that our teachers are doing. It helps us to stay informed of the professional development needs we have for teachers and it allows us to share our best practices with administrators in their work with supporting teachers," she added.

Metzinger, who focuses on the NHUSD Strategic Plan at the middle school level, also said that she has received positive feedback from principles at the middle school level, and that teachers have also liked that the administrators are visiting the classrooms. Overall, the school year's new plan of observation and improvement for a better educational environment so that students receive a great education is a success.

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