I love going on school visits. As a teacher, I was never able to leave my classroom to see someone else’s more than once or twice in a year. I knew it was valuable; I knew I would learn from other teachers doing other things with other kids, but I had a hard time figuring out how to make it happen more frequently. It’s a very different kind of challenge to leave my husband and one-year old for a few days to go and see interesting, thoughtful schools scattered across the U.S. on our #EngagingSchools tour. The reality of drop-off and pickup at daycare turns out to be oddly complicated, and I miss seeing my child zealously partake in squash. But still, school visits are worth it.
So I wasn’t really surprised when, at a conference in Florida, I knew I wanted to take some time and visit a school in the village of Fall Creek, WI. Hearing Dave Ross and Toby Jacobson speak about their sixth graders was deeply enjoyable. These two teachers had palpable enthusiasm for their work, clear desires to keep improving their practice, and (perhaps one of the most needed tools in a teacher’s toolkit) delightful senses of humor. When they included a slide with pictures of themselves as middle schoolers, I knew I was going to be in a good session. But when they started to talk about their experience implementing PBL, I knew it was going to be great. Last Monday, Kris and I met in Minneapolis and then drove about 90 minutes east and spent the night in Eau Claire, WI. I’ve never been to Wisconsin, but it’s beautiful. It doesn’t look like the northeast, nor does it look like my section of Pennsylvania, and getting to travel to new spots is, in and of itself, something I really enjoy. Pulling into the village of Fall Creek (population 1315) early Tuesday morning, it was clear that this is a place that takes great pride in its school. And I do mean school and not schools, because K-12 is all located in one building. There were student safety patrol guards, one of whom was kind enough to help us figure out where to park, and then we were shown to the office by another, older student, who was glad to help us find our way. The high school principal got us to Dave, who proceeded to introduce us to many teachers, all the while making sure we knew we could go into any middle school classroom we wanted to see.
I want to take a moment and highlight their principal, Brad LaPoint. We were both struck by the fact that we saw him seemingly around every corner. He was covering classes for teachers who had to step out of their rooms, he took students outside to get some water for a science class working to build worm habitats, and he supervised the cafeteria. We also saw him walking the halls at several different points. Not every principal is this visible, and so we asked Toby and Dave about how he could be everywhere. They responded with great warmth and then mentioned that he’s also the elementary school’s principal. The administration is so critical in a school because it sets the tone. Brad was clearly available, willing, and indeed, looking for opportunities to help his faculty make the best possible learning experiences happen for their students. What incredible instructional leadership. Walking into any of their rooms, here’s (essentially) what we saw: There were groups of 4-5 students clustered around desks, most with computers open to a shared resource. The teacher was talking with one group, providing feedback, answering questions, and/or giving confirmation that the group was ready to take their next step. Students were engaged, on-task (mostly, it is middle school, after all), and happy to do the work. When we sidled up next to them to see their work, they were glad to answer our questions about the process or their specific project. These kids were present with their work, learning about the history of their town, and glad to be in school. We didn’t see any worksheets. We did see genuine student collaboration (deciding what needed to be done next, who would do it, and who would verify that the work met their quality standards); we also saw students try new things and learn about how they could do it differently next time. Our favorite moment of this was when a group needed to call the town’s police officer to ask if they could interview him. Dave shared that the group needed to make a call and asked if everyone could quiet their hum a little. The group called on speakerphone (which was a delightfully vulnerable move), and the entire class quieted and kept diligently working. This group had a script in hand for leaving the officer a message and proceeded to start reading the script even though he answered the phone. Dave let the group proceed for a decent stretch of time before interjecting that the officer was on the line, so they needed to speak with him instead of at him. Even just this small moment is such a good piece of learning for life, and the entire class (none of who made any remarks about the group’s error) got that instruction. I promise, I’m going to limit what I talk about here. That’s both because there’s a lot that I could say and because some of this thinking I want to first share with our entire group at the National Alliance for Engagement-Based Education. I’ll close with this: Stephanie, the newest and third member of the sixth-grade teaching team, was coaching a group when their work reminded her of something that would benefit the whole class. She efficiently got everyone’s attention, shared a tip about where they might want to edit their photos, and then said, “Your project, your time, you figure it out.” As a teacher, it can be tempting to require your students to do something in the most efficient way you’ve found. I get that; part of it is logistical but part of it is also that you’ve figured it, you’ve already done that learning. But your students haven’t. We forget sometimes that their learning is constant, and that we can mine richness from their process regardless of how it goes or what the outcome is. So, just like I’ve known all along, figuring out how to visit another teacher’s room with their own students proved incredibly valuable. Thanks for opening your doors, Fall Creek. We deeply admire your work. Images by Kris Blais and Sara Bailey.