Eye On Leadership
by Edna Varner
For our December 6th Focus Group with psychologist and author Belinda Williams, we began a journey to “What Else We Need to Know and Do,” the title of the first chapter in her book, Closing the Achievement Gap: A Vision for Changing Beliefs and Practices.
So what do we know? We know that full implementation of best literacy and leadership practice is critical. We know that every child deserves to attend a school led by an effective principal with knowledgeable and skillful teachers in every class every day. We also know that “knowing” is not enough. Dr. Williams laid the foundation for translating knowing into doing when it comes to closing the achievement gap, and she began with one of the important ground rules—caring.
What else do we need to know about Caring—and what do we need to do?
When Belinda Williams talked about the importance of Caring, I was reminded of a recent site visit to Lincoln Elementary School in Springfield. I arrived one icy winter morning just behind a mother and two children who, like me, were navigating the one clear path to the front door. As we stood in the entry hall waiting for Principal Diane Gagnon, we could hear the hum of children already engaged in morning activities. I knew these two were late, so I had no problem waiting until their mother delivered whatever message kept her lingering patiently until our greeter arrived. Our wait was short and the mother’s request concise: “Can my children still eat breakfast?” “Sure,” was Diane’s response. “We can take care of that right away.”
That was clearly an act of caring because as Phyllis Jones reminded us during our Focus Group, it is difficult for children to learn when they are hungry. We know that. But we also know that as important as breakfast is, a good breakfast program never has in the past and is not likely in the future to close the achievement gap. Throughout the day at Lincoln I saw bolder acts of caring that will.
I sat in on a Lincoln literacy leadership team meeting where the topic was the school’s self review. The principal was present, but the discussion leader was Michelle Bilodeau, the school’s equivalent of a literacy coach. Weeks before their first school review, the team was already identifying issues that surfaced in their colleagues’ comments. Before a single review team recommendation, Lincoln staff members were already generating ideas to address areas they knew they could improve.
Later that same day, I saw further evidence of caring in the number of teachers who were covered to observe Wendy Seger teach a model lesson. Those same teachers were the beneficiaries of caring (and creativity) that made it possible for them to gather for reflections and next steps. I was interested in how teachers would respond to a lesson on schema when displays in the classroom indicated that this was not a new topic. The teachers’ reflections showed evidence of drilling deeper to find new meaning, and because they were determined to learn something new, I have no doubt their students were also beneficiaries of the learning that day. That is the kind of caring that closes achievement gaps.
If we are really serious about closing the achievement gap, we must expect of ourselves what we expect from our students: We must know what we know. The Talladega team stayed 45 minutes after the video conference continuing to examine what they know through discussion spurred by Dr. Williams’ observations. They, like Lisa Cammarota at Stillmeadow, talked about the importance of ensuring that children get the basics. They know that underperforming students must be grounded in the basics, but that should not conjure up segregated small groups of children working with lower level texts and skill sheets. If we know what we know and act on that knowledge, a visitor to Stamford or Talladega schools should expect to see struggling students getting both the basics AND rich, rigorous content daily. That is what we need to know when our conversations turn to making sure children get the basics.
If our Focus Group allowed a “Play of the Day,” I would have to choose Robin Fowlkes’ lunge toward the camera when Belinda Williams addressed ensuring that we teach what children care about. I wonder how many of our teachers know what Robin from Freedman Elementary knows? Our students deserve more than lessons about Martin Luther King or bulletin boards with sombreros. What Robin knows is that the best teachers start with what students care about, draw on the rich experiences and stories they bring, and build on those to open them to an infinite number of interesting and exciting new ways to care. Our Muscogee colleagues will be demonstrating some of those new ways to care through science inquiry lessons at our upcoming Winter Meeting. Author Marcia Tate will demonstrate what Dr. Williams described as important brain research. Understanding how the brain works, adding breadth and depth to what children care about is a giant step in the direction of closing the achievement gap.
From Caring to Changing Beliefs and Practices
Bonnie Benard tells us in Chapter 6 of Closing the Achievement Gap, “Teachers who really care recognize strengths and mirror them back to students. They plan lessons and engage students driven by a strength rather than a deficit model. They have a vision of what is possible”. We should know that.
In our next Focus Group, Belinda Williams will help us become more intentional about changing beliefs and practices, starting with the language we use to describe students. The following graphic will help frame the conversation, but leaders need not wait to start investigating just how often deficit descriptions of students negatively impact practice:
Toward a New Vision of Low-Performing Learners
|Current View||A New Vision|
(Chapter 1, p. 19)
Schools that care use different language to express their change in beliefs. Their mission statements no longer include expressions such as “all children can learn if they make an effort,” or “all children can succeed if their parents are engaged.” The bottom line and starting point for creating a school that cares (and therefore achieves) is a school that knows what it knows—and the knowing shows.
Closing the Achievement Gap: A Vision for Changing Beliefs and Practices,
December 6, 2007 Knowledgeable Other Series with Belinda Williams at