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As teachers, we all know that our profession can be very isolating and private compared to other fields of work. We spend many hours lesson planning, grading, and teaching in our solitary classrooms without much of an idea of what happens in other classrooms. Fortunately for me, I had an opportunity this past week to observe several of my fellow Teach For America corps members in their classrooms. I spent the day driving to different middle schools in Saint Louis looking at how they establish routines and procedures for independent reading. As a remedial reading teacher, I found it helpful to look at the different ways independent reading was taking place across our district. At the end of my observations, I realized that despite all the difficulties facing the Saint Louis Public Schools, there are still incredible things happening within our schools. I think it’s time to recognize and celebrate the spirit of our educators that I saw within Saint Louis–and beyond!
My first visit of the day was to a middle school on the north side of Saint Louis. I observed a fellow Teach For America corps member teaching a low level reading class using Louis Sachar’s Sideways Stories from Wayside School. Her students were using a graphic organizer to both check their comprehension and visualize what they read. In addition to this purposeful graphic organizer, the students had access to “visiting books” from the local libraries. This teacher checked out titles ranging from When a Mouse Eats a Cookie to Stellaluna so that her lower level readers could practice skills with accessible books. I saw how excitedly her students grabbed these picture books from her shelves and I knew this was a strategy I wanted to adopt in my own classroom. By bringing visiting books to my students, I will not only help them to build their literacy skills, but also help develop their love of reading.
I continued my day with a stop at a middle school on the opposite end of the city. I observed a teacher who facilitates a Read 180 classroom, which is a research-based reading intervention program used by schools across the country. As I sat in on this second class, I saw that each student was invested in his or her own personal reading goal for the semester and had established specific page goals for his or her novel. Specifically, this teacher had them use post-it notes to set benchmarks for how many pages they will read by any given day. Once students finish a book, they add a link to their classroom book chain and complete a reader response form. I was amazed at how each student knew what they were supposed to be doing at all times during the classroom, including during independent reading time and transitions. This teacher also not only has clear expectations for what her students should be doing, but also makes sure that her students know how they are performing at all times. She established student-run tracking charts around the room to document the number of books they read, the number of computer-based assessments they completed, as well as how well each class did in terms of maintaining a positive learning environment. Overall, this teacher’s routines and procedures created a structured classroom where students could function independently and productively.
Finally, I ended my day by observing a fifth grade teacher at the newly opened KIPP: Inspire school close to the downtown. KIPP, if you haven’t heard of this charter school program yet, was founded by two Teach For America alums, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, as a system of schools that would dramatically impact student achievement. To give you a brief idea of what KIPP schools are like, I looked up an article on the Washington Post website, which described the schools as such: “a system of 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. school days, mandatory summer school, calls to teachers at home with homework questions, visits to student homes, emphasis on character and behavior, principal power to hire and fire teachers, teacher cooperation and training and an elaborate system of student sanctions and rewards that produced in their first two schools in Houston and the South Bronx the highest test scores in their areas.” Needless to say, the kinds of teacher practices I saw taking place in KIPP: Inspire were regimented, yet purposeful and student-oriented. For example, the teacher I saw lead her students in clapping out the syllabication of words and setting aside significant portions of time for students to read independently. I was impressed at how clear expectations at KIPP creates a culture where students are genuinely invested in their learning and want to give their best effort.
At the end of this very long, but inspiring day, I came to a few general conclusions about what kind of spirit I want to maintain as a teacher in Saint Louis. First, all of us teachers want our students to be successful and we are willing to do whatever it takes to help them get there. Given this common denominator, I think we teachers should do more to collaborate and get out to see one another in our classrooms. It’d be helpful to share our resources and our gripes in order to establish more of a community of like-minded professionals. Furthermore, I think that all of our different teaching personalities makes it possible for us to approach our lessons and our challenges in novel ways. I know it was helpful for me to step outside of my own “box” of a classroom to see how different teachers tackled the same problems I was having on a daily basis. After seeing all the commitment, enthusiasm, and plain ol’ spirit I saw in Saint Louis last Tuesday, I am confident that we teachers are continuing to strive for excellence in student achievement.