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In the hallway of Cartmell Elementary School hang three posters, each showing a large red-and-white target with arrows hitting the bull’s eye. The posters ask students and staff members if they know their targets, if they can hit their targets, and how will they know when they have succeeded.
The “targets” are the specific learning tasks students should be able to do, such as “identify numerators and denominators” or “identify fractions in a picture,” in third-grade mathematics.
“Students need to know not just what they are going to do, but what they are going to learn,” said Cartmell Principal Doug Oak. The school is participating in an innovative pilot project to help strengthen its focus on such learning targets.
School and district administrators from Carroll and Gallatin county districts are teaming up to implement a new professional development process called “instructional rounds,” based on the research of Harvard professor Richard Elmore. Elmore adapted ideas from medical rounds physicians use in hospitals to improve medical treatment, patient by patient.
With instructional rounds, four or five small groups of educators will observe a few classrooms for about 20 minutes each, paying particular attention to a specific instructional practice on which the school has chosen to focus. Observers often interview students to determine what they are learning.
Afterward, the groups gather to share their general observations and brainstorm methods that might strengthen teaching and learning throughout the school.
“No particular teachers are mentioned during post-observation discussions, because it’s about what the school, as a whole, is doing,” said Bill Hogan, assistant superintendent of the Carroll County School District. “In every school that I’ve observed, even though we haven’t seen the same classrooms, amazingly, we’ll all have similar observations and recommendations.”
Hogan said conducting these instructional rounds provides the school with “a fresh set of eyes” to look at a particular “problem with practice,” the term Elmore uses to describe the instructional practice the school wants to strengthen.
“The building principals [from other districts] observing classrooms also benefit from the process, because they see a lot of positive things they can bring back to their own schools,” Hogan said.
Third-grade teacher Carrie Boles said the school’s focus on learning targets has helped her and other teachers learn to communicate more clearly exactly what students are expected to learn each day.
“We’ve done these [learning targets] in the past, but we’ve really sharpened them up this year,” Boles said. “We’ve made them very specific, so every day kids know exactly what they’re doing.”
Fellow third -grade teacher Jeannie Rohrer said teachers work in grade-level teams on Tuesdays to specify the learning targets to be taught the following week. She agrees that the process helps everyone focus not only on what is taught, but how it is assessed or tested.
“Children are told up front what their mastery will look like, what they should be able to do, exactly, at the end of a lesson,” said Rohrer, who shows how a formative assessment, or learning check, is tied to the student-friendly learning target. “We are learning to make fractions from pictures.”
On a sheet of paper are pictures of groups of objects. One picture shows eight diamond shapes with six of them darkened. Rohrer explains that students should be able to create the fraction of sixth-eighths (6/8) from the picture.
“When [students] take that formative assessement, that individual child knows immediately whether they’ve hit the target or not,” Rohrer said. “If not, they know what they need to do tomorrow.”
Jeff Fremin is director of public relations for the Carroll County School District.