Friday, November 3, 2017

Helping kids to be successful in the classroom

I had a great conversation the other day with another assistant principal at our school. We were talking about student performance, the impact of teachers on student outcomes, and how to tell if students are well-prepared in their classes. 

The other assistant principal and I discussed a lot of topics that day, and one topic we were discussing was vertical alignment in subject areas. We agreed that in a vertical alignment, teachers of later grades often know how well students are prepared in certain teachers' classrooms in earlier grades. I remember when I worked in another district, an English teacher of 11th graders told me that she could always tell which students had which teachers in 9th grade based on how well the students knew their grammar rules. They would tell me, "Certain teachers have a way of getting their students to learn grammar more effectively than other teachers." 

Because I am a former coach and tend to relate a lot of what happens at school to coaching, I relate the scenario above to varsity and junior varsity teams. The junior varsity is preparation for varsity competitions, just like 9th grade English class is preparation for 10th grade English class and so on. When I coached junior varsity volleyball, I knew that my girls were well prepared for varsity-level competition. We focused on strong fundamentals, but we still tried advanced plays at the net. Because my players were younger and not as experienced, they weren't as consistent at the junior varsity level as they would become at the varsity level after a couple of years experience at a higher level of competition. Even though I knew that their skills were not as developed at that point, there were still high expectations for the girls to learn what they would need to know and be able to do at the next level. 

What I demanded of my junior varsity players was what the other assistant principal, a former football coach, called "alignment and assignment." My girls knew where they were supposed to be during a play, and they were expected to be there. Every time. My girls may not have gotten the dig or a perfect pass, but they were expected to be in their correct position and working as a team. They may not have gotten the block, but they were where they were supposed to be and knew how to read their hitters. Those were the things that I could consistently demand from them in competition, because I knew that they had been prepared at practice to be in the right place at the right time. 

We also practiced technique and execution with precision, but in a game where adrenaline, nerves, youth, and emotions are factors, the execution wasn't always perfect. Those are the things that I knew I couldn't control as a coach. And things like test scores, graduation rates, and other outcomes are ones that we can't control as educators. But, like the teachers of 9th grade English at my previous school, we know that there ARE factors we can control that will greatly impact test scores, graduation rates, and other outcomes. 

How to create better "Alignment and Assignment"?

     -First, know exactly what the "Alignment and Assignment" is for each student. On a football team, different players have different roles based on abilities and strengths. The coach must be clear on what the alignment and assignment are for each player so that it can be taught, learned, looked for, and expected each day. 

     -Create situations where students can't opt-out. I love how Rick Wormeli always says, "The consequences for my students not doing the work is doing the work." 

     -Have high expectations for ALL students, even when those same students don't have high expectations for themselves. Hold students to those high standards.

     -Be consistent.... with classroom climate, enforcement of rules, showing respect, and expecting students to learn and work every day. 

     -Believe in yourself as an educator. You have the ability to make a difference.

I really like the image above from Duke Football. Their "5 keys to success" are Alignment, Assignment, Effort, Execution, and Finish. The last three keys are based on mindset, and in education we're more familiar with the terms grit, performance, and accomplish. 

I'd love to hear from you on ways to improve students' "alignment and assignment." Leave a comment below or reach out to me on twitter

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