I had not paid much attention to the term ‘walk through’ or ‘learning walk’ prior to coming to the US on #jhstudyleave
In a post dated March 2015 three teachers from Jefferson Middle School write about the purpose of a ‘walk through’ and describe how they “see its importance in improving practice and teacher professional growth”. There is plenty of documentation about the activity – you may like to read more about it here and here.
In examining a few definitions of the ‘walk though’ … what I participated in on Wednesday at Jamestown High School (JHS) in Virginia with dynamic principal Dr Catherine Worley and her assistant Mrs Crystal Haskins together Dr Mark Hofer from the College of William & Mary was possibly more visit, than ‘walk through’. I was able to talk with a number of teachers, chat to inquisitive students and observe classroom interactions. Great.
Dr Worley did show me the ‘walk through’ documentation that she fills out on her ‘learning walks’ – I will come to that later in the post.
There are almost 1300 students at JHS (years 9-12) – there is a staff of 134 that includes 84 full-time teachers (who all have teaching assistants), the principal who has an executive assistant, there is a bursar to look after finances, librarians who manage the school’s media centre, there are special needs teachers, an absentee administrator, three security personnel, one on-duty police officer, four school counsellors with dedicated roles in career/college preparation, a social worker, physical therapist, and a school nurse.
I immediately thought about the idea of the full-service school and how much further there is for the Australian government to go in properly resourcing specialist and dedicated staff in their huge task of not only educating but also supporting the development of young people in our public high schools.
On reflection, my perceptions of the ‘typical US high school context’ were somewhat dispelled and I am now better informed. Of course, with my researcher’s hat on this was one moment in time, it is a particular context and purely about a descriptive snapshot – but when you go into schools often and have done so for more than two decades immediate responses and initial reactions are significant.
Four features stood out:
1. Jamestown High School (JHS) is quiet. It’s an education facility that is highly regarded in the community. Known as ‘a very good school’ that has high academic achievements, important and noteworthy sporting prowess and a deeply engaged parent community. I observed wide, deserted corridors set out around a central courtyard in a quadrangle design that at bell time filled with masses of students moving in highly orderly ways from class to class.
2. School starts very early for students at JHS ; that means a school day that stretches from 7.20am and finishes at 2.20pm – this is typical in the US. Feeding students is the responsibility of the school and therefore the state – students are provided with meals, usually a hot lunch and in some cases schools will provide breakfast and dinner as well. The dining room is a site for students to build relationships with other adults, catch up with friends and receive nutrition that may not be provided at home.
3. Support from a team of four dedicated counselling professionals whose sole focus is student wellbeing. In speaking with the lead counsellor I was struck by the type of work they do on a daily basis, for example, exam and SAT preparation, career/college guidance, recommendations for substance abuse programs, and family support. In 2014 the school had four students that received places at Princeton, another to MIT and other US colleges of note with > 80% receiving college admission; including one national award for the highest performing student.
4. Great teaching looks more or less the same in the US as it does in Australian high schools. I observed: a Junior Spanish class where students were preparing cartoon work and captions facilitated by a teacher who spoke Spanish throughout the lesson; a Senior Maths class where the teacher used Notability on his iPad to annotate and make notes about trigonometry that could shared and sent out to all students at the conclusion of each lesson; a financial literacy class where Senior students used online modules to learn about budgeting and banking; a Junior Science lesson on ‘weathering’ taught by Ms Gonzales who has a YouTube channel of ‘flipped content’ that allows her to gain more time in face-to-face lessons to support and extend students understanding of scientific concepts; and then there was Mr Ambler’s Social Science class. He was teaching a lesson to Senior’s on one of my favourite topics … government. Matters of taxing, revenue and politicians – it was all there. I watched “I am just a Bill’”– a YouTube clip well-known to US high school students; they sang along as Mr Ambler indulged my curiosity. I loved it.
This week, I learned a little about US high schools. It’s a context that I had no previous personal experience of, it was very brief – the experience was generous and powerful. There was technology enhanced learning in particular classrooms with particular teachers. No surprises here.
Dr Worley shared official documentation that is involved in the voluntary ‘walk through’ process of teacher evaluation, she described: “The learning walk is all about professional growth”. Sheets used by observers(the principal or a colleague) in the ‘walk through’ detail high and low yield practices (11 “look-fors”) and there is space to specify with examples of what the teacher is doing – there is also a ‘walk through’ that captures indicators of student engagement. I plan to understand more about the ‘walk through’ in US schools.