This week, for the first time in my teaching career, I arranged a day just to get out of my building and visit other schools. I went to KIPP Inspire Academy, Gateway STEM high school, and Soulard School. Each school was an opportunity to see how learning occurs at different age levels, in different settings, and with different content areas. The focus of the day was to look for strategies and environmental cues that support student learning. Since I’m in the same building all day, every day it’s easy to forget how schools can best support students in these ways.
I started the morning off at KIPP Inspire. This is a charter middle school located in downtown St. Louis that has about 125 students grades 5 – 8. The director took me on a tour and explained a bit about KIPP’s mission. KIPP has been around for years and now is a very successful nation-wide organization. They have a no-excuses focus on learning and I was interested in seeing how they operate. During my visit, I stepped in on different classes and saw many great teaching practices. I was thrilled to see an assistant director walk in a teacher’s room, set up a video camera, and record the lesson to use in the evaluation process. I got a copy of the teacher evaluation model they use at the school and was impressed with the open-door culture among the teachers. At KIPP, the focus is on helping teachers develop and not on criticizing their teaching.
The learning culture also impressed me. Multiple times I saw teachers lead students in stomping, clapping, or snapping to show their appreciation of the student’s ideas and effort. The whole class engaged in these things and it was easy to see as an observer there was a strong culture of high expectations around learning. I could sense the passion the teachers had for learning and witnessed some inspirational teaching. Important things I noticed were how the teachers spoke, how they got all students to engage with each other before they would acknowledge a response, and how they encouraged students to think through answers with each other before they gave the “right” answer.
The second school I went to was Gateway STEM. This is a magnet high school that’s part of the St. Louis Public School District. Although there are many schools in the St. Louis Public District that are unaccredited, Gateway continues to offer students a high-quality education. The focus is on science and math, but Gateway offers many other elective courses as well. I saw Teach for America teachers in action at Gateway and I saw students engaged in learning. I observed a Spanish teacher and got to speak with a French teacher about her experience working in a STEM school and the challenges of working in an inner-city district. I also spoke with an administrator at the school about major challenges the school must overcome. It was exciting to see great education happening in a diverse school setting.
The last school I visited was Soulard School, a small independent elementary school. The reason I wanted to visit Soulard was because I had met the executive director and heard about the project-based learning they do at the school. They have a much different model because they operate independently and get more freedom in their teaching. For example, twice a week the students cook the lunch together with the adults and learn about nutrition hands on. They created a STEAM lab room inside the school where teachers can lead students in hands-on technology-based lessons.
On the day I was at the school I saw a fifth grade class in this room learning about geodesic domes. The day before they took a field trip to the Missouri Botanical Garden to see the Climatron as a real-life example of such a dome. Today they were showing examples of domes and then the students go to build their own dome using dots and toothpicks. Then the teacher tested the domes for structural integrity by placing weight on top and students made predictions about how much each could hold. It was a really cool lesson and the students were very engaged (I have to admit, I was excited about the learning myself). After this, there was an author visit to the school and the entire school met up to listen to a writer from National Geographic talk about her travels and writings. There was a lot of creativity at the Soulard School and it gave me ideas for engaging students through PBL and real-world lessons.
I gained a lot by spending a day visiting other schools around St. Louis. There are many ideas that schools and teachers have that can’t be shared unless there is more connection between them. I enjoyed getting out of my classroom so that I could learn from the amazing educators in the area and get inspiration for my teaching. I already ordered an iPhone camera stand so I can record more of my lessons, I have ideas for what to add to my classroom walls to spark student interest, and I also know how to develop real-world, project-based lessons to engage students in learning. My day of professional development was successful and meaningful to my teaching.