Reflecting on a Year of Growth at Des Moines Public Schools

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By Kara Bentley

Staff members at an Iowa elementary school reflect on the take-aways, challenges, and rewards of becoming a School for Rigor. Read the first part of this series here.

In August 2017, I had the privilege of working with the instructional staff of Monroe Elementary School in Des Moines Public Schools in Iowa. Our goal was to craft a new vision of instruction as a School for Rigor, which encompassed a shift in instruction and a shift to transfer the learning over to students.

Their shift involved utilizing multiple instructional techniques (Ignite Core Instruction) and focusing on minute-to-minute monitoring and verifying of student learning through purposeful observation and feedback. I asked participating teachers, coaches, and administrators to reflect on how the shift in instruction impacted their classroom experience.


What was the most challenging part of the implementation, and how did you adjust?

For a lot of teachers, the most challenging part of the implementation was change. Because I am new to the field, I was able to incorporate some of these concepts into my developing practice. What has been most challenging for me, is trying to move first graders (and myself) beyond retrieval and comprehension level tasks. As a team, we continue to work on analysis and knowledge utilization tasks while planning. K. Wood, 1st Grade Teacher

Personally, it was looking critically at my instruction and asking myself how exactly I incorporated tasks aligned to taxonomy. Was I truly holding myself and students to levels of accountability that were attainable; if not why? How could I better my instruction to get students to levels of Analysis and aim for Knowledge Utilization? N. Curry, K-5 Literacy

The most challenging part of implementing the technique(s) has been to change my thinking to recognize that the children are their own best teachers. I am merely the facilitator of learning experiences. It is through these learning opportunities that students can create a community of learners that feel safe to take risks and to challenge one another’s thinking to a higher level than ever before. G. Freel, 2nd Grade Teacher

How can you tell that students are thinking more deeply? More creatively?

I really believe that students are thinking more deeply than ever before. The easiest way to tell is by the amount of talking they are doing. When given sentence stems and the correct questioning prompts, they are making gains at explaining their thinking and monitoring their own learning. C. Spoelstra, 1st Grade Teacher

My favorite part has been students listening and responding to each other. I can feel my smile from ear to ear every time I hear, ‘I agree because,’ ‘I disagree because,’ or ‘I want to add more.’ I can tell my students are thinking more deeply and creatively based on their conversations. K. Wood, 1st Grade Teacher

The students want to interact and share their thinking with one another. The energy level rises when students own their learning. They want to think of not only to answer the questions – but two or even three ways. G. Freel, 2nd Grade Teacher

I appreciate the cognitive load students are capable of taking on with guidance from educators. I feel like education has become not only students being more of a community of learners, but teachers, coaches, and administrators as well. N. Curry, K-5 Literacy


How has your coaching focus changed (keeping in mind the instructional techniques)?

Using the tools to guide my thinking, when observing student evidence in classrooms, has changed my coaching practice immensely. Before, I focused on what changes to suggest within many different areas including classroom conditions, the organization of students, etc. to make a more global change in their classroom. Now, I focus on providing very direct feedback around student learning with small actionable steps and provide access to resources to better see that change or increase in engagement that we are seeking. M. Herrold, TLC Coach

We have a new lens to look through when entering the classroom. The techniques give us a tiered approach to supporting our teacher within a student-centered classroom with rigor. The techniques are like a “menu” of options for the teacher to move freely in and out of based on the students needs. A. Cotter, TLC Coach

How do you know that students are engaged in cognitively complex tasks when you visit a classroom?

When observing in classrooms, I identify the taxonomy level of the posted target, teacher-designed task and the student evidence that is present at the time of the lesson. I am looking to see the taxonomy of all three to be at the same taxonomy or increase as the lesson progresses. Once teachers release to a rigorous task, I am listening for students interacting with the target, success criteria and explaining and revising their work based on the conversations that students are having with each other. A complex task requires that students grapple with the content and work together to come to common understanding of the learning and then apply their knowledge to real-life situations. M. Herrold, TLC Coach

Students are truly engaged without the teacher prompting and supporting. I hear students’ voices, and they back up their voice with evidence to prove or justify their thinking. A. Cotter, TLC Coach


How have classrooms changed this year? What do you notice? What are students and teachers doing differently?

I see students with voice. When I go into classrooms, students are actively working. I see students talking and learning together instead of passively sitting while the teacher is instructing. I see staff taking steps toward giving students that opportunity to participate more than ever, and I see students engaged and happier in the classroom.

I see staff using new techniques and strategies, and I know that learning is changing for our students as we change the way we support the learning. The steps are small, but over time, students have become more engaged and teachers are thinking about learning and taxonomy of tasks differently. 

Monitoring, as difficult as it has been for staff, has made the difference. Change cannot happen without the monitoring and feedback piece in place. — L. Prior-Sweet, Principal

This article is a follow-up to Reflecting on a Vision of Instruction at Des Moines Public Schools, published at the beginning of the 2017-18 school year.