Ready, Set, Grow: The Benefits of Student Readiness at Morris Elementary School, Des Moines, IA

By Frances A. Miller, Ed.D.

At the beginning of a shift in a hospital, a nurse manager calls her team together for a huddle. At that moment in time, the nurse manager sets the standard for efficiency and teamwork as related to a particular patient’s care for her team. Next, those who are on the team are expected to hold a brief discussion to determine how they are going to work as a together to coordinate that patient’s care throughout the rest of the shift. Team members could include social workers, physical therapists, respiratory therapists, case managers, occupational therapists, and speech therapists as well as other nurses who are working in that unit.

The team doesn’t begin using the plan they’ve created until all state they understand and are ready to use it. After all, someone’s health is serious business. Wait…What? What about someone’s education… Isn’t THAT serious business?

And I’m not talking about teachers planning for students. What about this: How can we motivate our learners to form a ‘Team Huddle’ and plan their own learning with intentionality? I actually think we’ve found the answer!

Each of the six techniques included in year one in the Schools for Rigor initiative is implemented in four phases:

  • Teacher Prep
  • Student Readiness
  • Student Use
  • Teacher Verify

Each time I shared how to implement the techniques using the four phases with the administration, instructional coaches, and teachers at Morris Elementary School in Des Moines, Iowa, that ‘Team Huddle’ concept kept tapping me on the shoulder, particularly when we discussed that Student Readiness phase!

As a result, I began reflecting on these questions:

What would happen if we transferred this level of intentional readiness to classroom teaching?

What would happen if we were deliberate in asking students to consider how they are going to strategize, think, and analyze their way through a rigorous task prior to starting the task?

What would happen if we asked students who are working with a partner or within a team to determine how they will collaborate in order to learn from each other before they begin working on that rigorous task?

Because, really… THIS is what the Student Readiness Phase is all about!

READY

As Morris Elementary School teachers are striving to integrate each new technique into their classroom practice as part of the Schools for Rigor initiative, they are also learning that it is both important and efficient to include time in their lesson plans for students to get ready prior to the start of the lesson. Teachers are determined to provide students with the necessary skills and resources to assume responsibility for their learning so they will be ready to use that technique.

Student readiness is when the students work collaboratively to strategize their path toward completing a rigorous task that demonstrates the learning target.

The teacher has already planned the lesson. During the student readiness phase, students are talking about how they will accomplish the task so they are able to meet the Learning Target and Success Criteria. The teacher is verifying the students’ understanding prior to their actually doing the task. This could mean the students might be working out the small details related to the management of the task or the students could be figuring out the actual plans for how they will acquire the information or share their knowledge to accomplish the task. Before we look at examples, we do need to keep the following in mind:

When teachers ask students to create their plan or to “get ready” to work on a task, they want students to use their time wisely. So, teachers are mindful… they ask students to engage in readiness when the tasks require rigorous, juicy, and cognitively complex thinking, as opposed to tasks that are foundational or basic.

SET…

The teachers at Morris Elementary School are noticing that when they do take the time to engage their learners in readiness conversations, their students are set up to be successful. When we consider what this looks like and sounds like in practice, one must realize that there is somewhat of a continuum of choices. Teachers can choose to simply ask a question that causes students to reflect and converse or they could be quite intentional in asking students to create an actual plan for their own implementation to achieve the Learning Target and Success Criteria. No matter how a teacher chooses to implement the Student Readiness phase, s/he sets the culture in the room to be one where students feel safe to take risks and share. Consider your students’ needs as you look at the following examples of implementation at Morris Elementary School:

Fifth grade teacher Jamie Hoff explained the Standard, Learning Target, Success Criteria, and task to her students as they sat in a group in front of her on the carpet. The students seemed to be listening, yet prior to releasing them so they could work on the task with their partners, Ms. Hoff said, “Turn to your partner and tell them how you are going to do this task.” While they shared, she visited the partners and listened to their conversations in order to verify whether or not their plans aligned with the Learning Target and Success Criteria in order to accomplish the task. This is readiness. This is creating a culture in the room where her students feel safe sharing and are set up to succeed.

Fourth Grade teacher Tricia Miller uses a proactive approach to readiness. Before she even asks her students to engage in the readiness phase, each student has been assigned a partner (A and B). The partners decide who will find the spot in the room to work, get the materials, read first or who will be the first one to state the answer to the problems they’ve solved. When she asks the students to explain their plan for meeting the Learning Target and Success Criteria for the assigned task with their partner, Ms. Miller simply states which partner is responsible for managing the details.

Technology teacher John Cross will ask the students to share with each other the task for the day and how it is related to the Learning Target and Success Criteria. Then, he will randomly call on a student via the roll of a die to explain to this to the rest of the class. If the student has difficulty, he does a quick review, has the students chat about it again to clear up misconceptions and then repeats the process.

Fourth grade teacher Tracey Klisares also employs partners in order to prompt her students’ readiness. Ms. Klisares’s students will often brainstorm ways to meet the Learning Target and Success criteria with their partner after they’ve experiences a mini lesson where their teacher has modeled the skill or strategy being taught. She has her students to answer three questions to determine their plan prior to working:

  • What does the Success Criteria mean and how will you use it?
  • How/when will you monitor each other?
  • What will you do when you finish?

Ms. Klisares has also shown her fourth graders examples of work that meets and does not meet the success criteria to add depth to the students’ discussions.

After Ms. Murphy’s second grade students experienced a mini lesson on how illustrations provide further details to the text, the students were to read an excerpt and view the accompanying illustration. Then, they were to answer three questions that increased in rigor related to that illustration. Prior to completing the task, Ms. Murphy asked her students, “Turn to your neighbor and tell them what you are supposed to do.” As the students explained their answer, both she and her student teacher circulated among the student teams to verify whether or not the learners understood the task.

When the teacher was sure that most of the learners understood and had a plan, the students went to their seats and began working on the task.

GROW!

After each professional learning session, Principal, Sherry Amos; Assistant Principal, Anita Smith; and Instructional Coaches, Brenda Buemer and Katie Francis walk through the building with staff developer, Dr. Frances Miller to strengthen their coaching skills as they observe teachers implementing the newly learned technique during C4I (Coaching for Implementation) days. As the C4I days have progressed throughout the 17-18 school year, this team has learned two lessons related to how the building has demonstrated growth related to Student Readiness:

  1. It’s a journey! All of the teachers at Morris Elementary School are on the continuum of implementation. All are growing. Everyone is eager to learn and there is much to celebrate. The readiness piece is crucial and when we focus on it, the growth in the learners and the effect it has on the students is indescribable!
  2. It’s an investment. When teachers intentionally invest the time to focus the students’ conversations on the Learning Target and Success Criteria during Readiness Phase, the culture shifts within the classroom. Many teachers’ growth in implementation spiked when they came to the realization that this was where they needed to invest their time with students. Teachers’ roles shifted as they became facilitators of learning while their student’s conversations began to focus on the “buzz” of learning.

Teachers have also noticed growth when the Readiness Phase is implemented with integrity. When they consider what has grown, it comes in the form of “more” (similar to when we gain a few extra inches around our waistline)!

More engagement: Tracey Klisares has noticed that because her fourth graders have shared their plan in meeting the learning target with their learning partner, they have grown in the level of engagement as they learn. Their clearer understanding leads to their taking and active role in meeting the learning target.

More efficiency: Tricia Miller, Fourth Grade teacher has detected since she has place the focus on student readiness, that there are less follow-up questions being asked once the task gets started. Students are eager to start the task and after they begin, most students can meet the target since they already have prepared a personal plan in order to achieve that target.

More respect: When her students progress into the Student Use phase, Ms. Klisares has realized that her students have grown to demonstrate respect toward one another as evidenced through their use of accountable talk and monitoring each other’s progress as opposed to the former behaviors of arguing or tattling when a teammate was off task and not meeting the learning target. Ms. Miller explains that her students do not waste time bickering over the spot in which they are going to work in the classroom or who is going to take the first turn.

More clarity: Mr. Cross, Technology teacher has observed that he has not had to repeat the Learning Target and Success Criteria for his students more than one time for each of his classes. He states, “The incidents of students hugely missing the mark on what they’re supposed to be doing during actual work time have largely disappeared.”

More challenge: Some of Ms. Miller’s learners who struggled in the past are now challenging themselves and are motivated to meet the Learning Target. The readiness process provides just the right amount of specificity needed for a learner who struggles. Also, quiet students who are a bit quiet or shy begin finding and using their “voice” to agree/disagree as they work in partners. Working with a partner is much more comfortable than speaking up in front of a classroom of one’s peers.

The investment in teaching students to huddle up prior to diving in to a task so students can collaborate and plan how they will both manage and accomplish the task is well worth the time. Students are not only empowered to complete the task, but they benefit from finding their voice as a member of the team, and they own the results of the task, too. This sounds like someone who would be a successful, productive member of our future society.