Combining Theories for the Practicing Educator

By David Genovese, Brooklyn College Academy at Brooklyn College, NY


Developing enlightened educational theories, to enable conceptual ideas to flourish within the practicing classroom, ensures the continuation of learning.  Theory and practice are symbiotic relationships, which if presented correctly can meld vision and mission into a school’s culture.  In 2010, Brooklyn college Academy (BCA) was presented with the opportunity to pilot Dr. David Conley’s EPIC C-PAS project.  EPIC C-PAS is a rigorous college readiness project which allows for a high level of student preparation.


After listening to Dr. Conley speak about the EPIC project during the annual MCNC Principal’s Leadership Conference, it became apparent to us that his theories might work in our school environment. As a well established Early College High School, with a faculty entrenched in Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s), the next step was to renew and enculturate ourselves into Dr. Conley’s project. The tools and skills necessary for a successful college student lies in the preparation required during their high school years.  The EPIC project was the next intervallic climb.  The PLC’s served to support and invigorate new and veteran teachers.  Grade level PLC’s, instead of content based professional development, proved to be a more successful action and helped the faculty understand the progressive theories offered by Dr. Conley.  During the 2010-11 school year, Dr. Conley’s Key Cognitive Strategies were discussed and analyzed in our PLC’s. Embedding these strategies into the instructional mindset was somewhat successful; the “practice” needed more work.


In February of 2011, Dr. Cece Cunningham, Executive Director of the MCNC, introduced us to Dr. Richard Elmore and the process of “Instructional Rounds” at the Principal’s Leadership Conference.  Immediately it clicked that this was the tool for us to use to explore how the Key Cognitive Strategies manifested themselves in our classrooms.  Elmore’s Instructional Rounds process enabled us to begin to explore our work by instituting a best practices model.  The Instructional Rounds became the vehicle for our faculty to explore our classrooms, celebrate best practices and learn from each other how our students are absorbing the skills found in the KCS.


In the article “Improving the Instructional Core” by Dr. Elmore, he states “language is culture and vice versa” (p.6).  This was a statement that resonated with us.  The language of the Key Cognitive Strategies needed to be developed in order to renew the work of building a culture of college readiness. In the sixth principle of instructional improvement, Elmore states “we learn the work by doing the work” (p.10). This in itself seems like common sense, however when a faculty of 27 teachers is being immersed into the work, it takes on a greater meaning.  Teachers doing common work and seeing it in action within each other’s classrooms builds the language of the Key Cognitive Strategies amongst them and thereby builds the culture of college readiness in the school. We started this journey by taking our faculty on a weekend retreat and unpacked Dr. Elmore’s article along with some team building activities.


Our first set of “Instructional Rounds” took place on October 5, 2011. Because Brooklyn College Academy is located on two school sites, it was important that the “Instructional Rounds” take place on the same day. Teachers were asked to use one of their prep periods to conduct their portion of the rounds. Using protocols on low inference observations and note taking worksheets, provided by our school’s support network, the faculty successfully completed the task. Each faculty member was assigned to a team of three teachers to look at three or four classrooms. Even one of our student teachers from Brooklyn College was involved on one of the teams. Each teacher had a specific role when entering the classroom. The specific roles were observing student work, recording student actions, and recording teacher actions. Every classroom visit lasted between ten and fifteen minutes. The teachers rotated their roles in each classroom.


Immediately following the regular school day, faculty and administrators debriefed the rounds during our professional development time immediately following the regular school day.  The debrief included the teacher teams looking at their observation worksheets again and determining five or six items that would fit the definitions of the Key Cognitive Strategies and writing them down on sticky notes.  They then placed their notes on large posters of graphic organizers that contained definitions of the KCS.  We then conducted a carousel activity to give everyone a chance to see and document these best practices.  A lengthy discussion ensued regarding the process and several of the items that were posted on the charts. The faculty ended the session by completing a personal reflection on the work. Research and problem formulation were the two strategies that were found to need more attention.  As we moved through the share out, it was clear that the language was becoming easier to use and began to transform our culture.


The reflections were rich and rewarding.  The faculty appreciated the opportunity to see each other’s classrooms.  As an administrator, I was impressed with the creative delivery of content as well as the high level of activity and engagement in the classrooms. One teacher commented that this process was a powerful tool to use when looking at classrooms and made our professional development session more like a graduate school class.


In preparation of the second set of rounds, we revisited our work. The staff reviewed the findings of the first set of rounds and completed a “warm and cool” protocol in relation to the discoveries made.  Again, it was found that our classrooms were very engaging and that the work should center around moving our students toward more independent thinking and elevating the classroom task as outlined in Elmore’s educational core. These discussions were rich and deep and allowed us to take another step toward renewing the culture of our school. The faculty completed exit slips at the end of the session. A graphic web of these thoughts and reflections was created and hung as a poster in one of the staff’s public areas. (see below)


The second set of Instructional Rounds was completed on December 14, 2011.  Following the same theoretical protocols, faculty teams were changed and then scheduled to see different classrooms. Feedback from the first set of Instructional Rounds suggested that we make this change.  During the debrief after the second set of Instructional Rounds, some of the discussion focused on the idea that teachers were integrating more higher order thinking questions as well as elevating their classroom tasks. Also, a portion of the session focused on planning lessons and units around the KCS.  Teachers talked about how the KCS is not necessarily at the forefront of their planning (content is the main focus) but they are thinking about implementing these strategies in classroom tasks, homework, and projects.


So far, combining the Key Cognitive Strategies and the Instructional Rounds model has allowed us to begin the process of exploring and renewing the work we do with our students.  To be lifelong learners, a quality that is essential to creating college ready classrooms, we must continue this symbiotic relationship of theory and practice. By doing this, we are working to give our students the best possible educational experience and a wonderful beginning of a rich and rewarding college experience.

Read Take Aways from First IR Debrief