Learning from the 2018 Finalists' Classrooms, Part III
Third Visit: Kate Fiori, Vero Beach Elementary School, Vero Beach - Visiting Vero Beach Elementary School was delightful! I was greeted with a cute sign welcoming me and happy smiles from the clerical staff. As I walked through the teachers’ lounge area, there were huge charts posted on the walls. They showed the growth classes were making toward mastering their standards, and there was a pineapple chart for teachers to observe each other’s classes. The halls were filled with projects, essays, graphic organizers, artwork, photographs, and awards. I also noticed that teachers in the halls greeted other adults and children with sweet words, but they also ensured students were following school rules. There was a real community mentality that all staff members were actively engaged in addressing all students. I just felt a sense of purpose from the staff to be involved with helping students succeed academically and behaviorally. VBE is a Title I school with a high percentage of ELL students. Last year, the school’s grade moved from an F to a C. It was easy see the growth mentality of the staff.
Kate was working with a small group in her fifth-grade classroom when I entered. The students were listening to her science instruction and questions about acceleration and velocity. I was very impressed at the level of questions that were asked. If the student answers were not deep enough, Kate prompted the students with additional questions and sparked even deeper discussions. The other students in the room were actively engaged in other acceleration and velocity activities during the five-station rotation. Kate used the science content to reinforce reading and writing skills as well as a history lesson about Isaac Newton and even incorporated art and creativity by having the students make superheroes. The whole lesson was cross-curricular and fun to observe.
The classroom was decorated with student work, anchor charts for all subjects, encouraging signs, lessons of growth mindset, and charts for student academic progress and behavior. There was also a holiday decoration in which the students wrote notes of gratitude to each other. The desks were in groups of three or four. Science projects were posted outside the door with pictures of the science fair. There was something to see and learn everywhere you looked, and even though the walls were full, Kate’s classroom was organized and beautifully arranged.
It only took a few minutes to be impressed with Kate’s energy, enthusiasm, organization, and control of the classroom, but what was most remarkable was her high student expectations and her teaching of growth mindset. Kate expected her students to be engaged in learning every minute, and she expected every student to excel in the learning. She asked high level questions and expected complex, detailed answers. She did not become Superwoman and save the day if the students struggled with their thinking. She waited and asked further questions if needed until the students responded with high level responses. Her expectations of behavior were no less rigorous. If any student veered off the right path, she quickly guided them back to appropriate behaviors and provided positive feedback as appropriate. I believe these high expectations were part of Kate’s growth mindset toward her students. She had confidence her students could learn the material she was presenting and helped her students to also have confidence in themselves. Her class consisted of 75% English Language Learners and 100% of her students received free or reduced lunch. Only 7% scored level 3 in reading and 14% scored level 3 in mathematics the previous year, yet Kate’s mindset was that her students could score level 3 in all tested areas of fifth grade. She praised hard work and celebrated mistakes as a natural part of the learning process after analyzing the errors for understanding. She gave stickers for improvement and told her students they would continue to improve as they put forth effort and persevered. Her comments of “you can do this” and “you don’t need a perfect score, you just need to do better than you did yesterday” and “understanding is more important than getting the right answer” showed her true growth mindset toward her students.
Research shows students generally live up to their teachers’ expectations and to their teachers’ mindsets. If much is expected, much will be accomplished. On the other hand, if teachers do not believe in their students’ abilities, they will have low expectations. If less is expected, less will be achieved. Marie Amaro, co-founder of TheHighlyEffectiveTeacher.com suggests five actions teacher can take to set high classroom expectations. First, teachers must tell their students they believe in them and brag on their abilities to other faculty members, which helps build those positive relationships. Second, all students must be given opportunities to have a voice and a choice. Kate’s students were given choices on elective classes and ways to demonstrate proficiency in her classroom. Third, educators need to use constructive detailed feedback with opportunities for students to use the feedback to improve their work and their understanding. Fourth, teachers must provide great support with varied instructional paths, and fifth, tasks given must not be too easy or too hard. Work should be challenging, stimulating, and achievable.
Modeling and teaching growth mindset go right along with having high expectations and can be equally as valuable. In separate articles written by Marcus Guido and Angela Watson, some practical ways to instill a growth mindset in students were given. One way is praise hard work, perseverance, and growth instead of praising intelligence. Words have a lasting effect. Even the tiny word “yet” makes such a difference in perspective. “Yet” tells a student you believe in his ability to learn the material, he just needs a little more time. Teachers can help students develop their own growth mindset language by modeling the language and by having a display of fixed versus growth mindset sentences. Thoughts, spoken words, and written words impact mindsets. Another way of helping students develop the proper mindset is using different teaching methods and accepting different products for mastery. It is important to show students multiple paths to learning and allow them to demonstrate that learning in ways that make sense to them. This helps students develop confidence, believe in their abilities, and recognize their potential. Last, students need to process information at a deeper level and explain their thinking. Teachers need to give students time to do just that, time to develop their understanding and time to discuss their thoughts. This shows students that competency of subject matter is developed, not something they inherently have.
Observing Kate’s teaching inspired me to reflect on my own pedagogy and rethink how I set high expectations and teach growth mindset to my students this year as I return to the classroom. I hope they have inspired you as well.