Instructional norms employed to maximize learning

Julia Jacobs, asst. web editor

Instructional Norms, a set of five teaching guidelines intended to increase student learning, are to be implemented in classrooms as part of a three year goal led by GBS administration, Instructional Supervisors and Instructional Coaches.

“Research has been developed over the last 20 or 30 years that has really expanded our view and understanding of teaching, education, how brains work and how [students] respond to different activities that teachers employ in the classroom,” Cameron Muir, Associate Principal for Curriculum and Instruction, said.

According to Muir, during each late arrival, he and his colleagues participate in Professional Learning Mornings where teachers reinforce the most effective instructional strategies. Muir notes that most student goals for instructional norms are immeasurable, including a firmer grasp of each lesson’s ‘big idea’, college and career readiness, and an increased love of learning.

However Susan Levine-Kelley, Instructional Supervisor of the English Department expects that if teachers harness fundamental analytical skills, school-wide ACT scores will be impacted. She recognizes College Readiness Standards as the bridge between classroom curriculum and the ACT.

This standardized testing rubric outlines expectations for each level of achievement on the ACT. According to Levine-Kelley, the difficulty level is scaffolded so that a student does not exercise higher-order thinking, a skill emphasized in the norms, until they reach the more challenging end of the exam.

“Many students have much less patience with higher order thinking because that takes time and a willingness to not know the answer right away, to be willing to dig,” Levine-Kelley said.

However Levine-Kelley sees promise in technology and its ability to perform low-order thinking efficiently, allowing the opportunity for higher order thinking while simultaneously keeping students engaged.

According to Muir, increased engagement is a district-wide goal that GBS is interpreting into instructional norms. To Danita Fitch, IS of the World Language office, foreign language teachers can harness student engagement by embracing the conversational nature of their classes and connecting students’ lives with the current topic. Terrence Jozwik, IS of the Social Studies Department, strives to actively involve every single student in discussion.

“I would like to see visible examples of [students] critical thinking,” Jozwik said.  “Not just ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘when’ questions, but answering and asking ‘why’ questions.  I think the most challenging questions begin with the words ‘how’ or ‘why’.”

Jozwik accredits Robert Marzano, an educational author and consultant, with the idea that multiple teaching modalities will keep students engaged.  Marzano stresses that nonlinguistic activities like drawing a picture or acting out a performance allows students to understand content in a whole new way.

With his World Religion students, Jozwik uses art to help them better understand historical concepts.  According to Jozwik, he showed his class The Chosen, a film about the friendship between the son of a Hasidic Jewish rabbi and the son of a Zionist.  Jozwik remembers an excited student sharing what she learned outside of class about Hassidic response to the film and notes that discovering what students will find engaging is critical.

“If teachers are doing a better job and they make these norms a reality at GBS then there’s no doubt that students will be more engaged in class and they’re going to learn more,” Phil Gartner, IS of the Math Department, said. “That’s going to translate, I think, into achieving more in everything that they do.”

However as stated in the preamble to instructional norms, the successful implementation of the norms depend on an intellectually, emotionally and physically safe classroom environment.  Fitch recognizes that student experimentation is impossible if students do not feel intellectually safe.

“Especially in foreign languages, who’s going to put themselves out there?”  Fitch said. “Who’s going to take those risks to use the language? It’s scary. It’s really scary. So that relationship [between teacher and student] has to come first.  And I’ve found that one way it really works is just that students know that we’re people too.”

Fitch has realized that working with teachers on establishing instructional norms is in many ways working with students. Just like Wegley wants to see students succeeding, he wants teachers watching each other teach in order to ‘expand their own tool box’ and become better at their craft.

“Our mission as educators is about life-long learning,” Fitch said. “It’s not that students just learn and teachers just teach. We learn all the time.”