Pulling Rabbits From A Hat: Magic at Alexander Elementary School

It’s a mild October morning and as part of my daily routine I’m visiting schools, meeting with Alexander Elementaryadministrators and getting an opportunity to learn from the teachers in SD34 who, in my mind, are clearly ahead of the curve in terms of their innovative practices, professionalism and commitment to providing exceptionally engaging and caring experiences for their students. This morning I am excited to be visiting Alexander Elementary.

Recess is over and the children are buzzing all over the place. A few come up to me and I am immediately in their world: millions of questions, no personal space, crowded in a sea of bodies …I am a secondary trained educator lost in this Lilliputian world and I can see no way out. But I hear the click click click of the high-heels above the din and yes, it’s Donna Wright who in her role as Principal, calm captain of these tumultuous prepubescent waters, is walking towards me with a this is just another normal day smile.

As she skilfully untangles me from the children, all seems to take on an orderly appearance as students calmly enter the school in their groupings and proceed to their classrooms. Well, as is usually the case when I visit elementary schools, I’m already exhausted (I have nothing but admiration for the resilience of elementary school teachers). I meet with Donna as is my plan and then it’s time for the real fun, the “how do you know” time when she takes me on a classroom visit. Donna and her staff are instructing me in the ways of K-5 numeracy and literacy as a part of my own professional development plan. She takes me down the hall to visit Ms. Tyra Lasko’s Kindergarten / Grade 1 combined class.

We enter the class and Tyra has her students on the carpet at the front of the class while she sits to Alexander - Laszko Classthe side with her document camera (a few years ago, the District made a commitment to furnish
every classroom with one of these cameras – a great decision – and provided support through STaRT). As Donna and I walk to a table in the back, I am thrilled that no one (not the kids, not the teacher, not the EA), turns their head in our direction. Having the Principal or another teacher walk into the classroom is commonplace here – teaching at Alexander Elementary is a deprivatized practice where everyone, including the Principal, makes their teaching/learning public as a starting point for instructional growth

I make myself as comfortable as I can in a chair that unfortunately ensures my IT band plagued knees are touching my chin. Up on the screen there are 5 red circles and 4 blue circles. Tyra is leading her students in a Number Talk lesson. Simply defined, number talks are daily five to fifteen minute classroom conversations around purposefully crafted computation problems that are solved mentally. The heart of a number talk is classroom conversations focused on making sense of mathematics. It’s a powerful tool for helping students develop computational fluency because the expectation is that they will use number relationships and the structures of numbers to add, subtract, multiply and divide.

Watching this unfold is textbook perfect! Each student is asked two questions: “What do you see?” and “What do you know?” Some of the students add or subtract the coloured dots. Others add one more to make 10 while others extend and go on to twenty. One student adds 5 and then adds 6 and subtracts 4 and although the final number is wrong, as she shares her narrative the numbers do get bigger with addition and do get smaller with subtraction. Tyra watches and listens as part of her ongoing formative assessment. As each child concludes, she smiles and says, “I love your math brain” and everyone chimes in with congratulatory praise.

Now, with all of this conversation and talk, the issue of classroom management definitely arises – the children are excited and want to speak up. However, enfolded in this lesson are management techniques that Tyra has developed through her working knowledge of whole brain teaching. With the simple sing song “cla aa aa as,” the students mimic her voice by responding “ye ee ee es” in the Alexander - Laszko Learning Targetssame melodic fashion. After this ten minute number talk, the class moves into a discussion about triangles. Tyra shows them a picture, talks about the learning target for the day, defines “triangle” in words and then asks the class to “mirror talk” from which they move into “tell a partner”. To get them up and moving at this point, they go around the room on a triangle scavenger hunt. As they are doing this, I take the opportunity to ask one of the Grade 1 boys if he knows what the learning target is. Looking at me like I’m some sort of alien, he nods and points to the wall by the classroom door saying, “Yes, it’s over there – we’re learning about triangles.” The students return to the carpet area and share their triangular treasures with each other. When they finish, Tyra sends them back to their group tables to do some individual work with triangles. At this point, she’s pulled 100 white rabbits out of the proverbial hat and I am enthralled by her magic.

As I leave the classroom with Donna, I ask her about the learning targets on the wall. They were
clearly visible; they were embedded in the classroom conversation; students spoke about them and later on in the day would self-assess where they were in relation to them; Tyra would have gathered enough formative data during the day to provide specific and timely feedback to the students. Donna tells me that everything starts and stops with the learning targets: “They convey to students the destination for the lesson—what to learn, how deeply to learn it, and exactly how to demonstrate their new learning. They make clear the intention of the learning and provide students with a precise description of where they are headed. Their learning is made visible and they know what they need to learn in relation to the target.” She then stops and throws it down: “you can’t know what you don’t know.” Boom!

I thank her for the visit but before I can leave, we bump into a student from Tyra’s classroom who israbbit heading to the washroom. And now, the 101st magical rabbit is pulled from the hat. Donna greets her by name (I’m always so impressed that she knows each child’s name) and then asks her the same question she asks all of her students when she approaches them in the classroom, hallways or playground: “Can you tell me one of your learning targets for the day.” The girl looks up and proudly, with confidence, says, “I can read I am.”

Yes you can and I‘m leaving Alexander Elementary knowing that your journey is just beginning and we’ll be doing our best to support you every step of the way.