Tim Schwarz has spent the last two school years working as an instructional leadership coach for the Achievement Network. In that role, Tim worked with a portfolio of school leadership teams in New Orleans to identify and implement opportunities to promote excellent teaching in their schools. Before that, Tim spent nearly a decade as a classroom teacher in New Orleans. He taught 9th grade World Geography at the New Orleans Charter Science and Math HS, 6th grade World History at New Orleans College Prep Charter School, and 10-12th grade Geometry at John McDonogh HS.
Supporting School Leaders & The Leader Levers Rubric
Thriving Schools: Tim, in the first part of our interview, we spoke about how you knew your students were getting better. But you’ve also spent a lot of time working with school teams. What did you look at to know you were helping their leaders improve?
Tim: We had several internal rubrics that I used at Achievement Network. But to boil it down, I was focused on what the school leaders were able to “see” when they’re examining classrooms, assessment data, and student work. And it didn’t matter if the academic results we were looking at were great, okay, or horrible. What I was focused on was whether the leader was becoming more focused and sophisticated in the items that could help students grow.
Tim provided us with the Leader Levers rubric that he used at Achievement Network:
Thriving Schools: Could you give us an example of that?
Tim: At the start of the year, I might ask a principal what they were looking for when they entered a classroom. And they might tell me something about making sure the objective was written on the corner of the board. But this type of observation isn’t consequential. By the end of the year, I’d like to hear them reflect on what portion of class the teacher was talking, observations from student work, and whether instructional adjustments were taking place. So again, what’s important here is that the leader is refining their focus on the things that matter.
Shifting the Cognitive Demand to Students
Thriving Schools: Let’s switch gears! Making sure students are able to demonstrate mastery of the day’s key points means that they have to be doing the deep processing during class. How do you do this while keeping engagement high?
Tim: Let me start by saying that the way we were taught – a teacher at the front of the room, writing on the chalkboard, leading a “whole class discussion” (which is an oxymoron anyways), and lecturing – isn’t the best way to learn. This has to change. And one way for that to happen is planning in greater detail around what students are doing.
Thriving Schools: How do we put that into practice?
Tim: One, I think kids should be learning by reading texts (or watching videos) that are high-quality and challenging. That by itself ensures kids are going to be challenged because they have to make sense of what they’re viewing. Next, I think teachers need to pair these materials with an appropriate task that gears students toward the right content. And after this, students should be doing some form of writing or conversing that allows them to transfer what they’ve learned (and hopefully force them to go back to the text to make an argument, a point in discussion, or to complete their writing). Following a process likes this magically puts the teacher into the backseat so they can focus on providing feedback and help as needed. But again, the teacher is no longer in a position where they’re simply going to tell students what they were supposed to learn.
Thriving Schools: Do you have any guidelines around “time on content” versus “time on task?” That is, how much time students should spend reading or viewing source material versus writing or conversing?
Tim: It should be flexible, depending on the lesson, but let’s go with 50/50! So if I have an hour long class period, we might spend the first 5-10 minutes on some pre-reading (or pre-video activity) that activates background knowledge and a conversation around that. Then we might spend 20-30 minutes with some source material (again, this could be a text or a video). And keep in mind there’s some wiggle room with this because I might decide to chunk this time out and sprinkle in questions and writing tasks along the way. Then the last portion of class would be for deeper reflection – writing, conversation, and of course, an exit ticket (like we talked about last time).
Thriving Schools: Are there any other student tasks, outside of writing and discussing, that you’re a fan of?
Tim: I’m a big fan of collaborative learning with students in groups of two or three. And depending on the students’ grade level and maturity, I adjust the appropriate amount of structure with that (roles, timing, etc.). The reason for this is obvious – if students are in small groups, at any given time one-half to one-third of them are speaking. As opposed to a whole class discussion where just one student is speaking and I have to have the others “track the speaker.” I’m also a fan of assigning these groups a written task so I have something else to monitor and observe while I’m moving around the classroom.
Scaffolding for Students Who Need Additional Support
Thriving Schools: Let’s move on. In a high-performing science or social studies classroom, students will be expected to do a significant amount of reading and writing. How do you help facilitate this when your students are far behind grade level and you don’t want to just give away the answer?
Tim: This is hard for me as a teacher but here’s my latest thinking. First, I remind myself that just because a student is behind grade level with their reading or writing, it doesn’t mean they’re behind grade level with their ability to think critically. There’s no necessary correlation there. So I take the belief that my students are perfectly capable of thinking and discussing on grade level and that watering down the content isn’t doing them any favor. So the question then becomes how you help facilitate rigorous, deep thinking for a student who needs support with their reading or writing. And my answer to that is scaffolding.
Thriving Schools: Can you give us an example of that?
Tim: Well, I got a lot of help from Shawn Datchuk on these – so I want to make sure I give him credit. First of all, if you’re a content teacher, make sure you’re partnering up with someone who’s an expert in reading scaffolding and remedial reading strategies, because that’s how I got these ideas. Next, there are several strategies you can try. A version of a read-aloud that I was a fan of doing with my 6th graders (who were often on a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th grade reading level) is choral reading. We’d read a text out loud together and then you’d go back and read it on your own with a prompt, question, or underlining task. And by doing this you’re also having students doing repeated reading.
Thriving Schools: What other ideas do you have to give students more opportunities to preview texts?
Tim: If I have a special education teacher, I might also ask them to preview the text with particular students before our class met that day. So that when they got to class, this could be the second or third time they’re reading the text. For students who are behind grade level, but are more motivated, I might provide a passage the day before for them to take home and preview with a family member who has time. So I’m throwing everything and the kitchen sink at this. And the best part is none of these take an enormous amount of time on the teacher’s part. It’s just a matter of tinkering and finding what works best for each of your students.
Thriving Schools: Are you a fan of leveled or tiered texts?
Tim: I’ve used them. But no, I’m not a fan. From my experience with Achievement Network and listening to the folks who’ve spent a lot of time studying this, I’m not willing to compromise on text complexity. I might have students read our texts several times and we may not get through as much content as a result, but having them read at an appropriately challenging level is worth that trade-off.
Thriving Schools: Any other points you’d make on this front?
Tim: None of what I’m talking about is a substitute for remedial fluency and decoding instruction. And if that’s not happening at the same time, none of these lofty things are going to work.
Thriving Schools: Do you have any ideas to help students behind grade level on the writing front?
Tim: That’s a tough one, but an important one. I think the most important takeaway is that you need to have students writing a lot. It needs to be a habit. And yes, short writing assignments count towards this. Another thought – if you’re a content-area teacher, you can selectively choose the assignments in which you’ll grade the writing. And maybe this means you put more of a focus on the content of their writing most of the time. If you’re lucky enough to have a good ELA teacher who’s willing to partner up, you could emphasize the same writing skills in your class that students are working on during their writing blocks. And you could choose to use the same pre-writing tasks they use as well.
Closing with Resources
Thriving Schools: Tim, what books, videos, and websites do you find yourself most often providing to teachers?
Tim: There are a few! A big one for me, that I’ve mentioned previously, is Understanding by Design. Now I can see your readers’ eyes rolling when I say this, but I just feel a lot of these principles have become cliché and we’re not implementing them in a meaningful way. So anyone who hasn’t read it themselves or gone to a high-quality training on it, needs to take the time to work with it. I’m a big fan of teachers growing their set of reading comprehension strategies. One site that I’d recommend is Reading Quest. It’s run by Ray Jones and he’s pulled together reading and writing strategies that can be done during different parts of content lessons.