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Teachers Take Lead
In Instructional Talk Throughs

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To meet teachers professional development needs, Edmonton, Alberta, administrators developed Instructional Talk Throughs. Teams of teachers observe colleagues and offer written and verbal feedback. Included: An outline of the Instructional Talk Through process.

Crafting a professional development program that most teachers find tolerable is hard enough, let alone offering one that involves and excites educators. But some principals from the Edmonton, Alberta, (Canada) Public Schools think they have hit on the formula -- one that requires teachers from different levels to observe, assess, coach, and support colleagues.

We wanted to change the practice so teachers feel like they are still learning, said one of the principals, Linda Inglis, who is principal of George H. Luck Elementary School. The staff has to take responsibility for their learning. The commitment to learning has to keep growing and growing.

WALKING AND TALKING

The process the principals designed, called Instructional Talk Throughs (ITTs), grew out of teachers desires for more relevant, interactive professional development, said presenters from the Edmonton district at the 2007 Association for School Curriculum Development (ASCD) conference. ITTs were developed by four principals in the Edmonton school district who wanted professional collaboration that focused on the Assessment for Learning.

Assessment for Learning refers to using evidence and dialogue to identify where pupils are in their learning, where they need to go, and how best to get there, according to information from the district.

Teachers wanted more powerful conversations than walk-throughs allowed and more feedback, said David Morris, principal of the Britannia School. They wanted professional development that was differentiated according to their needs, involved in-depth conversations with other teachers, and was meaningful.

ITT Forms

The ITT process begins with the classroom teacher. The teacher invites visitors -- teachers from her school and other schools -- into her classroom to observe and provide feedback about a lesson. In advance, the teacher fills out a form that spells out what her goals are, what the visitors will observe, and what the teacher hopes to gain from their observations. Click the link below to see some sample schedules, forms, and observer comments.

Instructional Talk Throughs: Learning Conversations That Enhance Teacher Practice and Student Learning

The ITT technique expands on the walk-through process, which involves short classroom visits. (See Walk-Throughs Are On the Move!) During ITTs, each school takes a turn hosting five teams of three or four teachers who come from different schools. Teachers from kindergarten through grade 9 are involved in the program, according to information from the district. One or two facilitators or consultants work with the teachers. Consultants are hired by the district; facilitators are teachers trained to help with the ITT process.

The five teams each visit four classrooms in 15-to-20-minute time blocks and look for evidence of Assessment for Learning in the form of observations, conversations, and products; they also take time to observe a lesson and talk with students.

An important part of the process is student participation. The children want to share what theyve learned, said Morris. Students are excited because they can talk to adults.

LEARNING TOGETHER

Before the visiting teachers arrive, they receive information from the hosting teacher that includes a description of what they will see in the classroom and areas in which the teacher is seeking feedback.

They usually are harder on themselves, Morris said of the teachers who request visits.

As part of their reports, the observing teachers write down two stars and a wonder -- that is, two positive things the teacher is doing and a question or suggestion that the teacher might use to improve or expand a lesson.

The staff has to take responsibility for their learning. The commitment to learning has to keep growing and growing.
After all the observations are done, the teams and the consultant or facilitator meet with the hosting teacher over lunch to discuss their observations. Consultants and facilitators help keep people on task and suggest questions.

After the discussions, principals get reports from the observing teachers and the consultants or facilitators. Members of the host schools ITT team cover classes so teachers can meet with the visiting teachers.

This [program] was designed to provide teachers the connections and feedback they were looking for as learners, Morris said.

BEING PROACTIVE

ITTs differ from other professional development approaches in that they require teachers to take responsibility for their own professional growth -- and that of their peers. Teachers need to drive professional development -- its so important to them, said Dorothy Cronk, principal of the Velma E. Baker School. They needed time to get into each others rooms, but conversation was important. We wanted to foster leadership and mentorship.

Two Edmonton teachers, Aaron Muller and Irene Stuive, prepared a list of how ITTs benefited the staff. They say ITTs

  • provide an opportunity for powerful professional conversations that help move us forward in our Assessment for Learning journey.
  • create a professional learning community beyond individual school communities.
  • allow teachers to interact, test ideas, challenge inferences, and interpretations.
  • provide a common language for professional growth.
  • empower teachers to guide the process.
  • provide an outlet for sharing resources.

We have kindergarten-through-grade 9 teachers visiting a grade 3 classroom, said Mary Michailides, principal of Glenora School, a K-6 building. Teachers are sitting with teachers explaining what they do.

When ITTs first started, principals sent invitations to teachers to ask if they would like to try it. Then the demand grew.

Teachers move teachers better than we ever could, noted Dean Michailides, principal of Balwin School, which serves grades k-9.

Teachers move teachers better than we ever could.
Teachers undergo training to participate in the teams that visit classrooms, and stay with the same teams all year.

After participating in the ITTs, some observing teachers also started to look at their lessons in different ways, one of the principals noted. A grade 9 teacher said he wanted first-grade math manipulatives -- because he knew his students would understand the concepts, noted Nancy Petersen, principal of Spruce Avenue School.

ESTABLISH TRUST, TAKE A STEP BACK

ITTs are working in the Edmonton district in part because of the growth of trust and relationships among staff members and because the program is tailored to teachers needs.

An important factor in ensuring the success of ITTs is to keep them separate from staff evaluations, said Dean Michailides.

You cant start with evaluations; you lose trust, he said. Its about support.

Since teachers are taking the lead, it also is important for administrators to step back a bit, and take more of a supporting than lead role, which can be hard.

"The children want to share what theyve learned.
The administrators role is to engage in ongoing conversations about professional growth and student learning; organize the process, planning, and finances; be there in spirit, but not in body; gather, reflect and respond to feedback; and modify the process as needed, according to the groups handouts.

Administrators relinquish control, but not responsibility, noted Dean Michailides. Its also important to celebrate all successes, he said.

Administrators are so gratified by the success of the program that they would like to share it with as many schools as possible.

We want to build learning communities involving teachers and students, said Inglis. We feel we have a global responsibility.

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