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Sarah's Summer Road Trip: Uncovering the Secrets of Great Teaching

June 19, 2015 / by Sarah Brown Wessling

There's nothing that defines summer more than the classic road trip. Great plans, detours, getting lost, finding unexpected adventures, making memories. And when I think about taking road trips, I think about the people I'd most like to cruise with: all of you! I thought we could load up our virtual cars and take off to meet three teachers and their classrooms, in three parts of the country. We'll get to learn more about who they are, peek into their classrooms, and then learn more about their lessons through interviews and a Twitter chat. What do you say? Are you in?

But before we embark on this excursion, let's make sure we have a good map.

Enter the work of Jerry and Monique Sternin on positive deviance: the belief that communities can be "transformed by the innovations and wisdom that already exist within that community." In other words, examples of positive deviance -- the work of those people who are figuring out our toughest problems in the most unsuspecting ways -- are all around us. We only have to pay attention to the invisible in plain sight. And I can't imagine another community I'd rather pay attention to -- and with -- than all of you here at Teaching Channel.

Before we pack up some positive deviance, let's learn a little more about it. In 1990 Jerry Sternin, then working for Save the Children, was charged with the seemingly impossible task of combating malnutrition in a Vietnamese village in only six months. Rather than imposing a systems approach to the problem, he believed the quickest, most effective way to make a difference was to rely on the "hidden" wisdom already present in the village. So he identified a few families who, despite the same resources and risks as others, were not malnourished.

Then, instead of studying their habits on his own, he relied on the careful observation by others in the village who could identify the difference in behaviors from the families who were struggling, and those who were thriving. Ultimately, they uncovered a few behaviors that led to a transformation in the village.

Just as importantly, the Sternins found several tenets for change that can be transferred to all kinds of communities:

  • We are accustomed to overlooking outliers;
  • One person with the same resources has figured it out;
  • The invisible is usually in plain sight;
  • Rather than teaching knowledge, encourage new behavior;
  • Whole communities must shift.

As we set out to uncover some of the secrets of inspired teaching, we need no more than a discerning eye, an attention to our own wisdom, and the willingness to change our own behaviors. Off we go!

FIRST STOP: SEATTLE, WASHINGTON

Welcome to the first stop on our summer road trip, where we're cruising around the country to take a closer look at classrooms where some truly inspired teaching and learning is going on. We've arrived at Lynn Simpson's classroom at Lakeridge Elementary School in the Renton School District of Seattle, Washington. Lakeridge Elementary is an inspiring story of its own. Just four years ago, Lakeridge Elementary was performing in the bottom 5% of elementary schools in Washington state. But by empowering teachers, finding the right principal, and several years of intense learning, the school this year exceeded the state average and has become a model for turning around a school without succumbing to "drill and kill."

(I had a chance to talk with Lynn as part of the Road Trip planning. To learn more about Lynn's story, read my interview with her.)

Now, for a special experience uncovering the "invisible in plain sight," and seeing those deliberate instructional moves that have helped Lynn elevate her learners, join us on this interactive tour of her lesson video, where you can join in the discovery and discussion with teachers around the country who are just as curious as you about those bright spots we can all use in our classrooms!

Souvenirs

No road trip is complete without some kind of memento to carry with us. Here are a few of the insights from learning more about Lynn, her school, and her instruction that I will most certainly be taking home with me.

  • the importance of talk and discourse in the classroom
  • the way she empowers her students as she tries to make them teachers of each other
  • her ability to create cognitive space for learners by asking questions instead of giving answers

Travel Tunes

If your road trips are anything like mine, there's some serious planning devoted to the music I listen to along the way. In case you need some "journeying" music until our next stop, here are a few videos you may want to check out on your own.

Topics: Professional Learning, Math, Summer Learning

Sarah Brown Wessling

Written by Sarah Brown Wessling

Sarah Brown Wessling is a high school English teacher in Johnston, Iowa. She is the 2010 National Teacher of the Year and is the Teacher Laureate for Teaching Channel. Connect with Sarah on Twitter – @SarahWessling.

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