Rounds on the Road

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November 18, 2014 by sz

plazavistaLast week we took our Instructional Rounds on the road, just down the 405 a bit to Plaza Vista School. Principal James Parker, the participating teachers, and the entire staff were exemplary hosts—they’d make the ancient Greeks proud.

A few people asked me why high school teachers would bother observing a grade school. Well, effective instruction is effective instruction—be it 2nd grade or grad school. A strategy my son’s kindergarten teacher used works with my high school juniors and seniors. Like a boss, as the kids say.

My colleague David Theriault recently reflected, in great detail, on our visit to Plaza Vista and he elucidates what he learned from a 5th grade class we observed. He models the observer’s role and responsibility well. You can tell how much effort he puts into his observations from all the gems he discovers during the process.

An excerpt from: Why You Can’t Learn [Blank] From a Book by David Theriault

Even before I started my credential program at Chapman University I started substitute teaching. What I saw in the classroom didn’t jive with what I was learning in class: from my teachers or their books. Everything seemed so easy when they talked about it in class. But in class, all it took was a kid making goat noises, a fire alarm, a single double entendre to whack your lesson out of alignment.

I learned so much more in the classroom. I even started doing observations while I was substitute teaching. Instead of reading a book or taking a nap during my “free” period I asked teachers if I could watch them teach. I developed favorites and their class became my learning lab.

You would have thought I would continue that practice as a teacher, but I didn’t. Our prep periods are sacred. Teaching is the most draining job I have ever experienced. During my prep period I’m: scrambling to make copies, adjusting lesson plans, eating because I’ll have a lunch meeting, grading, making calls, meeting with an administrator…. the list is endless.

So I teach, in my room. Alone.

Sure I went to the occasional conference, read a book or an article on some new teaching strategy or lesson plan. Often I would overhear an idea in the teacher’s lounge. But I never saw those ideas in action. I was just “learning Judo from a book.”

That was my life until Sean Ziebarth took over the Instructional Rounds process at Fountain Valley High School. My high school had introduced Instructional Rounds a few years before, but I never had time for it. Hearing some teachers complain about how some of the administration was running the process didn’t help stoke my curiosity. But once my friend took it over, I decided to trust him and try it out.

What are Instructional Rounds? Click on the link to read a more detailed description by Robert Marzano, but just think of medical rounds. A group of professionals watching another professional in their practice and then talking about the experience afterward. For me the most mind-opening part of Instructional Rounds is being in the classroom.

It’s about watching something with a 360 degree view: walking inside the action, around the action, seeing the action for more than one second. Instructional rounds is not sitting in a conference hearing about an instructional strategy and it’s definitely not reading a book or blog post on an instructional strategy. It’s about watching a real teacher, teach real students, in real time. It’s about having the time to reflect on what you saw and discuss what happened and how it would look in your class with a group of peers. It’s about opening your class to others so they can see the same.

Instructional Rounds [a snapshot]

Two days ago Sean, Elizabeth, Shannon, and I loaded up my car and went to our first official off-campus Instructional Rounds at Plaza Vista Elementary. I almost danced the moment I walked onto the campus. I love elementary schools. I considered teaching elementary, my wife is a kindergarten teacher, and I just love the buzz and excitement in an elementary classroom.

Plaza Vista is considering adopting Instructional Rounds so they invited us to use the process at their school with a pair of their teachers and their principal.


Sean Ziebarth going over the Instructional Rounds Protocols

While we visited several classrooms I’m going to focus on our visit to Scott Bedley’s classroom.


We walked in the door. Not a single student was in their seats. What the heck was going on? Everyone lined the walls facing the walls. Was this some weird punishment? Then I noticed the whiteboard squares.


Cool. They all have their own whiteboard to solve problems. Scott used Haiku Deck images to get the kids thinking about a possible problem. Then he said “Use this picture to inspire you to create your own problem.”


Let me repeat what Scott said.

Use this picture (he used full screen images from Haiku Deck to create his question prompts)

To inspire you (Yes, he used the word inspiration. Image the learning environment and the expectations in the class when you ask the students to be inspired)

To create (That’s right, no worksheets. Students will create their own learning product)

Your own question (BAM! There it is. Complete ownership of the learning process. Not just answering a question, but creating the question.)

I walked around his 360 degree learning environment. The whiteboards made looking at student work easy. Every board had an A partner B partner on the top so Scott can quickly ask students to check with their B partner. He showed three more pictures. Repeated the “Use this picture to inspire you to create your own questions” phrase. Some students used the picture literally.


Because they had the freedom to create their own problems some students went beyond the image and created a problem based on what THEY liked to think about.

bed7aThis student must be reading Sean’s mind. 

My favorite part of the fifteen minute observation was watching a student who used the images literally (for the first two questions) finally break free of the picture model and find an image from his mind to create the question.


Someone must play Minecraft…

Here are just a few things I thought of during the observation.

  1. I used to have more whiteboards in my room. I’m going to replace my two bulletin boards which are sadly underused with whiteboards.
  2. Scott used white paper behind a window to create even more whiteboards. Can’t install a whiteboard because there’s a window there… no problem.
  3. No more waiting for students to find paper or pen. No more students borrowing paper from each other. (Usually the same students are hit up for extra paper- a big thanks to parents everywhere who buy far too much paper for their students and wonder where it goes)
  4. This gets students up out of their desks. Love it.
  5. I have students create their own questions. [Link] I’m glad to see others doing this.
  6. I love using pictures to inspire the questions. It’s both a scaffold and a leaping off point.
  7. I loved the language of the prompt. The use of the word “inspire.”

I found out later that Scott has his students do a gallery walk and take pictures of the problems they want to tackle. Cool.

Yes there are times I see a picture and that changes my teaching. Yes there are times someone tells me about something or I read about something and I try it out in my classroom, but Instructional Rounds (I.R.) SHOWS me that it works. You end up noticing many things while you are in the room. For example I noticed that Scott has permanently placed “Agree” “Strongly Agree” Disagree” “Strongly Disagree” signs high up on his classroom wall.


There is a promise in those signs. They tell me (and his students) that controversy will enter the class. It’s a promise that movement will be a part of the class. It’s an organizational structure that makes a process less about the process and more about the learning.

I find it fascinating that we watch game film in sports, that we encourage student teachers, BTSA teachers to watch others teach, that we know the value of “seeing” and yet as veteran teachers we rarely get out of the room to watch others teach. It’s uncomfortable asking another teacher if you can watch them in action. That’s the importance of having Instructional Rounds formalized at your school. There are many teachers on our campus who don’t or can’t do the observation part of IR. Maybe they don’t have a prep period this year, maybe they took on a new prep and are swamped. Regardless, most of our teachers on our campus participate in IR by having one of these, outside their door.


Imagine what that does to your school. A school full of classrooms where drop-by visiting is encouraged. I have to tell you that knowing that someone may pop in my class at any moment makes me want to elevate my “game.” I love my students and want them to experience the best I have to offer, but that sign outside my door helps me on my “off” days. (BTW you can always give the “not now” sign to an observer and they’ll come back another time.)


As the student teacher coordinator at Fountain Valley High School I strongly recommend the following to elevate your teaching:

PPS: I want to thank the following teachers at Plaza Vista Elementary for trusting us and giving us their time in joining us for rounds and opening their classrooms: Toni Wilson, Rebecca Nakagawa, Scott Bedley, Christy Smith, Anna Nguyen, and of course their super nice Principal—Mr. James Parker, who volunteered to take notes on the poster paper so that his teachers could focus on talking and listening.

Irvine Rounds


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