Greensboro Elementary School: Finding Joy in the Journey

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By Kara Bentley

Images courtesy of Greensboro Elementary School Assistant Principal Todd Nichols. Follow him on Twitter here.

Update: In December, 2018, Caroline County Schools and IE hosted a summit to allow other school and district leaders to observe the rigorous classroom environments and speak with administrators, teachers and students.

In Greensboro, Maryland, near the eastern shore, Greensboro Elementary School shines brightly as students, instructional staff, and administrative leadership work diligently to transfer the ownership of learning to students—a feat that’s difficult and not met overnight.

On any given day, as you walk through the halls, you will hear the voices of students discussing learning, politely disagreeing, challenging each other’s thinking, and supporting one another to deepen their understanding of grade-level content.

This “buzz” starts with teachers. Teachers changing their instruction, teachers changing their focus, and teachers letting students talk.

» Learn more about school partnerships that are creating student-centered classrooms.

In August, 2017, Caroline County Schools embarked on a journey to change the way teaching occurs in the classroom, the primary goal being to help students develop the skills they’ll need to be successful in the 21st-century workforce. Greensboro Elementary School embraced this initiative, the Essentials for Learning instructional strategies, and the changes necessary to ensure that children are prepared…

  • Prepared to be strong critical thinkers and decision makers
  • Prepared to collaborate with one another to solve complex problems
  • Prepared to participate in learning activities that promote creativity, communication skills, and strong character

Greensboro teachers and leaders have consistently embraced and even celebrated their challenges. I have had the pleasure of celebrating these successes with them throughout the year, and I’m so very thrilled to share their reflections with you.

Teachers Meet the Challenges

“For me, the most challenging part of the Essentials for Learning implementation was (and still is) reducing the teacher role in the classroom,” says first-grade teacher Amy Smith.

“At the beginning of implementation, I still felt that I needed to be front and center, and for students to obtain most of their learning from me. Now, I have reduced my role and found that the students don’t need me as much as I thought they did. However, I have to consciously remind myself not to intervene and to allow the students to work and struggle to get the most from their learning.”

Fourth-grade teacher Deanne Waters expresses a similar sentiment. “I think the most challenging part of implementing the Essentials for Learning was transferring the responsibility to the students from me (I’m still working on this, honestly!) It was a struggle for me to ‘give up’ the control and responsibility.

“To help implement this transformation, I’ve learned to step back and not interject. Using their accountable talk strategies and discussion, the students are able to further their learning. I am very impressed with my students’ ability to take on the responsibility for their own learning. They’ve proven they can work with each other to accomplish this.”

But Challenges are followed by rewards

“The most challenging part was to get teachers comfortable enough to have me come in the room to offer feedback. The most rewarding part is when a teacher takes the feedback, makes a change in their instruction, and has success in the classroom.” — Kathleen Davis, instructional math coach

Changes in Students’ Thinking 

As an instructional coach, Davis was able to get a broad view of the transformation occurring in each classroom. “When students are able to attend to precision in their math discussions and accurately critique each other’s reasoning about the mathematics,” she says, “I know that students are understanding it more deeply.”

Here’s how a few of the teachers describe what they’ve seen:

Deanne Waters: “My students are taking ownership for their learning and thinking more analytically. They ask each other questions like, How do you know…? Why do you think…? Is there another way we can…? Their peer discussions have increased tremendously.”

Miranda Stutzman: “I can tell that my students are thinking more deeply and creatively because they are starting to make my comments or ask my question before I have the chance to.”

Jennifer Gunter: “The students rely on each other and their resources to solve problems, rather than run straight to the teacher the moment then encounter a challenge.”

For many schools, this work requires a significant uptick in visitors. How are teachers coping with administrators, coaches, and staff developers frequently coming into their classrooms?

In short, they’re finding the feedback and support to be valuable and helpful as they make adjustments to create more rigorous, student-centered classrooms.

I feel that administrators are looking at the learning that is taking place and less on my direct teaching. They want to see what the kids are doing and are listen to their conversations. I’m not the center of the classroom; my students are! The students are taking responsibility for their own learning and eager to help their fellow classmates.” — Bonnie Lease, kindergarten teacher

Stutzman and Gunter are using the feedback to impact student learning. “I still get that warm feeling all over when the crew of people head into my room,” says Stutzman. I guess as long as I keep getting positive feedback it isn’t too bad.”

“I think every teacher wants feedback when someone visits his or her classroom,” agrees Gunter. “Recently on a RigorWalk, one of the visitors left me a quick note on my desk. It was just a positive comment and a smiley face, but it makes me feel like all the struggle and hard work we’ve been putting in this year is being noticed.”

Parents and the Community Take Notice

The father of one of Stutzman’s students is an ex-military police officer who shared his thoughts about students working in teams to complete tasks. “He commented to me that he loves seeing his daughter have to rely on others the way that he had to rely on his work team,” she says. “He felt that it is teaching her a valuable life skill.”

School board member Tolbert Rowe eating lunch with Greensboro fifth graders.

School board member Tolbert Rowe eating lunch with Greensboro fifth graders.

Principal Dawn Swann sums it all up:

​Classrooms in October were primarily arranged in rows or furniture groups and the teacher was the focal point of the lesson. Classrooms were quiet, orderly and very traditional. Classrooms in February are noisier, arranged in groups to allow students to work in partners and teams. There is a great deal more time purposefully spent on student discourse​  ​and interaction within their groups. Students are exhibiting a lot of independence. They understand team roles, how the roles are determined and what the purpose of each role is. They know what the expectations are for the lesson, understand the target and what they have to do to be successful.​

I hope you’ll follow Greensboro Elementary School as they continue their journey with the Essentials for Learning and Ignite Series of Instruction. There’s so much to celebrate. And yes, there IS joy in the journey!

Want to read more about our partnership
with schools in Caroline County, Maryland?
Learn about Lockerman Middle School.