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Where Is Your Attention? The Power of Student-Centered Observations

Whenever we have the privilege of walking into a classroom we have a choice about where we put our attention. If we zoom in on the teacher we may notice the directions and language she uses, the length of time she has been talking, and the book she holds in her hands. All of these observations can offer some insight into the instruction in this classroom but also severely limits the type of information we gather about the learners in the classroom.

Rather than focus on the teacher, reframe your focus on the students. When observing independent reading time, notice who seems lost in their books, how often they look up to use anchor charts as a reference tool, and who is able to independently solve their own problems. Notice the teacher in relation to the students; for example, if the teacher is conferring or working with a small group, are there students who seem to be stalled out, just waiting for the teacher’s guidance, or is there a high degree of readers on task? Then allow your curiosity about a student to pull you over into a brief conversation. Ask the student a few open-ended questions that allow you to get to know this learner better such as “What are you working on?” and “How’s it going?” or “What challenges are you facing?” These same strategies apply to observing students writing, doing math, or any content area. You don’t need to fix anything or do anything, other than listen and observe to get to know the learners in the room.

When we focus too much on the teacher and teaching it is like going to a football game and spending the whole time looking at the coach on the sideline. You may occasionally glance at the coach, but in reality, you watch the players, where the action is happening. It is the same thing when you enter a classroom-- remember to focus on the actions of the students. You may feel shaky at first, trying to come to know the teacher and the teaching through the actions and comments of students, but in time you will be astounded at how accurately and meaningfully you do gain insight on the instruction this way.

What follows is one checklist I use when stepping into a reading classroom. Sometimes a teacher might want to use it to self-reflect on how things are going in her room and other times teachers ask me for my feedback, and so I use the checklist to guide me . Other times, literacy coaches, school leaders and teachers do learning walks to look for trends in reading classrooms across the school. Regardless of who is using the tool, remember it is about the students and their learning so we can make next step decisions about instruction based on what matters most—the learners.