Meet the BSRI Teacher – Stefanie West, 5th Grade, Lincoln School, Revere

How she maintains an orderly classroom with exceptional student performance – and her students love coming to school!

By Ed Moscovitch

Introduction

Over the next weeks and months I plan to prepare a series of posts, each introducing a teacher at a Bay State Reading Institute partner school and giving her a chance to discuss how she’s changed her teaching to make sure every student is performing at high levels. This first post is inspired by a dilemma Elizabeth Green describes in her powerful new book Building a Better Teacher.

Green describes how a group of charter schools she calls the “No-Excuses” charter schools believed that they needed to have very tight discipline in order to have orderly classrooms, which, in turn, assured that students would learn. They saw gains in student learning, but the schools found that such tight discipline caused students to dislike coming to school (including students who were making good academic gains). They began to see disruptive behavior on the buses after school.

In this interview, Stefanie West discusses how she is able to have it all – even though they are working independently most of the time, Stefanie’s students are virtually always on task – this is true even for students whose behavior in other classes is problematic. And, as you can see in the video link, her students just love coming to school! This combination – very orderly and productive students, who are clearly enthusiastic about being in school, is the rule in most BSRI classrooms.

Our Conversation

Stefanie is in her 4th year as a teacher; she teaches 5th grade literacy and social studies at the Lincoln Elementary School in Revere, MA.  The Lincoln serves a low-income and largely immigrant population; 77% of its students are eligible for free- and reduced-cost lunch, and 46% have a first language other than English.  By October, she has her students engaged in very sophisticated debates; topics include the advisability of inclusion for special needs students, separation of church and state, the constitutionality of taxing junk food, and the efficacy of genetically modified foods as a solution to world hunger. When the man who is about to become the President of our state Senate visited her class, he tweeted that what he heard in her class compared favorably to what he hears in the Senate chamber!  Her scores on our state’s MCAS exams are stunning – 94% of her students scored proficient or advanced, and 47% advanced!! 

We’ve brought 4th and 5th grade teachers from several of our schools to observe Stefanie’s class and her students’ debates. They come away excited – and inspired to try it themselves. Take a look at this video of her students debating – and read her comments about how she’s brought them to this very high level of performance!

BSRI:  What is your favorite aspect of teaching 5th Grade?

SW:  I love teaching my students to be analytical thinkers and to have academic discussions that probe them to examine critically different worldly topics. There is no greater feeling than watching your students have an in-depth, advanced – even passionate – discussion about topics that many adults don’t discuss!

BSRI:   What are your expectations for your students, both in terms of their behavior and their performance level?

SW: As a teacher in a BSRI school, it is my expectation that every single child will succeed to the absolute highest level of achievement by completing challenging and rigorous work daily. For a lot of our students, this means that if they are proficient at fifth grade material, they are expected to work on sixth, seventh and even high school materials. Because BSRI is so highly differentiated, it is possible for my students to succeed as they receive individualized curriculums that are designed specifically for the individual. Because I know and believe that all of my students are capable, it is my expectation that they engage in academically challenging work, collaborate with peers, hold academic discussions, ask questions, push themselves and remain dedicated to improving themselves academically. In this model, where every child can be successful, it is no wonder they are able to follow all of those expectations.

BSRI: What are you doing differently that gives you an orderly and productive classroom – with students who enjoy coming to school?

SW: I think the difference between my classroom (or any BSRI classroom) and the classrooms Green talks about is that many of those charter-school classrooms are not differentiated. In a classroom with simply high expectations, many students will make progress. However, because the work and the challenge isn’t individualized and differentiated, the students who see the learning process as either too challenging or too easy become frustrated or bored and do not make progress. In my classroom, because the students are so highly engaged in rigorous activities that are at the appropriate level of challenge, they make the gains, and also feel supported.

BSRI:  How has BSRI helped you bring your class to this point?

SW:  Absent differentiation, the students in those charter schools may have been pushed beyond their appropriate level of challenge. Despite making progress, these students may nonetheless feel overwhelmed and frustrated. In a BSRI classroom, because the challenge is “just right”, they see learning as a fun and safe experience in which they feel good about themselves for meeting challenges, rather than inundated. Another major factor in the BSRI approach is working with teachers to set up engaging rotational activities that require students to collaborate – something they love to do! My classroom incorporates reciprocal teaching, debates and many academic discussions where students have the opportunity to practice advanced analytical reading skills, writing, and public speaking, all while enjoying themselves.

BSRI: There’s a wonderful lesson to be learned in your classroom.  Despite – perhaps because of – your high expectations, I’ve seen in my own visits that your students love coming to school and love having you as their teacher.

SW: BSRI promotes one of the most essential tools in a successful classroom: relationships. Because I work in small groups with my students and teach in a way that works for those students, I have time to build relationships with every child I work with. Students are able to feel comfortable asking questions, asserting the need for clarifications and taking risks because they work so closely with the teacher in a small, academically appropriate group. I truly believe that all students have an innate desire to learn and be challenged and BSRI allows teachers to focus in on that curiosity and teach in a style that makes all students not only want to come to school, but love learning.

BSRI:  Are there any “Aha!” moments you’d like to share – moments when you saw new possibilities or made successful changes in your teaching?

SW:  When I first started teaching, I saw student behavior as a separate entity from instruction. I provided consequences for the inappropriate behavior, but never thought that the behavior, from one individual student, was actually telling me something about my classroom instruction. One student in particular had continued to act out during class and while writing my lesson plans for the next week I decided to move that student to my highest-level group. Because of his lack of effort and poor performance, he had presented as needing more support and had previously been assigned to a group that received more scaffolding. I made my decision based on an inkling that maybe the work wasn’t “interesting” and that this student was bored. Sure enough, within two days of being in the new group, the student’s negative behavior had diminished and his new challenge proved to be highly motivating and engaging! I learned from that day on that the best classroom management is a curriculum with rigorous activities that work for each student.

BSRI:  What suggestions would you make to teachers – or to principals – about how to bring classrooms to such a high level?

SW:  It’s been said before, but the most essential component of facilitating high levels of learning is the very belief by the teacher that the students can do it. I have learned that the higher my expectations are, the harder my students work and the greater the level of work they produce. My expectations are always high for every student, although they may be different for each individual. When students receive the right level of challenge from a teacher who genuinely believes in them, the engagement is indescribably high and there is no telling what they will be able to do.