REFLECTIONS: We believe reflection is a critical component of professional growth. Reflecting on the learning happening around us not only provides an insight to improve how we consult with educators but also supplies us the impetus to deepen how we go about the work we do. After all, if we are not learning from our experiences, we are merely living. We are hopeful someone else learns something from this candid reflection from our eduCEO…
Comfort, NC, is only about an hour’s drive from Greenville–my starting point for the day. Leaving before the crack of dawn gives me plenty of time to have the road to myself, to reflect on a thousand things, and to catch the sunrise. Even if I don’t catch the sun with my camera, the amazement of watching that golden globe rise is always an uplifting and awe-inspiring start to the day. I’m headed to Jones County, NC. The sun perpetually rises on Jones County. It’s true. No matter when I head there, I catch the sun rising, foretelling of a fortuitous day ahead. This particular morning–with a few minutes to spare–I stop, grab my camera, and snap the sun. My image–eh, it won’t win any awards but serves as a visual reminder of a chilly start to what would prove to be interesting day. Quickly realizing the road did not belong to me alone, I hop back into the warmth of my the car, comforted that my iPhone’s GPS easily resumes my route. My T-Mobile signal is present but not strong. I have no idea what lies before me. I’ve never been to Comfort.
I am convinced that I can discern much about a school just upon arrival on the grounds, and even more just beyond its front entrance. Please understand that visitors, outsiders, and those unknown to the day-to-day operations of a school, even when expected, aren’t always welcomed. You can sometimes feel it when drive up, but you know for sure as close as the front office. There is something special about Comfort Elementary, and I felt it when I drove on the school grounds and when I entered the front door. I felt comforted, pun intended. Before I closed the car door or planted my feet solidly on the parking lot pavement, I was pleasantly surprised with the cheeriest “Good Morning!” from whom I later learned was an instructional assistant. She had no idea who I was, and likewise there was no familiarity in this face beaming before me, but I felt immediately welcomed.
As I approached the school entrance, the media specialist was stationed at the front door, waiting to greet students, parents, and me with a smile. Just beyond media specialist in the center of two intersecting hallways, I spied–standing erect, smiling, and expectant– Dawn Hunter, the principal.
After welcoming me to Comfort and acquainting me with the anticipated school day, Principal Hunter guided me to The Cabin, which would be my sanctuary within the school. The Cabin sounded like an isolated spot, but this camping ground is centrally located as the cornerstone of the school’s main instructional wings. The Cabin serves as a professional learning space, resource room, and universal gathering place for adults–a place where the staff convenes in the morning for prayer, facilitates PLCs throughout the day, and breaks bread at lunch. Although I had a solitary space to catch my breath and gather my thoughts, the moment I was left alone, I felt dizzy with cabin fever. It was early still, classrooms were close, and the halls beckoned. I had to explore Comfort.
I meandered around the school, examining the walls and watching the people.
I could not help but notice that smiling teachers were stationed at their doors, waiting to greet the future. What a welcoming and calming sight! Schools can be chaotic, bustling places in the morning with little time to meet and greet those who will spend the day there–visitor or not.
The walls and windows are filled with student-generated art as Comfort is one of more than 50 A+ Schools in North Carolina, integrating the arts into the fabric of the learning environment.
This visit was not one of leisure. I was at Comfort to examine the extent to which teachers and students are engaged in rigorous learning tasks, and just so the world knows, although I was swept away by this extraordinary feeling of comfort, I was, at some level, still on my game. The student artifacts above demonstrate a range of knowledge levels and cognitive skills from remembering facts to creating based on conceptual knowledge. Students shared written knowledge about Early Humans at varying cognitive levels, as task cards were differentiated by emerging skill levels. Overcome with laughter, I failed to get pictures displayed on another bulletin board showcasing hilarious, archaic advertisements for chariots, wagons, boats, and other such early inventions. Students demonstrated that they understood the hardships early humans endured through creative ingenuity. I do remember one advertisement that made me laugh right out loud in that hallway. It was for a “tablet” (a rectangular slab of smooth stone), and I’m sure, boosting profits and gaining early human popularity with its promotional tagline: “Free stylus included!” I was too caught up in that student’s brilliance and the humor of it all to snap a picture or make official note of the genius of the intentions of learning.
Honestly, I was also too caught up in something much larger and probably more foundational than just the extent of academic rigor in the building. I was captured by the staff-to-staff and staff-to-students relationships. It was cool watching the custodian play out this obviously familiar multistep morning handshake with a student, and it was clearly evident to me at that moment that every adult in the building had a connection to students, revealing the extent to which students were welcomed upon arrival. What intriguing hints at what the instructional day had in store!
Meanwhile, the school proved not just a comforting place for children. The private walls of adult-only areas are encouraging reminders of great expectations for teaching and learning. This guy had these words for me as my own image reflected back at me in the depths of women’s powder room:
I don’t know, but something about the look in his eyes and his very presence here–me, him, here, alone, with him saying such things to me– he makes me stand a little taller. I brush invisible lint from the collar reflected in the mirror. Another adult reminder encourages me to be a pineapple, stand tall, wear a crown, and be sweet. Taller, I stand. Others words reminded me to be the best me and “to wash [my] hands because Jesus and germs are everywhere.” I left that private meeting feeling a little more determined, a little cleaner, and much more like an educational rock star. My spirit comforted and encouraged by written affirmations that I really am doing some good in the world. I felt determined to do more!
The instructional day had not yet begun, and I had already had made up my mind about this place. I had sufficient evidence of its values, its processes, its practices, and its people to make some pretty grand assessments about the school’s culture. Okay, yes, true! I was momentarily caught in the trappings of the school wrappings and eager to see if instructional practices would provide the same level of comfort.
Comfort did not disappoint. When the instructional day began, students were highly attentive to thoughtful, meaningful, and purposeful learning tasks that were supported by intentional teacher guidance that simultaneously promoted collaboration and independence.
Renee Calderon is the 6th grade teacher teacher I witnessed in the field actually completing the “L” portion of a KWL chart. Unbelievable! Not to say it does not ever happen. I’m just not sure I’ve ever seen it in real-time practice! EVER! Excuse me, as I walk up a few centimeters from your face with my big camera. It looks like I caught a pretty good picture of the sun rising this morning after all.
Donna Ogle, KWL Chart Creator, would be proud to know the “L” portion of this chart was not only employed to culminate what students had now learned but also to activate knowledge for the upcoming unit of study. We consider such instructional practices intentional and strategic.
Even when Jessica Batchelor walked away from her Guided Reading group to attend to other students, the group didn’t sit idle, waiting for her return. They eagerly brought the student who was absent up to speed on every aspect of ocean life he missed the day before. Students are studying ecosystems in science, and Batchelor has every single 5th grader reading about the ocean as a habitat while differentiating literacy instruction. We consider such practices of embedding science content as a concentrated topical focus during instructional times allotted for reading, literacy, or English/Language Arts as intentional and strategic.
The hoodie spouts truth: YOU CANNOT HIDE COMFORT BEAR PRIDE. That pride is demonstrated in the way both teachers and students engage in teaching and learning. There is no coercion for participation. There are, as far as I could discern, no contrived extrinsic rewards for task completion or for behavioral compliance–for anyone–children or adults. These acts of teaching and learning are seemingly just happening as if some collective and inherent agreement exists amongst all parties that the purposes for being there are carried out by clear, concerted, carefully-crafted, collaborative efforts. Every single individual has not only bought into this concept about teaching and learning but is so comforted by the belief in its values that he deliberately participates in the process. Everyone thinks, speaks, acts, and operates as if he wants to be there. You hear it in their language. Nothing crystalizes the values of a school more than the messages flowing from the mouths of those who move and breathe continually in that space. Teachers did not point fingers at the typical culprits that plague the plight of so many educators. Legitimate or not, the usual suspects charged with holding education hostage include the principal, each other, central office, the state, the board, the standards, the system, the man, the parents, the community, the pay, the legislators, the lottery, and so many other possible suspects that reason loses its voice. Rather than wave the flags of that bandwagon, teachers at Comfort expended energy expressing pride in their school, describing instructional plans, sharing student artifacts, and questioning the extent of academic rigor in their work.
I was miles off the beaten path and comfortable.
Midday, I caught students taking a breather and channeling their inner thoughts through yoga. I, too, seized the pensive moment to inhale the comfort of this space and exhale the peace I felt being a part of this amazing learning community.
The level of teacher energy and enthusiasm was equally and unequivocally matched by student engagement. I am not sure when I have seen such a comprehensive picture of what public schooling should look like. All parties are attentive, engaged, and committed to a singular purpose. From the rise of that school day’s sun to its setting, every act of teacher and student interaction was intentional, strategic, and thoughtful. As if in a final flourish to the day’s proceedings, students leave the building much like they entered: content, confident, and comforted by the presence of attentive adults, bidding farewell with promises of tomorrow.
As she waves farewell to the last bus leaving the lot, the principal looks me in the eye, assuring me that the day wasn’t the proverbial “dog and pony” show, staged and dress-rehearsed just in time for my visit. I totally believe her! No one creates that learning environment overnight. How does one simulate authenticity? And on that note, here’s the thing: I’m not quite sure the words of this reflection I have so carefully crafted will ever adequately convey the authenticity of what I experienced at Comfort Elementary School, in Comfort, NC, on November 16, 2016. It’s hard to put in words–and although I believe in such cases I can sometimes master such things, in situations like this, one must be cautious not to overplay the hand. Professing too much authenticity can sound disingenuous. Therefore, let me be clear: the extraordinary, almost ungraspable thing happening at Comfort is a combination of evidence-based cultural norms that play out in the seemingly inherent way all individuals conscientiously conduct the business of teaching and learning. This conscientious care for school culture is exhibited in hallways and displayed on walls. It is speaking in classrooms and whispering to you in the bathroom. This conscientious care for teaching and learning dominates conversations and is the topic up for discussion. It is prayed about at dawn and pondered over at lunch. Comfort is orchestrating a steady rhythm. I sensed the vibrations in the parking lot, and I caught the vibe in the interactions, attitudes, and language of everyone there, and the melody is comforting. I’m not sure any lyrics can capture the depth of what I experienced at Comfort.
I confess, the authenticity of those feelings evoked by the Comfort experience literally brought me to tears during my departing debrief with Hunter. Feelings are sometimes overwhelming, hard to hold back, and difficult to put into words. Comfort is more than word–more than a name. Comfort is a feeling.
Late that afternoon, I drove home, westward towards an already setting sun, finding Comfort in my thoughts.
Learn more about that feeling at Comfort Elementary School
Disclaimer: Our eduCEO openly admits partiality to Jones County Schools. You can find other posts on this blog about other schools and educators in “JoCo.” She continually describes the entire district as an special place for teaching and learning. We count this school district as much more than our client. JoCo is our friend in education. We have yet to visit all six schools in the district but will do so twice during the 2016-2017 academic year. This post is in no way a slight to our other principal friends whose schools we have already visited. No slight to Kim Bundy, who was the first to realize the potential of Strategic Planning for Academic Rigor and has established clear structures and high expectations for a staff already rapidly raising the level of academic rigor at Pollocksville Elementary. No slight to Tara Patterson from whom our eduCEO learned a lot about Maysville’s strategic use of data to close achievement gaps, methods to solicit parent engagement, and channels to create professional engagement. No slight to Michael White at Jones Senior High, whom we still dub the quintessential principal of the 21st century. These principals are awesome instructional leaders in their own right, doing committed and innovative work in their amazing schools. We’re just a quite taken with Dawn Hunter and Comfort Elementary right now. Get over it.