Showcasing Instructional Support in Norfolk: How They Grew (and You Can Too)

Introducing Showcase PreK in VA

As a part of the last year of the VPI+ grant, we wanted to share our lessons learned from the investments made and networking across partnering divisions in a way that was accessible—that didn’t just convey information in a one-sided way, but really connected leaders and educators and planted seeds of change around the Commonwealth.

Listen to Laura Kassner, VPI+ State Coordinator, share the “why” of the Showcase PreK in VA pilot.  

And so Showcase PreK in VA was born, an adaptation of a model from The Office of Interschool Collaboration in New York City’s Department of Education.

The concept of Showcase? A day of experiential professional development on a specific learning focus area, including storytelling and shared meals that connects hosts and visitors with each other, hosts openly communicating both their successes and obstacles, and visitors getting to see high-quality PreK in action through classroom visits. To support the carryover of practices, visitors receive implementation resources and planning opportunities to take home what will work in their own contexts.

Consider this our official invitation for you to come to one of our hosts’ 16 events scheduled around the Commonwealth for the 2018-19 school year! (Each division met high benchmarks for Quality Rating scores and inclusions percentages, and has chosen their focus on a specific learning area.)

For this month’s blog, we’re going to profile one of our first Showcase hosting teams—Norfolk Public Schools—who chose Instructional Support as their learning focus area. We’ll tell you the story of Norfolk’s journey, including some specific ways in which they positively impacted Instructional Support interactions through PD and structural changes to their daily schedule.

Norfolk Showcase PreK in VA team

How did “team Norfolk” get started?

Since all VPI+ classrooms participated in the Virginia Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS), which includes ratings with both the CLASS and ECERS instruments, the Norfolk VPI+ team received summary reports after ratings in the fall of 2015.  First, they reflected on why their scores were below the threshold on Instructional Support in the CLASS tool, a place of surprise since they thought their teaching was effective (and it was—many strengths were identified, there were just specific places to grow!). They took a holistic look at the report, reflecting also on the information that was captured in the Environment scale (ECERS) and made an interesting discovery…

The baseline report indicated very limited time during learning centers, a time when children were free to follow their interests and have sustained engagement while manipulating meaningful and relevant materials. Teachers were limited in opportunities to have quality, sustained interactions with the children when the daily schedule and activities included teacher-directed and small group time with lots of transitions where time was lost.  This choppiness of the day and the related routines were hampering instructionally supportive conversations (promoting children’s thinking and language skills through open-ended questions, repeating and extending language, etc.).

How did they grow?

So it was clear that Norfolk wanted to see growth in instructionally supportive classroom interactions.  And it was clear that the schedule, which they could control, was limiting their opportunities. Cue changes…

#1 First order of business, they made structural changes to their daily schedule.

While teacher-structured activities had historically been seen as the “teaching” times, transitions, learning centers, and routines provided many more minutes of valuable learning opportunities—especially when teachers were intentionally focused on supporting children’s cognition and language through their interactions.  Norfolk’s leadership made the bold move to change how students spent a significant portion of the day – in rigorous and purposeful centers where the teachers could rotate and interact intentionally.

#2 Second order: they learned what good instructional support interactions looked like and planned for how they could/should look across the day. Teachers had introductory professional development that included exemplar videos that helped them clarify that they wanted to:

  • Have more extended conversations to learn about children’s interests and prior knowledge (Wow, Anthony!  You already know so much about trains and what makes them move.)
  • Ask more thought-provoking questions (Why don’t these two train car magnets stick together?),
  • Embed and explicitly teach vocabulary into their conversations (Did you know that these magnets make the train cars attract—or stick together?),
  • Provide quality feedback to extend children’s ideas/actions (What would happen if we turned that train car around?),
  • Facilitate children’s experiences to plan, create, and evaluate (How would you design a way to connect train cars?  Try building it! How did it work?)

#3 Third: they engaged in ongoing, quality Professional Development including analysis and feedback loops that promoted improvement.

It’s important to note that some (even most) teachers were doing elements of this already, perhaps in limited ways. Maybe more questions were closed-ended. Or the questions didn’t prompt rich, extended conversations. Or the 4-year-old brain wasn’t being stretched in new ways. It was time to dig in deeper into the look-fors for instructionally supportive conversations (through video exemplars, e.g. found on the VPI+ video clip directory). And then it was critical to have teachers analyze their own practices through reviewing their CLASS data and watching themselves on video, supported through individualized coaching. Another key element was a learning community of VPI+ teachers dissecting their practice around a potluck meal once a month. This built connections and helped leveraged each others’ existing and growing strengths.

What was the Payoff?

Classrooms observed in 2015 were observed for a second time in the fall of 2017.  The data showed impressive improvements in Instructional Support (exceeding the 3.25 threshold set for VPI+!). The teachers reported pride in the improvements in their classroom observation data, but were quick to list the other (most important) outcome — effects on children that were possible because of their improved interactions. For example:

  • Relationships were solidified as the teachers felt they knew more about the children from the extended conversations they were now practicing and embedding during learning center time.
  • Children were talking more, were more actively engaged, and thinking more deeply.
  • Teachers observed children displaying fewer behavior problems!

This work wasn’t quick.  This work wasn’t always easy.  But this work produced powerful change in the Instructional Support domain scores of class.

What does success look like?

Want to see a beautiful example of what instructionally supportive conversations embedded in rigorous play-based centers look in practice in a Norfolk classroom now?  Buckle your seatbelts. Prepare to have your mind blown by innovation, simplicity, and quality.

Shantee received professional development through coaching and even benefited from a supportive learning community of other VPI+ teachers wanting to make the same improvements to their classroom quality.  She altered her daily schedule to permit significant time for students to have “worktime” in centers, and intentionally planned for instructionally supportive conversation with her students during that time. Take a look!

[Video: 2:55]


Instead of having traditional “calendar time” as a whole-group activity on the rug, stretching 20 minutes with only one child contributing at a time while the others sit-and-wait, look at how this teacher turned “calendar time” into an engaging, personalized center where every participant could be engaged simultaneously!

Feeling inspired?

Stay tuned for Part II- “What Can I Do to improve Instructional Support” in next month’s blog!


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