Giving Learners a Voice Improves Classroom Culture

Practice   05 May 2016
By Bill Zima

We’re excited to share an excerpt from RSU 2 Superintendent Bill Zima’s book of “tactical fiction.” Showcased below is the Introduction from Learners Rule!

THE FALL OF 2007 STARTED LIKE ANY OTHER SCHOOL YEAR. Students and teachers entered the building tanned, light in spirit, all while carrying a sense of anticipation for what the year had in store. The only difference was that the administration decided to focus on the number of students who were failing math. I was part of that administrative team.

Over the summer, I reviewed the previous three year’s math grades. We had nearly a third of our students failing 7th-grade math. This was unacceptable, to say the least. When I asked the math team at our opening meetings why this was happening, the response was clear; the students did not know their basic facts. They were coming to us underprepared to handle the requirements of middle school math. After blaming this program or that one, we were not even sure which program was being used in the 7 elementary schools that fed our middle school. We decided we needed to do something about it. So we researched, found, and purchased skill remediation software. We were going to fix it.

At the first quarter marking period, we actually had a slight increase in the number of students failing. We were using the programs correctly and at a time in the schedule that did not affect their class instruction. Why were we still seeing increases in the number of failing students?

When the math team was asked this question again, the answer became that the students were not doing their homework. If only they did it we would not have this issue. I asked if it was the work completion or loss of skills from not having an appropriate practice that was making the difference. They felt it was both. “I have students who do well on the tests but won’t do a bit of homework. We can’t pass those students without doing any work. Where would they learn responsibility?”

So, we created The Homework Cafe. Students lost socialization time during lunch and instead had to eat their food while completing their homework in a different room. We had a staff member monitor the cafe. We did not need a teacher as the work was expected to be done independently. If our Cafe Monitor noticed that students struggled with understanding, she sent a note to the teacher informing him or her of the need for extra support with the content.


We wait for the struggle, encourage them to try harder, but continue moving through the book. We never stop to patch the hole.

Bill Zima

As we reached the end of the second quarter, hopes were high that more students would pass their math class. When grades were calculated and posted, we once again experienced a slight uptick in the number of failures. Needless to say, we were all very disappointed.

At the next math department meeting, I announced that if anyone knew why students are failing, please let me know so I can get some donuts and coffee and we can find a solution. As one of the teachers left the meeting he paused to say, “I like Boston Cream donuts.”

“What?” I asked with a surprised tone. I was not expecting such a quick response to my offer.

“I know why we have issues,” he said in a casual tone. “I will tell you tomorrow morning.”

So the next morning, in the dark of a cold January morning in Maine, we met in my office. The little conference table was snug into one of the corners in an attempt to maximize the room to move. This arrangement made it possible for only two chairs to be placed at the table. We each took a chair, I handed him a Boston Cream donut and coffee and got right to the point. I was not interested in small talk since I had not been able to stop thinking about what he could have possibly figured out so quickly. “So, what’s up?”

“Well. It’s actually quite simple,” he said in a tone that made it hard to tell if he was serious or sarcastic. If it was so simple, how have we not seen it before? He continued, “We do not know why students are failing.”

“WHAT,” I heard myself respond in a tone just below a shout. Was he kidding? I lost sleep last night pondering what he was going to say and this is what I get. I stopped for donuts and coffee and got excited just to hear we don’t know why students are failing. He is now on my short list of people I tune out when they share their thoughts. Collecting my nerves so I did not seem out of control I said, “Thanks. I appreciate your perspective. Enjoy the donut.”

As I got up to leave he chuckled and said, “You are not hearing what I am saying.” He paused for dramatic effect. “We do not know why students are failing.” He said it slower and more deliberate. This time, his words leapt right into my ears and kick-started my brain. Slowly my face shifted from disappointment to a smile of understanding. He was right. We had no idea.


We now knew that without clear targets of learning, we had no idea what we were aiming for.

Bill Zima

“Yes,” I finally said. “We are teaching textbooks, chapters, and courses. We are not teaching kids. We wait for the struggle, encourage them to try harder, but continue moving through the book. We never stop to patch the hole. We never give it another thought.”

He had hit a nerve. As educators, we never spent time talking about what we actually hoped kids learned from the textbook. When kids struggled, we hoped they would have more success on the next chapter or unit so their average grade would increase. As I reflect on my career, I can see myself telling parents, “Well it’s okay. He hated physics but we just started ecology and I think his work on this unit will bring his overall grade up.” What was our focus? The grade or the bit of knowledge making the grade? I finally saw the answer.

The problem with the current plan of addressing curriculum was we had no idea how deep the hole in their learning went. Was it a superficial wound that would scab over and eventually be undetectable? Or was it deep and festering? An injury to learning that is so deep it never quite heals correctly only to come back later in life as either a deep infection causing future learning to be slowed or an unknown pain whose origins are a mystery.

Thanks to the effective strategies supported in the research of Response to Intervention (RTI), we were able to find some of the “infections” in their learning early, and with intense support, could cure them. It was the missed learning due to unknown issues that arose a few years down the learning path that caused the most headaches. Something needed to be done.

We ended the year creating a plan to help us begin to shift our system away from textbook chapters and unit tests to one that had the students meet standards. We were hoping to create a system that communicates to students, parents, and the student’s future teachers exactly what the student knows and can do while also identifying what learning still presents challenges. Instead of moving an entire group forward and creating a single learning opportunity regardless of what the individual student entered the grade-level with, there was hope that we could differentiate instruction and truly give the student what he or she needs. We now knew that without clear targets of learning, we had no idea what we were aiming for.

We spent the 2008-2009 school year unpacking the Maine Learning Results to get at what students should know and be able to do in all content areas. Teachers were given time to meet as grade level, content area specialists and define their learning targets. Other researchers have called them Enduring Understandings. We simply said, “What are the things you want students to know when you bump into them on the street in 10 years? If you won’t care then, don’t care now.” In April, we had the document ready to go. The Framework of Skills articulated to us, our parents, and of course our students, what we wanted students to know and be able to do in each year and in each content area while they were in our middle school.

In early May, a group of teachers approached the administration and asked if they could pilot being fully standards-based during the next school year. They were a group of elite runners, not afraid to be out in front of the crowd. They embraced ambiguity and loved creating a path. We happily supported their request.

In late May, I met with Rick Schreiber from ReInventing Schools Coalition (RISC). The State of Maine was looking for districts to pilot moving to a personal-mastery system. Rick explained what RISC had done in Alaska, Colorado and California and what was the hope for Maine. That began a very important relationship for our school.

As the 2009-2010 school year began, the pilot team faced early challenges as managing a classroom of independent learners was not the same as the traditional classroom. The core of personal mastery was that students worked at their readiness level and moved forward only when they had demonstrated mastery of a particular learning goal. Trying to manage this innovative approach to learning while maintaining a traditional classroom was awkward. Something needed to change. But what?

In November of 2009, two of the teachers from the pilot team went to a Classroom Design and Delivery (CDD) training with RISC. When they returned to their classrooms, they began implementing some of the strategies they learned. The class was magically transformed. Once the teachers stopped managing a traditional classroom and instead began overseeing the culture, students began to take off.

We stumbled across one of the important lessons of implementing any reform in education whether it is a full-scale system shift like moving to personal mastery learning or adding writer’s workshop to your English classes: culture is the lynchpin.

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