Student-Led Instructional Debriefings
An unusual iteration of a protocol for classroom observations that amplifies student voice at a school in Staten Island
BY JOANNE BUCKHEIT/School Administrator, June 2020 

Principal Joanne Buckheit (center) with students preparing to do classroom observations as part of student-led rounds at her school in Staten Island, N.Y.
Our unique public school in Staten Island, N.Y., serving students randomly selected in pre-K through 12th grade, acknowledges the importance of developing student voice in preparing our graduates to be productive citizens of the 21st-century world.

The Michael J. Petrides School ensures our students develop both literacy and content-area skills and master the college- and career-readiness behaviors to succeed beyond high school. Our collaborative staff has devised innovative instructional practices to en-sure our students leave us as independent, confident, critical thinkers. (The high school graduation rate among students who’ve spent 9th through 12th at our school has hovered consistently around 95 percent.)

As part of creating a culture of collaboration, we developed something about 20 years ago that we called collegial walkthroughs. A group of teachers (and administrators) would visit several classrooms and then meet together with the host teachers to discuss the instruction observed. The process allowed teachers to adopt each other’s noted best practices and to build camaraderie.

Added Structure

Years later, we studied Richard Elmore’s book Instructional Rounds in Education and structured our classroom visits to look at the interactions among the teacher, the student and the curriculum. More recently, we added the “Evidence, Analysis, Action” protocol, as described by Paul Bloomberg and Barb Pitchford in their book Leading Impact Teams to strengthen the debriefing discussions and to enable teachers to leave the instructional rounds with identified next steps.

Today, with well-organized instructional rounds a regular practice at our school, we’re visiting classrooms three to four times a month. Embedded in our monthly professional development plan, rounds allow us to gather data about teaching and learning in our school and to highlight and share best practices.

As we strengthened instructional practices across grades and content areas to empower students to take ownership of their learning, a natural next step was to include them as essential participants in the classroom rounds.

A Student Twist

Our first student-led instructional rounds, conducted back in April 2017, was one of the best experiences in my 34 years as an educator, including 15 years as principal of the 1,350-student Petrides School. And almost every one since then has been just as enlightening, exciting and rewarding.

The process for conducting student-led rounds has remained the same since that first attempt. We usually wait until the morning of rounds to select a diverse group of eight to 12 students to participate. We strive to be inclusive and involve students representing all subgroup populations (students with disabilities, English language learners, economically disadvantaged and both high-performing and struggling students).

Typically, we select students to do observations in classrooms that are one grade level below.

Once identified, the students are called to my office. And, while most kids describe their nervousness about being summoned to the principal’s office, they always sit up taller in their chair when I tell them, “We want to learn from you today!”

We explain they were chosen to join us for rounds and that we’ll be visiting classrooms and meeting with teachers to discuss what they observe. All of our students have experienced having visitors in their classrooms so they smile big when they learn they will be the visitors that day.

We created a “note catcher” for students to use with clipboards during the visit. This guides students as they collect low-inference observation notes on what they see and hear happening in the classrooms visited. We also encourage students to record their wonderings.

The rounds observers gather information in classrooms visited by talking to students about what they’re doing, asking questions of the teacher and noticing materials and resources around the room.

Valued Input

Following the classroom visits, students sit with nameplates and hot chocolate alongside the teachers at my conference table so they feel like valued members in our meeting.

The debriefing process is guided by the Evidence, Analysis, Action protocol. I start by asking students to share their low-inference observations. An adult, usually an assistant principal, serves as recorder for the meeting, entering student responses on a template projected on a large screen for all participants to see. As facilitator, I help to identify trends noticed by students across classrooms. We discuss their relevance to the Danielson Framework for Teaching, specifically the competencies in Domain 3: using questioning and discussion techniques, engaging students in learning and using assessment in instruction.

The trickiest part of the debriefing is to identify actionable next steps for teachers. This must happen respectfully so we can maintain trust with our staff. We tried asking students, “If you had three wishes to improve your education, what would they be?” Now, we simply ask, “What can we do to improve your learning experience?”

When we started student-led rounds, some high school teachers understandably were reluctant to participate in the process as they felt the students would be evaluating their performance. By allowing those teachers to participate in rounds alongside student observers as they visited classrooms and including those teachers in the debriefing process, we gained their trust and created such comfort with the process that all 97 teachers in our school now happily participate.
 Students at the Michael J. Petrides School debrief with principal Joanne Buckheit (rear) after their classroom visits.

What We’ve Learned

We plan rounds in response to what we want to know, which means the focus can vary from one walkthrough to the next. For example, we took a mixed grade-level group of students (from grades 4-6) to look at vertical math classes (in grades 3-6). The purpose for these rounds was to identify math practices and strategies that are most helpful for our students.

We organized student-led rounds for our high school freshmen to visit Advanced Placement classes in hopes of sparking their interest in striving for such classes. We talked about what skills students would need to be ready for the rigor of these courses and identified possible prerequisite paths.

As we focus on developing Habits of Mind that ensure our students understand the qualities of good learners and acquire good learner habits, we have conducted rounds to gather evidence about the current learning behaviors that students exhibit.

We’ve learned lots more from involving kids in rounds, too. Consistently, students identify John Hattie’s visible learning influences, including self-efficacy, teacher clarity, classroom discussion and reciprocal teaching, as crucial to their learning. And, in debriefing discussions, students noted the importance of brain breaks. (These are opportunities to relax the brain so a person can stay focused and energetic and less stressed. The breaks should allow a person to do physical activity or deep breathing to allow the blood and oxygen to move to the brain to think more clearly.)

They also asked for flexible scheduling during the day to allow time for student choice in independent activities, such as reading for pleasure or improving their writing. Students described the value of a personal connection with their teacher, saying it helps them be more motivated and more engaged.

Impact Felt

The most significant impact of student-led rounds is on those students who participate. “I feel powerful,” said Keanna, an 8th-grade student, when asked about the experience of taking part. “We’re kid principals,” shouted 2nd grader Kiera in response to the same question. And 4th grader Robert described being nervous at the start of the process and proud that he was able to do it. 

JOANNE BUCKHEIT is principal of the Michael J. Petrides School in Staten Island, N.Y. Twitter: @petridesschool