An Elementary School Puts Student Discourse at the Center

February 7, 2023

LeVar Jenkins & Tarsha Warren

Principal & Assistant Principal at Burroughs Elementary School, District of Columbia Public Schools

This profile is part of the Follow the Leaders project, an ongoing series from Relay Graduate School of Education to share insights and inspiration on leading for equity, wellness, and achievement. Subscribe here.

Executive Summary

An elementary school principal and his team prioritize high-level discourse to elevate student voice and build better writers by:

  • Building a compelling vision of student discourse;
  • Clarifying the key teacher moves;
  • Tapping their own highly skilled teachers to model teacher moves;
  • Creating structures for teachers to practice facilitating discourse; and
  • Coaching his coaches on leading those structures. 

A Vision for Student Discourse

Early in his time at Burroughs Elementary, Principal LeVar Jenkins brought his staff together for what he describes as “very robust conversations” around a central question: What does a successful Burroughs student do? That is, how would students comport themselves—both in and out the classroom, while at Burroughs and after—if the school is truly setting them up for success?

From those early conversations emerged a collective vision of students constantly engaged in authentic academic discourse. By the time they moved on to middle school, they’d have the confidence and skills to offer and support their own ideas with their peers and adults. While they saw this as a critical goal in itself, Jenkins and his team also reasoned it would make their students into better writers.

Says Jenkins: “We wanted anyone to be able to walk into a classroom and really, truly see authentic student dialogue occurring. We want our students to realize: This is your learning, and you're in charge of it as much as your teacher is."

"We want our students to realize: This is your learning, and you’re in charge of it as much as your teacher is.” - Principal LeVar Jenkins

Student Discourse in Action

Fast forward to a recent discussion in the 5th grade classroom of Burroughs teacher Hope Harrod. Students sit in a seminar-style U as they discuss an above grade-level article about Malala Yousafzai, who fought for girls education as a youth in Pakistan, and survived being shot by extremists in 2012. Whenever a student makes a point, another says “I agree, and would like to add on…” or “I’d like to put in my own words….”

Throughout, the teacher asks repeatedly: “What’s happening in this sentence?”; “Can you say more about that?” and “Can you show me where in the text it tells you that?” Not once during the discussion does she answer her own question, instead rephrasing what she asks until the student answers on her own. Within the span of several minutes, every student is called on, and every student speaks. (Read more and watch two videos on how Harrod plans for and facilitates student discourse.)

Several years after collectively committing to student discourse, Jenkins says, “It’s at the crux of what we do.” From pre-K through 5th grade, his team works to develop students’ confidence and abilities to express their understanding in conversation with their classmates. And Burroughs has been recognized as one of the highest-performing elementary schools in the District of Columbia Public Schools.

5th grade teacher Hope Harrod facilitates student discourse.

Student Discourse as the Foundation of Equity

For Jenkins, student discourse and equity are tightly connected. In his first years as a teacher, he observed some students hold back from speaking up in class, which led him to move from general ed to special ed. When he later became a principal, he says: “I told myself, you really have to be the voice for all the students in the building, to ensure they’re able to advocate for themselves and be truly authentic facilitators of what they learn.”

When he arrived at Burroughs, he and his team saw another reason for doubling down on discourse: Weak student writing. As Burroughs Assistant Principal Tarsha Warren explains: giving students more opportunities to formulate their ideas in dialogue with other students would translate into a greater ability to formulate their thinking when writing. Says Warren: “You need to talk it through.”

Today, such dialogue is most prevalent in grades 3-5 at Burroughs, as students make the shift from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” That looks like classroom discussions in which students collaboratively unpack the meaning of challenging texts. Teachers continually press students to point out the specific parts of a text that support their interpretation.

Discussions are orchestrated to elevate student voice. Teachers prepare questions ahead of time based on what’s most challenging about a text, but they also let students drive the discussion, asking “What questions do you have?” and “What words don’t you know?” Students are expected to pay as much attention to each other as to the teacher, acknowledging what a classmate has said before adding on.

Critically important, say Jenkins and Warren, all students in a class are brought into the discussion. Says Warren: “You cannot tell who has an IEP, or who is ELL; every scholar has a voice.”

Assistant Principal Tarsha Warren models instruction for a new teacher in a 4th grade classroom.

How Leaders Foster High Level Classroom Discourse

Jenkins and Warren say they’ve gotten to this point because the whole school embraced discourse as a central pillar of its instructional program. Says Warren: “From our Pre-K up, our teachers are having conversations about what the learning looks like: What do our scholars need to know? What kind of 'talk moves' should they be making for our scholars to eventually take ownership of their learning?"

"From Pre-K up, our teachers are having conversations like...What kind of ‘talk moves’ should they be making for our scholars to eventually take ownership of their learning?” - Assistant Principal Tarsha Warren

This required creating structures to norm around a consistent vision of high-quality discourse. A key one was weekly cycles of observation, feedback, and coaching. The two leaders also identified teachers already skilled in the practice, like Ms. Harrod, for their colleagues to observe. Says Jenkins: “We can say ‘This is what it should look like,’ but we wouldn’t be where we are today if the coaches didn’t notice the skills, give teachers feedback, and track how they’re progressing.”

Another key structure are weekly data meetings, in which teachers work with Ms. Warren to review student work, identify common gaps in understanding, and then plan and practice how to address those gaps in reteaching. Importantly, the process they use–adapted from Relay GSE– is designed to prompt students to identify the misconceptions and how to do the work correctly themselves, in teacher-facilitated whole class discussions. 

This helped lay the foundation for high-level discourse in which students engage in “productive struggle” - doing the heavy lifting of building their own understanding. 

Tarsha Warren leads a Weekly Data Meeting with 4th grade teacher Brandwyn Williams

As principal, Jenkins supports high-quality practice by coaching the coaches. He engages in regular feedback conversations with Ms. Warren after observing her lead weekly data meetings, makes classroom visits, and provides teachers with feedback. “It’s sort of a cyclical process that we all go through,” says Jenkins, who also gets feedback from his district superintendent and coach from Relay GSE. 

In addition, the principal models the importance of elevating people’s voices by frequently asking staff their thoughts on school matters.

Finally, the two leaders say that creating a safe and supportive environment for discourse has been critical to their success. Starting in pre-K, teachers are building students’ confidence in putting themselves out there—as “table captains” assisting their classmates, or as “teacher leads” who come to the board to lead short activities. When they do, teachers cue their classmates to praise their efforts—with “good job!” and “you got it!”

A 1st grader plays the role of “teacher lead,” during a lesson on letter-sounds.

Among 14 DCPS and DC public charter schools recently recognized as having outperformed their peers who are serving similar high-priority populations (e.g. students of color and students from low income families), Burroughs exceeded its expected performance by the greatest amount, based on the rigorous PARCC assessment. Moreover, recent data shows Burroughs proficiency rates are 10 points higher than before COVID19 - while many schools in the country remain below where they were before the pandemic. Along with such results, Jenkins credits the focus on discourse with building student “stamina” for writing.

“It’s helping them take what’s up here,” says Jenkins, touching his head, “and put it down on paper.” 

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Taking it Back to Your School

  • What does high-level discourse look at for your school? What specific words and behaviors should we look for in students? Engage your whole teaching staff in crafting a collective vision - not just ELA teachers.
  • How can teachers at every grade level build the confidence, attention to detail, and practice speaking and listening, that they will need for high level discourse? What does it look like for pre-K teachers? 12th grade teachers?
  • Which of your faculty are already excellent facilitators of meaningful, engaging student discourse? How can you leverage them to spread the practices?
  • How can you facilitate your staff meetings to model high level discourse?

LeVar Jenkins has been the principal at Burroughs Elementary School since 2016. Previously, Jenkins served as assistant principal at Plummer and H.D. Cooke Elementary Schools, a DCPS special education coordinator, and a teacher with Fairfax County and Prince George’s County Public Schools. Burroughs Elementary School has been recognized as one fourteen schools in the District of Columbia that are outperforming their peers. Jenkins received his bachelor’s degree from Tuskegee University and his master’s degree in education with a focus in special education from Bowie State University. He is an alum of Relay's Leverage Leadership Institute and has been coached by Relay's Leadership Programs team.

Tarsha Warren is the assistant principal of Burroughs Elementary School. As a classroom teacher for 20 years, she has taught every grade from Pre-K to 3rd, and also served as Instructional Coach of Literacy. She has a bachelor’s degree from Howard University, a master’s degree in early childhood education from the University of the District of Columbia, and a master’s degree in the teaching of reading from Trinity University. Warren is an alumna of Relay's DCPS Instructional Leadership Professional Development (ILPD) program. She is also proud to be a wife and mom of five sons.


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