Transforming Teaching and Learning through Modeling and Practice

June 14, 2021

TS Hoard

Principal, Excellence Boys Charter Middle School (EBCS-MA), Uncommon Schools, Brooklyn, NY

“I have to do the work and take part in the struggle with them.”— TS Hoard

The Pointed Problem: Increasing Student Engagement and Depth of Learning

In planning for a new school year, TS Hoard had a vision for teaching and learning that was in many ways substantially different from what his school had emphasized up to that point. They were already outperforming the city as a whole, but he knew they could do even better at cultivating the intellects of the young men of color who make up their student body. Amid all the challenges of the pandemic, and stirred by the re-energized movement for racial justice, Uncommon Schools educators like Hoard seized on the moment to re-imagine what mattered most for instruction.

With the rallying cry of “Writing our Future” for the 2020–21 school year, Hoard and his staff committed to do all they could to realize two new priorities across Uncommon Schools: building stronger trust and relationships, and promoting higher-level guided discourse as a way to sharpen students’ thinking and how they express themselves (For more, see “Seizing the Moment to Create the School You’d Want for Your Children.”). He built his own weekly schedule around supporting those priorities (See “Making the Time to Lead a Schoolwide Transformation.”).

The next question was: What would he do with that time to turn his vision into reality?

The Innovation: Leveraging the Power of the Model

Hoard realized that for his staff to master a qualitatively different approach to instruction they needed ongoing opportunities to see it, experience it, and perfect it in their own practice. Keys to his theory of action were to:

  • Build his own deep understanding of how to prepare for lessons that engage students in high-level discourse;
  • Model for teachers the process of planning for and leading high-level discourse, and have them practice the model themselves before teaching.
  • Guide his instructional leadership team to similarly model for the teachers they support — i.e. “model how to model.”

His thinking: By mastering what he expects of others, showing them what it looks like, and giving them feedback as they practice, he could bring about notable growth in the quality of teaching and learning across his school.

The Story:

“There had to be a shift in how we approach teaching altogether. I don’t just want to teach teachers and leaders a taxonomy of moves to ensure that a student does what you want them to. We need to empower our students. We need to engage our students in a way that’s truly building them.” — TS Hoard

In Hoard’s new vision for instruction, students wouldn’t just learn the formula for writing essays — they’d become experts in analyzing and communicating what they read. They’d hone their abilities to unpack an author’s purpose, perspective, and technique, and to make well-reasoned arguments in their own writing.

But to support students in doing so, teachers would have to think harder than they had before about what that unpacking and reasoning entails, and then plan how to guide students in the process without handing them the answers, so students would become more independent critical thinkers.

Hoard made the space for that planning with a pair of weekly meetings led by members of his instructional leadership team: one for planning how to target the hardest part of an upcoming lesson and one for planning how to reteach previously taught but unlearned skills and concepts.

The success of those meetings would depend on how well they developed teachers to deliver rigorous, discourse-driven lessons. To this end, Hoard knew he must develop — then distribute — the leadership of his team.

‘Meta’ Moments

Hoard makes extensive use of modeling in two weekly ILT meetings and in his weekly meetings with the school’s 6th ELA teachers, whom he coaches himself. Regardless of who he’s modeling for, he includes the same key steps:

  1. Name the focus of the modeling (e.g. responding to student work), and say what the group should pay particular attention to (e.g. how he narrows his feedback);
  2. Provide “meta moments” throughout the modeling, in which he pauses to share his thinking (as in, “hmm, I see Jared referenced a key detail, but didn’t say why it’s important, so …”); and
  3. Debrief, by asking how what he modeled accomplished the objective (e.g. “so how did I narrow my feedback?”).

During his modeling he has teachers and ILT members play the role of students and the colleagues they coach. When doing so he’ll assign teachers to play the role of students at different levels of mastery. When he goes into his own roleplay as teacher or instructional leader, Hoard announces, “action”; and he signals his modeling is over with, “and scene.” When leading his ILT meetings, Hoard models both how a teacher engages with students and how an instructional leader models the practice for teachers.

Below: In a virtual ILT meeting, TS Hoard models how to give students real-time feedback on their writing in Google Docs.

Built into the meeting structures are frequent opportunities for teachers and ILT members to practice what they see modeled, with Hoard and their colleagues providing feedback. In this era of teaching and professional learning by Zoom, he often has staff record and share their actual lessons and planning meetings so they review and analyze them together to further hone their practice.

Modeling Personal Connections

Along with these meetings, Hoard often uses modeling in weekly practice clinics for the whole teaching staff that focus less on teaching particular content and more on promoting a positive classroom culture. In these, he demonstrates such skills as opening and closing a lesson efficiently, giving clear directions for small group and independent work, projecting warmth and encouragement, and making a personal connection to all students. Over the past year, he’s role played how to do all of that in an online setting.

Below: 8-minute video of TS Hoard leading practice clinic on creating a positive online learning environment.

‘In the Learning with Students’

None of this modeling would be successful if Hoard didn’t spend a significant amount of time preparing. More than a quarter of his weekly schedule is blocked off for his own work time, a major portion of which is spent preparing the way he expects his teachers and ILT members to prepare for their lessons and planning meetings. Guiding teachers in how to plan for high-level guided discourse requires that he himself dig deeply into the content they’re teaching, and think hard about how to help students develop the highest leverage conceptual understandings.

Along with the increase he’s seen in intellectual engagement, Hoard says his work this past year has also made his own role as principal more rewarding: “I’ve been able to focus on content far more than I ever have before. And I find myself lost in what the students are reading and studying, and in knowing how to engage them on a new level. I’m not just looking to see what students are doing or not doing, or if they’re listening or not. I’m really focused on being in the learning with the students.”

How TS Hoard “Walks the Walk” of Lesson Planning

When preparing to lead teacher planning meetings, he:

  1. Reviews the “cornerstone” lesson for the coming week (i.e. the most powerful lesson for building student understanding).
  2. Reads the passage in the lesson as a student would.
  3. Identifies the most significant “productive struggle” in the lesson (e.g. the most challenging standards-aligned prompt).
  4. Answers the prompt as a student would.
  5. Compares his answer to the lesson’s “ideal answer,” to identify gaps and revise to create an exemplar.
  6. Considers how students at different levels of mastery might answer the prompt (“almost there,” “partially there,” and “further off.”). Plans for how to address each, to close the gaps.
  7. Plans for three “do not pass go moments” parts of the lesson, where a check for understanding is essential before moving on.

(When done planning as a teacher would, Hoard goes on to organize a meeting in which teachers go through the same process.)

Taking it Back to Your School

  • What is your vision for rigorous discourse in classrooms?
  • How do you help teachers/other instructional leaders see excellent execution of this vision in practice?
  • What steps can you take to model high quality planning and support teachers to practice this themselves?


Slide Deck for ILT Meeting (includes: Trends from observation, 2 week priorities for teacher actions, steps for strong modeling, and protocol for practicing in pairs).

Below: 5-minute interview with TS Hoard.

Below: 6-minutes of TS Hoard leading a meeting of his instructional leaders.


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