Rock Quarry Elementary’s Transformative Journey with the Powerful Conversations Network

By Laura Jockisch
RQES Principal

At Rock Quarry Elementary (Tuscaloosa City Schools), we have experienced amazing growth over the last few years. Our journey with the Alabama Best Practices Center’s Powerful Conversations Network (PCN) has challenged the way we think about student learning and changed the way we approach instruction.

Let me share some of our story.

For the first two years, I represented Rock Quarry Elementary at the PCN gatherings during the school year and at summer retreats, along with our school’s Instructional Partner. We explored John Hattie’s best practices research and the partnership work of Jim Knight with colleagues from across the state and brought those insights back into our building.

Teachers began to have conversations about what was most important and what kinds of instruction would have the greatest impact in the classroom. Our professional learning was tremendous. We began to focus on best practices in our building and formed goals and plans that extended our personal learning and the learning of our school colleagues.

Expanding our understanding

The following year, we selected two teachers to join our PCN team along with our assistant principal. As a next step, we wanted to invite the teachers in our building to join us in studying Ron Berger’s game-changing book, Leaders of Their Own Learning. We focused on establishing “Learning Targets” for each lesson and utilizing “Checks for Understanding” to monitor student understanding.

“PCN has given me the opportunity to learn about best practice from other classroom teachers. It challenged me to try new teaching techniques, then reflect on how this impacted both my teaching and student learning. The information from PCN that I brought back into Room 431 changed the way I approach instruction and encouraged my students to take control of their progress. PCN is the best PD I have ever had!” — Mikki Powell 5th Grade Teacher, Rock Quarry Elementary

Most teachers were excited about this technique and the way it encouraged student engagement. They wanted to learn more! So, our PCN team led Rock Quarry’s very first EdCamp. We invited the entire faculty to a day of learning in the summer.

On this day, we had teachers leading teachers in ideas and techniques that were working with students. There were opportunities for teachers to engage in conversations about what was and wasn’t working with Learning Targets, Checks for Understanding, and other best practices we’d been implementing. RQ EdCamp was a huge success with well over half of our faculty participating. Every teacher gave a THUMBS UP to this day of learning!

Our voluntary professional learning group

We wanted to keep the momentum going, so we created an intentional, ongoing professional learning group in the building called RQESLearns. Participation was voluntary, but many teachers were involved. RQESLearns focused on Berger’s work, and we met after school at local coffee shops and members’ homes to discuss our learning.

We also began to incorporate Learning Walks as part of our professional development. Teachers were grouped into teams and were able to visit in other classrooms to observe best practice within our own building. As teachers became more confident in their instruction with Learning Targets and Checks for Understanding, they were more open to welcoming in other colleagues into their classrooms to learn from their practice.

Teachers learning from teachers has been a powerful learning tool and has created a sense of community in our building. Although our goal was for RQESLearns to complete a one year cycle, teachers overwhelmingly asked to continue that learning into the next school year.

Growth in professional learning and student success

Over the past five years, we have had substantial growth in our student data and in our professional learning and daily practice.

As we continued to study Berger’s work both in a small group team at PCN and as a faculty through RQESLearns, we began to extend our learning to exemplar texts, success criteria, and student-engaged assessment. We continued to challenge our thinking about student-led learning and shared with each other what was and wasn’t working in the classroom.

“Now that I implement the use of learning targets in my classroom, I would not want to teach without them. They set a clear purpose for the lesson and help students strive for understanding. Learning targets, along with checks for understanding, lead to student discourse, use of academic vocabulary, effective questioning, scaffolding, meaningful formative assessment/self-assessment, purposeful feedback, and more!” — Lana Woods, 2nd Grade Teacher, Rock Quarry Elementary

As a true test of where we were in our learning, our school decided to participate in Instructional Rounds led by the Alabama Best Practices Center. This year, on May 2, we opened our classroom doors to educators from across the state and focused specifically on Learning Targets, Checks for Understanding, using exemplar text, and success criteria.

The feedback we received was overwhelmingly positive! We are confident that we are on the right track with our professional growth and are ready to plan for where we will go next.

Looking and learning forward

As we end our year at RQESLearns, plans are already underway for our third annual RQ EdCamp with a focus on student-led parent/teacher conferences. We are excited to continue encouraging a growth mindset in our teachers and our students! We can’t wait to have our students fully invested in their own learning.

Remarkable things can happen when teachers implement strong teaching techniques and students are held to high expectations and are taught how to THINK about their own learning! Rock Quarry Elementary School is proud of how far we’ve come, but we know there is much more learning ahead!

“The Powerful Conversations Network has helped our school have a common vision and focus. Our conversations and professional learning are all targeted around our problem of practice which in turn leads to more explicit teaching and deeper levels of student learning.” — Karrie Curry, Instructional Partner, Rock Quarry Elementary

Laura Jockisch is completing a decade as Rock Quarry Elementary’s principal. During her education career she’s taught kindergarten, been a reading specialist and regional coach, and served as Reading Coordinator for Tuscaloosa City Schools.