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Building a culture of learning at Henderson Hopkins

Elmer A. Henderson, A Johns Hopkins Partnership School, made big ELA gains last year. How did they do it?

If you walk through the halls of Baltimore’s Henderson Hopkins K-8 School, one of the first things you’ll notice is a sense of purpose. Officially, school starts at 9:00—but by 8:55, every student is seated and ready to learn, and every teacher is ready to teach.

“Starting the day off on time, intentionally, is part of creating a culture of learning," says Principal Peter Kannam. “This is the culture that gives our kids the opportunity to succeed.”

In August 2018, Peter worked with his ANet coach, Emily Pytell, to plan for the school year (his first at Henderson Hopkins). He wanted the best possible instruction in every classroom. And he knew great instruction wasn’t just teachers’ responsibility: he needed to support them by becoming an effective instructional leader and by cultivating a culture that fostered learning for students and staff.

“I knew it would take work, and there would be bumps along the way.” Peter recalls. “But I was ready to work, and so were our teachers—and we had ANet’s guidance to lean on.”

Today, Peter is joining the ELA team in a planning session on complex texts. Clustered around a table in a sixth-grade classroom with student goals and expectations covering the walls, eight teachers take a closer look at upcoming texts.

“We’re starting The Canterbury Tales right now,” one teacher says. “It’s challenging, that’s for sure.”

The other teachers laugh, and Emily prompts, “What makes this text complex?”

“The language,” another teacher suggests.

“The whole world is very different,” Peter adds. “It feels unfamiliar.”

Emily agrees. “And what are some ways we can prepare our kids to tackle those challenges?”

The teachers propose strategies: nonfiction articles about the time period, shorter pieces that introduce similar language, modern texts that share the same themes.

“You’re not dumbing it down or giving kids the answers,” Emily reinforces. “By leveraging the way the curriculum is designed, you’re helping them build background knowledge and skills with additional material that’s also on grade-level. You’re letting them encounter the complexities piece by piece and then put it together.”

Stepping back from the group, Peter says that a year ago, sessions like this didn’t happen. 

“Now we’re focusing on rigorous instruction in a targeted way,” he explains. “We’ve set our teachers up to support each other; we have Emily here every step of the way coaching us. She taught us systems and routines to help teachers collaborate more, plan from texts, and look closely at data to see how they could reteach and re-engage. And she’s helped me dig in to how to support instruction as a leader. We’ve set up better systems for feedback and for doing the work together.”

The session wraps up, and the teachers head out to their classrooms, energized and still brainstorming together. “This collaborative culture of learning we’re building—it’s been powerful to watch and be part of it,” Peter observes.

Trying new things; helping each other out. It’s the same thing we do in our own coaching sessions.
— Principal Peter Kannam

He recalls an impactful moment last year with an ELA teacher. “Her kids had taken a formative assessment. She told them, ‘You did okay—but I know you can do even better.’ She printed out their answers and had them work back through their responses in groups. Trying new things; helping each other out. It’s the same thing we do in our own coaching sessions.”

A year in, Henderson Hopkins is seeing results. Their percentage of middle-school students meeting or exceeding grade-level expectations on the ELA PARCC/MCAP has doubled. Attendance is up and chronic absenteeism is down.

“We’re not all the way there, but it’s significant the jumps we’ve made,” says Peter. “We’re still learning—the kids, the teachers, the leadership team. But that’s the point: we’re learning. Trying again and always striving to improve is part of our DNA now.”


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