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Rigorous instruction sparks change at Gwynns Falls Elementary

When Principal Nikomar Mosley walks into a classroom at Gwynns Falls Elementary, he knows exactly what he should see.

What is rigor in math?

“I’m looking for aspects of rigor in instruction,” he says. “How are teachers putting our curriculum in place? How are they connecting each lesson to the standards? Are the tasks aligned to those standards, and are the standards connecting from grade to grade?”

Each week, he’s seeing more of what he’s looking for. “Teachers are planning and implementing rigorous lessons,” he says. “They’re navigating resources and working together to approach skills in new ways.”

As an educator, it’s comfortable to hold the reins, and we can get fearful about what will happen if we let go and try new things.

A year ago, instruction looked very different at this Baltimore City public school. “We had a lot of procedural instruction,” he recalls. “A lot of command and drill. We didn’t let students guide discussion. As an educator, it’s comfortable to hold the reins, and we can get fearful about what will happen if we let go and try new things. But over the past year, we’ve been stepping out of our comfort zone.”

Standards set the foundation for strong instruction

How did Gwynns Falls make a major culture shift in just a year? Principal Mosley says relationships have been key—among teachers of every grade level, between the leadership team and teachers, and between him and his ANet coach, Anita Walls.

“Our connection with Anita was natural from the beginning,” he says. “She’s been a teacher and a principal at a school with similar demographics serving a similar community. She understood our present situation and saw how we could grow. She was invested. We could be real with each other.”

With Anita’s support, Principal Mosley and his team began building a deep knowledge of the standards and a strong understanding of rigorous instruction. They began using data more intentionally and applying the Teaching and Learning Cycle to their planning, instruction, and reflection. The leadership team took an active role in professional learning, and teachers observed each other in the classroom and on learning walks.

“We implemented action plans after our data meetings, and we reserved time at the end of the cycle for reflection,” Anita explains. “Teachers and leaders named what they did differently in their instruction and planning, and identified how it had resulted in improved student outcomes after the reteach.”

Above all, they never lost sight of the core value guiding their work. “We stayed grounded in the standards at every step,” says Principal Mosely.

Using data to learn and grow

Each quarter, Anita and the Gwynns Falls team studied trends in ANet interim data , which helped them narrow their focus and identify standards that needed reteaching. They also made a point of celebrating successes along the way.

“After the first quarter, we were making changes, but it was still tough,” Principal Mosley recalls. “By the second quarter, things were feeling more comfortable. But by the third and fourth quarter, it was working. Teachers were saying, ‘All right, we’re getting it!’ The results were dead-on. To see it translate from quarter to quarter—it’s exciting to look at the data and see that we’re growing.”

Principal Mosley has led the way by becoming a true instructional leader for his team.

Anita shares Principal Mosley’s excitement. “The teachers are working together and seeing connections. They’re thinking about data and standards every step of the way. Principal Mosley has led the way by becoming a true instructional leader for his team.”

Principal Mosley agrees. “I know how to look for this standard, this aspect of rigor, and I know how to help if it’s not in place,” he explains. “Before, I could go into a classroom and see broadly great things—good teachers doing good work with kids, but the standards might not have been connecting. Now I know what to look for—and I’m seeing it every day.”

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