Dallas ISD is proud to be home to outstanding neighborhood schools like Tatum Elementary. Discover more about our neighborhood campuses at the Discover Neighborhood Schools events on April 9 and April 23. Learn more here.
The students sit together, eyes glued to their teacher, watching and listening closely as she explains today’s objective: They are learning the sounds of letters. Their eyes follow her movements as the demonstrates how they will succeed. They listen intently, then repeat after her. Now, she has them turn to a partner and explain, with charade-like movement, what they will learn and how. They move and speak in unison.
In this kindergarten class at Tatum Elementary School, the teacher is engaging her students through movement and peer-to-peer collaboration to help them understand their learning task and master it. They use this clarity of learning as a springboard to ask each other questions as they collaborate. This is formative assessment at work – monitoring student learning to provide ongoing feedback.
Tatum Elementary is Dallas ISD’s model school for this method of teaching, also known as Assessment for Learning, said Kierstan Barbee, manager of the district’s AFL program. “When people want to see an example of formative assessment practices, or Assessment for Learning, we take them to Tatum to see it in action. It is a process used by teachers and students to recognize and respond to student learning in order to enhance the learning during learning.”
The instruction model is being used in kindergarten through fifth grade at Tatum, one of 16 district campuses—elementary, middle and high schools —that are AFL campuses, Barbee said.
Tatum, a neighborhood school in the heart of Pleasant Grove, is 50% African American and 50% Hispanic, with 98% of its 430 students classified as economically disadvantaged. The school is a one-way bilingual school, meaning that Spanish speakers are in dual language classes.
Principal Enrique Rodriguez says he has seen positive changes in the school’s classrooms since implementing AFL in the 2020-2021 school year: “Some of the changes boil down to student agency,” he said. “What that means is students knowing what they’re learning for the day, knowing the concepts they need to master to achieve a level of rigor in the day’s learning. Student voice is very much a factor – students discussing with each other, seeking feedback, giving feedback to their peers and to their teachers, collaborating with each other, really being agents of their own learning. That’s ultimately what we want.
“We want the teacher as a facilitator, not just having students sit and take instruction, which has been the model for many years. When you walk into our classrooms, you will hear students working on their own learning with the guidance of the teacher. That’s definitely been a change for us that has promoted student agency.”
Through this way of learning, the students are more engaged and motivated, the principal said. “They know what to do when they don’t know what to do—they reach out to either their peers or their teachers. They have a learning objective and certain criteria that helps them with their learning. They’re excited.”
Principal Rodriguez was selected by his executive director, Danielle Petters, to lead this initiative and the work began with a group of high-performing teachers who experienced success that spread to the rest of the school.
“These teachers started trying the practices in their classrooms and they began to see the benefit of it. Once that took off, we spread it to the rest of the school and teachers really saw the value, the changes in the way the classrooms look and sound. We started seeing the success our students were having and the voice they were given in their instruction. It really boils down to equipping the teachers with the tools to be successful and having them see the benefit of it and the success in their students.”
Barbee credits campus leadership for making the practice succeed at Tatum. “Principal Rodriguez, his assistant principal Norman McNeal, and their two coaches have a really strong understanding of instruction and are able to communicate it to the teachers,” she says. “Because of the teachers’ willingness to take risks and try new practices and the leadership’s willingness to engage and learn alongside teachers, when you go to Tatum, teaching and learning looks different. That is essentially why they are the model right now.”
She notes that Tatum was able to make progress even at the height of the pandemic. “When distance learning was hard, when we were in simultaneous learning, they were still able to run with it and pilot it with their third- to fifth-grade teachers. They started showcasing their data and showing videos to the executive leadership team in the spring of 2021. This school year, they’ve continued to grow and excel.”
Tatum has consulted with Corwin, a professional development book publisher, and John Hattie, a Melbourne, Australia professor noted for his work on Visible Learning, which is the world’s largest educational database into what actually works in education. “So Tatum is in a continuous improvement cycle that hones their processes so that their students receive the best education,” Barbee said.
Tatum is hoping to become a certified Visible Learning+ school, said Principal Rodriguez. “There are three levels to the certification process. This year, we’re hoping to attain the first level and, in the coming years, the other two. And we hope to continue to be the model for other schools that would like to undergo this process as well.”
Only a handful of schools around the world have received the distinction of certification. “Tatum would be the first urban school in Texas to receive this award,” said Barbee. “They would then be utilized as a model for other campuses and schools around the nation.”
But for Tatum’s students, what matters most is succeeding in their learning. Perhaps Atara, a second grader, illustrates it best in a diagram she drew to show the plot elements in a story. When the principal asks how she knows she’s going to be successful today, she says: “Because I can identify the plot structure and I can identify the main elements, and I can identify the resolution.” When asked to explain the word resolution, she defines it as, “the end of the story, when they figure out how to solve the problem.”