The third-grader was standing beside a table in the noisy art classroom, ready to explain the tangible evidence of her learning. In one hand was a mummy, a doll-sized figure wrapped thoroughly in white plastered fabric. On the table was a sarcophagus rendered from a shoebox. The young learner explained that she had been dedicating her recent “Genius Hour” time to learning more about the history of mummification. Her mummy was a repurposed Barbie doll, but the hieroglyphics on the shoebox, we were told, had historic validity. She glowed as she informed her visitors about the process and her learning.
I was one of those visitors. I was accompanying a school team as their school coach while they conducted a two-day site visit to a district they had identified as being aspirational to their own system’s evolution. The team of four—two administrators and two teachers—visited classrooms in three schools. They conversed with students, met teachers before and after school, and studied artifacts for two solid days. Each evening, as they shared snacks and drinks, they made sense of their findings and explored the implications for their own system back home.
Beyond your own parking lot
The benefits of conducting a school site visit are powerful. Our discourse and our designs are too frequently limited by the boundaries of our hyper-local geography. We talk to our immediate colleagues. The school team I accompanied had the wisdom to realize that their own innovative thinking was limited. If we could think of every American school system as an innovation lab (some more effective than others), school site visits allow us to scout the collective brainstrust and receive new inspiration and technical how-tos. Consider the costs of not looking beyond our own parking lots: for students, who may not experience the benefits of effective practices observed elsewhere and applied back home; for classroom teachers, who might lose the opportunity to be inspired to try new things in class; and for school leaders, who might not discover a powerful and supportive school structure.
A two-way street
As our visiting team stepped into classrooms, huddled with principals and teacher leaders in conference rooms, absorbed the hum in media centers, and took numerous pictures of school artifacts, we also learned that our hosts were fellow learners. The lists of classroom “look-fors” they gave us were our opportunity to help them ground truth their own journey. They asked us to identify places where those “look-fors” were in evidence and times when they appeared absent. They wanted our feedback to be critical and constructive, not superficial or cordial. The questions we posed to them created meta moments when they could reflect on their “why.”
The things visitors notice are of keen interest to the host school, and sometimes can be surprising. School site visits often provide an “everyone wins” experience. It was clear to us, for example, that student engagement (student joy, actually!) was high during Genius Hour and Exploratory time. But because we probed more, we learned that the school had evolved from teacher-selected topics to student-driven topics. In other words, the school asked students what they wanted to learn and then allocated adults across the building to make that possible. Our questions helped the school identify and celebrate this truly notable commitment and also created the space for host teachers to name some of the kinks that still needed to be addressed.
Making the most of your visits
Site visits can be successful and fruitful with a bit of thoughtful prior planning. Because they are relatively infrequent for any given district, and because they come with the costs of lost instructional time and travel expenses, your plans should begin in advance. For the sake of brevity, here are a few suggestions based on a variety of site-visit experiences I’ve had over the last 15+ years of school coaching. You may also want to download the Great School Partnership’s Learning in Action – A Guide to Conducting High-Impact School Visits.
- Go near, or go far. School site visits may be as close to you as your own district. A high school team can glean many insights by visiting one of their sending middle schools. Many school systems build intra-district visits into their annual routines. Alternatively, school site visits may be across your state or elsewhere in the country.
Example from my experience: Our visiting team was preparing for a rare event: the merging of two elementary and one middle school into one brand new pK – 8 building. They work in a remote corner of a rural state. Their daily network consisted of districts that looked and acted much like themselves. They knew they had to travel beyond their region.
- Define, then share your purpose. A host school is better equipped to plan your itinerary and select artifacts to see and teachers to meet when the host school knows what you hope to learn.
Example from my experience: Because our visiting team was planning ahead for a newly-constructed K – 8 building that would combine grades and faculties, they wanted to see innovative, student-centered pedagogy, flexible student grouping, multiple pathways, and a well-functioning middle level advisory. Conveying these needs ahead of time was crucial to the design of our two days.
- Notice everything. What is entering the school like? Who is the first person to shake your hand and welcome you? How are the reception area and principal’s office arranged? What do you hear? Whose voices? What tones and moods?
Example from my experience: We were greeted by children and they held doors open for us. The school receptionists stepped away from their desks to welcome us, thank us for visiting, and shake our hands. The principals’ conference rooms were furnished for comfort, not like board rooms. The classrooms were humming with student voice and purposeful energy. For some in our visiting party, these acts of culture were as powerful and important as seeing children thriving in the Genius Hour and seeing teachers connecting with children in advisory periods.
- Suspend judgment; enter with inquiry. It is common to encounter things outside of our own experiences during school site visits. This can shut us down from further learning if it leads to reactions such as “these kids aren’t like our kids,” or “it must be nice to work in such a shiny building,” or “well, if I had only 16 children in my classroom…” Remember that a site visit is designed to challenge our thinking, to find transferable models, or even to learn a valuable lesson from an imperfect example. Site visits move our practice as well as our thinking. Sometimes site visits serve to provide more clarity about what we already do well.
Example from my experience: Our visiting team entered a district where schools must market themselves to compete for attendance from nearby schools, abutting districts, and charters. While this was completely irrelevant to their local context, our team gained powerful insights about the importance of communicating to and partnering with the parent community.
Our visiting experience was rich, informative, and memorable. The team took stock of their observations, highlighting the most share-worthy takeaways and considering implications for their colleagues back home. The girl with the mummified Barbie made an impression that went far beyond her humorous-yet-earnest project. We saw her example replicated across the school and were deeply impacted by the host school’s commitment to student-centered learning. We headed for home thinking hard about how to bend, re-imagine, innovate, and inspire in this new school under construction. And that would not have happened without leaving the safety of our own parking lot.