Cultivating Democracy in High Schools Across Illinois

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As you may have read in the Press Release section of the Eagle Rock website, our Professional Development Center is deeply engaged in supporting education renewal work in Illinois. Specially, we’re working in collaboration with the Robert R. McCormick Foundation to further the organization’s Democracy Schools program in select high schools across the Prairie state.

The Democracy Schools program is based on the premise that a healthy democracy requires the informed and active participation of all its citizens. Together, Eagle Rock and the McCormick Foundation are supporting a growing network of Illinois high schools committed to educating and empowering students to nurture and sustain democracy. Through high-quality civic learning experiences, students develop the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that facilitate informed participation in democratic institutions and communities.

Democracy Schools Belvidere

Research has shown that these experiences also promote civic equality, build 21st century competencies, improve school climate, and reduce high school drop-out rates.

Instructional Rounds: The Mechanism for Improvement

Digging a little deeper, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation has engaged our Professional Development Center to provide a key mechanism for improvement in the participating schools — instructional rounds. Instructional rounds are a disciplined way for educators to work together to improve systems and practices. They combine three common elements of improvement:

  • Observations
  • Improvement approaches
  • A network of educators

Many educators currently use one or more of these elements, often with some success, but combining them optimizes their collective impact.

One of the objectives of instructional rounds is to dislodge familiar habits and behaviors that may be counterproductive to achieving a program’s own objectives and replace them with more productive elements of improvement. Specifically, instructional rounds seek to replace supervision and evaluation (two highly ingrained practices in teaching today) with observation and learning.

Unlike supervision and evaluation, which are critique processes, instructional rounds are inquiry processes. The “observers” performing the rounds should expect to learn something themselves. In supervision and evaluation, only the person being observed is expected to learn. With instructional rounds, the observer is also expected to learn. Rounds are NOT about “fixing” individual teachers or administrators. Rounds are about understanding what’s happening in schools, how the system produces those effects, and how all participants in the system can move closer to the desired learning outcomes.

Instructional rounds are fundamentally descriptive and analytical, not evaluative. On April 19of this last year, the Professional Development Center at Eagle Rock launched its partnership with the Robert R. McCormick Foundation’s Democracy Schools by facilitating its first instructional rounds at Belleville Township High School in Belleville, IL. And in the context of our work supporting education renewal in Illinois, observers looked for evidence of student engagement and student voice. (Note: At no point in the rounds does the observer declare observed habits or behaviors as “good” or “bad” or something the observer “likes” or “doesn’t like.” Observers don’t tell the observed what to do to improve. However, observers do think about the “next level of work” or what the school could do to make progress toward solving their own problem of practice).

Instructional Rounds 2: Belvidere High School

On November 15 of last year, observers from the McCormick Foundation, William Fremd High SchoolHuntley High School, and Belvidere North High School conducted instructional rounds at Belvidere High School in Belvidere, IL.

Democracy Schools Eagle Rock

The topic of focus of the rounds was voiceand engagement, and the targeted problem of practice was that not all students at the northeastern Illinois high school were fully engaged and using their voice to own their learning experiences. Observers were engaged to help identify existing approaches used in this learning community to support student voice and ownership of student learning. The objective of the instructional rounds was to identify instructional and classroom management approaches that would improve student voice and engagement.

Themes at Belvidere High School

During the instructional rounds, observers identified several practices that promoted student voice and engagement, including the following:

  • High trust from teacher equals increase in student voice.
  • Student-to-student trust and students commending each other also lends to trust and voice.
  • Student voice looks like student choice where they can demonstrate understanding in various ways.
  • Classrooms are self-paced or student-paced but have clear mastery goals.
  • The school’s physical space affirms student capabilities and shows trust and confidence in students.
  • Structure, process, and front loading facilitate student voice.
  • Voice and engagement go hand in hand.
  • Students know what will happen in classroom — consistency matters.
  • Students are not being told what the answers are; they are being asked questions to get to that point.
  • High expectations set by teachers lead to high expectations from students.
  • Motivation from teachers helps.
  • Strong student-teacher relationships translate to better student voice and engagement.
  • A facilitative approach is more conducive to student voice and engagement than a direct approach.

Solutions at Belvidere High School

Following the observations, brainstorming among participants built on themes identified in order to find ways the system could move closer to achieving the desired learning outcomes (with respect to student voice and engagement), including the following:

  • Expand opportunities for teachers to observe each other working on student voice strategies.
  • Provide professional development from staff on student voice and engagement to build on existing expertise.
  • Allocate days for touching base with each student in class, both on grades and how they are doing in general.
  • Increase focus on social-emotional learning (SEL), which is often more important than content. Acknowledge stressors that may exist and validate student emotions. Teachers acknowledge they are there to support students. A feeling tree could be used as a strategy.
  • Provide an instructional coach in every building who has release time to help teachers with big projects that the teacher has insufficient time to complete.
  • Request student feedback more often.
  • Facilitate discussion among students and teachers at the start of the year on how students can use their voice and incorporate the resulting solutions as part of classroom norms.
  • Incentivize strong student/teacher relationships; build on the “Respect Jar” practice.
  • Develop a call to action with students to elicit their ideas.
  • Host more informal gatherings for students and teachers to help build relationships.
  • Optimize classroom space to encourage student collaboration.
  • Determine how students measure their own understanding of objectives.
  • Build involvement to engage what is visually in the room.
  • Use teacher vulnerability as a way to engage with students.
  • Establish rotations for students to lead the day with relevant academic, personal, or community focused presentations that lead to smaller group discussions as a means of frontloading.
  • Recognize students for doing something that is not traditionally recognized.
  • Encourage students to recognize other students in a process.
  • Consider ways to use Canvas as a tool to have students reflect on student voice/ownership and/or build student and teacher relationships.
  • Conduct student/teacher cooperative activities; for example, a teacher does a weekend update, and a student shares what he or she did over the weekend, a highlight of the weekend, news events of the weekend, and what he or she is looking forward to in the coming week.
  • Instructional coaches host lunch-and-learns and provide lunches for teachers, during which teachers can share best practices with each other.
  • Establish a principal advisory committee as a means for students to get to know the purpose of the school and where it is heading.
  • Make students aware of where they have ownership.
  • Build opportunity for teachers to share their passions in other ways. One school had an intercession class where teachers taught mini-courses based on their interests.
  • Provide incentives for teachers who do student voice very well.
  • Enable competency-based education; let students demonstrate competency with some degree of autonomy — not always the same product.

Upcoming Instructional Rounds

These first two instructional rounds are only the beginning. Instructional rounds will continue at another Illinois Democracy School in the spring of 2019 with our Professional Development Center staff on hand to facilitate the process.

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Editor’s Notes:

Curious to know more about the Democracy Schools Program? Visit:

Interested in learning about the work of the Robert R. McCormick Foundation? Visit:

Want to know about the offerings from the Eagle Rock Professional Development Center? Visit:

For more information on Instructional Rounds, start with The Art & Science of Teaching / Making the Most of Instructional Roundsand then read Instructional Rounds in Education.

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