Jessica Gentner, Fifth Grade Teacher at Lindbergh Elementary School in Kenmore, New York

Parent-teacher conferences were different for our family this year, thanks to our school district’s recent decision to move toward standards-based grading and report cards at the elementary level and this very talented teacher’s thoughtful use of formative assessment processes. Jessica Gentner is our daughter Nina’s fifth grade teacher. Quite a few parents are more than impressed by the fact that she knows her stuff. I’m impressed because this doesn’t seem to stop her from learning more.

See that binder in front of her? It houses her curricula. The research that her curricula is guided by is included at the front of this binder, and as I flipped through the pages, I noticed:

  • That she took pictures of the posters that emerged from the critical thinking lessons she facilitated throughout the year
  • Behind each poster, she annotated learning targets, assessment moments, promising instructional strategies, resources, and other tools that she is testing (“This is all a work in progress,” she assured me).
  • The binder, her “grade” book (which includes a lot of data but very few numbers), the report card, and the formative assessment findings she shared with me were tightly aligned and enabled her to begin an evidence-based conversation with Nina and me about her strengths and the goals that she might consider setting as a learner.

Nina didn’t need as much help with this as I thought she might, though. It’s very clear to me that Mrs. Gentner has worked hard to help her students conceptualize what quality work, critical thinking, and reflection entail. Nina not only shared these understandings with me, she applied a bit of what she learned during our conference, when her teacher asked to demonstrate her ability to analyze and then synthesize text.

Maybe I should apologize for this, but I will admit that I was surprised that she really knew what these words meant. When she went about the business of analyzing and synthesizing in front of me? Well, it’s without shame that I admit I nearly wept with gratitude. And so it is Jessica Gentner who captures the first spotlight on what I hope will be a regular feature here at my little blog: WNY Educator Wednesdays. For years now, I’ve been able to work and learn from such incredible local teachers. I figure it’s time I share some of them with all of you, and my blog allows me to do that.

As Mrs. Gentner and Nina chatted more about all of the learning and work that has been going on in their classroom this year I found my attention drifting toward the walls of the classroom, which provided me an even greater education. Over the years, I’ve been in many classrooms that feature posters aligned to the comprehension strategies, the writing process, or literary forms. The posters are nothing new. The level of instruction that is happening in Mrs. Gentner’s room is very different though, and her walls are a testimony to this. Again, I know that most teachers are fans of the flip-chart. But take a close peek at the construct of this:

This poster is one of many that line the walls of Mrs. Gentner’s classroom. They emerge from conversations and lessons with kids, like most tend to. But these posters are a bit different than those I tend to see because they empower young learners to critically analyze and share their thoughts independently.

Mrs. Gentner’s approach here reminds me of Jim Burke’s work relevant to sentence structures quite a bit (see page 16 of this handout). Rather than merely defining critical thinking skills for learners and expecting that they will employ them, both of these teachers arm students with starters and prompts that get them thinking and talking in meaningful ways. It makes sense that when kids know what synthesis sounds like, they are better able to synthesize. Beyond providing kids solid models, hand-outs, and notes for their binders though, Mrs. Gentner has transformed the walls of her classroom into a living resource. When she challenges her students to analyze, evaluate, synthesize, or connect to text, they can refer to these documents for help, if needed. They also serve as critical supports for student-led book clubs, small group text studies, and independent problem-solving. I’m imagining that these visuals allow for greater distributed practice over time, ensuring that kids actually need to rely on them less and less.

Over the years, I’ve led and observed many a think-aloud and mini-lesson. One of the greater challenges that I face in my own work is flipping the process into one that engages kids more than teachers and ensures that they are the ones who are doing the thinking and creating and sharing and learning. Mrs. Gentner’s approach accomplishes this, and my kid is providing me evidence that it works.

I’m so grateful that she came to Lindbergh this year, and I know that Nina is too.

If you’re interested in connecting to her, please let me know.



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