Great Expectations


High expectations is one of KIPP’s five pillars; it’s also a buzzword that fifty different people would define fifty different ways. Jon Saphier names three key expectations messages skillful teachers send out to kids constantly,: 1) This is important; 2) You can do it with hard work; 3) I will not give up on you. The fourth message, 4) We will help each other, was added to KIPP Framework for Excellent Teaching to reflect our belief at KIPP in team and family. Kids need to believe that individual success and collective success are not only possible but work together to form a virtuous loop. The key messages are better sent through actions than words, so exactly how does an excellent KIPP teacher send these messages to students?

 This is important (Keys 1-3)

 1)      Framing

It’s hard to believe “this is important” when you can’t articulate why the day’s aim matters anywhere outside the scope and sequence.  Framing the lesson in the first ten minutes of a class ensures kids know what they are learning, how they will know they are successful, and why they are learning it.  Super skilled teachers often get students to read, respond, and react to these .  However it’s a marvelous start for a newer teacher to simply plan and state these three pieces with methodical consistency.  Here’s a great video example from Jesse Coburn, formerly of KIPP King framing his AP World History lesson on Hiroshima.

Teachers sometimes neglect framing because they think it will dampen student curiosity.  Framing is not the hook or motivation; it’s making the map of the class apparent to students.  Second, as Daniel Willingham and the Heaths point out, curiosity is created by small gaps between what we know and what we want to know.  Rampant confusion does not foster curiosity.

Framing the lesson can extend to framing the unit and framing the course. Alison Drake of KIPP Believe used to begin her eighth grade Math class with a unit called “Algebra is a Civil Right”.  The two week unit created a reference point for Alison and her kids throughout the year when the math got hard and the connection to day to day life felt tenuous.

2)                  Long-Term and Unit Planning

Build the neural net and Seriously please do it! are planning behaviors that send the this is important message powerfully.  Melissa Savage (KIPP Academy Lynn 5th Grade Science) asks kids to summarize the lesson and the unit by making connections to prior units.  In a recent summary sheet she has kids compare/contrast the lunar and water cycles building the net between units that might appear very different.  Meticulous long term planners (Seriously please do it!)  are also better able to send the this important message by referring to future lessons that will require mastery of today’s aim. You will need to learn this because next month when we start fractions you will have to multiply fluently.  While this in and of itself isn’t uber-motivational to the average fifth grade student it does lend credibility to the teacher.  Part of why I (as a student) believe this lesson/course/education is important is because I believe this person knows where we are going*.  Both of these behaviors should also be reflected in physical design of the room (word walls, trackers) and the cumulative review (daily).

3)       Right is Right

Right is right is one of the most effective ways to send the message that this is important.   What you say and how you say it matters enough that I (the teacher) warmly demand that your answer rise to those standards.

You can do it with hard work. (Keys 4-8)

4. Modeling matters. 

KIPP teachers model hard work beautifully.  However I didn’t always model the hard work of thinking, which sends the second key message: You can do it with hard work.  Model think alouds to show struggle and fixing mistakes before finding the right answer.  Videotaping yourself doing these can often make them more engaging for kids.  This resource from the Skillful Teacher illustrates components of an effective think aloud.

5. Know your kids.   When kids question whether or not they can do something, it helps to name the times and ways they have grown.  You grew ten points the last time you stayed after for study group sends the you can do it with hard work message well.  Also, know the kids well enough to know where they have worked hard and experienced success outside the classroom. Whether it’s choir, Pop Warner, or Call of Duty there is something that the student is interested in that taps into this belief in the power of hard work.  Katherine Cushman’s Fires in the Mind has some lovely examples of this.

6. Feedback. I can do it with hard work seems like a platitude when I have a red 45% at the top of my test. If the 45% is replaced by or at least includes standards I have mastered and ones I need to work on then I know the way forward.  Feedback can send the hard work message more powerfully than any other move, and   makes a massive failure into a series of actionable steps. Feedback is a spotlight that illuminates a piece of student work or behavior, and a flashlight that shows the way forward.

Spotlight           flashlight



Your thesis was great Your thesis was clear, arguable, and relevant.
You aren’t listening well. You aren’t tracking the speaker.
Where’s your effort? Your nose isn’t touching the ground when you do push-ups.

7. Independent Practice as sacred time.  Mitch Brenner of KIPP Academy Bronx  argues one of the best ways to teach character is to help kids “feel it”.  If kids are working every day on their own for 15-30% of the class time, they feel the effect of hard work.  Not to sound all Communist, but the hum of labor is beautiful and empowering.  One of the most common barriers to independent practice happening is a do now or opening routine that sucks up time like an out of control vacuum.  The other common pitfalls during independent practice are teachers interrupting too often to make whole class adjustments and, taking questions throughout rather than chunking.

I will not give up on you (Keys 8-10)

8.  Close the circuit is one of the simplest and most powerful ways to send the message that I will not give up on you.  When a student answers a question incorrectly we need to find a way to circle back to them and have them demonstrate improved understanding. KIPP Excellence in Teaching Award winner Sally Winchester has a great video on KIPP Share demonstrating this.

9) Feedback is steroids for the expectations messages.  However feedback works only if students have Multiple Opportunities to Demonstrate Mastery.  This means that independent practice ideally is chunked so students receive feedback and then apply it.  You see this as a result of skillful reading conferences, math lessons where the teacher flashes the answers on the board, kids grade themselves, and kids attack another problem set, or PE where the teacher freezes a dodgeball game asks students to make the call as if they were the referee and then they apply the new strategy/understanding to the rest of the game.

10) The Follow-Up Conversation is crucial to sending this message when it comes to discipline.  When a student makes a mistake or a poor choice we have to be comfortable with hard conversations and tough consequences and we have to relentlessly follow-up to re-establish a positive relationship.  It’s hard to see the connection between time management, organization, and relationship building but the first two often allow the third to happen consistently.

We will help each other (Keys 11 -14)

11) Many excellent KIPP teachers send this message by creating a mix of class-wide, individual, and school goals and making sure goals big and small matter to kids (KFET 2.2D).  At KIPP Academy Boston individuals who have mastered the most standards on Accelerated Math are recognized on a giant poster in the hallway and the advisory with the most standards mastered competes for a movie night.

12) Honesty and openness about student achievement data goes a long way to sending the message that we can help each other.  Tracking charts on the wall and individual growth goals help kids see where they share struggles and strengths with teammates.  Some very thoughtful people object to public display of student data.  It needs to be planned carefully and reinforced regularly but done well public achievement data embeds the expectations message in the walls of the room.

13) You don’t need an intervention time to intervene sends the we will help each other message.  Instead of remediation and acceleration happening in small groups hidden during tutoring blocks or lunch times, the remediation and acceleration happens in the room, often through the simple act of pulling four students to the front of the room for a review session during independent practice.  This creates an opportunity to further invest the class in independent practice.  If you stay focused and independent then I can help some teammates who struggled with fractions yesterday.  In class intervention also fosters more flexible groupings.  The students see that everybody needs small group attention at different points throughout the year.

14) Structured partner and group work is essential to sending this message.   There are lots of resources for this but the simplest question to ask is: does the structure of the partner or group talk ensure that each person talks and each person listens?  Eveleen Hsu does a simple assignment of roles Winnie (kid near the window) and Wally (partner on the wall) and then asks two questions, one where the window partner talks and one where the wall partner talks.  Shauna Mulligan recently assigned this partner talk: One of you is John Steinbeck.  One is Malcolm Gladwell.  Describe how they feel about Oscar Wao.

Besides demanding loads of evidence based thinking connecting prior reading to a new text, this structure demands attentive speaking and listening.

Common Pitfalls when Sending the Key Messages

  • All of these expectations messages are better sent with actions than words.  One of the least effective ways to send the this is important message is by saying how important everything is all the time.  This is important also doesn’t get relayed by saying it louder.  Your reasons why it’s important have to be paired with reasons why the kids find it important.
  • You will need this in college is a close second in the race for least effective.
  • We will help each other is not tutor the kids who struggle and forget about your own need to be challenged.

P.S.  I wrote this as part of a monthly “How Do I…” essay KIPP sends out to instructional coaches.  I am reposting with only a few edits.


4 Responses to “Great Expectations”

  1. John Saphier's Key Messages - Mission 100% Says:

    […] favorite blog posts on this comes from Caleb Dolan of KIPP Massachusetts in his post titled ‘Great Expectations‘. He says ‘The key messages are better sent through actions than words, so exactly how […]

  2. Patsy Says:

    That’s a sensible answer to a chngelnliag question

  3. Paulina Says:

    Haha, shouldn’t you be charging for that kind of kneg?edwol!

  4. Says:

    I’m now a convert, sadly, albeit only to the computer. I’m sure once you’ve had an iPhone etcetera you never look back, either. Although… I have to say, the cult of Jobs does cover a lot of, umm, problems. My Mac cable tends to break approximately every 16 months…

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