After working in Oklahoma City Public Schools for two years, we interviewed teachers, administrators and community members about their work with The Learner First. This is part one of our interview with Molly Jaynes, an elementary school teacher. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Can you tell me a little bit about the most inspiring, or memorable moments of working as a teacher with The Learner First process?

Yeah, and I feel like I have a lot of more kind of like big picture things than like specific. Last year was our first year and then it’s been a continuation this year. I teach third grade. My five focal students, I was focusing on math with them. So, these were students that were coming into third grade not having a basic sense of, you know, place value, and how to add and subtract numbers, basic addition and subtraction facts.

So, what I started doing with them was… Well originally, I was sticking with the traditional method of working with them in small groups after I had done a lesson, pulling them to the back table, and going over instruction with them again. They really enjoyed that small group time, and most of them thrived during that time.

Small groups were working better for teaching them than the whole group instruction. So, I created some take home bags that I just gave them some little cards, activities, and games that they could play at home. Things that they could do at home with their families to reiterate a lot of the skills we were working on. I mean, I guess you could call it homework but it was less of a “homeworky” type thing than more of just like some extra practice.

When they would bring the bags back, I would check in with them, go over the activities they had done, and ask them questions about what they have done at home. I kind of made time before the class math lesson for that. Then, I got the idea to start doing my small groups with them first, before I taught the math lesson. Just because that time kind of just worked out well, and maybe if I can “pre-load” them with information that they need then they will feel more successful throughout the math lesson.

What I noticed was that most of these students also struggled with reading. So, overall, confidence with their ability to do independent work in school was pretty low. They didn’t have a lot of confidence, but none of them had learning disabilities it was just that they hadn’t been taught in a way that made sense to them. Anyways, I started doing these small groups before the math lesson. What I noticed was that it yielded much stronger results as far as them actually grasping and understanding the concept.

So, I would kind of pre-teach vocabulary. I would tell them what we are going to learn today. I would give them a little example. Then I would say, “When we pull the whole class together and do our math lesson, these are the things you are going to see, these are the things we are going to learn.” Then it got to the point where I would ask them to—if any of them felt comfortable enough—I would ask them to help people at their table who might be struggling or who didn’t understand. Anyways, this is kind of a big picture thing, but, I mean, they definitely gained a lot of math skills doing it that way. But, I felt like… I walked away feeling happy with the fact that they were more confident in themselves, and I think that that is half the battle with struggling learners. It’s that, A, they need someone to teach it to them in a way that makes sense, and B, they just need to feel good about themselves and gain that confidence.

What I would notice is that we would sit in a small group and we would preview what I was going to teach the whole class, and as I was teaching the whole class they were the ones who were raising their hands and wanting to answer, felt confident enough to speak in front of the whole class, and answer questions and participate in the discussion.

That was my big take-away from last year that I use now this year. I use that skill in both reading and math. I don’t do it all the time or every time. But, I do notice students who are struggling with confidence. I will do my small groups with those students before the lesson versus, “Ok everybody work independently, and you four come sit with me. We are going to go over it again.” I think it make them feel like, “Oh, we are the ones who don’t get it.”

You know, if I do the small group after the lesson they are like, “Oh, we are the ones that need help.” What I also noticed is that those students became really reliant—when I did my small groups after the lesson, those students became really reliant on me helping them. It was like, “Ms. Jaynes are we going to go to the back table with you?” Even if I wasn’t calling them back. They kind of got conditioned to not go back to their desks and work independently. They were waiting for me to walk them through it.

Where as, when I would do my small groups ahead of time they were able to, most of the time they were able to grasp the lesson much more clearly and so then they could go back to their desks and work independently, or just come up to me if they had a question about something or needed a little bit of help. They didn’t need that whole 15-20 minutes after the lesson to come sit down and actually have me help them through it, and they actually were able to help each other. A lot of my focal students kind of teamed up and would work together. I heard a lot of them thinking out loud and explaining. It was great to see that they actually got it, because these are students who I just felt like consistently didn’t get it. That’s kind of the big thing that resonates in my mind when I think about what is The Learner First helping me do as a teacher, and how is it working for the students.

You mentioned that after you started doing the small groups before your lesson, some of the focal students started asking each other for help. Would you say that these students naturally had gravitated towards each other before this change in the structure?

Two of them had, but the rest of them would not be a group. Overall, the five of them would not be a group that would come together on their own. In fact, one of the focus girls I had was extremely ADHD. She is actually one of the students that I am constantly correcting, asking her to go back to her seat, control her voice, or just constantly reiterating classroom behaviors. So she was kind of… Well, I wouldn’t say she was getting into trouble but I would say that she was not on task a lot and she was new to our building. So, she didn’t have as many connections with students in class, but I noticed that when she gained confidence. With a couple of the other students in the focal group, and then also with some other students at her table, when they realized she could help them through their problems or she could guide them, give them advice, or teach them. I saw her make several friends that I don’t think otherwise she probably would have. Because she would have just been sitting at her desk not knowing what to do, wanting to play and socialize instead of be driven by the work. Yeah, I would say that socially it had a big impact as well.