All Teachers Should Have "Kid Talk"

When Jeff Gilbert, principal of Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, California, initially told my group of Stanford Graduate Students that part of our observation visit would include watching "Kid Talk," I had no idea what he was talking about. Was it some kind of student conferences? Was it Jeff discussing students with his teachers? As soon as I walked into a classroom, with two circles of five teachers each huddled together with their laptops opened, I started to figure out exactly what "Kid Talk" is, and why it's so important to Hillsdale educators.

"Kid Talk" is when a small group of teachers in different subject areas, who all teach the same cohort of students, talk about their students, share resources, and discuss ideas for instructional improvement. Their laptops have a comprehensive Google Sheet with a roster of all their students; they use this to take notes and keep track of what's going on with each student. The conversations are free-flowing but centered on the students.

We observed an example of what "Kid Talk" can sound like as the teachers discussed a student who was particularly struggling with spelling. “His spelling, on a good day, is elementary. He spelled ‘corresponding’ with k-o-r-i,” one teacher says.

"I wonder if he knows how to study," another responds. "Maybe we could help him make flashcards, or show him how Quizlet works."

Another teacher chimes in with some advice. "He does best when he sits right in front of me in the front of the room without distractions," the third teacher says.

The conversations continue from there, with different students, different details, different struggles -- but the same five teachers trying to figure out how to best educate their kids. One girl is being medicated for depression and anxiety, another boy is giggling at inappropriate times in class. One student understands the work and does well on tests, but barely shows up to class and refuses to do the homework. The teachers debate how to give credit and how to assign a grade to a student like that -- who they know is fighting hard battles of her own. Most teachers have to make important judgement calls like that in isolation, by themselves at their desk in the back of the room, after all the kids have gone home. "Kid Talk" means that at Hillsdale, these decisions are not made in isolation -- and that they're made with critical context about each kid.

"Kid Talk" is also a time for celebration. One student, for the first time, made some progress in class by actually reading when he was supposed to be, instead of messing around like he usually would. Granted, it was only three pages in forty minutes. The teachers know this is not his best possible effort. He's faking it -- but at least he's faking it the right way. At least the book was facing the right direction. At least he's not being disruptive. We can build on this, the teachers say.

At another point, as "Kid Talk" is winding down, the name (changed here) of a particular student comes up. Almost immediately, I see a painful reaction from one of the educators. “Oh, Timmy,” an older science teacher says with a sigh, sliding back in his chair and leaning his head against the wall, his anguish both audible and visible. I don’t know the story of this kid, and I have no idea what kind of relationship that this teacher has with this student. But what I do know is that this student has had a big impact this man. The teachers spend a few minutes trying to figure out what they can do for Timmy this week, and then "Kid Talk" is over and the work of educating each of these young people begins.

There is a lot of buzz about "personalized learning" in the education world. A handful of billionaires are investing big money in it because they see it as a way to improve the individual education of each student. I am drawn to this idea -- we know that every kid learns differently, and that every kid learns at a different pace and has different interests and skills and strengths and weaknesses, and it makes sense to me that every kid should have a unique education. There is some debate about what "personalized learning" actually means; no doubt that a high quality personalized learning program would be difficult to implement. Critics claim that all it means is sticking a kid in front of a computer screen as they click through a program.

That shouldn't be what personalized learning looks like. Personalized learning should look like "Kid Talk" at Hillsdale High School. Teachers know their kids not just academically, but personally -- and they should be given the time and tools to support each other and cater their curriculum and instruction to each kid.