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TNTP Re-imagine Teaching

Ashley Walton

2nd-3rd Grade Math, Center City Public Charter Schools Brightwood Campus Washington, DC

In the cities and villages of Ethiopia, elementary school teacher Ashley Walton learned where some of her second graders are coming from—and how to help them find success in their new country.

It was the summer of 2015 when Ms. Walton went to Ethiopia to better understand the experiences of many of the English Language Learners in her classroom. In recent years, the northwest D.C. neighborhood where she teaches has transformed from the primarily African-American neighborhood she remembers from her youth to a more diverse neighborhood of immigrants and English Language Learners, including many from Ethiopia.

“Going on home visits at the beginning of the year, I try to make connections that will help us connect school to their home lives,” she says “I realized that if I wanted to understand my students from Ethiopia, I should go there. It makes all the difference when you can talk to the family and say you’ve been to the places where they were born and raised.”

Ms. Walton strives to make the kind of personal connection with all her students and their families, whether it’s by inviting them to bring their favorite comfort foods to a celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month or Black History Month, or by setting up an arcade style experience for Family Math Night. Deepening those relationships over time allows her to lift students to new heights at school.

As a result, 85 percent of her students met their fall-to-spring growth targets—individualized goals based on academic and social differentiation. “Ms. Walton’s students are a part of a family when they walk into her room each day,” says her principal Rachel Tommelleo. “From the nicknames she uses to the special roles she gives them in class, they know they are loved and capable of meeting the highest expectations that she has set for them.”

Walk into the classroom and you’ll find students hard at work on math problems, or fulfilling the responsibilities of the classroom jobs that give them a sense of pride and accountability. A Homework Checker verifies that assignments are turned in on time. An Agenda Checker makes sure that all students have informed their parents about their homework assignments. A Chromebook Captain keeps the classroom computer in shape. A Pencil Sharpener makes sure the second graders have sharp pencils—and a second Pencil Sharpener makes sure they’re ready again for the third graders after lunch.

The culture of self-reliance isn’t just about making the kids feel good—it’s about helping them access difficult and challenging math concepts. If they have a question, they’ll get a simple answer: “Use your resources.”

“Nine times out of ten, they’ll figure it out at their tables,” Ms. Walton says. Resources abound in her classroom, whether it’s the computer, their peer groups, or the anchor charts laminated and archived for easy access, the students know best how to find the answers they need.

“Students genuinely support each other by allowing each other to take risks, sending each other shine when they need help, and cheering each other on when they succeed,” says Principal Tommelleo. “These things happen not only when Ms. Walton is leading a lesson, but even when they are outside on the playground at recess. She is building in them something they can take with them for the rest of their lives.”

When the fourth graders recently took their big exam, it was Ms. Walton’s second graders who wrote them letters of encouragement—words they have heard from their teacher and taken to heart: “Don’t be nervous. You can do it. Focus.”