EDMONDS — In south Snohomish County at one of the largest local school districts, Tanya King’s sixth grade students choose their own assignments. It’s a 90-minute period she calls “controlled chaos.”
Thirty-six miles north in a school district a fifth of the size of King’s, the teacher keeps things more orderly. Zachary Pfrimmer starts each lesson with a detailed preview of what his fourth graders can expect to do.
Outwardly, their teaching styles differ as much as their school districts. But King and Pfrimmer both emphasize time management, conflict resolution and setting goals. Both share quiz data with students so the kids can see where they can improve.
As a result, they say some of their students make two to three grade levels of gains in one year.
Their work earned King and Pfrimmer national recognition as “extraordinary educators” who are “evangelists for high standards and student achievement.” They are two of 35 teachers — and the only in Washington state — inducted to the 2022 Curriculum Associates Extraordinary Educators program. Curriculum Associates is a longtime instructional materials company that sells the program i-Ready.
As extraordinary educators, King and Pfrimmer will share their teaching strategies with peers across the country. They’ll also learn from other educators, receive gifts throughout the school year and get special training opportunities.
Sari Laberis, associate director of the Extraordinary Educators program, said the recognition is a chance to “knock down the walls” of the classroom, so the community can see what’s happening in schools. It’s a chance to celebrate and replicate the “best practices” playing out in local schools, she said.
“These people are working so hard and raising our next generation, and they oftentimes aren’t thanked for everything they do,” Laberis said. “This is a way to show what’s happening on the ground.”
‘Both sides of their brains’
Grades take a back seat to growth in King’s classroom at Beverly Elementary School in Edmonds.
Mrs. KB, as the kids know her, cares less about her students receiving straight A’s and more about progress.
“My data is really good,” she said.
King shakes up the learning environment. Her classroom doesn’t have enough desks for every student, intentionally. Instead, students sit wherever there is space, whether that’s at one of the dozen desks available, or in a fuzz-lined saucer chair. There’s even a spot at an elliptical machine, where students can exercise as they work.
King doesn’t keep a traditional schedule or assign homework. She usually replaces lectures with game play or activities. When she taught the kids about the continents this month, they spent the lesson singing a parody of “I’ve Got the Whole World in my Hands” while they tossed around blow-up globes.
“I’m explaining to them how I need both sides of their brains to be working at the same time together. And we’re laughing and we’re having a blast and we’re making this fabulous memory,” King said. “And then I said, ‘Your homework is to go home and sing this song to your family. Make sure they’re quite irritated with you by the evening.’”
Every day, the students get an hour or two for “adventure time,” when they independently work on projects. They get the “freedom of choice” to manage their own workflow to meet deadlines and finish assignments, King said.
Sometimes, the students choose to goof off and talk to a friend the whole period. They quickly learn every decision has consequences.
On an afternoon in September, King told her students they could get 10 minutes of extra recess once the classroom was cleaned. Some students tidied up their desks, while others sat joking with their classmates. The class ended before everything was put away, and the extra recess went unrealized.
King told the students even she was bummed. But they’d get another chance the next day, and hopefully they’d know what to do then, she told them.
Jordyn Regis, a sixth grader, said sometimes school feels like walking on a tightrope. If you make a mistake or get a bad grade, you’ll fall off and be hurt forever. In Mrs. KB’s class, it feels like there’s a net to catch you and keep you safe, she said.
“She’s crazy, but she’s really fun,” Jordyn said.
Every year, King’s class organizes fundraisers to pay for field trips, celebrations or snacks. Usually, the students advertise the product or event with commercials they script, film and edit themselves.
“Showing them that they can do these things that adults usually do, it’s super powerful,” King said. “It makes them feel limitless.”
She also helps the kids to track their own progress with i-Ready. The program is one of the Curriculum Associates “diagnostic” tools. It allows teachers to regularly test students and watch how their learning improves.
King’s students said they had never seen what the teacher sees on i-Ready. They would get their scores and move on. King is intentional about sitting down with the students and explaining what the scores mean.
She shows them how the data indicates that “holy smokes, you hopped, skipped, jumped” a whole grade level. It demonstrates how their work in class is not random, and the students realize they are in control of their own learning, she said.
Soon, they start doing work without her asking.
“The learning leaves the classroom, and it becomes part of who they are,” King said. “
‘All bright and cheerful’
Pfrimmer runs a more traditional classroom for his fourth grade students at Cedarhome Elementary School in Stanwood. Desks are grouped in pods of four to five seats. A schedule and daily “learning targets” are clearly written out on the dry erase whiteboard.
But the regimen isn’t so strict as to force kids to sit down, face forward and do their work.
Pfrimmer tries to add a chance to move during lessons. He plans for “brain breaks,” where the students get up from their desks to dance around. During a math lesson in September, he asked the class to compare 467,864 with 470,000 using their arms. Almost 20 children stretched out their arms in the shape of the less than symbol.
“I’m a very physical teacher,” Pfrimmer said. “My energy is what, like, helps drive me forward and helps drive the kids forward.”
Pfrimmer also lets students take a walk outside the classroom if they feel overwhelmed, stressed or sad. And he has set up the “calm corner,” a desk at the back of the classroom where students can go to unwind.
The corner is plastered with brightly colored posters with simple tips to destress. One of the images is a rainbow that students trace with their finger to slow down their breathing, explained Avery Sluys, one of Pfrimmer’s students.
“You can go there if you’re feeling down or out of control,” Sluys said.
When it comes time to teach a lesson on reading, writing or math, Pfrimmer weaves in lessons about setting goals and making responsible decisions.
During a recent literature activity, he picked five students to lead groups of their peers in reading a story and making story maps that recapped the plot. He let students choose which group leader to work with and how big their groups would be.
“If you pick a group with your friend, ask yourself if you’re going to be successful there,” Pfrimmer told the students.
After 30 minutes, the class reconvened, and Pfrimmer led the students in reflecting about the activity. Instead of focusing on what they read — he could review their worksheets later to judge the academic side of the lesson — they talked about their experience working in groups.
One student noted that her group had to rush in the last five minutes to finish their story maps.
“Ah, time management,” Pfrimmer said. “I struggle with that, too.”
He suggested estimating how many minutes each part of an activity would take and scheduling in some extra time, just in case.
Pfrimmer said he emphasizes learning “soft skills” like time management and teamwork because students today can do a quick Google search to find the definition of a word or calculate the answer to a math problem. Instead of simply teaching the answers, he wants to show how they can find the answers for themselves.
“You have to show kids how to be successful on their own,” Pfrimmer said.
After they take tests, Pfrimmer meets with each student to talk about what their scores mean. Together, they set learning goals based on the data.
“The kids also talk to their families during conferences and explain it all to them, which is really cool to see,” Pfrimmer said. “I find that for almost all kids, this results in them taking more ownership of their data, working harder to meet growth goals and keeps them more invested in their work day to day because they know that it matters.”
This year, Pfrimmer moved to Stanwood from Liberty Elementary School in Marysville. Although his new district doesn’t have i-Ready, he uses the same teaching strategies as before.
By the end of the school year, Pfrimmer expects his students to know the routine. And he wants them to have enough independence to run learning activities themselves, even when there’s a substitute in the classroom.
“I’m not there to micromanage every single kid,” Pfrimmer said. “I’m there to help them learn and take learning into their own hands.”
In technical terms, Pfrimmer’s approach emphasizes “social-emotional learning.” His students label it as “fun” and “happy.”
“It’s all bright and cheerful,” said Emma Husby.
The fourth grader said Pfrimmer’s classroom makes it easier to learn, especially on days when she feels down, she said.
“He just loves his students. He’s caring. He respects us,” Emma said. “He just makes us feel happier and more grateful.”
“He’s one of my favorites.”
Mallory Gruben is a Report for America corps member who writes about education for The Daily Herald.