BY COURTNEY BROWN
Educators are our superheroes, not because they can swoop in and solve all the big problems, but because they create spaces for students to explore and discuss real issues and pose real solutions. When we offer students the opportunity to engage deeply in meaningful, relevant problems, we can build student confidence and offer them agency over potentially frightening issues.
When our society seems rife with complex problems, it’s the perfect time to introduce problem-based projects. But before we look at an example of a problem-based project, let’s look to the roots of project-based learning to deepen our understanding of its principles. Problem-based learning can be linked to R. C. Snyder’s “Hope Theory” which promotes agency and hope — crucial concepts, especially for our students during a time of societal upheaval. The positive psychology behind “Hope Theory” is: “simply put, hopeful thought reflects the belief that one can find pathways to desired goals and become motivated to use those pathways.”
Of course, this speaks to one of the goals of problem-based learning for students, which is to develop, practice, and apply key skills to real-world issues.
When we get more ambitious, these problem-based projects may even expand across disciplines and become interdisciplinary projects! Elementary school teachers often do a great job of working across subjects in their own classrooms, but for middle and high school, where subjects are generally taught discreetly by separate expert teachers, implementing projects across disciplines may seem more daunting.
It can sound complicated, but as our classrooms increasingly shift to online learning spaces, classroom walls and clearly delineated class periods are no longer barriers, offering us opportunities to work more easily with our colleagues across classrooms and disciplines.
Implementing a schoolwide interdisciplinary project
As an instructional coach and teacher, I understand just how complicated planning for blended learning can be; however, I have been inspired by how educators have used the blended and remote learning spaces as an opportunity to innovate, develop, and implement projects.
As we moved into remote learning during the early phases of the COVID-19 crisis, I was working as an instructional coach with the Academy for Computer Engineering and Innovation 2 (AECI2) as it started up its first/founding year as a high school in the Bronx. While the energetic, innovative teachers and principal always gave their all to the students, nobody envisioned that by the end of the school year, we would actually collaborate remotely to create and implement the Living History Project — a remote, school-wide interdisciplinary project that culminated in a call to action letter writing campaign and a community-wide presentation.
As the initial months of online learning continued and COVID-19 began to seriously impact our community, we realized that our students needed productive ways to synthesize and make sense of what it meant to be living history.
Recently, I met with two of AECI2’s lead teachers, who initiated and coordinated this interdisciplinary project — Chris Mastrocola, an AECI2 English teacher and the school’s technology expert, and Joyce Brandon, the 9th grade math teacher. They offered some valuable insights and tips into successfully developing and implementing interdisciplinary projects, which can be a helpful starting point for developing your own project. Please note that these steps do not need to be followed in order. Different starting points work better for different contexts and communities.
Collaboration & communication are key
To coordinate all pieces of an interdisciplinary project, Chris suggests establishing regular planning meetings, and making sure that one teacher from each discipline joins an interdisciplinary planning team to meet and work on the project. As our project progressed, weekly meetings focused on different topics relevant to each stage of the project. Regular meetings are not only important when first starting a project, but help keep it moving at each stage of the process.
Based on our experiences, here are Chris’s suggestions:
Choosing a problem-based topic
How do we choose topics for projects? Do teachers or students drive that decision? Or, do project topics naturally reveal themselves?
I’ve found that the most productive projects are those that arise as authentically as possible, driven by a current, complex societal problem. We generally know a topic is worth investigating when our students show an interest in it and are posing genuine questions about the issue.
At AECI2, the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic and the necessity for coherent local and federal governmental responses were the problems that naturally drove and inspired our project. Students were concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on their own lives and the lives of others. Living in quarantine and practicing social distancing, they were raising questions with teachers about the impact of the disease, how to manage it societally, and also how to cure it. This pointed us to a natural focus for our project.
Joyce reminds us that when choosing a topic to explore, we need to be aware of how the students may experience it. For example, at the time when the students started the Living History Project about the COVID-19 pandemic, they were living in a community with the highest numbers of cases and deaths from the disease in the United States. Joyce points out that when we are living among the numbers, we need to be sensitive to the trauma or hopelessness that students may be feeling.
Moreover, when our students are members of a community that is disproportionately impacted by an issue, or has historically been marginalized, we want to make sure that the chosen topic or project isn't accentuating students’ sense of hopelessness or powerlessness. Rather, through research and knowledge-building and a call to action approach, we believe in the power of project-based learning as a way to offer students a sense of agency and empowerment.
Defining essential questions
Collectively, we developed essential questions about the problem of COVID-19 to drive our project. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, the authors of Understanding by Design explain that essential questions are “not answerable with finality in a brief sentence.” Their aim is to stimulate thought, to provoke inquiry, and spark more questions. They are “broad, full of transfer possibilities” and “cause genuine and relevant inquiry into the big ideas and core content.”
Essential questions can help the teacher maintain a focus on the goals of the unit or project, and also stimulate inquiry, discovery, and meaningful connections for students.
Here are the Living History Project’s problem and essential questions that we developed:
Project assignment prompt:
Student responses to each of these recommendations were informed by their explorations in social studies, math and science classes, and written in their ELA classes.
Defining project goals
A major goal of this project was for students to synthesize and apply their research and learning from math, science, and social studies into a coherent set of recommendations about how to address the COVID-19 crisis.
We also wanted students to feel empowered and have some agency over an overwhelming situation that was affecting their own community and lives.
As you work to establish your own project goals, consider which key standards will be assessed by the project. In this case, we knew that literacy across science, social studies, English, and even math all incorporate argument writing and skills. Each subject teacher identified the key standards addressed in the project.
Backwards planning to teach key skills
Chris and Joyce both attest to the importance of breaking the final assessment product into parts in order to create a plan and teach all necessary skills.
Joyce quickly realized that in her Algebra classes, students needed to really be taught to read and analyze data in charts and graphs, and at the same time, they were learning these skills with a heightened sense of importance as they applied their findings to their recommendations for addressing the COVID crisis.
Joyce also cautions that percentages are hard to understand — students, and many adults, can't really conceptualize such large numbers, such as the number of people testing positive for COVID, so she began to use comparisons and analogies that were more accessible to students.
The English teachers at AECI2 recognized that students could use some instruction on letter writing, as well as time to revise and edit their letters. So, we decided that the students would organize, revise, and edit their final letters in their English lessons as a final phase of the project.
In social studies, Brett Pastore reviewed a range of documents and images with students, highlighting epidemics throughout the ages, including the Black Plague and the 1918 influenza epidemic. From analysis of these documents, students made connections to the COVID-19 pandemic and drew conclusions about how to address the current situation.
And in her Living Environment class, Samantha Cunningham developed a series of lessons for students to learn to analyze data about the health impacts of COVID-19.
Finally, the project was handed to the school’s technology teacher who designed lessons to support students in the final phase of the project, as they formatted and uploaded their projects to Padlet.
Backwards planning for each subject
This project expanded across the disciplines as, together, teachers identified how students would complete components of the project in their classes as they worked toward their final product — the call to action letter. Teachers identified the key skills and steps for their subject areas, and developed a sequence of lessons through backwards planning from the final product.
To incorporate the students’ investigations and learnings about the pandemic from across disciplines, we decided to ask each student to contribute a paragraph with specific recommendations, using data and evidence from each of their subjects — Algebra, Living Environment, and Global History. They would then craft and revise their letters in their English classes, applying all the components of argument writing that they had studied.
Students also made connections between subjects — for example, in math, students referenced what they know about pandemics throughout history to make sense of questions such as do these numbers make sense?, and how are these data related to the data from earlier epidemics?
Outline a final assessment product
Our final product was a call to action letter, addressed to a politician and offering three recommendations on how to address the COVID-19 crisis. The final presentation was presented on Padlet. All students published their final project with the following components:
Plan for presentation/publication of the product
For this project, we relied on platforms that AECI2 teachers were already using — Google Docs for teachers’ planning, and Google Classroom for interacting with students. Building on familiar systems that are already in use is helpful for any project, especially one with this level of interdisciplinary collaboration.
To present their work to teachers and peers, students first created a presentation using Google Slides, with a slide for each of the following components:
Students also included artwork and excerpts from their journal entries about the pandemic, and uploaded their final presentations to Padlet, where it could be shared with the school community for feedback and comments. At AECI2, we decided to use Padlet as our publication platform, since each student could easily add their own post to a school-wide wall, and other students could easily comment on it.
With more time, we could have expanded this opportunity and supported students in filming their presentations using Screencast-o-matic or something similar, which would allow for more connection between members of the community.
Benefits of problem-based projects
Here are some of the benefits of problem-based projects that we encountered with our partners at AECI2:
Problems in society can drive authentic projects, providing students with relevant topics that can build their confidence, allowing them to feel they have more agency over potentially frightening issues, and offering them an opportunity to pose solutions to real issues that are impacting their communities.
Our experiences with planning and implementing AECI2’s Living History Project not only showed us the benefits of problem-based learning, but how exciting it is to work across disciplines. We were able to increase interdisciplinary collaboration and work free from traditional educational barriers, such as time and space, as all teaching and learning was happening remotely.
In our new educational spheres, the constraints of in-person teaching no longer exist in the same way, providing a gateway for exciting and engaging work with our students. The opportunities are endless.
BY COURTNEY BROWN
What is equity? How do we define and use it in education?
Whenever there is a buzzword at play in education circles, we like to unpack, define, and interpret how the term applies to educators and schools.
Let’s start with the difference between equity and equality.
A simple, working understanding of equity involves “trying to understand and offer people what they need to enjoy full, healthy lives." In education, equity means truly striving to achieve the best possible outcome for each individual student.
Equality, in contrast, aims to ensure that everyone is offered the same things in order to enjoy full, healthy lives. As educators, the notion of offering all people the same things immediately contradicts our understandings of differentiation. We know that not all students have the same needs. Furthermore, students from underserved backgrounds, generally low-income or students of color, may benefit from a variety of resources to succeed academically.
All students benefit from equitable practices. I’d like to suggest that we not only offer students additional opportunities or resources to “catch up” or to “level the playing field”, but instead create a new playing field in education. We can start with our own assessment policies and systems in our classrooms, departments, schools, and districts.
Creating equitable education and assessment practices doesn’t end with offering students what they need or deserve to succeed. Equitable policies and practices aim to empower students to recognize and develop their own talents and skills; to become agents of change for their futures. Equity means achieving lasting results for all people, regardless of their socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds.
Examining our assessment practices
Equity work in any context may require seeing differently, thinking differently, and even working differently. Therefore, it may be helpful to start by asking ourselves some probing questions about our own assessment practices and beliefs. Consider discussing these questions at your next faculty meeting to norm understandings around assessments, or answering them individually, as a way to understand your own beliefs.
Creating equitable assessments
To work toward equity in education and in assessment, let’s examine our assumptions about educational achievement and assessment.
Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Anti-Racist, explains how traditional testing policies perpetuate racist (and inequitable) ideas and policies in education. He explains that “achievement in this country is based on test scores, and since white and Asian students get higher test scores on average than their black and Latinx peers, they are considered to be achieving on a higher level.”
We may not have the power to single-handedly change high-stakes testing policies that use assessment scores to measure educational achievement, but we do have influence over our curricular decisions and how we assess and grade our students. We can create more equitable curricula and assessment practices and policies to create more equitable education. To do this, we must:
Assess what we teach & teach what we assess
There are some basic rules of thumb that we can use to create a more equitable foundation for assessing students. As a starting point, we can simply ensure that we assess what we teach and teach what we assess.
Backwards design, from Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design model, offers a framing to ensure that we first plan our assessments — including all the key teaching points and skills needed for them — as a guide to our instruction. Next, we “backwards plan” our units and lessons to ensure that we are meeting each of our teaching goals as we work our way toward the end of unit assessment.
In addition to planning for end of unit assessments, we can also plan our formative assessments, which will help us understand students’ mastery of each discrete skill throughout our lessons. This will also create space to reteach concepts as needed, as well as ensure that we are offering students a range of possible opportunities to learn throughout a unit.
When formative assessments reveal or confirm for us which students are struggling or need to revisit a concept or skill, we can differentiate how we reteach or review. If the teaching didn’t stick as we’d hoped the first time around, why would we teach it again in the same way?
These practices can help us take initial steps toward ensuring our students are offered fair assessment opportunities, and we can build equity from there.
Traditional assumptions about assessment may lead us to believe that asking students to complete different assessment tasks to demonstrate mastery may not feel fair — but it may actually be more equitable. I admit that early in my teaching career, the concept of differentiated assessments took me a while to grasp and to actually believe in.
Many of us use differentiation expert Carol Ann Tomlinson’s helpful framework to guide our daily planning and instruction. We plan differentiated processes using a variety of scaffolds, tools, extensions, student groupings, pacing and modalities. We differentiate content in the form of offering or using a variety of “levels” of texts, math problems, and complexity of tasks. We strive to create a supportive and differentiated learning environment to meet a variety of students’ needs. But, when it comes to differentiating products or assessments, it is a little more complicated.
Here are a few simple ways to differentiate assessment products to create equity:
Make assessments rigorous, not rote
Research shows that, especially in marginalized or lower income neighborhoods, lessons for students often focus on rote skills and procedures. Often, this means that students are not expected to achieve, nor learn more rigorous skills and content, when compared with their peers in higher income communities. As we know, rote and procedural learning tends to be boring, and when learning is boring, we often disengage or act out. This may become a serious equity issue in marginalized communities, especially for students of color, where, when students opt out of learning or act out, they may face harsh (or criminalized) punishment. Either way, students lose.
Instead of focusing assessments on acquisition or mastery of rote skills or procedures, we can aim to emphasize reasoning and problem-solving skills. Research consistently proves that opportunities for supported, productive struggle can motivate students to stick with a task and to stay engaged as they learn. We all do better when we can engage in productive challenges.
Make assessments relevant
Culturally relevant curriculum and instruction create more equitable education for all students. Zaretta Hammond, in her wonderful book Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain, defines culturally responsive teaching as “encompassing the social-emotional, relational, and cognitive aspects of teaching culturally and linguistically diverse students.” She believes that when we teach with these concepts as our guiding lights, we create more equitable education.
Similarly, we can create more equitable assessment practices if we offer students experiences that are adapted for their cultural and linguistic diversity and are cognitively appropriate and engaging.
Here are a few simple ways to make assessments more culturally relevant or responsive:
Develop and maintain a growth mindset
We often think about how important it is for students to develop a growth mindset, yet, as educators, we need to take a hard look at our own biases and assumptions that things may be “too hard” for students. As Carol Dweck points out in the The Power of Yet, with scaffolding and high engagement tasks, we may find that students surprise us and we can reframe our thinking to become, “they don't get it yet.” Many factors contribute to a student’s mindset and development of a learner’s stance, especially a teacher's language and perspective.
Here are a few simple ways to support a growth mindset for assessment practices:
Cultivating strengths and talents
As educators, our job is to cultivate students’ strengths, as well as help them develop in areas of struggle. All students benefit when teachers recognize and cultivate their passions, talents, and skills. Students also benefit when teachers recognize that a class or subject is an area where they need some extra support and that simply making progress is an achievement, even if their skills have not met or exceeded standards.
When students are not achieving in a particular subject area, it may be time to think differently about how we assess them. It is possibly a waste of talent and potential if we expect students to spend academic time and energy striving to achieve in an area that continues to be a struggle for them. Instead, we can think more holistically about each student, in an effort to balance supporting improvement in areas of challenge with sponsoring soaring success in areas of strength. We can continue to cultivate and encourage a student’s passions and talents, even when assessing them.
Measuring and recognizing ongoing progress and effort are important components of assessing a student’s learning.
Many of us were educated within systems that housed traditional or standardized assessment and grading systems. As educators, we have all consciously or unconsciously based a grading policy or assessment practices on the modeling we learned as students. It can take a leap of faith to imagine new and innovative assessment practices — but we must rethink our notions of fairness and begin to think about developing practices that are equitable for the students in our care.
BY COURTNEY BROWN
For educators, creating a positive classroom climate is key to a productive school year. Even halfway through the year, we can push restart and reboot our classroom culture. However, whether we’re starting or restarting the year with blended or remote learning, the notion of building culture may feel tricky, or at least different from what we’ve experienced in our brick and mortar classrooms. And when the school year is interrupted and unpredictable, it gets even trickier.
During this period of teaching with a pandemic pedagogy, we have an abundance of challenges to face. But we also have opportunities to reflect on our practice and bring our instruction into the 21st century. We can work alongside the current generation of students — who are digital natives — to not only support them in developing academic and social-emotional skills, but also bridge technological gaps in our community and meet the future head-on. No matter how our instruction is reaching students, we need to find ways to build and maintain connections — between us and our students, and between the students themselves.
We’d like to encourage schools, teachers, and administrators to take the current challenges in our educational and civic reality as an opportunity to re-envision how we cultivate a conscious classroom culture and address our students’ social-emotional needs using 21st century digital tools, while deepening relationship-building and connectivity. Inspired by rich discussions with a range of educators from around the country on our Teaching Today podcast, we can outline some culture-building strategies that will help us build a foundation for our classrooms.
Teaching the tools
Ensuring that all students have digital access is the number one priority and starting point for equity in learning. Matt Mazzaroppi, Principal of the Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies in the Bronx, NY, reminds us that before a blended or online classroom culture can be developed, we need to ensure that getting technology into the hands of families and students is a priority in our community. In an effort to do this, Dr. Tangela Williams, Superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools District in North Carolina, began extensive efforts within her community to bring devices to students’ homes, as well as enhance local Wi-Fi offerings.
But what happens when we have access to technology, but don’t yet know how to use it? Dr. Jenan McNealy, a guidance counselor in Atlanta, attested that one of the most important factors for online school culture in a blended or remote situation has been training school communities — including all teachers and families — how to use and maximize digital platforms and educational technology. According to McNealy, increased training for online systems has made a significant difference in her school district. Now, she says, teachers, parents, and families can navigate the systems well. In turn, they are better able to support students.
As we shape the digital landscape within our school communities, we need to strategically use the digital tools available to us without overwhelming our students and their families with too many platforms.
Community & communication
Schools and districts agree that implementing strong school-wide communication is a good starting point for fostering classroom community during a turbulent time. Establishing school-wide communication tools and approaches is crucial to maintaining interactions with families and students throughout the day, as well as the entire school year.
Just as we remain flexible about our teaching environment, we need to be flexible about using multiple forms of communication within our community. For some, texting works best, for others phone calls are more helpful, while some find emails easier to manage. Identifying communication preferences can help alleviate concerns about how to reach families, and when.
Prompt communication to address lateness, absences, or missing work becomes a strong lever for maintaining community and student engagement, especially when most interactions are happening online. Students need to be acknowledged as crucial members of their classroom and community. Schools in which a teacher or guidance counselor promptly calls families and students when they don't show up for an online class have reported that it goes a long way in promoting student engagement. When students are acknowledged as critical members of their classroom and community, it can bring them back into the fold.
"Students read the teacher's energy and if the energy is real, they can relax.
If they relax, you can nurture the relationship.
Once there is a relationship, students can learn."
— Matthew Mazzaroppi, Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies
Consistent connection & compassion
If remote teaching and learning have taught us anything, it’s that we need to find ways to stay connected with students, and we need to help students connect with each other. In order to create an online culture that offers a positive learning environment for students, we’ll need to establish (and then be prepared to re-establish) norms and routines. How do we do that online?
In this unpredictable educational landscape, it is crucial to create consistent programming and predictable online routines. Matt Mazzaroppi underscores that creating consistency is a clear priority: “After clear communication comes consistency. Consistency makes everybody feel safe and if they feel safe, they're open to a new culture, new relationships, and ultimately open to learning.”
Dr. Roberta Lenger Kang explains that norms are “the things we should do versus rules, which are typically the things that we should not do.” It's the difference between the dos and the don'ts. If we believe in creating and setting a tone in any educational space, then being able to elevate expectations is important. Both online and in person, we need to create norms that offer clear expectations for student engagement, as opposed to rules with punishing consequences.
G. Faith Little offers a vision of the classroom as being “more like a garden where we plant seeds and allow our students to grow to be the flowers that they were meant to be.” She believes that, as educators, we need to listen to students and their families in order to create norms that cultivate and nurture our students. Interestingly, norms that use a garden metaphor are also aligned with high-level evaluation on the Danielson Framework.
Acknowledging each student
We can't underestimate the power of greeting our students every time they enter our classrooms. We may feel that this a missing link in our online classrooms, but is it really missing?
Many educators are finding unique ways to acknowledge students as they enter the virtual classroom everyday. Carolyn Lucey, a 10th Grade English teacher at New York City’s Charter High School for Computer Engineering and Innovation, with whom I work, greets each student as they enter her virtual classroom, explicitly takes attendance, and then throws a quick warm-up question into the chat, such as What was your favorite part of the weekend? or What word do you relate to today, and why? To model and connect, Carolyn generally offers her own responses as well. Dr. Laura Rigolosi takes attendance by asking each student in the “room” a relevant question such as, What was the best thing you did over the weekend? for a Monday class, or, related to the work at hand: What part of your project are you working on?
Connecting with our students each day as they enter our virtual classroom is a key ingredient in engagement and relationship-building. The positive impact of a simple daily acknowledgement of each students’ presence and participation helps create a sense of belonging, and helps them feel recognized as a part of their community.
Acclimating to online participation
Getting students acclimated to participating in an online classroom is crucial. Clear instructions for them to use the unmute audio feature versus the chat feature for specific purposes can help to build consistent participation. As an example, consider asking students to use the chat or survey feature for closed or yes/no responses, and respond verbally to higher order follow-up questions. Students can also be encouraged to use the chat feature to share written or “stop and jot” responses, as opposed to unmuting to add spontaneously to discussion questions, which can be difficult to manage virtually.
When questions are asked in a virtual classroom, most of us have noticed the long pauses before participants respond. Some students may not have strong WiFi connections, or may be in noisy spaces that make participation challenging. Asking students to use a “rotating chair” approach, in which they call on one another, helps develop student-to-student interactions, and can also help keep discussions moving.
Breakout rooms for small group projects also offer students a chance to increase participation, and create an opportunity for regular interaction between classmates. Developing strategic, consistent breakout groups can help add to a sense of accountability and engagement, and working together in small groups creates a sense of community.
Each class — whether synchronous or asynchronous, in-person or online — is a precious space for connection and community-building. Setting clear expectations, offering students opportunities to connect, and modeling clear communication is not wasted time. Classroom culture is everywhere. Every move we make creates classroom culture — how we speak to students, how we interact with them, even how we think about them — and each moment is an opportunity to make each member of our classroom feel seen and heard. As Matt Mazzaroppi shares, “students can read the teacher's energy, and if the energy is real, they can relax. If they relax, you can nurture the relationship. Once there is a relationship, students can learn.”
By COURTNEY BROWN & SHERRISH HOLLOMAN
The term “coach” often evokes memories of professional sports — like Phil Jackson and the Chicago Bulls in the NBA, or Don Shula and the Miami Dolphins in the NFL. Both coaches are credited with winning championships and encouraging athletes such as Michael Jordan and Dan Marino to become Hall of Fame inductees. But coaching is not limited to sports — and in schools, instructional coaches act as liaisons between research and practice, helping teachers learn to improve their practices in a reflective, supportive setting. Although instructional coaches may not enjoy the same salaries or notoriety as athletic coaches, they have become a policy lever for districts to improve instructional practice.
When establishing a coaching relationship or a professional learning community within a school, there are some essential questions to address: How does coaching work in educational spaces? What is the difference between coaching adults and teaching children? What are some of the practices that coaches use to support educators? How does coaching remain flexible and effective, regardless of whether the educators you’re working with are new to the classroom, or have spent years working as teachers, counselors, and administrators? No matter the situation, there is value in educators of all levels working alongside a coach for continuous professional improvement.
Student vs. adult learners
For most instructional coaches, the biggest difference in shifting from teaching children to coaching adults is recognizing the needs of adult learners. (For more on this, check out Stephen Brookfield’s work on Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learners). As educational coaches, we want to be as cognizant of what teachers need to learn, as well as how they will learn best. Our first goal is to create a safe and supportive community with multiple opportunities for reflection.
Educators often experience feelings of isolation or uncertainty as they confront new challenges, in both physical and digital classroom spaces. Our goal is to name these challenges and equip educators with a toolkit they can use while teaching. We recognize that coaching in education can look different depending on the context, needs, and desires of the educator — it may include 1:1 coaching sessions and reflective discussions, team-building with small groups, facilitation of teacher teams, or whole school or even district-wide professional development opportunities. However, one thing is true regardless of the context: adult learners often ask, what’s in it for me? before investing their time and energy. Their time is valuable, and they need the learning experience to concretely further their professional practice. Adult learners also bring more experience and expertise to the coaching relationship. Coaches should strive to honor this knowledge, while simultaneously offering engaging, effective facilitation and reflection.
Approaching vs. prescribing
A core component of coaching work is the relationship. Whether it’s between the coach and the teacher, the coach and school administrators, or the coach and the faculty community, we prioritize the professionalism and humanity of our partners as we strive to get to know them personally. When teachers invite us into their classrooms, into their lesson plans, and into their most challenging professional situations, we know how important it is to be trustworthy, to listen with empathy, to ask questions, and respect boundaries. We are there as thought partners who can offer an outside opinion based on research and our own personal expertise.
We recognize the strengths that each of our teachers bring and create opportunities to cultivate those strengths when in professional learning settings. Similar to students, no two teachers are exactly the same, nor will their approaches to teaching be the same — but we can support them in developing a teaching strategy and style that is consistent with highly effective instructional practices as they strive to meet students’ needs. Our work is guided by five principles of practice, also known as the 5Cs:
Knowing when coaching is working
How do we know if what we're doing is working? This is one of the best and maybe most challenging questions about coaching. In the context of many standards-based state and federal reform efforts, instructional coaches are playing an increasingly important role as “professional sense makers” who develop expertise in academic content standards to help administrators and teachers translate them into classroom practices. Because it can take time for a teacher to make the changes in mindsets that enable them to adjust teaching practices, instructional changes may occur in small increments. Therefore, measuring "effectiveness" is not a one-size-fits-all task.
While coaching is often unpredictable, it’s extremely important to have a plan and clear goals, developed collaboratively between school leaders, teachers, and their coaches. By monitoring our progress toward the goals, we’re able to track leading and lagging indicators that represent changing practices. Smaller shifts — such as shifts in mindsets, the language a teacher uses, or small incremental shifts in their practice — are recognizable when a coach is deeply engaged in a teacher’s practice.
In addition to tracking the leading indicators, or small shifts in practice, we can also look at the lagging indicators or larger moves that demonstrate significant changes over time. We look at three elements to determine effective coaching practices. First, we look to determine if teachers implement what they’ve been learning, or what they’ve been talking about with their coach. It demonstrates effective coaching if after a workshop or coaching session, the teacher begins implementing a strategy or practice they learned from the experience, even if it isn’t implemented with textbook precision. Trying something new is evidence that the coaching was impactful. Second, we look to see if the teacher begins to initiate requests for further support. Teachers who are finding coaching valuable often take the initiative to request additional support, articulate future goals, and ask specific questions to refine their practice. Finally, we want to be able to connect the dots between the coaching guidance, teacher practice, and an increase in student achievement.
Similar to athletic coaches that help professional athletes thrive and take their skills and talents to new heights, instructional coaches allow teachers to apply their learning more deeply, frequently, and consistently than teachers working alone. Coaching supports teachers as they improve their capacity to reflect and apply their learning to their work with students, and also in their work with each other. With supportive environments and thoughtful reflection coupled with sound facilitation practices, coaching can have a significant impact on teachers' practice.
By COURTNEY BROWN & LAURA RIGOLOSI
When teachers are given space to imagine possibilities for their schools and students, time to refine their ideas, and the support necessary to implement new projects, what can they achieve?
Since 2017, we’ve been tackling this question through our collaboration with the North Plainfield, NJ district. In response to a statewide initiative to develop teacher leaders, the district leaders at North Plainfield tapped us to support this development process alongside the implementation of teacher-led passion projects across the district. These passion projects allowed teachers to identify and respond to district-wide issues, while gaining experience in initiating and executing district-wide improvements.
To meet this complex goal, we designed our professional development as an inquiry cycle for teachers based on their interests and passions, while simultaneously studying adult learning theory. Using this model, participating teachers developed an action plan for implementing a passion project alongside an exploration of what it means to lead other adults through the role of a teacher leader.
When designing projects with these types of goals, it’s important to focus on the foundational elements of adult learning theory, providing purposeful, practical, and empowering experiences that are directly related to teachers’ roles and responsibilities. Through meaningful experiences and discussions, we can provide opportunities to learn facilitation skills, explore action planning, and implement an extended inquiry process. Equally important in the design phase is the alignment with New Jersey State Standards and district-level goals. With this in mind, we can customize our professional development as needs evolve from year to year and project to project. The key is to focus on creating safe spaces for teacher leaders as they explore, practice, and reflect on their experiences.
How do you build teacher leaders?
As we begin working with teacher leaders, we make a commitment to read and share the unique elements of adult learning theory. Through training and experience, teacher leaders are well-equipped to plan and present instruction to children, but working with adults is different, and even the best teachers benefit from deepening their understanding of adult learning theory.
With North Plainfield, we encouraged teachers to explore their own learning and leadership styles, and dedicated time for teachers to reflect on situations when they were nurtured by a leader, and what moves those leaders made to create a positive and productive environment. Alongside articles such as Pillars for Adult Learning, we asked teachers to identify their own learning styles within Ellie Drago Severson’s framework of ways of knowing, using a Four Corners protocol. Giving teachers time to explore who they are as leaders, teachers, and all of the identities they bring to their school allowed them to reimagine themselves as learners. We can (and should!) be both leaders and learners at the same time!
In addition to exposing teacher leaders to adult learning theories, we infused literacy practices into our workshops so teachers could use them in their own classrooms. As we read excerpts from Malcolm Knowles’ articles on adult learning, and utilized a text rendering protocol as a model, we demonstrated how to pull key ideas from a text in a concise and collaborative way.
Most importantly, we want our teacher leaders to understand that unlike teaching children, “Adults...tend to have a perspective of immediacy of application toward most of their learning. They engage in learning largely in response to pressures they feel from their current life situation” (Knowles). Using this concept as a guide, we recommend that teachers reflect on their own perceptions of positive leadership, as well as how they can directly apply these tangible qualities to their own work.
Starting and supporting a passion project
In his book Drive, Daniel Pink describes how motivation is developed through the combination of autonomy, opportunities for mastery, and a driving purpose. With our North Plainfield team — after establishing that as adult learners we all learn and process our learning in different capacities — it seemed only natural that we create space for teacher leaders to consider the issues they were passionate about and ways they might use their passions to enrich their school community. For their passion projects to be successful, we needed three critical components:
Community of practice
Before starting any training for teacher leaders — especially across a district, with teachers who may not usually work together — it is crucial to develop a safe space where participants feel supported and heard. Participants need to be willing to take risks, and also pilot, revise, and push restart on their plans. To help develop a community of practice, we used reflection and sharing strategies such as our Success and Dilemma protocol and A Picture Tells the Story.
We worked closely with North Plainfield’s administrators, who helped teachers with logistical questions and concerns throughout the year. The district is spread out across several schools, and when a group of teacher leaders was planning on implementing a committee to oversee functions and events that would create school spirit, the administrators were able to suggest teachers from other schools who might also be interested in joining this committee. As a result, district-wide events such as a reinvigorated pep rally and an evening fitness event for parents and students were created.
This concept can be replicated in any school district where the administrators are a part of the professional learning. As outsiders to the school, we do not have the privilege to know all of the teachers in a district; this is where having engaged and supportive administration is crucial for bridging the gap between professional learning and teachers, particularly when the professional learning is designed to highlight teachers’ passions.
Allow teachers time and space to brainstorm their passion projects, and use meeting time to plan them with actionable goals in mind. Dr. Roberta Lenger Kang's Strategic Planning for School Change article guided this idea as we worked to incorporate modified design thinking components for small groups into our time with North Plainfield, and as teachers developed individual and collaborative action plans. Approaching this process by first testing a plan and then piloting, tinkering, and iterating is a cycle that can be replicated by any school district — provided that everyone involved feels safe to take risks and fail forward.
What changes are being made in school communities?
Teacher leaders are implementing so many wonderful passion projects in North Plainfield. Their projects are rooted in their passions, and their passions stemmed from improvements they wanted to make in their school community. In challenging areas, teachers saw new opportunities. Here are just a few examples:
Capitalizing on the passions of educators can spark change within a school community, and can empower teachers to take on new leadership opportunities. Allowing teachers space to dream, and investing in their learning creates a powerful pathway for authentic, teacher-driven change within a school district. When teachers are empowered to take on new roles and address real concerns, the possibilities for positive change are limitless.
By COURTNEY BROWN
“Writing to learn” is a powerful concept that has long been espoused by literacy educators. In practice, writing to learn includes low-stakes writing assignments that generate authentic responses to prompts on a variety of topics. The goal of writing to learn is simply to unpack a subject, and the primary audience is the writer him/herself.
Some of the most powerful writing to learn practices include personal, expressive writing that allows us to reflect on how we are feeling and thinking. This may take the form of quick-writes in response to a question, journal entries, or letters to ourselves and others.
Although personal, expressive writing is not necessarily a measurable outcome of learning, it is possibly some of the most important writing that we can ask students to do. Personal writing not only helps students develop their voice, but offers them precious space to reflect and process their feelings and thoughts, in order to feel emotionally strong and balanced. James Britton adds that expressive writing helps students academically, to “discover, shape meaning, and reach understanding.” As we plan instruction, whether remote or in-person, creating space for expressive writing is crucial, especially during times of crisis or change.
During the remote learning period that has surfaced due to the COVID-19 crisis, teachers and schools across the world have worked overtime to reach and engage their students. Yet, even in cases where students appeared to have adequate access to digital devices, attendance was often lower than usual, particularly in middle and high schools in low-income neighborhoods.
Prioritizing mental health
When Principal Dr. Charles Gallo and his team at the New York City Charter High School for Computer Engineering, and Innovation in the Bronx — where I partner as an instructional and curricular coach — questioned students and their families about their low attendance, students reported feeling isolated, unmotivated, and in some cases, depressed, despairing, or scared. Dr. Gallo realized that his students’ social-emotional health and well-being needed to be tended to first. His students weren’t learning if they were not engaged, and they couldn’t engage if they were scared, depressed, or lonely.
Swiftly responding, Dr. Gallo encouraged teachers to use their professional judgement to deviate from their planned units and lessons to prioritize students’ mental health and engagement by offering students opportunities to reflect and process their emotions and experiences around the pandemic.
Encouraged by their principal, AECI faculty incorporated journal writing into their classes, which eventually evolved into plans for a schoolwide interdisciplinary project, grounded in personal, reflective writing. Students would craft responses to relevant essential questions, such as: How has the COVID-19 crisis had an impact on your personal life? How has it had an impact on society? What do you propose to solve or address the crisis?
In a digital world, where distance may make it challenging to interface with each student and check in about how s/he is doing, online options — such as Google Docs and Padlet — offer valuable asynchronous opportunities to read and respond to student writing with advice or supportive words.
While sharing personal writing online demands trust and confidentiality, some students have shared that the experience of writing into a Google Doc (as opposed to a notebook) makes them feel braver. For students who don't have access to devices, journaling in a notebook or on paper is a terrific low-tech option for reflection.
Incorporating these practices into your lessons can be as simple and informal as asking students to respond to a prompt that connects with the day’s topic. If you want to dig in further, consider some of these ideas:
An entrypoint to abstract thinking
Dr. Gallo and his faculty first incorporated journaling into their instruction as a way to help students process and express their complex and troubling feelings. Expressing oneself through writing (whether on paper, by typing a note on a phone, or working within a Google Doc) allows us to identify and understand our thoughts, which in turn, helps us become more confident, calmer, and balanced. When we reflect on and process our thinking, we can also start to make crucial connections to comprehend more abstract concepts and ideas. This is how learning begins to happen.
At AECI, students’ responses to how has the COVID-19 crisis had an impact on your personal life? became an entrypoint into an exploration of the more abstract second part of the essential question — how has the COVID-19 crisis had an impact on society? In Math and Science classes, students used their writing as a springboard for interpreting data that showed how COVID-19 affected their communities. In History classes, students connected the current pandemic to the Black Plague and the 1918 Spanish Flu, using resources such as historical journals, information from the New York Times, and the Smithsonian.
A call to action
Following their investigation of the connections between personal experience and the societal impact felt by COVID-19, AECI students began to address the final essential question: What are your recommendations for addressing or solving the COVID-19 crisis? In keeping with the stages of Karen’s Hesse’s Depth of Knowledge framework and CPET’s Rigormeter, students moved from exploring their concrete realities to analyzing data and evidence, developing their own theories, and, finally, proposing a call to action.
The project at AECI will culminate in a schoolwide portfolio of student writing and artwork, as well as letters to politicians that will incorporate supporting evidence from each discipline and propose solutions to elements of the COVID-19 crisis. Although AECI is focusing specifically on COVID-19, this type of interdisciplinary project can work for any relevant topic that’s applicable to your community.
For many of us educators, the demands of content, testing, or curriculum can leave us feeling as though we don't have time to incorporate personal writing into our lessons. However, when we recognize the benefits that come from creating space for students to make sense of their thoughts and feelings, we can see how this work is essential to student engagement, and how it can support the introduction of new content. When students feel emotionally balanced, personally engaged, and connected to a topic, real learning can happen — during times of crisis and every day.