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.
By COURTNEY BROWN
As I get older and work as a coach and mentor for teachers, I am increasingly thankful to the educators who supported me throughout my journey as an educator.
In the beginning, teaching was a challenge for me, as it is for many teachers during their first years. I lasted a year in my first official teaching job, before, humbled, I decided that I just wasn’t equipped enough, and went back to school to get a Masters in Teaching English. After finishing my degree, I eventually returned to teach at a large high school in New York City. There were over twenty teachers in my department, many of whom were veteran teachers. These remarkable educators became my mentors and coaches, generously offering me advice, lesson plans, teaching moves, and moral support.
Beverly Epstein, Sue Blattner, Demaris Fernandez, Annette Tomasetti, and others shared their enthusiasm and folders full of lesson plans, notes, and short texts and invited me to visit their classes. I quickly learned from their range of approaches that there was a variety of pathways to teaching each lesson or topic. These true professionals were also warm and positive and made me feel that I could master teaching.
From Beverly Epstein, I learned how to make classic texts, like The Odyssey and Hamlet, engaging to students by linking them to current events and helping students make relevant personal connections through authentic discussion. Annette Tomasetti shared with me her passion and a myriad ways to make group work and collaboration happen. Sue Blattner could make any poem come to life in the classroom, and Demaris knew systems and structures. Each of my mentor’s talents and skills had a distinct impact on my approaches and thinking.
Now, as I work to mentor and coach early-career teachers, I realize that these remarkable educators also modeled for me how to mentor and support others; to recognize novice teachers’ potential and promote their passions.
I owe them so much.
Every educator plays a role in creating a positive school culture, regardless of their level of experience. Each person has something to offer, and something to learn.
Teaching is a career of apprenticeship, and the best way for us to learn is from each other. Take time to recognize the crucial role you play in your school, and explore how you might support others in your teaching community.
By COURTNEY BROWN
The numbers are daunting: approximately 50% of teachers leave within their first five years of teaching. This rapid turnover negatively impacts districts, schools, and students. All over the country, schools and principals are left scrambling to find teachers at the last minute, and school culture, curriculum, and instruction suffer from a lack of continuity. Statistically, this high turnover disproportionately affects schools primarily serving students from low-income families and students of color.
What can we do to address the issue of teacher attrition? How do we help teachers not simply stay in their jobs, but become committed, successful, practitioners? Certainly, a strong supportive school culture helps, and we recognize that ongoing mentoring, strong preparation, and a repertoire of instructional moves go a long way in helping new teachers experience success.
Research shows that teachers who are well-prepared and well-mentored are much more likely to make a long-term commitment to the profession, and increase their effectiveness while doing so. At CPET, we specialize in offering new teachers ongoing, individualized mentorship as well as ready-to-use resources they need to be successful in the classroom.
Engaging with a community of peers
The New Teacher Network at Teachers College (NTN@TC) is a community of practice for individuals in their first three year of teaching. NTN@TC provides a custom blend of in-person and online collaboration, personalized support through customized professional development workshops, on-site coaching, and a dedicated online community. Since its establishment in 2014, nearly 250 Teachers College graduates have connected to the network. Though some network benefits are limited to Teachers College alumni, all new teachers can benefit from our in-person workshops and conferences, many of which are tailored specifically for the experiences of first- to third-year teachers:
By COURTNEY BROWN
A student’s command of a range of vocabulary can predict not only their academic success, but even their future job opportunities. This may seem like a bold statement, but in fact, research supports it!
As Marzano and Pickering attest, “One of the key indicators of students' success in school, on standardized tests, and indeed, in life, is their vocabulary. The reason for this is simply that the knowledge anyone has about a topic is based on the vocabulary of that information.” (Marzano & Pickering, 2005).
The correlation between a student’s mastery of academic vocabulary and their success becomes even stronger as they move into high school, where they encounter a broadening variety of discipline-specific vocabulary, in which each word may actually represent a new complex concept. Consider a solution in math vs. a solution in science; a ray in math vs. a ray of sunlight in a poem; function as a noun in math vs. function as a more general verb. As students reach higher grade levels, they face increased demands to gain more specialized knowledge and to differentiate between meanings in each context. It can be a little overwhelming!
To make teaching and planning for vocabulary development more manageable, I find it helpful to begin by taking action in two ways.
Supporting students to manage unfamiliar language as they read
This includes offering students tools to identify words using context clues, replacing words, identifying words by their roots or similarities to other words, or for ELLS, using cognates. Many of these tools help students read fluidly and fearlessly, taking on the challenge of unfamiliar words as hurdles to jump or work around, not roadblocks that stop them.
CPET’s Dr. Roberta Lenger Kang created a simple, adaptable Monitoring for Meaning resource that students can use to figure out, track, and archive words independently as they read. Students can keep the chart right it in their notebooks and regularly build it as they encounter new words.
Identifying specific vocabulary and concepts to teach in each unit
When you plan to teach the key terms for each unit and then strategically reinforce and review the words throughout, students have a much better chance of learning and recalling key words and concepts. Sorting and categorizing, using and seeing the words in a variety of contexts, and learning through games or puzzles helps new concepts take root in the minds of your students. Consider the impact of games such as Pictionary, Taboo or Jeopardy, all of which make learning vocabulary more engaging, and in turn can make vocabulary more memorable.
TAGS: COURTNEY BROWN, LITERACY
By COURTNEY BROWN
As we move closer to the end of the school year and approach the high-stakes testing season, we know educators are grappling with the question: to test prep or not to test prep?
When it comes to high-stakes exams that help determine whether or not students will graduate from high school (as is the case with some New York State Regents’ exams), which colleges they may have access to (based on their SAT or ACT scores), or whether or not they can move to a new grade level (as is the case for elementary students and their scores on NYC ELA and Math exams), there’s no doubt that schools and teachers should strategically plan for test prep. We need to be able to support students in meeting the demands of these exams, and to equip them with the skills and knowledge needed to have authority over the exam.
Preparation is key
Most standardized exams are their own unique genre — they ask questions in unfamiliar ways, and include tasks that may only exist in the specific format on the exam. Some exams may seem foreign to students because of their formatting, structure, and use of language.
One way to think about the importance of test prep is to understand that taking a long, grueling exam once a year is similar to running a marathon. None of us would want to run a marathon without training for it, or without gathering advance information that will help us achieve our goal.
While we should take time to prepare students for challenging, high-stakes exams, it’s crucial that we don’t overinform the focus of our curriculum or instruction. Instead, we should offer test prep strategies that allow students to exercise authority over the exam. To avoid narrowing our instruction to focus solely on test prep, it may be helpful to think of preparation as two components: understanding the content and skills related to the exam, and understanding the structure of the exam itself.
Understanding content and skills related to the exam
Allowing students to learn exam-related skills and content is best accomplished by strategically building key skills, standards, and understandings into your curriculum throughout the year. Ideally, you would also be able to scaffold these components in the years leading up to the exam.
You can then periodically assess student learning throughout the year and re-teach, review, and reinforce areas that still need some work. Going back to our marathon analogy, we can think of this part of the test prep process as conditioning and training so that our students have the tools needed to run the race.
Understanding the structure of the exam
The second part of test prep involves getting to know the exam — it’s genre, language, scope, and scoring methods. We want students to have agency over the exam and an understanding of all its components. Students should have the opportunity to take a practice exam in its entirety, so that they have a chance to practice their pacing, and time to develop their own best practices for test-taking.
Again, thinking about the exam as a marathon that our students are being asked to run, the more our students know about the course of the race, the more empowered they’ll be when developing strategies to tackle it.
If we regularly gauge student progress on as they learn the key skills needed to succeed on an exam, and assess their mastery of the exam’s sections, we can adjust and differentiate our teaching to offer students what they need to be as prepared as possible, while maintaining a positive and enriching experience in our classrooms.
To help get you started with implementing strategic, positive test prep, check out our RISE resource, which offers guidance for helping students gain access, agency, and authority over exams.
TAGS: COURTNEY BROWN, RESOURCES, TESTING