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How a Learning Community Helped Me Relearn My Job

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Maybe you’ll find this shocking, but here goes:

I openly admit that until I started to work with my professional learning team at Salem Middle School, I hadn't even really looked at the state standards for the subjects that I was teaching. Instead, I taught topics that other teachers in my subject area had been teaching or that were listed in my set of classroom textbooks. Over the course of 11 years, I'd developed a comfortable pattern of instruction based on a strong understanding of what I'd done in previous years and a remarkably weak understanding of the standards set by the state.

And I'm supposedly an accomplished teacher!

The good news is that all this changed for me several years ago when our principal instituted colleague learning teams. While there weren’t a lot of requirements set for our teams, our principal did insist on one action described by Richard DuFour in his first book on school learning communities. We had to develop common assessments that would be delivered in each of our classrooms. That simple requirement pushed us to have conversations that we'd never had before.

DuFour believes that teachers teaching the same courses or grade levels should periodically create and use “common formative assessments” to identify students who are having difficulty, to spot strengths and weaknesses in their teaching, and to give feedback on how well their students were learning in comparison to all students.

To begin, we had to wrestle with decisions about what content was essential to teach. As we moved together toward standardizing the implemented curriculum across our hallway (often for the first time), we really had to think about what it was that students were supposed to be learning. That led us to look carefully at the state standards for our subjects in ways we'd never done before.

Ambling through Ancient Greece

It was almost amazing (read: embarrassing) to find out that the lessons and units we'd been teaching for so long didn't directly fit the standards expected by our state. We found early on was that the units we'd spent months teaching were only a small part of the state's intended curriculum, while concepts that we breezed over were to be emphasized (and tested).

Take Ancient Greece and Rome, for example. The only thing more certain than death and taxes is that 6th graders love mythology. There's something about dudes with lightning bolts and rivers of fire that captures their imaginations in a way few subjects can. Another truism is that teachers love any subject that kids love. In years past, my unit on Ancient Greece and Rome had run for almost 10 weeks! We made temples, ran mock debates, practiced Socratic seminars, read myths. Heck, I even threw on a toga once or twice.

It was a great unit that the kids enjoyed. I'm sure they learned tons of essential standards and skills both in language arts and social studies. But spending so much time on Greece and Rome meant we never got to study much of South America before the end of the school year, even though it is a part of our standard course of study. What's more, I’d been overemphasizing the history standards for our social studies’ curriculum—of which there are only two—and under-emphasizing the geography standards—of which there are 41!

These "discoveries" about curriculum standards—which many outside school walls wrongly assume are a fundamental part of the fabric of any teacher's preparation or professional experience—came only when we started to develop those common formative assessments our principal required.

For the first time in over a decade, my work with students was focused and efficient. What’s more, I was teaching the intended curriculum set out by the state for 6th graders, which is my job after all.

Knowing excellence when you see it

Common formative assessments also pushed our team into meaningful conversations about what student mastery looked like. What did it mean to say, “they learned it”? Strangely enough, that’s something teachers may never consider while working in isolation. For the isolated teacher, "mastery" is often defined by the personal standards we establish for our individual classrooms, not by an external set of expectations informed by multiple perspectives.

In every building I’ve ever worked, there have been variances across classrooms on what mastery looks like. My personal favorite was always the "easy A teacher” that students loved to get because they knew they could do very little work and still make the honor roll. While those students were satisfied with their scores, they were being fooled into believing that they'd mastered essential skills.

And even though I felt strongly that those teachers were failing students as much as they were fooling them, I never started a conversation about what mastery looked like with anyone. That's kind of a taboo subject in schools steeped in isolation. Teachers rarely question the professional judgment of other teachers and take great offense when someone questions them. As a result, the best interest of kids is often overlooked. How's that for scary?

These days, conversations about what mastery looks like happen all the time on my learning team. And while they are challenging and time-consuming discussions that we don't always look forward to, they're incredibly important. Essentially, we're forced to come up with common definitions of mastery, thereby increasing our own assessment capacity and introducing some measure of standardization across our hallway.

I am a more reliable judge of student performance now than ever before because I've carefully considered what excellence looks like through the multiple lenses of my peers.

We don’t have it all figured out

Don't get me wrong. Our team still struggles to develop assessments that we think are reliable measures of student performance. That is a very real—and very disconcerting—capacity gap which we share with many other teachers. And it must be addressed before the full benefits of common assessments and professional learning between peers are realized. Like most educators, we've had little training in how to develop assessments that are tied to state standards and that are appropriate for the skills we are attempting to measure.

We know we're supposed to “deconstruct” standards, but we don't know how, nor do we have the time built into our day to learn. We know that certain skills and behaviors are best measured by performance tasks, but we don't know which ones they are. We know that there are certain processes for identifying trends and drawing conclusions from collected data, but we don't have the tools to sort through the mountains of available data or the training to know where to begin.

In some ways, we are still struggling to wake up from our assessment nightmare.

Even so, the process of developing common formative assessments has already benefited our students immensely, because the instruction we're delivering today is directly connected to state standards. What's more, we continue to have regular conversations as a team about what students should know and be able to do—and about how we will know when those skills have been mastered.

In the end, these ongoing discussions are the value-added product of teacher teams collaborating around common assessments. While it may seem difficult to quantify the impact of conversation, just stop by my room some day, and I'll show you the standards I'm addressing in the lesson that I'm teaching. That’s something I couldn't have done five years ago!

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