To Teach Is To Learn

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Listening to teacher Bonnie Markham, it's easy to believe the days of chalk-and-talk classrooms are numbered in this six-school district west of Rochester, N.Y.

In a hushed voice feigning terror, Ms. Markham has just read aloud the first few lines of a ghost story written by one of her 2nd graders. It demonstrates, she tells her colleagues, that the pupil was "engaged" in learning. "I could see a difference in Jackie's achievement," Ms. Markham says. "The quality of her work went up."

Ms. Markham helped Jackie improve by means of a "rubric," a relatively new method of evaluating student work. Rubrics differentiate levels of performance for a particular assignment, showing students and teachers alike what "quality" means.

Ms. Markham, who teaches at Northwood Elementary School, began to master rubrics two years ago when she signed up for the Hilton school district's new professional-development program. The program, known as CLASSIC, aims at nothing less than changing the culture of teaching-partly through a relentless focus on student work and partly through teacher collaboration.

Ms. Markham was relating her classroom success story at a recent meeting of seven Northwood Elementary teachers and two administrators, all of whom are program participants. The group meets monthly to talk about its members' experiences with the new forms of assessment. The "curriculum-learning- assessment initiative for children" program also includes all-day meetings, independent work, and, in many cases, teacher-to-teacher coaching.

Karen Cathcart, an assistant principal at the school, says teachers now need each other more than before. "Suddenly, all of this had to be talked about because we realized if we didn't discuss it, we weren't ever going to understand, and we also were never able to utilize it."

Groups similar to that at Northwood--known as collegial circles-are springing up across the district.

As day fades into evening, the group switches from applauding Ms. Markham's work to a serious huddle over writing skills. They ask each other: "What makes a good story? When is originality better than convention? What is the role of practice, of judgment, of reflection in learning to write?" These are the kinds of questions teachers rarely have the time or support to ponder.

The next day, down the road at the only high school in the 4,500-student district, veteran art teacher Barbara Branzovich is coaching students through a print-making assignment. She too uses rubrics, and through CLASSIC she has developed a new appreciation for portfolios—collections of student work used for assessment.

A 9th grader shakes the hair out of his eyes and approaches Ms. Branzovich with a question about the quality of his print-a design of the sun. All over the room, sun designs are coming up orange, yellow, magenta.

Ms. Branzovich takes the print, turns it around, and displays it against her chest. "You tell me what's wrong with it," she tells the student. "You're the teacher."

Later, all the students in this class that combines art, English, and a course called global studies will design a symbol to reflect the culture of an ethnic group they have chosen. They also will document the connection between symbol and culture, create a print, and incorporate it into a single page that summarizes their learning. The students will be able to judge each aspect of their work with a rubric. The pages will become part of their portfolios.

Ms. Branzovich, who has been teaching for 27 years, says CLASSIC has "jelled" concepts for her. "It's made me focus a lot more on assessment-me and the students." Now, she says, students can form their own judgments because they know the criteria for quality work right from the beginning.

Despite the ebb and flow of teenagers, there's no nonsense in Ms. Branzovich's class, just as there is no nonsense in the aims of Hilton's project to improve teaching. CLASSIC is designed to make teachers grapple with the connections among academic standards, student work, and assessments, the term that has replaced the too-narrow "tests."

From the start, Hilton leaders knew they wanted a sustained effort that would reach all of the system's teachers. And they knew they wanted to foster collaboration among teachers so that improvement-as- a-way-of-life would take root.

"My goal was to rethink teachers' learning, which is not just a series of workshops," says Mark Bower, the district's director of staff development. "It has to be with other teachers, it has to result in evidence you have changed, it has to be very narrowly focused at the heart of the business--curriculum, assessment, and instructional practice."

Four years ago, Hilton already had what Mr. Bower calls a focused staff-development program--just five subject strands. It also paid teachers for every 15 hours of approved professional-development activity outside the school day and provided substitute teachers to allow for professional development during the school day. A regional education agency made available additional resources of money and experts. In short, the program was a far cry from the underfunded smorgasbord that still characterizes staff-development efforts in too many schools.

But Mr. Bower, Hilton's first full-time staff developer, wanted something better. So did his boss, Assistant Superintendent Judith H. Howard. "CLASSIC is the culmination of what we've been doing," Ms. Howard says.

Ms. Howard and Mr. Bower were in the planning stages when they went to hear a talk by Giselle Martin-Kneip, then an assistant professor at the Adelphi University school of education in Garden City, N.Y. Ms. Howard remembers telling Mr. Bower: "She knows a lot, and I think she'd be great with teachers."

Mr. Bower subsequently visited Ms. Martin-Kneip, hoping to persuade her to join the Hilton district as a consultant. The then-professor, whose special interest is school change, hesitated. "I didn't think they were serious," she recalls. "So many districts want staff development without really supporting it."

But Mr. Bower asked her what it would take to persuade her to work for the district. Ms. Martin-Kneip asked for a five- to seven-year commitment. She got what she wanted.

Ms. Martin-Kneip, who now heads her own consulting business, was well aware that she was asking for a shake-up. She wanted teachers to examine the work they give their students in light of what teachers want students to learn. Too often, the work has little connection to the desired learning. Teaching tradition and organizational constraints, like not enough time, dictate the assignments.

The realization that just "covering" material does not ensure learning can throw teachers for a loop. "We create a culture where teachers assume they are there to deliver the goods," Ms. Martin-Kneip says, when in reality, teachers do best when they see themselves as learners. They are learning about their subject matter, their student " the practice of teaching-and they adjust what they do as their understanding changes.

So far about 175 of the district’s 343 teacher and 20 administrators have committed themselves to CLASSIC, in three waves beginning in the fall of 1994. The district has set aside money to release teachers in their first year of the program for six days, in the second year for four, and in the third year for three.

In the first year, teacher explore, with Ms. Martin-Kneip and each other, themes in curriculum and assessment, coming away with new activities they can try in the classroom. In the second year they return to some of the theme from the first year and complete a project in draft form. Teachers can choose to design and pilot a unit of curriculum, a student-portfolio plan, or another kind of open-ended assessment. Or they can use a portfolio to document their own learning. The third year includes more work on the projects and on scoring criteria.

CLASSIC looked like a winner on paper, but making it a reality, Ms. Martin-Kneip says, was not easy. Many teachers in the first group arrived looking skeptical. "I worked very hard to convince them this was not a ploy to get them to do more for the district," she says, "that it was really about teaching, thinking, and improving themselves. There was a tremendous amount of distrust."

Some participants say they felt lost. "I thought I knew what I was doing while I was there" in the sessions, says Ms. Cathcart, the assistant principal at Northwood. "But the next day I wasn't sure what had happened. The first year was a baptism by fire."

Some confusion stemmed from the program itself, which was a work in progress. But some of the uncertainty signaled new learning. "If you don't get in a tizzy, nothing happens," contend Sue Meier, the principal at Merton Williams Middle School.

"We pour ourselves out with kids," explains Amy Williams, who teaches at Merton Williams. Knowing that, she says, it's hard to admit that you could have done better.

About 15% of the teachers in the first group dropped out, for a variety of reasons. Others wished they had left when individual projects came due last spring.

As teachers waited to talk with Ms. Martin-Kneip or one of her two associates about their drafts, the consultant recalls, "the hallways were somber, and people were filled with misgiving."

And indeed, about one in five projects proved deficient, the consultant says. "Some people realized they hadn't done their homework."

In some ways, Hilton, N.Y., is an unlikely place to find a pacesetting staff-development program. It is the kind of stable, middle-class community where schools seem to produce the best results and everybody's satisfied. Almost none of Hilton's students speak other than English at home; 959C are white, and only 5% are poor, according to U.S. Census figures.

Hilton's per-pupil spending, about $7,500 annually, puts it well above the national average. By the standards of Monroe County, though, it is not a wealthy district; indeed, it ranks among the bottom third of the county's 19 districts.

With a Main Street town at the school district's center and outposts of cul-de-sac suburbia among its apple orchards, Hilton produces students who do comparatively well on state-mandated tests.

But thats not enough for Christopher Bogden, who has been the district's superintendent since 1992.

"I don't think the kids w graduate have the kills and the knowledge base to guarantee their success as employees, as responsible citizens," he says. "I am profoundly concerned about the future."

Mr. Bogden's first move was to rejuvenate the District Improvement Team. The 35-member group, which included parents and community members, helped develop a mission statement and a set of beliefs to guide the schools.

After that, school system employees had to be prepared for the fact that nothing goes untouched. Focused professional development is the key to school improvement, the superintendent says, but it cannot do the job over the long haul or without other dovetailing improvements.

This year, the fifth in which Hilton held per-pupil spending steady, the district spent about $340,000 of its $36 million budget--slightly under 1%--on its continuing education programs. That money does not include a $115,000 grant for CLASSIC won in the New York state competition for federal Goal 2000 money.

Mr. Bogden hopes to ask voter for a spending increase, with the new money earmarked for school improvement and CLASSIC projects.

Mr. Bogden is also eyeing teachers' contracts. While district officials can't mandate CLASSIC, the superintendent hopes to require all teachers to prove that they have mastered its concepts.

Ms. Martin-Kneip praises Hilton for initiating and supporting CLASSIC, and she credits the combination of committed administrators, a supportive school board, and a community that is not up in arms over taxes or easily spooked by change.

But, the consultant says, the next step is to root CLASSIC in each of the schools. Collegial circles like the one at Northwood Elementary are helping that along, Ms. Martin-Kneip says. And, she hopes it won't be long before teachers challenge one another to think hard every day about what they are trying to accomplish with their students.

Vol. 16, Issue 17S, Page 44-45

Published in Print: January 22, 1997, as To Teach Is To Learn
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