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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

Teachers Praise These School District Decisions

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 31, 2022 13 min read
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(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question of the week is:

What are the best decisions a school district you were working for has made during your teaching career, and why was it/were they so good?

In Part One, Chandra Shaw, Holly Skadsem, Lana Peterson, Verónica Schmidt-Gómez, M.Ed., and Jen Schwanke shared their experiences.

Today, Ruth Okoye, Ed.D., Kelly Owens, Altagracia H. Delgado, and Bill Ivey contribute responses.

Ed-Tech Grants for Teachers

Ruth Okoye, Ed.D., is a 30-year veteran educator. She has taught in private and public school settings and is passionate about literacy, educational technology, and ed-tech coaching. She currently serves as the K-12 director at a nonprofit organization:

One of the best decisions that my district made was to roll out new technology using a competitive application process for teachers. Years ago, when we first began rolling out data projectors and digital whiteboards, the district decided that installation needed to be strategic. They did not want to simply upgrade a building at a time as there was concern about teacher readiness to use the technology. Instead, they announced the availability and told teachers to apply for a “grant” to have the hardware purchased for and mounted in their classrooms.

The application was competitive because each teacher had to explain their interest in the technology and give examples of how they planned to use it. As part of the application process, the teacher had to participate in several trainings, collaborate with an ed-tech coach, and showcase a lesson using the new technology. Additionally, since this was a central-office initiative, the building administrator had to sign off on the application agreeing to free the teacher for training.

This initiative really boosted technology use in our district. The technology was only awarded to those who were ready to learn about and use it. As their instruction began to shift, they became technology advocates among their peers. These teachers helped others understand new possibilities for using technology. Those interested in getting the award but did not make the cut began working with the ed-tech coach assigned to their building to integrate other technologies already available to sign out in the building, i.e., projectors on carts, document cameras, ActiVotes, laptop carts, etc.

The second year the grants were made available, the applications were more robust and competitive. Principals came on board, encouraging their teachers to take up the challenge. Teachers tried to strengthen their applications by banding together. At the elementary school, groups of teachers applied as a grade level or in a vertical team. Middle school pods came together, as did some high school departments.

We felt the ripple effect as more technology was awarded and additional teachers began participating in the technology professional-development opportunities. It was definitely the right way to go about installing the equipment. Those teachers who were ready got what they needed, those who were interested worked on their skills to get prepared to apply, and those who would need external motivators had time to get used to the idea of the direction the district was moving.

oneofthebestokoye

Community Building

Kelly Owens is a literacy interventionist and past teacher of the year. She contributes to MiddleWeb, The King School Series (Townsend Press), and Emmy Award-winning Classroom Close-up NJ:

Team building isn’t fluff but a long-term investment in people. The best professional-development planning decisions that have stuck with me have all focused on building human connections. While I’m sure it’s difficult to justify spending precious time and funds on outcomes that can’t be graphed, the resulting motivation, shared vision, and respect are well worth it. Staff bonding leads to a stronger school culture where both staff and students can thrive. School districts have the power to energize and motivate their school communities by devoting time to team building staff development. Do they want to elicit sighs or high fives?

Staff Scavenger Hunt

Motivation is tied to meaning. For me, meaningful connections to fellow staff members makes me feel part of a unified group working toward a common purpose. Long ago, my school district dedicated staff-development time to activities an onlooker would have thought looked like recess for adults.

An old-school scavenger hunt through the town where we teach transformed a carload of virtual strangers into a team of unified educators. The challenge required a random group of teachers to load up into a vehicle and locate major sites and hidden gems. For a new teacher like me at the time and as someone who didn’t live in the town, it was eye-opening to travel through the neighborhoods my students called home. It offered interesting perspectives about what students’ lives were like outside my classroom walls.

I bonded with colleagues as we collaborated to problem solve together on silly things like finding the local ice cream shop. We learned how to be open to out-of-the-box suggestions and value a variety of voices. Building those skills in an informal challenge laid the foundation for future higher-stake interactions my colleagues and I have made on behalf of students. Staff collaborations toward a shared goal—whether silly or serious—are essential to building an inclusive school culture where its members feel welcomed and supported.

EdCamp

Many school meetings require us to be with a particular group based on the commonality of our roles. Grade-level gatherings and PLC meetings bring together groups with shared interests by the nature of our shared work. It was energizing to expand my collegial connections and join with colleagues outside those circles during a staff-development activity called EdCamp—informal self-selected sessions generated by teachers for other teachers. The element of choice immediately appealed to me. I was excited to gather with others passionate about pedagogical issues I also value.

My school’s EdCamp began with all staff members in the school cafeteria, which housed a giant dry erase board. We were invited to voluntarily write educational topics of interest on the board. It quickly filled with a large variety of issues, and then room numbers were assigned to each. Time limits were set so we could visit multiple sessions in the course of the day. You were free to leave a session and explore another session with the understanding there’d be no hurt feelings.

After choosing a topic, you went to the corresponding room to find like-minded people. The pretty cool thing I noticed right off the bat was that I was among colleagues from all over my school building. I saw new faces and familiar faces, but the best part was that we were all passionate about the same topic. We approached it through different lenses based on our teaching experiences and our own personal backgrounds. Those diverse perspectives greatly enriched our discussions.

Although nothing tangible was required to come out of the EdCamp session, my first session’s group was incredibly driven and passionate about initiating change, so we developed a plan of action. This all transpired purely in the spirit of helping our students. It was motivating to be driven by the shared energy of a group who shared an interest close to my heart. Our successful staff EdCamp eventually led to the creation of an equally productive student version.

Community-building experiences have long-lasting social-emotional benefits that foster a sense of belonging and trust both staff and students deserve to feel. We need districts to continue supporting opportunities for school stakeholders to bond and build these relationships.

thebestprofessionalkelly

‘Collective Learning’

Altagracia H. Delgado, also known as Grace, has been in the education field for 27 years. Grace is currently the executive director of multilingual services for Aldine ISD, in the Houston area:

I am currently the executive director for multilingual services in Aldine ISD, a public school district in the Houston area. The district is located in an urban area and has over 61,000, with 42 percent of those students being English-learners.

For me, the absolute best decision that the district has made is to engage in collective learning processes as a model for decisionmaking and continuous improvement. This collective-inquiry approach is defined as the process of building shared knowledge by clarifying the questions that a group explores together. In Aldine, this model has allowed for research study done by leadership teams that addresses inequities in the system and creates a unified vision for district development.

In the past three years, the district has engaged in the process by creating task forces that have made decisions regarding the instructional content and special-populations programming. The process requires the gathering of leadership across the district and at multiple levels in the organization so that the group can learn together, analyze practices, and make decisions for content and programming. This collective-learning model has provided the district with vision frameworks for literacy, math, science, social studies, and multilingual education. The frameworks have become the road maps that express the district’s beliefs for instructional and programming practices and the responsibilities that each stakeholder has in the processes. It also drives the creation and rollout of implementation plans to support those frameworks, which can take anywhere between 3-5 years for successful and skillful implementation.

Because the learning and responsibilities in these processes are shared, it provides buy-in for the members. In addition, the collective-learning approach provides a venue in which there is representation and voice from all levels of the district community and shares the responsibility in messaging to all involved in the process. The collective group acts as one team with one voice.

thecollectivelearningdelgado

Anti-Racism Study

Bill Ivey (he/any) is the middle school dean and teaches Humanities 7, Rock Band, and Academic Skills at Stoneleigh-Burnham School, a gender-inclusive girls school for grades 7-12 in western Massachusetts:

I believe that our commitment to a yearlong study of Gholdy Muhammad’s Cultivating Genius and incorporating her HILL model into our curriculum has been by far and away one of the best decisions my school has ever made. Rooted in the tradition of 19th-century Black literacy societies, Muhammad’s model focuses on the development of identity, skills, knowledge, and criticality, defined as “the capacity and ability to read, write, think, and speak in ways to understand power and equity in order to understand and promote anti-oppression.” (Muhammad, quoted in Ferlazzo)

My school had been moving slowly but steadily in the direction of intersectional feminism and anti-racism for some years before the murder of George Floyd, and our students’ responses kicked our efforts into a much higher gear. Several of us had heard of and read Muhammad’s book, and over that summer, consensus built very quickly that it could offer us important organizing principles to help translate good intentions into genuine action.

Skill and knowledge development, of course, have long been the foundations of traditional schooling centered in whiteness. In contrast, identity development has perhaps been an occasional side goal, while criticality has often been either ignored or outright demonized. Yet, when all four elements come together, students of all identities can feel both safer and more empowered, which not only helps them better understand themselves and others as well as how they can work for equity but also improves their development of skills and knowledge.

Often, even white teachers with the best of intentions are nonetheless hesitant or resistant to address racism and other systems of inequality in our classrooms, for a wide variety of reasons, and teachers of color can often feel out they’re on their own. Having common language and common goals, and seeing firsthand how they benefit our students, has furthered a common sense of purpose and helped all of us feel better about our work. Schoolwide climate surveys tell us that the students who were with us before and after May 25, 2020, see and appreciate the change.

Of course, criticality work is the work of a lifetime. My school, like all schools and like our society itself, will probably never be able to check a box that says we have achieved equity perfection. But adopting the HILL model as an organizing philosophy and principle has definitely moved us in a positive direction. I can’t recommend it enough.

ibelievethatourivey

Thanks to Ruth, Kelly, Altagracia, and Bill for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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