Teaching Profession Opinion

What Happens When Teachers Become Deeper Learners?

By Contributing Blogger — May 05, 2017 9 min read
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This post is by Wanda McClure, School Designer at EL Education.

In a report entitled How Deeper Learning Can Create a New Vision for Teaching, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future’s says, “Just as students need opportunities to develop as curious learners, work collaboratively, and connect with community resources and issues; teachers need the same. Principals should support opportunities for teachers to learn collaboratively with their colleagues and provide ongoing, job-embedded professional learning for educators that deepens their understanding and practice of teaching for deeper learning.” The report also identified “new roles that teachers must assume to teach deeper learning,” including learning strategist, learning designer, facilitator, networker, and coach. As an EL Education school designer for M. R. Hollis Innovation Academy, a K-5 public school in the Atlanta school system, and Lead Academy, a K-8 charter school in Greenville, SC, I’ve witnessed teachers assuming these new roles as they work together to implement EL Education’s new primary grades ELA curriculum. In both schools, leaders focus on teachers as learners--giving teachers time to learn from feedback and change their own mindsets about what students are capable of.

Create Systems for Collaboration

Leaders at both schools set the stage for deeper teacher learning by creating systems for collaboration. “The first thing we had to do was create an environment in which teaching the curriculum was possible and expected. We provided professional development, but we also gave teachers extra planning time, and supportive coaching. From there, we created systems to allow teachers to receive frequent feedback and coaching around their own practice in order to take full advantage of the curriculum,” says Chase Willingham, school principal at Lead Academy. Similarly, at Hollis Innovation Academy, principal Diamond Jack ensured that teachers had time to meet weekly to learn together, review student work, analyze data, and design learning based on their students’ needs. “Consistent collaboration and ongoing coaching has been key to teachers’ success,” Jack emphasizes. “Creating an environment where teachers felt comfortable to learn about the curriculum and apply it with the use of data to inform instruction allowed teachers to see student growth in deeper learning early in the year.

In pursuit of deeper learning for both teachers and students, Sarah Mitchell, the instructional coach at Lead Academy shifted the structure of the staff’s professional development to focus on specific teaching moves, rather than on teachers planning what to teach. The change has made a huge difference, according to Willingham. “The curriculum has provided an excellent model for what research-based, student-focused teaching looks, feels, and sounds like.” He and Mitchell infused professional learning sessions with opportunities for teachers to make decisions about how to implement the curriculum with integrity. “It has really changed my idea of what PD is. We now talk about great teaching and not about writing great lessons--a more worthwhile use of time.”

Moreover, leaders created systems for teacher collaboration all week long, not just at the beginning of the year or once a quarter. Instead, teachers planned together every week and sometimes every day. They spread the curriculum out across the table and charted topics and standards they would address in the next few weeks. They debated the best ways to group students and role played new protocols for increasing student engagement. Especially as the school term wound down, they had detailed conversations about pacing lessons and how to use every minute of instructional time to move students forward in academic vocabulary acquisition, comprehension, and writing. They became true strategists, designers, and networkers--coaching and learning from each other as they tested, revised, and reflected on their daily lessons.

Give Teachers Kind, Helpful, and Specific Feedback

In order to learn, teachers, like students, need regular, high-quality feedback. Both Hollis Academy and Lead Academy have full-time instructional coaches who work with teachers to improve their practice. Coaches conduct classroom visits with targeted objectives related to specific strategies teachers are working to implement. For example, coach Sarah Mitchell recently visited a third grade classroom to observe the amount of teacher talk versus student talk in a typical lesson. The students sat in a circle on the floor for the lesson. They had just started what the curriculum calls a “Language Dive,” a 10-20 minute daily conversation between teacher and students about the meaning and purpose of a compelling sentence from a complex text.

As the lesson unfolded, Mitchell made note of the teacher’s strategic questions and the students’ responses, including which students talked and for how long. She also noted the level of engagement students maintained in triad discussions.

Later, she and the teacher met to debrief how the lesson went and what areas to work on next as the teacher continued to move students to deeper learning. Mitchell began by asking the teacher how students’ conversation during the language dive honors her classroom norms for discussion. When the teacher remarked that although students were honoring the norms, some were struggling with the meaning of keywords, Mitchell suggested that it might be helpful to pre-teach one or two key vocabulary words prior to the actual language dive protocol. She also noted that a follow up activity to reconstruct the sentence had been done as a whole-group exercise. “Reconstructing the sentences in small groups next time will give each student more opportunity to participate,” Mitchell suggested.

In addition to this kind of direct coaching feedback, each school identified “model classrooms of practice” where teachers who are early adopters demonstrate their practice in service to the larger school community. Model classrooms allow teachers to practice, implement, and practice some more, while teaching their peers. Teachers from other grade levels visit the model classroom to identify strategies they would like to try in their own classroom. Later they receive feedback on their own practices from peers and from the instructional coach.

Because the success of a new curriculum depends on how teachers deliver it, lessons in model classrooms were often videotaped. That way, all teachers could learn from the particular interactions and results that occurred as teachers implemented new instructional strategies. In one video tape, kindergarten students at Hollis Academy are seated on a rug at the front of the classroom. The teacher starts singing a song to focus the students on the upcoming lesson. Throughout the lesson, she skillfully engages students in play, movement, and rhythm. The lesson progresses as the teacher unpacks the learning target and instructs students to participate in a protocol called Back-to-Back and Face-to-Face. Students eagerly turn and talk to each other about what they think the vocabulary words in the learning target mean and how those will apply to the lesson.

When I showed the video of this lesson to the school’s instructional coaches, they noticed how the playful beginning of the lesson and getting students talking to each other productively honors the characteristics of primary learners that are at the heart of the curriculum. They also noticed that students have come to expect teachers to unpack the learning target. Knowing what to expect allows the students to feel safe expressing themselves in the classroom environment; the routines embedded within the curriculum help students grow in ownership of their learning. Together, we offered helpful critique to the teacher who taught the lesson in the form of questions that allowed her to think more deeply about her instruction. How could she build on students’ metacognition as they begin to read? For example, when students pick up a leveled text (text not controlled for decodable words), encourage them to think. “Is this is a CVC word that I can easily decode?” or “Is this is a word that will be hard for me to decode? What other strategy can I use?” Our other wondering for her was how she might you use the Articulatory Gestures chart and/or hand mirrors to help students distinguish between medial vowel sounds and how they feel in their mouth. Her response to the feedback was immediate. “I, too, wondered about the chart. I think that would provide great support for students still struggling with medial sounds,” she stated. The coaching session ended with action steps to implement and a follow up date for more observation.

As these examples of feedback show, allowing teachers to see themselves as learners who celebrate incremental successes, reflect on failures, and have time to improve has developed the teachers’ capacity for reflection and growth. They no longer feel pressured to get it right the first time and generate instant results in response to a new curriculum. Like their students, they are learning how to learn, and becoming more confident over time.

Shift Teachers’ Mindsets

Gaining confidence in themselves as teachers has also shifted teachers’ mindsets about their students. Both Hollis Academy and Lead Academy have significant populations of historically underserved students. Hollis is a Title I turn-around school. The student population is 98 percent African-American. Lead Academy’s student population represents Hispanic, White, and African-American students in equal numbers, and 22 percent of students are English language learners. In this environment, it would be easy for teachers to respond to a new and challenging curriculum by saying, “My students can’t do this. It’s too hard for them.” Strategies for reaching all learners and lifting students up to the high bar of rigorous standards are baked into the EL Education curriculum. As teachers learned to differentiate effectively and added to their own repertoire of instructional strategies, they also came to think differently about their students’ capacity for learning. “My students were only familiar with a fixed mindset,” said one first grade teacher at Hollis. “They believed they were only good at certain things and would not even try to learn new concepts. Now they have moved to persevering through learning. They have learned to enjoy learning struggles and I have learned to let them struggle. It is not about giving them the answers.”

This exact same comment could be made about teachers. A curriculum that’s good for students can also be good for teachers if they are given the opportunity to persevere and grow together, and if they have support from leaders who let them struggle and discover their own answers. As deeper learners, the teachers at Hollis Academy and Lead Academy grapple collaboratively with the problem of instruction. They are learning to make wise decisions about what to teach and how to teach it well.

Photo Credits: Wanda McClure

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