PD Cyber Café

PD Cyber Café

A challenge teachers face every school year is how to balance their want for professional growth without losing instruction time in the classroom. Often, teachers are left deciding whether to attend professional development workshops during the school day, or to pass on the professional development so their students do not lose a day of instructional time.

As school administrators and education leaders, we have to look for creative ways to provide professional development for faculty and staff that not only allows them to remain in the classroom, but is tailored to meet their needs. Resources such as AMLE webinars and online reading materials offer educators a plethora of professional development resources that can be accessed at their leisure. This allows educators to grow professionally and maximize time in their classroom while expanding their resources on pedagogy and educating the middle level learner.

An approach I have taken in my middle school is replacing our traditional monthly faculty meetings with PD faculty sessions. The information that I previously disseminated to faculty and staff during faculty meetings is now produced in a monthly newsletter, The Faculty Focus, which is emailed to each staff member. The designated after-school monthly meeting times are now strictly dedicated to providing professional development opportunities for faculty and staff.

Teachers are encouraged to take full advantage of their AMLE membership and participate in after school webinars, join Twitter discussions, or collaborate with colleagues to discuss an article they’ve read in a recent edition of AMLE Magazine.

One fun and creative professional development workshop we held in our middle school recently was a "PD Cyber Café." By using the AMLE library of recorded webinars, I was able to provide my faculty and staff professional development that was individualized to their interest. A "menu" was created that listed ten recommended "dishes" to choose from. These "dishes" were ten of the recorded webinars from the AMLE website that I felt my staff would be most interested in.

If a staff member was interested in another option, they could select an "al a carte" item from the entire AMLE library of webinars. As teachers entered the school’s media center at the end of the school day, they grabbed a laptop, gathered at a table, selected their item from the menu, and engaged in professional development through AMLE recorded webinars.

Of course, what would a cyber café be without coffee? Coffee and light refreshments were available for staff to enjoy while taking part in their professional development.

Teachers who were interested in viewing the same webinar gathered together at tables and engaged in discussion during and after the session. Others who preferred a more private session added headphones to their laptop. When the PD session ended, teachers were provided a certificate of professional development based on the webinar they viewed.

Rather than take 45 minutes to an hour of my teachers’ time at the end of the school day to disseminate information about upcoming dates, policies, and student issues, this information was included in the newsletter. Instead, this time after school provided teachers with the opportunity for personalized professional development thanks to the AMLE library of recorded webinars. Teachers left the media center that afternoon with coffee and PD certificates in their hands and smiles on their faces. They were able to engage in excellent professional development without sacrificing instructional time from their classes.


All AMLE members have access to more than 35 recorded webinars at www.amle.org/webinars 


James A. Brown is principal of Grover Cleveland Middle School in Caldwell, New Jersey.

Author: James Brown
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Building School Community by Empowering Students

Building School Community by Empowering Students

The disruptive behavior of some students can be a top concern of middle school teachers, administrators, and parents in many schools. While time is spent considering approaches to decreasing behavioral incidents, important goals also include focusing on increasing attendance and creating a productive learning environment for students. Here are some ideas to consider as you create a school culture that engages all students as positive, productive members of the community.

Building Community in Your School
I think we can all agree that a strong sense of community within a school is important—but how do we go about effectively building community? First, we need to understand that a strong community is created by weaving bonds of understanding and caring among individuals.

The Center for Teen Empowerment has developed an interactive methodology that functions to build deep levels of communication and trust among groups of children, teens, and adults. Any school can incorporate this approach by making the commitment to work skillfully throughout the school year to engage students in activities that help them learn each other’s names, share information about their backgrounds, and talk about their hopes and dreams. The result is a school where students have the context they need to see each other as human beings who deserve respect.

Involving Student Leadership
The best way to achieve this result is to recruit and engage a broad range of students to work as partners with faculty in facilitating these community-building activities. By “a broad range of students,” I mean that the leadership group should include students who are most likely to be involved in negative behaviors as well as students who would more typically be tapped for leadership positions.

Integrating students who are having difficulty with those who are experiencing more success allows those who are doing well to influence those who are not. It also gives the leadership group the credibility needed to positively influence the school culture across the board.

What Might It Look Like?
Picture an assembly with students and teachers speaking about their lives and talking about their hopes for the coming year. Maybe there’s a skit with role reversals—students act as teachers and teachers act as students. Perhaps there is a student speak-out, where audience members are asked to comment.

Then students return to classrooms or break into small groups where they spend a period engaged in interactive exercises that help them learn names, speak in pairs about their lives, brainstorm issues they face, and set goals for the year.

The Payoff
Of course, none of this is easy, but neither is teaching math, science, or English! In fact, teachers go through years of training and spend countless hours of in-school, after-school, and out-of-school time doing everything they can to help students learn. But when it comes to the essential component of building community in the school, though we agree that it’s important, we usually dedicate little or no resources to making it happen.

In our 23 years of experience at the Center for Teen Empowerment, we have repeatedly seen the major payoff for all elements of the school when community-building strategies, propelled by student leadership, are implemented. It’s an investment that is well worth the effort.


Stanley Pollack is the founder and executive director of the Center for Teen Empowerment, which works in Boston and Somerville, MA, and in Rochester, NY, and he is the author of Moving Beyond Icebreakers: An Interactive Approach to Group Facilitation, Learning, and Action.

Author: Stanley Pollack
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Would You Like to Make a Statement?

Would You Like to Make a Statement?

What should school leaders do when a reporter is at their door?

“Hi, this is Larry Jones from XYZ paper and I would like to ask you a few questions about allegations of bullying by teachers at your school.”

“Good morning. This is Sarah Brown from station ABC. What can you tell me about the decline in your students’ standardized test scores last year?”

If you are a school administrator and you haven’t already been approached by a reporter from the local media, you very well could be. And while your first reaction to media questions—regardless of the topic—may be to mutter “no comment” and move on, the first rule of thumb when dealing with reporters is never to say “no comment.”

So what should you do when a reporter comes calling? Be prepared long before you get the call or hear the knock on the door.

First Things First

The first key to dealing effectively with the media is establishing a solid relationship. If you’re there for them in bad times, they’ll be there for you in good times.

Early in the school year, invite newspaper, television, and radio reporters to meet with you. Discuss your education philosophy, your school vision and goals, advances in the curriculum. Remember, they are not educators, so explain acronyms and give them an overview of education budgets, contracts, and the negotiation process. The more they understand, the less likely they will be to misquote or skewer you with adversarial copy.

That’s not to say they won’t report negative information. Their expectations are quite different from yours. They have a story to tell. But if you have a good relationship, they’ll be more willing to hear your side first.

Key Messaging

Before you agree to any interviews, ask the reporters who they are, whom they represent, the topic of the interview, how much time they expect the interview to take, and who else is being contacted about the topic. Remember that you are in charge of the interview and you may terminate the interview (in a professional manner) should it go outside the boundaries you set—yes, the boundaries you set.

So, what do you say? Practice by anticipating questions, preparing your answers (but not memorizing them), having key facts readily available, and using key messages. Key messages are like mission statements: short, to the point, and reflecting positively on your district or school. Even in a tense situation, weave these messages into your statements.

For example, let’s say your key message is your school’s commitment to supporting the community through high-quality education. A reporter asks you, “Can you confirm that you are cutting four teachers from next year’s budget?”

Here’s your key message: “We are currently investigating ways to reduce our budget; however, please remember that we are committed to promoting a high quality of life in our community by educating our children—that’s our priority.”

You’re On

With the basics in mind, let’s look at several scenarios and some tips for making every interview a success.

Tip #1: Have a good administrative assistant. When I worked in a K–12 district, I was blessed to have an administrative assistant who recognized reporters’ voices when they called. When they asked to speak to me, she said without hesitation: “I’m sorry, she’s not in her office right now. Can I tell her what this is about?” Almost every reporter shared the reason for the call, providing me ample time to prepare my response or check with other experts in our district.

Tip #2: Clear your desk. When preparing for a telephone interview, clear your desk. If you have papers and calendars in front of you and a cell phone that’s buzzing with a text from your spouse, you’re not paying attention to the interview and may say something you didn’t mean to say.

If you are conducting a face-to-face interview in your office, in addition to clearing off your desk, close emails and documents on your computer screen. That letter, memo, or email open on the computer behind you should be for your eyes only.

Tip #3: Don’t be pressured by silence. That’s some reporters’ secret weapon—getting interviewees to talk through the “pregnant pause.” The reporter hopes you will find the silence uncomfortable and will fill it with information you hadn’t intended to disclose. Answer the question and say no more! As you wind down the interview, summarize and restate your points.

Tip #4: Don’t ever speak off the record. Journalists are supposed to respect the privacy of an off-the-record remark, but remember that they want the news, they want to lead over other media, and they may use whatever you say—on and off the record.

Tip #5: Relax and maintain composure. When doing a telephone interview, sit up straight and put both feet flat on the floor. Why? When you sit up straight, your voice is stronger and you sound more in command. And that’s what you want to do: be in command of the interview.

For a stand-up interview, keep your hands out of your pockets and don’t cross your arms in front of you. Instead, place your hands behind your back and interlock your fingers. This will not only make your posture better, but it will also give you a hidden outlet for nervousness or anger.

Tip #6. Have a crisis communication plan. Each of you will be involved with a crisis situation at some time in your career, and the last thing on your mind should be dealing with the media. Your district administration should designate someone to be the spokesperson. This person will be trained to deal with the media effectively. If, however, you do find yourself facing the media:

  • Keep your messages simple, direct, and don’t speculate.
  • Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” But follow that up with, “but I’ll find out and get the answer to you by.”

By following these tips, you will be on your way to a much better relationship with the members of your press and you’ll know just want to say.


Kelly McBride is an assistant professor of public relations at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. She is the former director of communications for a K–12 school district in Pennsylvania.  kamcbride@vt.edu


Published in AMLE Magazine, November 2014.
Author: Kelly McBride
Number of views (334)/Comments (2)/
Topics: Leadership
Looking Back to Move Forward

Looking Back to Move Forward

As I reflect on my 25-year career as a middle level administrator, one of the high points was the creation of an alternative learning environment for a group of seventh grade students. Realizing a growth bubble was heading towards the middle school, a partnership between the school district and a state-operated farm museum became a reality that offered a school-within-a-school opportunity for almost 30 students while reducing class size in the traditional middle school.

Modeled after the long successful Radnor (PA) Watershed program, the brainchild of Mark Springer, the program got off to a flying start as three dynamic middle school teachers were chosen to staff the program. The first year of the program was very successful, as evidenced by the quantity of interested students requiring that participants be selected by lottery. Spending a bit less than fifty percent of their instructional time off campus was clearly a draw for non-traditional learners. (For more about this program, read "Capturing the Obvious," Principal Leadership, May 2003).

As the program headed towards the mid-point of the year, plans were generated to allow the group of students to remain together in their eighth grade year under the umbrella of a second non-traditional program that would operate as an outdoor environmental program.

Despite the hoopla surrounding the implementation of these two new and exciting initiatives, within three years of their inception, and with a change in the school’s administration, both programs were eliminated. Another team was added to the instructional organization of the school to absorb the number of students who were previously served by the two initiatives. Unlike the long running Radnor program, these programs were essentially decommissioned and the teachers reassigned.

A post mortem of these programs may afford principals who think out-of-the-box some insight as they contemplate taking the road less traveled in their attempts to create non-traditional learning environments for their students.

Change is inevitable
Regardless of an organization’s structure, there are no assurances that its culture will remain constant as school and district personnel, policies, and philosophies go through the natural evolutionary process. Demographic shifts, emphasis on state-wide assessments and related benchmarks along with a community's perception of what programs reflect best educational practices are factors that impact the longevity of a program or course of study.

Nothing is as simple as it appears
From the time an idea is conceived until it realizes fruition the journey is not simple. To think otherwise is unrealistic and will prevent the concept from taking flight. The hurdles encountered are usually cleared with the involvement of many individuals at various levels within the organization.

Finances fuel the engine of change
Unless substantially underwritten by outside funding sources, programs thought to be non-essential will be short-lived. In today’s cash strapped economy, school boards, administrators, and teachers are expected to do more with less. Programs that remotely smack of elitism or are non-traditional in design and structure are at greatest risk for being eliminated.

Let go of ownership
Once developed and operational, a program's ownership becomes that of the school or district. Despite the investment of time, energy, and ego, a school’s program is not personal property. Embracing this thinking is healthy for all stakeholders in the development process.

Stay clear of naysayers
The inherent risk of creating a start-up program is not usually embraced by negative people. Rather than seeing the beauty of implementing a new program, there are some who, quietly or not, sit on the sidelines waiting for failure to take place. In designing a new program, involve people who have positive energy and can serve as resources or go-to people along the creative pathway.

Moving forward
Individuals who are capable of affecting change through innovative program design are usually risk takers who are highly motivated. Remaining creative and productive often means repeating the creative process of defining a need and determining how to best address it. After a program has been developed and instituted there are usually a string of other needs waiting to be addressed by out-of-the box thinkers. Allow the process to begin anew by earmarking a specific need and designing an appropriate response to it. Repeating the creative process, while sometimes tedious is invigorating and gratifying.

The process of being retrospective and analyzing the success or failure of a program is an opportunity for self-exploration and discovery. Take time to be reflective both individually and with your school or program team. This reflection time will help you identify concepts and ideas and formulate strategies and plans to address those concerns that will impact the educational environment and ultimately the students you serve.


Robert Ruder, Ed.D., is an educational consultant and author, and has been a middle grades administrator and advocate for more than 25 years. E-mail: bobruder@gmail.com

Author: Robert Ruder
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Topics: Leadership
The School Is a Teacher—But What Are the Lessons?

The School Is a Teacher—But What Are the Lessons?

We want students to remember the positive lessons we teach.

Middle grades educators spend almost all their time and energy dealing with what is taught, the content that is presented in classrooms and courses. This is understandable, given the great attention placed on cognitive learning/academic achievement.

But the school is so much more than a physical facility in which teachers present lessons; it is a laboratory of living where ongoing practices and relationships educate. Educators should stop every now and then to consider the lessons the school may be teaching via its programs, policies, rules, and regulations—by its way of life. When doing so, they may be surprised—and chagrined.

A discouraging percentage of what is taught explicitly in the formal curriculum is forgotten in a matter of months. This is a recognized and accepted reality. But the lessons that the school teaches implicitly remain, because they become internalized, subtly but certainly, as students over time live under the school's tutelage.

William Heard Kilpatrick, often considered America's greatest teacher, claimed, "We learn what we live, and we learn it to the degree that we live it." And noted educator Eliot Eisner wisely reminded us that "Schools teach much more—and much less—than they intend to teach."

Much of the "more" that the school unintentionally teaches is positive, and an entire article or two might well be given over to acknowledging and elaborating on the significant, life-changing lessons individual teachers transmit just by being in relationships with students. Indeed, when all is said and done, the influence that the teacher as a person has on the attitudes, values, and behavior of a student may be the most certain and significant "take-away" from a year spent in that teacher's classroom.

The Hidden Curriculum

Fortunately, even though newspaper stories about education seem to be concerned exclusively with reporting on the cognitive side of an education as indicated by test scores—as if that were all a real education was about—most parents do recognize and appreciate the impact that a teacher has on a student apart from the formal cognitive lessons.

However, a good many of the lessons unintentionally taught by the school run completely counter to a school's stated objectives and to the middle school philosophy. It is those undesirable lessons, part of the hidden curriculum, that a faculty needs to recognize, think about, and then consider a way to down-play or counter. Many of these lessons evolve from long-standing practices that are deeply ingrained in our culture and cannot be altered immediately or easily. However, by being conscious of these undesirable lessons being taught, teachers can help students understand the background of practices and gain a needed perspective.

For example, consider the undesirable lessons inherent in most schools' grading systems. Doesn't our uniform, single-standard grading scale run counter to our purported goal of helping all students build a positive self-concept? What conclusion can some students come to when time after time they are expected to excel where all their prior school experiences have demonstrated they cannot possibly place in the top group?

What does the heavy emphasis on grades lead students to conclude about the goal of education? When you stop and think about it, you must recognize that a school via its grading practices actually teaches some kids that they are dumb!

Although it certainly isn't a school's intention, ability grouping practices inevitably teach some undesirable lessons. They teach that some kids are worth more than others. When some students are identified as "gifted," and dealt with in special ways, all other students automatically become "non-gifted"—a label we don't want to place on students who are in the process of becoming.

Consider also a school's typical discipline code and policy. Isn't it based on negative assumptions about the nature of young adolescents? Doesn't it specify consequences for assumed misbehavior rather than confirm positive expectations? Does it often encourage kids to learn ways to beat the system? Do students learn, regrettably, that adults don't trust them?

Food for Thought

In almost all middle schools, we must face the unfortunate truth that lessons that conflict with the school's commitment to providing the best developmentally responsive education possible for all students are inadvertently being taught. The ways we manage, sort, label, instruct, and assess students convey messages. We know that during these malleable early adolescent years, youth are developing the self-concepts and personal standards, values, and attitudes that will direct their behavior in the years ahead, so it does seem most important that the undesirable lessons the school teaches should be faced and educators should take actions to counter them.

Think about it. Consider taking time in team meetings and faculty sessions to tackle this important issue.


John H. Lounsbury is a long-time middle level advocate and dean emeritus of the John H. Lounsbury College of Education at Georgia College and State University, Milledgeville, Georgia.He is a featured presenter at AMLE2014.  john.lounsbury@gcsu.edu


Published in AMLE Magazine, September 2014
Author: John H. Lounsbury
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The Work of Effective Middle Grades Principals: Responsiveness and Relationship

Findings from research studies suggest that school leadership accounts for fully one quarter of total school effects on pupils, making it second only to classroom instruction among school-based factors affecting student achievement (Leithwood, Louis, Anderson & Wahlstrom, 2004). While a considerable body of research has analyzed effective school leadership in general, remarkably few studies have examined the leadership of middle grades schools in particular (Anfara, Roney, Smarkola, DuCette, & Gross, 2006), despite the fact that students’ performance in the middle grades has been linked to later life success (Balfanz, 2007). The purpose of this study was to describe and analyze middle grades principals' perceptions of effective school leadership. We focus within this article on leadership dispositions in particular, in the interest of space and because the domain remains particularly unexamined within the middle grades literature. We begin with a brief overview of related research and the theoretical framework that grounds our study. We then describe the qualitative methodology employed to pursue our purpose. Next we examine two key areas of our findings on middle grades leadership dispositions: developmental responsiveness and relationship. Finally, we consider the implications of this work for policy, practice and future research.

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Published in Research in Middle Level Education Online, 2014.

Author: Jacqueline J. Gale, Ed. D. and Penny A. Bishop, Ed. D.
Number of views (4189)/Comments (0)/
Student Voices Against Bullying

Student Voices Against Bullying

Students sit down face to face to confront bullies and bullying.

Bullying isn’t what it used to be. In the age of social media, taunts and gossip are now posted on the Internet for all to see. When those comments become bullying that affects our students, educators require a new approach—one that is simple, honest, and to the point. We must let the students take the lead.

At Punta Gorda Middle School in Florida, we empowered students to push back against bullying and educated the entire community about the problem.

To address the problem of bullying, we started with group meetings. Students who were having trouble with bullies or were concerned about the learning environment met in a classroom during homeroom to talk about the issue and brainstorm resolutions. Those who were being bullied often invited their tormentors to join in the discussion. The group met for about 15 to 20 minutes. All interested students could attend; they simply needed permission from their homeroom teacher. Attendance varied between 10 and 80 students per session.

The group gave the students an opportunity to sit down with their peers whom they perceived as bullies. When confronted, some of the bullies said they didn’t want to be bullies; others said they didn’t know why they bullied. Many of these students began to recognize the negative effects of their behavior and continued to participate in the group sessions.

Some bullies said their teasing was all in fun and opted to not participate. Before they left the room, however, the other students had a chance to share their concerns and to remind them that they could change their behavior. Being confronted by their peers rather than by administrators was powerful and did make an impression on many of the perceived bullies.

The Roundtable

Based on earlier success we had filming students talking about school safety, we decided to film the students talking about their experiences and air the videos schoolwide. We called the program The Roundtable, reflecting the idea that all students have an equal voice.

Students who participated in The Roundtable met twice a week at the beginning of homeroom to discuss their thoughts about bullying in school, on the bus, at the bus stop, in the locker room, and so on. All students were invited to attend.

Each filmed session was edited to highlight the student’s voice. We aired the 15-minute videos over the cable system once or twice a month at the beginning of homeroom, encouraging teachers to continue the discussion in homeroom. We also made the videos available to teachers on DVDs so they could show them at convenient and appropriate times.

Teachers were not required to show the videos, and some opted not to, but allowing students to take this leadership role created new relationships among students and affected students where it matters most—in the heart.

Authentic Voices

Unlike generic public service announcements that last 15 seconds and are forgotten, Roundtable videos are unscripted and feature students in classes talking about what matters to them. They hope to make the environment in which they live and learn safer for everyone, including the adults.

Everyone is responsible for ensuring a safe, nurturing school environment. Don’t wait until someone loses a life. Be on the side of prevention, not reaction.


Sean M. Brooks, a former middle school teacher, currently teaches at Charlotte High School in Punta Gorda, Florida.  seanb81@mac.com


This article was published in AMLE Magazine, April 2014
Author: Sean M. Brooks
Number of views (4134)/Comments (3)/

Lessons Learned from a Startup

Education is indeed a noble calling. Among and between the frustrations, red tape, glacial speed of change, monotony, and normal emotional fallout of “crucial conversations,” there are those wonderful, magical moments when we know exactly why we do what we do.

But, like anything, we sometimes find ourselves falling into a catatonic routine of stand up and deliver, of sit down and correct, of coloring within the lines. In essence our routines dominate and demotivate.

I had the luxury of spending two hours with the staff at an incredible startup technology company. I was brought in as a consultant to provide some insight to a group of talented, motivated Millennials. Yet I was the one who walked away with the insight.

The lessons I learned can be applicable to educators and change agents in every industry.

  1. The company is flat. Clearly, there was a pecking order in title and responsibility, yet I could not tell who was in charge of anything. People collaborated in one large open space without cubicles or doors separating people or preventing access. The energy was palpable; the structure of power or chain of command was not.

    Someone once told me that the legendary headmaster at Deerfield Academy had his desk in the main hallway of the school. Even if this is urban legend, it makes us wonder if school leaders may be missing an opportunity to be more accessible, more in the fray.

    Several years ago, I worked at a charter school where all the teachers worked in “pods,” where several desks were pushed together in grade teams in one large room. The energy was amazing.

  2. Questions are the drivers. I sat in a meeting where I was peppered with questions—specific ones, general ones, hypothetical ones, probing ones. Clearly, the work of these entrepreneurs is to seek solutions. Looking for the next big question seemed like a part of the ethos, the mission-led approach to providing outstanding customer service.

    Framing questions also helps organize the impressive amount of qualitative and quantitative research that goes on in this company. Honest feedback from experts, ordinary users, and “power” users is critical.

    Walls were covered with whiteboards, which in turn were covered with running conversations in marker—ideas, diagrams, more questions, some answers. The incessant scribbling was like an organic exhibit of mission, action, and collaboration on a canvas of dreams, hope, and sweat.

    Might asking clear, specific questions help educators improve the student experience? Might students be a great resource, since they are the ones “living” the educational experience?

    Maybe education leaders should set question goals per day and per week to gather as much data as possible. One must know what is going on to be able to change what is going on.

  3. Professional trust—not rules—is key. At this company, I saw staff putting golf balls on synthetic turf and wearing jeans and rock band t-shirts. The office would not have won any neatness awards. The creative energy in the place was overwhelming, and in between their short mental breaks from work, serious work was being done.

    It was as if the boss had said to the staff, “You are talented, you are trusted. Do your work well, and be who you are. Work hard and long. Have fun. Solve problems. Let me know when you want feedback.”

    Talk about motivating!

In Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan address many of the same ideas: trust, expertise, autonomy. Perhaps there is a way to make education more entrepreneurial, to capture the spirit of the world I witnessed and recruit and hire some of its brightest people.


Jason Larocque is middle level director at St. John’s Prep School in Danvers, Massachusetts. www.stjohnsprep.org

Author: Jason Larocque
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Teacher Collaboration: Keys to Common Core Success

Teacher Collaboration: Keys to Common Core Success

A new survey sheds light on keys to successful implementation of Common Core State Standards.

Think about the Common Core State Standards as an ambitious remodeling project happening all over the country. Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have adopted new shared goals for what their students should know and be able to do in literacy, and middle grades schools all across the country are figuring out how to bring instruction “up to code.”

Will schools take a “pre-fab” approach to the remodel, dropping in off-the-shelf components and hoping they will fit and function? Or will they take a custom approach, relying on the skilled craftspeople on the front lines of instruction to make adaptations to suit the needs and contexts of their schools?

Exciting new survey results from the National Center on Literacy Education (NCLE) demonstrate the power of the custom approach, and in particular the power of teacher collaboration, in driving Common Core State Standards (CCSS) implementation.

The survey was conducted online in October 2013 among members of organizations in the NCLE coalition (which includes AMLE) and garnered responses from almost 5,700 K–12 educators, including more than 3,000 classroom teachers (nearly 900 in middle grades schools). The survey was limited to respondents in states and roles actively implementing the CCSS in ELA/Literacy.

Successful Transitions to CCSS

The transition to the CCSS seems to be most successful when teachers are highly engaged in the process and have time to collaborate to leverage their collective professional expertise to bring all students to higher levels of literacy. This is great news for middle grades schools, where teaming structures provide a framework for doing the kinds of interdisciplinary work called for by the CCSS.

The nearly 900 middle grades teachers who responded to our survey reported a wide variation in how their schools are approaching the change, but send four clear messages for making the transition a success:

1. Accelerate the changes by keeping front-line educators engaged in designing how literacy skills can be taught differently.
Middle grades schools across the country are taking a range of different approaches, some dependent on purchased materials, some much more teacher-driven.

We asked middle grades teachers how engaged they are in several aspects of the CCSS transition. Is this a change they are driving, or a change that is being done “to” them? We discovered that three specific kinds of teacher engagement are crucial to how well the CCSS transition is going:

  • Planning how their school will implement the standards.
  • Having time with colleagues to work on the standards.
  • Identifying and/or creating their own materials and approaches.

From having a voice in planning how their school would implement the standards, to having time with colleagues to dig into the meaning of the standards and implications for classroom practice, to being trusted to exercise their professional judgment in terms of what materials will best help their particular students reach the standards, engaged teachers are making more progress at every step of CCSS implementation: supporting the standards, feeling well-prepared to help students meet the standards, and actually making changes in their classrooms.

2. Make collaboration time purposeful professional work by focusing on real instructional tasks.
One of the most powerful predictors of progress with implementing the standards was teachers having time to work through them with colleagues. Middle grades teachers have an advantage here compared to teachers at other levels, reporting more built-in time for team work than elementary school or secondary school teachers.

Compared to teachers who are doing it on their own, teachers who participated in collaborative work with colleagues around the standards were twice as likely to rate themselves as well-prepared to help their students meet the standards and also much more likely to report having already made moderate or significant changes in their teaching in response to CCSS goals.

Table 1 illustrates the impact of collaboration on CCSS implementation, showing that teachers who have opportunities to collaborate around the standards report being better prepared to implement the standards and are already making more changes in their practice. Clearly, with fewer than half the teachers who responded feeling well-prepared, we are at an early stage in this transition. Providing time for teachers to work through the standards together is one of the most powerful ways to raise the level of preparedness.

Middle schools across the country are investing huge amounts of time and money in professional learning around the new standards. But what kinds of learning experiences do teachers tell us really make a difference in their ability to implement the standards? As Table 2 illustrates, among middle grades teachers in the NCLE survey, hands-on planning time with colleagues was the clear winner.

The survey also provides a window into what teachers do during that time that makes a difference for student learning. Teachers who reported that they frequently engaged in the following CCSS-related tasks with a collaborative team were making the most progress:

  • Co-creating lessons
  • Co-creating assessments
  • Examining student work together.

For example, teachers who reported that they frequently had the opportunity to spend time with a team looking at real examples of student work relative to specific standards were twice as likely to rate themselves well-prepared to help their students meet the standards.

Research suggests that this relationship is so strong because professional learning that is embedded in the real work of instruction is far more likely to lead to desired changes. Such tasks let teachers pool their insights and experiences and adjust their practice in real time. Investing in the time to do this kind of practical, applied work will pay off in remodeled instruction that is more coherent and structurally sound.

3. Bring educators in all disciplines and roles together in shifting literacy practices.
Middle grades teachers have always understood that literacy is central to student success across the curriculum. In the 2012 NCLE survey, 80% of middle grades educators in all job roles and subject areas agreed that “Developing students’ literacy is one of the most important parts of my job.”

The Common Core builds on that existing shared ownership of literacy development by providing a structure of common goals, a more concrete description of what it means to be literate in the 21st century that educators can work toward together.

Our data show that middle grades teachers across subject areas are shifting practices in response (see Table 3). Majorities of teachers across subject areas report shifts, but teachers of natural and social sciences were more likely to report an impact on how they teach than on what, suggesting they are getting the message that CCSS are not asking everyone to become English teachers, but rather to be more conscious of and strategic about literacy development within their own content area.

4. Build teacher ownership of the change by providing space and support for them to innovate and design the lessons and materials that are right for their students to meet the CCSS goals.
Some of the most striking findings in our survey have to do with the role of textbooks and other materials in the transition to CCSS. When asked if the “main curricular materials” (presumably textbooks) they were currently using are well aligned with the new standards, 59% of middle grades teachers say they are not. Under a model of educational change driven by teachers sticking to a script, this would be a problem, the assumption being that without an aligned textbook to follow, teachers will not shift their literacy practices in the desired direction. In fact, just 25% of teachers rated finding instructional materials aligned with the standards to be a major challenge.

It seems that teachers have a much broader definition of materials than purchased textbooks. As envisioned in the standards document, teachers are drawing on a wide array of resources from classroom libraries to newspaper and magazine articles and especially lessons designed by other teachers near and far. The transition to the new standards coupled with digitally literate teachers has led to an explosion of sharing and adapting of instructional materials, some on education-specific platforms but many more through the use of broader technologies such as YouTube, Pinterest, and Twitter.

Last fall, almost 90% of middle grades teachers reported that in their district, teachers are identifying and/or creating their own materials and approaches to meet the standards. This is exciting news: sustainable change comes from the bottom up, powered by the insight and ownership of those on the front lines.

A Teacher-Powered Transition

Data from the 2013 NCLE survey suggest that most middle schools are taking a “custom” approach to this huge remodeling job, drawing on the talents of teachers to bring the general code of the CCSS to life in ways that make sense in their specific context.

District and school leaders can continue to support a successful, teacher-powered transition by:

  • Involving teachers in planning for the change.
  • Protecting time for teachers to collaborate on standards implementation.
  • Focusing collaboration time close to the classroom: on designing, testing, and revising lessons and assessments.
  • Keeping the collaboration interdisciplinary.

They can also give networked teachers the autonomy to create and design the materials that will get their students to the shared goals of the standards.


Catherine Awsumb Nelson is an evaluation and research consultant for the National Center for Literacy Education. catawsumb@gmail.com


This article was published in AMLE magazine, March 2014.
Author: Catherine Awsumb Nelson
Number of views (5818)/Comments (1)/
Tags: Literacy

Digging into PISA Results

Most of the headlines following the latest results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) focused on the fact that the performance of 15-year-olds in the United States has remained flat for the past decade while the performance of their peers in other nations improved. As a result, the United States is now ranked 26th out of 34 industrialized countries in mathematics, 17th in reading, and 21st in science.

At first glance, it might seem as if the PISA results are not that instructive. After all, U.S. educators don’t need yet another test to tell them that their students rank below their international peers. But PISA doesn’t just tell us where U.S. students rank internationally, it also offers important insights into policies and practices that can inform educational policy going forward.

One specific challenge for the United States that emerged from the PISA results is the nation’s declining performance in an important area: the proportion of students who performed at the top levels.

As an Alliance for Excellent Education report (http://all4ed.org/?p=18019) that analyzes the PISA results finds, 8.8% of U.S. 15-year-olds performed at the top levels in mathematics, compared with 10.1% in 2003; 7.9% performed at the top levels in reading, compared with 12.2% in 2000; and 7.5% performed at top levels in science, down from 9.1% in 2006 (that decline was not statistically significant).

By contrast, several high-performing nations had far higher proportions of students at the top levels, and many increased the proportions of students who scored high. Shanghai-China had far and away the most high performers, with 55.4% at top levels in mathematics, 25.1% in reading, and 27.2% in science. Singapore, Korea, Japan, Canada, and Switzerland, among other nations, all had considerably more students at the top levels than did the United States. Poland’s proportion of top performers rose substantially, from 10.1% to 16.7% in mathematics and 5.9% to 10% in reading.

The fact that so few U.S. students reached top levels—and that the number who have done so is dropping—is worrisome. These levels indicate that students can use their knowledge to think critically, solve complex and
novel problems, and communicate effectively—precisely the deeper learning competencies that are essential for their future. Unfortunately, they are also the skills that far too many U.S. students lack—a fact that the nation’s teachers already understand and are working to correct.

What the PISA results do not capture is all the hard work that educators, administrators, and students are currently doing to improve U.S. performance in the next round of PISA exams, in 2015. The Common Core State Standards in English language arts and mathematics place a strong emphasis on core content knowledge as well as the ability to use knowledge to think critically, solve problems, and communicate effectively.

The challenge for the United States is to implement the Common Core State Standards and assessments effectively so that teachers receive the support they need to teach those abilities effectively, and all students have the support they need to learn them. Improving PISA performance, and more important, improving the nation’s civic and economic strength, depends on whether the nation can meet that challenge.


Bob Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, Washington, D.C. alliance@all4ed.org


This article was published in AMLE Magazine, March 2014.
Author: Bob Wise
Number of views (2582)/Comments (0)/
Topics: Leadership
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