A Journey for Content Area Literacy Development and PLCs

A Journey for Content Area Literacy Development and PLCs

How to engage teacher teams in whole-school literacy and learning improvement

It's 7:30 Tuesday morning and groups of teachers are sitting in their first meeting of the year for their professional learning communities (PLCs). Thick binders filled with colored tabs and volumes of files of student literacy achievement data are in front of them. Teachers look at each other with a variety of feelings ranging from cautious optimism to bewilderment to dread. All they know is that they need to come up with a cross-discipline literacy improvement plan based on all these reports of data. They just wish they had some type of roadmap to guide them to not only make sense of the data, but to implement a literacy improvement plan that really succeeds this time.

Unfortunately, this scenario describes a common beginning of well-intentioned attempts to use data for improving reading, writing, thinking, and content area achievement. Clearly, the idea of teachers working together in PLCs and reviewing data together is important, but without guidance and support in how to collect, analyze, and use data to inform the design of their initiatives, the effectiveness of their work will be diminished. There is plenty of evidence to support the use of high-functioning PLCs to increase achievement and reduce achievement gaps. But the effectiveness of teacher teams is often contingent on a shared commitment to and optimism for improvement, a viable plan, skillful execution of research-supported strategies, and sincere dedication to taking and monitoring decisive actions.

Many PLCs may feel hesitant to choose to go on a new journey to improve literacy and learning because prior attempts have been met with too many challenges and less than expected results, especially for struggling learners and underachievers. Teacher teams often develop low group self-efficacy and lack a group growth mindset because they have not succeeded in prior initiatives together as a team. The resilience of teacher teams also gets worn down, and solving a compelling problem like low reading and writing performance seems farfetched. When teacher teams don't "win" (i.e., succeed) together, they often lose their desire to work together and lack the confidence and perseverance to improve student literacy and content achievement.

Taking the road to improving literacy and content area achievement can bring positive, measurable results for all students—especially for struggling learners and underachievers—and sparks new life and group efficacy into PLCs. The journey described below illustrates how teacher teams can "cause" student growth when the entire school is moving in the same direction, at the same time, and with sincere effort and skillful execution.

Determining the Vision

As with any successful journey, we need to have a clear vision. The school's PLCs should answer the following essential question before the journey begins: What will it take to ensure that students become confident, self-directed, and successful when they read, write, think, and learn in content areas? There's plenty of direction on reading, writing, and thinking expectations in state and national standards, and PLCs can benefit from unpacking those standards and literacy skills required for success across all content areas. Teachers often envision students who can independently read and summarize literary and informational text, process information, create meaning, and demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways including open and closed-end response tests, performances, and products. Teachers envision students who feel confident and competent in their literacy and learning skills and who demonstrate enthusiasm for learning. Finally, teachers envision PLCs that can work collaboratively to arrive at their destination because they had the will, skill, and ability.

Determining the Need

Teacher teams have to feel the need to leave their existing conditions to take even the first steps on the reading, writing, and thinking road to content achievement. The desire to embark on the journey results when teachers engage in guided and efficient collaborative examination of achievement data, student work, and learning practices. Groups use guiding questions to analyze and transform data into actionable knowledge so they can put it to work to improve student literacy and learning. Group process protocols efficiently yield rich conversations and useful insights about the data including patterns, comparisons, strengths, needs, and effects. Teams identify the strategies and interventions that have been previously used in the school to develop student literacy and content achievement and determine the effectiveness of previous actions, especially for struggling learners and underachievers. Finally, teams engage in an analysis of contributing factors that may cause literacy and learning problems. This actionable knowledge helps the school match strategies and plans for improvement efforts to the greatest areas of student need and the most prominent contributing factors.

Planning the Journey

There is no doubt that large groups can make planning for school improvement quite challenging. A smaller representative group of teachers from the PLCs—the planning team—can act as liaisons for their PLC and more efficiently draft plans for the improvement journey. The chief goal of this school team is to match the PLC's and school's vision of literacy and learning, knowledge about existing student performance, and contributing factors with research-supported practices. The planning team examines professional literature and research to identify promising instructional and assessment strategies and practices and best practices for effective school improvement and professional development. For example, published meta-analysis results related to literacy and learning demonstrate that the use of graphic representations, summarizing, focused skill questioning, explicit teaching, and differentiation yield percentile gains on a variety of measures, including content achievement. Also, professional literature illustrates that ongoing professional development, PLC collaborative inquiry, consistent progress monitoring and adjustment, instructional coaching, and administrative support yield positive results for school improvement.

The culminating activity for the team is to create a template plan that will be used by all the PLCs. Figure 1 illustrates a plan that assists teacher teams in selecting two literacy skill targets for 30 to 60 days and identifying indicators, measurements, strategies/methods, and actions. PLCs complete their planning in their meetings, and team plans are then shared with all staff so cross-PLC sharing is possible, their commitment is public, and PLCs can create partnerships to accomplish similar goals.

Figure 1

Taking Decisive Action

In the first implementation stage of the journey, PLC members and instructional paraprofessionals/aides participate in professional development on the use of graphic organizers, summary templates/frames, focused skill questioning, explicit teaching, and peer-to-peer interaction. Then teachers in each PLC select a compatible graphic organizer, summary frame/template, and question stems for the two comprehension targets identified in their planning template (see https://tinyurl.com/ybk4nyv7 for examples). Figure 2 illustrates instructional strategies for a specific literacy skill.

Figure 2

Stage two of the implementation involves collecting and analyzing the baseline information needed to determine progress. Teachers assign students to read or listen to a text or topic in their content area, and students complete a graphic organizer and write a summary. Teachers examine their students' work with a three-point rubric and then select a high, average, and low quality example from each task above to bring to their PLC meeting. Teachers use a group protocol in their team meetings to analyze student work and gain insights about the qualities of student work that made it high, average, or low quality. They discuss aspects that need to improve (e.g., key ideas, detail, organizational pattern) and share how each member will commit to helping students improve during the next couple of weeks. Teachers then keep student artifacts and lesson descriptions from at least two lessons per month in their teacher portfolio. Teachers are also provided with support for creating lessons that explicitly teach targeted literacy and thinking skills using graphic organizers, summaries, question stems, and peer-to-peer interaction.

During the third stage of the journey, teachers frequently utilize lessons or tasks in which students use selected graphic organizers and summaries and respond to question stems that match the PLC's target literacy skills. Teachers also learn to use rubrics to engage students in self-assessment about the use of graphic organizers, summaries, and questioning. Once again, teachers select a high, average, and low quality example from each task above, and they use a group protocol in teams to analyze student work. The second group of protocols has PLC members share their lessons, observations of student use, and changes from the original samples. Teachers create student improvement needs and identify needed coaching and other professional development and support. They also continue to place sample artifacts of student work and lesson descriptions in their professional portfolio for this initiative.

Instructional coaches, teacher leaders, and administrators provide support for the improvement initiatives during this part of the journey. Coaches and teacher leaders can conduct demonstration lessons in the classroom. This type of support provides teachers with an opportunity to observe the process of explicitly teaching content and literacy skills concurrently. Coaches, teacher leaders, and administrators also work with teachers to design lessons that use the selected strategies. After the first 30 days it may be useful to use walkthroughs to determine levels of implementation and talk with students about their perceptions of the improvement initiatives and strategies.

During the fourth stage of the implementation, teachers bring their samples of student work to PLC meetings and they share how often they are using graphic organizers, summaries, question stems, and peer-to-peer interaction to determine that there is a high level of implementation. Different protocols are used for troubleshooting, measuring progress, and determining student and teacher learning needs. Teachers also respond to guided questions to examine artifacts in their professional portfolio. Professional development focuses on differentiation techniques that address the needs of high, average, and low achievers. Special Education, RTI, ELL, and other student services specialists provide additional strategies and coaching. Opportunities are created for cross-discipline and grade groups to meet and discuss the implementation progress and to reinforce a whole-school commitment to the literacy and learning improvement initiative during the first 60 days.

The last stage of the literacy and learning improvement journey is ongoing. PLCs continue to use group process protocols and their professional portfolios to recognize progress, make adjustments, and celebrate successes. PLCs reflect on what they are learning during the implementation and identify their professional learning needs. Instructional coaches, teacher leaders, specialists, and administrators continue to provide differentiated professional development and support for various PLCs and individual teachers.

Making It Successfully to the Destination

There really is no end to the journey to improve literacy and learning. Student learning needs, accountability, teachers, and the art of teaching and learning seem to always change. Yet, it is still important for schools, and especially PLCs, to check on progress toward their literacy and learning vision. Standardized test scores and content area achievement illustrate that this journey has yielded increases in student achievement and reduced achievement gaps. This journey helped many students develop confidence and competence related to literacy and content achievement. It has strengthened the professional efficacy of individual teachers and PLCs and helped them develop and sustain a culture of inquiry and continuous improvement rarely experienced before by some PLCs. Finally, this journey injects new life into a whole-school improvement initiative where PLCs work with students to make a literacy and learning vision come alive.

Bobb Darnell is president of Achievement Strategies, Inc., as well as an educator, presenter, and author.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2019.
Author: Bobb Darnell
Number of views (1483)/Comments (0)/
It's Worth Getting Up to Speed on School Law

It's Worth Getting Up to Speed on School Law

Knowing laws that affect educators can clarify rights and responsibilities and minimize negative consequences

A few years ago, a colleague of mine at a local middle school lamented that he had to stop being a volunteer leader for his church's youth group. When I asked him why, he said he had heard someone on talk radio say that there was a new state law that we couldn't be public school teachers and also work with youth in our own place of worship who were also our students in the local school. He was greatly relieved when I corrected him and told him that there was no such law, nor would it be constitutional (see the First Amendment as well as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), and that he had every freedom to practice his religion on his own time, including working with youth in his church, but that he should not promote his personal faith while teaching his public school pre-algebra class.

In today's litigious world, teachers can be very anxious, worried about being accused of all sorts of inappropriate behaviors and statements, not all of which are accurate, and wondering about their legal recourse. They can also operate in the classroom completely unaware that they are violating students' rights or breaking a local, state, or Federal law, then suffer the consequences of that ignorance when prosecuted for their actions. They also want to support students and colleagues who are suffering an injustice and need advocacy. Knowing their school laws may be the first step to relief.

A Quick Review

A look at some of our education laws demonstrates the direct impact of school law on our professional practices. Teachers may be surprised to find that there is no fundamental right to education guaranteed by the Constitution. Public education is a right protected in state constitutions, not by the federal government, which gets us into very complex waters when it comes to funding: Impoverished areas lack the property taxes and other funding sources to pay for local schooling, so should wealthier areas subsidize impoverished areas because the education of all citizens benefits the general state welfare? See San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1972) to start discussion on this.

Brown v. Board of Education (1954) declared that, "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," and ordered the end of legally mandated, race-segregated schools. In 2007, when looking at affirmative action and competitive high schools in Seattle, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 found that the denial of admission to a public school because of a student's race in the interest of achieving racial diversity is unconstitutional. Lau v. Nichols (1974) found that, under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans educational discrimination on the basis of national origin, students with limited English proficiency have rights to equal treatment in schools, including "linguistically appropriate accommodations."

What about the right to attend school? In 1975 Texas, they passed a law denying enrollment in their public schools to anyone not legally admitted to the country, and to withhold state funds for the education of such children. In Plyler v. Doe (1982), the Supreme Court took up the case, and their question was, "Whether denying undocumented children of illegal immigrants the right to attend public school constitutes discrimination based on alienage that violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?" Their ruling: Yes, it does, and the Texas law was unconstitutional. Justice Brennan, in writing for the majority, said,

"[E]ducation has a fundamental role in maintaining the fabric of our society" and "provides the basic tools by which individuals might lead economically productive lives to the benefit of us all." Further … the children of such illegal entrants "can affect neither their parents' conduct nor their own status," and "legislation directing the onus of a parent's misconduct against his children does not comport with fundamental conceptions of justice."
– https://www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/educational-activities/access-education-rule-law

There is extensive education law on state curriculum as well. Epperson v. Arkansas (1968), for example, declared an Arkansas statute that made teaching of evolution in public schools illegal violated the Establishment Clause. The justices in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) found that a Louisiana law requiring the equal treatment of evolution and creation science in public school classrooms unconstitutional. Kitzmiller v. Dover (2005) found that intelligent design was not science and to mandate science teachers in Dover read a statement aloud to students during lessons on evolution indicating intelligent design was a viable alternative to evolution was unconstitutional.

In a recent curriculum case, teachers in a Maryland school district did not violate religious liberty or free speech rights of students by requiring them to do homework assignments and hear presentations about Islam: "[The] Court finds that world history course had a secular purpose, not an endorsement of religion. Applying [the Lemon test], the panel determined that the school officials had the secular purpose of studying religion on a comparative basis." (February 21, 2019 by David L. Hudson Jr., February 21, 2019 post, "4th Circuit rejects challenge by student who objected to Islam study in World History course," https://mtsu.edu/first-amendment/post/199/4th-circuit-rejects-challenge-by-student-who-objected-to-islam-study-in-world-history-course).

In other laws, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, furthered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects teachers at public schools from discrimination based on race, sex, and national origin, and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 protects against discrimination based on sex at educational institutions that receive federal financial assistance. Teachers are allowed to join labor groups and run for political office as long as those efforts don't interfere with their school responsibilities. Teachers are not allowed to be terminated or demoted due to pregnancy, nor can they be denied a promotion for pregnancy. Yes, principals and teachers can search students' lockers and backpacks (New Jersey v. TLO (1985)), and yes, schools can have metal detectors, but they are not allowed to be used only on certain groups of students and not others.

Special Education

Let's keep all those special education laws on the radar as well, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 in which public schools are required to have a 504 coordinator, and to make reasonable changes to instruction and setting so students with disabilities can be successful. Disabilities include anything that

…substantially limits one or more of major life activities … Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), epilepsy, food allergies, dwarfism, bi-polar disease and many more. Under these circumstances, schools may not ban or prevent students from obtaining the full benefits of a solid education based on a student's disability and reasonable request for accommodations.

– education.findlaw.com/special-education-and-disabilities/504-accommodations-in-schools

Reasonable accommodations include things like extra time for taking tests, removing distractions from a student's work area, letting students stand during class, providing a graphic organizer if needed, providing an audio recording of text if visually challenged, giving a "heads up" notice to students before transitions, providing a collapsible aperture (interlocking L's) so students can focus on just one segment of text when reading, among others.

Students' Rights

Turning to students' rights and freedom of expression, Public Law 98-377, the Equal Access Act, requires schools to grant equal access to student groups that wish to meet for religious, political, or philosophical purposes, if the school allows other types of non-curriculum-related student groups to meet. And yes, students have a right to express opinions and beliefs in school, including wearing black arm bands as a statement against what they feel is an unjust war, as long as it doesn't disrupt the class or school activities:

It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate … School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students in school as well as out of school are "persons" under our Constitution. They are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect … In the absence of specific showing of constitutionally valid reasons to regulate their speech, students are entitled to freedom of expression of their views.
– Justice Abe Fortas, writing for the majority, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969)

In Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser (1986), however, the Supreme Court identified limitations on student expression after a student made a vulgar speech at a school assembly and the school disciplined him for it. The Court declared that the student's speech, "…failed the 'substantial disorder' part of the Tinker test. Chief Justice Warren Berger, writing for the majority, said that schools have a responsibility to instill students with 'habits and manners of civility as values.' The effect of Fraser's speech … was to undermine this responsibility; therefore, he did not receive First Amendment protection for it."

– education.findlaw.com/student-rights/free-speech-lawsuits-involving-public-schools

Note that in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988), when a principal censored articles in the school paper about pregnancy among students, the Supreme Court further restricted student expression. The Court declared that Tinker v. Des Moines (1969)

…didn't apply since the school newspaper was a school-sponsored activity. According to the Court, when an activity is school sponsored, school officials may censor speech as long as such censorship is reasonably related to legitimate educational concerns. The Court went on to define these concerns broadly, stating that school officials would have the right to censor material that is, 'ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitable for immature audiences, or inconsistent with shared values of a civilized social order.'

– education.findlaw.com/student-rights/free-speech-lawsuits-involving-public-schools

In sum, principals and schools are allowed to censor student newspapers, literary magazines, and theatrical productions.

Yes, students have the right to stay silent and seated during the Pledge of Allegiance, and no, schools are not allowed to start the day or any activity with a prayer or promote religion [see the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, Engel v. Vitale (1962), and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963)]. Interestingly, in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow (2004) in which a father didn't want his daughter to say the Pledge of Allegiance because of its inclusion of, "Under God," the 9th Circuit found that Congress's 1954 act adding the words "under God" to the Pledge and the school district policy requiring it be recited both violated the First Amendment's establishment clause.


In 2019, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District questions whether or not a sports coach can lead voluntary prayer after the sporting event when he is such an influential authority upon students and represents the school in that moment on the field. As of this writing, the Supreme Court has refused to hear the case.

In addition, when states and localities attempt to pass laws regarding religious teachings in schools, Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) clarifies that statutes "Must have a secular legislative purpose; must have primary effects that neither inhibit nor advance religion, and cannot foster an 'excessive government entanglement with religion.' This is the go-to test for many legislative debates. We cannot promote religious beliefs and practices in public schools,but we can teach about the influences of religion. Would any of these rulings pertain to our current school practices?

Teachers' Rights

In Pickering v. Board of Education (1968), the Supreme Court found that teachers had a First Amendment right to speak on matters of public importance, meaning the school system couldn't punish or fire a teacher for writing an editorial in a local paper that was critical of the school system. This is clarified, however, with, "Teachers may not materially disrupt the educational interest of the school district, nor may teachers undermine authority or adversely affect working relationships at the school" (education.findlaw.com/teachers-rights/teachers-different-freedoms-and-rights-article). Wait, it gets messier: What about teachers discussing politics in class or posting on Facebook or Instagram? It's actually not well protected under the law. In Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006) and later in Mayer v. Monroe County Community School (2007), the Supreme Court declared that teachers can speak outside the classroom, but rights to free speech in the classroom and while doing anything pursuant to their jobs are not protected:

The Supreme Court, in Garcetti v. Ceballos, a case where a prosecutor was transferred and denied a promotion after questioning the credibility of a deputy sheriff, greatly restricted the freedom of speech of public employees by holding that speech pursuant to one's official duties that harms one's employer can lead to discipline. In other words, a tweet from an account identifying the speaker as a teacher at a particular school criticizing the school or the district (or perhaps a student or student's parent) may lead to discipline or termination if it could potentially damage the employer.

In a second case, again involving an angry prosecutor, a lawyer was terminated after circulating a questionnaire about the alleged mismanagement of the district attorney's office. This is also where the court highlighted the line between private work matters (not protected), and "matters of public concern" (protected): the office's internal management was of no concern to the public, but a tweet about, say, a political election might be protected.

What's the best practice for teachers? If you must use social media, include disclaimers that note that your speech is your personal opinion and not related to your employment. Also, avoid speaking about work-related matters unless … the speech is protected as discussion related to working conditions and collective bargaining.

– https://education.findlaw.com/teachers-rights/teachers-and-social-media-rights-and-responsibilities.html

And in Mayer v. Monroe County Community School (2007), the court stated:

A teacher hired to lead a social studies class can't use it as a platform for a revisionist perspective that Benedict Arnold wasn't really a traitor, when the approved program calls him one; a high school teacher hired to explicate Moby Dick in a literature class can't use Cry, The Beloved Country instead, even if Paton's book better suits the instructor's style and point of view; a math teacher can't decide that calculus is more important than trigonometry and decide to let Hipparchus and Ptolemy slide in favor of Newton and Leibniz.
– Underwood, J. (2017/2018). School districts control teachers' classroom speech.

Phi Delta Kappan, 99(4), 76-77


This is just a taste of what's circulating around us, affecting each of us—including our students—in real time and real ways, as we walk to the front of the room to explain Punnett squares in our genetics unit. The law protects us and our students, but to avail ourselves of its best intent, we need to be up to speed and aware. Legal savvy on the part of classroom educators has achieved some of the greatest moments in student and professional advocacy over the decades, but it takes reading up on school law, or at least having an initial understanding of our rights and our responsibilities. Here are some recommended resources to get started:

  • https://www.uscourts.gov/about-federal-courts/educational-resources
  • https://www.nsba.org/advocacy/school-law-issues
  • https://education.findlaw.com/
  • https://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/school_law/
  • https://schoollaw.com/
  • https://www2.ed.gov/policy/landing.jhtml?src=pn
  • American Public School Law by Kern Alexander and M. David Alexander
  • School Law and the Public Schools: A Practical Guide for Educational Leaders by Nathan L. Essex
  • School Law: What Every Educator Should Know, A User-Friendly Guide by David Schimmel, Louis Fischer


The laws of any given country are some of the clearest expressions of that country's values and identity. To know ourselves and to progress as a civil and compassionate society, we need to understand our laws. Teaching students and operating schools blind to those laws can do real damage. When working with young adolescents so focused on fairness and progressively nuanced ethics, in particular, it's wise for us to know school laws, help students interpret those laws, and use that knowledge in the service of student learning and teacher professionalism. With this, we file for the plaintiff: successful middle schools everywhere. It is entered on the merits alone, and without objection.

The Importance of Knowing School Law — An Interview with Chris Toy

Chris Toy, a veteran middle school teacher and principal, has taught a popular graduate school course in school law for teachers and administrators for years. He does very little lecture, choosing instead to conduct the course through case studies, classroom simulations, and mock court activities. When asked to consider the importance of educators knowing school law, he writes,

I'm still amazed that an introduction to school law doesn't appear to be a required part of stepping into a classroom and working with students; we need to keep up to date. In my course, we use current, often undecided, appellate court cases because things are changing FAST. Any teacher or administrator not up to speed on transgender issues, charter schools and funding, digital citizenship, or family privacy rights will quickly find themselves in the news and possibly in court.

Yes, educators need to know the classic history of school law, such as Brown v. Board of Education, Tinker, Rowley, etc. Those set the stage for so many things such as students' rights, equal access, Free Appropriate Public Education guaranteed by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and more. Educators also must know recent landmark cases—Newdow, Endrew v. Douglas County, Grimm v. Gloucester County—to avoid depriving students and their families of important rights.

The most crucial thing teachers and administrators need to keep in mind are their legal rights and responsibilities as caretakers acting in loco parentis: "in place of the parents." Most teachers have pretty much forgotten what they learned about the Bill of Rights. And more importantly, they may never have engaged in conversations and situations in schools and classrooms where the fundamental rights of students, parents, teachers, administrators, and citizens come into conflict. Few teachers understand that there are important differences and similarities in how the freedoms of speech, religion, privacy, equal access, and equal protection apply in schools. Of course, one class in school law will NOT make educators competent to address legal issues that have spun out of control, but they will have a better chance of sensing that a situation MAY be a legal issue that needs to be referred to a supervisor.

I share my MR. T (Model, Reflect, Transfer) strategy in the course, but the most important one that educators ignore at their own peril is taking time to Reflect. Most legal fights in school law can probably be prevented if a teacher or other decision maker takes a few seconds to stop in the heat of a situation and reflect on the legal implications of what is happening or about to happen, rather than yielding to a knee jerk response. This reflection element really resonates with my graduate students in the course. After one class, one student suggested I add a sound bite to my slide on the importance of reflecting before acting, recommending Dave Brubeck's, "Take Five."

Sound legal advice.

— Chris Toy, via e-mail interview, March 10, 2019

Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant and author living in Herndon, Virginia. His book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy, Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way, is available from www.amle.org/store. His new book, Fair Isn't Always Equal (second edition) (Stenhouse Publishers), was released in 2018, and his other new book, Summarization in any Subject: 60 Innovative, Tech-Infused Strategies for Deeper Student Learning, (second edition) (ASCD), co-authored with Dedra Stafford, was just released.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2019.
Author: Rick Wormeli
Number of views (2860)/Comments (0)/
The Problem with, "Show Me  the Research" Thinking

The Problem with, "Show Me the Research" Thinking

Understanding the limitations of education research and accepting responsibility for contributing to moving it forward

Most studies in education are observational studies. This means that investigators pore over data previously collected by others. They seek correlations between different variables. This approach is far less expensive than other methodologies because it is easier and faster. With research budgets stretched thin, cost is a major consideration. The trouble is that observational studies are subject to biases that sometimes make the results unreliable. If results can't be replicated by others, the conclusions lose credibility.
—Walt Gardner, Limitations of Education Studies, posted on July 20, 2012

Ask any of us why we teach the way we teach. Our honest response includes a combination of years of teaching experience, how we were taught as students, our personalities, what we gleaned from professional development, administrative policies, faculty culture, and whether or not we're getting enough sleep that week. We stick with this fragile alchemy as we plan our lessons, sure that ours is the most effective instruction possible.

Then a colleague or school declares they'd like us to teach in a different way, and the first cries of, "Show me the research, or I won't accept it," tumble into faculty back-channels, the first bricks of defensive walls are laid. We're so sure of our own sense of things, devoid of formal research protocols as it may be, yet we demand those same protocols before considering anything new. And for some, anything short of incontrovertible proof of a new strategy's provenance and direct impact on student learning is grounds for complete dismissal, and occasionally, indignation.

Critique of new ideas in education is often the way many of us sort our thinking and evolve as teachers. It's actually quite healthy and should be invited with all new building initiatives. We want initial skepticism, as investigation and discussion create robust engagement with new ideas. We explored this more thoroughly in, "The Grief of Accepting New Ideas," AMLE Magazine, April 2018.

Here, though, we're looking at practitioner paralysis and the lack of effective instruction that comes when educators do not understand or accept the limitations of research in social sciences, and consequently, base their decisions to use or not use teaching strategies on their perceived presence or lack of "hard science" evidence. Attending to the influencing factors of social science studies is key: Many of my own students over the years could have learned so much more if I had been more aware of the helpful insights—and clear limitations—of education research.

In his August 24, 2018 blog, math teacher and chief academic officer at Desmos, Dan Meyer, discusses a New York Times op-ed piece and its rebuttal on how math should be taught. He pulls the pedagogical lens back at one point in the debate and observes the power of tightly held beliefs affecting our actions, good or bad: "I'm absolutely convinced that a) we act ourselves into belief rather than believing our way into acting, and b) actions and beliefs will accumulate over a career like rust and either inhibit or enhance our potential as teachers." He ends the piece by asking educators to share moments when beliefs were overturned by new evidence or perspective and we were forced to change our teaching as a result. This is a scary thing for many of us, for we are not used to not knowing.

On Greg Ashman's, July 1, 2018 "Filling the Pail," blog, math and physics teacher, Lee McCulloch-James, posted a reasoned plea in their spirited debate on how teachers accept or deny education research claims:

I am a … maths-physics teacher instinctively more partial to maths/physics research itself … than to the educational research (with its "Mastery" talk) focused on its dissemination… For me much of this learning theorising needs to be packaged more cogently… Between the extremes of quoting acronyms or vacuous phrases to that of the … padded academic research papers (which merely pitch to their own), there is a need for more writing in the spirit of this Blog for us time-poor teachers. Give me a list of the ongoing debated theories and map it … to their implementation techniques in the classroom… I will find out in time what is working for the students' learning in my best efforts to churn those teaching methods deemed to be the latest best practice, while having scope for the hobbyist scientist in me to also model in my classes the process of science thinking as it is actually practised. (July 5, 2018)

The comments of assessment and teaching researcher, Dylan Wiliam, were significant factors on both sides of this debate. After a serious back and forth, however, Wiliam states,

…[The educator whose work they are discussing] does not want teachers to have to become "amateur psychologists". As teachers, our main … job seems to me to be to get our students to learn stuff. The idea is that after some time in our classrooms, our students know, understand, and can do things that they couldn't do before. As teachers, we are in the learning business. For someone professionally involved in education to be incurious about how this happens, and how to do it better, seems to me rather odd.

Then, he follows with this humbling admission in his own learning curve with cognitive load theory:

…[F]or many years (most of my teaching career in fact) I taught mathematics in a very similar way… I used problem-solving, mathematical investigations, and extended projects, and my students seemed to enjoy mathematics. I was dismissive of cognitive load theory because I did not want it to be true. I did not want to believe that the way I had been teaching was in all likelihood less effective, especially for lower-achieving students. But then I looked at the evidence, and although I could quibble with details here and there, the overall evidence was so overwhelming that I was forced to change my mind. We still know relatively little about how to apply the lessons of cognitive load theory in real classrooms, but I remain convinced that it is the single most important thing for teachers to know; students can be happily, productively, and successfully engaged in mathematical activity and yet learn nothing as a result. I don't like the fact that our brains work in this way, but it seems they do. (July 6, 2018)

Wiliam is one of the most research-discerning minds in education today, yet he struggles with the research just as we do. It's hard to do any kind of deep dive into the latest education studies when we have so much competing for our time and energy as educators. It would be crippling to have to research every move we make as teachers: What's the research say about greeting students at the door? What does it say about the number of practice problems I should give when assigning in this particular topic? Should I teach adverbs before adjectives? How about how to set up my seating chart, incorporate Chromebooks in the lesson, or if it's okay for a student to read a novel other than the one assigned? Well, yes it can—sometimes only with these variables and not those, and, of course, what this study just declared effective contradicts the conclusions of that other study, and gosh, where do I even find reliable data? Yikes, what's a teacher to do?

Avoid Physics Envy

It is a misconception that the only research in education (social sciences) that is acceptable for education reform is one that adheres to proper-protocol, juried journal, always reproducible, randomly assigned, third party confirmed research such as exists in physics and similar "hard" sciences. This is the "physics envy" referenced by Dylan Wiliam and others. In that envy, we seek models that include these steps:

  • Develop a theoretical model and hypothesis.
  • Test the hypothesis with large sample size, randomly-assigned subjects in multiple situations, controlling for variables as needed, using double-blind investigations.
  • Publish results.
  • Invite others in the field to reproduce the investigations with same elements, controls, and conditions, and get the same results. Experience validation when seemingly causal relationships established: "When A is done, B occurs. If A is not done, B does not occur."
  • Publish those verifications.

Hard science investigations in physics and chemistry, for example, can often control for their variables, which helps us isolate the impact of a particular change in the experiment's factors and outcomes. We all yearn for such assurance and clear connection between teacher decisions and student learning, but it is rarely achieved. There are often too many intersecting parts, each influencing the other, to make an absolute, unequivocal, it-always-works-like-this conclusion about one particular teaching factor in diverse students' learning. Wiliam notes, "A recent review of one hundred research papers published in top psychology journals found that fewer than 40 percent of the studies gave similar results when the same experiments were run again but by a different team. Chasing the latest fads is likely to result in trying to implement ideas that turn out to be ineffective even in the laboratory, let alone in real school settings" (2018).

In reality, data investigations often do not align with classroom realities or allow for direct transfer of a study's conclusions to successful implementation in a school. We can rarely replicate exact conditions or account for all confounding variables when repeating experiments to test theories in education. The results of any given study can be affected by: student maturation, readiness levels, cultural/family backgrounds, local politics, access to technology, English language proficiency, gender, attendance, class disruptions, community support for schools or lack thereof, presence/absence of school counselors/nurses, hunger, diet, sleep patterns, family dysfunction, parents' education, socio-economic status, access to discretionary monies, transiency rates, community violence/gang membership, afterschool care, grading practices, presence/absence of libraries, curriculum, leadership, teacher training, emotional climate, teacher-student ratio, childcare services for students who become parents at a young age, opioid use—and the new variables introduced by the intersection of any two or more of these factors.

Develop a Critical Eye for Education Research

When reading the limitations of studies, we find that some do not follow sound research protocols, but if we're not reading them with a critical eye, we don't see the issues. In some studies, for example, researchers or those interpreting their results may confuse causation with correlation, but just because two things are statistically correlated doesn't mean one element is the direct result of the other or even influences the other. The study's conclusion over-stepped its data indicators, making unfounded claims. Some studies, too, indicate great success in an early pilot with a small control group, but the positive impacts disappear when scaled up to use in a large school or district. As Wiliam notes, "Everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere" (2018).

Of particular concern is how unethical it would be in some cases to use a control group of students who are not provided with a given experimental factor in order to test that factor's effect on another group's learning. This is especially a concern if there's no time to go back and re-teach the control group students effectively if they achieved less than the experimental group, such as when one group of students is taught mathematics without benefit of manipulatives while another learns with them. And really, no parent wants to hear that teachers are experimenting on their children—It sounds sinister.

Just as importantly, though, is the fact that not all that is wise and wonderful in education has a robust research base; it doesn't exist. Where it does exist, it's usually correlational, relying more on qualitative than quantitative data analysis, studies of studies instead of true field studies, and looking at patterns/extrapolations over time, sometimes with limited data sets, or data for a large population but losing correlation when applied to an individual learner.

In his article on the research about teachers' professional learning, professor Tom Guskey (2012) points to several universal cautions about educational research in general. First, he asks us to always begin with the outcomes: What is it we are seeking for our students and teachers, and how will we know those outcomes have been achieved? Second, Guskey says we should consider the perspectives of the stakeholders. He relates an impassioned story about how the outcome of a program's use in a school carried more weight with the school board he was advising than all of his study's empirical data and charts combined, concluding: "Even when planners agree on the student learning goals … different stakeholders may not agree on what evidence best reflects improvement in those outcomes."

Education writers and reporters make every effort to get it right when it comes to research. Debra Viadero wrote a highly recommended guide for Education Writers Association (EWA) called, "Making Sense of Education Research." She cautions that, "It can be comforting to think of research as the ultimate authority on a question of educational policy or practice, but the truth is that usually it is not. The best that research can do is to provide clues on what works, when, and for whom, because classrooms, schools, and communities inevitably vary."

Viadero urges education writers, and indirectly, us, to ask the important questions about the research they're reporting:

  • "Who paid for the study? …{B]e suspicious of information generated by anyone with a stake in the results.
  • Where was the study published? In terms of trustworthiness, research published in a peer-reviewed journal almost always trumps research that is published without extensive review from other scholars in the same field.
  • How were participants selected for the study? Reporters should always be on the lookout for evidence of "creaming"–in other words, choosing the best and brightest students for the intervention group.
  • How were the results measured? It is not enough to state that students did better in reading, math, or another subject… Was it a standardized test or one that was developed by the researchers? Did the test measure what researchers were actually studying?
  • Was there a comparison group? Reporters should be wary of conclusions based on a simple pre- and post-test conducted with a single group of students.
  • What else happened during the study period that might explain the results? For example, were there any changes in the school's enrollment, teaching staff or leadership?"

Accept a Little Professional Humility

Just as I finally accept some great truth in teaching, someone comes along and shows me that the Emperor has no clothes. Take a short trip into the world of today's education research, and you'll find many teaching practices we hold dear now suspect. For example, there is considerable evidence that a diet of only project-based and inquiry learning is not as effective as we intuitively think it is, and that guided and direct instruction have clear places in the modern classroom. In a study by Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (Educational Psychologist, 2006), the authors write:

"After a half-century of advocacy associated with instruction using minimal guidance, it appears that there is no body of research supporting the technique. In so far as there is any evidence from controlled studies, it almost uniformly supports direct, strong instructional guidance rather than constructivist-based minimal guidance during the instruction of novice to intermediate learners…. Not only is unguided instruction normally less effective; there is also evidence that it may have negative results when students acquire misconceptions or incomplete or disorganized knowledge."

For those of us so sure of the veracity of our inquiry and constructivist methods, this is a real head scratcher, and our pulse quickens as we prepare rebuttals. There are other practices that current education research questions: use of rubrics, learning styles, single gender classes, coed classes, grades as motivation, technology integration, 1:1 initiatives, charter schools, teaching coding to young students, individualized/personal learning, and cultivating grit programs. ['Nodding with readers, speaking in a raised pitch, astonished and commiserating voice] "I know!"

If We Have No Time to Do the Research Ourselves, What Can We Do?

When it comes to using different instruction, standards-based grading, teaching coding to young children, and similar initiatives, we often ask for the proof that such an approach works before we embrace it. The fact is, however, that we don't have incontrovertible evidence about any of these in their entirety. What we have are focused studies within the larger category. For example, Benjamin Bloom and his mastery learning research showed that providing time and additional lessons to reteach and reassess students who did not master the content in the same timeframe as their classmates resulted in higher achievements in those students. In Classroom Instruction That Works (ASCD, 2001), Robert Marzano reports a 20 percentile increase in outside-the-school test scores when students redo assessments until they achieve a satisfactory level of performance regarding the standard. Scientists, mathematicians, and engineers re-do experiments and problems repeatedly until they solve challenging problems. From these, other studies, and life itself, we see the value of re-do's and re-takes.

To my knowledge, there has never been a full scale, amply sized, inclusive of all elements, random-selection, double-blind, causal relationship, official study of standards-based grading or differentiated instruction. And why is that? Because it's physically impossible to conduct either one, as there are too many confounding variables and intersecting elements for which we could control. It's prohibitively expensive, requires so much inference and extrapolation as to be functionally inconclusive, and in some cases, is unethical to control group students. To demand such studies and full proof of positive effects of either one before discussing their potential use in the classroom is toxic contrarianism for its own sake, and not helpful.

Education author and leader, Todd Whitaker, often reminds us that we didn't have full-proof research about going to the moon when we took that trip in 1969, but we did it anyway. There's a heck of a lot in teaching and learning that we do because of "gut" sense that it will work, brave though it may be. No parent teaching a toddler to pull up and button his own pants for the first time stops everything to go read dissertations on, "Learning to put on our own clothing," when the first attempt results in Spiderman underwear stretched from ear to ear. Common sense dictates we coach the child and ask him to try it again and again, providing feedback as needed, until he can fly solo with the task.

Properly conducted research in education is welcome. It catalyzes our next investigations and invites critical analysis from thoughtful educators. It informs our decisions, but it rarely identifies definitive action. Teacher experience, professionalism, testimony, context, and reasonable attempts to gather more information are also valued.

We can't paralyze our instructional efforts, however, by worshiping at a limited research altar, claiming we only do research-based practices, especially when the research isn't plentiful or clearly correlating. Declaring, "Show me the research that this works, or I will refuse to do it," is a form of professional cowardice disguised as prudence. It takes professional courage to remain open to new possibilities, especially with the ones that threaten the status quo or our personal way of doing things. We can be skeptical instead of cynical, and we can ask questions instead of dismissing ideas outright.

Let's read and respond to the research that is there–seriously, there's a lot out there that gets read only by other researchers, not classroom practitioners. Once we've read and discussed what's out there, let's get more invested in the research ourselves, conducting teacher action-research, forming Critical Friends Networks and Professional Learning Communities, and sharing what we find with each other and inviting its critique.

Let's be thoughtful about what we do on a daily basis, and ask the questions we never have time to ask: How do I know this works with each of my students? What am I missing in the teaching-learning dynamic? What assumptions am I making with this teaching practice, and how are they getting in the way of student learning? What biases do I need to shed? Am I comfortable with the agenda this practice perpetuates? Is this practice born of faculty politics or sound pedagogy?

Let's put ourselves in places and experiences that are likely to connect with education research by mentoring and being mentored, reading professional journals and books, maintaining reflective journals, participating in online communities in our subject areas or educator forums, participating in Ed Camps, videotaping ourselves and analyzing our teaching with a colleague, attending workshops and conferences, watching webinars, video-conferencing with researchers and authors, and seeking National Board Certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

We are imperfect, and our field is imperfect. We'll shake apart, though, if we can't accept the ambiguities and messy evolutions that form our enterprise, or if we lose interest in keeping up with an ever-changing profession. Too much is at stake to remain aloof or instructionally impotent. It's unsettling to not have a clear view of the path ahead, but that's an enticing challenge—to boldly go. The successful among us see the merits of informed discussion and the limits of argument from myth. Though we might lack the tools to get it right every time, we are attentive to others' research while contributing research of our own. We make the most conscientious decision we can, given our growing expertise and the context of any given moment. For most of us, that'll do.


Ashman, G. (2018, July 1). Filling the Pail - Mike Ollerton critiques Cognitive Load Theory [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://gregashman.wordpress.com/2018/07/01/mike-ollerton-critiques-cognitive-load-theory/

Guskey, T.R. (2012). Focus on key points to develop the best strategy to evaluate professional learning: The rules of evidence. Journal of Staff Development, 33(4).

Kirschner, P.A., Sweller J., & Clark, R.E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86. doi:10.1207/s15326985ep4102_1

Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D., Pollock, J.E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement, Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Meyer, D. (2018, August 24). Drill-based math instruction diminishes the math teacher as well [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://blog.mrmeyer.com/2018/drill-based-math-instruction-diminishes-the-math-teacher-as-well/

Viadero, D. (n.d). Making sense of education research. Retrieved from https://www.ewa.org/reporter-guide/making-sense-education-research

Wiliam, D. (2018). Creating the schools our children need: Why what we're doing now won't help much (and what we can do instead). West Palm Beach, FL: Learning Sciences International.

Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant and author living in Herndon, Virginia. His book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy, Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way, is available from www.amle.org/store. His new book, Fair Isn't Always Equal: Second Edition is available from Stenhouse Publishers.

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2018.
Author: Rick Wormeli
Number of views (20608)/Comments (1)/
Magic in the Classroom

Magic in the Classroom

The power of reflections and experiences for a professor returning to the classroom

At last year's AMLE Annual Conference for Middle Level Education, I was surrounded by passionate, knowledgeable preservice and inservice teachers, veteran and new administrators, and early career and retired professors. We were enlightened with lively discussions that captured our hearts and minds with stories and data, and we were challenged to think and rethink how we reach out to one another and to our students.

For one of my presentations, I shared a professional activity I had engaged in for a year. I serve a university as a professor in the education department, and I left the university to return to the classroom to teach eighth grade math in a rural county in western North Carolina. The school I joined was in their second year as a middle school and their first year as a one-to-one school.

We were not a high performing school, and our population of children received free lunch and breakfast for all children. In addition, we were considered a full-service school; the support our children received ranged from food to medical assistance to social and emotional advocacy.

I worked on a five-person team of teachers and with faculty, staff, and administrators committed to collaborating to meet the needs of our students. As a school new to the middle school concept, our teachers engaged in teaming, collaborative team projects, advisory, and clubs. The students participated in Battle of the Books thanks to our librarian and Science Olympiad thanks to the science department and other teachers.

Students wrote essays, honored veterans, and participated in talent contests in our community. Two groups of teachers were given the autonomy to set up school-wide support groups. One group of teachers designed and implemented a club for young men and another group implemented a peer tutoring club. My team's students made banners to support Red Ribbon Week and Earth Day.

We were grouped by teams and were set up for professional learning communities by content areas. Our school improvement team created school-wide goals and worked with our PTA to support and celebrate our community.

At the end of the year, our school met growth, and 98% of our Algebra I students passed the end-of-course exam. I worked with dedicated teachers, a dedicated parent teacher association, and supportive administrators who embraced the challenges and opportunities associated with advocating for young adolescents.

My goals were to (1) embrace the experience to glean what is needed in teacher preparation; and (2) serve a school as an educator, walking next to those closest to the field. The following are my takeaways.

Intentional Reflection
My first takeaway involved the power of reflection. I wrote 97 blog posts over the course of the year as part of my professional development plan. For each reflection I listed at least three pieces of advice. I used the 16 characteristics of This We Believe (NMSA, 2010) to label each blog. I wonder how many teachers reflect on their year and use the experiences to begin to plan for future years? I'm thinking—and hoping—that many do! Had I not purposely reflected through the year, many experiences, insights, and aha moments would have been lost. I highly recommend teachers reflect intentionally on their experiences.

Sharing and Learning with Colleagues
It's helpful to find someone to reflect with. Over the course of the year, I reflected with two colleagues intentionally. I drove to work with a colleague at least three days a week. The time we spent driving to and from work became a think tank, a reflection pool of our day, of our students and colleagues, and of our personal insights and dreams.

I also participated in a virtual reflection activity with a friend who teaches science in another state. We focused on "engaged learning" as part of her professional development plan. We celebrated successes, and sometimes just listened; well, actually we all were participant-listeners. I truly believe these two experiences made us more reflective, and gave us uninterrupted time to process our days and our ideas. We all agreed that we are better teachers because we had the chance to debrief, sometimes vent, and to celebrate and advocate for one another.

Keeping the Big Picture in Mind
There are so many facets to teaching, and so many expectations including, but not limited to, college and career readiness, critical thinking, literacy integration, technology, ethics, standards, objectives, civic engagement, social and emotional development, leadership, exploration, lesson planning, differentiation, assessment, parent involvement, homework, projects, communication, grading, collaborative planning, interdisciplinary units, clubs, safety and wellness, teaming, and mindfulness.

Focusing on academic excellence, developmental responsiveness, and creating environments that are challenging, empowering, and equitable can seem a bit daunting. Fortunately, there are tools to guide you. I recommend that you use This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents (NMSA, 2010) as an overview to give you a framework, a common language, and to remind you of the big picture.

Remember that teaching is a journey to embrace and grow. One thing we often forget is that along with teaching content, our job is to advocate for all of our students, our students' guardians, our colleagues, and ourselves. Find ways to celebrate and appreciate all who advocate for middle school students.

Finally, I hear from administrators, professors, and district personnel who say, "I wish I could go back into a classroom." I would encourage professors, administrators, and district personnel to find a way to become part of a team for a week, a semester, or a year. When I was teaching in Gainesville, Florida, my chair, Paul George, would spend two weeks teaching a social studies unit to eighth graders. He inspired me to seek ways to stay in touch with middle school students.

There is magic in classrooms. The true spirit of middle level education lives in the halls and classrooms and with teams of teachers across this country. Living this experience every day was powerful, inspirational, enlightening, and necessary to me as a professor of education. If not for an entire year, I recommend a semester, or one class for a semester, or work with a team to plan and implement an interdisciplinary unit, to revive your own knowledge and to live the power and spirit of middle level education.

Nancy Ruppert is a professor at the University of North Carolina, Asheville and serves as a trustee and past-president of the AMLE Board of Trustees. She has taught middle school math and science in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, coordinated middle grades programs at Shorter College and Charleston Southern University, and served as president of the National Professors of Middle Level Education (NaPOMLE).

Published July 2018.
Author: Nancy Ruppert
Number of views (4055)/Comments (0)/
Leading Your Own Learning through Personal Learning Networks

Leading Your Own Learning through Personal Learning Networks

As an educator, you feel each day the endless demands of your time, attention, and effort. And in the midst of all that is required of you for your students, parents, and others, you still need to find the time to recharge your batteries, grow professionally, and hone your craft.

As a committed educator, you probably know well that regardless of how it happens, you must find a way to carve time out of your busy days to engage in at least some personal professional development if you are to reach your full potential and continuously meet the needs of your students.

Taking one's own professional learning and development seriously, and finding the most effective and efficient ways to engage in it, is critical to the success of today's educator. As food for thought, consider the following from Ken Blanchard's The Heart of a Leader: Insights on the Art of Influence. He says:

"The only three things we can count on are death, taxes, and change. Since organizations are being bombarded with change, you would be wise to make learning a top priority and constantly strive to adapt to new circumstances."

So how do you commit to growing professionally in this fast-paced, high demand world? How do you refresh, maintain relevance, and provide the best possible learning experiences for yourself to in turn provide high quality learning experiences for your students? How do you lead by example to foster a love of learning among those who you teach?

Recently, our faculty has been focused on developing our areas of need by building and growing our own personal learning networks (PLNs). For those not familiar with this term, PLNs help each of us to tailor our professional learning to our own individually unique needs in a manner that helps us learn in and on our own time, in our own way that honors our own work flow and day-to-day schedules. And with the advent of new technologies, PLNs can be used in a way that helps you maximize and maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Here are some practical suggestions for building your own PLN:

  1. Create a learning community
    Whether professional organizations, informal co-worker groups, or more formal PLCs or disciplinary teams, connecting with the people that are producing the ideas and thinking that can help you grow is key. As they say, isolation is the enemy of improvement. So find at least one group generating material or eliciting your thinking in a way that supports, grows, and improves your own practice.
  2. Curate content
    There has been no easier time to be able to curate the content you consume in a way that is easily accessible at any moment you may need. Find an article you like? Drop it in Google Drive. Land a website with great ideas? Bookmark it in Evernote. Come across an infographic that helps you connect your ideas? Save a screenshot. There are endless tools you can use to create a "digital filing cabinet" that gives you access anytime you need it.
  3. Engage in social media
    This may go without saying, but the possibilities here are endless. Whether Pinterest, Twitter, or Facebook, you can build a social network of connections providing anytime PD on topics relevant to you. For me, Twitter is the way to go. I follow researchers, organizations, and leaders that shape my thinking and grow my understanding each day. Now that I use Twitter, it has become the single greatest source of ongoing, daily PD for me.
  4. Buy in to blogging
    Whether you create or consume, find at least one way a blog can positively contribute to your professional growth. For me, I follow just a handful of blogs that put out content relevant to my role as a principal and give me great ideas for leading others and developing my organization. I have recently started blogging as well, which I'm finding helps me clarify and refine my own thinking, understanding, and beliefs. Each time I write, I learn and I make new connections.

The beauty of these suggestions is that they can be modified to meet your needs depending on your schedule. For example, I curate content in Evernote and Google Drive, all of which are accessible through my devices that also allow access to Twitter, blogs, and the web. All these tools work together, and allow me to be more efficient in my own learning.

Remember, your students are watching you. You are an important leader in their life. Showing your love of learning and engagement in the learning process is one of the most powerful and important skills you can model to help your students be prepared for the future!

As Blanchard goes on to say, "When you stop learning, you stop growing." I'm not sure about you, but I certainly want to grow and thrive. Use the amazing tools available now, and you can find ways to make professional learning work for you!

Ryan M. Rich is principal of Noblesville East Middle School, Noblesville, Indiana

Published February 2018.
Author: Ryan M. Rich
Number of views (4112)/Comments (0)/
Awards Honor the Middle Level Heritage

Awards Honor the Middle Level Heritage

Awards given by the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) include the John H. Lounsbury Distinguished Service Award and the Educator of the Year (formerly the Distinguished Educator Award). Conversation about the purpose of these awards range from personal gratification to career advancement. My belief and those of former recipients indicate that these awards serve as a means to honor a school community for the teamwork exerted to make positive changes for young adolescents.

Receiving the Distinguished Educator Award created pride for what my team of teachers, administrators, parents, community, family, and students had accomplished. We worked together to turn a challenging environment into one that celebrated our young adolescents! My school community celebrated with me because this award represented their hard work. I still remember the joy the students expressed; they thought the award came for the work THEY had done! The all-school celebration rocked with excitement for achieving something TOGETHER.

Former Lounsbury award winners echoed these thoughts. Judy Brough stated: "This award reinforces the notion that mentoring yields results. We learn from each other. It honors my mentors and my students. It recognized dedication to educating ALL young adolescents in a way that is consistent with their needs and characteristics."

Micki Caskey shared a deeply personal response: "I was so surprised, delighted, and humbled. I felt two people's presence beside me on the stage, though neither was in attendance. One was John Lounsbury. The other person was my mother who passed away four months earlier. As the saying goes, she was my hero and 'the wind beneath my wings.'"

Michelle Hayward reflected on receiving the Distinguished Educator Award. "Receiving this honor was one of the great highlights of my career. However, the award was not only about me; it was about the opportunity to promote middle level education to a larger audience and to showcase the incredible students, staff, families, and school community. It offered a platform for our school to provide professional development through teacher leaders. Paying it forward and growing our profession was a residual that has created more middle level leaders."

As you can tell from the responses from some of the many former recipients, this award goes beyond personal gratification. It serves as a validation and vehicle to promote the message of the middle level. It creates an environment that serves as the foundation for excellent strategies to help ALL young adolescents succeed.

John Lounsbury poignantly offered the following comments: "As you can imagine, I had a hard time coming to grips with putting into perspective my name being used so prominently. However, I do believe that putting a face on the middle school movement has real merit. This award identifies those strong leaders and real people, and places them in the historical record of what has to be classified as a successful movement."

Read the requirements and deadlines to nominate someone for the John Lounsbury Award or the Educator of the Year award at amle.org. Help promote the positive work being done for young adolescents!

Pamela Millikan is an AMLE Distinguished Educator Award winner and past president of AMLE. She is a retired school administrator from Franklin, Indiana.

Published in AMLE Magazine, February 2018.
Author: Pamela Millikan
Number of views (2299)/Comments (0)/

Reflective Coaching: Training for All Teachers

Assessment expert Dylan Wiliam says that student thinking is the primary goal for descriptive feedback. He contrasts that goal with what often happens when teachers use judgement instead of feedback with students: threatened ego. When we invoke the need to save one's honor or self-perception in a student through our comments on his performance, there's little to no learning or growth in that student.

Interestingly, it's the same with teachers and principals. When we critique, evaluate, or provide feedback to them in such a manner that raises their defensive walls for self-preservation, there's little to be gained; the interaction isn't constructive. The question, then, is how we turn such interactions with one another into clinical, analytical experiences that create thoughtful insights within the teacher instead of a sermon on good teaching from us, or a fight to justify one's actions and save the ego from the teacher.

Consider Reflective Coaching

The world of reflective coaching is a great place to start. Many schools train specific teachers to be the building's cognitive, instructional, or transformational coaches (Peter DeWitt, "Which Coaching is Best for You?, Finding Common Ground column, Education Week, January 25, 2017), which is a great way to go—freeing these teachers from teaching duties so they can help their colleagues analyze and improve their teaching practices. My premise here, however, is that the skillsets for such coaching are invaluable for teachers. They can use them daily as they work with students, reflect individually on their own decisions and actions, and as they interact with colleagues on important policies and issues that arise. Absent these reflective coaching skillsets in teachers, all three of these experiences are much less productive, and doing them creates more stress and dysfunction in everyone involved. At that point, many of us start blaming circumstances or others for that dysfunction, and we make impulsive, ill-considered decisions. Little is achieved.

Let's empower teachers (ourselves) by getting these reflective coaching skills and insights into their (our) daily repertoire. The ultimate goal here is our self-efficacy: We can self-monitor/analyze/reflect, revise practices based on those reflections, grow professionally, and ultimately, improve student learning in our classrooms.

The University of Texas (Austin) has a wonderful overview of the basic goals of reflective coaching. They include:

  • Clarify lesson goals and objectives;
  • Help determine evidence of student achievement;
  • Help teachers anticipate teaching strategies, decisions, concerns;
  • Help teachers summarize their impressions and assessments of the lesson;
  • Help teachers recall data supporting those impressions and assessments;
  • Help teachers infer relationships between student achievement and teacher decisions/behavior;

Gosh, I would pay money to get someone to help me with these elements of teaching over the years. We're so subjective in what we do, and this provides a way to pull back the camera lens and see the larger picture with objectivity. In truth, I'm a much more effective teacher and I find more meaning in my work with students when I take the time to do these things, such as I did when going through National Board Certification or working as a peer observer for my school district. Having someone work with us on these things is like having an additional editor/muse/facilitator/encourager on board, an Obi-Wan Kenobi to our Padawan selves.

The Process

Most reflective coaching models require a three-step process: a discussion prior to what the coach is going to observe the teacher teach, the observation itself, and a post-observation discussion/reflection time between teacher and cognitive coach. This is similar to many school division "Peer Observation" programs. In the pre- and post- conversations, there are tips to make them more successful, each of which can be translated successfully for teachers working with their students individually:

  1. Be present and attentive – Make every indication that we are not distracted by other thoughts or rushing to finish the conversation; include what the person says in follow-up questions to show proof of attention paid.
  2. Honor the person – Find a way to respect the experience they bring to the discussion, make sure they feel like they are contributing to the goal.
  3. The teacher does most of the talking, not the coach. Put another way, the teacher speaks in paragraphs while the coach speaks in short sentences here and there.
  4. Avoid simplistic, sugar-coated platitudes and moralizing.
  5. Listen without judgment and regulate your internal editor. Don't give in to intellectual biases and impose them upon the other; empathize with first-time eyes. Try to remember what it was like to perceive these ideas the very first time we encountered them.
  6. Channel Stephen Covey: Seek to understand, then to be understood.
  7. Model the ideas, if needed.
  8. Ask questions without a specific answer in mind. We sometimes unconsciously telegraph that there is one, correct answer when we are hoping for a particular response in the other person, and we don't come across as genuine and exploring when we do.
  9. Use the first person plural rather than first or second person singular, i.e., "When we write we sometimes…." Instead of, "When you write, you…"
  10. Use tentative language (seems, might) and open-ended questions that come across as a mutual explorer expressing curiosity.
  11. Speak in such a way as to continue thoughtful dialog, not to prove that you are right or the problem is solved.
  12. Practice silence. It goes a long way and invites percolation.
  13. Paraphrase, a lot. This allows the teacher to see how their statements and thinking are coming across, then ask if they want to change their thinking based on how it was paraphrased.
  14. Work toward long term insights and gains, not just short-term fixes, though that can be done as needed.
  15. Focus on developing the intellect, not evaluation or judgment; seek phrasing and conversations that do not invoke the ego.
  16. The goal is teaching excellence and independence, and that might be achieved in the one we coach by using methods other than those that worked for us, so let's not limit the other person to our preferred way of doing things.

Most cognitive coaches develop their favorite questions to start and maintain helpful conversations. If we're just starting with this, identify five that seem to work well, then in subsequent coaching sessions add two or three more until we have a solid twenty or so at our mental fingertips. See Figure 1 for a starter list for reflective, analytical conversations, channeling Art Costa and Bob Garmston, and drawing from my own work.

Figure 1
Questions for Relective Conversations
View full list

How do you feel it went?
Tell me more about…
And what was your response?
Could you have said it any differently?
What was your goal there?
What did you do/decide that added to (or resolved) the issue?
What do you mean by….?
Can you give an example of….?
What have you tried so far?
Was this effective… How do you know?
Let’s brainstorm some possibilities together.
What have you done in the past, and what was the result?
How’s [X] going? You were concerned/happy with it last time.
Why did you choose….?
How will you begin?
What will you need for that?
Describe the time when this was successful for you.
Have you talked to….? They may have some advice on this.
Let’s consider the situation from his/her point of view….
How will you know your lesson/assessment was successful?
What would you like me to look for as I watch the lesson/assessment happening?
What did you see students doing (or hear them saying) that made you feel that way?
What do you recall about your own behavior during the lesson?
How did what you planned compare with what you actually did?
When you do this again next year, what will you change?

Reflective Coaching for Students

Look back through the lists of advice and questions again, but this time consider how helpful they might be if we considered them when working with students: Be present and attentive, honor what the person brings to the conversation, make sure the student does the most talking, remember what it's like to see this from first-time eyes, model if needed, don't inject your intellectual bias, speak in such a way as to maintain the conversation, and so on.

When teachers are well fortified with these skills and ready-to-use questions, they have the mindset and actionable tools to make the most of one of the most powerful teaching strategies in existence, descriptive feedback. Even better, they help students self-monitor how they are progressing toward their learning goals, which as John Hattie and Visible Learning adherents promote (visible-learning.org), has one of the highest effect sizes for impact on student learning.

'An added benefit to developing these skills in all of us: We aren't as divisive when discussing controversial issues with our colleagues or when implementing new building initiatives. We see the value of thoughtful, honoring-the-other, diverse-opinion-is-good conversations. We are willing to take the deeper dives into those topics with which we disagree with one another without fear of diminished status or threatening aftermath. When we have the tools of respectful discourse and investigation, we engage fully. With today's political, cultural, and economic tensions, these skills matter more than ever.

There's a lot of commentary about fast-thinking versus slow-thinking (as in reflective, deep dive thinking) these days, and reflective coaching certainly elevates the latter. I'm eternally grateful for all those mentors who were patient and advocated slow-thinking with me over the years. They didn't judge me for my weaknesses or let them define who I would eventually become. Instead, these mistakes were launching pads for the journey ahead. These mentors respected the need for me to resolve these issues and improve things myself, not just acquiesce to dictates from above. They sat with me and helped identify my teaching/learning biases so I could move past them and see clearly, which helped open me to my students and their learning success. My coaches did this without any agenda other than a sincere desire to facilitate my professional growth, but I can't help but think how their work with me also helped them analyze and improve their own instruction. What an honorable engagement, what a helpful tool it's time to share with others.

Resources on Reflective Coaching

  1. “Reflections on Cognitive Coaching,” by Robert Garmston, Christina Linder and Jan Whitaker, Education Leadership, October 1993, Volume 51, Number 2, Pages 57-61
  2. Cognitive Coaching: Developing Self-Directed Leaders and Learners 3rd Edition, written by Arthur L. Costa, Robert J. Garmston, Carolee, Hayes, Jane Ellison, published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2015
  3. The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation, written by Elena Aguilar, published by Jossey-Bass, 2013
  4. Coaching Classroom Instruction (Classroom Strategies), written by Robert J. Marzano, Julia A. Simms, Tom Roy, Tammy Heflebower, Phil Warrick, published by Marzano Research, 2012
  5. Coaching Conversations: Transforming Your School One Conversation at a Time written by Linda M. Gross Cheliotes and Marceta F. Reilly, published by Corwin Pres, 2010

Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant and author living in Herndon, Virginia. The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy, Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way, is available from www.amle.org/store. The latest edition of his best-selling book, Fair Isn't Always Equal, will be released in winter 2017.

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2017.
Author: Rick Wormeli
Number of views (15017)/Comments (0)/

Professional Learning Communities: A Kaleidoscope of Opportunities

A kaleidoscope contains mirrors and colored glass, pebbles, or beads whose reflections create complex patterns of frequently changing colors and shapes when rotated. The vibrant and intricate images, generated by separate entities working collaboratively, is similar to a highly functioning professional learning community (PLC). In such groups, professionals work collaboratively to enhance their practice in order to enact responsive pedagogy and address complicated sets of circumstances.

Yet, creating and sustaining an effective PLC is challenging. The nature of a school faculty is a combination of members who come and go along with others who change grade levels or content areas. These changes in faculty present challenges in trying to maintain a highly functioning PLC while also addressing the needs of young adolescents. However, these personnel changes present opportunities to learn from and consider new ideas and multiple perspectives.

My experiences working with one particular PLC at Ridgeview Charter School (RCS), an International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme School located outside of Atlanta, Georgia, provided insights into how this group of teachers formed and nurtured their community as well as the diverse types of experiences in which they participated to develop continually. Their experiences may benefit others who strive to develop and sustain this important type of community.

Supporting PLCs

The sixth grade teachers in this PLC believe that having structures, policies, time, and a designated room for meetings is instrumental to the success of their PLC. For example, PLC meeting times at RCS are scheduled within one-half of the double block of daily planning time. Each day of the week has a specific focus:

Mondays and Tuesdays: Parent and student conferencing with the entire team or individual teachers.

Wednesdays: Grade level time for the redelivery of important information or professional learning.

Thursdays: Grade level content area PLC meetings.

Fridays: Interdisciplinary team meeting times to discuss specific or general student concerns.

Assigning different focus topics throughout the week helps to ensure that a variety of interests and issues are regularly discussed and examined.

The designated PLC room is designed to facilitate discussions as well as encourage collaboration, discovery, and creativity. These ideals are promoted by equipping and stocking the room with an LCD projector, data reports, printer, computer, six large white boards, posters, tables, and even a healthy foods snack machine and Keurig coffee machine to provide professionals with easy access to necessary supplies.

Members of this PLC state that collaborating three times weekly during common planning time in a designated space enriches their teaching, which directly impacts their students' development. One teacher, Yvonnia Henderson, stated that the most meaningful work comes from the "collaboration among teachers—the sharing of successes and areas for improvement as it relates to lesson plans and student performance; being reminded each week that you are not alone and there is support when needed."

Developing and Fostering Community

Cultivating a PLC takes a great deal of time and effort. However, members of this PLC understand how their development is directly connected to their practice and the students with whom they work.

A fellowship has developed among PLC members as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, content, and goals. This camaraderie is also strengthened by their diverse backgrounds and multiple perspectives.

This community bond develops over time from combined efforts, voice, and ownership in their work. These relationships require attention and care; like any meaningful relationship, common understandings and norms must be established and revisited.

The five norms that guide the work of this PLC include: (1) Keep it positive; (2) Respect time; (3) Be respectful; (4) Use electronics respectfully and responsibly; and (5) Put students first.

Being a source of support for one another is an essential element because our work as educators can be challenging and complex. Helen Panos, a veteran teacher and first year PLC member, noted that the collaborative spirit and strong relationships of this group did "not all happen without challenges." While Mary Kathleen Sweet expanded by adding, "Being able to collaborate with my coworkers has given me new ideas and new approaches to teaching, new strategies, and a built-in support system within the sixth grade and my content area. Everyone brings something unique to the table, and each member can learn a lot from each other."

New Members

What happens when a new colleague becomes a member of an established PLC? How can PLCs continue to thrive and remain influential? It is helpful to revisit and discuss the previously established common understandings, norms, and goals of the PLC in order to help new members develop familiarity with practices and become contributing members of the PLC.

When a new member joined this PLC, the group continued its journey with the goals of ongoing professional development to help students succeed. They also committed to analyzing and using data to make informed decisions. New colleagues—whether new to the profession, the school, or the PLC—benefit from the support and mentoring of PLC colleagues.

Emilie Franz joined this sixth grade PLC after spending 17 years as an eighth grade teacher. Emilie expressed appreciation for her PLC colleagues in helping her learn about "the developmental differences between sixth and eighth grade students and the new content."

Using Protocols to Enhance Professional Development

This PLC participates in a range of professional development experiences to enhance their practice and student learning. Group members use protocols to guide their work as they engage in a variety of experiences (e.g., peer observations, co-planning, analysis of student work). Protocols provide logical approaches that encourage critical conversations and reflective thinking. The School Reform Initiative website is a useful resource where you can access a variety of protocols: www.schoolreforminitiative.org/protocols

Sustainability and Success

The shared experiences and work of the PLC helped members develop as teachers, learners, and leaders. The PLC at RCS attributes their success to: (1) the series of ongoing professional learning experiences in which they participate; (2) the support they receive from administrators; (3) the structures and policies of the school; and (4) the relationships with their dedicated colleagues.

Long-term success of a PLC requires a supportive school environment and educators who value professional learning and understand the connection between their development and student success.

As members of this PLC continue their efforts to improve their practice, they strive to transform and reinvent themselves to help students develop in positive, meaningful ways. By working together in purposeful efforts to improve their practice, these teachers are engaged in helping students develop in positive, meaningful ways.

Kathleen McCaffrey, Ed.D., is the past president of AMLE and an assistant principal at Ridgeview Charter School, an International Baccalaureate Charter Middle Years Programme School in Fulton County Schools, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2017.
Author: Kathleen McCaffrey
Number of views (7603)/Comments (0)/
Tags: PLCs
Passion is not enough: Preparing middle level preservice teachers to be advocates for change

Passion is not enough: Preparing middle level preservice teachers to be advocates for change

Each year, thousands of middle grades preservice teachers assume their places in classrooms across the country, through practica, internships, and student teaching experiences. Over 600 U.S. colleges or universities cur­rently offer some form of specialized middle level teacher preparation (Howell, Faulkner, Cook, Miller, & Thompson, 2016), many of which are in.uenced by national standards that call for a student-centered approach to learning (Association for Middle Level Education [AMLE], 2012a). As a result, these middle grades preservice teachers enter their internships having been taught to "create challenging, culturally sensitive, and developmentally responsive learning experiences that encourage exploration, creativity, and information literacy skills" (AMLE, 2012a, Rubric, Standard 4b) in their respective .eld placements.

This We Believe characteristics:

  • Educators value young adolescents and are prepared to teach them
  • Curriculum is challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant

Notably, the AMLE Standards call for preservice tea­chers to not only be prepared to work within a dynamic middle school concept but to also promote this vision, asking that they know how to "advocate for and provide leadership in the authentic implementation of middle school programs and practices" (AMLE, 2012a, Rubric, Standard 3). Additionally, AMLE Standard 5 (2012a) sets the following expectation: "Middle level teacher candidates demonstrate knowledge of advocacy theories and skills. They advocate for young adolescents and middle level education in a variety of settings (e.g., school, com­munity, youth-serving organizations, legislative bodies, policy makers)."

We agree that preparing preservice teachers to engage in advocacy work is crucial. As middle grades teacher educators, we are also aware of the challenges inherent in the expectation that preservice teachers should be prepared to be advocates. Because many of the characteristics of the reform-oriented middle level con­cept (NMSA, 2010) may challenge existing practices at their schools, middle level advocacy can be especially difficult for even the most veteran of teachers.

Given the uneven implementation of middle level education reform (McEwin & Greene, 2010), the opportunity for preservice teachers to observe and experiment with innovative practices associated with the middle school concept in their field placement schools inevitably varies. As preservice teachers spend increasing time in schools, those placed in more traditional sites often voice compelling questions: "Where are the interdisciplinary units of instruction?" "Where are the teams?" "Why do advisory sessions look like remediation?" "Where is the relevance or meaningful choice?" "Why did my mentor teacher look at me strangely when I asked about projects?"

In many ways, the absence of some of these practices provides an appropriate laboratory for learning how to advocate for authentic middle school practices, as called for by the AMLE standards. Research on teacher socia­lization forces, however, suggests that the pre-existing norms of the field placement school might simply "wash out"the effects of reform-oriented coursework (Zeichner & Tabachnick, 1981). As novice teachers become increasingly concerned with the practical expectations of student teaching, the day-to-day demands of the status quo in their assigned school may appear more urgent than the reform-minded vision, thus gaining primacy in the minds of preservice teachers, no matter how reform-minded they maybe. Additionally, as a result of their status as guests and novices in their field placement schools, preservice teachers may experience pressure to conform to the status quo of teaching and learning in their school. This pressure may ultimately result in their reverting to traditional teaching methods that are contrary to the reform-oriented visions of teaching espoused in their middle level teacher educa­tion programs, thus undermining middle level education reform efforts.

If we aim to prepare middle level preservice teachers to be advocates for change, preparing them to be passionate about middle level philosophy is simply not enough. To the contrary, we argue that preservice teachers need to be explicitly prepared for the political work of reform-oriented advocacy, which we define as work that is driven by reform-oriented views that may defy the status quo at a given school. In the case of middle level education, this reform-oriented view is that of the middle school concept as defined by AMLE. In this case, reform-oriented advo­cacy might involve advocating for student-driven pedago­gies in a school that mostly employs a scripted curriculum or for structures such as common planning time or stu­dent leadership. This may call on preservice teachers to engage in reform-oriented advocacy as they seek to justify straying from existing school practices.

Although research exists on advocacy for specific populations of students (Graybill et al., 2015), the self-advocacy of students with disabilities (Dryden, Desmarais, & Arsenault, 2014), and reform efforts for specific causes such as music education (Shorner-Johnson, 2013), we have found little guidance regarding how programs might prepare pre-service teachers to be advocates of middle level practices (or any reform-oriented practices for that matter) in their future schools. Unlike the field of school counseling, for example, which has established a set of competencies related to advo­cacy work (Trusty & Brown, 2005), teacher educators are left without many tools to do so.

With the broader goal of increasing the impact of middle level teacher education programs on middle level education reform, this article addresses the following question: What skills do student teachers need to engage in reform-oriented advocacy? To investigate this question, we draw on the experiences of four reform-minded preservice teachers who engaged in reform-oriented advocacy during their student teaching semester. In the hopes that we might inform the eventual development of an approach to preparing teachers for such work, we then use the experiences and insights of these four student teachers to propose a set of skills needed to persist in reform-oriented teaching and advocacy.

The research context

The four student teachers in this study were enrolled in a Middle Level Teacher Education program that was built upon the tenets of This We Believe (NMSA, 2010) and aligned to the AMLE standards (2012a). One of the authors first met Bobbi, Danni, Charlie, and Ray (pseu­donyms) as students in her introductory middle level education course that took place the year prior to student teaching. They were selected for participation in a reform-oriented collaborative inquiry group on the basis that they (1) expressed a clear interest in middle level education reform as evidenced by class discussions and reflections, and (2) raised important questions concerning their impending student teaching experience in the context of middle level education reform. The focus of the colla­borative inquiry, on which they worked with their instruc­tor, was to investigate how they might bring specific middle grades teaching practices in their field placement classrooms. Collaborative inquiry, one of several participatory and action-based inquiry methods, is defined by Bray, Lee, Smith, and Yorks (2000)as "a process con­sisting of repeated episodes of reflection and action through which a group of peers strives to answer a ques­tion of importance to them" (p. 6). Since collaborative inquiry is designed to "provide a liberating structure within institutional settings for people to explore ques­tions normally closed to them" (Bray et al., 2000, p. 13), it was particularly well suited to the goal of engaging student teachers in education reform that might challenge the status quo at a given school. The precise approach to collaborative inquiry employed by this group is described in detail in DeMink-Carthew (2015).

All four student teachers conducted their student teaching at Lakeview Middle School (LMS, pseudonym), a school that demonstrated some basic structural character­istics of middle schools (e.g., students and teachers orga­nized into teams, common planning time) but otherwise operated as a junior high (e.g., disciplinary, predomi­nantly teacher-centered modes of teaching and learning, homerooms). As part of their collaborative inquiry group work, the group used the 16 characteristics of successful middle schools to critically reflect on their field placement experiences. As a result, the group identified "relevant curriculum" and "active, purposeful learning" (NMSA, 2010) as areas they aimed to emphasize during their semester at LMS. In particular, they wished to develop a "hands-joined" (AMLE, 2012b, p. 16) learning experience, one in which teachers and students work together to develop projects.

Over the course of the semester and with the permis­sion of the school’s administration and their mentor teachers, the four student teachers collaborated with their middle school students to develop and implement a social action project that was intentionally co-developed. The student teachers first led their students in consensus build­ing around goal identification, during which time the young adolescents settled on "promoting a positive school culture at LMS" as their objective. They then embarked on a process of investigating, proposing initiatives, and taking action. This project ultimately resulted in the creation of three student-run initiatives: Spirit Week, Teacher Appreciation Week, and a proposal for a student leadership club that would continue to propose and implement new ideas for promoting positive school culture in years to come. Notably, student involvement in these initiatives was new to the school and the direct result of tireless, and at times contentious, advocacy work on the part of the student teachers who struggled at times to help others to understand the importance of student voice in school-wide initiatives. This provided the student teachers with first­hand experience in the political work of reform-oriented advocacy, which ultimately revealed that, to engage suc­cessfully in this work, student teachers need to develop strong advocacy skills.

Reform-oriented advocacy as a political act
Although the student teachers were able to experiment with several aspects of middle grades reform in their field place­ment, they negotiated a number of challenges as they attempted to implement developmentally responsive school­ing while working within this more traditional context. In particular, the school politics of reform-oriented advocacy proved much more complex and thorny than they had anticipated. As Bobbi, Ray, Danni, and Charlie enacted the hands-joined social action project, the student teachers were called upon to tactfully navigate complex power dynamics, negotiating with various stakeholders to achieve their goal. They quickly learned that the success of their work hinged upon their successful collaboration with authority figures in the school. The logistics and decisions regarding some of their students’ proposals required that the student teachers work with school administration and more experienced educators to share student ideas, envision logistics, and seek input. Collaborating across power dynamics in this way was both essential and unfamiliar to the student teachers. At times this collaboration was also complicated by the group’s sense that they were operating at cross purposes with school administra­tion, whom the student teachers felt were giving "mixed mes­sages" with regards to their support of their reform-oriented work. This in turn heightened their awareness of the power differentials at play, specifically the school administration’s power to make or break the work. These challenges revealed the extent to which reform-oriented student teaching is a political act, rife with the complex relationships, divergent perspectives, and ensuing tension that often accompany poli­tics. Furthermore, since these politics had been largely unad­dressed in their teacher preparation program, this came as an unpleasant surprise to a group of student teachers who were passionate about the middle school concept yet relatively naive about the politics of school change.

The group’s lack of preparation for the political work of teaching manifested itself primarily in two ways. First, the student teachers were surprised to learn how challen­ging it was to navigate the complex power dynamics of school bureaucracies. As they sought feedback on the social action projects proposed by their students, for example, they struggled with mixed messages from differ­ent school administrators, who were at times supportive and encouraging and at others dissuasive and dismissive. The student teachers became uncertain whether their work, which they understood to be effective middle grades practice, was ill-perceived by those in power. Reflecting on the interpersonal challenges of this experience, Charlie shared the following: "The politics … that surprised me." Bobbi was equally surprised, exclaiming in disbelief that, "It’s like I’m learning to play politics there!"

Second, the student teachers began with idealistic views of school change, harboring high hopes that their reform-oriented work would initiate a ripple effect that would change their traditional field placement school. As the group faced multiple political and pragmatic chal­lenges, however, the student teachers began to adopt the mantra that "change is small." Although this appeared comforting at times, Ray was frustrated that middle level education reform seemed to happen in "baby steps," explaining that, "it’s a slower process than I thought."

In some ways, it should come as no surprise that the student teachers were naive to the politics of school change. This was, after all, their first full immersion into the world of teaching. And while collaboration is a cornerstone of the middle school concept, collaboration skills are typically taught in the context of working with others toward a com­mon goal, such as in effective teaming, common planning time, and family involvement. Less evident in preservice teacher curriculum, however, are skills that enable one to collaborate across power differentials and, at times, at cross purposes. Yet the notion of middle level teacher education as a lever for middle level education reform is built upon the assumption that well-prepared student teachers can become advocates for and leaders of middle level best practices. In light of the commitment to reform-oriented advocacy within the AMLE teaching standards, these student teachers’ lack of explicit teacher preparation for the political act of reform-oriented student teaching is troubling.


To investigate the question, What skills do student teachers need to engage in reform-oriented advocacy?, we collected and analyzed several data sources associated with the student teachers’ collaborative inquiry work: (1) audio recordings and memos from our 15 inquiry group meetings; (2) researcher memos re.ecting on emerging themes in inquiry group meetings; (3) student teacher reflections on challenges faced, strategies used, and lessons learned as they engaged in reform-oriented work in student teaching; and (4) audiotapes, memos, and transcript segments from student teacher interviews in which they elaborated on the aforementioned student teacher reflections (approxi­mately 45–60 minutes in duration). We then engaged in what Miles, Huberman & Saldaña (2014) refer to as "three concurrent flows of activity: data condensation, data dis­play, and conclusion drawing/verification" (p. 12) using the following analytic questions: (1) What skills did the student teachers use to persist in their reform-oriented work? (2) In retrospect, what skills did the student tea­chers report that they wish they had more practice with? (3) What skills did they appear to struggle most with? Codes were then used to develop themes and, in keeping with qualitative data analysis, writing was used as a means to make sense of the findings.

The reform-oriented advocacy skills

As they advocated for their social action project and, through this, the ideas and involvement of their students, the group began to employ a set of advocacy skills aimed at moving their work forward despite their limited power and complex school politics. These advocacy skills included (1) building rapport; (2) educating, not intimi­dating; (3) anticipating concerns; (4) re.ecting before reacting; and (5) establishing communication norms.

Building rapport

As Danni, Charlie, Ray, and Bobbie initiated their work, they strove to build rapport with their mentor teachers, colleagues, and various members of the school leadership by initiating conversations that were both inquisitive and amicable in nature. They asked questions about the school vision as well as the professional journeys, teaching approaches, and interests of various colleagues, and were generally enthusiastic to learn as much as possible. Likewise, the student teachers made a point of sharing their own journeys into teaching as well as their interests in middle grades reform-oriented teaching approaches. In an informal way, these conversations appeared to help establish the student teachers as colleagues and profes­sionals, rather than merely "students," while also providing them with valuable insight into the priorities and interests of school leaders and individual teachers.

Once they began to perceive the potential uncertainty of school leadership regarding their reform-oriented social action project, the student teachers sought to build on this rapport by initiating frequent informal check-ins. Bobbi explained, for example, how she went out of her way to interact positively with school administrators since she felt that this made it more likely they would be sup­portive and less likely to "stamp out" the reform-oriented work the student teachers were doing with the students:

Another strategy again was just making my visits to the administration more frequent, not even just regarding this project but other things. I would invent reasons or something I already knew the answer to … it might be an error on my part, but I feel like if I can get in and build a relationship with these administrators, make them feel something for me other than "just an intern" or "just a teacher"—I want them to see me as more than that—because then it’s harder for them to simply stamp it out.

The student teachers understood that the relationship between reform-oriented teachers and school leadership can make or break the success of reform-oriented initia­tives. Their experiences indicate that building rapport early on with teachers and school leaders can assuage future uncertainty by establishing trust and affinity. This suggests that student teachers should be supported in building rapport with school leadership through frequent positive interactions. This also underscores the impor­tance of student teachers being fully engaged in their field placement school (e.g., collaborating with school leader­ship, participating in faculty and committee meetings) rather than isolated in their assigned classrooms. If we aim to support student teachers in becoming advocates, we must provide them with ample opportunities to practice developing relationships and sharing opinions with col­leagues as well as school leaders.

Educating, not intimidating

All of the student teachers spoke about the importance of sharing the AMLE vision for middle school education with others. More specifically, as part of their commit­ment to middle grades reform, they felt it was their responsibility to educate others, when appropriate, about the middle grades reform movement. This sharing of resources was a strategic move, aiming to legitimize their work in hopes that it would make others more supportive. When sharing their work with others, whether informally or in formal proposals, the student teachers made frequent reference to This We Believe (NMSA, 2010), using the 16 characteristics (p.14) as an anchor for these conversations. Referencing other resources, such as the AMLE website (2016), Middle Schools to Watch (2016), and IDEA: The Institute for Democratic Education in America (2016), they fre­quently shared examples of related work that was taking place in schools across the country. Danni went so far as to jokingly refer to herself as an "AMLE evangelist" and Bobbi spoke of the importance of sharing examples of "what’s out there" with others, underscoring that, "Someone has got to come in carrying the torch—I know it’s socliché—but shedding the light on, ‘This is what’s possible out there.’"

In sharing reform-oriented ideas, however, the group found it was important to communicate in ways that acknowledged the power dynamics and honored the status of more experienced teachers. Charlie demonstrated her keen understanding of these dynamics with the following explanation:

It’s not just telling them what you are doing or what you want to do but focusing on how you approach every conversation that you have with them. And not just administration but other teachers as well. Like I said, you’re not telling them how to run the school or telling teachers how to run their classroom but shar­ing ideas because you all have the same goal … or at least you have to hope that you have the same goal. Really I think it’s just how you frame it, how you communicate with people, not just what you’re com­municating to them but how you approach them. I think you have to make sure that the attitude and how you’re talking to them is not, "I’m going to tell you how to teach." It’s, "Let’s share ideas about what we can do in our classrooms."

These insights suggest that not only must reform-oriented student teachers be prepared to educate about and advo­cate for the middle school concept, they must also be given an opportunity to develop the skills to do so diplo­matically, given that they are positioned, as Charlie put it, "at the bottom of the food chain."

Anticipating concerns

Throughout their experiences working with school lea­dership, the student teachers also made concerted efforts to package their ideas in ways that were mindful of school politics. One example is in relation to the selection of the project focus. Although the group initially considered focusing their project on a specific problem identified by the students at the school (i.e., How can we decrease bullying at LMS?), their sense that the school leadership may be image conscious led them to reframe the driving question with a positive spin (i.e., How can we promote a positive school culture at LMS?). Likewise, the student teachers were careful to illustrate how this project was aligned with multiple interdisciplinary Common Core standards, a feature that was especially timely at LMS as the school was in its first year of Common Core imple­mentation. To this point, in his post-interview, Bobbi underscored the importance of having "something to show for it" (e.g., an example, student work, testimonials from students) when attempting to convince others:

I still think though that you have to have something to show for it. I can’t just come in and say "This idea is great." That’s enough to get somebody like me going because I can start to envision and imagine things but a lot of people are more pragmatic than that and they’ll be like "Um, yeah that sounds great but, you know, that’s not possible." Like the way I used to think in class—"That sounds awesome but I don’t think it can happen"—until you realize it can. It just doesn’t happen all at once.

These strategic moves to frame their ideas around shared goals reveal the ways in which the student teachers felt compelled to "prove" the worthiness of their work. While perhaps necessary, this can notably be problematic when your work is, in part, motivated by a commitment to the non-cognitive or socio-emotional facets of schooling. Nonetheless, anticipating concerns related to their work and being prepared to address them prior to engaging with those in authority helped the student teachers navigate school politics more effectively. This insight suggests, therefore, that student teachers may be best positioned to be successful reform-oriented teaching if they are provided with opportu­nities to understand the politics and priorities of their .eld placement school before student teaching begins.

Reflecting before reacting

When especially frustrating incidents occurred, the stu­dent teachers learned that confidentially debriefing and reflecting with thought partners (e.g., classmates, veteran teachers, recent graduates of their preparation program, teacher educators, university supervisors) can be a useful strategy. In some cases, this prevented the student tea­chers from reacting in haste, and perhaps in anger, in the midst of tense situations. This was especially true for Danni, who re.ected that "the younger me would have been mouthing off and stuff" but through this work, she realized the following:

Sometimes it’s just better to regroup, talk it out, and think about what you need to do instead of trying to take care of it in the heat of the moment.… See sometimes I feel like it’s important to say something at the time, to be like, "Excuse me real quick, I just want you to know that." But I think sometimes it’s better to just not react and it’s better to let the storm roll over and reflect, think, and move forward from it … and that’s hard to do. It’s hard to just step back and let it roll and let them stomp on you a little bit and then try to regroup afterwards. It’s like resilience almost.

The political nature of reform-oriented teaching means that the process is likely to be frustrating at times. Student teachers, who often are not only new to the profession of teaching but also new to the world of professional work, must understand that frustration is to be expected and resilience required. Furthermore, they need opportunities to delineate between those moments when it is necessary to speak out immediately and those in which collecting one’s thoughts might be a better option. This also suggests that student teachers must be provided with, and learn how to develop, a network of reform-oriented thought partners with whom they can critically reflect and colla­boratively brainstorm.

Establishing communication norms

Throughout the course of their work, the student teachers developed an appreciation for the role communication plays in reform-oriented advocacy. When asked what it takes to participate in middle level education reform, Bobbi immediately responded with the following:

Constant communication with the students and the administration. You know, this is what we are doing—what do you think about this? Just a lot of "what do you think? What do you think? What do you think?"…to get into their head and to get them giving it a thought other than a passing "oh yeah, sounds good."

Due to the pace of the school day, the rapidly evolving nature of their work, and the numerous competing demands placed on school leaders and teachers alike, the student teachers quickly realized that they needed to find ways to communicate frequently and effectively.

At the beginning of their work, the student teachers made several attempts to schedule a meeting with all of the key stakeholders, aimed at establishing a common understanding and identifying norms for communication. A tense interaction based on miscommunication with an administrator early on caused the group to recognize that it was better to over-communicate than to risk being accused of going rogue. Nonetheless, they were unsuc­cessful in their efforts to schedule a meeting and instead were encouraged to proceed with the work under the assumption that a meeting would be forthcoming. This outcome made them understandably uneasy and tinged the work with uncertainty. As the project progressed, however, the student teachers realized that meetings such as the one proposed were not in keeping with the pre­ferred method of operation in the school.

As a result, they shifted from requesting meetings to simply stopping in the main office. Describing their new approach, Ray shared, "It wasn’t so much of a meeting as a stop-in. I think that might have been the problem with meetings. For them it’s too big of a word."Once this new norm was recognized, the student teachers were more readily able to receive feedback and make progress, increasing the frequency of their informal conversations and check-ins with administration as the project pro­gressed. Although an initial meeting would have clued them into this favored style of communication, the student teachers learned the importance of understanding a school’s processes and context when trying to create change. These experiences affirm that establishing pre­ferred norms for communication among stakeholders is important at the onset of the work so that student teachers can feel confident in their reform-oriented efforts.

The implications of the status of student teachers within schools bears significant implications for their work. Student teachers are, by definition, novices who operate with the awareness that they are continually being assessed for certification. As guests in their field placement schools, student teachers must be prepared to communi­cate in ways that are mindful of this position. For Ray, who was keenly aware of her status as a student teacher, fre­quent communication was thus also a deliberate choice to avoid "getting in trouble":

For the school, I just started bombarding them with information. I went to XXX and XXX1 with what the kids wanted to do for Teacher Appreciation Week. Told them about it, showed them the pieces, asked if I could make copies, all sorts of other things and they kept looking at me like "Why are you asking me permission?" but it was cool because I didn’t get in trouble.

The perception by Ray that over-communicating pro­tected her from "getting in trouble"is a poignant illustration of one of the implicit ways in which socialization forces can serve to dissuade student teachers from reform-oriented teaching. If student teachers feel that defying the status quo by engaging in reform-oriented teaching may jeopardize their success as student teachers, it is not surprising that they may instead choose to comply with the status quo at a given school. If frequent communication with stakeholders can protect student teachers engaged in reform-oriented work, increasing their sense of security despite their risk-taking, perhaps more student teachers, like Ray, will be willing to persist in their reform-oriented pursuits.

Implications for middle grades teacher education

The experiences of these student teachers point to several implications for middle level teacher education programs that aim to prepare preservice teachers to be advocates for change. The experiences and insights of these student tea­chers illuminate the political nature of reform-oriented advocacy. Equipped with a deep commitment to middle level education reform, the student teachers in our study none­theless entered into student teaching with idealistic notions of school change and were surprised at the extent to which their work was political. They were thus underprepared for the task of reform-oriented advocacy, illustrating that preparing student teachers to be passionate about middle level philosophy is simply not enough. In the sections that follow, we offer several concrete suggestions for how teacher edu­cation programs can prepare preservice teachers for the work of reform-oriented advocacy.

Explore how other fields prepare professionals for advocacy work
The experiences of the student teachers in this study suggest that reform-oriented advocacy requires a set of skills that are not typically emphasized in teacher educa­tion. If we hope to prepare teachers to be advocates for middle level education reform in their school, teacher education curricula must explicitly prepare preservice teachers with these advocacy skills. Given that advocacy is not unique to the work of teaching, one implication of these findings is that teacher education programs could benefit from investigating how other programs (e.g., social work, school counseling, education leadership) prepare professionals for this work. For example, a preliminary analysis of the overlap between the skills that emerged in our data and those presented in the school counseling competencies suggests that there is some interesting overlap. The skill of building rapport, for example, aligns nicely with the following description of "collaboration skills" provided by Trusty and Brown (2005):

Strong relationships are a necessary condition for advocacy. Professional school counselors form and maintain positive relationships with professionals and parents. Relationships with administrators require special attention because advocacy efforts often put administrators and school counselors on opposite sides of issues. Openness to others’ ideas and sensi­tivity to others’ perspectives promote positive rela­tionships. (p. 4)

In the hopes of identifying practices that could be trans­ferred to the preparation of teachers, we recommend further investigation into the specific methods other programs use to support professionals in developing advocacy skills.

Provide opportunities to practice using the advocacy skills
Using our knowledge of teacher education methods, we can envision several ways to engage student teachers in practicing the advocacy skills. First, a set of advocacy skills such as those proposed in this article should be shared and unpacked with preservice teachers. Example advocacy scenarios should then be used to deepen understanding of how each skill can be applied in practice. Students might be given a scenario, for example, in which their school has decided to replace advisory time with additional test pre­paration. The teacher educator would then challenge the preservice teachers to envision how they might proceed in advocating for the continuation of advisory. In addition to providing a chance to experiment with the advocacy skills, scenario-based tasks such as these would also surface any naive conceptions that preservice teachers may hold about the work of advocacy, providing an opportunity for tea­cher educators to probe and deepen their thinking. As students share their ideas, teacher educators should listen with an ear for specificity, challenging them to shift their responses from idealistic and oversimplifled (e.g., "I would meet with the principal to convince her that advisory should stay") to pragmatic and concrete, applying the advocacy skills (e.g., "I would build rapport with an influ­ential school leader, learn more about the concerns that are driving the change, remind others of the importance of advisory, and then work with others to propose an alternative solution").

While it is one thing to say what one would do in a given situation, it is another altogether to find the right words in the moment. For this reason, we recommend using the same advocacy scenarios to role play conversations between preservice teachers and other stakeholders (e.g., more experienced colleagues, school administra­tors). Role-playing how one might share resources with a more experienced colleague, for example, would offer students an opportunity to practice the delicate balance needed to educate, not intimidate. Through debriefing, they would also be able to analyze the impact that language and communication style can have on the outcome of advocacy work. Improvising a respectful yet honest response to a colleague who is difficult to work with would allow students a chance to develop professional language that would create space for them to reflect with thought partners before reacting. In this way, the teacher education classroom could become a low-risk space in which preser­vice teachers can experiment with advocacy skills before they are faced to use them in the high-stakes context of student teaching.

Problematize extremist and idealistic visions of school change
Teacher educators should problematize the tendency of preservice teachers to adopt extremist or overly idealistic perspectives regarding education reform, challenging stu­dent teachers to instead view school change as a messy, at times frustrating, process that is iterative and incremental. Open-ended discussion of questions such as these may be used to unpack student teacher assumptions regarding school change: How do schools change? How can you influence school change? What can you do if you want to change something about your school? What can you do if you are placed in a middle school with an administrator who does not value or understand middle school philosophy? In these discussions, teacher edu­cators should emphasize the role of pragmatism in reform-oriented advocacy work, underscoring that change often requires compromise, creativity, flexibility, and an incre­mentalist view of change. Analyzing case descriptions of schools changing over time may also inform student understanding of the mechanisms and process of school change. Further, inviting guest speakers who are engaged in school-based initiatives to share their work and respond to the above prompts could be especially powerful in in.uencing the views of preservice teachers on school change.

Provide opportunities to investigate school politics
As part of their teacher preparation, preservice teachers should investigate school politics and power dynamics, pre­ferably within the context of the school in which they will be student teaching. Conducting informal interviews of mentor teachers and/or school leaders could be especially helpful. Example questions for such interviews might include: How are decisions regarding teaching and learning made in this school? What level of autonomy do teachers have in developing curriculum? Which of the following reform-oriented approaches to teaching do you think would be do-able in your school? Which would be especially challen­ging? What avenues do teachers have for communicating ideas with school leadership? What initiatives are currently underway in your school? Unpacking the results of these interviews prior to stu­dent teaching could inform the development of reform-oriented approaches to teaching that incrementally challenge the status quo.

Set the stage for advocacy work with partnership schools
The experiences of this group of student teachers under­score the important role that Colleges of Education must play in creating the context for reform-oriented work. Vitally, before student teaching begins, university partners must set the expectation with partnership schools that the work of student teaching involves: (1) full engagement in professional activities that include collaboration with col­leagues and school leadership around school-based initia­tives, and (2) reform-oriented work that will require input and support. In so doing, university partners can set the stage for student teachers to establish collaboration norms with other stakeholders. Without the clear support of university partners, however, student teachers are likely to struggle to establish the legitimacy of their work, resulting in frustration and, worse, the potential abandonment of their reform-oriented advocacy.

In addition, knowing that reform-oriented advocacy is challenging and often frustrating work made even more daunting by the nature of student teaching, Colleges of Education must support student teachers in developing a network of thought partners. While it is perhaps idealistic to expect that every student teacher will have a mentor teacher who is engaged in reform-oriented advocacy, it is not unrea­listic to expect that each student teacher should have access to a small group of thought partners with whom they can reflect and brainstorm.


Reflecting back on the thousands of preservice teachers placed in the middle grades each year, we wonder how strong our middle schools might be if we could staff them with teachers who had explicit training not only in enacting devel­opmentally responsive pedagogy but also in persevering with that pedagogy within more traditional contexts. In the ongoing struggle to promote effective middle level practices, the preparation of preservice teachers to "advocate for and provide leadership in the authentic implementation of middle school programs and practices" (AMLE, 2012a,Rubric Standard 3a) is crucial. What, after all, is the purpose of middle level teacher education if not to prepare future tea­chers to challenge the status quo in traditional schools in order to meet the needs of young adolescents? Systemic change is an uphill battle that cannot be won on passion alone. This passion must be paired with a set of skills that is designed for the work ahead.


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Jessica DeMink-Carthew, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of middle level teacher education at the University of Vermont in Burlington, VT.

Penny A. Bishop, Ed.D., is a professor of middle level education at the University of Vermont in Burlington, VT.

Published in Middle School Journal, March 2017.
Author: Jessica DeMink-Carthew, Penny A. Bishop
Number of views (12745)/Comments (0)/

Partnering for Success

The excitement in the room is palpable. Teams of middle grades students are engaged in a fingerprinting lab to gather evidence for identifying the likely culprit in a forensics project, "Who Kidnapped Thunder?", Georgia College's mascot. "I got it!" one student exclaims, and the entire team races from the room to their suspect board in the hallway, huddling together and discussing excitedly the suspects and their newly gained evidence. Other teams react similarly as they analyze and process the fingerprints. This project is one of three weeklong explorations offered in a summer STEAM Ahead Camp facilitated by a collaboration of middle grades teachers, university faculty, and community partners. STEAM Ahead offers project-based experiences in STEM with the integration of art design, engineering, and technology. While students attend the camp in the morning, teachers and university educators remain in the afternoon for professional learning sessions focusing on inquiry, interdisciplinary project planning, lesson study, and real-world applications of the middle grades curriculum. This unique opportunity for forming a professional learning community will continue by developing STEAM projects in middle grade classrooms during the school year, supported by a grant from the Georgia Governor's Office of Student Achievement.

University Teacher Educators: More than Supervisors

The STEAM Ahead grant is a collaboration of a newly formed professional development school (PDS) partnership between Georgia College and the local school district, Baldwin County Schools. Supporting teachers and local schools is not only my personal vision, but also a strategic goal of the university. In my partnerships in elementary, middle, and high schools and at district levels, I developed knowledge about the importance of collaboration and conditions that support partnerships among P-20 educators. In the following sections I elaborate on six instrumental conditions in forming and growing successful collaborations.

Be alert to open doors and invitations

"Can you find me a literacy person?" A faculty colleague related a request from a high school principal, which culminated in a five-year collaboration across literacy, STEM, and teacher leadership. I responded to the call for help and was asked to provide professional development for teachers in integrating effective literacy practices in high school content instruction. Rather than offering the "spray and pray" workshop approach to professional learning, I asked the principal to bring together a team of teachers from each of the academic content areas, as well as the vocational program and ROTC. Together, we worked as a literacy team to assess the current literacy practices teachers were using, their interests and questions, and resources they were using and they needed. As we designed professional learning, the teacher team became teacher leaders in presenting new ways of integrating literacy and technology into instruction across the curriculum. Being responsive to invitations and willing to reach out to serve in addressing complexities of schools opens doors for opportunities to collaborate. This opportunity to reach out to teachers and for teachers to reach out to university faculty truly opens doors for addressing teaching and learning in middle school classrooms.

It's all about relationships

Building relationships takes time, effort, and a great deal of investment in conversation and patience. Developing relationships is often taken for granted, perhaps because of the time it takes and the crush to "get the job done." Engaging in the work of the school presents many ways to build relationships with all members of the school community. Regular and consistent presence and willingness to be open to learning the school culture builds relationships of trust, respect, and shared knowledge.

Embrace OUR students

In my role in schools, I consider K-12 students and our teaching candidates as all of our students. Teachers who host our university interns are teacher educators in every sense of the role and responsibility, modeling and demonstrating the important practices, principles, and dispositions of exemplary teachers that provide an entry to the profession impossible to recreate in the university classroom. When tensions arise, it becomes important to focus on the shared commitment to our students and how we can best serve the interests of all students.

Honor teacher expertise and build leadership capacity

In authentic collaboration we value the expertise, perspectives, and assets of all members. An important principle in collaborating in schools is to value the expertise that teachers possess. My professional learning vision honors the expertise of teachers because teacher expertise is relevant and significant for addressing the complexities of such issues as student learning, school improvement, and community involvement.

Professional learning communities focus on developing and educating teachers through mutual, collaborative conversation and activity. Presenting my role as a collaborator and facilitator, rather than a trainer has a critical impact on honoring the expertise and developing leadership opportunities for new and veteran teachers. Together, we learn and tackle the new demands that face teachers with rising expectations and changing policies and requirements. Positioning myself as a facilitator opens spaces for teacher leaders to rise and take ownership of their professional development.

Listen closely; observe carefully

As a professor in residence, I observe throughout the school district and visit classrooms from kindergarten through high school. This range of opportunity allows me to meet many teachers, students, and administrators and have conversations about teaching and learning. Since I partner with a rural school district that has experienced economic decline in recent years, I am continually on the lookout for ways to bring the resources of the university or other agencies to support educational opportunities for students and instructional resources for teachers. For example, we leveraged the resources of the university to begin a professional learning community among middle grades science and math teachers in STEAM Ahead. After a pilot period of one year with a university-funded grant, I led a grant-writing team that applied for a state-sponsored grant to bring an interdisciplinary focus to our STEAM Ahead community. We were awarded a two-year grant that funds a summer camp and professional learning institute, professional learning throughout the year, additional resources for lessons, substitutes for teachers to visit each other's classrooms, technology, and field trips, as well as stipends for teachers to attend conferences and workshops. After our first year of a successful summer STEAM Ahead Institute, the collaboration among our university faculty and middle grades teachers in this STEAM Ahead community has an exciting direction for the next academic year.

Be part of the solution

A high school principal, now retired, who I highly admire, routinely asked a question that evoked a growth mindset and personal responsibility with students (and teachers, other administrators, and parents, as well). "Do you want to be part of the problem or part of the solution?" My growth mindset, when collaborating in schools, helps navigate the many speedbumps along the way to building relationships that are productive and sustainable. In understanding that schools are complex contexts of change and political, social, and economic tensions, I view problems or conflict as inevitable – and windows of opportunity. Tensions offer insights leading to learning, transformation, and further relationship building.

Concluding Thoughts

Teaming between middle school and university educators has many exciting possibilities. There are opportunities to positively influence curriculum and instruction, better prepare new teachers, and engage in professional learning that bridges the boundaries of schools and universities. This important work requires educators to keep an open mind, build lasting relationships of trust and respect, and maintain a growth mindset, which views tensions and problems as opportunities for learning and transformation.

Sandy Webb, Ph.D is an associate professor at Georgia College in Milledgeville, GA. She also serves as professional development school liaison with the Baldwin County School District.

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2016.
Author: Sandy Webb
Number of views (11271)/Comments (1)/

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