Speaking a Common Language Across the Curriculum

State standardized test scores at Cedarbrook Middle School in the Cheltenham (Pennsylvania) School District had been stagnant for several years and the achievement gap within our school dismayed and disheartened all of us. The teachers and students in the school worked hard every day, yet the results did not reflect their efforts.

In the 2007–2008 school year, four of us—vice principal Kevin Burke, social studies teacher Sarah Stout, literary workshop teacher and reading department coordinator Heather Blumberg, and gifted support teacher Peggy Cooper—launched an Instructional Focus of the Month (IFOM) program with the goal of creating common language to embed reading skill instruction in all curricular areas.

The four IFOM founders shared the belief that this common language would enhance student achievement and understanding through consistency and repetition.

Honestly, our motives for instituting this program combined the altruistic with the practical.

Altruistically, we believed that if each of the teachers in our building could adopt a similar vocabulary and incorporate reading instruction in their classes, we could improve the academic rigor of our middle school while simultaneously creating collaborative cross-curricular opportunities among our different disciplines.

Practically, we wanted to bring about a sense of shared ownership in the success of everyone in our building and create a climate that encouraged everyone to believe that it was fashionable to discuss the school improvement process.

This program also included a strong home–school connection that helped communicate our high academic expectations to the Cheltenham community.

From Brainstorming to Buy-In

The team established four goals for the IFOM program:

  • Increase the academic rigor across the curriculum.
  • Improve student achievement and understanding through repetition and consistency.
  • Provide timely and appropriate disaggregated data for teachers.
  • Increase the amount and quality of reading by students in all curricular areas.

Initially, our meetings were little more than informal brainstorming sessions. We analyzed several indicators of student achievement, including standardized testing data; anecdotal feedback from students, parents, and teachers; feedback from high school teachers; surveys completed by our teachers; benchmark testing data; and common district assessments.

Based on this analysis, and using Strategies that Work by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis as a guide, we identified eight competencies upon which our students needed to improve:

  1. Making connections
  2. Context clues
  3. Questioning strategies
  4. Essential v. non-essential information
  5. Inferring and visualizing
  6. Test-taking strategies
  7. Summary and synthesis
  8. Problem-solving strategies

Next, we implemented Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins’ idea of “thinking big, starting small and going for an early win.”

In our weekly IFOM team meetings, the team devised a plan to match a skill to each month of the school year. Using a grassroots approach to disseminate the information, we wrote short summaries of each skill and provided teachers with practical suggestions about ways they might incorporate the skill into their existing curricula.

Then, we asked the principal to highlight these summaries in her weekly bulletin for teachers. Having many voices spread the same message in various areas of the building was a crucial piece of our effort.

In the second and third years of our program, we expanded our team to include English teacher Linda Roeder, math teacher and special education coordinator Jamie Osea, social studies teacher Larry Ansell, science teacher Deb DiBattista, and math teacher/department coordinator Sarah Putterman. As a team, we believed this expansion was the best way to share our message without relying on administrative oversight.

Thinking Big, Starting Small

We ardently believed that IFOM strategies did not radically differ from what teachers already accomplished in their classrooms—we simply wanted them to consider tweaking their language.

Because we “thought big, started small, and went for an early win,” our colleagues began discussing IFOM strategies during department and team meetings as well as in the faculty room and in the halls between classes. We offered to help teachers who wanted suggestions about how to incorporate IFOM language or strategies in their classrooms. Whenever teachers enlisted our support and achieved any level of success from the lesson, we celebrated that information in the next week’s bulletin.

In addition to the grassroots approach to working with our staff, we extended the concept of IFOM to parents as well. Utilizing our district’s website, we created a link with information to help parents support their students at home. Although we used the same summaries provided for the teachers, we included practical suggestions for parents, such as, “Ask your child to make a connection between two movies you recently viewed.”

Spreading the Word

Concurrent to the inception of IFOM, we also developed the Reading Across the Curriculum program to support literacy instruction in all subject areas, to demonstrate the importance of reading to all subject areas, and to provide students with the opportunity to read from a variety of genres.

IFOM members worked with the math, social studies, science, and world language teachers to identify a book related to each curriculum. Our team collaborated with subject area teachers to create assignments connecting the novel to the curriculum while embedding IFOM language.

With our support, content area teachers modeled for students reading strategies such as “setting the purpose for reading” and “making connections.”

Our confidence as a team grew as we met weekly and supported each other to approach different groups of professionals within the school environment.

For example, we attended team meetings to review key Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and other assessment data. No one had previously attempted to disseminate data to individual teachers during team meetings. Although we took some initial heat from our colleagues for foregoing our prep period to meet, we eventually reached the point when we were pushing a positive agenda despite some questioning comments from colleagues, parents, and administrators.

As our IFOM team has evolved, our students’ successes prove to be self-fueling. Our team’s role in the school has grown to include many components. We continue to advocate for our mission and fight the necessary battles to promote the importance of the instructional focus.

Communication and Leadership

The creation of this team encouraged teacher leadership within the building and facilitated many cross-curricular connections. Most important, communication in our building improved dramatically because teachers felt supported and more voices began to resonate throughout the school. This improved communication has had a profound effect on our school culture. In the past two years, the structure and tenor of team meetings has changed radically to include discussions about data-driven and cross-curricular instruction.

In addition, IFOM has proven instrumental in facilitating an annual Student Achievement Forum. Teacher leaders use student data and teacher feedback to improve instructional coherence, brainstorm interventions for underperforming students, and systematically review and evaluate what we are doing and how we can do it better. These teacher leaders review and evaluate all of the efforts that support student learning during the year and identify areas for improvement for the following year.

Rooted in our school’s culture of experimentation and reflection, the forum fosters interdependent collaboration and opens lines of communication, ensuring the continued improvement of our school’s educational program for every student.

Finally, we have collaborated with the forum participants to adopt an Advocacy for All program. All Cedarbrook students have two or more individual meetings with their team and administrator to analyze and celebrate academic, social, and emotional progress.

Harnessing the Energy of All

We are proud of the profound difference the IFOM has made within our school and the recognition we received as the grand prize winners of a Teams That Make a Difference award. No longer just four educators or a passing fad, the IFOM program has harnessed the collective energies of the many talented, dedicated teachers at Cedarbrook, all of whom contribute to IFOM and to the successes of our students.

As a school, we continue to utilize IFOM as a vehicle to experiment with new ideas and initiatives, fostering continued growth in our students’ overall academic success.

Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, February 2010