A few months ago, I co-authored an article with Robert Hughes, President of New Visions for Public Schools, on the importance of teacher collaboration in implementing the Common Core State Standards. As we discussed in the piece, teacher inquiry (or lesson study) can be one of the most promising and engaging approaches to teacher learning. It is particularly powerful when teacher inquiry focuses on student work and the instruction that guided it.
Timothy Lent is one of those teachers whose practice exemplifies the type of teacher-led collaboration Bob Hughes and I described.
In his 6th year at the High School for Youth and Community Development (YCD) in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, Tim teaches a 9th-grade writing class that uses Global History as the lens for reading and writing instruction. He has been an active member of the Literacy Design Collaborative and is designing and integrating literacy modules—a series of 2-4 week reading/writing assignments with explicit instruction—across his course.
In addition to teaching five classes this year, Tim is charged with engaging his colleagues in understanding and implementing the CCSS. Tim co-leads a professional development series with English teacher Jacob Baty every Tuesday afternoon. As Tim described it, “We started with 4-5 teachers last fall. It grew and it grew. By spring semester, almost all of our ELA, science and social studies teachers were attending.”
The YCD teachers use an inquiry approach in which they look at student writing, identify strengths and weaknesses against a series of benchmarks, and adopt or design “mini-tasks” that focus on teaching the identified skills during the following lessons and student assignments. The cycle then repeats. Initially, Tim and his colleagues focused on designing mini-tasks and then moved to building full LDC modules.
Tim groups his colleagues across content areas so that they work on common literacy skills. In Tim’s words: “An important part of our process is selecting which skills are the highest leverage to teach in all classrooms. Our hypothesis is that if kids focus on learning a certain set of skills that they are struggling with, their ability to convey their ideas in writing will greatly improve. This year, we identified and focused on three key literacy needs: Students’ ability to…
- Write topic sentences that are general and prove-able;
- Select strong evidence to support their topic sentences; and
- Express connections between their topic sentences and evidence by accurately using transitions and conjunctions.
Teachers then use the LDC modules and mini-tasks to make these skills and instruction content specific. For example, our science teachers found it useful to use the teaching of conjunctions, such as ‘if/then’ statements, as a way to teach the type of logic students need for science investigations and lab reports. In social studies, teachers found teaching conjunctions as a way to emphasize dependence and relationships such as ‘The Nile River was important to Egypt because…’.”
As part of his role in facilitating teacher collaboration at YCD, Tim works with other teacher leads through the New Visions for Public Schools network. Facilitated by New Visions staff, Tim participates in another inquiry cycle that looks at the steps he and other teacher leads take in supporting their peers. They analyze samples of teacher modules and mini-tasks (with teacher permission), identify strengths and weaknesses, and construct meeting agendas and strategies for the weekly professional learning sessions so that they are meeting participants’ needs.
As Tim points out, “In effect, we are doing inquiry on teacher inquiry. We are looking at how well we are supporting colleagues based on the changes we see in their practice. We are constantly asking ourselves what we could do next, better or differently in the professional learning sessions we facilitate. Of course, because I am a peer, I receive genuine feedback from the teachers at my school about what worked and what didn’t in our sessions. We all know what we hate, which is doing things that are not relevant to our teaching.”
When asked what he has learned from this year, Tim immediately states that creating a collaborative space within school to work with colleagues is beneficial to individual teachers and to the school as a whole. For next year, YCD has been able to organize their schedule so that teachers have shared time during the school day each week to continue their inquiry session. At the same time, the school continues to exceed the amount of class time required by district and state policy for students.
Tim summarizes his experience from this year: “Our morale as a school went way up because the teachers spent so much time working together in a structured way that valued their participation. This is real learning for us as teachers. We began to see students grow in specific skill areas from one module to the next over the course of the year and in different classes. It is truly amazing to get to know colleagues in a different way and see everyone grow and want to expand their horizons as teachers.”