Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Focus on Teachers: Fresno teacher Rithy Som describes learning and leading through school redesign

August 07, 2014

English Language Arts (ELA) teacher Rithy Som spent this past year teaching in a whole new school design at Tioga Middle School in Fresno, CA. 

Rithy was working with Fresno’s new CCSS-aligned ELA scope and sequence, and learning new literacy strategies through the Literacy Design Collaborative.  She shared a daily prep period with her department and worked with an expert teacher—called a Plus Teacher—who provided support, co-planned and co-taught with all the ELA teachers.  The Plus Teacher also taught Rithy’s students one full day biweekly so that Rithy could have the time to learn and collaborate with ELA teachers across the district.

A new curriculum.  A new master schedule.  New instructional strategies.  New professional development.  There is no doubt that Rithy and her colleagues experienced a lot of change in one year. Rithy admits, “Even if you spent 6 or 10 years teaching, if you haven’t experienced a redesign like this, it can be a shock.  When something is new, it can be scary for people.”

As mentioned in my previous post, Fresno Unified School District is one of 14 districts and charter organizations taking on the Innovative Professional Development (iPD) Challenge.  Like their colleagues across the country in Bridgeport, CT, Fresno Unified educators built customized school schedules to increase time for deep student learning and teacher collaboration.

Working within their given district budget, Fresno was able to carve out an average of 96 additional hours for professional learning at each middle school.  The district selected to use this newly found time to support teachers in content teams for collaboration within and across schools in implementing the Common Core State Standards. 

In a recent conversation, Rithy shared her views on the new school design:  “With a supportive administrative team and collaborative colleagues, I was lucky that I experienced team planning on common assessments and assignments in my school before this year.  However, we didn’t have many of the built-in supports that we do now.  Our new common planning time allows us to discuss our lessons and student work as a group during the school day.  We aren’t waiting for one meeting per week or waiting until the end of the day. It is great to have everyone at same time having productive conversations about student work:  If my students are struggling with reasoning in their writing and yours are doing great on the same assignment, how was our delivery different? What did you do? How can I adopt what you did?”

Rithy continues, “Before this year, it was difficult to attend trainings without having substitutes to cover the class. If they didn’t show, we couldn’t go.  The beauty [of the new schedule] is that we are now able to go to trainings without worrying about what our kids are doing, and whether they are learning, because now they are working with our Plus teachers, who are veteran teachers.  Because Plus teachers work so closely with classroom teachers, we know that they know the students and are able to identify what skills the students are struggling with.  For instance, if students in my class are struggling with making claims or gathering evidence, the Plus teachers are able to incorporate those skills into their lessons.”

Getting comfortable with a new school design takes time and Rithy doesn’t hide – or hide from—some of the bumps in the road.

When asked about what was challenging or, as she said, “a shock” about the changes, Rithy responds, “As a district, professional learning communities, or accountability communities as we call them, were a huge change for us and there were some kinks.  The ELA scope and sequence was new for some teachers and we needed clarity about what we were required to do and what we could build on.  LDC also required a language change for how we thought about assignments and instruction.”

“But, the more we worked with the new tools and documents, the more comfortable people became and the more people implemented the Common Core. You could actually see the level of comfort changing during the district professional development times,” Rithy explains. “There were less complaints and more collaborative work as the year went on.  Often, teachers have ownership over their lessons and are afraid, or not willing, to share their lessons or ideas. This really changed.  We had teachers from other schools coming over to our group to ask questions about our work.  I was able to learn strategies from other schools as well.  Even if you are a great teacher and produce excellent lessons by yourself, you not learning and growing to the fullest if you don’t have the time for these types of conversations.”   

Rithy is particularly looking forward for the upcoming school year in which Fresno is taking the next step in their cross-school training.  Teachers such as Rithy will be taking on leadership roles at cross-school trainings and sessions will dedicate even more time for teacher collaboration.

Rithy asserts, “You learn more when you work with other people because they have different perspectives.  It is not just about making yourself a better teacher; it is about making better teams of teachers. Teachers don’t always get a chance to learn from each other.  The new design does that.  This is about all our kids and the district as a whole.  So what if one school is the most successful?  What does that do for the rest of the district?  We need to learn from each other. We want learning to spread.”

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