I’ve been working with the English Department at Starpoint Middle School for ten years, and those who know me well appreciate the high regard that I maintain for this particular group of teachers (and their colleagues at the K-5 level). Very few educators have the opportunity, talent, or tenacity to accomplish what this department has over the last decade, slowly and with very careful intention. I’ve watched them design (and redesign and map) their own curricula, sharpen their expertise as reading and writing teachers, embrace choice and student centered learning, and wrestle with the challenges that differentiated instruction poses when juggling five periods of English daily and every desk in the room is full. These are teachers who learned all that they could about teaching writing well at the middle level, and they’ve devoted several years of collaborative planning time to making that work. They are the ones protecting time for independent reading even as the Common Core takes root within their system. They’re the ones who called for performance based final assessments rather than subjecting kids to seated exams. And when I was there last week, several teachers approached me in the hall to ask about very specialized data reports for their students, in order to study them beside their formative assessment findings and reasoned perceptions. These teachers know how to use varied measures of assessment, and they don’t wait for anyone to call a meeting in order to do so. They’re asking for what they need long before anyone has to approach them.
It’s important to mention that these teachers have consistent support from their administrators as well. These leaders continually provide dedicated time for sustained professional development and a willingness to respond to teacher requests for support. The decisions they make are informed ones. These people are instructional leaders who inspire their teachers to be rock stars.
Here’s the thing: despite the fact that these are some of the most talented teachers I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with, they constantly question their practice and the decisions that they are making. They are always, always, always striving to do better. It isn’t that they lack confidence. It’s that they aren’t spoiled by the curse of expertise. They’re willing to wonder, capable of admitting what they may not know, and skeptical of those who pretend to be experts. They expect me to get my hands dirty, and they maintain few delusions about my ability to know it all or wave a magic wand simply because I’m facilitating the learning. These teachers are far more courageous and far more flexible in their thinking than many seasoned educators tend to be.
So, it came as no surprise when these teachers took on the New York State English Language Arts curriculum modules last year, despite the incredible amount of time, effort, and passion that many of them poured into the curricula they designed on their own. To be sure, there was a fair amount of deliberation. I would expect nothing less from invested and informed skeptics. But they were willing to test this new curricula, and when they did, they gave it their all, despite the sacrifices that I know they made.
A few weeks ago, we learned that their New York State English Language Arts Assessment scores went up, and not a little bit. In fact, one grade level in particular saw a huge lift in performance this year.
So, this begs the inevitable question: was it the modules?
I don’t know.
They don’t know.
And it truly doesn’t matter.
We didn’t even talk about this when we came together last week for our first data-informed conversation of the year. What we did talk about and more importantly, how we chose to talk about it, was pretty revealing though. Teachers were provided data that compared their grade level performance to the region. They were also provided data that compared their grade level performance to those who performed at or above proficiency regionally. We also made a close study of the annotated items from the New York State English Language Arts Assessments. The most important data on the table were their perceptions and the findings from their formative assessment work last year, though. These were the questions that guided our initial discussion, and as teachers began to share their thinking, the questions became more refined:
- Where did learners experience the greatest successes in your classroom last year, and what do you attribute this to?
- What evidence do you have to support your perceptions?
- Which New York State Assessment data reports validate these perceptions? How, specifically?
- Which reports challenge your perceptions? In what ways?
- Where are you noticing potential entry points for intervention? What professional goals should we set? How will they matter?
These were their findings:
- The predictable routines that students practiced in the New York State curricular modules helped build confidence and enabled learners to sink further into their study and practice.
- Sixth graders learned how to use text evidence to support their analysis of each text, and this helped them evolve into very focused and organized writers by year’s end. Slowly and over the course of time, learners shifted from simply lifting and dropping textual evidence into their writing to truly analyzing these details and even evaluating their quality. Teachers felt that the anchor papers and organizers included in the modules helped writers tremendously. They also spoke to the design of the modules and credited the gradual release of responsibility inherent in them to their students’ success. These teachers only taught two modules last year, and prior to this, they frontloaded numerous skills and strategies, including close reading and supporting claims with text evidence. They wonder how removing this frontloading might influence learning this year, as they intend to teach all of the modules.
- Seventh grade teachers felt that the quality of their students’ writing was far greater, and they attributed this to the depth of instruction the modules provided. They explained that learners did far more annotating, and they were consistently seeking text evidence and using it to support text analysis.
- Eighth graders wrote far more, and teachers felt that the quality of their writing improved as well.
- All teachers mentioned that last year, they were using the language of the standards with greater intention and accuracy. They feel that this was critical to their students’ success.
- Finally, teachers spoke to the level of daily collaboration and reflection that occurred last year. Teachers were consistently sharing successes and challenges, resources and ideas, and interventions that showed promise. Sixth grade teachers in particular spoke to their increasing levels of comfort and confidence.
- Teachers also credited the Social Studies and Science departments for their efforts to support close reading and the Common Core Learning Standards.
I share this story for several reasons. First, it demonstrates how focusing on strengths serves data teams well. This story also reveals how meaningful data team meetings can be when everyone is speaking a common language and grounding their understanding of growth in the mastery of standards rather than the achievement of points or the improvement of scores. Finally, and most importantly, this story showcases this department’s courage: these are incredibly skilled and seasoned teachers with a decade of rich professional learning and dedicated curriculum work behind them. They were asked to test the modules, and even though they were skeptical, they were far from arrogant. They tried. In fact they did more than try–they committed themselves deeply to this work and to helping one another daily.
I asked them if they attributed their students’ success in the classroom and on the assessments to the modules, and this gave everyone pause. They told me that the modules required them to teach reading and writing in ways that they never have before. It was a slower, deeper, and far more intentional approach. Long before they saw their New York State Assessment scores, these teachers said that they recognized significant growth in their students’ abilities and they couldn’t deny that the modules contributed to this. Significantly. Several teachers told me that teaching with the modules raised their confidence in ways they did not expect. The grade level that saw the greatest growth has been striving hard to achieve it for years now. They deserve to feel like the accomplished teachers they are, and if they are willing to attribute at least some of that achievement to the Common Core Learning Standards and yes, even the modules, then I know it’s only fair to give credit where it is due.
Still, the modules are only as good as the system they live in.
When I was still in the classroom, my co-teacher and I were asked to take on a large and very diverse population of learners. We began soaking up everything we could about differentiated instruction. We were overwhelmed by what we discovered and daunted by the challenges ahead of us. This was hard work that opened us up to great criticism at different points and made us question everything we believed about ourselves and our profession. It was also one of the greatest experiences of my career. We didn’t know if it would work, but we knew that we would work until it did.
No thing works without that kind of commitment, reflection, and willingness to take risks and catch a fair amount of flack for your efforts.
I’m honored and grateful to be able to work beside teachers like this all of these years later. It is one place where I rarely feel alone, and in the midst of what many are calling the darkest days in education, there are no words for how fortunate I feel to be surrounded by such incredibly bright lights.
It’s not about the tools, it’s about the hands we put them in.