The Village Science Project: Reducing Barriers to Science Education in South Sudan

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VSP Engineering Club, Project Photo
VSP Engineering Club at Loreto Primary School in Rumbek, South Sudan. Project Photo.

While there are always needs in the schools in our own country, it is important to remember that other countries have students that have the same potential but lack even the basic resources available to many U.S. students.

This is what Candacia Greenman is aiming to address by working with the Loreto Primary School in Rumbek, South Sudan. The Village Science Project (VSP) aims to use an inquiry-driven, hands-on and play-oriented approach to improve access to high quality science education for over 200 disadvantaged students over a 3-year period in this MDEF funded academic enrichment project.

How can educators address barriers to high quality science education?

VSP intends to target the four main hindrances to science learning in their community in order to better serve the students:

  1. Limited resources for practical, inquiry-driven science exploration
  2. Poor English language acquisition
  3. Little community engagement
  4. Psychological barriers to learning

VPS’s proposed addressing these in the following ways:

  • Providing students with the resources needed for science exploration through the use of science experiments and engineering and robotics projects.
  • Implementing techniques to improve English language skills in science learning by promoting reading through tablets, facilitating peer learning experiences and encouraging student presentations through science fairs
  • Stimulating community engagement through science fairs combined with field trips and career talks from local community members.
  • Creating low-stress environments for our students, especially our girls to become interested in learning science (students are also given opportunities for “tinkering” or “free play” with science kits through the formation of an after school “tinker club”)
VSP participants show a simple circuit. Project photo.
VSP participant shows a simple circuit. Project photo.

How can teaching methods improve students’ love for science?

Loreto Primary School serves over 600 students, with an emphasis on girls’ education and VSP will benefit about 200 different upper primary students over 3 years. The students live in a community with limited access to electricity and potable water and currently, classes are conducted outdoors under trees.

Most of these students never get a real chance to find a love of science because it’s taught almost exclusively in a theoretical, teacher-centered manner. As such, VSP is ground-breaking because of its use of a more hands-on and child-centered methodology to elevate student learning. They’ll do this by keeping a strong focus on inquiry-driven science exploration, which will help these students to develop their critical thinking skills. VSP will also deepen students understanding of, and interaction with the local physical environment as well as addressing social issues that adversely affect science education such as gender inequity, trauma-induced stress and poor community engagement.

At the end of year one the educators working on the VSP conducted initial baseline assessments of science performance and interest of Primary 5 and Primary 6 students after the following programs were implemented:

  • Teacher demonstrations
  • Laboratory exercises/activities
  • Robotics and engineering projects
  • Tablet usage
  • Mathematics manipulatives usage
  • Science fair
  • Career talks
  • Field trips
  • Tinker Club

Revealing effective science and math teaching

The VSP team members have conducted baseline assessments in both science and mathematics enabling the teachers to tailor the rest of their programs according to how best to serve the students needs.  In light of a mathematics assessment revealing gaps they’ve launched a mathematics intervention program targeting student understanding of number operations for Primary 3 through Primary 6 students. All teachers have adapted their teaching programs to allow for more time for Mathematics instruction and they have expanded their focus on number operations.

In addition, all of the primary school teachers attended a month-long training workshop to learn how to integrate demonstrations into their lesson plans for effective science teaching. In order to maximize the use of the science teaching aids, they expanded their focus to include demonstrations in Electricity, Magnetism and Weather modules.

Students work with tablets to improve math and science fluency
Students work with tablets to improve math and science fluency

Best of all, afterschool programs to supplement students’ science education have also been implemented. In these programs, the students use science kits to expand their learning of material covered in their Electricity, Magnetism and Weather modules. Those aren’t the only exciting things going on after school for Loreto Primary School students.

VSP has also introduced programs to introduce students to engineering principles and robotics. In these programs, students have been using Engino engineering blocks to build simple machines and learn how to code using the Lightbot app as a first step towards understanding robotics. The engineering afterschool program encompasses the proposed ‘Tinker Club’ in which ‘free play’ is encouraged and students build simple machines of their choice.  Students are also being provided with tablets to use in the afterschool programs to aid them in their mathematics and science courses.  

One of the most exciting additions have been the science fairs which give the students a place to shine in front of Teachers, parents and other community leaders also attending the event. The science fair focused on energy and engineering and students gave presentations on the design of solar toys, the basics of electricity, and the design and utility of simple machines.

Loreto Primary School students present at the VSP science fair. Project photo.
Loreto Primary School students present at the VSP science fair. Project photo.

One of the greatest feathers in the cap of the VSP project is that all of their after school programs and the science fair were conducted in English and has resulted in a vast improvement in English comprehension. In addition, students have learned how to use technology and the basics of coding through the use of tablets. Their teachers have reported that tablet usage has also helped the students with Mathematics anxiety.

Lessons learned in academic enrichment

The accomplishments of this project have not come without challenges. The VSP team have reflected on ways they can improve their program in later years.  Their biggest challenge was the field trips due to security concerns. As a result of this challenge, they have shifted their focus and are currently designing a “Mathematics and Science for Life” program in which students will attend weekend sessions to learn how mathematics and science are useful in everyday life.  Being able to adapt and shift strategies in response to challenges is a necessity for success for a program like this.

The VSP team also learned the difficulties of relying on applications that are not as readily available on the international networks. Google Play is not enabled in South Sudan. As such, all apps must be pre-loaded before transportation to Rumbek. Unfortunately, this means that updates cannot be installed as needed. Furthermore, a lack of consistent and fast internet access has limited the utility of many apps that would be very useful for the students. And in addition to these challenges, having electricity in the classroom has been an issue.  As such, they recently invested in solar energy to provide electricity to their school campus and  are have installed solar electricity panels for our primary school which will improve their internet access.

All in all, it sounds like some really exciting things are going on with the VSP in Rumbek.  They’re swinging with the punches and adapting when necessary.  The McCarthy Dressman Education Foundation is excited to see where they go in the years ahead.  If they succeed, other schools in the region will benefit enormously from the pedagogical strategies that these educators are pioneering.

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Art History Enrichment Club: Painting to Understand Human Culture

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Two things that are rarely taught in tandem, outside of college elective courses, are Art and History, yet these two disciplines are inextricably linked. Art gives us a window to the minds of humans living in another time.  Every detail can tell a story, from the subject and the setting to the style of a time period.  Each of these things gives us hints as to what life, attitudes, and technology were like when those pieces were created.  Art as old as ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs as well as that created in modern day can shed light on how humanity has evolved and provide a glimpse to human potential. Some might argue, if you don’t know the history – how can you create the future?

This important connection between human expression and history has inpired the educators at NYOS Charter School in Pflugerville, Texas, in the Art History Enrichment Club.  According to the project team, the goal is for students to better understand how history and art are interwoven throughout the ages. This understanding will allow students from all backgrounds to connect the art they studied to the community and world around them. By studying the craft of painting in a variety of techniques, they will not only grow as artists, but also make connections between advances in art, history and culture, from paintings in famous museums to those found in their local community.

Students explore important connections between art and history in "Art History Enrichment Club"
Students explore important connections between art and history in “Art History Enrichment Club” in a series of after school enrichment workshops and a field trip to the Blanton Art Museum in Austin, Texas.

How does art history after school enrichment support cognitive and social skills in intermediate grades?

The Art History Club was open to students in 4th and 5th grades. Students applied, with parent permission, and thirty of them decided to stay after school one day a week for an hour. This allowed the school to serve up to 20% of their student population. The classes were offered for 20 weeks and were capped off with a trip to the Blanton Art Museum in Austin, Texas.  Not only did the project allow students of all backgrounds to connect with history and their communities, it also gave them a new visual language to identify styles and techniques.  Research has shown that students who are enrolled in art programs increase cognitive and social skills that are then applied in daily classroom activities.

Students shared what they were learning on an Art Board in a common area of the school.
Students shared what they were learning on an Art Board in a common area of the school.

An important part of this enrichment program is that it wasn’t just passive observation.  These students received hands on experience, so to speak.  Not only did students see and study the art and varying techniques, they also put those lessons to the test.  A weekly display of the information about an artist and the students work was also shared in a common area for all students to view. Additionally, there was an art show displaying student’s artwork open to the NYOS community.  NYOS also has a collaborative relationship with local business. These business were able to display artwork allowing students to share their achievements with their local community.

What other benefits came from this project?

According to Melissa Hefner, project awardee, the project was designed to make broad connections between art, history, and real life: “The first goal of the project was to teach how history and art were interwoven. The second goal was to show the different styles of art that have been created throughout history, starting with Egyptian Art and ending with Modern Art.  The third goal was for students to identify famous pieces of artwork on clothing, TV shows, movies, posters, etc. making the connection that masterpieces are all around us.  The fourth goal was to have them identify art in their community and then add their own art to the community.”

Students were able to share their art with friends and family at a school fine arts night.
Students were able to share their art with friends and family at a school fine arts night.

The students have discussed art throughout many historical periods and created pieces of artwork in many different styles in the after school program, every Thursday for an hour.  In April, students showcased their work at Fine Arts Night, and even the parents managed to learn a little something they didn’t know previously.  In the beginning of May they took the field trip to a local art museum and graffiti wall.  A great contrast between fine and street art, and a great lesson about the importance and impact of both.  As a direct result, students have become aware of how much art exists around them in the books they read, historical events they study, current events they hear about, and even in their social media feeds.

This project is off to a strong start and continue to impress us at the McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation.  Here’s to a few more years of making art and creating history!

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Aquaponics: Growing Our Own Food Sustainably

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Learning how to grow food engages culinary students and harvests real-world science in this featured project.

In an age of environmental unpredictability and rising cost of living one thing not being discussed enough is self-sustainability.  Understanding how to grow and prepare one’s own food is an incredible life skill to develop, regardless of one’s chosen profession.  This is something that Michael Kosko and the educators at  Al Raby School for Community and Environment, Chicago, IL are taking on right now through their program “Aquaponics: Growing Our Own Food Sustainably.”  By teaching students how to grow their own herbs and vegetables, alongside certain types of fish they are hoping to create a program that produces students mindful about their environment and who can also cook up a decent, healthy filet of fish.  This program will also provide students with the opportunity to explore issues of food justice and food deserts which many students experience within their communities.

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Recipe for Success

This project is unique to the Chicago area. While there are many culinary and horticulture/agriculture programs in the city, Al Raby will be the first to combine these two types of programs into one. The Office of CTE (career and technical education) Programs provided equipment for the culinary lab.  In the grow lab, students will grow salad greens, kale, and various herbs while taking care of tilapia and koi. Eventually, this program is looking to partner with local businesses to sell the student harvest. In the classroom, students will study the life cycles of plants and fish and the optimal way to grow both. Since this class will be heavily rooted in the scientific method and student inquiry, students will also study how different variables affect plant growth including temperature, light intensity, nutrient/chemical levels, water quality, diseases, and aquatic pests. And since no pesticides or synthetic fertilizers are used, all produce grown in the lab is classified as organic according to the USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) definition.

Building a Grow Lab and Disseminating Learning

Ultimately, the goal of the project was to build out a grow lab in the school to support their preexisting culinary/food science career and technical education (CTE) program when those classes began in September 2016.  Accomplishing that meant getting the grow lab up and running, which they did, leading to a bountiful harvest in May. Students who took the vegetables home came back with rave reviews from family and friends.  

Currently they are working with the Garfield Park Conservatory, to create a teen docent program made up exclusively of Al Raby culinary students. Fifteen of their freshmen students interviewed for ten spots on the inaugural docent team. During the summer, these students work to create educational experiences for area elementary students and during the school year they will be released from their culinary classes once a month to lead tours for second and third graders.

Along with those benefits, this past summer the selected students ran experiments in the grow lab with Akilah Henderson, the Student Engagement Coordinator at the Conservatory. Under Akilah’s guidance the students will tracked the growth of crops on the conservatory’s farm and in the lab, building on the Botany students’ work from the past semester.

Meeting Challenges and Planning for the Future

They were not without difficulties.  Unfortunately they discovered too late that the district requires schools to obtain special permission to raise fish.  Because of this, the first round in the lab had to do without the fish.  But David Blackmon, the program coordinator for all the culinary CTE programs throughout the district, toured the lab earlier in the month and is working with central office to obtain permission for Al Raby to start raising tilapia and koi next school year. Fortuitously, fish can easily be added to the current units in the lab with no modifications once permission is obtained.

Regardless of the fish-hiccups it sounds like the students and educators at Al Raby are off to a great start.  It sounds like before long they’ll be swimming in so much fish and so many vegetables they’ll have have trouble giving them away!

Plans for a dinner for district leaders and community stakeholders are in the works to share the success and help others savor the impact of the project.

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STARS: Real world inquiry excels to new heights at Research Ranch

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The mobile observatory from the STARS project. This picture was taken by drone of the director standing in the brand new facility.
The mobile observatory from the STARS project. This picture was taken by drone of the director standing in the brand new facility.

Science, inquiry, project-based learning, and relevance take center stage in STARS.

At a time of such ecological uncertainty, when some of our greatest minds have given us 1000 years as a species until extinction, one thing is abundantly clear: the study of celestial bodies, near and far, has never been more important.  And while 1000 years may be a bit far off to even comprehend, it behooves us to broaden our understanding of our neighboring planets in stars in hopes that when the time comes for us to leave our terrestrial trappings behind, we’re ready.

This is exactly what educators at George West High School have been working on for the past two years with their innovative STARS (South Texas Astronomical Research for Students) program.

“It has widely been assumed that scientific research and especially astronomical research was an endeavor to be pursued at the university level, and even then primarily by graduate students, certainly not at the high school level.  STARS challenges that notion.”

-Kenneth Zeigler

Research Ranch Cultivates Learning

STARS is not limited to astronomy. At Research Ranch, tiny ranch by Texas standards of only 34 acres, introduces students to real research in the following fields of study:

  •   Astronomy
  •   Solar energy to electricity conversion
  •   Ecology
  •   Materials engineering
  •   New techniques in ranching (the solar ranch)

According to the report, in the first two years of this project all the areas above demonstrated tremendous progress in regards to research. Current efforts continue to focus the project primarily on astronomy, materials engineering, and solar energy.

A Converted Marching Band Trailer becomes a Mobile Astronomical Observatory

One of the most exciting developments of the past year was the STARS observatory telescope coming fully online to fully begin the program.  It’s housed in the Mobile Astronomical Observatory, an 8 by 16 foot, 30-year-old converted marching band trailer.  

This year saw the final steps of the transformation into a scientific research facility.  Even receiving a brand new coat of paint and its official logo as the school year began.  

Students of the science club get busy painting the mobile observatory’s exterior in the new color scheme.
Students of the science club get busy painting the mobile observatory’s exterior.

The mobile observatory is divided into a control room and telescope room section. Most of the student researcher’s time is spent in the control room which is climate controlled.

The primary instrument used this year with the telescope was the thermoelectrically cooled CCD camera that could be used to take timed exposures of the heavens as well as make measurements of star brightness at a variety of wavelengths. This opens the possibility of making measurements of color and surface temperature of stars or the shapes and rotational periods of asteroids. The student operators, CCD camera and main telescope are shown in the slideshow below.

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Rocketry Club Qualifies for National Competition

The observatory isn’t the only thing to be excited about.  An unexpected offshoot of the astronomy program has been a new rocketry program.  Interest in the mobile observatory inevitably led to an interest in all things space, and it led students to pursue the Team America Rocketry Challenge.  Two teams from George West High School participated in this nationwide competition.  The challenge was to build a rocket that would carry two raw hen eggs to an altitude of exactly 850 feet and return them to the ground undamaged in a flight time between 44 and 46 seconds.  This is a most difficult task and one of the two teams (Cloud 9) qualified for the national competition.

The Cloud Nine rocketry team preparing their rockets for competition in Washington, DC.
The Cloud 9 rocketry team of the STARS research project preparing their rockets for competition in Washington, DC.

Solar Voltaic Arrays Support Real World Agricultural Inquiry

The solar ranch is another reason to celebrate this program.  Junior Ryan Repka has been working on two different designs for photovoltaic arrays.  The first one is the semi-active array.  The first panel will be finished before the end of the school year and will be installed during the summer of 2016 with the entire photovoltaic array to be completed during the fall 2016 semester.  At that point, Ryan  will begin a semester long study as to the best ways to maximize efficiency, from panel positioning to water cooling of the panels.

Through repositioning of photovoltaic arrays as part of the STARS research project, an additional 15-20% solar power efficiency can be realized.While this project exceeds expectations for high school students, it continues to expand student learning opportunities.  

In terms of agricultural and ecological research, the project is just beginning to make progress. In fact, an intriguing future project is taking shape.  Not far from the observatory site and solar ranch, the first trees of a citrus orchard have been planted.  The observatory site is a bit north of the main citrus growing region of Texas. Being on a hill out of areas of cold sinking air help, but this area is subject to serious killing frosts about one year in four.  To combat this problem, the students and educators plan to develop what they are calling a microwave defroster.  This system could be used to prevent frost damage on citrus but would be even more useful on more sensitive winter vegetables such as lettuce. They plan to initiate a pilot project for this device no later than the winter of 2018.

It truly is an exciting time to be a student or a teacher participating in the STARS program at George West High School.  There’s something very powerful about teaching and learning while simultaneously working for a better future for all humans.

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Waltham Integration Network: Connecting Teachers to Investigate and Improve Digital Learning Across Contexts

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It’s easy, as an educator, to feel like an unmoored ship in a vast sea.  Pricks of light in the distance indicate other ships, largely unreachable.  Even though teachers in the same districts and schools work closely in a physical sense the gulf of communication can be vast and many good ideas and techniques are not shared and refined amongst a larger pool of minds.

Teacher Inquiry guides exploration of new ways of teaching. Still from project video.
Teacher Inquiry guides exploration of new ways of teaching. Photo from project video.

This is what Elizabeth Homan, of Waltham Public Schools in Waltham, MA, is changing with her program Waltham Integration Network: Connecting Teachers to Improve and Investigate Digital Learning in Urban Settings.  While the name is complicated, the aims are simple. This project proposed to bring together a small group of teacher leaders from across an urban school district to engage in collaborative inquiry and teacher-research related to the integration of digital technologies in classroom practice. The goal of this project is twofold: (1) research the challenges and possibilities of digital integration in a high-needs urban school district, and (2) increase the capacity of the district’s digital professional learning opportunities for teachers.

How can collaborative inquiry for teacher development work?

By keeping research at its center, engaging teachers in conversations about “what works” for their digital learning, and helping teachers support their colleagues in reinventing their teaching to meet the needs of today’s very “plugged in” learners. The first year was largely preparatory with an articulation of goals and a formulation of an action plan that would turn into quarterly meetings.

Project Website - walthamintegrationnetwork.org
Project Website – walthamintegrationnetwork.org

At the start of the project, cohort members worked to identify the student learning goals for the year and articulate how their goals could be measured using qualitative or quantitative classroom data. These goals could be as simple as learning how to create and fully integrate a new tool, such as a classroom website, or it may involve an entirely new approach to instruction, such as “flipping” the classroom.   Later in the year, team members shared classroom artifacts, lesson plans, and examples of videotaped practice from their classrooms with other team members in quarterly face-to-face workshops, connecting their practice with research-based approaches and examples.

The project will continue to meet these goals through recruitment of additional teachers, teacher mentorship of new recruits, sharing teacher work through the blog and, in the summer, development of video evidence of teacher practice with technologies.

How can collaborative inquiry impact educators?

Classroom video helped teachers better understand the impact of new teaching strategies. Photo from project video.
Classroom video helped teachers better understand the impact of new teaching strategies. Photo from project video.

The educators at Waltham Public Schools have been busy.  In their first year they have recruited research assistants to help mentor teachers at the middle and elementary school levels.  They have also developed a number of #WINproj spaces for sharing practice. From their blog (walthamintegrationnetwork.org) to their twitter hashtag (#WINproj) and Facebook page, these educators have worked this year to foster a digital voice for the network and to develop consistent expectations around the content and design of their website/blog and social media interactions.  The teachers have worked throughout the year to archive photos, examples of student work, or videos of their practice, which they will use this coming summer to develop video reflections on their experience and what they have learned.  And because the project and leader are new to the district, much of this year has been about building relationships, learning what’s happening in the buildings, and building excitement for the project.

How can collaborative inquiry improve instruction and pedagogy?

Teacher blogging strengthens teacher collaboration.
Teacher blogging strengthens teacher collaboration.

The first and most obvious benefit is a larger network of teachers and educators who have bridged the communication gap.  Partnerships between teachers have formed both online and in person.  The teachers are also becoming increasingly proficient with web writing and familiarity with the online tools such as the blogs and message boards.  It’s clear they’ve been doing something right as they’ve been asked to present at the National Council of Teachers of English in November which will serve to get the word out about the program and widen the network of the educators involved.

How could this program be improved?

According to the team, the biggest challenge the program participants faced was that of time.  Not expectantly they had trouble with the temporal logistics of getting so many teachers in the same space physically.  More support and training for online meeting spaces is paramount for the growth of this project.

On a lesser, but no less important note, they found that some teachers needed to get acclimated to blogging.  While they’re perfectly proficient in the classroom, the public articulation of methods of pedagogy doesn’t come easy for everyone.  More support for first time bloggers would have a large impact on the productivity and communication between all parties.

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Teaching for Social Justice creates change for teachers and students

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Back in May we introduced you to an innovative and exciting project being spearheaded by Scott Storm and the educators at Harvest Collegiate High School called Teaching for Social Justice.  While it’s only been a few months since the original blog post, “Teaching for Social Justice transforms curriculum, educator mindset and improves student learning” (May 2016), it’s been two years since the McCarthy Dressman Education Foundation funded this project.  We are exciting to be brining you another update on this effort to improve effectiveness and equity in high school classrooms.

Project Photo
Project Photo

Before we can talk about what they are doing now, let’s revisit the project’s original goals. Teaching for Social Justice” aims to design curriculum, support the development of teachers as social justice educators, and disseminate these lessons to progressively wider audiences. This requires a break from a dominant paradigm which views teaching as monologic, teacher-centered, and lecture-based. The following goals have been explored in this project.

  1. Design and revise courses to better support teaching for social justice.
  2. Conduct cycles of teacher inquiry and action research to further teaching and learning.
  3. Develop and grow a Professional Learning Community in our school that shares curricular materials, participates in peer-observation, and supports each other in formal and informal ways toward the goal of teaching for social justice.
  4. Disseminate our curriculum and research to teachers, teacher-educators, and the public.

Recipient Scott Storm explains, “In our work, we saw that the conception of teaching for social justice has been theorized from disparate, sometimes contradictory, epistemological and ideological positions. Our project aims to mesh these theoretical stances in locally situated practice.”  

What kind of teacher development efforts strengthen social justice pedagogy?

In the past two years they have made a lot of progress on the following four goals. We’ve shared them below with some examples of student work in this teacher development project.

Goal 1: Design and revise courses to better support the Teaching of Social Justice

  • Curriculum Retreats: In the first year of the project they held Curriculum Retreats to promote ideas for new courses, start to draft the courses, and reflect on their past work.
  •   New And Revised Courses:

o   Fall 2014, New Course: “Identity Quest”

o   Fall 2014, Revised Course: “Constructing Monsters”

o   Spring 2015, New Course: “Lit Crit & Grit”

o   Spring 2015, New Course: “Pop!”

o   Winters 2015 and 2016, New Course: “Writer’s Retreat”: They created a new course for the January term (two weeks) called “Writer’s Retreat” in which 26 students traveled to a cabin (with no Internet, television or other electronic distractions) for several days. Many of the students came out of this experience with stronger writing skills.

o   Fall 2015, New English Course—“Human Nature”: In this class students read Locke, Hobbs, & Rousseau alongside Lord of the Flies and Macbeth.  Students explored ethical and moral issues and participated in group simulations and role-playing activities that identified ethics, oppression, and privilege.

o   Spring 2016, New English Course—“Dysfunctional Love”: This course engaged students in questions around love and relationships through some classic literature.  Students read Romeo and Juliet, Jane Eyre, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and other texts.  Students talked through difficult issues while also analyzing textual form.

o   2015-2016 School Year, New Course—“AP English Literature & Composition”: This past year they offered an AP English Course open to all students. They recruited from special education classes, English Language Learners, low-income students, and those who are normally not encouraged to take AP at other schools. Students read poetry and many works including: Pride & Prejudice, The Sound and The Fury, Mrs. Dalloway, Invisible Man, Waiting for Godot, The Woman Warrior, Beloved, Midnight’s Children, Angels in America, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  Some essential questions that guided these courses were “what is literature—and what do we do with it?” and “what is the relationship between form and meaning?” The assessment at the end of the unit asked students to use the theories of literary modernism to create their own short stories, poems, paintings, or musical scores, and then present and/or perform these at an evening coffee-house event.

Goal 2: Conduct cycles of teacher inquiry and action research to further teaching and learning.

  • Teacher Research Team: For the past two years, Teacher Research Teams conducted inquiry on their teaching. They developed essential questions, created research designs, discussed relevant scholarship/literature, collected data, and analyzed the data together using qualitative research.
  • English Department as Teacher Inquiry Team: Teachers focused on two areas: reading literary texts and writing as process.  For each of these inquiries, they read articles about pedagogy around close reading, conducted their own close readings together, analyzed student work, planned for implementing shared practices, implemented these practices, analyzed post-intervention data, and created a plan for future directions.
  • Classroom Ethnography Project: Teachers in the teacher research team served as ethnographic participant observers in each other’s classes (one or two periods a day). The dialogue between the teacher and the researcher improved both teaching and student learning.  

Goal 3: Develop and Grow a Professional Learning Community in our school

  • The Teacher Summit: A “Teacher Summit” was a day-long conference where half of the faculty presented on the courses they developed, on a portfolio of their work, or on one of their teacher inquiry projects.  The faculty were excited for continued improvement of their teaching and the enhancement of their professional community.
  • Teacher Learning Teams:

o   Year One: In the first year of the project they brought together three teacher teams focused on:  1) descriptive review of student work in order to reflect on and refine teaching practices; 2) designing and implementing intervention plans for high-need students.; and 3) use of Critical Friends Group protocols from the National School Reform Faculty to fine-tune curriculum and assessment. Year one was about deep understanding and new knowledge.

o   Year Two: In the second year of the project, they had the teachers from each of these teams use the skills that they had learned the first year to spread this learning so that all teachers became more familiar with these methods.

o   Teacher Study Group: Each semester the Teacher Study Group chose a focus of study. In the fall, the group looked at “questioning as pedagogical tool” and in the spring they explored “formative assessment.”  Each week they read a peer-reviewed journal article about the topic and discussed how this could improve their practice.

o   Whole-Faculty Peer-Observations: In year one they had all teachers conduct a series of monthly peer-observations.  They continued this practice in year two which has been helpful for the teachers to see themselves as a community of practitioners rather than individual silos.

Goal 4: Disseminate Curriculum and Research

There has been substantial progress in this area. They have written conference proposals, presented at conferences, and had articles published about their work!

  •   Publication: Storm, S. (2016). “Teacher-Researcher-Leaders: Intellectuals for Social Justice” Schools: Studies in Education. 13.1 57-75.
  •   Academic Conference Presentations:

o   February 2015, “Tensions in the Teaching for Social Justice” presented at the University of Pennsylvania’s Ethnography in Education Forum.

o   December 2015, “Adolescents Enacting Disciplinary Literacy in English Literature: Education for Social Justice or Model of Cultural Reproduction?” presented at the Literacy Research Association’s annual conference in Carlsbad, CA

o   December 2015,  “Epistemological Tensions in Teaching for Social Justice: A Case Study” presented at the Literacy Research Association’s annual conference in Carlsbad, CA.

o   February 2016, “Reading Literary Criticism: Method of Critical Liberation or Tool of Cultural Assimilation?” presented at the University of Pennsylvania’s Ethnography in Education Forum.

  •   Other Presentations/Workshops

o   Fall 2015, Critical Pedagogy Workshop for Student Teachers: Swarthmore College

o   Fall 2015, Grammar/Writing Pedagogy for Justice Workshop for Student Teachers: Swarthmore College

o   Spring 2015, Teachers as Researchers Presentation for pre-service English education students at the University of Pittsburgh

o   Spring 2015, NYC Writing Project Teacher to Teacher Conference—one of our colleagues presented her work at this conference.

Additionally, they have submitted a number of presentations that are currently under review.

How does social justice pedagogy impact teachers and students?

They have definitely been busy and while it is great to hear what they have accomplished, it is even more important to hear about how they are doing.  We also wanted to know how the teachers responded and how this has impacted students.

Project Photo
Project Photo

This project allowed teachers to collaborate, build shared professional knowledge, and to work toward social justice.  In the first year of the project they did a lot of capacity-building as they worked to develop the skills of teacher-researchers.  This year they have gotten to reap the benefits of putting so much time and energy into these activities.

In a reflective meeting in August before they started the new school year, one teacher remarked, “it’s incredible how much we learned…and now we get to use it all year!”

The English department in particular had some major achievements.  They continue to create new courses that leverage students’ strengths and engage them in rigorous intellectual instruction. This has been a benefit to both teachers and their students.

At the school-wide level, the team is seeing the benefits of training teachers in peer observation, descriptive review, equity interventions, and Critical Friends protocols.  Teachers who were participants in these groups last year are leading these activities in their departments and their grade teams. One teacher remarked, “I just feel like the tools that we have now let us actually focus on teaching and learning more and that to me is what improves practice.”

Finally, a big achievement this year has been having some of the teachers going to and presenting at conferences.  At the conferences they shared their work with a wider audience. By doing this, they are hoping to  improve practice beyond their school.

The teachers are not alone in being recipients of the benefits of this program.  Students across the school were able to engage in interesting and deeper work through the courses that they have designed.  Through the AP English course, students who might not have access to this level of work in another school were able not only to access the curriculum but also really thrived in this environment.  One of the assessments in the course had students write an 8-10 page literary analysis on a book and question/topic of their choice and then present their work in an oral defense to a panel of external examiners.  The examiners used a rubric to score the student’s work.  One of the teachers, who has been doing this type of work for a decade, said of the students, “I have never seen so many students get [the highest level of the rubric] on projects like this.  Our students have really learned how to do so much.”

Excerpt from Harvest Collegiate Student, Karen S.'s paper from the Lit, Crit & Grit: Deconstruction course.
Excerpt from Harvest Collegiate Student, Karen S.’s paper from the Lit, Crit & Grit: Deconstruction course.

Here is a sample of some students and the titles of their papers:

  •      Leo R. – “Flower Imagery in Mrs. Dalloway
  •      Elijah R. – “The Comparative Use of Animals in Modernism and Postmodernism”
  •      Omar C. – “To Close Read or Not To Close Read: Resolving the Epistemological Tensions Between Close Reading and Pleasure Reading”
  •      Emely H. – “The Gothic: A Solace for Humanity”
  •      Michelle H. – “The Coalition of Inner versus Outer Self in Palahniuk’s Fight Club”
  •      Francisca H. – “Accepting the Inevitable: A Discussion of Death and Time in Mrs. Dalloway and Beloved
  •      Vanessa P. – “Forming Identity with Talk-Story in The Woman Warrior”
  •      Lucas G. – “Beloved: Redefining Motherhood Through the Language of Obligation”
  •      Nafissa M. – “Literary Era and the Construction of Motherhood”

As exciting as this project is, it’s not without it’s challenges and ways to improve.  While many of the challenges from year one were about creating buy in and building capacity, the challenges the second year have been about sustainability.  The teachers have found themselves with less time budgeted for professional development meetings than they would like but they are working around it as best they can.  Additionally, it has been difficult to get teachers to write about their experiences for wider audiences.  To address these for next year, they are scheduling more time to write, reflect and think about how they can frame their learning for wider audiences.  They have also started to have more teachers present at conferences to “get their feet wet” in conversations beyond their school.

Challenges aside, it sounds like this program is reaping benefits that ripple far beyond teacher development. Students who were never given this opportunity are excelling and teachers are learning to better serve those students. The pursuit of Social Justice is an invaluable virtue but this program goes to show it can also be a valuable teaching tool.

Where can I learn more about implementing a social justice curriculum?

Tribute to Jane Abe, McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation Board Member

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JANE L. ABE
JANE L. ABE

Jane Abe was a member of the Board of Trustees of the McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation
from its inception in 2000 to her death on March 15, 2016.

During her years of service Jane brought to the Board her passion for teaching, her extensive experiences working with children in the elementary grades, and her dedication to the profession. She deliberated over every proposal we received at the Foundation with deep empathy for teachers, a sharp eye for ideas that would make a difference to students, and a deep concern for the impact grants could make for teachers and students. Her mentorship of each project made a lasting impression on classrooms and all who had the opportunity to work with her will remember her commitment, guidance and care.

We miss Jane and will forever be grateful for having the opportunity to work with her on the Board.