Teachers Solve Problems in Collaboration to Improve Mathematics Instruction in Project RENEW

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Summer Institute, Project RENEW photo.
Teachers investigate current practices and work to improve mathematics instruction for Common Core, Project RENEW photo.

We talk a lot about how isolating it can be to be a teacher, but nowhere is that more apparent than in small, rural districts.  The teachers there are often the only instructor for a single subject.  This is especially difficult for such an important and variable subject as mathematics.  As Phillips and Hughes explain:

“Too often, teachers do not have sufficient opportunities to work together to examine work and structure interventions within their classrooms.

As the new standards are implemented, we must ensure that teachers are not left alone to figure out how best to teach to them.

The standards are an opportunity for greater collaboration, fresher thinking, and a rearticulation of shared goals for teachers and students.

By collaborating with each other and with instructional specialists through cycles of examining student work, creating hypotheses about how to implement common-core-aligned lessons, implementing them, and making adjustments in their practice in real time, teachers can find the best ways to help their students reach these higher expectations while still maintaining individual styles and flexibility.” (2012, Education Week)

With multiple levels and subjects within it, math is a daunting subject to teach.  But that’s what the educators at West Elementary School in Manhattan, Kansas plan to do.

What is Project RENEW?

Project RENEW emphasizes the development of deeper content knowledge among teachers, as well as pedagogical knowledge aligned with a standards-based approach to content teaching. By building a cadre of elite math educators, the teachers at West Elementary School aim to create an easily adoptable model to improve math scores within their district and beyond.

What are the project goals?

Word Cloud from Kansas State Department of Education Math Website
Word Cloud from Kansas State Department of Education Math Website

With the adoption of a much more rigorous set of standards, Common Core Standards for Mathematics (CCSSM), the teachers at West Elementary realized that they must rethink how they teach mathematics. So, they came up with the following goals:

  1. Increase student achievement in mathematics for ALL students in grades K-12.
  2. Strengthen the content and pedagogical knowledge of K-12 teachers.
  3. Increase the implementation of CCSS-based mathematics instruction and curriculum in K-12 classrooms.
  4. Strengthen and expand existing leadership opportunities for teachers in mathematics to enhance collaboration to address the needs of K-12 schools, especially in small rural school districts.

The project proposed that by completing goals two through four (strengthening teachers, instruction and math leadership) that goal one (improved student achievement in math) would follow shortly after.

How did this project strengthen teaching in mathematics?

Project participants attended a summer math academy to develop CCSSM aligned curriculum and tasks. This academy helped the group understand their current practice and focus on ways to improve it.

Summer Institute, Project RENEW photo.
Summer Institute, Project RENEW photo.

First, teachers were pre-tested on their mathematical knowledge in relation to how they would implement mathematical practices in the classroom and had to submit an “action plan related to these practices and instructional strategies used for implementation.”

Next, they were observed during instruction and given feedback during professional development sessions.

In addition to this, teachers in smaller districts nearby that do not have funding for professional development and/or resources were contacted by the teachers from Project RENEW. Together, they were able to share resources and provide professional development for these small districts. Funds provided by McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation were also used to purchase new materials for the academy, so they were able to box up their “used” standards-based textbooks, load them up in a truck and delivered them to four different districts in the area.

How did this project impact the math instruction?

After a year of funding they’ve improved “by leaps and bounds and are ready to tackle the next steps” according to the project report.

The difference between the teacher Pre-Test and Post-Test was phenomenal.  The average score starting out was a 2/7 correct responses and by the end that average had improved to 5/7. That’s 42.8% improvement in teacher knowledge of how to implement math instruction for CCSSM.

Teachers were also observed showing marked improvements on their in class instructional skills, particularly in the realm of “providing problem solving opportunities for their students, requiring productive struggle and discourse.”

To further extend the benefits of the program in their community, the teachers involved in the project were also responsible for disseminating what they learned in professional development sessions with the smaller districts.

What knowledge would they share with teachers exploring similar projects?

Like many of these ambitious projects one of the hurdles that must be overcome is the lack of resources. Even with the grant funding, they were unable to accommodate all the educators they would have liked to. The waitlist for additional involvement is long and shows no sign of letting up, much to the disappointment of those who know the project’s promise.  In the future, they plan to video tape the lessons to help smaller districts to gain access to this valuable resource. This will be a focus in the year to come.

Also of note, the implementation of this program might encounter challenges operating on a larger scale due to the vast time requirements put on the educators and the stipends needed to cover their time.  They hope that in the coming years that the texts, videos, and seminars resulting from this program will be able to be adapted for use by other districts and schools around the country.

Further Readings

Additional Resources

Sustainable Education Through International Understanding

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“When one country has an issue, it becomes the whole world’s issue. We as a planet have to try and make a change, because there is only one earth, which happens to be our only home… The small things affect the most, so definitely, I will do small things to save and conserve our planet.”

That’s a quote from one of the students, in the ESD: Sustainable Education Through International Understanding program, after collaborating internationally with Japanese students. It exemplified what the educators at Lakeridge Jr. High School were setting out to accomplish with this program.

Students Learn About Sustainable Education and How It Impacts the World

Students participate in a survey of the new Korean foods they just sampled.
Students participate in a survey of the new Korean foods they just sampled. Project Photo.

In an increasingly interconnected and globalized world the butterfly effect takes on new meaning. Emission problems in one country don’t just affect them; they affect all the surrounding countries and some that are not so close. As the rainforest is depleted we lose a global source of oxygen. When radiation leaks into the ocean, everything from algae to people are affected. Creating an awareness of global issues and sustainability is a necessary part of surviving in the modern world.

As Americans we often find ourselves a bit self-centered when it comes to world issues, but now that we can communicate across oceans with the click of a button, that distance has shrunk immeasurably and we can no longer afford to only think of ourselves.

How are 9th grade students in Orem, Utah learning about global issues through sustainability?

According to the initial proposal, submitted by Merida Davis’ team at Lakeridge Jr. High School, “Our goals are to stimulate and facilitate responsible sustainability awareness and interaction at the individual, community and global scales.” Their goal was to be realized by creating cross-curricular partnerships between the science department and the other subject instructors, initially in a professional development workshop. By creating this cross pollination of subjects teachers learned to “seamlessly incorporate sustainability into their subjects… and […] new perspectives on teaching their own subject area.” After this initial work with the educators was completed, the project moved on to address the students directly.

Japanese Students teach American Students how to make Origami Cranes.
Japanese Students teach American Students how to make Origami Cranes.

To become well versed in sustainability, students participated in sustainability-based community service projects. Part of those projects were about creating a documentary movie to highlight local issues, such as pollution, agriculture, climate change, resource management and depletion. Along with this, they also collaborated with Japanese students, giving them a perspective on this subject that they wouldn’t get otherwise.

WATCH: ESD Student Videos at VPD Awards

This project includes plans to offer a Sustainability Fair where students will celebrate their work by sharing their service and other sustainability-based projects. The Fair will culminate with a student film festival showcasing their work from throughout the school year.

Is this project something other teachers can replicate?

While now the primary benefits go to those students and educators directly involved with the program, it is the hope with future funding that they will be able to create online archives of lessons, produced videos, and other student work to serve as an outline for educators to adapt the program to their own schools needs.

Though the bulk of the cost goes into covering the teachers training, the best part about this model is once that initial hurdle is cleared it becomes increasingly easier year after year to teach this program.

How has the project evolved?

Through the lessons learned the projects accomplished in the last year, the educators have a better grasp on how to replicate the program in other classrooms more efficiently. Being able to replicate the program will enable them to broaden their scope in the coming year.

Pen-Pal Exchange builds relationships across continents. Project Photo.
Pen-Pal Exchange builds relationships across continents. Project Photo.

Through the grant they’ve been also able to fund Pen Pal letters to Toyoda Jr. High School in Japan.  The exchange went beyond traditional pen pal relationships in that they were also able to chat electronically with students in Japan and Pakistan.  A few students started learning basic Korean which resulted in a field trip to a Korean restaurant for many of the students first encounter with that culture’s cuisine.  As a result of these opportunities, exchanges have also begun over Skype with students in Korea.

Students Exchange Pen-pal letters with students in Korea. Project Photo.
Students Exchange Pen-pal letters with students in Korea. Project Photo.

All of these things are creating students with a wider worldview and a greater connection to a global society. Through building relationships between teachers, offering meaningful exchange opportunities to students and by taking time to integrate curriculum, the ESD team has made sustainability education a reality for their students.

Learn more

Lesson Study Improves Science Instruction

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Members of 6th grade lesson study team plan research lesson
Members of 6th grade lesson study team plan research lesson

It’s no secret that Lesson Study works.

There are many, well documented success stories and it has been used to great effect in Japan.

There’s a reason Japanese students consistently score in the top ten in the Organization for Economic Operation and Development’s Programme for Student Assessment. But today’s blog isn’t about Japan, it’s about improving the quality of elementary level science instruction and how the educators at Long Branch Elementary in Liverpool, New York are doing it.

What is lesson study?

For those that may not know, Lesson Study is a widely utilized collaborative professional development practice (2015, Wikipedia).  Lesson Study starts with a group of educators that pick a content focus with the express purpose of preparing a research lesson. That group will convene regularly to share research, discuss national, state and local education policies and standards correlating to the subject at hand.  This enables teachers from a wide variety of subjects and disciplines to cross-pollinate their ideas and research with one another in a directed and focused environment.  By observing and critiquing each other’s lessons and delivery these educators are able to elevate each other’s abilities and knowledge base.  And by the transitive property, the students are exposed to a well-constructed lesson plan.

Members of 4th grade lesson study team planning research lesson
Members of 4th grade lesson study team planning research lesson

How are the teachers at Long Branch Elementary using lesson study?

These educators decided to focus their lesson study efforts on the sciences, including studying a national framework for science education and how they could adopt it to fit their specific needs.

According to their proposal, they wanted to be guided by the following three questions:

Pat Guida (foreground)  teaches research lesson as numerous  educators observe and collect data on student thinking  11/14/14
Pat Guida (foreground) teaches research lesson as numerous educators observe and collect data on student thinking 11/14/14
  • How do we design science instruction that makes students’ thinking visible?
  • How can we meet our students’ needs and simultaneously address the new science framework?
  • How will evidence of students’ learning be used to help us revise our original lesson?

What did they learn?

The project at Long Branch Elementary has been so successful that their program and teaching tools have spread to two other schools in the region, with educators from those schools now participating in the lesson study program.  In addition, at the time of their report, they had three out of the four research cycles completed and implemented, with the final research team in the midst of their own cycle and well on their way to completion.

The educators participating expanded their knowledge base about claims/evidence, science content knowledge, and constructivist methods for teaching elementary science.  The teachers also expressed “self-efficacy and confidence in regards to teaching claims and evidence, using inquiry-based instruction and teaching with student science notebooks.”

Dr. Sharon Dotger facilitates a post lesson discussion at Long Branch Elementary School in Liverpool, NY.
Dr. Sharon Dotger facilitates a post lesson discussion at Long Branch Elementary School in Liverpool, NY.

Teachers weren’t the only ones to benefit.  Students had the opportunity to collect data, engage in scientific experimentation and increased the level of science knowledge throughout the course of the cycle.

How did Lesson Study support improved science instruction?

Understandings gleaned from the Lesson Study were used to inform instruction. For example, educators learned that it can be difficult to facilitate discussions with students with varying levels of comfort with the subject matter.  Teachers report that teaching students to make claims based on evidence has been a bit of a pedagogical challenge, as the students tend to confuse evidence with claims. They also found that without visual aids, such as graphs and charts, the difficulty in communicating these ideas increased exponentially. These valuable understandings of what wasn’t working in the science research lessons provided educators with specific modifications they could make in their lessons to make student learning more effective.

What did they learn about implementing Lesson Study?

The structure of their school is not very supportive of lesson study which has forced them to start their meetings during the summer.  They found they cast too wide a net when it came to getting the research groups started and think that scaling down the research lessons will improve the speed in which they can be implemented.

Open Research Lessons at Huntington Hall Commons,  Syracuse University
Open Research Lessons at Huntington Hall Commons, Syracuse University

How can you make this work at your school?

Research and texts on lesson study are not hard to come by.  The biggest challenge you can face is that your school does not have the time or resources to implement the necessary bits and pieces at study inception, however, once the process gets going the road gets easier as the work invested makes future studies easier.  Bottom line? Lesson study works.  Make it work for you.

Learn more about Lesson Study

2015-2016 Application Now Available

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Here’s to another year of enriching and inspiring both learners and educators!

Applications are now being accepted on our website for this year’s application period (January 15 – April 15, 2015).

Please apply early as the number of applications which may be submitted is limited to the numbers below.

You can learn more about McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation’s 2014-2015 Grant Recipients here.

Teacher Collaboration Creates Real World Learning and Assessment at San Francisco Community School

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Students working on their projects while being overseen by an instructor.
Students working on their projects while being overseen by an instructor.
Collaborative Planning for Project Based Learning

Teaching, despite being surrounded by literally hundreds of human beings on a daily basis, can be a very isolating profession.  An educator could be likened to being a single island in an archipelago.  While they are a part of an entity larger than themselves the vast gulfs that separate them keep them from fully benefitting from each other’s resources.  Coupled with the daily slog through textbooks, homework, and testing, it’s easy to see how a teacher’s passion for education could wane.  Is collaboration with other teachers a way to improve teaching and learning? The educators at San Francisco Community School (SFC) proposed exactly that in the Collaborative Planning for Project Based Learning project funded by McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation.

What exactly is Project Based Learning (PBL)?

According to the Buck Institute for Education PBL is “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, problem, or challenge.”  You can learn more about types of PBL from John Larmer at Edutopia. Put more simply, it’s learning by doing.  PBL is a model that shifts its focus away from a teacher-centric approach and emphasizes student directed assignments. With a focus on relevant assessment and real world relevance, PBL is a very exciting alternative for both students and teachers to traditional classroom learning.

Students working on an agriculture based project.
Students working on an agriculture based project.

What are the benefits of PBL for teachers and students?

According to the National Education Administration, PBL “makes learning relevant to students by establishing connections to life outside the classroom and addressing real world issues.  In the classroom PBL gives teachers an opportunity to build relationships with students by acting as their coach, facilitator, and co-learner.”  In the past few years the increased access to technology in schools, even underprivileged ones like SFC, makes this type of learning much more accessible.  The large format of the projects also lend themselves to being easily shared between teachers and with parents who are invested in the student’s learning process.

How are the educators at SFC implementing PBL?

It’s not an easy approach, especially if you have limited resources and time.  According to the original proposal by Jessica Fishman, who is spearheading the project, “The Collaborative Planning Project (CPP) will allow SFC teachers to work together for three days in summer study groups to establish essential learning objectives, develop long-term project-based curriculum and develop common learning strategies for the coming year.”

Students observing sea lion behavior for a project about marine life.
Students observing sea lion behavior for a project about marine life.

The teachers used the text Understanding by Design by Wiggins & McTighe as their guide as they work through the ideas of backwards design and the building blocks of project based learning.  The teachers were also be divided into groups based on grade ranges so that, when sharing, they could manage and engage each others needs and expectations as students moved through the school.  This collaboration will create essential bridges between educators so that ideas and proposals may flow more easily between them.

After two years of implementation, where are they now?

Jessica Fishman was happy to report that the project met or exceeded all the goals they had set.

According to the proposal the goals were as follows:

  1. Project-based learning methods to support student learning in real-world, meaningful challenge-driven projects.
  2. Teachers will identify and develop performance-based assessment opportunities and rubrics that are aligned to the projects and indicate the extent to which students have mastered the essential learning outcomes.
  3. Culturally-relevant instructional strategies designed to engage and support students who are traditionally under-served by public schools.
  4. Vertical alignment and calibration of expectation and rigor K-8.

    Student projects about volcanic eruptions.
    Student projects about volcanic eruptions.

By working in their individual grade level groups the teachers created concrete plans for their fall cycle. Not only did they create a solid collaboration plan, they created a set of assessments along with K-8 vertical integration and alignment.  The problem they’ve run into both years was that very few teams had time to do initial planning. As a result, many teams were forced to meet again over winter break to finish their planning for the spring.  The extra time spent in each others company only strengthened the personal and professional bonds between their educators.  Now, with the project plans in place, it’s a much smoother transition for new teachers joining the project.

When teachers are able to truly collaborate it opens up worlds of opportunities, not only for the students, but for the educators as well.  There is no reason to cease learning, especially when one is a teacher.  The benefits of project based learning are clear, but the added collaboration between educators will only amplify that effect.

Further Reading

Real World Relevance Builds Career Skills at Digital Art Afterschool Studio

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A student designed logo for Overton High School.
A student designed logo for Overton High School.

Where can students spend time after school honing career skills and building a portfolio?

Miami-Dade County (Fla.) Public Schools’ career-oriented program Digital Art Afterschool Studio offers students exactly that.

Last year, one of the biggest themes in the projects we funded was real world relevance.  Students are often bored with classes that they can’t see themselves using in the real world.  Tactile skill based courses such as Art and Music have limited career prospects when compared to STEM courses.  The Digital Art After School Studio is a prime example of how to synthesize real world skills and arts education in a way that profits both the school and the students.  Over the past three years they have turned from a tiny operation that struggled to find funding to a nearly self-sufficient model that will continue for years to come.

Students spend time after school honing their skills and building a portfolio.
Students spend time after school honing their skills and building a portfolio.

To recap, what is the Digital Art After School Studio?

The Digital Art After School Studio program was created with the idea of giving students with an interest in graphic design a place to learn the procedures and expectations of actual client-based projects.  The initial goals were to give students exposure to a workplace environment and ideally an increased level of workplace etiquette and knowledge of practices. The other, more long-term goal for the program was to get students more in touch with the community in order to build a client base that will continue to support the program long after the grant funding ends.

According to their project report

“Once establishing these relationships, the students were expected to maintain contact with the client. This follow-up was intended to build community ties that would emphasize the relationship the school had within the community, as well as introduce the students as individuals of worth to the adults in the community who were involved in running small businesses.”

Students working on graphic design projects.
Students quickly learn that self motivation is the key to success in this program. What they get out of it is a direct result of how much they put in it.

Where are they now?

First and foremost, the most unexpected and fantastic occurrence has been the increased student involvement and ownership of the program.  Word of mouth has gotten so strong that they no longer need to recruit to replace graduating members. They have students lining up to put their name on the list.  The students this past year even took their ownership of the program so far as to elect to rebrand it the “Painttank,” a think tank for artists.  During the past year they’ve had numerous visitations from other schools that are interested in emulating their model.  They see students voluntarily giving up their afternoon freedom to work on their own projects and wonder how they can reproduce this in their own schools. The answer is simple.  By cultivating an atmosphere of independence and freedom to explore their individual styles, the students become personally invested in their own work and growth as artists. Not only that, it’s completely student driven in the hours after school, acting autonomously and driving its own progress forward.

Student designed company logo.
Student designed company logo.

One of the biggest victories the school has achieved is the founding of the Overton Foundation, a non-profit entity that allows for donations to be made without getting caught up in the bureaucracy of the school district. In previous years, it was difficult to distribute funds from those wanting to pay for the studio’s services.

They are not at a loss for members in this after school program.
They’re not at a loss for members in this after school program.

“With this new entity we will now be able to create a cash flow that revolves around the work produced and reward those students involved with direct, over-the-board, payments. This will provide the opportunity for students to learn to keep a job budget and understand pricing. It also allows for our studio to bid on jobs, and provide invoices for those we complete.”

The Overton Foundation is key to the future self-sustainability of this project.

In terms of improvement, the program is always on the hunt for new clients.  Most of the initial client base came from sources directly related to the student and school, but now with multiple accolades under their belts and a sizable portfolio, the Studio is looking to expand further into the community.  With the hurdles of creating the Overton Foundation and the initial cost of computers and software suites out of the way, it’s really up to the students and their mentors to guide this program into the future.

And it’s looking like a bright one.

Gallery of Afterschool Studio Artwork

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Further reading on Real World Enrichment

Learn More about Career-Oriented Curriculum

Mariachi membership tunes up grades and turns on pride

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Members of Tucson’s Mariachi Casabel Youth Organization take pride in new costumes and higher grades

Photo courtesy of Mariachi Cascabel Youth Organization
Photo courtesy of Mariachi Cascabel Youth Organization

Last year the McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation funded the Mariachi Cascabel Youth Organization (MCYO), an innovative program attempting to combine academics with community engagement using music, specifically Mariachi music, as the binding agent. With Tucson’s Sunnyside Unified School District’s diminished music budgets there didn’t seem to be much hope for the group, especially since they needed new costumes. For mariachi, image is just as important as musical ability. Their costumes, called Trajes de Charro, don’t come cheap, especially if you want quality and authenticity. Organizer Daniel Dong proposed a unique project for improving not only the image of the musicians but also their success in math and science. Funded in 2013 by the McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation, this unique and special music education program has already made an exceptional impact.

… students in arts-integrated classrooms are more creative,
engaged,
and effective at problem solving
than their counterparts who are not in arts-integrated classrooms.”
Arts in Education Research Study, Kennedy Center ArtsEdge 

Photo courtesy of Mariachi Cascabel Youth Organization
Photo courtesy of Mariachi Cascabel Youth Organization

Setting the tone for academic success

Research has indicated that students that who receive music education tend to do better, across the board, academically. This program takes it a step further by including a cultural component that has true community value. Daniel Dong’s idea was to help the Mariachi Cascabal Youth Organization Program, serving a primarily Hispanic district, be available to play in the community for all the most important celebrations. Even before funding they were able to play at a number of events including the Annual Latina Breast Cancer Conference and Mexican Mother’s Day festivals. He also coordinated within the school district to help MCYO get regular gigs at school carnivals and other related events.

Because within the district there is no other program like this, demand to get in is high. Here’s where the alignment with academics found a harmonious fit. The program instituted a requirement where students must retain passing grades or seek tutoring for those subjects. Now, not only were the students getting the benefits of a musical education, they were also more motivated to perform well in their other courses.

Costumes and instruments build pride, Tutors nurture brains

Because looking authentic was important for their success as legitimate mariachis within the community, the Foundation’s investment also went toward new costumes for the organization. They have currently received sixteen out of seventeen Trajes and are just waiting for the final jacket to come in to make their ensemble complete. The funding also provided new instruments for the group including two Prelude Violins, two Michoacána Vihuelas and four Yamaha Guitars from a local music company. Furthermore, students received three digital video cameras from Walmart to help document their experiments with the MCYO.

While a couple of students have fallen behind in their other academic courses, the tutors in math and science that have been provided are helping them reach their academic goals. In September, they held a large parent meeting to inform students and parents of all the benefits students receive by being involved in the MCYO. The prospects laid out got many parents excited which in turn helps the students realize the value of such a program.

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Photo courtesy of Mariachi Cascabel Youth Organization

There were, as always, some unexpected but not insurmountable costs. Trajes wear out quickly and they found they needed to bring their tailor up from Mexico City to do the measurements to make sure they got the highest quality Trajes. The Trajes were completed and shipped back to America in late April.

Culturally relevant music education and tutoring add up to better grades

From the beginning, the educators responsible for this project saw the value of a tutor. While the students were less than happy, initially, about being required to attend tutoring and a few stopped coming due to the requirements, many of those students returned and participated in the tutoring and watched their grades improve – a win for everyone involved.

Project educators also reported on how they could improve on this project for the next school year. Though they noted how enthusiastic parents were about tutoring, they couldn’t help but acknowledge how adverse the students were to it. They discussed ways to better sell that idea to students, so that this program and others patterned after it would find a lot more success. There were also important considerations that could be fine tuned in the future, such as streamlining the auditions, assessment of initial abilities and tutoring placement procedures.

Anecdotally, Daniel Dong reported, one of the biggest challenges was procuring the Trajes, which took about six months to obtain. Because they were authentically handmade in Mexico, however, the time was worth the wait.

All in all, the MCYO has been successful with their approach to using music education and tutoring to improve student success and creativity. They are on track to meet and exceed their proposed goal “to acquire mariachi outfits and musical instruments to help motivate students to be more engaged in their academics and to be positive role models in their community.”

What did the students have to say about their work?

MCYO members wrote about their experiences in the program and about attending the Tucson International Mariachi Conference.

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Similar programs could be proposed in your other schools; take advantage of your local musical genres that impact your community the way that Mariachi music does in Tucson, Arizona, will be your real challenge.

For more information on the magic of music in academic enrichment, read on: