curriculum

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?

Teaching for Social Justice transforms curriculum, educator mindset and improves student learning

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Students study literary devices (Project Photo)
Students study literary devices (Project Photo)

Both educators and students want to be excited and engaged by the curriculum, but they also need it to support learning effectiveness. By examining how they could meet the needs of their students, these educators improved engagement and equity. We are excited to share a report from the team of Teaching for Social Justice.

Why teach for social justice?

Teaching for social justice has been heralded as a way to meet the Common Core State Standards, increase student learning, and work toward equity and justice in a democratic society. Scholars who argue for social justice pedagogy encourage approaches such as:

  • encouraging the students to pursue their own curiosities and questions
  • afford students the opportunities to question knowledge, explore their identities, and become producers of knowledge, and
  • using critical literacy to enact transformative, liberatory education.

How can teacher development efforts support social justice pedagogy?

Although there are many ways to be innovative with social justice pedagogy, such as this example of culturally responsive teaching through current events, one way to approach it is through teacher development.

In a creative effort featuring the educators and students at
Harvest Collegiate High School in New York, NY and funded by McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation, Scott Stamm is leading a project called Teaching for Social Justice with the following goals:

  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.

How do you design a teacher development program for social justice pedagogy?

With the ambitious goals described above, the project emphasizes time for teachers to investigate and improve their curriculum. Through creative and collaborative inquiry, this team explored many ways to improve their teaching both in and around the school day. In order to achieve these goals, these exciting strategies were described in the project report.

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

  • Fall Curriculum Retreat – In August 2014 several English and special education teachers came together to plan new courses and revise existing ones by utilizing our framework for teaching for social justice (critical literacy, constructivist inquiry, and disciplinary literacy). Two courses came out of this retreat.
  • A New English Course—“Identity Quest” – One of the courses that the team created was a grades 9/10 fully-inclusive/untracked English course called “Identity Quest.” Through this course, students read critical identity theorists like bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldua, and Prudence Carter, and used these theories to frame their readings of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Homer’s The Odyssey. Students wrote close readings, lengthy literary analyses, autobiographies, and visual/multi-modal texts. Through these texts students explored both the canonical literature and their own identities/subjectivities.
  • Revision of English Course—“Constructing Monsters” – The team also revised a course that had not previously been tuned to our aims of teaching for social justice. In the revised version of this course, students participated in daily dialogically organized discussions (constructivist inquiry) about Beowulf, Frankenstein, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (disciplinary literacy) in order to conduct critical readings about gender, sexuality, race, and society (critical literacy). The previous versions of this course had the disciplinary content, but lacked the inquiry and critical pedagogy components.
  • Winter Curriculum Retreat – Near the end of the fall semester, the whole teacher research team met to evaluate fall courses and to begin developing new courses for the Spring semester. They staged a day-long retreat on a Saturday in order to have enough time to do the deep reflective work needed.
  • Development of English New Course—“Lit Crit & Grit” –  This 11th grade untracked course was designed to begin with having students read The Great Gatsby and then read literary criticism of the novel from scholarly peer-reviewed journals.  Students read the articles chronologically starting in the 1940s and moving to the present-day.  In this way, students can be enabled to get a glimpse into the shifting ideological terrain as criticism moves from schools of literary thought including New Criticism, psychoanalysis, feminism, Marxism, structuralism, deconstruction, critical race theory, cultural studies, and queer theory.  Each week of the course four students are prompted write their own literary criticism that situates their argument into the arguments of the other critical scholars.  Students present their papers to the entire class and all members of the class community give feedback for revision.  In this way, students become not only consumers, but also producers of literary criticism for more authentic audiences.
  • Development of English New Course—“Pop!” – This is a 9/10th grade inclusive/untracked class where students will read literary and sociological scholarship (such as the work of Roland Barthes, Peggy McIntosh, Judith Butler, Deborah Tannen, bell hooks, and Eve Segwick) to critically analyze pop cultural artifacts.  Each week students will bring in artifacts (print-text, movies, commercials, songs, tv shows, digital media) that are important to them and then the entire class will use the scholarship that they are reading in order to have a seminar about the pop-cultural artifacts.  This course is designed for students to develop critical inquiry skills and engage with both texts important to their everyday lives and complex academic texts important to the discipline.

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

  • Teacher Research Team – A Teacher Research Team was created to conduct cycles of inquiry on their teaching. They developed questions, created research designs, discussed relevant scholarship/literature, collected data (student work, student interviews, video recordings of class discussions), and analyzed the data together using methods from qualitative research (including methods from Critical Discourse Analysis, ethnography, and grounded theory). They also wrote about, reflected on, and shared our findings with each other.
  • English Department as Teacher Inquiry Team – The English department became a group focused on a collaborative inquiry around the practice of “close reading” (careful interpretation and deep analysis of text). They read articles about pedagogy around close reading, conducted their own close readings together, analyzed student work, made a plan for implementing shared practices, implemented these practices, analyzed post-intervention data, and created a plan for future directions.
  • Classroom Ethnography Project – Two teachers in the teacher research team served as ethnographic participant observers in each other’s classes. Each teacher observed two class periods a day of the other teacher’s course. In the fall Scott observed “Monsters” and Beth observed “Identity Quest.” In the spring semester Scott observed “Pop!” while Beth observed “Lit Crit & Grit.” Teacher researchers took ethnographic fieldnotes, collected audio-recordings of class discussions, collected and artifacts of student writing. Each day the teachers debriefed both classes. In this debriefing meeting the teacher researchers discussed not only pedagogy and curriculum but also research questions, relevant scholarship/theory, research methods, emergent analyses, and conceptual memos. This continuous dialectical tacking between the typical domains of the teacher (curriculum/pedagogy) and of the researcher (methodology/scholarship/analyses) strengthened both the teaching and the research, and ultimately enhanced both teacher and student learning.
  • Teacher Field Trip—NCTE Conference – The English department attended the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Conference in Washington, DC in the fall.  There they were able to network with teachers and researchers.  They attended many useful sessions including ones presented by Nancy Fry, Deborah Appleman, Michael Smith, Samantha Caughlin, and more.

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

  • Student Solutions Teams – This year the team implemented cross-disciplinary teacher teams on issues of social justice. Every Monday teachers met in these teams for 70 minutes. Teachers were able to choose which team they wanted to join. The team leader, Scott Stamm, conducted qualitative interviews with teachers and collecting other data about the effectiveness of these groups so that they can make them even stronger next year. Briefly, here is a description of each of the three groups:
    • Student Work Group – This group looked closely and carefully at all types of student work and used the Prospect Center’s Descriptive Review process to reflect on the teacher practices and student learning. This process allowed teachers to work toward not only more socially just practices for instruction on “Monday Morning” but also to develop more strengths-based and critically-conscious ideologies about teaching/learning.
    • Equity Interventions Group – This group focused on creating, implementing, monitoring and revising academic and behavioral action plans for their highest-needs students. The group approached these tasks from a strengths-based perspective to be strategic about how they made sure all students are learning. The group also created interventions for their school as an institution in order to combat institutional racism and other forms of institutional oppression.
    • Curriculum & Instruction Group – This group uses Critical Friend Group protocols from the National School Reform Faculty to improve teachers’ curriculum and instruction in their classes. This group uses protocols to tune curriculum and tackle dilemmas of practice.
    • Whole-Faculty Peer-Observations – As part of the project, for the first time all teachers conducted a series of peer-observations. Team memers trained teachers in the practices of clinical supervision, peer-mentoring, and cognitive coaching. During the training, teachers role-played and practiced the pre-observation conference and the post-observation conference. They then did a mock-observation by viewing a video and practicing how to observe and record in ways that would be constructive to others. After the training, teachers did several observations of colleagues and each month they came back together as a whole staff to check-in on how the process was working and to continue to support people in doing the peer-observations.

Goal 4: Disseminate Curriculum and Research

  • Conference Presentation – During the fall, team members Beth and Scott wrote a paper proposal, which was accepted to the Ethnography Forum at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. They traveled to Philadelphia where we presented our paper entitled “Epistemological Tensions in the Teaching for Social Justice.” They were able to network with many teachers and researchers at the Ethnography Forum and had many great conversations about research and pedagogy. With feedback from their audience, they are now working on a new version of this paper for publication in a peer-reviewed academic journal.
  • Proposals Under Review – The team members have written drafts of two papers based their research this year. They wrote one based on the research of the “Classroom Ethnography Project” about student constructions of identity in classes geared toward social justice. They also drafted a paper about the research on students’ learning with literary criticism. Formal proposals to present these research findings were also prepared and submitted to the Literacy Research Association’s annual conference.
  • June Writing Retreat – The Teacher Research team is also planning to hold a multi-day writing retreat during the summer to reflect on the year and write up further findings for dissemination.

What is the impact of teacher development for social justice pedagogy?

The efforts of this program have affected the learning of students and the teachers and created positive change in many ways.

Educators Improve Practice and Build Shared Theoretical Models Through Teacher Inquiry and Action Research

This program made it possible for teachers to work on improving practice and building shared theoretical models for how to do the work of teaching for social justice. Teachers in the teacher-research group have said that the group, “totally made me re-think the way that I teach.”

In further reflection on how the group had changed our practice, one teacher explained,

“For example, my inquiry question was around students who were less talkative in dialogically organized class discussions. I was wondering what I could do to make all students be more a part of the conversation. Using our social justice framework, I tried different strategies each week. One week I tried re-framing my questions so that they included asking readers to draw from the text and their own experiences and responses. That got one of the more reluctant students. Another week I tried doing informal on-demand writing before our seminar discussions. That got another reluctant student to participate more. Another week I taught students how to ask questions that they were authentically interested in figuring out. That strategy got one more student. One time I posed provocative questions about power ‘like is the text racist?’ That really woke up one of my students. By the end I realized that many of the strategies worked for certain kids, but there wasn’t a panacea. Now my toolbox is bigger and I can deploy the strategies based on my ethnographic observations of which strategy I think the student will best respond to. It’s not the way I’m used to teaching, but now more of my students are learning in seminar and I’m getting better.”

Teachers also learned much about methods of teacher inquiry and action research, which allowed them to become more reflective and thoughtful teachers.

For example, one teacher explained,

“It was just so refreshing to get time to reflect and think together, and now I have so many more ways to look at my teaching. I used to think research was about experimental designs only and control groups and that seemed weird for a classroom. But our work with ethnography and with descriptive review and with the theory readings that we did was really helpful. Now I know I like naturalistic ethnographic inquiry and I can see how thick description is so useful. But also I know that a formative or design research study works well for another one of my colleagues who was interested in engineering a solution to a particular problem of practice and I know how to do that now. And now I also know more about how critical discourse analysis can be useful and how that can really change how you are approaching something.”

In addition to the research group, teachers in the whole school talked about the usefulness of our new peer-observation system and of the learning that they had done through our “Student Solutions Teams.”

One teacher said,

“I’m just so glad we had a way to make interventions not just for the ‘tough cases’ among students but also for our school. When we saw that boys of color were being over represented in the discipline structure we could then name it as institutional racism and take steps to start to deal with that. We’re not done yet, but we are taking steps toward being better as a school.”

Writing Samples Evidence Student Benefits, Learning Grows

Many students were able to engage in interesting and deeper work through the classes that were designed for this project. In all of the revised and new courses, the goal was to blend the ideas of critical literacy, disciplinary literacy, and constructivist/inquiry-driven thinking.

One example of evidence of student learning that captures the goals for the project relates to the “benchmark” essay students complete at the beginning and end of the course. The benchmark asks students to write a literary analysis close reading essay of a passage that they have never seen before.

Ninth and tenth grade students have a text that falls within the 9-10 grade level of text complexity according to the framework in the Common Core State Standards for text complexity, and eleventh and twelfth graders have a text that fits into the 11-12 grade band of text complexity.

The department scores all the benchmark essays and makes sure to develop strong inter-rater reliability across the department. They score the benchmarks on a shared departmental rubric that they have created and that is aligned to the Common Core State Standards. The school-wide goal is for students to grow at least 0.5 points in each indicator on the rubric in a semester-long course because that amount of growth would keep students on track to be at the mastery stages of the rubric by graduation.

Below is the data showing growth on the benchmark from just one section of the “Identity Quest” course. This course was a fully inclusive mixed 9/10 grade class. About 30% of students had Individualized Educational Plans and 15% of students were identified as English Language Learners. The graph shows the growth in rubric points in each scored area of the rubric between the first and last benchmark:

Graph of Growth by Learning Standard from Project Report
Graph of Growth by Learning Standard from Project Report

As is evident, most students grew by 1, 1.5, or more points on the rubric in each indicator. This is more growth than seen previously and all students met the goal of growing 0.5 in each indicator within a semester-long class.

While the team members do not have the data sets to claim a direct causal relationship between our Teaching for Social Justice project and this student learning growth, they do believe that these elements are closely intertwined.

This project allowed educators to narrow in on particular skills while also creating opportunities for students to construct their own meanings and expand their academic identities. In the report they state “.. we believe that, while not at all conclusive, this data is fascinating.”

The team also shared examples of the types of complex writing that their students are doing. Both student authors are eleventh graders in the “Lit Crit & Grit” course. In this course, students read The Great Gatsby, and literary theory and criticism about the novel. Throughout the course, students took turns writing “seminar papers” which are analytic literary arguments. All of their classmates read and gave feedback on the student’s seminar paper and the student defends their seminar paper to the class. The example papers show how students are combining the ideas of constructivist inquiry, critical literacy, and disciplinary literacy in interesting ways.

In the arena of disciplinary literacy, student writing samples are strong – using academic language such as words and phrases like “ideology,” “deconstruct,” and “binary opposition.” Samples also highlight student ability to describe literary devices and situate their arguments within the context of other scholarship in the field. With regard to critical literacy, these students conduct analyses of gender/sexuality and power, explicitly refer to a “feminist lens,” and tackle ideas of wealth, social class, identity, and agency in the novel. Finally, from an inquiry perspective, these student samples showed an authentic interest in going deeper into deconstruction as a topic, reading additional sources about deconstruction, hunting for evidence throughout the novel to refute and support their ideas, and developing their ideas through multiple drafts and process writing. Even with areas of improvement, student writing from this project exhibits many of the characteristics of the types of work the team want students to be doing.

What can other teacher development projects take away from this one?

The team reported that it was initially challenging to build buy-in and support amongst the teachers to do research on their own teaching. Teachers needed to see that it was immediately useful to their practice. Although some were initially skeptical, this faded as the project began to reveal how useful and even liberating it can be to conduct inquiries into the social justice aspects of teaching.

Students study literary devices (Project Photo)
Students study literary devices (Project Photo)

Once the project got up and running, it was sometimes also difficult to sustain the work week after week. On days when the lessons didn’t go as well, more of their time was spent together was spent troubleshooting lessons than
on the specific agenda items around next steps for the research process. However, the team came to realize that this collaborative troubleshooting actually was strengthening the research and that they could view challenges in the classroom as more data to think through. To improve the project, the team now has a “pedagogical check-in” as the first part of the meeting, which allows them to have a space that is always reserved for this type of talk.

Also, the team reported that they learned that it can be overwhelming to jump right into the process of creating research-questions and designs for systematic inquiries. After a few failed attempts early on to try and create a whole research design, they shifted focus to doing everything in smaller more systematic parts. They began with a few months of just doing descriptive review, ethnographic thick description, and participant observations. This work helped them become aware of what was going on in classrooms, and only then were they able to come fresh to the process of creating research questions. To improve the project, for the next school year, they are going to start with these observation and recording techniques before they go further into their inquiries.

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

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

Beyond the Book: Opening Classrooms to Close the Knowledge Gap

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Addressing the Knowledge Gap

Among the many challenges facing us in education one of our most formidable foes is the comprehension gap, across all content areas, between students of low socioeconomic status and those of high socioeconomic status.

English: France in 2000 year (XXI century).
Despite the change in technology and time, many educators still rely on textbooks. Are there better ways of improving student literacy in content areas? English: France in 2000 year (XXI century). Future school. France, paper card. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[T]his neglect of [content] knowledge is a major source of inequity, at the heart of the achievement gap between America’s poor and non-poor”

E.D. Hirsch, The Case for Bringing Content Into The Language Arts Block and for a Knowledge Rich Curriculum Core for All Children American Educator, Spring 2006.

The Importance of Literacy Skills

While there are many factors that attribute to poor performance, one of the chief offenders is a lack of literacy skills.  This is often noted at the college level when students are forced to take non-credit developmental education classes just to catch up to the basics.  This both demoralizes the student as well as extending the amount of time they have to spend in, and thus pay for, college.

Curriculum
Educators also need strong content area literacy skills. (Photo credit: Broken Sword)

By expanding literary sources, however, we expand the sphere of knowledge surrounding the content areas.  Students can gain a broader context of how a given subject fits into the larger narrative of the real world.

“If they want their students to learn complex new concepts in different disciplines, they [content teachers] often have to help their students become better readers…”

Chris Tovani in her text Do I Really Have to Teach Reading?

 

Peer Assistance and Review (PAR): A Teacher Development Project

Teachers need to move beyond textbooks to increase their literary skills so that they can better communicate their subject to students. So how do we get a teacher to step away from the science textbook and into some Sagan or Hawking?  

One of the ways we can work to address the knowledge gap is through the model of Peer Assistance and Review. In order to address inequity, our featured project at The School of the Future has done just that. With a Teacher Development Grant from McCarthey Dressman, The School of the Future helped improve the overall literacy of their teachers and subsequently their students.

Supports for Improved Content Literacy for Educators and Students

  • Collaboratively Created Curriculum
    Teachers in high school met after school and collaborated to develop, create, and implement a curriculum that would enhance their students’ ability to read and write in the content areas (History, Math, Science and Technology) across the 11th and 12th grade.
  • Shared Texts Across Content Areas
    The group worked together to come up with a list of shared texts across content areas.  While history and science have obvious literary sources outside the textbook, with a subject like math the teachers could study the history of math and biographies of mathematicians to give a wider scope to how the content area applies to the real world.
  • Content Literacy Support
    Included was a training program for inexperienced or ineffective teachers to improve their literacy skills across their content area, specifically focusing on grades 11-12 to start.

The Difference: Educator Driven Approach

Literacy Today
Literacy Today (Photo credit: dennyatkinson)

The difference between this program and previous initiatives aimed at teaching reading in the content areas was that previous efforts were top down administrative mandates that focused on ensuring uniformity in how reading, whereas the current effort was focused on expanding the teacher’s actual knowledge base.  Past “one size fits all” approaches to teaching reading in the content areas failed to account for the fact that students read different types of texts in every content area.
The unique aspect to this program is its need for a personal “buy-in” from the teachers.  Not a monetary buy-in, but those teachers who want to get involved will need to be willing to pull up their sleeves and put a little more time on the table.

The Impact: Students Identify and Analyze Printed and Non-Printed Texts

What have the teachers accomplished with this project?

During year one, five teachers (half the 11th/12th grade team) studied professional literature in their content areas to be able to implement a plan for teaching students to independently identify and analyze multiple non-fiction printed texts and non-print texts, at the student’s own instructional level, appropriate for the content of the class. Classroom visits and observations of each other in the form of Lesson Study, analysis of student growth, refinement of practice, creation of videos, continued throughout the year. In year two, participants in year one become “Anchor” teachers and shared best practices with the half of the team that was not previously involved (“Innovator Teachers”). For year three, the 11th/12th grade teacher team will mentor the 9th/10th grade team.

PAR provides teachers with the opportunity to work collaboratively to improve professional development.  But it is not easy; successful implementation of PAR requires commitment, time, resources, cooperation and flexibility from the teachers involved.  In successful PAR projects teachers play a key role in the support, assistance and review of their colleagues.  Everyone has to pull their weight for the program to be successful

Teachers can look to existing program models, such as the California Peer Assistance and Review program to get some idea on how they can best start their own.   Those who have experienced it emphasize that PAR models should only be used as reference tools, not as fixed templates, which could hinder the development and implementation of plans tailored to meet individual schools and students needs and goals.

Learn more about PAR