teacher collaboration

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.

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Additional Resources

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