Making Time for What Matters for Teachers
This post is by Kieran McMillen, Director of Professional Development for Summit Public Schools.
Our last blog post began with a proverb: "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."
The piece detailed several structures Summit Public Schools has in place that allow our phenomenal teachers to "go together," including weekly Course-Level Team, Grade-Level Team, and Leadership Team meetings, as well as a combined 10 weeks of professional development for all teaching faculty in the organization each school year.
As we've grown as an organization, we've recognized the invaluable impact, both professionally and personally, that being together in the same place has on our organization as a whole. This past February, we did just that by gathering all teaching faculty across Summit's schools together for a week of professional development focused on Next Generation learning and teaching (our students were off for the week).
More specifically, how could we work collaboratively to continue to improve Summit's project and competency-based curriculum - including rigorous content assessments and rich performance tasks - all the while honing our craft of skills-based instruction?
As background, Summit's academic experience is centered on preparing our students with the 21st century skills needed to succeed in college and career, including working in teams, thinking critically, solving complex problems, planning and prioritizing work, and communicating effectively, to name a few. Teachers at Summit facilitate project-based learning experiences that focus on students developing in these cognitive skills. A key word here is "facilitate"--the more opportunities teachers give students to direct their own learning through a project, the more students are developing the mindsets and behaviors they need to be college ready. Of course, this type of self-direction takes support from teachers, who are constantly coaching students on their Habits of Success, including goal-setting, strategy-shifting when necessary, appropriately seeking help, and reflecting on progress and setbacks.
We focused the beginning of our PD week largely on cognitive skills. Throughout the course of the 2013-14 school year, in collaboration with partners at Stanford University, Summit identified the 36 most critical cognitive skills needed for college readiness. These real-life skills are embedded in 197 authentic projects our students complete throughout their Summit career. So we asked ourselves:
- Are we calibrated across a Course-Level Team on how to score a specific piece of student work?
- What student work samples can serve as Anchor Papers to provide models for what performance of a cognitive skill at a specific level on our rubric looks like?
- What does our cognitive skills map look like from grades 6-12, and is it aligned with our principles? For example, are we assessing skills enough times for students to eventually apply them at a college-ready level? Are we continually maintaining a high bar for students?
These are often the questions that teachers love diving into. However, they rarely have the opportunity to do so during the school year, especially when you are constantly living in what feels like urgent and important work. It makes it nearly (and understandably) impossible to take a huge step back and consider the bird's-eye view of our 6-12 assessment map, so we must set that time aside as an organization.
We then asked--once our cognitive skills map is aligned with our principles of spiraling and rigor, what does the teaching of these skills look like, particularly in a Next Generation classroom? To help teachers answer this question, we spent a half-day during our PD week looking at video of our peers using instructional practices that embody many of our Next Generation principles, including:
- Skills-based teaching. The focus of every class period is explicitly on the teaching and development of cognitive skills.
- Providing honest, actionable, and timely feedback to students. Research shows that feedback is one of the primary drivers behind student motivation and learning, so we need to prioritize and intentionally make time to give students skills-based feedback on their learning and work.
- Students owning the process of learning. To develop the self-directed skills necessary for success in college and career, we need to be thoughtful about how we're providing opportunities for students to drive their own learning through projects.
- Collaborative learning. To build the interpersonal skills that are necessary for both peer relationship building and future workforce habits, our classrooms should constantly provide time, space, and structures for student collaboration.
During the second half of this day, teachers had a chance to put their mentoring hat on, opting into a variety of workshops facilitated by Summit teachers focusing on research-based mentoring best practices. From successful structures for teaching academic literacy skills, to helping students follow through on their goal-related action items, to establishing more peer-to-peer accountability within a mentor group, teachers walked away from these workshops armed with actionable mentoring strategies they could immediately implement the following week.
Finally, teachers had an end-of-week opportunity to synthesize all of their learning in Course-Level Teams and adjust plans for their curriculum, assessment, and instruction going forward. Teams also used this time to meet with other Course-Level Teams, planning for rigorous interdisciplinary projects their students will encounter during the second semester.
And lastly, these days gave teachers the vital opportunity to gain familiarity with our Adult Personalized Learning Plan (PLP) tool, which is designed to allow every teacher to experience the exact same self-directed learning cycle (goal → plan → learn → show → reflect) that our students utilize. Within it lives our Educator Skills Rubric, Habits of Success continuum, and the ability for every faculty member within Summit to set goals and make a plan to meet those goals.
By highlighting the Educator Skills of assessing learner needs, planning skills-based outcomes, planning learning experiences, facilitating learning, systematic innovation, and collaboration, as well as the Habit of Success of values-based leadership, every teacher began to get a sense for the adult skills and habits around which they'll be able to set their own individual goals in years to come.
We are in the process of building out our Adult PLP, which will align with our belief in Next Generation learning to ensure that our faculty has professional development experiences that are personalized to meet their needs, goal-driven, supported by high-quality tools and resources, and directly rooted in both theory and practice. It will be in use throughout Summit by the beginning of the 2015-16 school year, and will ultimately be free and open to any educator across the nation.
It is my hope that this piece gave you a deeper glimpse into how Summit "goes far together." A week of professional development in the middle of the school year takes an investment. It takes time, on the implementation side as well as the planning side. And it takes a commitment from dozens of professionals. But it yields far greater results, both in terms of improved curriculum, assessment and instruction, as well as a stronger sense of community.