SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

March 1, 2013

Column: Taking the time to reflect on teaching and learning

Karn Engelsgjerd
The Salem News

---- — We are in the middle of the school year, and this provides a good opportunity for reflection. It’s a time to celebrate our commitment to school improvement and the successes we’ve had during the first half of the year. It’s also a time to think about where we should focus our efforts to help Salem students learn and grow in the second half of the year. This type of reflection is one of the most important things teachers can do for their students. As Heather Burke, a K-3 special education teacher at Nathaniel Bowditch School recently told me, this type of reflection is key to going from what to how: “We need to know what (a) student is struggling with and then need to determine how we can change that.”

Through our partnership with Nathaniel Bowditch, I’ve seen teachers coming together with increasing frequency this year to talk about both the “what” and the “how.” And at Nathaniel Bowditch, like many other Salem schools, teachers are increasingly using data as a core part of their collaboration. As Ms. Burke says, “When we get together as a whole school to talk about (data), it gives us the ability to look for patterns.” Seeing those patterns empowers teachers to adjust their instruction based on what their students are and aren’t learning.

This fall, The Achievement Network, or ANet, began working with Salem’s teachers and principals to help them build regular routines like the one Ms. Burke described into their school calendar. To support these routines, we provide schools with interim assessments for grades two through eight that are designed not for evaluation, but rather to help teachers identify the specific concepts that their students are struggling to master — the “what” — and then our coaches help teachers and principals use techniques for turning that data into action — the “how.”

Here’s another example. Like other middle school students, the eighth-graders at Nathaniel Bowditch are building their ability to recognize the broad themes embedded within the texts they are reading. Recognizing themes is a complex skill to master, and the eighth-grade teachers at Nathaniel Bowditch understood that there were foundational skills students needed first. For instance, before they can recognize broad themes, students must understand why an author is using a device like analogy or allusion to create tone and meaning in a passage. By using interim assessment data, teachers at Nathaniel Bowditch recognized that their students were correctly identifying tone and meaning about 40 percent of the time at the beginning of the year. By using collaborative time to plan lessons that would build this skill, the teachers at Nathaniel Bowditch now have their students recognizing tone and meaning 80 percent of the time. The eighth-graders at Nathaniel Bowditch are well on their way to mastering this key building block.

At ANet, we’ve been excited to support teachers like Ms. Burke at Nathaniel Bowditch, and we are just as excited to support other teachers and leaders in schools across Salem. Each one of our school partners is developing a data leadership team to ensure that their fellow teachers have consistent access to the kind of data that is helping target instruction at Nathaniel Bowditch. Earlier this week, Andre Stemm-Calderon, one of my colleagues at ANet, remarked on particularly exciting work he had seen at Horace Mann during his last visit to the school. “The data leadership team was extremely reflective about the way their use of data is helping shape what they teach and, more importantly, how it is helping kids learn.” In the team at Horace Mann, Andre saw one of the most important characteristics of strong data leadership: a growth mindset. The team is focused on supporting each other, on using data simply as a means to identify specific areas where they can help each other and help their students.

Every day across Salem, teachers and principals do the hard work of getting to know each of their students. They build their judgment about each student’s strengths and weaknesses, and they develop different strategies for helping each student learn. At ANet, we have deep respect for the complexity of this task, and through our partnership with Salem’s schools, we hope to provide teachers with the tools and support to make this easier. There’s still a lot to do, but we are excited for the road ahead.

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Karn Engelsgjerd is the executive director of The Achievement Network in Eastern Massachusetts. ANet is a national nonprofit organization that helps teachers improve instruction through better planning, collaboration and data use. This is one in a series of columns from the Community Advisory Board for the Salem schools.