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Teachers collaborate to craft best practices for kids’ success

Laura MacArthur Elementary School teacher Tanya Hallgren runs a professional learning communities meeting with fellow first-grade teachers Norliza Tarnowski (from left), Linda Braaten, Jamie Lewis and Susan Borich. Photos by Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com 1 / 2
During the teachers' meeting at Laura MacArthur Elementary, the group agreed to use the Flippy Dolphin strategy to teach a reading skill to their students. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)2 / 2

A color-coded Excel spreadsheet used by all Laura MacArthur Elementary teachers shows where each of their students falls in meeting every benchmark for reading and math.

It allows users to see where kids started with their knowledge and where they ended up, within each section that’s been taught. That way, they see what work needs to be done. A faithfully used document, it has become vital for teachers in their goal to ensure as many kids as possible finish the year ready for the next grade.

The spreadsheet is connected to “professional learning communities,” which, at Laura MacArthur, are groups of same-grade teachers who meet three times for an hour each in an eight-day rotation. This year, because of a change in the teachers’ contract, teachers at all schools meet in a similar fashion to talk about the best ways to get their kids to learn what they need to know, as the district works on a persistent problem: a widening achievement gap between some groups of students.

“It helps them have conversation on how to work with specific students, and to support those with a higher level of need,” said Mike Cary, curriculum director for the Duluth school district. “PLCs are a really critical structure to have in place in a school district.”

Duluth joins a national trend of this kind of teacher collaboration, one that has been growing for several years. While the practice is new for most schools in the district, Laura MacArthur is in its third year.

When it was named among the bottom 5 percent of Minnesota’s low-income schools in 2012 according to performance, administrators applied for federal grant money to help improve instruction and achievement. The school, with the state’s help, underwent many changes to get to the high-performing school it is two years later, and one of those was the creation of teacher learning groups.

Laura MacArthur Principal Nathan Glockle points to the data collection system, used when teachers get together, as one of the reasons the school has experienced such a fast rate of growth. Last year’s state math scores showed 80 percent of fifth-grade students were proficient or better, as opposed to the fifth-graders of two years before, more than 80 percent of whom were not proficient.

“We’re in a state of educational reform, and this way of thinking just isn’t the norm,” Glockle said. “You can see how much it benefits society when we can raise the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state.”

Teacher meetings

Last Wednesday’s meeting for fifth-grade teachers at Laura MacArthur was informal — someone had a yogurt and granola breakfast — but it showed passionate teachers with a clear sense of the learning capabilities of all of the kids in the grade, not just those in their particular classroom.

As they divvied up students into new color-coded groups, they talked about who would fit best where, both in terms of capabilities and behavior. Each teacher got a group to teach for a math segment every other day, and students in it weren’t necessarily their own. One teacher received the students that needed the most help; one, the students who needed an extra nudge; and the other, the kids who were on target.

Generally, kids who need the most help are in a small group.

They also talked about where students stood with fractions, and where each was in the process of teaching them.

“I slowed down yesterday; I could have taught 12 but I redid 11,” said Philip Warmanen, referencing a unit in the math text.

Teacher Kelli Mulliner noted they were on fractions mid-year, and in prior years that was taught toward the end of the year because of the rate of learning.

“Fractions are hard for fifth-graders,” she said, but at an after-school learning session recently when fractions were discussed, kids “confidently” answered questions. “Without a doubt, you can see the effect of PLCs on learning.”

Short pre-tests are given there and in other schools so teachers can see what has been learned and what hasn’t, in any given subject area as they work to meet state benchmarks.

They look at four basic questions: What do students need to learn? How will we know if they have learned? What will we do if they know it? And what will we do if they don’t know it?

“In the past it’s been a lot of, ‘Hey, let’s take a test, and you didn’t get it, (but) let’s move on to the next section,’ ” East High School Assistant Principal Jon Flaa said. “This is really preventing that weak link, and we are trying to catch kids before we get to that point.”

Teachers at East generally meet during a morning prep hour, grouped together by subject matter one day a week. Ordean East Middle School is similar. Nate Norman, a seventh-grade math teacher at Ordean East, meets with the other seventh-grade math teacher more than once a week because of their appreciation for the process.

“I like it so much I don’t ever want it to go away,” Norman said, because of how it helps him improve instruction and get input from a colleague. By talking about strategies, looking at data and putting it to use, teachers learn where kids are, what methods aren’t effective and what needs to be retaught. A lot of that information is shared with students.

Because of that, there are more kids than ever coming to Norman after school to get help.

“They know when they are not getting a topic,” he said, “and that has not always been the case.”

Challenges

Scheduling time to meet can be a headache, both at the elementary and secondary levels. The meetings also pull teachers from prep time they used to spend alone, forcing them to work with others.

“Previously, teachers taught more independently,” said Linda Braaten, a longtime special education teacher at Laura MacArthur.

They weren’t necessarily teaching the same things at the same time, she said, and now a deeper focus is on data and research-based instruction.

“Previously, data wasn’t shared amongst each other,” Braaten said. “You didn’t review it; you would send it downtown.”

Professional learning communities are considered “integral” for developing teacher leadership by many schools in Minnesota and throughout the country, said Daniel Sellers, executive director of MinnCAN, an education reform group based in St. Paul. But only if they are used the right way, he said.

“At their best, professional learning communities are a place where teachers share best practices; they really push and challenge each other to raise rigor and achievement in classrooms,” he said. “At their worst, they are opportunities for teachers to just commiserate and complain about students or parents or administrators. Though they may be sort of putting in their time; they don’t actually produce the improvement in the classroom you would want to see.”

Such collaboration requires trust, camaraderie and a change in mindset in order to work, Sellers said, noting the practice of learning from colleagues is something many industries are doing, beginning several years ago with medicine.

Too much testing?

Teachers at Laura MacArthur say the number of assessments given to gauge progress is a lot for kids to handle at first, but they grow used to it as the year passes.

“There were tears in the beginning of the year when we did some pre-tests and they didn’t understand what to do,” first-grade teacher Susan Borich said.

The tears came from students who typically did well, so there was confusion when they didn’t, she said.

“Now they realize we are just trying to find out what they don’t know yet, and they are happy to see what they do know at the end,” Borich said.

But teachers aren’t solely focused on test data, said Glockle, the Laura MacArthur principal.

“They need to be planning lessons and using their teacher instincts to inform instruction even more than what some hard data might be telling them,” he said.

Teachers aren’t being asked to teach the same things, but they do use common ways of testing that makes it easier to work together. The tests are short and informal, Flaa said, and a teacher with low scores in one class might ask a teacher with high scores how to turn things around.

“We’re all rooting for the kids,” Norman said. “Every time they take a quiz or a test and a student doesn’t do that well, you feel it in the pit of your stomach. … That’s why this is invaluable.”

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