Home-grown solutions to common problems

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Upgrading teachers’ skills costs time and money. Getting teachers to work as a team on improvements and then sustaining that teamwork are challenges, too. CATALYST looked for schools that had adopted innovative solutions to these and other common problems. Here are the five best ideas we found.

Whistler Elementary

Classes for teachers

To boost teaching quality, Illinois recently passed a law requiring teachers to take 120 clock hours of courses or workshops every five years to renew their teaching certificates. But all that individual work may not add up to school improvement if teachers are not on the same page.

Whistler Elementary, a math and science magnet school for the Pullman area, took steps last year to avoid that pitfall. It arranged for the Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science to conduct classes for credit at the school itself. They met on alternate Mondays or Tuesdays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Twenty-six of Whistler’s 32 teachers signed up. A grant from Chicago United, a corporate group, paid for the training.

Elizabeth Kolinski, a 2nd-grade teacher, says that teachers put more of what they learn into practice when the training is conducted on site. “You tend to do more because you have the support,” she explains.

Both the Chicago and state boards of education are encouraging principals to offer recertification courses at their schools. To sign up, visit the Illinois State Board of Education web site at www.isbe.net; click on “Certificate Renewal” at the bottom of the screen. There, you can select an approved vendor from the list or apply for your school to become an approved provider.

Chase Elementary

Reflection sheets

Since 1997, teachers at Chase Elementary in Logan Square have met at least two hours a week to plan lessons with colleagues at their grade level. This year, Principal Olga La Luz added a simple task to help them make the most of their time together. She asked each grade level to record the strengths and weaknesses of their lessons in a monthly “reflection sheet.”

For instance, in February, the 5th-grade team wrote that students found textbook readings on the American Revolution difficult, but that adding picture books and videos to the unit might increase their comprehension.

Fifth-grade teacher Katie Sullivan thinks reflection sheets make their discussions about instruction more focused and specific. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to look at them next year and make changes according to what did or didn’t work this year,” she adds.

Tilton Elementary

Teachers in charge

Peer coaching is one of those good ideas that schools find difficult to sustain. The idea is for teachers to visit each other’s classrooms, observe lessons and offer suggestions to improve teaching.

But observations take teachers away from their own classrooms, which costs instructional time; hiring substitutes to cover those classrooms costs money. Coordinating the observations is one more chore for a typically overburdened administrator.

By putting teachers in charge, Principal Faye Terrell-Perkins of Tilton Elementary has circumvented these road- blocks. As a result, peer coaching is now completing its third year at the West Garfield Park school.

Teachers on Tilton’s “Peer Monitoring Committee” set a coaching agenda for the entire faculty. Any teacher can join the committee; Terrell-Perkins says this approach “defuses those arguments down the road, ‘Well, I really didn’t like that plan.'”

This year the committee agreed that teachers would invite a colleague to observe them once a quarter; all but two teachers are participating. Observations are conducted during the visiting teacher’s preparation period, so substitutes aren’t needed. Next year, teachers intend to observe each other twice a quarter.

Teachers also seek out their own peer coaches and spell out precisely what they want them to look for. “We did not want it to be the administration saying, ‘OK, you work with her,'” says Leonetta Crayton, a social studies teacher.

Teachers report that the coaching has opened their eyes. For example, one found that she was paying more attention to boys than to girls; others, that they moved too quickly for struggling students to respond.

Sixth-grade teacher Beverly Green finally got the hang of using math manipulatives, such as cubes and spinners, to teach abstract concepts. Before, she says, she tried to regiment how manipulatives were used and ended up frustrated. “I learned to let go, but I didn’t know I was holding on until I had a peer tell me that,” she says.

Terrell-Perkins says it took time for teachers to become self-directed and collaborative. They got a start three years ago when the school formed decision-making committees as part of the Comer School Development Program, a national school improvement model. At first, teachers resisted taking on the leadership responsibility, she recalls. “You have to be relentless,” the principal advises. “You have to continue to insist that they do.”

Burley Elementary

Book Club

Burley Elementary in Lake View has found a way to bring research into the school without the expense of a consultant or the shortcomings of a one-shot workshop. It started a professional book club.

This year, the staff read “Strategies that Work,” a book on reading comprehension by Stephanie Harvey.

“I’m having conversations about this in the halls, I’m having [them] at lunch,” says Debbie King, who teaches 5th grade. “This is something that permeates everything that we do.”

Teachers like the approach because they get to pick the books and because it gives them time to digest and try new ideas. A book is read in sections and discussed four or five times a year on the school’s in-service days. In between, teachers can try out a new strategy or two.

Principal Nancy Laho doesn’t mandate the strategies, relying instead on “friendly peer pressure.” Peers also provide a safety net. If a strategy doesn’t work for a teacher, colleagues can help him or her figure out why.

One new strategy, which Harvey describes in her book, helps students track their thoughts as they read: In the margins, they attach sticky notes with a few words to remind themselves of questions or connections to prior reading. Teacher Imara Randall says that the notes generated insights for students that carried book discussions in her 4th-grade classroom to a new level. “A lot of times they blew themselves away about how deep their conversations got.”

Teachers say they are more willing to try new techniques because their principal encourages risk-taking.

In fact, Laho suggests teachers share samples of student work that show not only where new strategies succeeded but also where they failed. “We’re not going to learn unless mistakes are made and we can talk about them,” Michelle Greenfield, a 1st-grade teacher, explains.