Learning to teach better by examining student work

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For 30 years, Christine Franzen taught in the same school, in the same classroom, in the same way.

“I’d lecture, give my students a test, collect homework, grade it and give it back,” says Franzen, who teaches math at Senn High School in Edgewater.

That pattern changed last year, when Franzen began working toward certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. (See story on page 12.)

Now, says Franzen, she examines students’ work for clues to what works—or doesn’t work—in her own teaching. “I look at the kinds of mistakes my students make,” she explains. “I figure out where they went wrong, and I ask myself ‘What do I need to do differently so they get it?'”

In addition, Franzen says she’s much more focused on trying to get her students to think and more fully understand what they are learning, not just memorize information. For example, last year, when she taught a lesson on velocity and time, she asked students to write a story about an object in motion.

“I got stories about a roller coaster at Great America, space ships, ants, lady bugs,” she relates. “This assignment showed me they really understood the concept of time and motion—as opposed to them giving me a written description—and they were creative in the way they did it. Plus, I snuck in a little writing.”

Franzen is part of a budding trend in Chicago’s public schools. Locally, about a half dozen organizations involved in staff development are helping teachers use students’ work to guide improvements in instruction.

By design, it’s a group effort that brings teachers together to examine their students’ work and, in the process, their own: What am I teaching? Why am I teaching it? How am I teaching it? Why am I teaching it this way? How do I know my students are getting it? How do my students know they are getting it? What did I learn in the process?

“Teaching is very isolated,” observes Steven Strull, director of professional development, with the Small Schools Workshop, based at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It can be intimidating to have people look at what you do, and if teachers don’t feel safe about talking about their assignments, nothing will happen. However, looking at students’ work and using specific techniques when they discuss the work, makes it safe. They don’t think of looking at student work as an evaluation of themselves, but as a way to help students learn better.”

Typically, teachers involved in this process find themselves assigning more challenging work.

“My teachers are burying their teachers’ guide and have become more comfortable developing lessons around the curriculum and standards that promote higher-order thinking from students,” says Joan Crisler, principal of Dixon Elementary School in Chatham. “And you know what? Our kids’ [test] scores have been trending up for the last five years. Our teachers are giving assignments that affect long-term learning, not just to fill up a grade book.

“What teachers give students in terms of assignments is the foundation for what kids learn,” notes Crisler. “It’s that simple. And if teachers learn to use this information to their benefit, wow.”

Dixon has been guided in this process for three years by Participation Associates, a local non-profit headed by former business consultant John Simmons. The process revolves around the use of rubrics, which are guides for examining student work to determine how much students have learned about what teachers intended to teach. The process also helps teachers learn ways to get students to think critically.

As Simmons sees it, he’s simply transferring business methods to schools. “Whether you are building a toaster or a car, there is constant review of the final product by teams of people involved,” he says. “This continuous process improves the quality of the product. We realized this was missing in the schools.”

Participation Associates is working with 24 schools, some from the Comer School Development Network and some from networks funded by the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, which funds school improvement efforts by school-nonprofit partnerships. In some of these schools, says Simmons, every teacher is involved.

“That’s our goal,” he says. “If you are talking about whole-school change, then you need all teachers to understand what the changes are.”

Other helpers

Similarly, the Small Schools Workshop hosts workshops that train teachers from various schools in the use of rubrics and how to get teachers talking to each other; the teachers then return to their schools and train their colleagues. This summer, teachers from a dozen Annenberg-supported schools participated.

For 20 years, the Chicago Area Writing Project has been helping public school teachers improve students’ writing by helping them improve their own writing.

Says Trina Ashley, the assessment director at the Project, “Teachers look at student work as a group and at their own writing as a group so they learn how to evaluate their students and help them improve their writing without shutting students down.”

For example in one exercise, Ashley gives teachers samples of student work and asks them to write how they would respond to the child.

“We model for teachers what they should look for and how they should repond to students,” says Ashley. “For instance, if the child is using some kind of odd-ball punctuation but has a good story structure, teachers should point this out.”

Three times a year, the Teachers Task Force conducts workshops on compiling and using portfolios of student work. “Everything in a portfolio has a documentation sheet which explains the learning objective for the lesson,” explains Executive Director RaeLynne Toperoff. “So the question is: What did our students learn, and does the work reflect thinking and knowledge?”

The Chicago Teachers Union Quest Center does not have a formal program on student work, but it does encourage teacher mentors in the school system to use student work as a diagnostic tool and to reflect on their own practices, reports Allen Bearden.

Under a contract with the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, David Joliffe, a professor from DePaul University, gives workshops on what educators call “authentic intellectual work” and analyzing student work. In general, the idea is to give assignments that challenge students to think critically, develop in-depth understanding and apply academic learning to important, realistic problems.

This fall, he conducted a series of workshops for schools in Logan Square.

Annenberg hired Joliffe in the wake of a small local study that found that students who were given more challenging, “authentic” assignments had higher achievement. The study was conducted in 1997 by the Consortium on Chicago School Research and the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin.

The study involved two schools from each of six Annenberg networks—one with recent improvement in student achievement, and the other with less evidence of improvement. In each school, researchers looked at assignments given for writing and math in grades 3, 6 and 8 and the written work of students in response to those assignments.

Combining research with staff development, researchers trained teachers from non-participating schools to score the assignments and student work according to the criteria for authentic intellectual activity. The scores ranged from “no challenge” to “extensive challenge.”

The difference in the quality of work between students whose teachers gave the most challenging assignments and those who gave the least challenging assignments was, on the whole, at least 40 percentile points across all grades in both subjects.

In general, says Consortium Director Tony Bryk, students performed better academically when they had challenging, real-world tasks that required them to think critically and learn concepts rather than memorize facts and figures.

A national, five year-study conducted by education professors Fred Newmann, Gary Wehlage and others at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research draws the same conclusions.

Advocates of the approach don’t rule out memorization, though. Says Joliffe, “If I go to a doctor, I want him to be able to name bones and muscles and where they are located, which comes from memorization; so sometimes memorization is necessary.”

Local progress

Locally, schools using the process also see progress.

“My scores have gone up every year,” says Gandy Heaston, principal of Haines Elementary School in Armour Square. “I think having teachers really look at what their students are doing has played a huge part of our success.”

She adds with a laugh, “When you talk children, you can’t go wrong, and that’s what we do here. … We look at a students work and ask, ‘What is this child’s deficiencies? Why is this child doing great in math and not in English?’ Teachers get together, look at that child’s work as a group and come up with the answer.”

The school’s three 3rd-grade teachers, for example, get together every five weeks to look at work samples from each other’s students and offer advice.

At Telapochalli Elementary School in South Lawndale, which works closely with the Small Schools Workshop, teachers have grouped themselves into threes to examine student work and invite each other into their classrooms to help answer specific questions about their own teaching. “A teacher may ask, ‘Am I reaching the kids in the back of the room? Or, Am I presenting this lesson the best way?'” explains Principal Tamera Witzl.

Once a month, the faculty gets together for “teacher talk,” where they examine one student’s work. Witzl says teachers have signed up to bring students’ work through the end of the year.

Witzl says teachers also bring “teaching dilemmas” to each other. “When one of our teachers has a problem and doesn’t feel she is reaching a student, she gets together with others, explains the lesson, offers up the work and, in a structured way, teachers make comments about what she can do.”

“It’s still early to see how this impacts our kids,” the principal says, “but any time you get teachers into each other’s classrooms and you get them talking professionally about their work and their students’ work, you can’t help but get improved practices in teaching and learning.”

Corkery Elementary School in South Lawndale is a relative veteran in examining student work; it started five years ago with the help of Participation Associates. In 1997, this duo expanded to embrace Calhoun North in East Garfield Park and Saucedo Magnet in South Lawndale under the Annenberg Challenge program.

“The network gives us the opportunity to network,” notes Edward Medina, a 5th-grade teacher at Corkery. “And it’s nice to compare student work across schools. You get a chance to see what other teachers are doing and even to see that you share common problems.

“The last two years I’ve gotten together with bilingual teachers [from] the other schools that have started strategies with me,” he relates. “I haven’t ‘arrived’ yet, so when I see a teacher doing something that may be useful to me, I ask them what they did.”

‘A lot of discussions’

In addition, Medina says he has come to give more challenging assignments.

“With each lesson, you can incorporate thinking skills,” he says. “I do a lot of discussions with my kids. I really probe them. I was never challenged in elementary school, but I want my kids to use their brain and learn to think, and I’m seeing the growth. And because I am getting them to think about what they do, the discipline is better because they are now thinking about things like consequences.”

For example, Medina says in every subject he teaches, he poses a problem to get his students’ “juices” flowing. Once, when teaching a history lesson on World War II, he first asked students how Jewish people might have felt when they were forced into concentration camps.

Looking back, Medina says while he may have initially been hesitant about this process-getting together with other teachers to analyse what their students do-he’s glad it happened.

“I’m glad we were forced to do this,” says Medina, chuckling, “because it wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”

“It was hard to learn to open up to each other,” concurs Marcie Seigel, Corkery’s curriculum development coordinator. “We were holding hands through it, learning how to open up to each other, but eventually teachers began to see it was meaningful. We needed to know if our kids were getting it. You don’t know that unless you look at what they do.”