Posted by Tricia Ebner on Wednesday, 01/11/2017
When faced with a challenge, what happens as a school's teachers and administrators come together to solve a problem and improve learning for all students? In this story illustrated by #edusketch pioneer Wendi Pillars, I tell the story of teachers and administrators collaborating for change.
Where I come from, I often hear, “There’s always next year.” While this usually refers to sports and especially professional sports, I’ve also heard variations of this in reference to students and schools. Here’s my question: can we afford to wait until next year?
Three years ago I was struggling with how best to teach my students. Nine years earlier, my building had divided the language arts classes into separate reading and writing classes. We had distinct reading and writing standards, with separate state assessments. At the time the schedule was established, it made sense. However, by 2013 we had new standards, and new assessments were coming. It was challenging to design writing tasks based on what my students were reading in their reading classes, and my schedule didn’t allow me to meet with the reading teachers so we could collaborate on what might work best. I soon learned I wasn’t alone in my struggle; some of my fellow teachers were feeling the same worry and stress. We took our questions and concerns to our colleagues. It was the start of several months of discussions, commiserations, meetings, and the realization that we had voices that could spark change.
The more I considered the dilemma I was facing, the more I wanted to integrate our reading and writing classes into a single, two-period course. Some of the other teachers felt the same way. We believed integrating reading and writing as a single class was more reflective of the expectations of the standards, and it would certainly make crafting text-based writing assignments easier to design and use. It seemed like a natural solution to the challenge I saw. There were going to be some difficulties in making this happen; our seven-period school day didn’t lend itself easily to a double-period class. We were going to need some creative thinking and problem-solving.
Some teachers were convinced making the change was in our best interest. For eleven years, we had taught language arts as two separate classes, and those of us who had taught in the integrated format we had used before then were seeing how students were “pigeonholing” certain skills as “writing class” or “reading class.” Despite our original intentions eleven years earlier, we had not collaborated as much as we intended, so our reading and writing classes rarely intersected. With standards that called for writing to be based much more on what students were reading, we needed to address the separation between the two classes and find ways to coordinate better. Some teachers were convinced that integrating the reading and writing classes was the best way to do this.
Not everyone in the language arts department felt the same way. Some of our reading teachers, for example, were content with the way the schedule and curriculum was structured; their focus was on reading. I could understand that. After all, if I had been experiencing success in teaching reading, and I wasn’t having to grade 100-120 writing pieces a couple of times a quarter, I wouldn’t be eager to change either. Some of our writing teachers also had reservations about making changes. As a school building, our test scores were solid. There is comfort and security in the known, and as writing teachers, we had developed a large set of resources to help all of our students learn and grow. Why make changes to our schedule and curriculum now? Why not wait until after we saw how we did on the new assessments?
Still others of us were on the fence. We saw the point administration was making; yes, changing the schedule to accommodate a double-period language arts was going to be challenging work, and what if it really wasn’t necessary? On the other hand, the writing teachers needed to be incorporating more text-based work into the classroom. If we didn’t integrate, would we be asking students to double-up the amount of reading they were doing?
Administration also had concerns about changing the master schedule to accommodate an integrated language arts class. Such a change was going to impact all the other classes and teachers in some way. We couldn’t make a snap decision; this required reflection, research, and discussion. In late fall, the language arts department chair called for an after-school meeting with all the language arts teachers (reading and writing), along with the building administration. What was estimated to be a half-hour exploratory discussion turned into the first of several after-school meetings.
The initial reaction from building administration was to wait. Our principal was concerned that we’d be making a change that wasn’t necessary. Changing the master schedule to integrate reading and writing into a double-block class was going to create quite a few headaches and ultimately impact every teacher and class in the building. With the way our schedule worked, putting students into a two-period language arts class had the strong possibility of creating unintentional tracking, especially among our students receiving gifted and/or special education services. Administration agreed that with integrated standards and assessments, there was some logic in combining the reading and writing classes, but our administration also believed in our skills in collaboration and problem-solving, suggesting that if we didn’t integrate the two classes, we would still figure out how to take a more integrated approach to language arts. The building administration needed to be sure this kind of change was really necessary before putting the time and effort into redesigning the instructional day.
Over the course of several months, we discussed and debated. First, we considered what was working in our current schedule, and what wasn’t. We voted on slips of paper, met with administration after school, talked in our team meetings during the day, and chatted in the hallways at the end of the school day. Were the changes really necessary? Were the standards going to stay, or was the political pressure building across our state and the country going to cause their demise? Would the new assessment really work the way the blueprints suggested? Our voices as advocates for our students’ needs kept the discussion alive for all the perspectives involved. On several occasions, colleagues asked me specific questions about the degree to which the new assessments were going to blend reading and writing. Since I served on a statewide committee charged with sharing assessment information with the field, I had answers to the questions, and they weren’t always the answers my colleagues wanted. We were invested in making a good, sound decision for our students and ourselves, and that gave us the energy and motivation to make after-school meetings work. The decisions made were going to have a lasting impact on our work.
Ultimately, the question we had to ask was:
That focus made the answer clear: we needed to integrate the reading and writing classes into a single language arts class.
Once that decision was made, the sixth grade math teachers stepped forward with a concern of their own. They, too, were making substantial changes in curriculum based on the new standards, and they felt that more time for math classes was warranted. They proposed changing the schedule for sixth grade, so that rather than having 50-minute periods, with language arts having two 50-minute periods as a block, every subject area would have 70-minute class periods.
This increased the math, social studies, and science classes by 20 minutes but reduced language arts by 30 minutes. This also prompted lots of discussion, and especially concern by language arts teachers that giving up 30 minutes of time per day was going to make it more challenging to meet the needs of the students and the requirements of the standards. Social studies and science teachers offered support and encouragement, promising to be more direct and focused about incorporating the literacy standards that impacted those content areas as well as language arts. This took a little bit of the pressure off the language arts teachers. The voices of the math teachers, along with the science and social studies teachers stepping forward to make suggestions, was a glorious moment of teachers acting together as problem-solvers and leaders. As a result of the sixth grade math teachers’ initiative and the rest of the teachers’ creative thinking, the sixth grade now has its own schedule, operating without bells. What started as a change for one content area grew into an opportunity to revise an entire grade level’s schedule.
Now we’re into our third year of integrated language arts classes. Unfortunately, it’s hard for us to quantify the impact of these changes for students. Our first year of integrated classes was also our first—and only--year with the new assessments produced by one of the national consortia. The following summer, our state legislature and governor withdrew the state from the testing consortia, and the department of education collaborated with teachers from across the state to create another new assessment. This means that for the past three years, we have data from three different assessments. From a qualitative standpoint, though, we’re seeing strong benefits of the changes. Writing tasks are tied naturally to what we are reading. The integration of the reading and writing classes means there are more teachers collaborating on our work, bringing more ideas to the table. In addition to integration within language arts, we are beginning to see more interdisciplinary work; all three grade levels will soon be implementing project-based activities integrating language arts and social studies. This isn’t due solely to the changes we made three years ago as our district has been moving in this direction for some time. However, having a single language arts class instead of separate reading and writing classes has made the planning and collaboration of cross-curricular work much easier. Seeing what can happen when we work together for our students’ benefit has spread course design and schedule configuration to collaborating on standards, skills, concepts, and content. As educators, we are recognizing the qualitative power of our voices and efforts.
I’m not sure that three years ago any of us in our language arts department had a clue as to how much this would impact daily work. We are collaborating more than ever, developing a stronger understanding of the standards and their integration. Those of us who had focused on reading for years worked closely with those of us who were in the world of writing, and vice versa. Whether we intended it or not, we’ve been involved in a great deal of collegial professional development, strengthening the teaching “muscles” we hadn’t used in English language arts for ten years. We are stronger in voicing what we need and want within our department, too. When our department chair retired two years ago, we had more than the typical one or two teachers hesitantly stepping forward. The language arts teachers are becoming more confident in using our voices to benefit our students and our profession.
The same can be said for teachers across our building. Our district is in the midst of a major building and reconfiguration project, and several teachers across the disciplines are stepping forward to share their visions and ideas of how our newly-redesigned district should look and operate. Administration is often asking for ideas and input, but even when thoughts aren’t requested, teachers are making appointments to talk with administrators about our hopes and concerns about these changes. At the middle school, there is definitely a feeling of partnership and purpose in our work with each other and our administrators. While it’s not always perfect, more and more often, teachers and administrators are turning to each other to address the concerns, celebrate the successes, and ponder the “what if’s.”
Our growth as teachers, administrators, departments, and a building is continuing. At times it’s messy and confusing. But despite all that, or perhaps because of all that, we need to keep asking ourselves, “Is this what’s best for kids and their learning?” Many times, the answer will be “yes.” But when the answer is, “No,” then we’d better stop, reflect, and refine what we’re doing. We can’t put it off, because in the world of education, we really can’t afford to wait until next year.