Teamwork: How One Chicago School is Getting STEM Institute Exactly Right (Part 1 of 3)

“Professional learning within communities requires continuous improvement, promotes collective responsibility, and supports alignment of individual, team, school, and school system goals. Learning communities convene regularly and frequently during the workday to engage in collaborative professional learning to strengthen their practice and increase student results. Learning community members are accountable to one another to achieve the shared goals of the school and school system and work in transparent, authentic settings that support their improvement.” In a nutshell, the above quotation from Learning Forward (formerly the National Staff Development Council) describes what is afoot at Murray Language Academy in Chicago’s Hyde Park Community — the creation of a professional learning community focused on improving science instruction specifically and incorporating inquiry more generally throughout the school. Murray Language Academy is a World Language Magnet School, where students receive language instruction in French, Spanish, Mandarin or Japanese. Murray’s external partnerships include the University of Chicago, which assists with technology and other instructional support, and the South Side Arts Partnership, which helps to incorporate fine arts into core learning areas. Murray also has a partnership with Golden Apple STEM Institute to professionally develop teachers in STEM and NGSS implementation. Murray’s vision is to create a learning environment that promotes, inspires, and nurtures academic success and civic understanding for all students to the maximum extent possible, and encourages them to be socially responsible lifelong learners. Murray earned State recognition for the second consecutive year to be on the
 2013 Illinois Honor Roll of Spotlight Schools … where high academic performance is closing the “achievement gap.” Over the next three posts, I’ll be exploring 3 success factors at work in Murray’s school-wide implementation of an inquiry-based approach to teaching science. We’ll take a look at the leadership that supports this change in instructional practice, at the planning that is an essential part of implementation, and finally, we’ll zero in on the successful in-service conducted by a team of teachers at the school who shared their enthusiasm for inquiry with their colleagues … with some take-away reflections by teachers on the team. But first a little bit about how the STEM Institute works. Skip this paragraph, if you already know. Each partner school principal designates a team of teachers, typically numbering 5, to be their school’s iTEAM (Inquiry Team). These teachers attend Golden Apple STEM Institute’s summer program Introduction to Inquiry, a full week of intensive hands-on inquiry based STEM activities that focuses on the why and how of using this pedagogical approach for teaching STEM subjects and implementing the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). They return to their school with pedagogical tools and activities and with the expectation that they will implement in their own classrooms what they learned during the summer as well as share it with their colleagues. There are three follow-up sessions during the school year and in-school support from a STEM Institute coach.

Murray Language Academy iTEAM at the Summer 2014 Introduction to Inquiry Week. (Luann Lawson, Keniesha Charleston, Angelica Alvarado, Lorelei Nadel, and Arleta Ingram.

Murray Language Academy iTEAM at the Summer 2014 Introduction to Inquiry Week. (Luann Lawson, Keniesha Charleston, Angelica Alvarado, Lorelei Nadel, and Arleta Ingram)

Success Factor 1: Visionary Leadership that Passionately Supports Implementation When principal Greg Mason of Murray Language Academy learned about STEM Institute, he was determined to bring it to his school. Because he wanted Murray students to be engaged in learning science the way scientists actually do it, he had recently hired an expert upper grades science teacher who was using an inquiry-based approach in her teaching. Further, he wanted that approach to spread throughout the school. Partnering with Golden Apple STEM Institute was a means to that end.

Principal Greg Mason

Principal Greg Mason of Murray Language Academy, Chicago

Principal leadership is essential to the success of any program within a school. In the words of 7-8th grade science teacher Arleta Ingram, member of the iTEAM, “Mr. Mason really sees and understands the connection between inquiry and student engagement, and he’s promoting it. He wants to ensure that students get the inquiry hands-on piece … throughout the grades. He told me, ‘I need them to get this.’ He’s passionate about it. Mr. Mason said, ‘I want them to learn science the way scientists actually do scientific investigations. The test scores tell me they know how to take tests. I want to know that they can actually perform as scientists. They need to engage.’ He sees the big picture. He’s so willing to make sure that we have what we need in order to do that. There’s a budget. He asks us, ‘what do you need so that you can do science? What equipment do you need? What do you not have?’ We are his go-to team for all matters science from what curriculum we should use to planning and presenting on 3 in-service days and who else should be brought onto the team. Often times teachers go for training and that’s the end of it … there’s no support, follow-up, impetus for implementing. He sees the bigger scope. A lot of principals are just trying to survive the day to day. He’s not stuck by the title of the school … that we’re a language academy. He supports the language program but says that there’s more than just language going on at the school. He wants a school of excellence. Not just the best language academy. He wants to have all of the programs be great, because that’s how you create a school of excellence.” Learning Forward’s Standard on Leadership includes this description of that important role: Leaders throughout the pre-K-12 education community recognize effective professional learning as a key strategy for supporting significant school and school system improvements to increase results for all students. Whether they lead from classrooms, schools, school systems, technical assistance agencies, professional associations, universities, or public agencies, leaders develop their own and others’ capacity to learn and lead professional learning, advocate for it, provide support systems, and distribute leadership and responsibility for its effectiveness and results.  In a helpful short video, Superintendent Mike Ford of Phelps-Clifton Springs Central School District in Clifton Springs, N.Y. describes the kind of leadership that Murray Principal Greg Mason exemplifies in his creation of support systems and structures at his school. “As a leader it’s my job to remove the barriers that exist and to knock everything out of the way that’s blocking those things from happening. And I think school leaders are called to do that by these standards. It’s my job to align the resources that exist within my system, both people, money, space, and time so that our staff has the opportunity to learn on a daily basis, so that they can achieve what they need to so that our kids can achieve. As we look at these standards, they provide a unique opportunity to remind ourselves as school leaders not only what we have to do, but also how we need to get there.” In the next installment, you’ll see how distributed leadership plays out at Murray and how essential it is that teachers invest time in the process of change. ~ Penny To learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute, click here.

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