Teamwork: How One School is Getting STEM Institute Exactly Right (Part 2 of 3)

“Learning communities share collective responsibility for the learning of all students within the school or school system. Within learning communities, peer accountability rather than formal or administrative accountability ignites commitment to professional learning. Every student benefits from the strengths and expertise of every educator when communities of educators learn together and are supported by local communities whose members value education for all students.”  (Learning Forward)

So what does it take to successfully implement change in a school, particularly change in a content area that can be downright daunting to some teachers, one that requires specialized knowledge that many elementary generalists simply don’t receive during their pre-service preparation? A further impediment is that science isn’t tested to the extent that Math and Reading are and can wind up marginalized as educators focus on the tested subjects.

Success Factor 2: A Designated Leadership Team with a Clear Mission to Become a Professional Learning Community, Support from Administration to Do So, and Regular Time to Collaborate.

When the Murray iTEAM participated in the Introduction to Inquiry week last summer, they already knew what they would be expected to do for the upcoming school year. They knew that they would be planning and delivering three presentations on inquiry and science over the course of the school year. They even knew the dates. And they knew they would be meeting as a team on a regular basis, both to plan these presentations and to share their own implementation experiences within a supportive, knowledgeable group of colleagues who had as a common purpose strengthening their own practice, improving student results, and advancing the goals of their school and their school district, Chicago Public Schools, which has adopted the NGSS. They had a great time bonding as a team, and part of that bonding occurred around their initial planning for their in-service presentations. They had their mission and they chose to accept it.

As 7th-8th grade science teacher Arleta Ingram recounted, “We first met as a team in the summer during our Intro to Inquiry week, because we already knew that we would be sharing what we were learning in the summer with our colleagues back at school. But our principal wanted to go beyond just a one-session teachers teach teachers. Do one presentation and it’s over. What helped us as a team is not just to have one day to share but to have this occur multiple times throughout the year. From the get-go you see that this is not going to be a one-time thing and afterwards having your colleagues thinking ‘we don’t know what they are doing or even if they are still functioning as a team.’

One of the things I learned in meeting, she continued is that, “when you do it all the time you don’t really think about it. I use inquiry and have for years, so I take it for granted. But it’s necessary to educate ourselves, and each other as colleagues, in the things we aren’t so familiar with. Teachers have strengths … self-contained you’re expected to teach all subjects. It’s not fair to students to be taught by teachers who don’t know how to teach a certain subject.”

So from the beginning of the school year, the Murray iTEAM has met every other Tuesday after school for an hour to talk about how they might best implement what they learned in the summer, both within their own classrooms and throughout the school.

Ms. Charleston and Ms. Alvarado Collaborated to Lead the In-Service Alka-Seltzer Rockets Activity

Ms. Charleston and Ms. Alvarado Collaborated to Lead the In-Service Alka-Seltzer Rockets Activity

“Angelica Alvarado and Keniesha Charleston were really excited about the Alka-Seltzer rockets activity. That was the one they wanted to so. So they took the lead on the actual activity, and they got together more frequently to plan than the rest of the team because they were so taken with the activity,” Arleta remembers. “The rest of the team divvied up responsibilities for that first p.d. for our colleagues. For example, Luann Lawson volunteered to sanitize all the safety goggles. We wanted our colleagues to use them to drive home the importance of keeping kids safe during science activities.”

Mr. Mason, the principal, encouraged the iTEAM to open up their meetings to other interested teachers. Arleta Ingram pointed out his rationale. “He’s decided that the first team were hand-picked by him, but now that the other teachers have seen what this is, let’s open up the meetings to other interested teachers. So not only do we have buy-in, but we’ve got a genuine commitment from the teachers.”

The Murray iTEAM is currently working on identifying the Non-Negotiables associated with what will become the STEM curriculum at their school, recommendations they will make to Mr. Mason; for example, they are considering adopting the expectations that all students will keep a science journal starting in the third quarter this year and continuing forward and that teachers will do at least one hands-on activity with their students each week. They have already decided that the second of their p.d. sessions for colleagues will focus on student science journals — how  to set them up, use them effectively, and assess student work in the journals.

One of the team's non-negotiables, science journals for all Murray students.

One of the iTEAM’s upcoming non-negotiables, science journals for all Murray students.

Lorelei Nadel commented, “It’s exciting but challenging to be part of a team. It also helps to know that this isn’t going to happen overnight, that it will take time to fully incorporate these new things we’re learning into our teaching.”

And Luann Lawson said, “It really reinforces what we learned at the Institute. Teaching it in our classes and then to our colleagues.”

One of the 7 Learning Forward Standards for Professional Development is focused on Professional Learning Communities. For a description of how one PLC organized itself and what the underlying goals of this type of teamwork are intended to be, you might enjoy watching this short video by a group of teachers in the Bethel School District discussing how their PLC works.

In the next installment, we’ll look at how the Big Day went — the in-service day late last year when our intrepid iTEAM shared inquiry with their colleagues at Murray.

~ Penny

To learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute, click here.

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