Build Faculty Expertise, Continuously

A S.ESH session in early September. 5 teachers, 4 disciplines.

Teachers teaching teachers! There is no better form of professional development and that is exactly what we are doing. Twice a month, teachers meet in small interdisciplinary teams to workshop one another’s curriculum. What catalyzed this commitment to have faculty give up one free period every other week so as to spend 70-minutes workshopping colleagues’ lesson plans? Last spring, White Mountain made an institutional decision to provide meaningful feedback on more than just disciplinary knowledge, committing to additionally focus attention on the essential skills and habits. These skills and habits are transdisciplinary and shared across classes. At mid-semester, all of the teacher feedback will be rooted in the skills and habits, and advisors will look for trends across classes. Given that we are in the middle of a change process, or rather an addition process (adding a focus on the essential skills and habits), and so as to create a space where faculty can work collaboratively, ask questions, and get support, we began piloting the small, interdisciplinary faculty working groups.

Last week, during the first full week of classes, as teachers and students were beginning to experience what learning and assessment looks and feels like with the additional focus on essential skills and habits, the faculty working groups (nicknamed S.ESH, for Supporting Essential Skills and Habits) met for the first time. The format for the meetings are simple, consistent, and — at least so far — effective. They go like this: For five minutes, one teacher (the presenter) shares an assignment or assessment they either just did or are about to do, with the hope of having the group provide suggestions for improvement. The group then asks clarifying questions, making sure they fully understand the framework. For the next eight minutes, the other teachers discuss the work, giving warm and cool feedback, and during this time, the presenter remains quiet, listening and taking notes. Lastly, the presenter reflects back on what they heard, sharing how they might incorporate some of the feedback.

During one of these sessions last week, I was blown away by the work that the World History I teacher, JJ , shared. In thinking about how to help students make sense of the language that we have in our rubric, JJ had his mostly 9th grade students reflect on communicating for impact (Communication Strand 4: Impact), the strand that he would be focusing on first. He structured the reflection by having students respond to the following questions:

  1. Give an example of relevant and irrelevant communication in a learning setting (school, sports practice, music lesson, explaining new information to others, relaying a detailed story, etc)
  2. Give an example of clear and unclear communication in a learning setting.
  3. Give an example of compelling/convincing communication and weak/unconvincing communication in a learning setting.
  4. Give an example of engaging and boring communication in a learning setting.

Educational theorist, David Ausebel, wrote: “Ascertain what the student knows; then teach accordingly.” This is precisely what JJ was doing; he was figuring the ways in which the students already did (or did not) understand the idea of effective and impactful communication so that, given their answers, he could appropriately modify and differentiate the instruction. Brilliant!

But let’s not rest on our laurels. Let’s make it even more brilliant, which is precisely the purpose of the working groups. When veteran White Mountain teacher, Barbara Buckley, heard JJ describe his project, she suggested having students answer these same questions a number of times throughout the year, thus developing an ongoing qualitative assessment that would examine how their self-reported understanding changes as a result of the course. Notice the reframing of assessment. In so many schools, assessment is seen as a way to evaluate and categorize students; here, on the other hand, JJ and his working group are using assessment as a decision-making tool to determine next steps for the learners, thus embracing a growth mindset and an authentic belief that all students will grow and develop as learners.

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