Thursday, June 26, 2014

Collaborate...Communicate...Educate

Submitted by Shawna Stangel and Janine Taylor 
- Team BOLDT Instructional Consultants

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Where it all began
Collaboration time at Imperial Community School is far more than “buzz words” thrown around a staff room or a time that is scheduled once a month during a staff meeting.  In fact it is quite the opposite, collaboration time at Imperial embraces all components that comprise an effective and responsive professional learning community.  This is a collaboration time that is 2+ years in the making and has been a part of and seen an evolution of its use and purpose.  And if it can be done with this small staff, the potential for larger schools is endless.

It began as a support for teachers over two years ago promoting best practice outlined with the Structural Innovation movement that our division had undergone in trying to do things differently in our schools.  It is a time that has always had a focus on what is best for student learning,  achievement and success but has undergone a transformation over time leading to where the topics of discussion are now decided upon and led by the teachers themselves.  This, of course is determined by the needs seen and felt in the classroom and the school itself. This time truly does support and enhance the great work that this group of talented and dedicated professionals are doing to support the diverse needs, challenges, successes, and achievements of students in their building.  As Vice Principal Melanie Little stated, “We have a wealth of knowledge in the people resources right here in our building.  Why would we not want to find a way during the school day where we can share and learn from one another?”  

Through the hard work and support of their administration in creative timetabling and also in utilizing all support persons in the building, the staff of Imperial meet weekly to learn, discuss, share, problem-solve, and grow together.  Yes, you have read that correctly...WEEKLY.  Every week on Day 1 afternoons there are three distinct collaboration times that have been set up and established to allow learning clusters to meet.  

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The first half hour is a collaboration time for the support roles in the school.  This group is comprised of the schools LRTs, Early Reading Intervention Teacher, Literacy/Numeracy lead teacher, Instructional Consultants, and Administration. The following 2-one hour blocks are then set aside, first, for the Junior Grade 1-4 team and secondly, the Senior Grade 5-8 team.  These two grade-group teams also include the necessary supporting LRT, ERIT, Lit/Num lead, consultants, and/or admin.

Evolution throughout the year
At the beginning of the current school year, collaboration time had a split focus.  Some weeks the groups met to discuss students, curriculum, instruction, and assessment strategies and then other weeks they would meet to continue a book study that had begun the year prior. Teachers were provided with the book, Great Ways to Differentiate Mathematics Instruction by Dr. Marian Small and specific chapter readings were assigned.  Many teachers found that the book provided interesting new ideas for mathematics instruction; however, even more valuable was the discussion and sharing of student samples among colleagues.  Michael Duck, a first year teacher, said the book provided great strategies and then the collaboration time allowed teachers to share what they did and how they tried some of Dr. Small’s ideas.  He also said the book was a great springboard for discussion that led to specific strategies he could use in his classroom with support of the instructional consultant.

Judy Parley, LRT, shared how the book allowed new staff members to Imperial, the opportunity to build rapport with each other.  Since many staff were new to the building this year, the book provided an avenue for staff to have professional conversations about their students as they were also getting to know each other.  Judy also recognized the fact that a book circle does not work for everyone; variety in the use of collaboration time to share teacher knowledge and talents is extremely important to ensure all voices are heard.

Derek Racette sometimes felt like he had to do homework for collaboration time.  He stated that in the beginning it was very teacher-centered professional development.  He acknowledged that this is not a bad feeling, but he liked how this year’s collaboration time shifted to what specific strategies and supports the students needed, not only how to instruct literacy and numeracy.  Being a busy dad and community volunteer he did appreciate that the time had been timetabled into his day and week. He no longer feels the pressure to have to meet before/after school with his colleagues.  It still happens, but collaboration time has now provided opportunity for conversations and planning to become embedded into the day and more importantly within professional practice.


images.jpgCollaboration time is a form of peer coaching, and Glickman, Gordon, and Ross-Gordon (2014) share the following steps for offering direct assistance to teachers: clarify purpose, prepare teachers, schedule during the school day, and monitor closely for progress. The research on lasting classroom change has shown that scheduling release time for teachers during the school day is critical (Zwart et al., 2009) for both teacher and student success.

As the year progressed, with weeks alternating from regular collaboration times and then book study times discussing Dr. Small’s book, teachers, with the support of administration, decided to change the way this time should be used.  They knew what they were doing was a good thing, but saw more potential in how they could be working together in supporting their students and the diverse needs they saw in their classrooms daily.  Marilyn Embury, the Literacy/Numeracy lead teacher, took on the leadership role for collaboration time.  She now compiles an agenda where everyone on staff has input.  She then schedules these ideas, thoughts and supports for the weekly collaboration time and facilitates the discussion.  As Derek mentioned above, it now feels more student-centered with an agenda that begins with the topic of “students of concern and/or celebration”.  

photo.JPGThis year collaboration groups also started using data boards to track the progress of each individual student; there is a primary data board and a senior data board.  Jim Manz appreciates the use of data boards because it helps to identify the kids who require additional support, and it is like putting the pieces of the puzzle together.  Many teachers echoed his comments in saying that, “we know who all of our kids are because it puts a ‘face to the data’”.

Judy agreed that seeing the kids move across the data board gives teachers something tangible to see how much the students have grown; collaboration time provides an informal discussion about students and what is going on in their learning.  Teachers can “put out fires during collaboration before the formal process of a Tier 1 meeting; it allowed teachers to verbalize and legitimize concerns”.

Marilyn shared that data boards need to be more visible for teachers and that as the the end of the year approaches the boards will be updated during collaboration time to serve as a visible celebration of learning for staff.  There has also been discussion about how the use of the data boards can evolve and be used more effectively for next year.

Other agenda items include: instructional strategies and support, teaching partner collaboration time, and school curricular events and planning.  Just a few of the great learning activities that the groups have planned this year were:
      • burgers and books (primary)
      • math games and activity buckets (primary)
      • treaty essential learnings stations (primary)
      • Peter Brass film project (senior)
      • outdoor school (senior)

Even though collaboration time has evolved this year into more teacher-directed, student-centered time, Jan Seitz reinforced the need to continually “tweak it” as they are still learning how to use the time.  Lori Howie said that versatility is the beauty of collaboration time and stressed how they must adapt the focus of this time to the changing needs of the school and more importantly the students.

Future Direction
While book studies, PD-focused meetings, strategy sharing, data board analysis, and collegial learning are all important to Imperial staff during collaboration time, the direction of this time for next year will become more balanced.  The agenda will always begin with the standing item of “students of concern or celebration” and then teachers are always invited to add their own items. However, the majority of time, as voiced by the teachers themselves, will be spent on co-planning because they would like more time to meet and plan with their co-teaching partners.  Jan Seitz stated that their shared time should be less like a meeting, and teachers agreed that stations, curriculum review, and more “doing time” is needed and appreciated.

Melanie Little shared that the structure of collaboration time will be different next year; instead of two grade groups, they will break into three, which will allow for more of a focus on similar curricula and supports for each cluster: primary - grades 1 and 2, junior - grades 3 and 4, and senior- grades 5 to 8. Melanie knows that collaboration will continue to be valuable time because, in her words, “we have rockstar teachers with an exceptional knowledge of curriculum and instructional strategies that benefit student learning”.

Denise Terry shared that collaboration time helps to find and connect with colleagues during the day; it becomes a team effort and helps everyone get stronger.  As a first year teacher, Brooke Alexander acknowledged the importance of the physical resources and people resources that collaboration time provided. She has been able to use and rely on many of her colleagues to learn from and grow with throughout the year.  So for her this must remain an important part of future collaboration time.

IMG_0750.JPGMost importantly, Kim Schroeder stated that, “this time has helped to foster a supporting, caring, and warm environment to problem solve and plan for our most vulnerable and at-risk students.  It’s provided us with hope...a sense of hope that we can meet the needs of more children because we are all working together...as a team.”  For that reason alone, reflection, problem-solving, and celebration of students will remain a top agenda item for future collaboration time.


Advice to Others Who Would Like to Benefit from a Collaboration Time in Their School

The teachers at Imperial range from brand new to the classroom, profession, and province to others who have many years of experience in different educator roles here in Regina Public.  Their experiences of collaboration have also varied from not at all to only during staff meetings.  The two things that most of them had in common was being a new staff member to Imperial as well as the idea of meeting weekly to collaborate.  Upon year end reflection of being in a new building and after having experienced one year of meeting weekly for collaboration time, these are some of the thoughts, feelings and expressions of the Imperial Staff.

  • “Do what it takes to get your admin to schedule it into the timetable for you. Don’t take NO for an answer.  If you are truly wanting to work as a team, there will be a way to make it happen.”

  • MANY teachers on staff stated that “this has been their BEST year ever!”

  • “Our conversations are focused and purposeful...and our staff morale has increased because we now trust and respect each other so much more to do what’s best for ALL the students at Imperial.  We all collectively own these kids … and besides we have fun together during these times, too.”

  • “Meeting weekly is a must so that we are all on the same page. We all have the same goals.  We all know the strengths and areas of support for these students.”

  • “I look forward to collaboration time every week because it really helps to take the blinders off when I need help and support in working with my kids.  I can ask questions and look for suggestions from my colleagues”

  • “We have learned to be vulnerable with one another.  We are not perfect...we all make mistakes and we can all learn from one another’s experiences and expertise.  We now know that we can make each other greater and help to build one another up”

  • “I would have never tried some of these strategies on my own if I would not have had this time to learn about it, talk about it, plan for it, and play with it in collaboration time.”

  • “Collaboration time allows for reflection and celebration and we don’t often have time to do that on our own”

  • “Don’t take this time away from me ever...It’s the most important and valuable time I could ever have with my colleagues to plan for our students.”

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