Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Value of Frequency (Reflections on my journey in a Professional Learning Community)

At exactly three o'clock in the afternoon I stand outside the doors of the fourth grade classrooms with other reading specialists. Almost on cue the teachers inside finish their lessons and students start swarming out the doors, finding the teacher they will do guided reading with. Within two minutes everyone is situated in their reading group. It's almost eerie how smoothly the daily transition goes. Eerie, and yet as time goes on I'm starting to notice it's value.

On our local screening committee this year we are starting to notice a trend. Many of our students going through the re-evaluation process in special education to determine if they still qualify for services are showing that they no longer qualify. They are not behind their peers, and they have made significant gains in their academic abilities. They may have a diagnosed learning disability, but those disabilities are no longer getting in the way of their academics. Dismissing students from special education is not something done on a whim. It's a long process and it usually takes multiple meetings to decide.

A long process and yet again and again we are finding that the student in question is no longer eligible.

It's caused me to wonder- why? What is my school doing that is bringing all of these students up to grade level despite their learning difficulties? There are great teachers at my school so I don't want to knock what they are doing, but I've also worked with great teachers doing the exact same things at other schools, so I don't think it is just the quality of instruction.There is something else. After taking a step back and looking at our practices I think it's the frequency of instruction. 

The way the school is structured the grade level teams plan together for at least (but usually more) two hours a week- one hour for language arts and one for math. Everyone who works with that grade level comes to those meetings. All the plans are done together on a shared on-line notebook so that the teachers are all doing the same thing on the same day. The difference between this and everyone on the team using a teacher's manual is that everyone contributed to making the plans. The plans resonate with the team's needs. (If you are horrified by the "teaching the same thing on the same day" just hang on- I was horrified at first too. More posts are coming.) Every six weeks or so the teachers get together for progress monitoring where we look at the data from the whole grade level and then divide the kids into homogeneous groups. Students are mixed up across the entire grade level based on their ability level and their progress. Because the groups are re-worked every six weeks the groups are fairly fluid and allow for student change. Resource teachers like me swoop in at guided reading time and pick up our students from the different classes. None of these groups are done in a separate instructional block where students are divided up for extension or intervention. All intervention/extension is done during the instructional block. It is all a very carefully choreographed dance.

What all of this does- the planning together, the ability groups split up across the grade level- means that the students are constantly getting instruction. When a teacher is out of the building the grade level can easily just split up the teacher's kids for focus lessons so that the students don't miss instruction that day. The students are still pulled for reading groups with the other teachers. On regular days some students get multiple reading groups a day. In kindergarten I work with groups that are solely focused on specific skills like identifying the names of the letters, and then later get guided reading from their classroom teacher. Every moment is used wisely so that the students are getting frequent instruction. 

There were elements of this that didn't sit well with me when I first came to my school. It seemed intense for the students and had an element of focusing on data that seemed unnatural. More on that later. For now all I can say is that the results are there. Students are making progress- lots of progress. Many of the students we get from other schools make more than a year's growth once they've been with us. It's difficult for us to find students eligible for special education because they have such strong skills. The careful planning of all of this means we are not wasting any of the students' time. Every moment possible is used for instruction. If we look at why our students are making progress I really believe that's the number one element we'd find. The teaching is great, but like I said, I've seen great teaching elsewhere. The teaching combined with the frequency of the instruction means that we are taking advantage of every moment the students are with us. 


Anonymous said...

And this is the difference between exposing children to content and skills, versus staying with them until they master the content and skills.

organized chaos said...

Exactly. It's the line between teaching and simply delivering information.