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7 Tips For Collaborating In Schools

Master Teacher Guest Blog Series

Part 5: Learning Is Social

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Despite being surrounded by students all day, teaching can feel isolating sometimes, even lonely. If there aren’t specific expectations for collaborating with colleagues, it is easy to view collaboration as more effort than it’s worth.

Here at BetterLesson, however, we view collaboration as essential to a teacher’s development. Whether collaborating with a TeachCycle coach in virtual meetings, collaborating with digital teammates in our online workflow tool, or collaborating with a team of teachers face-to-face in your own school, we want to support teachers to learn from each other because learning is social!

Today, Master Teacher Regan Aymett argues that collaborating with colleagues is critical to both her growth as a teacher and the growth of her students. She outlines seven tips for making the most of whatever collaborative time you have. Enjoy!


 

collaborate

Collaborating as a team is probably the most beneficial thing I do to help my students learn. By sharing mistakes and achievements, my team can become stronger in our instruction. As our instruction improves, we can improve learning outcomes for our students, which is the focus of our collaborative team.

I have distilled what I believe are the seven practices that enable efficient collaboration and allow it to be a catalyst for both improved student outcomes and teacher development:

  1. Establish a Consistent Time and Place

 

To ensure that collaboration remains a priority, it is necessary to devote dedicated time to working together. Depending on your school’s schedule and the schedules of your particular team, this time may be daily, weekly, monthly, or even by quarter. What is most important is to establish a time that works for everyone involved and to stick to it. For example, our grade level team meets every Tuesday, in my room from 10:00 to 10:40. If we do not get everything accomplished on our agenda, we schedule another meeting that week.

  1.   Set Behavioral Expectations

Prior to the meeting, we set norms that we generate as a school in a professional development. We outline specific expectations for ourselves early in the year, reference them at each subsequent meeting, and adjust them as needed. Most of the norms seem like common sense, but it is essential to set a standard for behavior expectations. Since we create our norms, we are more likely to honor them and hold each other accountable for adhering to our expectations.

  1.   Set Roles

After establishing our norms, we establish roles for our team members. For our meetings, we have a leader, timekeeper, recorder, and a person to keep us on task. These roles help our meetings flow smoothly and allow everyone to contribute. We find that it is best to rotate responsibilities from time to time so that everyone has a chance to serve in each role.

  1.   Send an Agenda in Advance and Stick to It

As the team leader, I send out our agenda for the weekly meeting in advance. Typically, this agenda consists of the standards we will be teaching in the upcoming week. It is helpful if everyone comes to the meeting prepared to discuss specific standards and share their ideas on lessons that would support these standards. Once we agree upon what the standard really requires at our grade, we begin designing a common formative assessment. Having a common formative assessment sets a standard of rigor for our entire grade, which ensures all students are going to be held to the same level of proficiency.

  1.   Analyze Data

After we have all taught the skills and assessed our students, we look at our data as a team. Based on the data from all of the students in our entire grade, we have a conversation around trends in student achievement. If one teacher has a group of students that did exceptionally well on a skill and others did not, we ask the successful teacher to share their strategies. This creates an opportunity for our grade to learn from each other.

  1.   Plan Instruction

As a grade level, we look at our data and plan remediation activities for our students that were not proficient on the assessment. We also plan extensions for those who were proficient. Our instruction for remediation and extension may include centers, stations, homework, or small group activities. Collaborating as a team allows us to break up the task of planning so many different activities and ensure that each plan is appropriate, thorough, and standards-aligned.

  1. Grade as a Team

Our team often grades writing task as a team because the rubric is quite detailed. It is helpful to collaborate and focus on analyzing student work. After we have analyzed the work and collectively decided areas of weakness in our grade, we begin planning new writing activities to help our students grow.

The conversion to team collaboration can be an adjustment for teachers accustomed to working alone. In my experience, however, I have found collaboration time to be invaluable to my growth as a teacher and the growth of my students.


 

Regan Aymett is a 1st and 2nd-grade teacher in Shelbyville, Tennessee. She holds a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Instruction and was a member of BetterLesson’s ELA Master Teacher Project and Science Master Teacher Project. Please click to access her ELA curriculum and her science curriculum.  

TeachCycle Mindset – Learning is Social

 

Learning is SocialWelcome back to the Master Teacher blog series, a collection of posts written by Master Teachers and organized around the key mindsets of TeachCycle, BetterLesson’s innovative professional development offering.

So far, we’ve learned how Master Teachers make their teaching “All About the Kids,” how they “Measure Progress” in their classrooms, how they “Fail Forward” by taking risks and learning from the results, and how they “Reflect Honestly” by pushing themselves to be questioning, self-reflective, practitioners.

This week, we move into the fifth and final key mindset of TeachCycle: Learning is Social

The TeachCycle process is all about learning what works for your students as quickly as possible so that your improvement as a teacher is purposeful and driven by your students’ needs in the moment. TeachCycle teachers identify a particular area of student growth then try strategies targeted to address a specific teaching challenge. Teachers measure the effectiveness of each strategy immediately then iterate on the strategy quickly, learning what worked and what didn’t, always working toward their goal of student achievement.

Collaboration with fellow teachers either remotely through the online workflow tool or in face-to-face team meetings is a powerful component of the TeachCycle process. Collaboration allows a teacher’s individual learning to be shared by colleagues, thereby accelerating the learning process for all. The other key mindsets of TeachCycle, All About the Kids, Measure Progress, Fail Forward, and Reflect Honestly all culminate in the social learning that takes place through collaboration.

The upcoming series of three blogs highlight some ways that you can make learning social in your own school, by creating opportunities to share and learn with your colleagues. From Regan Aymett we’ll hear tips for running collaborative meetings, Veronique Paquette shares the benefits of collaborating with a coach, and Cassandra Joss reflects on her experience as a teacher leader, working collaboratively with other teachers.

Tackling Engineering and Design in The Science Curriculum

Welcome back to Website Wednesday, the weekly installment that shows you how the BetterLesson site can support you with ideas, resources, and even full, standards-aligned lessons for your classroom.

Today, Master Teacher Joyce Baumann describes her experience teaching engineering and design to lower elementary students, and how the BetterLesson site can help any teacher looking to incorporate more engineering into their lessons. Enjoy!


Baumann1During my work with the BetterLesson Master Teacher Project, I worked with a mentor to create science lessons aligned with the NGSS standards. One day, my mentor noted that I had yet to create any lessons that addressed the NGSS Engineering and Design Standards.

I laughed. I could not imagine how kindergarteners could engage in engineering. She had to be kidding! She wasn’t. However, she did offer support as I set out on a journey to bring engineering and design into my classroom.

After looking over the kindergarten standards, I decided to integrate engineering into my kindergarten science unit that addresses the sun. I planned to have my students design and construct a structure that would shelter an ice cube from melting. I gathered my supplies and prepared to take the plunge.

I gave the students time to plan their structures. They had the opportunity to look at the materials available and think about how they would use them. They sketched their designs on paper and then jumped into building. It was a hot mess. Yards of masking tape and a forest of popsicle sticks gave their lives for these flimsy structures. There were arguments and disagreements and a few airborne popsicle sticks. After more than a half hour of building, some of the structures failed to even stand on their own. I saw the lesson to its end, by taking the students outside to test their structures. The structures were somewhat effective in protecting the ice cube, but they did not function the way I hoped they would. Here is what a few of the structures looked like:

Baumann2

That evening I debriefed with my Master Teacher mentor, sharing my frustrations. She said I needed to go back and try it again. What? Try it again? That was just crazy talk. But after some discussion, I discovered an inner courage I didn’t know I had, and I decided to have the students make another attempt, trying to improve their structures. I decided to teach a lesson about the difference in light absorption with black and white paper before the next attempt to give the students some additional background knowledge to help guide their decision making when designing their new structure.

So we embarked upon design and engineering, attempt two. As I launched the planning part of the lesson, I noticed a remarkable change. The students were really conversing about the shortcomings of their first designs and how they could improve upon them. When the students starting constructing their structures, their work was very focused. The consumption of masking tape was greatly reduced as well!

When it was time to test the structures, the results were impressive, showing an improved performance for all student work groups. Notice the difference in their structures from their original designs:

Baumann3

The students were so proud of their work and they truly experienced the engineering and design cycle by making improvements on their first structure. They also used the knowledge they gained from the lesson on light absorption, changing the color of the paper they used for their structures from black to white.

So, does science and engineering have a place in the kindergarten classroom? That is an enthusiastic, “Yes!” It may have been a bit “messy”, but the learning that happened was just amazing. I would encourage all teachers to explore the BetterLesson site to find inspiration for incorporating NGSS Science and Engineering Standards into science instruction. There are hundreds of lessons for Lower Elementary, Upper Elementary, Middle School, and High School.


Joyce Baumann is a Kindergarten teacher in Cold Spring, Minnesota. In her 20-year career, she has been a finalist for the Minnesota Teacher of the Year, received the NEA Foundation Award for Teaching Excellence, and served on the Minnesota Board of Teaching. Joyce was a member of both BetterLesson’s Science Master Teacher Project and the Math Master Teacher Project. To view all of Joyce’s great lessons, please click here.

 

But Why Do We Do What We Do?

Master Teacher Guest Blog Series

Part 4: Reflect Honestly

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Merriam-Webster defines self-reflection as “careful thought about your own behavior and beliefs.” As such, self-reflection can be a lonely experience. In the context of teaching, you’re turning the focus inward and assessing not your students, but yourself. What did you do to make this lesson successful? What could you do better next time?

Typically, there are no shortcuts to self-reflection, no way for someone else to be self-reflective for you. However, through their commitment to reflecting on each and every lesson on the site, BetterLesson’s Master Teachers give you a head start to this reflective process!

Today, Caroline Courter describes the process that she and other BetterLesson Master Teachers use when reflecting on their lessons and offers tips on how readers can use these reflections to inform their own teaching. Enjoy!


 

courterHonest reflection is an integral practice for a person’s development. This is true professionally, personally, and academically. It is even true for students! From kindergarten through high school, the Engineering strand of Next Generation Science Standards specifically outlines the ways in which students should be reflecting on their experiences and understanding of the world and proposing solutions to solve the problems they identify.

  • At the lower elementary level students are required to “…define a simple problem that can be solved through the development of a new or improved object or tool.”
  • In upper elementary this standard expands, requiring students to “…identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved.”
  • By middle school, students are expected to “develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool or process such that an optimal design can be achieved.”

We are requiring students to be reflective problem solvers who question the world around them and seek to make improvements. As teachers, we need to be engaging in honest reflection as well!

The barrier to honest reflection as a teacher is real: it takes time. With all of our other responsibilities, time is at a premium. In my experience, however, the time I spent reflecting on my lessons paid off enormously down the road. I am no stranger to reflection – as a Master Teacher for BetterLesson, I provided at least one reflection on every single lesson I wrote. The benefits of all this reflection are two-fold:

First, as the Master Teacher, I slid into a routine of reflection and came to anticipate what I would write up. I found myself analyzing the lesson even before I taught it, which was great because I was able to improve my lessons based on what I thought may become an area of improvement.

Second, it benefits teachers who use my lessons because as you (the reader) view a lesson and the reflection, you can see areas that I would change or areas that worked well for my class. It provides you with an analysis before you teach the lesson, enabling you to change or adapt the lesson as necessary to meet the needs of your students. For example, at the beginning of my unit on Soil and Water, I wrote this reflection about the benefits of administering a pre-assessment before diving into the lesson.

In addition to the reflections, another aspect that is incredibly helpful about Master Teacher lessons is the inclusion of the “why” behind choices made in the classroom. Instead of the typical online lesson plans that only provide the materials and procedure, Master Teachers include their rationale behind the choices they make. For example, in the Preparation section of my lesson on Living Organisms in the Rainforest, I explain what my students have already covered before I teach this lesson. This helps you, as the reader, to understand how I have developed background knowledge before this lesson so that you can either teach similar background knowledge or adjust the lesson to meet your needs.

In the Think section of my lesson on Investigating Balance, I describe why modeling the expectations before beginning the activity is vital to the success of the lesson. This is intended to provide another layer of explanation for you before teaching the lesson. By including the ‘why’ behind our choices, Master Teachers want you to be able to see that every move in a classroom can be used as an important instructional decision. Ultimately, by providing reflections and rationale for instructional choices, the BetterLesson Master Teacher lessons can become a helpful way for you to make more purposeful choices in your own classroom and maximize student learning!


 

Dr. Caroline Courter is an AIG (Academically and Intellectually Gifted) specialist for K-5 students at the New Hanover County Schools in Wilmington, North Carolina. She holds a Doctorate in Educational Leadership and Master’s in Curriculum and Instruction Supervision, both from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. A veteran teacher, Caroline has brought her passion for STEM to North Carolina students in Kindergarten, first, second, and fifth grades.

Reflecting On My Role As A Teacher

Master Teacher Guest Blog Series

Part 4: Reflect Honestly

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Honest reflection can yield many positive results. We’ve already heard from two Master Teachers, one who invited students into the reflective process, and one whose regular reflections led to lesson adjustment that will benefit future students.

In today’s post, Master Teacher Michelle Marcus describes how honest reflection challenged her to rethink her entire outlook on her role as a teacher. Enjoy!


 

MarcusAs I was driving home tonight from parent-teacher conferences, I was struck by how different my approach to teaching and learning is from what it was even just a few years ago. As a veteran teacher of 25 years, I have reflected on my teaching in many ways over the years. Only now, however, do I see that I am reflecting in order to revise my thinking first, before I work to change the student’s behaviors.

In the past, up until very recently, I would discuss with parents what their student could do well and what seemed to be a struggle. I would then go over suggestions for work and activities students could do at home to help raise their child’s conceptual understanding, test scores, and/or their work production. It was all student-centered, but not necessarily in the child’s control.

What I realized, after an evening of speaking with parents, is that now I use the CCSS to guide me in my lessons and I consider the practices that help make students THINKERS and ACTION TAKERS. I realized that my lessons need to put students in control of their sense making and I need to guide them through the comfortable struggle in which I place them.

Now when I work with parents to help their students develop understanding, score better on high stakes tests, and produce wonderful pieces of work, I explain what I will do to help the student. The conversation shifts to matching what I do to what the student needs based on their starting ability and understanding. The work is mine and I am responsible for creating an environment for the students in my class to make meaning, communicate learning, and ask questions.

If you have had a similar epiphany and are ready to own the learning that takes place in your classroom, there is a site available, for free, to all teachers that want to begin or continue to work and learn in this way. It is www.BetterLesson.com.

When you visit this site, you will find thousands of lessons written by Master Teachers who have developed a mindset of “what do I need to do so the children are successful?” There are lessons covering math, language arts, and science for grades K-12. Each of these lessons is written with the goal of sharing not only great activities, but to also show through video and resources how you can develop professionally in order to meet your students’ needs and support them to gain new skills.

Another great feature is that Master Teachers have taken the time in each lesson to share their reflection about some aspect of their learning and teaching. These reflections give insight into how the Master Teacher would adjust the lesson in the future and provide you with this pre-reflection before you implement the lesson in your classroom.

If you are ready to reflect on your own teaching and are ready to update or change some of your practices, head over to www.BetterLesson.com and pick the brains of some amazing teachers!


Michelle Marcus is a 3rd-grade teacher at Pembroke Elementary School in Troy, Michigan. A leader in her school and district, Michelle helped develop, document, and distribute math curricula and assessments that reflect goals of high achievement and quality instruction. Michelle was a member of both the Math and Science Master Teacher Projects. Click here to see all of her great CCSS and NGSS aligned lessons.

 

Want to Create a BetterLesson? Just Ask!

Welcome back to our MT Guest Blog!

Today, elementary science teacher, Linda Berger describes how she leverages professional scientific organizations to create authentic learning opportunities for her students. Enjoy!


 

When my son was five and my daughter was just born, the three of us used to get together to watch the TV show Zoboomafoo every afternoon. The animal-centric themes were a great jumping off point about science. He loved learning it and I loved learning with him.

The over-arching character in this series was a lemur named Zaboo. One day, my son turned and asked me what lemurs like to eat. I said “I don’t know; let’s look it up.” When we didn’t find any definitive answer (being a teacher, I need definitive!), we looked up a zoological society and sent them an e-mail. The next day, my son got his answer.*

That early experience introduced me to the idea of using professional organizations to get information to use by and for our students. I learned that these organizations are credible, well researched, and often thrilled to help a teacher! Academics is their life, so when they get an opportunity to see their work put into action by excited six year olds, how cool is that?

Recently, I again used this early experience when I wrote a BetterLesson on tree shapes. As I mapped out the lesson, I dug a little deeper and found out the people who study the science of trees (as opposed to the care or maintenance) were called dendrologists. Anticipating my students’ curiosity, I wanted to find out more so I’d be able to explain to them why certain trees were a specific shapes. I went right to the source, The International Dendrological Research Institute.

I received a well crafted answer back from a scientist, Zsolt Debreczy who was excited to have been asked. He loved hearing from a teacher who wanted to take a what-could-be-complicated-lesson and present it accurately in order to spark further inquiry. It was a win-win for both of us. Additionally, I was able to share this inquiry experience with my class to show them both sides; we all have things to learn and an opportunity to share these things with others.

Asking and answering questions is a huge part of NGSS and CCSS, so the more students see us doing it, the greater their comfort level will be to practice this crucial skill with classmates, family, and the greater community. Students are naturally curious and it’s often adults who quash that for the sake of expediency (“Must. Complete. Lesson. Today!”).

There’s much we can do to encourage early, independent inquiry, and it does so much to support their future. That’s how to enhance a BetterLesson in your classroom. Our lessons are meant to give you a self-contained package that will help you and your students learn more about a specific subject. At the end of the day though, the beauty of them is that they’re not static. Make them your own by reaching out to researchers and specialists to deepen your knowledge. By doing this, we can show everyone — students, parents, and colleagues — that our learning can be enhanced when we model curiosity and reach out. Just ask!

*For the record, lemurs like mangos and garbanzo beans.


 

Linda Berger is a Kindergarten teacher at Manuel De Vargas Elementary in San Jose, California. She holds a Master’s in Special Education – Autism Spectrum Disorders, and was a member of the BetterLesson Science Master Teacher Project. To see all of Linda’s Kindergarten science lessons, please click here.

Learning From Lessons That Don’t Work

Master Teacher Guest Blog Series

Part 4: Reflect Honestly

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Welcome back to the Master Teacher Guest Blog Series! As part 4 of our series, we are exploring the importance of honest reflection on a teacher’s growth. Last week, Maria Laws described how she used focus groups to invite her high school science students into her reflective process.

Today, Andrea Praught shows us that honest reflection is a practice that can benefit all teachers, regardless of where they are in their career. As part of the a BetterLesson Master Teacher Project, Andrea completed a reflection after every lesson, a practice that helped her make adjustments to her lessons and improve outcomes for her students.


Praught

Let’s start with three vignettes that are sure to resonate with every teacher:

  • You ask students questions at the end of the lesson to assess what they’ve learned and no hands go up. Instead, your question is met with crushing silence.
  • You eagerly read students’ exit slips only to realize that most everyone is way off base; it seems that nothing from your lesson got through to your students.
  • You find the perfect website to tie together your lesson, but the internet connection goes out at the start of class and you don’t have a backup plan.

It happens to us all: Lessons that didn’t work, materials that didn’t fit, websites that crashed, discussions that fell flat. Any number of complications can derail a lesson and leave a teacher thinking, “now what?” Just as ‘teachable moments’ for the kids in the classroom provide a silver lining to an otherwise disappointing experience, lessons that don’t work provide teachable moments for the teacher, as long as you first reflect honestly!

Anytime you teach but things go awry and kids don’t “get it,” don’t be discouraged! Here is an opportunity to fail forward, change things up, create new materials, and rethink your plans. Growth in teaching doesn’t come from the easy lessons, but from the lessons that don’t work.

Let’s take a look at some ‘teachable moments’ I encountered in lessons that appear on the BetterLesson site. I framed them as reflections of what I could do next time, what I should have done, and what I did in the moment that wasn’t part of the original plan.

In the lesson, Hunting for Good Books!, I reflected after the lesson, “I needed more explanation when it was the students’ turn. I should have spent a few more minutes on iPad rules. I should have set guidelines and talked about group rules.” With these helpful notes in hand, I’ll be able to to have those rules and guidelines in place the next time I teach this lesson.

It is important to remember that just because a lesson may need some improvement, it doesn’t mean that it was a waste of time. In this case, it just took a little extra time to back and re-explain the rules after the fact.

Another reflection on this lesson was, “Have LOTS of reading materials! I neglected my Scholastic, Highlights and poetry materials.” The lesson wasn’t bad without these materials, but it could have been better. Next time I’ll remember to include those additional informational texts.

The lesson, Characters Change – Looking at Pictures, didn’t go as planned. I realized as I was teaching that I needed to tweak the materials. In my reflection I noted, “You may notice that I’ve changed the chart headings for the teachers’ chart. I had ‘before’ and ‘after’ but to stay true to the CCSS, I changed them to ‘beginning’ and ‘end’.”

It is important to embrace a flexible attitude and be willing to change things up as you’re teaching. It doesn’t mean that this was an unsuccessful lesson, but it could have been better aligned to the CCSS and truer to the standards if I’d started with the correct headings. I made a note of this for myself and next time I employed a similar chart in class, I was sure to use the revised language.

With its inherent complexities, technology provides a prime opportunity for both success and misadventure. In the lesson Prezint the ideas as you imagine, I have the students use a computer to create a prezi. Despite my detailed planning, the lesson didn’t work at all; it was too complicated! I realized during the lesson that the iPad I’d practiced on myself was a different interface than the desktops I had students using, and the desktop version was too complicated for them to manage.

Despite the fact that students were unable to complete this project in the amount of time I allotted, they still benefited from this failed experience. In fact, the lesson became a catalyst for an engaging discussion of the benefits and frustrations of technology.

As a final example, let me share an instance when I thought everything was going so well, only to be proven otherwise. In the lesson Dogs and Haikus – what’s the plot, I thought my explanation of haikus had been very clear. The kids were all nodding their heads, but no, “I was sure that I explained that a Hauku was 3 lines of syllables (5-7-5), but I was surprised when one of my kids asked me if a Haiku had 3 or 4 lines.”

I reflected, ”Maybe I need to emphasize that more clearly and use examples from the book.” Proof that using the ‘extend the lesson’ part of my plan was valuable – it let me see what the kids know and where they need more clarification.

These examples all illustrate the importance of honest reflection in my growth as a teacher. No lesson is ever perfect, but by reflecting honestly on what went well, what didn’t, and what I could change next time, I’ve been able to make my lessons better, year after year.

Rather than beat yourself up when a lesson falters, be happy when you have ‘teacher teachable moments’. If things go badly, consider it a sign that something needs to be tweaked, and relish the opportunity to polish your lesson.

A lesson that doesn’t work is not a bad lesson, it’s a learning opportunity for you and the students, a teachable moment!


 

Andrea Praught is a 2nd-grade teacher at Prairie Point Elementary School in Oswego, Illinois. She holds a Master’s in Special Education, and a Bachelor’s in Elementary and Deaf Education, and was awarded a National Board Certification as an Exceptional Needs Specialist. To see all of Andrea’s lessons, please click here.