Teachers at all of Linden’s elementary schools got a chance to see new classroom methods up close when a handful of their colleagues volunteered to create model lessons. The volunteers used methods aimed at creating deeper understanding in their students, while their colleagues observed the class in action.
By Gary Miller
A four-day session of teacher training from May 21 to 24 put new classroom techniques into action at elementary schools throughout the district, with educators learning from a source they can trust: their colleagues.
Two volunteers from each school modeled lesson plans using tools designed to help students develop creative thinking and teach them how to collect and review evidence to back up their reasoning. Their peers gathered to watch the volunteer teachers deliver the lesson, as well as interact with students and gauge their responses. Everyone then gathered in another room to discuss how the sessions went.
The techniques they used were developed by The Thoughtful Classroom, a framework created by educational consultants Silver Strong & Associates of Franklin Lakes. The sessions were similar to ones held in McManus and Soehl middle schools April 30 and May 1.
The peer-to-peer model is a big difference from the typical professional development session.
“Sometimes a professional development would be where there is a presenter presenting information and the teachers take it in,” said Tom Dewing of The Thoughtful Classroom, who facilitated two elementary school sessions per day in Linden. “We find that while that can be beneficial, it can be more beneficial when teachers can do some reflections, see it in action, get some peer review.”
In one session, School No. 8 first-grade teacher Staci Mannuzza used a technique known as Reading for Meaning to get her students to critically read a text about the Bronx Zoo. Reading for Meaning gives students statements about the text instead of questions and asks them to prove or disprove them. It helps motivate students to dig into the text by asking them to defend whatever position they take.
In the second session at School No. 8, fourth-grade teacher Sophia Panaretos used a technique called Association Triangles to teach her students about units of measure. Students were given three items – such as a pint, quart and gallon – and had to explain the differences, similarities and relationships among the three. It teaches students to look at sometimes disparate items and use creative thinking to see the relationships.
“These techniques both develop a deeper understanding of the content,” Dewing said.
Each elementary school principal took part in the sessions with Dewing, observing their teachers giving lessons, offering feedback, and listening to other staff members’ reactions.
“In a visit like this, these teacher-leaders are serving as exemplars for their peers,” said School No. 8 Principal Michelle Rodriguez. “They’re opening up their classrooms to the peers and their peers are willing to come in and be non-judgmental and learn something. It’s strategy-based, and everything fits together. It’s not just like, ‘Hey, come watch this and do this.’ There is discussion before and discussion after.
“Some of these teachers have never gotten the opportunity to watch each other, so I think it was wonderful.”
The sessions are an outgrowth of the Instructional Leadership Team model that the district has used for two school years for professional development. The ILTs consist of about 10 members at each school who attend professional development sessions, then pass the training on to their colleagues back at school.
“The value of the ILTs is that they create teacher-leaders, so I’m not the only instructional leader in the building,” Rodriguez said. “It’s nice to have teachers who can disseminate information to their grade levels and get a buy-in.
“The whole two years of ILTs has been continuous, just building, building, building. Everything is done with a purpose and makes sense, and has an end goal and a next step.”
In the debriefing sessions with the teachers, Dewing stressed that the instruction tools are not meant to be rigid, and that they can be combined or modified to fit a class’s needs.
“Thoughtful Classroom is more than a sum of its parts,” he said. “It’s not just doing a tool or strategy; it’s a whole philosophy on how we’re going to bring the child back to the center of the classroom.
“We’re here because of the kids. And if our mission statements and our goals are to raise these young people into adulthood, who can be successful adults, then we need to start in Pre-K and kindergarten to do some things having them think, to work together, and have them highly cognitively engaged.”