Sunday, April 28, 2013

Reflecting on Change - Part 1

A lot of you may be wondering about what you can do to make a change for the better in your school. I'll let you in on a secret - it's not easy (probably the opposite of easy), but when you see your kids happy and successful you'll know it's worth it in the end.

I started this as a series of posts for MiddleWeb. You can read the original three posts there or I'll be posting them, along with the remainder of the series, here so you can see what happens when three elementary teachers try to do what's right even when a lot of others think it's wrong.

Last school year was a big year for my coworkers and me. We were pulled together from teaching jobs in five  elementaries and one middle school to staff a new intermediate school with grades 4-6. While the transition was challenging, I felt that it went extremely well. When you move to an existing school, you don’t really grasp how much is already in place in terms of procedure and culture. When you help open a new school that has no history or traditions, you have your cultural aha moment!
With everything that could have gone wrong in such a situation, much went right in our new building. But one thing that didn’t go well, at least in the minds of three of us, was how we as a building were meeting the needs of our youngest learners and students identified with specific learning disabilities. We felt our new school and its new structure was creating a volatile climate shift for some kids.
In all three grade levels, teachers were assigned to teams of four. In 4th and 5th grades there were two humanities teachers (teaching communication/language arts and social studies) and two STEM teachers (teaching science and math), with the understanding that reading in the content areas would be the responsibility of all four teachers. Additional teachers worked with each grade to conduct reading and math clinics for remediation or enrichment. This meant some students could have up to four different teachers each day: Humanities, math, science, and clinic. For some kids this setup worked out fine, but for others — especially 4th graders — it was just too much. Add four different teachers to a new building and a new structure, and you’ve got some confusing times for kids and their parents.
Students with identified special needs were spread out across all three of the 4th grade-level teams, making it challenging for our itinerant learning support teacher (ILST) to meet the Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) planof all of the students in her caseload. We had some teachers who had little experience working with identified students. We also encountered some “philosophical challenges” in regards to adaptations and accommodations for various learners.


Concerned about all these issues, two of my fourth grade teammates and I spent a lot of time researching an alternate method of teaming that might better meet the needs of all of our students as they transitioned from smaller, neighborhood-based primary schools to our larger, districtwide intermediate school. Our proposal, after a great deal of research, suggested that our identified learners and other average-ability students likely to have difficulty with the transition between schools be assigned to a classroom with two regular ed teachers and the ILST for the whole day.
We initially presented this idea of one large, co-taught class to a team of administrators and met with a tremendous amount of pushback from some of them. The biggest area of concern was separating all of the identified students from the other teams. While we were more focused on the idea of a strength-based, community approach for these students, we listened to and heard the concerns of the administrators.
Another meeting was scheduled. We used a Google doc to collect questions, concerns and suggestions, and we continued to search the Web for other research and success stories about teaming and grouping. After a few weeks we came back with a second proposal. This one had all of the identified students on one team of five teachers: the ILST, one Humanities specialist, one STEM specialist, and two teachers who taught all four subjects. Under this plan, the identified students would be part of a larger group of mixed ability students, but they would still have fewer transitions between teachers each day because two of us would resume teaching all four subjects in the traditional manner.


It took quite a while to get people to really understand this set-up, but a majority of the administrative team was open to the idea. They agreed that this might be the key to helping our students transition easier and find more success in 4th grade.
After gaining the support of the administration, our next step was to talk to our co-workers. My teammates and I were adamant about the fact that we wanted to be the ones to present this idea to our fellow 4th grade teachers, and we were granted the opportunity.
Little did we know what would be waiting for us when we talked to our teammates.

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