Teachers lead the training at Edcamp

Class was in session on a clear, pleasant Saturday at Grand Junction’s Central High even though the school’s students were nowhere to be found. More than 80 area educators volunteered for an extra day in the classroom to take part in a teacher-led form of professional development sweeping that nation called Edcamp.

Edcamp participants start the day by choosing their training topics

Edcamp participants start the day by choosing their training topics

“It was our very first Edcamp today in Mesa Valley and I was wondering what it was going to be like. I’ve been teaching for a lot of years and I’d never seen one done. I loved it,” said Anne Djokic, a teacher at Clifton Elementary. “My favorite moment was the energy at the start when everybody was talking about education, about students. There was a sincere cacophony of excitement to be here on a Saturday, on our own time, sitting in a high school library and getting ready to talk about what’s best for kids, what’s best for teachers, and how to get there.”

Edcamp bills itself as the ‘unconference’ according to its foundation website (edcamp.org). Unlike traditional conferences, the Edcamp agenda is created by the participants at the start of the event. Built on principles of connected and participatory learning, Edcamp brings educators together to talk about the things that matter most to them: their interests, passions, and questions. The training centers on an expectation that the people in the room will work together to build understanding by sharing their own knowledge.

A group breakout session on student behavior, moderated by CEA's Casey Kilpatrick

A group breakout session on student behavior, moderated by CEA’s Casey Kilpatrick

Edcamp in Grand Junction was hosted by the Mesa Valley Education Association for all teachers, student teachers, education support professionals, and administrators throughout Mesa Valley County School District 51. “It’s exciting because the training is timely, it’s relevant, and teachers are getting to choose what’s going to impact their classroom the next day,” said MVEA President Darren Cook. “And it helps kids when teachers get to improve their professional practices.”

The training started in Grand Junction in typical Edcamp fashion with classmates posting notes on a board stating the topics they wanted to learn more about. The day’s courses were decided and people stepped up to teach them. Becky Johnson started with Google Docs and Apps, sharing how the technology is “transforming teaching and learning and East Middle School” by allowing students to create and present in multi-media platforms.

Becky Johnson leads the class on Google Docs

Becky Johnson leads the class on Google Docs

“Our kids just finished a project on plate tectonics, where they developed a presentation, wrote explanatory paragraphs, and made a webpage,” explained Johnson. “They are products that work together and that’s the nice thing about it. Once you are signed into your Google Apps account, you have access to this whole universe.”

“I had never heard of Google Docs before,” said Cheyanne Gentry, a teacher at Grand Junction High who enjoyed the Edcamp push toward networking and camaraderie. “I have lesson plan ideas exploding in my brain.

“This is a great way to energize people,” Gentry added. “I connected with people I hadn’t seen in a long time, I made a new friend. I’m just really excited and happy that I came. Edcamp was worth giving up a Saturday.”

Bill Johnson finds shared interests in Edcamp discussion

Bill Johnson finds shared interests in Edcamp discussion

“I had a great time today learning new ideas and meeting new teachers, networking with them,” agreed Bill Johnson, a science teacher at Fruita Monument High. “On things that I truly battle every weekend, it’s good to find out other teachers are battling the same problems. I love the MVEA’s new vision and effort in training, and getting proactive in issues that concern all of us every day.”

The Edcampers broke down their issues and concerns in small-group discussions, scattered in classrooms throughout the high school. Topics of interest included navigating Colorado’s educator effectiveness evaluation system, managing challenging student behaviors, and diving into the district’s gifted and talented program offerings. Changing technology, though, is a popular theme throughout Edcamps as educators strive to bring the latest high-tech tool into the classroom that will engage their students and possibly lighten the heavy instruction load. In fact, Aurora Education Association teamed up with its district’s education technology department to host an Edcamp centered on sharing and learning with digital tools and resources.

At the Mesa Valley Edcamp, ‘ActivInspire’ and ‘Padlets’ were some of the brand names seemingly pulled from science fiction that captivated the imagination on what is now possible in classroom management. Younger MVEA members like Katie Allen were often at the front of class explaining their capabilities to older colleagues.

Catherine Gardner (second from right) takes in ideas to bring technology into her classroom

Catherine Gardner (second from right) takes in ideas to bring technology into her classroom

Catherine Gardner, a media specialist at Grand Mesa Middle, sat in on a session to learn about Quia, an online education platform offering 16 types of activities for teachers to customize to their classroom instruction and to create engaging, online practice games that motivate student learning. “I came to Edcamp with an open mind, not knowing what to expect, and I have had a fantastic day,” said Gardner. “I’ve been learning about instructional strategies and websites that I can take back and share with my teachers that will help engage students in the classroom.”

“The reason why this Edcamp was so successful is that every single teacher left with something to take back to the classroom and try on Monday,” added Allen. “It also invigorated the teachers and inspired them. We’re pushing each other to be more excited to get back in the classrooms and pass on that inspiration to our students.”

Joan Axthelm takes new Edcampers through an online orientation

Joan Axthelm takes new Edcampers through an online orientation

Edcamp’s rising popularity in the United States and in other countries is easy to view by searching #edcamp in social media. Professional development chosen by and led by teachers is getting people excited about what they learn and what they can do to become better teachers for their students. “We had more than 10 groups of people say they will continue the conversations they started today. They’re not just getting information, but using that information and checking back to ask, ‘Hey, how did this work for you?’” said teacher Joan Axthelm, an organizer of the Mesa Valley Edcamp. “Here’s a bunch of folks that came out on a Saturday. They aren’t with their families today, they aren’t relaxing. They’re taking time to make sure they continue to learn and get better as teachers so their students can be the best learners they can be.”

After training, three teachers of Orchard Mesa Middle stopped at the official Edcamp trailer parked outside the school to reflect on the day’s events. “I never had tweeted before – I now know how to tweet so that’s exciting, being old and not social networking much,” Krysti Klueber said with laugh. “Every one of the things I did was beneficial and I’m very excited about this way to do professional learning. It was a Saturday well spent.”

Pittman, Klueber and Nicholson after Edcamp

Pittman, Klueber and Nicholson after Edcamp

“I feel like that too. I came away with something from every single session that I can take back to my classroom and use immediately,” Heather Nicholson agreed.

“Some of the content I already knew about, so it was nice for me to be able to help some of my fellow colleagues along,” added Becky Pittman. “I was also excited about the vision and seeing where things need to go in our district.”

The child is the winner when teachers gather together to find best ways to teach and make the best practices even better for students, concluded Djokic. “You want a teacher in your classroom who believes in the Edcamp because that means he or she believes in the profession. This is the wave of the future and the future is here. Edcamp is the way to make sure that students get the benefit from our time spent learning together.

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Teaching on the Plains

In a tiny town where everybody knows every teacher, Cassie Sonnenberg is confident the community holds her and colleagues at Wiggins High School in pretty high esteem. She’s less confident that parents understand the changes rolling through Colorado classrooms. “I don’t think the parents have heard the educators’ side of anything. It’s definitely something we need to work on.”

Cassie Sonnenberg, a member of Wiggins EA, shows editing techniques to ninth-grade students at Wiggins High

Sonnenberg is reflecting on Colorado Academic Standards, particularly the language arts piece she teaches that comes from the national Common Core. She’s playing catch-up to best explain the standards’ intent to parents back in Wiggins, a town of about 900 residents an hour northeast of Denver on I-76. “They’re only going to get what they see on the news, and in our area, it’s going to be FOX News. They really need to see the other side of it and hear it from us.”

She’s in Loveland on this day, attending a ‘Theory into Practice’ professional development course hosted by the Colorado Education Association. The training is designed to let teachers talk through weighty issues such as standards and assessments, away from the distractions of daily school business. The members, through their involvement with the Association, are learning how to make a more powerful difference in their kids’ learning and academic success.

“They’re not really that different,” Sonnenberg says of Common Core standards. “We’re still teaching our kids to read and write well. There’s a lot of assessment I don’t agree with, but kids are still learning to read, to write, to critically think, to communicate with each other – all of the things we’ve been trying to teach them forever. It just looks a bit different now…”

“It’s things that we’ve been doing, but we’ve got to take it a step beyond where we have been,” chimes in Becky Lubbers, an elementary teacher attending the training from Yuma. “We just have to be stronger and more diligent about the communication piece – for the kids to be able to communicate with each other, how to get it down on paper and show their knowledge.”

Yuma EA's Becky Lubbers guides her fourth-graders through a writing assignment at Morrison Elementary.

Yuma EA’s Becky Lubbers guides her fourth-graders through a writing assignment at Morrison Elementary.

In Yuma, a larger town of about 3,500 people more than an hour east of Wiggins, people have trust in Lubbers and her fellow teachers. However, she says more dialogue is needed with parents, particularly those who don’t agree with the changes. “The naysayers are the first ones to tell us that this is what they don’t agree with, and why are we doing that, and then it’s our job to educate them,” Lubbers explains. “We’ve got to build that next level of trust and say, ‘This is where we’re going, the standards are going to work, and they’re going to be here to stay.’”

That’s not to say rural teachers aren’t feeling anxious along with the parents. At ‘Theory Into Practice,’ Sonnenberg is asking about new standardized tests in group discussion and how they’re looking for everyone else across the state. “We’ve had to update a lot of our technology and the updates haven’t worked as we want them to,” she remarked, (getting instant agreement from Lubbers). “Where we are, there’s only so much we can do – there’s only so much bandwidth, there’s only so much money to pay for computers for all these kids we need to be testing. The start of the school year is always exciting and everybody is pumped up, but there’s also this underlying level of stress.”

PlainsStory3Lubbers said “a lot of headaches were happening” in her group discussions, with teachers thinking back into their districts about the need to do this or try that. “I’ve taught for 34 years, and I keep thinking, ‘Oh, we’ve done this. This is that pendulum that keeps coming back.’ But this is a different type of pendulum now.”

The focus on standards is what’s coming back around in her fourth-grade class, but with a 21st-century flair. “It’s got more meat to it – the communications piece, the technology piece. Kids have got to be accountable for their learning.”

“And we need the parents to be on board with us too,” Sonnenberg added. “When your kid comes home and says he’s doing a discussion in class or a group project, it won’t necessarily look like the group project that you did when you were in high school, where the A-student did all the work and everybody else sat back and said, ‘Good job.’ We expect more out of everybody now and really working together, not just saying they are.”

Sonnenberg and Lubbers have something in common with each other and with many of the new teachers coming into their schools: years ago, they viewed the beginning teaching job in a small town as a stepping stone to greener pastures. “My husband and I made an agreement when we moved to Yuma that we would be there for two years. We’ve now been there for 34 years. We’ve raised our family there, because we’ve found a community that felt like home,” Lubbers proudly proclaimed, knowing her story is the statistical outlier. “We do a lot of dog-paddling because we go back and retrain our new teachers on what works in our district, what we’ve been doing. We back-peddle with them and sometimes we stay stagnant.”

PlainsStory4While Wiggins has been fortunate to keep most teachers in place for several years, it’s hard to bring a new one in when needed. “Last spring I sat on an interview committee for an open position and we had tons of applicants,” Sonnenberg recalled. “Most of them were first-year teachers coming straight out of school from the Front Range, and they thought they were interested until they drove to Wiggins for the interview. Then they see there are no stores here and no mountains here, and it’s hard for us to overcome that.

“When I started – this is my eighth year – I thought Wiggins was going to be a stepping stone for me. My plan was to work a couple of years and then go to Poudre. And then I fell in love with the community and the kids, and now I don’t want to leave.”

Sonnenberg returned to Wiggins this time with a goal to get her teammates involved in answering Theory’s big questions, from how new teachers are treated to how the district uses data. “You would think, in a tiny little school like Wiggins, it would be so easy for us to all sit down together and make sure we’re talking about those things, but we don’t. There’s no time. ‘Theory into Practice’ is giving us a chance to talk about these things, and we each need to bring the conversations back to our own building and to the district as a whole.”

Lubbers said her district helped Yuma teachers adjust to the changing requirements by sending them to ‘Theory into Practice.’ “It’s a big step for our district to do something like this. We have representatives from each one of our buildings here, so six of us. We work pretty well together and we’re excited about taking some of the lessons back.”

With new tools, Lubbers hopes to rebuild school unity and develop a professional learning community among teachers in Yuma “where you can have an opposite opinion and not have it held against you, so you don’t later go to the parking lot, saying, ‘That won’t work in my classroom, this is what we should do.’ We want the open dialogue, not the parking lot meetings.”

National leaders find power of teacher autonomy at MSLA

MSLA roundtable discussion with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, May 9

MSLA roundtable discussion with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, May 9

The Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy is a teacher-led school in west Denver that states as their motto, ‘Everyone in this school is a learner, a teacher and a leader.’ MSLA doesn’t have traditional school administrators like a principal. Instead, all the decisions – from the length of the school day to color of the chairs – rest with the teachers, who openly collaborate with school support staff, parents and students to drive the direction of learning.

The successes and challenges of running such a unique school model have attracted attention in the education community from Denver to Washington, D.C. During a two-day visit to Colorado, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan made a point to stop by MSLA, May 9, for a round-table discussion with faculty on the importance of teachers having leadership roles in their schools.

Sec. Duncan talks with MSLA staff.

Sec. Duncan talks with MSLA staff

“This school is an interesting example of Denver being way, way, way ahead of where the nation needs to be in terms of creating these hybrid roles,” Duncan told the group. “Yesterday I was with a number of teacher-leaders who are now half-time in the class, half-time in mentoring and evaluation. I heard their enthusiasm, their excitement about where this can go… I think this is where the country needs to go and you guys are probably a couple years ahead. I really want to learn from what’s working and what’s not here.”

“What I think is impressive about MSLA is that it lets you hit the trifecta of job satisfaction: autonomy, purpose and growth,” said Pamela Yawn, a bilingual teacher and member of Denver Classroom Teachers Association who was one of several teachers who spoke with Duncan. “It’s not top-down… I can change my practice that day, for that student, for any particular learning. That’s what we’re doing here. We need to know what our students are going through almost minute-by-minute and be able to adjust. My practice has improved 400% since I’ve been here.”

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Erika Franco (near right) participates in the roundtable with Sec. Duncan (far left)

“The person who really knows what’s going on in the classroom, who really knows what’s needed for those kids is the teacher. So we are the ones who have the decisions in our hands,” added Erika Franco, bilingual teacher and DCTA member. “This is what we want to do at MSLA, have our teams work so we all have a say, so we all have an opportunity to decide on the future of our school and on the future of our students. What makes us unique is that we are in the classroom, but we are working as leaders as well. That makes a huge impact in education, a revolution in education.”

DCTA member Lynne Lopez-Crowley is one of MSLA’s co-lead teachers. With the power to make decisions, she says the faculty continually looks at practice and what they can do better.

MSLA co-lead teacher Lynne Lopez-Crowley explains school practice to Sec. Duncan, Mayor Hancock.

MSLA co-lead teacher Lynne Lopez-Crowley explains school practice to Sec. Duncan, Mayor Hancock

“Today we are looking at next steps – what is working well right now and what we need to change so we can implement that change right away to the benefit of our students. And I think that’s what makes our school different. The district has helped us take away all those layers so we can implement that change without going through this person, this person and this person, so we can always be on the cutting edge.”

Kim Ursetta, a bilingual kindergarten teacher and DCTA member of 20 years, said an important part of teaching at MSLA is holding each other accountable for results.

“We do hold each other to a higher standard, especially as a teacher-led school, because first of all we have that urgency for our students. Our parents expect that and we expect that of each other. So it really is up to us to not only look at that classroom level, but up in the airplane looking down at how do we move our school forward.”

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet also sat in on the MSLA roundtable with Duncan and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. When he was superintendent of Denver Public Schools, Bennet collaborated with Ursetta, then president of DCTA, to help launch the Academy.

Sen. Bennet lifts the importance of teacher quality in the MSLA discussion

Sen. Bennet lifts the importance of teacher quality in the MSLA discussion

“MSLA is one of those examples, and we have many others across the district, where we’re distributing our leadership, and teachers are able to find rungs on the ladder other than just being a teacher or being an administrator. There are many things in-between they’re now able to do, and I think the craft of teaching, as a result, is getting better,” Bennet observed. “We know it’s good to have a good curriculum, but that’s not what makes the difference. It’s the quality of the teaching that makes the difference. If you’ve got a lousy curriculum and a great teacher, you’re going to be fine. But you’re not going to be fine the other way around.”

Duncan, Bennet and Hancock heard many personal stories with common themes that defined how teacher freedom and empowerment gives MSLA its identity and helps the Academy reach its goals. They learned MSLA has:

  • Engaged students (attendance rate above 95%) who can voice opinions to teachers on what they want to learn;
  • Highly supportive parents who feel welcome in the school and overwhelmingly turn out for school activities;
  • Stronger mentorship practices than teachers experienced in other schools;
  • Emphasis on professional development, with many teachers starting advanced degrees and National Board Certification after arriving at MSLA.

Duncan was particularly interested in how the school arrives at decisions without a principal to make a final call. Tara Thompson, kindergarten and 1st grade teacher and DCTA member, calls the process “super-exciting because we are the ones who are getting to make that decision.” She related how the school decided upon use of the DIBELS literacy test.

Tara Thompson gives insight into MSLA's decision-making process

Tara Thompson gives insight into MSLA’s decision-making process

“There was a lot of disagreement, but man, it was amazing that we were getting to make that decision and I was able to talk to my peers about that and have my voice heard, whereas in other situations, you’re told, ‘You’re doing the DIBELS and find the time to do it.’ We were able to have that discussion, figure out how to do it, and implement it in a way that worked for all of us, not just have it placed on you. It’s very exciting,” Thomson said.

“One of the things I love most about MSLA is the teamwork and that so many of the people have very flexible thinking. It’s the flexible thinking that pushes us ahead,” added Lucinda Bowers, a school social worker and DCTA member with 37 years of education experience. “The strength of our team is in listening to each other, teamwork and collaborating. If we disagree, we talk it out and we keep talking. What comes from that is wonderful and successful.”

The teachers admitted being the only teacher-led school in the district has made it difficult to learn best practices from other schools, and they asked the leaders to encourage the creation of a network of teacher-led schools that could help one another. In doing so, the teachers reasoned more young people could be attracted to the teaching profession if they saw the potential to have greater professional freedom and autonomy in such a school.

Jose Martin tells the story of this journey from Spain to teach in Denver

Jose Martin tells the story of this journey from Spain to teach in Denver

Jose Martin, first grade teacher and DCTA member, is a good example of how schools like MSLA can attract and develop younger teachers. He came to Denver from Spain three years ago to start his teaching career. “To be perfectly honest, I came just to teach in the sense of, ‘Give me the curriculum, the books.’ But then I found here they are asking you to step up. That first year I tried to hide because I am a shy person.”

Martin soon found he wanted to step up to lead the way in preparing students and giving them the skills to succeed. “For me, it’s very important to be in MSLA, come out of my shell and to be a leader, so I’m very grateful for the opportunity.”

For veteran teachers, MSLA has challenged them to rethink their role in the school.

“Coming here woke up my eyes to see that there is really a leader in me,” said DCTA member Belinda Villalobos, a third-grade teacher. “We know how to motivate students and there is a passion among all of us to do – not having anyone tell us what to do… We want to be able to show everyone that we shine as teachers and we want our students to shine. That’s our passion.”

“I feel like my skills have really taken root here because I’ve been given the opportunity to lead my peers and to collaborate with my peers,” Thompson added. “I have the freedom in my classroom to do what’s best for my kids who I see every day, all day. The first graders that I have – I’ve had them for two years now – and they are shining. I’m so proud of them.”

Thompson is a 14-year veteran teacher, while Villalobos has taught in the classroom for nearly 30 years. Duncan, who spoke to the national need to support great teachers and ‘keep them, not burn them out,’ was mostly surrounded by experienced teachers during the discussion. The high retention rate of teachers at MSLA was pointed out to the Secretary as proof the teacher-led school model is working for them, the students and the community.

MSLA faculty and guests gather for a picture after the roundtable discussion

MSLA faculty and guests gather for a picture after the roundtable discussion

“Have you heard anybody here say they’re burned out? No, because when you have a voice in something, you have buy-in and you don’t burn out as easily,” Lopez-Crowley said. “When we get new teachers in, they’re scared or hesitant to make a decision. They’re not used to doing it, not used to having their voice heard. After they’ve been here a couple of months, you have a totally different person.”

“This is obviously a huge amount of work, a huge amount of courage,” Duncan said at the end of the discussion. “I’ll try and find ways for other school districts in other cities to look at what is going on here to increase public confidence in public education. There’s some pretty important lessons that others could learn from what you guys are doing collectively. So thank you for your leadership and thank you for your commitment.”

Community rallies to reduce testing time, red tape in education

A community movement known as “Free Our Teachers, Value Our Students” kicked off Feb. 18, with educators, parents, students, legislators, and community members gathered at the Denver Press Club to call for reductions of testing time, educational mandates and bureaucratic red tape in Colorado’s public schools.

Red tape is tying up more Colorado teachers,

Red tape is tying up more Colorado teachers,

“This is a campaign to say, ‘No more mandates.’ Let’s make sure we have all the tools to give students the best education and a solid future,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, in opening remarks. “We’re seeing actual teaching time vaporize because of increased red tape and testing mandates. That’s not good for anyone. It’s not good for our students and it’s not good for the educators.”

Dallman introduced a new video spot highlighting some of the pressing issues facing Colorado public schools, including anemic funding for a growing student population, a corporate-driven testing culture absorbing classroom time, and the loss of vital instruction time for students. Supporters were also encouraged to share their stories on a new Facebook page, also named “Free Our Teachers, Value Our Students,” which had more than 350 ‘likes’ overnight.

Glass speaks at the kickoff event for "Free Our Teachers, Value Our Students."

Glass speaks at the kickoff event for “Free Our Teachers, Value Our Students.”

Jason Glass, superintendent of Eagle County Schools, spoke to the enormous amount of change his schools are going through while enduring massive budget cuts.

“The state schools have experienced an historic gutting of education funding while simultaneously being saddled with an unprecedented number of state government reforms,” said Glass. “The combined effect of these two forces puts our schools in a pressure and policy vice-grip that, by the accounts of those actually working in our community schools, makes the goal of becoming a high-performing education system a more elusive endeavor.”

While Glass said he supports the Colorado Academic Standards and Common Core State Standards, he said no other country subjects every student, every year to machine-scored standardized testing and hitches those results to school and educator accountability.

“Of all the international systems which purportedly outperform the United States, and whose results we so often pine after, none of them uses such an approach when it comes to student assessment. Instead, our higher performing global competitors rely on more heavily on classroom level, formative assessments…that are more squarely focused on improving instruction,” Glass said. “The heaping of accountability, and more and more blame and shame-based education policies on this still very unproven assessment system, has generated reactionary fear, and it is that fear that is the root cause of much of the resistance to these new systems.”

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Rossi watches her students speak to supporters of less testing, less red tape.

A February poll of 1,200 Colorado public school teachers, released yesterday by CEA, found teachers spend more than 30% of their instruction time with students preparing and administering tests, with a clear majority of teachers favoring less than 10% of instruction time devoted to testing. Several teachers and students spoke at the event who typically spend 50 days during the academic year preparing for and taking standardized tests. Jefferson County EA member Stephie Rossi brought three of her students from Wheat Ridge High School to explain that current standardized testing doesn’t generate critical thinking and isn’t aligned to the skills and knowledge learned in class.

“The test was boring. It wasn’t calibrated toward what I was learning,” said Michael Coyne, who recalled having to re-study material from a previous year just to prepare for a test. “We really need to refine our standardized tests so that they’re more focused to what we’re learning in the classroom, not toward a set standard that really doesn’t reflect the state curriculum.”

Colorado kids are losing teacher instruction time for testing of questionable value.

Colorado kids are losing teacher instruction time for testing of questionable value.

Are kids just a test score in school today? Dee Blecha, a special education teacher and Wray EA member, asked this as she reflected over the changes she’s seen over a 33-year career. Blecha said what’s missing for her in today’s classroom is the opportunity to form relationships with students.

“A test doesn’t mean anything to students. What does mean something to you is the fact that your teacher likes you, that your teacher cares about you as a human being. And that’s the part that I’ve struggled with,” said Blecha. “How do I find the time – as I muddle through the red tape, as I progress monitor, as I standardize test, as I crunch the numbers, as I look at data – how do I find time to make sure that I continually connect with kids each and every day, each and every hour?”

Rep. Young represents House District 50.

Rep. Young represents House District 50.

Rep. Dave Young of Greeley, a career junior high school teacher, said he would not choose to teach in today’s high-stakes testing environment.

“Teachers need to drive the instruction, and the sense I have now is, they’re not in control of that,” said Young. “Let’s think about how we can put teachers back in control of the instruction experience in the classroom.”

Young observed decisions on education reform and funding in the Capitol are overly invested in standardized testing and often miss the mark on what is central to the learning experience – the interaction between teachers and students.

“We’re engaged in test preparation, and that’s okay if you agree that the test is what we really want. But I’m not convinced that any test really measures the full scope of what we value, what we want people to learn. I want deeper learning, and that’s hard to measure on a standardized test.”

Teacher liaisons provide communication safety net for evaluation system

Colorado’s new educator effectiveness evaluation system began in pilot programs for some teachers in the 2012-13 school year. One realization became clear as the selected districts put the ideals of a new law into practice – educator effectiveness requires a serious amount of time for thoughtful, successful implementation.

Integration liaison Cathy Epps (seated front center) at CEA Theory into Practice training.

Integration liaison Cathy Epps (seated front center) at CEA’s “Theory into Practice” training in Durango.

“Superintendents were saying, ‘We need help with this implementation.’ Everyone in this profession is pulled in many directions, and the evaluation work wasn’t getting completed,” said Cathy Epps, a veteran teacher who left the classroom to solely devote her time to the success of the evaluation system. “My job is to focus just on educator effectiveness, and it is a full-time job to do that and to support teachers.”

Epps is one of 18 teachers across the state serving as an ‘integration liaison’ in the pilot districts. Along with Jim Parr, fellow teacher and Education Association of Cortez member, they provide information and answer queries on the evaluation system for educators in the four southwest school districts of Montezuma-Cortez, Mancos, Delores and Delores County. They talked about their role at CEA’s “Theory into Practice” training for educators in Durango.

Jim Parr, right, during the CEA educator training session.

Jim Parr, right, during the CEA educator training session.

“I like to think that we bring a little bit of sanity to the situation,” said Parr. “People get overwhelmed. There is a long laundry list of initiatives, mandates and actions that are taking place in education in Colorado right now. If it weren’t for positions like we have, evaluations would be ignored until the last minute.”

“The communication piece wasn’t happening as strongly as it needed to, communicating what’s going on down to the classroom,” said Epps. “There’s so much going on in a school system. We’re in the middle. We’re not in charge of anybody – we’re more of a safety net for real communication. We get information sometimes before administration and other people do, and we share that out.”

Integration liaisons have lessened the anxiety of teachers feeling their way through the new evaluation reality, according to Epps. Teachers can take their questions and concerns to a fellow teacher who has the time and resources to work their issues.

“We’re also seasoned teachers. We’ve been in this for a long time, so we understand. We’re a safety net for asking questions, and we have the resources to get those answers,” Epps added.

In Durango School District 9-R, Durango EA members Dave McKeever and Jeb Holt serve as the integration liaisons. They spread the understanding that administration and teachers are on the same team.

“We really need to work together to get this done and to make a change,” said McKeever. “Communication of a consistent message that we are all on the same team is huge right now.”

McKeever also tries to connect ‘overwhelmed educators’ with each other across all levels, finding they weren’t always talking to each other as the evaluation system rolled out.

“I was surprised how disconnected schools are, even within a district. It’s not because the district is dysfunctional. But the educator effectiveness system is so complicated, you need more people on the same team that can work together, share ideas and help each other out,” McKeever noted. “Communication seems such a struggle, and I have felt rewarded by helping in that.”

Parr, Epps and McKeever talk about the integration liaison role with CEA Journal during a session break.

Parr, Epps and McKeever talk about the integration liaison role with CEA Journal during a session break.

The region’s integration liaisons also finished their first cycle of a peer coaching system, an important practice critical to successful teaching evaluations. In this system, teachers step out of their classrooms to observe another teacher and reflect on teaching practice together.

“The reflections of the teachers that were involved said it was by far the best professional development they’d ever had,” Epps said. “They had never learned more than by working with a colleague in their profession to develop better practices. It’s powerful to be able to implement a peer coaching system into our classrooms.”

“For our four districts, we didn’t have a lot of opportunities for professional growth in place prior to this,” observed Parr. “We didn’t have individualized professional development where teachers felt they were getting the most out of training. When we come forward and offer peer coaching, we’re bringing water to thirsty people. It’s been very well received and appreciated.”

The liaisons agree teachers have had a strong voice in developing the state’s educator effectiveness evaluation system. Teachers are leading the evaluation process in these school districts, which Epps calls an ‘exciting shift’ validating a larger ideal that teachers need to be viewed as the experts in the education field.

“The superintendents we work with really value teachers and what they’re doing. They listen to us, they trust us and say, ‘Okay, you’re speaking for all those teachers. Tell us what’s right and where to go to with this.’ I feel teachers’ voice is being heard in a really positive way more than ever before,” Epps concluded.

“For those people who will step up and participate, they do make a difference,” McKeever agreed. “The teacher voice is heard and it’s used, especially in the current administration and the culture we have now.”

The integration liaisons see their role in supporting teachers and administration continuing and growing into an embedded part of the evaluation system. They are rewarded by contributing to an overall state education system that is on the cusp of dramatic change.

“We are reshaping what education looks like, at least in our little corner of the world,” said Parr. “We put our teachers and our students first so we can have some meaningful results and outcomes, and watch our kids go onto better things when they leave us.”

Durango teachers embracing shift to higher standards

Colorado raised the bar on public education standards in 2009 to provide all students a world-class education that would prepare them to thrive in the next stage of their lives. The Colorado Academic Standards replaced previous standards that were close to 20 years old and were no longer viewed as preparing students well for the realities of today’s advanced jobs and workplaces.

CEA's "Theory into Practice" workshop

CEA’s “Theory into Practice” workshop in Durango.

At the Colorado Education Association’s latest ‘Theory into Practice’ teaching workshop in Durango, three elementary school teachers talked about the big changes these standards have brought into the classroom. Each of these Durango Education Association members has about 20 years of teaching experience, and told CEA Journal the new standards are challenging them to rethink their performance and their profession.

“I’m not sure that all teachers really looked at standards before,” admitted Karin Bowker, a first grade teacher at Florida Mesa Elementary outside Durango. “Teachers are really looking at the standards now and asking ‘Why are we teaching this?’ We’re teaching it because this is what the kids have to know.”

In the past, Bowker said a teacher might say, ‘Dinosaurs are cool, so we’re going to teach dinosaurs,’ but only because the lesson was fun, not because it supported standards. By following the new standards, she says teachers can ‘eliminate the fluffy stuff’ and still make learning fun and engaging.

“I welcome the shift,” added Bowker. “The lessons are effective and kids are learning, and I’m not just wasting my time. There is a reason we’re teaching to the standard, and I’m not just filling my time with needless work that is not beneficial. It’s changed the way I teach.”

At Sunnyside Elementary in Durango, kindergarten teacher Tina Henderson explains to parents how instruction aligns from preschool through high school. The standards set higher expectations for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level, and Henderson says that creates a uniform ‘thread’ that ties one grade level to the next.

teacher group

Tina Henderson, Diana Wright and Karin Bowker talk with CEA Journal at the workshop.

“I think we’ve always had that connection, but I don’t think it’s always been as visible to parents, or sometimes even to us, on how that learning builds to the next grade level,” said Henderson. “It’s brought a little more professionalism to us, because now we can say to parents, ‘I’m teaching this lessons or these units, and it’s meeting these standards.’ Then the parents will say, ‘Oh, I see how it all fits together and I see why that’s important.’”

Henderson also shares the standards and expectations with her kids, which she didn’t do as much in the past. She says bringing that vocabulary of standards into the classroom makes student learning more solid.

“I see a lot more students creating their own goals, taking more responsibility for their learning, because they see what they need to do,” Henderson added. “Having that student-centered goal setting piece, even in kindergarten, has my kids taking ownership of their learning. It’s not just the teacher handing it to them.”

Back at Florida Mesa, Diana Wright is on special assignment as a math intervention and the acting assistant principal. She recently led a parent night at the school, explaining how Colorado Academic Standards are challenging students to evaluate concepts and make inquiries.

“We felt that parents might be seeing the bandwagons against Common Core to jump on, and we better be the ones to educate and reach out to our learning community,” said Wright. Common Core State Standards include two content areas, English language arts and mathematics, and they are embedded in the Colorado Academic Standards.

Wright connected the new standards to the 21st century skills their children will need to acquire for new jobs. She explained the coherence, rigor and focus the standards have brought to teachers and instruction. Wright said parents were appreciative for the open dialogue, which brought some balance to things they were hearing about Common Core in the news and social media.

“Parents are very much a big part of our rural schools, they love our schools, and educating them on this shift was our goal,” Wright explained. She said communication and transparency helped the school community feel valued, and believes teaching parents about the Colorado Academic Standards helps them filter a variety of opinions they may be hearing about standards.

The new standards require new assessments to measure student mastery of the updated learning expectations. These new online assessments, the Colorado Measures of Academic Success, represent the next generation of assessing student learning and will provide teachers with the critical information they need to help students succeed. Find out more about CMAS assessments at this link to the CDE website.

CEA student members treat Pueblo kids with ‘books for keeps’

Minnequa kids show their books.

Minnequa kids show their new books

The book drive could have placed the donations directly into the Minnequa Elementary School library and done a lot of good. The Title I school in Pueblo doesn’t have a great amount of funding to raise a big book collection. But there’s something special about giving a book to a child to keep that Kelly Gonzalez calls a ‘magical’ experience.

“It’s just awesome that they know, ‘This is my special gift that I got from school,’” says Gonzalez, a student preparing to become a teacher at Colorado State University – Pueblo. “The child will always remember this experience and that will be something special for them when they open up that book and look at it.”

Kelly Gonzalez helps kids make their choice

Kelly Gonzalez helps kids make their choice

Gonzalez and several other members of the Colorado Education Association’s student group at CSU-Pueblo collected more than 1,000 books for Minnequa Elementary students through community donations. They stayed in the school library for nearly four hours, meeting class after class, helping every child pick out a book to call his or her very own.

“If people are taking time to come out and give them a book, the students will see the importance of having a book,” said student member Ayana Bentley. “If this is the one book they have, maybe they’ll ask their parents for another book. Maybe it will go further down the line than this book just being their one book.”

Owning books at home is a challenge for many Pueblo families, according to Minnequa’s teacher-librarian Kathy Plath.

“The parents don’t have a lot of money to purchase books for their children,” said Plath. “An opportunity like this for them to build their home library is pretty awesome.”

Ayana Bentley offers a book to students

Ayana Bentley offers a book to students

That opportunity, however, caused a fair amount of confusion for the children. Reading a book in the school library is one thing, but taking a book home for keeps is, well, a novel concept for many kids in this community.

“They’re so shocked about it,” Bentley noticed. “They don’t understand it’s their book.”

“A few of the kids tried to put the books back on the table, because they think they’re going to look at the book, sit down and read it, then put it back,” added Gonzalez. “And we say, ‘No, no, you get to keep the book and take it home.’”

Even though Minnequa teachers wrote the student’s name inside of the book for younger ones, Plath said many kids will still have a hard time believing they get to keep the book.

book9

Plath (center) guides kids to a book table

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few of these books come back in my book return slot, with our students thinking that they can’t keep them, but we’ll let them know they can keep these books.”

Plath, a member of Pueblo Education Association and herself a graduate of CSU-Pueblo, was happy to invite the college students into her school.

“When they put together a book drive like this, it’s giving back to the community in a big way and just wonderful to see. And they get hands-on experience with the students and dealing with the students on a personal basis. That’s important too.”

“It was beneficial to see the different reading levels the students were on,” said student member Morgan James as she helped students find their book. “Just because they were in the second grade didn’t mean they were reading on a second grade level, so that was an eye-opener.”

“I just want to say, ‘Oh I think this book is great for you’ and sit and read with the kids, but there’s just not enough time to spend with each individual child,” added Gonzalez. “It’s motivating me to want to come back into their media time and sit and read with the kids.”

Teaching kids is James' career choice

Teaching children is James’ chosen career

Gonzalez also noted the first and second graders were already aware of their reading proficiency and their personal interest in reading, “which lets us know that the teachers are really working with each individual student.”

For James, the experience affirmed her career choice to become a school teacher. “It gets me excited to help kids get excited about reading and learning, which is the whole reason I want to be a teacher. I love seeing them smile.”

Plath loves seeing her students build enthusiasm for reading, and this book delivery supported a larger strategy to get kids hooked on books at an early age.

Student member Elizabeth Wilson came to school as Cat in the Hat

Student member Elizabeth Wilson as Cat in the Hat

“There’s so many other things that vie for their attention – video games, television, many things – so if you can build that excitement for reading early on, it’s been proven that it will stay with them for a good, long time.”

See more photos of CSU-Pueblo student members at Minnequa Elementary in CEA’s flickr set.