Looking Beyond the 21st Century: Growing a Staff Development Garden of Innovation

As educators we are striving to meet the demands for “21st century learners,” but at the core of that work are teachers, the most influential people in the shaping of students’ lives. Preparing teachers to meet this enormous challenge requires a systemic vision for which there is a high level of layered support, ongoing learning and a serious commitment to a dynamic in-house professional development system.

Research shows that most professional development is traditional stand-and-deliver, consultant-based (which is costly) and fragmented. It is disconnected from the real problems schools encounter and is inconsistent. 57% of teachers in the United States receive no more than 2 days of professional development yearly and fewer than 25% receive 4 days. According to a major research project from Stanford and The National Staff Development Council, in order to have a significant impact on student achievement, as defined by raised test scores, those educators who receive 50 hours on average a year are able to raise student achievement by a minimum of 21 percentage points.

The Talmud states, “When you teach your son, you teach your son’s son.” To meet these challenges, Donna Klein Jewish Academy in Boca Raton, Florida, created the position of director of innovations to oversee and develop this important mission. The mandate for this new role required tremendous investment of resources on the part of school leadership. Fifty hours of professional development is a true investment. Pushing out of our comfort zone, taking on this challenge of true transferable, replicable, scalable and sustainable learning is a true investment. Creating the 21st century learner is a true investment; the challenge is more complicated than it ever has been.

At the heart of this journey is data collection. It is impossible to go on a journey with no map (standards), no compass (assessment) and no directions (teaching plan and methodology). Assessment informs our instruction. It is an objective and unemotional view of students provided the entire cycle of data is used. The cycle of assessment includes: screening all students as a wellness check three times a year, monitoring students on a frequent basis using progress monitoring tools, which are informal quick measures that demonstrate learning, and if needed, administering a diagnostic, an intensive assessment that gives us very detailed information about a child’s strengths and weaknesses.

We screened all of our K-4 students in the spring 2013 with a research-based, normed, reliable and valid assessment. We used this data in concert with a teacher-needs survey and the school’s educational priorities to develop a Teaching and Learning Summer Institute. Our teachers participated in a three-day intensive, focused set of trainings designed for hands-on learning. This was the first of our new annual summer institutes. All teachers participated in Common Core 101, specific research-based strategy instruction for each of the five areas of reading (phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension) and included training in screening tools, and ongoing progress monitoring tools for the five areas of reading.

These three days were the jumping-off point for our systems-wide change. Over the summer the teachers have been challenged to utilize the standards, assessment and research-based strategies, modeled and practiced during the institute, to develop their instruction for the first two weeks of school. During those two weeks, students will be screened by their teacher in reading and math. Reports will be generated and data will be analyzed. Teachers will meet weekly in grade level teams with myself and the principal to discuss each student, interpret the data and solve problems. No child or teacher can be left behind because these 50-minute meetings are in the master schedule for the year. Adequate time has been invested for optimal success.

Our data collection has shown the need for an uninterrupted literacy block to include the five areas of reading blended with a reader’s/writer’s workshop, and six traits of writing (a methodology that systemically looks at one aspect of writing at a time). All of this is designed for blended learning that is differentiated. We are utilizing the Common Core State Standards as the blueprint for learning and ongoing progress monitoring tools to rise to the challenge of this rigorous new learning. This has been carved into the master schedule.

We have identified a literacy coach at each grade level in order to build capacity in our school and grow our leaders from within. Coaches will attend a monthly training based on data and needs and then train their team in a train-the-trainer model.

Another important aspect of support and development is the creation of a teacher blog, password-protected. The innovative blog will be a hub of timely articles, research and highlights of classroom instruction. Most importantly, this will be a sacred space for teachers to ask questions, make comments, share ideas and get answers. We are creating our own virtual learning community that is without judgment and solution driven.

In addition, all of our teachers will attend monthly staff development sessions, topic-focused, based on standards and data. Several half-days have also been set aside for professional development. This is a systemic approach to staff development built from the inside out. At Donna Klein, we believe that in order to meet the challenges of tomorrow, we must systematize staff development. This is a serious commitment made by our administration to develop each teacher much like we develop each student, with a prescription, a plan, and most critically, follow-up and feedback.

Even the most engaging and important staff development just becomes a shelf-sitter if not for coaching and mentoring, follow-up and individual differentiated support. Teachers will have the opportunity to sign up for customized coaching and mentoring. One teacher may need to see a small group in action working on a cognitive strategy, while next door a teacher may need an observation as another set of eyes to solve a specific problem. As we ardently strive to prevent students from falling through the cracks, likewise it is vital for each teacher to feel that their learning is extended beyond a few hours in training, creating transferable, sustainable and ultimately generalized learning. We subscribe to the I do it, We do it, You do it model for our students and for ourselves.

The Talmud says, “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, Grow, Grow…” We, the educators, are each other’s angels at Donna Klein and together we are growing a garden where each blade of grass (our students) is unique and special. Using nutrient-rich soil (standards and data), watering and fertilizing the grass (teacher education), and pulling out the weeds (ongoing monitoring and support), we will grow our garden and it will flourish for generations beyond the 21st century.

Debbie Brown is the director of innovations in learning at the Donna Klein Jewish Academy in Boca Raton, Florida. brownd@dkja.org

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