By Heather White, EL Education School Designer; and Cameron Ross Browne, EL Education Regional Director for Michigan and Ohio
What would it take to create a professional learning community across four very different neighborhoods and populations within the same school district? A cohort of Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) and EL Education set out to answer that question with the support of an anonymous family foundation. This story provides a window into how a group of teachers and school leaders became united in purpose, and persevered despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
"They quickly realized the depth of the EL Education network, and the benefits of sharing leadership and teaching practices with other EL Education educators."
In 2016 Cincinnati Public Schools launched the Vision 2020: My Tomorrow initiative, which infuses new programming to neighborhood schools as part of the district’s commitment to increase equity, access, and opportunities for all students to attend great schools. These enhanced neighborhood schools receive specialized curriculum tailored to the character and priorities of the schools’ communities. In 2017-18 College Hill Fundamental Academy and Mt. Washington School chose EL Education as their Vision 2020 partner. In the 2019-20 school year, Clifton Area Neighborhood School (CANS) and Rees E. Price Academy joined the cohort.
As part of the research in determining their Vision 2020 partner, the leaders at these four CPS schools spent a year reviewing the EL Education Language Arts Curriculum, visiting EL Education network schools and attending professional learning events such as the EL Education National Conference. They quickly realized the depth of the EL Education network, and the benefits of sharing leadership and teaching practices with other EL Education educators.
With the teachers and administrators at Rees E. Price and CANS new to the EL Education curriculum, and a new Principal at College Hill; Debra Klein, veteran Principal of Mt. Washington led monthly cohort meetings with the Principals from the other three EL Education schools (James Zoller, Lauren Shockley, and Beth Schnell). They discussed a wide range of topics from building teacher buy-in, establishing EL Education leadership teams, cultivating school culture and character, to budget management. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive.
A Focus on High-Quality Student Work
In the winter of 2020, EL Education focused on building a deep and trusting collaboration between four schools in Cincinnati OH. To launch the grant funded work the school principals met with EL Education coaches and staff to determine their focus. They landed on high-quality student work, one of EL Education's three dimensions of student achievement. Then something no one expected happened: a global pandemic. With the insurgence of COVID-19, the plan for how the schools would collaborate needed to be completely revamped.
"As a result of this keynote, 97.6 percent of attendees said they felt more prepared to engage, challenge and inspire students in creating high-quality student work."
Adapting to A Global Pandemic
Throughout the summer, the cohort adjusted their original plans and shifted to the virtual world. They sent more than 15 staff members across the four schools to EL Education's Starting Strong Curriculum Institute, and discussed how to pivot, still make the most of the 2020-21 school year, and get teachers excited about high-quality student work. On August 18, 2020, Ron Berger, EL Education’s Senior Advisor of Teaching and Learning and champion of high-quality student work, virtually addressed more than 150 teachers from the four Cincinnati public schools. As a result of this keynote, 97.6 percent of attendees said they felt more prepared to engage, challenge and inspire students in creating high-quality student work. After hearing Ron speak, one teacher wrote, “Despite our circumstances, I am going to use the habit of high-quality work to push our students to be the independent learners that we need right now in distance learning. I felt like teaching quality work is such a key in order to get really valuable learning out of those self-directed learning times.” Another said, "I really enjoyed learning about the critiquing used in the classroom to encourage the students to create multiple drafts that continue to get better over time.” And one more said, “I am going to take the time I need to dive into critique with my students. Ron Berger mentioned that kids already do critique all the time. I never thought of it that way. I always thought that I needed to teach them how to do it. And, they had no prior knowledge of how to critique anything. But, I see now, that I can facilitate constructive critique by using what they already do on an everyday basis and molding to be that kind, specific, and helpful feedback that the students need from one another—and not just me."
From there, the leadership teams at each school identified topics related to high-quality student work that they felt would deepen their learning. On January 11, 2021 the schools gathered together virtually in small Crews (teams) to continue collaborative discussions grounded in the following Learning Targets:
- I can describe how using models, critique, and descriptive feedback supports my students to lead their own learning.
- I can identify strategies for creating a respectful and supportive culture for critique and feedback.
- I can move beyond the challenges and identify potential solutions to using models, critique, and descriptive feedback with my students.
The Crews read together, watched model videos, and shared ideas for improving the quality of student work during in person and virtual learning. At the end of the day, 85% of participants said they could describe how using models, critique, and descriptive feedback supports their students; 88% said they can identify strategies for creating a respectful and supportive culture for critique and feedback; and 84% said they can move beyond challenges and identify potential solutions to using models, critique and descriptive feedback with their students. Some other highlights included:
"It was really good to be in a group where they teach similar students to mine where we see similar challenges. I get hung up sometimes on the false idea that critiques, models, and descriptive feedback needs to look a certain way, but of course these things can be adapted to meet the needs of our students. Another take away for me was that this is a process that takes time. As mentioned in one of the videos, at first it seems children focus on the 'I like' language at the beginning, but then as time goes on become more specific and helpful."
"Sometimes you just need to be reminded that we can do this or that we are doing this. Keeping it simple works. I miss my in-person discussions with the kids. I came away with some good concrete ideas to do in my small groups with the kids."
"Working with students based on where they are and helping them develop. Creating a portfolio of their work to show them their growth. Feedback isn't about making your work “good”. It’s about adding detail, fine tuning, adjusting, etc. Establishing a rapport with students to create a positive and supportive environment to give and receive feedback."
The schools met again on February 1st 2021, and looked at student work from their own classrooms and from EL Education’s Models of Excellence. They discussed attributes of high-quality student work in order to achieve an understanding of what makes a piece of work high quality. This day also allowed a chance for teachers to discuss how the adult professional learning community has impacted student work and learning in their individual classrooms. After this session, 85 percent of participants said they can move beyond challenges and identify potential solutions to using models, critique and descriptive feedback with their students. One participant wrote, "I find the format of this PD to be very beneficial. Our Crew group is having some good discussion and the small size enables all of the participants to be engaged." Another wrote, "This PD was a nice reminder about high-quality work. It has encouraged me to continue thinking about different ways to ensure that students have the opportunity to create quality work." Others wrote about their discussions around the attributes of high quality work, "I have learned the specific details of HQW- Complexity, Craftsmanship, & Authenticity."
We started with the vision of giving teachers time and space to collaborate across the four schools. In the end, we created a new Crew of lifelong learners who came away with pages of notes on things to try in their classrooms and phones full of new contacts to share practices with, knowing they are not alone in this work, and as one teacher stated, “a renewed sense of purpose.” It takes a village to teach kids.
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