East High School algebra teacher Kristin Brown wanted to find a better way to assess learning at the end of a lesson this year. She took her concern to her algebra content team made up of herself and the four other freshman Algebra teachers.
Team member Rachel DeJongh suggested using a lesson closure activity from Developmental Designs, which is an approach to creating engaging learning communities and positive classroom climate that hinges on a blend of strong relationships, explicit teaching of social skills, engaging lessons and reflection time that reinforces learning and encourages self-direction and self-control.
The activity is called A Dollar For Your Thoughts. It asks the students to write a summary of their learning, in under 10 words, with 10 cents assigned to each word, and then challenges them to write the most expensive sentence.
“Kids came up with really great sentences while thinking about the learning. If I hadn’t talked to Rachel, I would never have thought to do that.”
The power of intentional teamwork tops this team’s list of reasons why grades have gone up and student engagement has increased.
The algebra “Dream Team,” as it has been affectionately labeled, is made up of teachers Marissa Hoyer, Paige Hampton, Kristin Brown, Rachel DeJongh and Meghan Willauer. The approach to their work is based on a collective vision focused on working as one unit to develop a student-centered curriculum and classroom culture.
What sets the team apart from past years is a shift in that focus. Up until this year, the algebra team discussed content and curriculum exclusively. This year they have added discussions around social and emotional learning strategies that not only support the curriculum, but inform the team on how to best engage the students while delivering the content.
This groundwork is reinforced and developed through weekly meetings in which teachers share insight. But it's all done within a solid framework, beginning with Freshman Academy, a class-wide structure that assigns students to one of four cohorts through which they share the same content teachers for English, Biology, History and Algebra. This allows each cohort of teachers to see patterns and behaviors that work for or against students and then allows them to share that information in weekly “success meetings.”
The algebra team, then has a separate weekly meeting. This is their opportunity to share curriculum ideas and discuss the programs and initiatives they have collectively brought into their classrooms and how these strategies support culture and learning.
As the math department chair and algebra team facilitator, Kristin Brown saw an opportunity to build a strong algebra team. Having observed Ms. Hoyer, Ms. Hampton and Ms. DeJongh as student teachers at East, she had a chance to witness their potential as like-minded team players who could build a strong bond. So she built the team around them, and she was spot on with her analysis.
“Having really solid young teachers together on a team who are positive people is what our freshmen need,” says Brown.
The Dream Team ties their curriculum to a number of strategies and programs. One is meeting kids where they are developmentally. Each Wednesday, Algebra students participate in a Circle of Power and Respect, another Developmental Designs strategy. During this time, students build relationships with each other by sharing information about themselves, taking on team challenges and playing games. This helps to build the community in the classroom. Plus, other school-wide programs augment their work, such as Achievement Connections, an Algebra and Geometry tutoring program supported by community volunteers who provide an “extra scoop of one on one instruction.”
“By putting these resources into 9th grade we are setting students up successfully for the rest of their high school career,” says Ms. Willauer. “ We have been looking at data really intentionally to monitor student progress. We consider where students are experiencing success and what supports we might need to provide. This allows us to think critically about how we are providing equitable access to rigor for all students.”
For this team, personal and professional trust is necessary to move the dial on teacher and student confidence and success. Because their work is collaborative and not competitive, they have paved a path for an authentic exchange of fresh ideas that improves classroom climate and culture.
“As a second-year teacher, to collaborate with more experienced members definitely increased my confidence level in what I want my classroom to look and feel like,” Ms. DeJongh. “We have so much trust in each other, I feel like I can try something and bring it back to the team and say, ‘This worked or this didn’t go so well, does anyone have any other ideas?’ Having that community and support has helped me grow as an educator even since last year.”
Ms. Hoyer, a first year teacher agrees. She says that as reflective practitioners they create a safe place to improve their practice and engage students not easily engaged in traditional classrooms. “I feel like I trust every single person in this team and can go to them with any problem that I have. That’s invaluable as a teacher going through my first year.”
Team member Paige Hampton summarizes the spirit of the team. “We support each other and have student needs above everything. We are always seeking ways to improve our practice and create a strong classroom community. Plus, we are great friends and have fun working with each other, which is why we call ourselves the Dream Team.”