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Creating time and space for collaborative school change

Mistakes are easy to make, and often hard to accept, but sixth grader Valeria Rodriguez is getting more comfortable knowing she’s not always going to have the right answer.

“When I was younger, making mistakes made me a little anxious because I thought I did something wrong,” says Valeria. “But now I know that if I make a mistake, I can learn something from it.”

She and her classmates at Ritenour Middle School have been testing their tolerance for struggle during math classes led by a  teacher who is presenting math concepts with a high-level task approach that gives students a newfound ownership of their learning and an invitation to reach the right answer with thinking that makes sense to them. 

Valeria Rodriguez

“This year, math is different,” says Valeria. “The teacher shows us a high-level problem on the board, then we meet with our group to discuss it. Once we agree on an answer, we share it with the classroom.”

If someone in the group doesn’t understand something, their peers step in for the assist. 

“We reteach, give an example and talk about how we got to an answer,” says Valeria, who has found herself on the receiving end of such help from a classmate. “It’s happened a couple of times, and it makes me feel a little nervous inside, but I’ve learned something from it. I try to remember that when I’m helping someone else.”

Teacher Rachel Thomas walks among the groups of students, listening as they work through the problem that she has carefully constructed and planned using new skills she’s developed through professional development provided by ISP. Teaching with high-level math tasks requires significant pre-planning, as well as an ability to nimbly assess student knowledge and be ready with the next question that leads the learner closer to discovery of a path to an answer.   

“They really are teaching one another,” says Thomas, who credits the positive shift in the classroom to her district’s embrace of math teaching through high-level tasks. Hearing Valeria and her classmates describe the experience and the resulting boost to their confidence is encouraging.  

The welcome change has been ushered in through STEMpact District Immersion, a project spearheaded by the Institute for School Partnership (ISP) that is energizing math teaching teams in the Ritenour, Mehlville and Maplewood Richmond Heights School Districts. 

As teachers, district math coaches and administrators from all three districts wrap up the second year of a three-year commitment to the project, the opportunity to connect, learn from and problem-solve with peers in other districts has proven just as valuable as the hard work they are doing within their individual districts. This intentional kind of cross-district collaboration is known as a Networked Improvement Community (NIC). Defined as a group of stakeholders from diverse backgrounds solving problems together through a cycle of Plan-Do-Study-Act, NICs often involve many collaborators and are formed to tackle predefined, complex challenges. 

The STEMpact District Immersion NIC brings together three diverse districts in the St. Louis area, with ISP serving as the NIC hub organization. NIC members are committed to providing high-quality, equitable math instruction to every student in these districts. 

“Guided by a framework for continuous improvement, we elevate teacher voices in district decisions while building a coherent approach to changing instructional systems,” says ISP Research Director Abbey Loehr.

NIC members are committed to providing high-quality, equitable math instruction to every student in these districts.

Specifically, by Spring 2024, all three districts aim to increase the prevalence of equitable math classrooms where all students engage in rigorous mathematics and demonstrate measurable improvement in math outcomes.

“ISP focuses on building teacher and administrator capacity for improvement and supporting social learning across districts, which is where the NIC shows up so prominently in this work,” adds Loehr.

Investing Time and Space For Powerful Change

Creating space, time and classroom coverage to accommodate the heavy lift of a district immersion effort requires significant commitment from everyone involved.  Team-wide math coaching calls with ISP instructional specialists every other week, ongoing planning and coordination, and ensuring that key team members can participate in day-long NIC gatherings held off campus are well worth the effort to Ritenour Middle School Principal Brian Rich.

“There is no doubt that the students know exactly what the teachers are doing when they are out of the classroom for this work,” says Rich. “They know their teachers are getting even better at teaching math with high-level tasks, and I love the message and modeling that this sends to students about lifelong learning. The adults are working hard to learn new things, too.”

“Knowing how to ask assessing and advancing questions to support high-level task learning isn’t a skill that can be taught in the abstract. As a teacher, you’re not ready for that lesson until you are teaching.”

Michele Niece, K-12 Mathematics Director for the Mehlville School District

Rich, who participates in the NIC along with his team, says the opportunities to connect with peers from other districts often transcend math.

“I had the opportunity to team up with an interventionist from another school and teased out so much information that it helped me understand an issue in a whole different way,” he says.  It’s just very collaborative, and it’s been very exciting to see the impact of the NIC trickle down to other teachers in our building.”

Rich points out that a growth mindset has long been key to Ritenour’s approach, so a deep-dive into an effort that has such potential to impact teacher and student engagement is an investment worth making.

“Every day, we’re asking our students to be present, ready to take on challenges, to be rigorous thinkers,” he says. “Teachers have to be skilled at asking the right questions at the right time, and that takes practice and training.”

Learning How to Let Students Take the Learning Lead

“We all want to show what we know, but showing what we don’t know is hard,” says Michele Niece, K-12 Mathematics Director for the Mehlville School District. “Learning can be a very vulnerable state.”

Michele Niece, Mehlville and Rachel Thomas, Ritenour

This is true for students, and teachers, says Niece, who serves 450+ teachers throughout the district, and loves the supportive approach of ISP’s Math314 Program, STEMpact District Immersion, and the NIC. All three rely on connecting regularly with other teachers and instructional specialists to encourage development of new classroom skills.

“Knowing how to ask assessing and advancing questions to support high-level task learning isn’t a skill that can be taught in the abstract,” says Niece. “As a teacher, you’re not ready for that lesson until you are teaching. But it’s neat to see teachers making discoveries about how capable their students are.”

Gloria Pfeifer is a 5th-6th grade looping teacher at Maplewood Richmond Heights Elementary. As part of a three-person teaching team, Pfeifer is responsible for all of the math content for the class. With four years of teaching under her belt, she’s gaining confidence with knowing math standards for two grade levels, and is a fan of looping, which keeps students in the same room for two years instead of one.

“Looping is good for community-building, raising confidence, building friendships, and providing students a safe place for risk-taking,” says Pfeifer, describing a unit on volume that tasked each student with designing their own backyard oasis. The students designed small-scale models of their creations, giving them an opportunity to put their understanding of area, perimeter and conversion to the test as well.

“To see them use the vocabulary they’ve learned and say something like, ‘I made several precision errors,’ is way more effective than having me check their work and tell them this.”

Gloria Pfeifer, 5th-6th grade looping teacher at Maplewood Richmond Heights Elementary

For Pfeifer, having her own connection with peers through the NIC has generated a welcome learning curve and some trusted confidantes who are willing to share resources and help one another out.

“It’s been a very validating experience,” she says. “We’re all in the same boat. We talk about curriculum, and what content is being prioritized. It’s nice to connect with like-minded people to do problem-solving and be proactive in approaching our classrooms. I often leave our NIC sessions with something I can try in my class the next day.”

The insights into student thinking are invaluable, says Pfeifer, especially when she sees students gaining self-reflective tools to look at their math work.

“I have a very high-achieving math student who was always in a hurry to finish first and made a lot of precision errors as a result. To help students become aware of themselves and figure out what’s happening when they hit a snag by doing an error analysis is very powerful. To see them use the vocabulary they’ve learned and say something like, ‘I made several precision errors,’ is way more effective than having me check their work and tell them this.”

For Pfeifer, giving students back some of their power in the learning process and having the opportunity to learn how to navigate that with peer professionals through the NIC has helped her think about what her teaching career could look like in the coming years. 

“I would like to see myself doing more cross-curricular instruction,” she says. “I’d like to help students see the connections between data and non-fiction reading, or science, or anything that provides students tangible applications of the concepts they are learning in math.” 

As she winds up the school year ready to enjoy summer break, Valeria is already doing just that kind of thinking. She says the confidence she gained learning math a new way this year made her feel different about other subjects as well, especially science. That could come in handy, since she’s thinking about a career that uses biology, maybe a doctor or something that would allow her to work with animals. 

“It changes all the time,” says Valeria with a shy smile that indicates she knows one thing for sure: the possibilities are endless. 

Find out more about STEMpact DI.

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