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What does the evidence show?

by Tracey Waters

Terina Woolridge knew this year would be different.

As she began her ninth year at Chicago’s McNair School of Excellence, Terina was the only returning content area teacher. McNair re-opened its doors this year as part of the AUSL network (Academy of Urban School Leadership). The school’s rebirth included updated facilities, a new principal, and 24 new teachers.

Almost nothing remained the same, but Terina and her colleagues adapted by embracing change and approaching this year as learners committed to acting on evidence. And their literacy planning and instructional practices have developed to a more text based approach.

Fall: Planning from Standards

With 70% of students reading below grade level, the school-wide instructional priority would be around literacy; and the first order of business was to study the Common Core Standards.

Early conversations revolved around simply getting acquainted with the standards, according to Tasia White, McNair’s instructional lead. “Evidence, evidence, evidence. Everyone was teaching students how to get evidence.” White recalls teachers’ focus on the anchor standard CCR 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

Classroom conversations, observed during leaders’ instructional walk-throughs, clearly indicated that teachers were leading students to make this important shift to grounding in evidence. As Terina questioned her students about a passage they had just read, she paused with each student response and then prompted with, “Go back to the text.” Students could be seen rummaging through pages looking for the all-important evidence.

Winter: Analyze Data & Student Work

Standard 1 performance proved to be an area of growth across all grade levels after the first interim assessment, but there was certainly still room to grow. In the classroom, evidence wasn’t necessarily relevant. That manifested itself on interims: when items required specific evidence, students struggled. Citing evidence for evidence’s sake was not enough to meet the demands of the standard.

As White explained, “we shifted to a push for ‘what is relevant evidence?’ We had to get more granular.” This important distinction emerged from data analysis and collaborative planning by the middle school team. “Each cycle’s data further informed us where to go next,” states Principal Valencia Koker.

Spring: Adapt Teaching

Koker believes in the power of frequency, feedback, and followup. She oriented the leadership team to the Teaching and Learning Cycle as the organizing structure to move teacher practice and student achievement forward. “I had never done such an intentional, cyclical process school-wide.” Benefits include an abundance of real-time data on teacher practice and student understanding, opportunity to quickly act on relevant and timely feedback, and opportunity to reflect and plan based on instructional adjustments.

“We went into classrooms listening for the questions from teachers to know if they were on track. We listened and observed how students were responding.” Teachers received feedback in conferences with the leadership team as well as on the spot coaching that enabled them to immediately adjust instruction.

Terina and White spent an afternoon in March reviewing exit slips and students’ annotations on Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream.” Terina’s lesson, driven by the historical speech, was directed at Standard RI 8.1 & 8.2. Both educators recognized that students had not demonstrated a clear understanding of the central idea of the entire speech—just key sections. “We had a conversation about what happened and why it happened,” said White. There had not been enough emphasis on synthesizing the evidence to distill one central idea. Together they scripted the next day’s lesson, in which Terina would model her thinking first.

It’s all about what the students know.
— Principal Valencia Koker

Following the lesson, students eagerly rewrote the central idea statements on their sheets from the prior day. As Terina checked in with each table group using her familiar directive, “back it up,” the students’ work and conversation gave her all the data she needed—students were invested and feeling self-assured about their learning. “Students were seeing success.”

Looking Ahead: Reflect and Plan

The leadership team at McNair has embraced student evidence. They have shifted their focus to helping teachers explore all of the ways they can collect formative data—like student writing and performance-based tasks—and then use that data to determine what students understand. “It’s all about what the students know,” says Koker.

The leadership team’s vision is clear: they want “to foster a culture of effective literacy instruction at McNair.’” They know this comes with continuous, cyclical learning—for students and teachers alike.

Tracey is a coach with ANet Illinois.

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