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Going Slow to Go Fast

Developing the Azusa Way

Arturo remembers the day he thought, “Working with these people is going to be different.” 

After 18 years of working in education, Arturo Ortega had noticeddistricts that would bring in outside consultants with go-to solutions–and then go away. When first serving as assistant superintendent for the Azusa Unified School District, Arturo experienced something new when he met JoDee Marcellin from California Education Partners. JoDee said she would work with them to seek answers from within their district and stick around to test new approaches. Looking back, Arturo realized this experience was the best possible professional development for his staff: an experience in which they learned, applied what they learned to solve the problem at hand and other challenges and worked alongside other districts and expert partners. By taking the time to slow down and engage in a collaborative process, Azusa sped up improvement for its student outcomes in English Language Arts. This success grew and spurred what Arturo describes as a culture change, where district leaders embraced a growth mindset–just as they encouraged students to do and students engaged in deeper academic discourse that improved their comprehension of the ELA content.

Slowing Down 

Before testing out approaches, one of the first things the Azusa team had to do in working with Ed Partners was to slow down, consider day-to-day experiences and review them alongside data on student performance to get to the heart of what they were solving. 

Arturo said this was a pivotal moment for the team. “Past experiences forced us to work quickly and offer up a solution, and fast solutions aren’t always the best ones,” he said. “We kept jumping to solutions around our students getting better at reading and writing, but our data was telling us to focus on students' listening and speaking—skills that are no longer the focus of tests.” His teammate Alicia, a middle school English Language Arts coach, said, “They had us really take a deep look at our systems, confront our own data and use it to find a path ahead.”

Throughout the process, Ed Partners nudged the Azusa team to stay in this growth mindset, or “Learning Zone,” which they champion for students. In the Ed Partners process, learning involves carving out intentional time to think, design, create, ponder, argue and adjust–all before taking the tempting step into the “Performance Zone” and solving or crafting new approaches. Devoting time to the “Learning Zone” for themselves proved to be a major catalyst for student success.

“Although it sounds counter intuitive, the more time you actually spend in the “Learning Zone” trying to get to the right questions—not jumping into problem solving to find the right answers —the more efficient you are when you get to the “Performance Zone”, ensuring that your problem-solving is actually addressing the right things in the right manner,” said Arturo. 

Trusting the process, Azusa tested the think-pair-share approach with 30 prototype teachers. Through this, they learned of the need to emphasize complex thinking, and then again tried out complex- think-pair-share with more teachers. Again, they learned their messaging was not communicating what they wanted, and they had to do more ideation, design thinking, prototyping and piloting. 

Speeding Up Culture Change 

Arturo says he now sees that the process has changed their culture. “If we hadn’t committed to our professional development and learned to value what we experience in the “Learning Zone”, we’d end up recycling the same solutions we’d tried in the past,” he said. “Instead of having knee-jerk reactions to write across the curriculum or informational text, we now pay attention to the “Challenge Area.” That means we’re surfacing the best approach for each situation, and that’s what improves the educational experience.” 

“Now Azusa Unified School District has three student success drivers that district staff focus on when planning and designing instruction for students or instruction for adults,” Arturo said. “Those three student success drivers are no longer about the think-pair-share approach. It's about strategies like complex-think-pair-share that are rigorous, that include academic discourse, and that include some kind of collaborative practice.” 

Where educators really feel Azusa’s improvement is in the classroom. Alicia brought in the “Learning Zone” approach to classrooms after piloting a critical decision model (CDM) tool that would help students tackle writing on demand tasks, first with teachers and then in the classroom. “I tested this tool in the classroom and saw a drastic improvement from students after using it in the organization and purpose aspect of the rubric. One student even told me that after this process he was newly interested in college.”

In taking the time to slow down and engage in a collaborative process with one problem, the Azusa team learned how to solve many problems. Today, the “Azusa Way” is to get in the “Learning Zone” and bring partners in by soliciting feedback from not just teachers and administrators but also students and parents, and then testing new approaches by piloting them in individual classrooms through improvement tests. 

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Thinking Outside the Book

How Dinuba teachers listened to more perspectives and learned to teach beyond the textbook

When Vicky Armstrong, chief academic officer at Dinuba Unified School District, first came to the district and visited early elementary classrooms, she didn’t see much student writing posted on the walls or books around the classroom. Teachers were teaching straight from the textbook – page by page. And she could tell teachers felt constrained by teaching expectations, such as checking for student understanding using the explicit direct instruction model exclusively. Creativity wasn't flourishing. 

It had been too long – a good decade – since the district had focused on early literacy and professional development for its teachers, and administrators and teachers could see the impact: Their students were not reading at grade level by third grade. They recognized this as an urgent challenge. “As you go up grade levels, teachers stop teaching how to read and use reading as a way to learn,” explained Vicky. “And challenges with reading impact all other areas of learning – as reading is vital for learning science, social studies and even mathematics.”

Dinuba jumped at their second chance to partner with California Education Partners to make a substantial and meaningful shift in their approach to early literacy. “We built on what we learned from Ed Partners about working across our system to accelerate our progress,” Vicky reflected. “This time, we weren’t learning the process at the same time as we were focusing on our problem of practice, so we went further, faster.”

“Now when I visit early elementary classrooms, I see books everywhere,” Vicky shared. “When you first walk in, you might see a teacher with a group of students while other students are engaged in reading and writing, individually, with partners or in groups. Later, you would see a whole class lesson with a lot more discussion and engagement around complex texts.” And Vicky shared the results: Not only is early literacy instruction now more dynamic, but test scores have improved.  Over 5 years of CAASPP testing, ELA test scores have risen 15%, surpassed the county average, and the gap between state performance and Dinuba has decreased from a 14% gap to a 6% gap.  Additionally, reading scores on local measures such as the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA2) have continued to improve.

The Ed Partners collaboration brought Dinuba into a community of peer districts where they 

engaged in an intentional process to pull back to the big picture and analyze the problem from a number of angles. They focused on rethinking professional development by piloting approaches in small groups and strategically using coaches to support the change ideas being tested. 

Let teachers lead 

After the first partnership with Ed Partners, Dinuba continued to embrace the recommended team structure of bringing in a variety of voices, from the teacher to the superintendent level, to challenge each other’s assumptions. This approach created a lasting practice with the Dinuba team. Vicky noted, “Ed Partners guided us to surface solutions from our experience, and we took that approach to our teachers. We respect that they are the ones doing the classroom work, so we explored ways to create the conditions which help them reach new outcomes with their students.” 

Throughout the process and as Dinuba built this capacity, teachers took notice. Dinuba teacher Elizabeth Ramos said the Ed Partners approach helped teachers feel seen and honored for their experience. “We got the message, ‘You guys are the experts, and we're respecting that you're the experts. We're not going to tell you, you have to do this or do that.’”

Also building off the first phase of work with Ed Partners, the Dinuba team set up bimonthly professional learning community gatherings for the early literacy work, with teacher leads and coaches, known as Professional Learning Community (PLC) huddles. These huddles harnessed the collective power of teacher leadership and have been transformative for teachers to this day.

Start small, start with a vision  

Through the partnership, Dinuba embraced another technique that carried over from their first cohort with Ed Partners: starting small and then growing what works. They followed this model with their PLC huddles, which include a teacher from each elementary school who would then share back with their peers. When Dinuba’s district leaders saw how impactful this approach was, they scaled it, and now teachers across grades are included and the huddles are a space for ongoing rich conversation across teacher teams.

At this phase, getting buy-in from teachers was crucial, and Dinuba district leaders worked with Ed Partners to build consensus around the way forward. “We needed to create a shared vision of what guided reading would look like,” said Vicky. “With Ed Partners’ guidance, we worked with teachers to build a guidebook that painted a picture of what literacy instruction could look like, and then we designed a classroom learning walk tool that emphasized those shared priorities, so teachers had clarity about how to align instruction with the guidebook that they helped build.”  The learning walk tool was developed using the process, training, and calibration techniques learned in the previous Math in Common collaboration and applied to the Early Literacy work.

Grow what works 

Dinuba district leaders made sure to make this an opt-in effort, knowing they could build will and excitement among teachers if participation was a choice and if the program really seemed to foster results. Vicky reflected: “We invited teachers to visit other schools implementing the practices learned in coaching sessions, and they got to be part of a cohort where they really opted in. And that created a grassroots-level buzz that got even more teachers excited to join in, which never would have happened if we’d made this mandatory.”

The results of Dinuba’s improvement work are significant. Teachers who participated in coaching sessions had students who outperformed those whose teachers did not participate and this program analysis was critical to successfully scaling this offering. The PLC huddles foster camaraderie and connection between teachers and inspire them to present new ideas and work through them together. Elizabeth piloted a new reading approach in her classroom, and the students loved it. She reflected, “The early literacy work has equipped me to bring a variety of exciting and innovative reading approaches to my classroom, including reading stations, techniques to sound out challenging words, guided reading that combines independent work with peer collaboration and more.”

This approach to reading moved the needle for students and created a lasting impression. “My reading groups and other reading practices have been really successful,” Elizabeth shared. “Even as my classroom has gone virtual, my students have asked about reading groups. They wanted to make sure we would continue doing them even in our online classes.”

This positive change is happening across classrooms in Dinuba. “If you go into the classrooms now, you see books everywhere,” said Vicky. “You see active reading collaboration, with teachers and groups of students engaged in reading and writing workshops, even using more complex texts. The discussions are much richer and the classrooms much brighter.”

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