During the past school year, we've written several times about the Alabama Instructional Partners Pilot Program, initiated by the Alabama State Department of Education with professional development support from the Alabama Best Practices Center. The essential goal of the project, which will expand this fall, is to prepare teacher leaders for roles as school-based "instructional partners" who facilitate transformative professional learning among their peers.
We've invited participants in the first-year pilot to write about how the experience impacted their own professional growth. Our newest reflection comes from Alisa Huffaker, the Instructional Partner at Lincoln Elementary in Talladega County.
by Alisa Huffaker
The Alabama Instructional Partners Project has deepened my pedagogical and leadership skills significantly. And it happened during an engaging year of participation in a high-intensity professional learning community with fellow Partners and peers from across the state.
Our learning experiences included reading and discussing the book Unmistakable Impact by Jim Knight; attending monthly meetings and several multi-day retreats; sharing together in a virtual community of practice (COP); and taking the time to pen weekly reflections of our school-based work, which we shared in confidence with project leaders.
The lateral learning among elementary, middle, and high school partner/coaches (as well as program consultants) was remarkable. It expanded my knowledge of how to coach effectively and also how to help teachers across the content areas think through effective teaching practices.
The power of shared ideas
Thanks to my interactions with IP colleagues, I was able to incorporate and expand upon some important ideas. For example, during one of our face-to-face sessions, fellow IP Jamie and I were watching my videotaped reflection with a third grade teacher. Jamie told me how her school used the RISC strategy to assist all of their students in answering higher order, written response type questions. My principal had shared the RISC idea with our faculty the previous year, but it wasn’t being consistently utilized. We wanted to promote the strategy to a common, school-wide technique.
RISC is an acronym for
• Restate the question into a statement,
• Include your ideas that answer the question,
• Support your answer with details from the text, and
• Conclude with a take-away ending such as “Now you can see...”.
This strategy gives students a clear, measurable learning target and criteria for success. It also provides a structure that encourages peer and self assessment. Jamie told me that many of her school's special needs students were scoring at the proficient and above proficient levels on the state assessment using this strategy. It's a powerful idea!
From this experience, I developed a reading/writing focus lesson utilizing the RISC strategy. I asked a third grade teacher who had shared concerns about her students during a grade level team meeting, if she would allow me to model the lesson in her classroom. She agreed and we used a lesson that she selected. We video-taped the experiment, which allowed us to observe more closely what effect our newly identified focus had on student learning.
I was also able to utilize segments of the lesson to showcase the RISC strategy to all of our 2-5 grade level teams and to our group of special education (SE) teachers. The SE teachers saw a need to match text to their students’ individual levels to better promote their success with the RISC strategy, so I created a resource that blended level-friendly text and higher order, written-response type questions.
Leaders of learning
The Leaders of Learning peer coaching opportunity is another example of how both the IP Pilot Project's virtual Community of Practice (the Ning-based Instructional Partners Learning Network) and collaboration with other Instructional Partners has impacted learning at my school.
After watching a coaching video that was posted on our Ning site and hearing what Kala and Sheila were implementing in their schools, I worked collaboratively with my principal to develop a peer coaching opportunity for Lincoln Elementary teachers called Leaders of Learning. Teachers are given the opportunity to learn new strategies or expand on their existing knowledge by observing in another teacher’s classroom.
Here's how it works in our school: During the observation or thereafter, the observing teacher completes a Leaders of Learning reflection document with 3 core components -- Praise, Questions, and Take-backs. She or he considers what elements of the lesson exemplified best practice and are deserving of praise. Then the teacher records any questions about the lesson. The last component, the “Take-back” piece, encourages the observing teacher to consider what she observed that might be implemented in her own classroom.
The two participating teachers have additional time to meet together after the observation to discuss the planning and reflection components of the lesson. Teachers have choice about who and what they will observe and how they might adopt and implement the practices into their own classroom, making it relevant to the participants’ interests and needs. Beyond its immediate usefulness to individual practitioners, the Leaders of Learning PD is another of our efforts to promote a culture of continuous learning and collaboration between and among teachers.
The Leaders of Learning peer coaching opportunity and the RISC strategy professional development are just two examples of how the Instructional Partners Initiative has truly empowered me to incorporate teaching and coaching practices that are strengthening our school community, deepening our understanding of best practice, and ultimately improving student achievement.
I think these examples also make it clear how much the Instructional Partners Project has helped me think more deeply about my own coaching practice this year. The weekly reflection journal and our blogging opportunities inside the Ning site also provided a level of accountability that helped me to assess my ongoing work, set goals for myself, and work at them until they were achieved.
I am so grateful for the guidance and support from the ABPC staff and consultants and my fellow IPs. This has been such a rewarding professional opportunity. I’m looking forward to the exciting experiences that await in Year 2. I know I’m going to learn so much from the Cohort 2 Instructional Partners.