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When Collaborative Professional Learning Influences Curriculum, Part 2: The Process of Curricular Improvement

By Christina Dobbs and Jacy Ippolito
 | Oct 23, 2018

Collaborative PLThis is the second installment of a two-part blog series about a standout school teacher collaboration around disciplinary literacy and citizenship, as an instructional focus. Read Part 1, A Case of Disciplinary Literacy Professional Learning and Instruction, here.

The Baker team began by identifying a time of year when they could potentially pilot a bounded, interdisciplinary project. In this way, the team created a pilot space in which they could rapidly shape and redesign curriculum, without having to necessarily disturb entire curricula across multiple content areas. The team identified a week between other units of instruction and considered learning goals that seemed to cut across disciplines. This process led to rich conversations about the discipline-specific and interdisciplinary skills they would like to see students build more fully and that they’d like to provide more instruction around.

Choose shared literacy skills that are important across the curriculum

Next, the Baker team deeply considered their students’ reading and writing engagement as an area they’d like to improve. One key goal they set was to provide highly engaging experiences that were interdisciplinary so that students could feel a sense of authentic reasons for learning and connectedness to their own literacy skills. They also wanted students to do more “response writing” to capture their experiences. Finally, they wished to include the notion of multiple texts, which we had learned about in workshops together, to help students achieve some of these goals. Then, the team identified a central “habit of mind” that might help students focus and deepen their learning. The team identified citizenship as a key focus area, a unifying concept that linked multiple disciplinary skills and disparate content and experiences. By choosing a bounded space and timeframe and an interdisciplinary focus with these practices, the team created a clear experimental space within which to try out newly adapted and adopted disciplinary literacy instructional practices.

Plan instruction for the bounded space

The team at Baker created a set of multimodal texts designed to emphasize national and local ideas of citizenship, including reflective writing tasks to accompany the texts and experiences. The team elected to do a few small readings on the topic, to take students to participate in a local mock Senate experience, to view the film Hidden Figures, and to volunteer at a local charity. They conceived of these tasks because they emphasized various content disciplines and related skills within those disciplines. The governance skills in the mock Senate experience related to the habits of mind promoted in the social studies curriculum, the Hidden Figures film furthered math and science habits of mind, and so on. Ultimately, the team considered how to connect teachers’ and students’ experiences across these tasks to really deepen students’ collective understanding of citizenship and to see what would happen to students’ reading and writing engagement as a result.

Collect information about what happens in the pilot space

The team was then able, within this bounded and shared pilot space, to consider how students reacted to these practices and whether reading and writing engagement seemed to improve and whether multiple texts seemed to help hone student learning. They carefully observed students in the variety of spaces they had created during their week, and they collected work products from the week to determine what students had learned. Of course, the team found some positive results of their approach and some areas they would like to improve. For instance, they found high levels of engagement with many of the ideas presented in the multimodal text set. As a result of working with the text set, the team felt that students really learned and deepened their idea of what citizenship means. They also found some lovely facets of the reflective writing they had asked students to do, as students found space to discuss their feelings about their learning. However, they also felt that adding more structure and guidelines to the writing process might improve the experience in the future.

Plan for the future and for curricula in the disciplines

The team then took what they had learned in their pilot space to plan for subsequent learning. The team first elected that they’d like to continue Citizenship Week as a tradition because of its many opportunities to work in interdisciplinary ways, to pilot new practices, and to provide meaningful connections between disciplines for students. More broadly speaking, though, the team’s discussion had bigger implications for curricula improvement. They began to identify pilot practices from their Citizenship Week that they wished to implement in individual disciplines and across them. Multiple texts and text sets were a structure that they felt had promise for various disciplinary classes for eighth graders, and they immediately began planning to implement new text sets in their individual curricula.

Collect and reflect on the instruction outside the pilot space and make recommendations about what is working

Finally, the team tried out the practices in their own curricular spaces (and sometimes across them) to keep considering how students literacy skills might be improved. These practices are now becoming more widely spread across grades and are a topic of conversation for adoption schoolwide.

Reflecting on this pilot space process for curricular improvement

As outside consultants to this project, we were excited by this approach and by the teachers’ confidence in and agreement about the practices they wanted to pilot in their various disciplinary curricula. They didn’t all implement the same practices in exactly the same ways, but they had a plan in place about who would do what and a theory of change about what they’d like to improve.

In our experience, interdisciplinary teams can struggle to reach this point—the point where team members are teaching their own curricula but still have a cohesive vision for improvement around literacy instruction across and within individual disciplines. We truly feel it was the pilot space that allowed this theory of action around improvement to be formed. Because the team carved out a space to experience the practices together, they were able to have a real shared curricular knowledge base to draw from as they considered potential changes.

One clear advantage of interdisciplinary teams who share students is an ability to delve deeply into students’ individual needs and to consider serving them well. But these configurations can create curricular challenges as teams consist of teams that don’t tend to share curricula. This can make curricular improvement challenging as teachers can face demands for improvement without any collaborators specific to their own disciplines and particular curricula.

Some schools and districts have approached this by connecting math teachers, for example, across the building or across schools. But this team’s inquiry learning together presents an interesting model for curricular improvement on a true interdisciplinary team that can lead to curricula improvement and interdisciplinary synergy.

The teachers at the heart of this story are Jacqueline Hallo, Christina Collins, Sheila Jaung, Pamela Penwarden, John Padula, and Marisa Ricci, who are all educators at the Edith C. Baker School in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Christina L. Dobbs is program director and assistant professor of English education at Boston University. 

Jacy Ippolito is an associate professor and department chair of the Secondary and Higher Education Department for the School of Education at Salem State University in Massachusetts.

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