I recently found myself in the situation of being involved in two major professional projects at the same time. Fortunately, the goals of the projects were similar enough that it proved to be a synergistic experience.
I have been participating in project MERIT (Mathematics Education Reform Initiative for Teachers) for almost five years. This is funded by a $6,241,995 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF, 9911928); its goal is to improve mathematics teaching in middle schools in West Virginia by enhancing the pedagogical content knowledge of teachers. One method that leaders in MERIT use to foster and sustain such growth is through the enabling of Collaborative Professional Learning Communities (CPLCs).
In the spring of 2002, I was accepted to participate in the MAA’s Professional Enhancement Program (PREP) workshop on Teaching Future High School and Middle School Teachers. The program consisted of two summer workshops presented by Ed Dubinsky and Kathy Heid. It was designed to enhance participants’ effectiveness in preparing undergraduate students to teach mathematics in high school and/or middle school. One requirement of each PREP participant was to conduct a project during the intervening year. So, as a teacher educator, it was natural for me to intertwine my work in both projects. I chose a project that would reflect the focus of my learning community, which was student communication about mathematics through writing.
Why a Learning Community?
Eaker and DuFour (1998) argue that developing the ability of school personnel to function as a professional learning community is the most promising strategy for sustained, substantive school improvement. Roberts and Pruitt (2003) agree: “As educators collaboratively engage in conversation and deliberate about teaching and learning, they gain new knowledge and discover original ways to resolve instructional issues.” (p. 20) Given the existence of such support for the establishment of learning communities, it is not surprising that their use was embraced in project MERIT. The early CPLCs were regionally based and included members who taught mathematics in middle school, high school and college. Although at this time the project is encouraging the establishment of school based CPLCs, the fact that the first communities included participants who were from different grade bands was not a hindrance for success. We were able to share a common vision as well as develop an action plan in order to impact student learning. In fact, successful cross-disciplinary faculty learning groups in higher education are reported by Cox (2002).
What Makes a Learning Community?
Involvement in a learning community affords a way for self-improvement while keeping student learning central. Linda Foreman of the Teachers Development Group in Oregon served as a consultant who helped us learn how protocols and action plans can contribute to the success of learning communities. As we developed our CPLC, we discovered the need for communication norms and accountability. We also learned the value of a safe environment, a shared vision, and shared leadership. When the annual action plan was realized, it was a shared victory.
Each participant in MERIT was assigned to a specific learning community, first by geographic region and then by a random assignment into smaller groups. Our learning community was successful. We had all been through almost two years of professional development together and held a common vision of the project goals and student needs. So, when we met to reflect upon an action plan, most of us knew that communicating about mathematics was a problem for most of our students. We were ready to engage in the project. A handful of us filled out the action plan and logged our contributions and responsibilities for the meetings as we progressed. The duty of facilitator was rotated, as was the duty of documenting into the official log book. I think that this rotation and documentation helped us to be accountable and to remember that we were sharing leadership.
The concept of communication norms had been introduced in other MERIT professional development sessions. When we participated in sessions about using timed protocols for reflective discussion, many were skeptical. We soon realized, however, that often we did not do a good job of listening carefully, sharing only relevant information, and developing a shared meaning. Following a timed protocol is a way to make sure that each participant has an opportunity to contribute. I also think that it is a nice way for each of us to reflect upon what it means to be a collaborator. It prompts participants to ask themselves whether they tend to dominate conversations, not value input from others, or be off task. Once we became really comfortable as a group and had a sense of safety in sharing our ideas, the protocol became less crucial.
It was important for our group to establish a one-year plan which included both, activities that we would do, both in and outside of the classroom, to obtain our long term goal and activities that would provide the evidence that we were making progress. The long term goal was to improve our students’ ability to communicate mathematically and to support arguments. We selected mathematical activities that required written as well as algorithmic responses. Each of us brought varying levels of student work to our sessions on which to reflect. Such activities as Checkerboard Squares and A Shaking Party from the It’s All Write materials were used. The materials included anchor papers and rubrics which were used to help students understand expectations when writing about mathematics as well as the process used when assessing their work. It was interesting to see how common the mistakes were at all grade bands; but, it was rewarding to be a part of a group that was sharing ideas and strategies that could work at different grade levels.
Benefits for the Pre-Service Students
Because I participated in the CPLC, I was able to take back the work of local seventh and eighth grade students into my classroom. As some of the pre-service teachers did the problems, they were convinced that no seventh or eighth grade student would be able to solve them. They were surprised to see how good some of the work of the local students was.
I extended the work of the CPLC action plan to accommodate my intervening year project for the PREP program. I used interviews with the intention of finding out if the use of writing assignments helped my students gain content knowledge. Three students were interviewed, one each to represent those in a group with the highest final grade, median final grade and lowest final grade. All three students indicated that the various types of writing assignments in the course, including laboratories, the It’s All Write materials, and a paper about the NCTM Standards, helped them to learn mathematics. I was surprised to learn that all three of the students found vocabulary to be a challenge when completing the writing assignments. I teach a little differently now and do not assume that just because my students must have had at least college algebra to enter the course, they all are comfortable with the language of middle and high school mathematics.
Cox, M. D. (2002, Fall). Achieving Teaching and Learning Excellence through Faculty Learning Community. Teaching Excellence: Toward the Best in the Academy, 14, 4.
DuFour, R. & Eaker, R. (1998). Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement. Indiana: National Education Service
Fendel, D, Resek, D., Alper, L. & Fraser, S. (1998). It’s All Write: A Writing Supplement for High School Mathematics Classes. California: Key Curriculum Press.
Roberts, S. M. & Pruitt, E. Z. (2003). Schools as Professional Learning Communities: Collaborative Activities and Strategies for Professional Development. California: Corwin Press, Inc.
Laura Pyzdrowski is a member of the Institute for Math Learning in the Mathematics Department at West Virginia University. You may contact her at email@example.com.
Student Learning Goal: To Communicate Mathematically to Support Arguments.
|Short Term Benchmarks
(incremental indicators of progress and timeline)
(what we will do to “get there,” i.e., ways we will change/refine our teaching practices to impact student learning)
(evidence that will help us know that we are “getting there” and that will support our reflection along the way)
|Students become aware of what a quality paper looks like with problem solving prompts (4-point prompt) and anchor papers from the book, It’s All Write.||Use “Checkerboard Squares” from the book, It’s All Write, or a similar standards-based lesson. Students write and then do self and/or peer evaluation compared to a model (anchor papers). A quality paper is shown after rough draft. Student compares his/hers to it and self evaluates. Has the option of rewriting before handing in the paper.||Student Work and how it was self and/or peer assessed. Editing of self and peers. Changes made in rough draft to final copy.|
|Students produce and evaluate a quality paper with prompts but without models.||Students will be encouraged to use the 4-point prompt on appropriate writing assignments in daily work.||Students work on daily assignments from October to February revealing the effectiveness of using the 4-point prompt. Comparison to determine improvement.|
|Use the book, “A Shaking Party” from It’s All Write or a similar standards-based lesson. Students write and self and/or peer evaluate with no models (anchor papers). May include a rewrite (optional).||Student work and how it was self and/or peer evaluated. Compare student progress from the paper on “Checkerboard Squares” or the alternative lesson used.|
|At RESA meeting, view the tape, Good Morning, Miss Tolliver. Discuss oral communications.||Teacher Log with Date/Task/Reflection concerning student work.|