The latest edition of Research That Matters, "Passion & Promise," explores how the UW College of Education is approaching the biggest challenges in education with a spirit of possibility. The following story about the College's INSPIRE initiative also appears in the online version of the magazine.
One of the toughest challenges many elementary school teachers face is introducing story problems to their students. It’s not always easy for children to grasp the story situation and solve it using mathematics. But how should teachers go about it when their classroom also has a lot of English language learners?
That’s one question under lively discussion by around 20 elementary school principals and instructional coaches from the Federal Way, Seattle, and Kent School Districts, joined by several College of Education faculty and staff members.
Everyone’s sharing information they’ve picked up while working in actual classrooms they support, and the whole group is pooling their collective brain-power to find the most effective teaching strategies to tackle this real-life situation.
These coaches and principals aren’t just figuring out how to directly teach children to beat this challenge at the intersection of math and literacy, where language is crucial to understanding of mathematical concepts. They’re working together to figure out how to instruct the many teachers they coach and supervise in their districts—so those teachers can, in turn, be more successful with the children in their classes.
The coaches and principals are discussing this, along with many other practical, instruction-related topics, at a Teacher and Leader Academy (TLA) meeting at Seattle School District’s John Sanford Center for Educational Excellence. This TLA is led by one of the College’s newest initiatives, now in its second year, called INSPIRE, which received seed funding from the Gates Foundation for its creation. INSPIRE partnered with Seattle’s Office of Education and Seattle and Federal Way Public Schools to design the TLAs.
The educators participated in an intensive one week workshop over the summer to kick off their work, and subsequently implemented learning labs in math or literacy in their schools. The group came together five times during the school year for ongoing support—building a professional community of coaches and principals who are supporting learning in their own buildings.
INSPIRE’s projects are an innovative way to leverage the expertise of everyone in the room. Each of the participants, including the UW researchers and staff members, are simultaneously learning from the others and sharing their own knowledge, acting both as teachers and students.
And all these coaches and principals will magnify the learning going on here even more by sharing it with teachers in their own schools and districts when they return to work.
In fact, what happens back in those individual classrooms is probably the most important part of the work. These coaches and principals, along with teachers in their schools, and with UW support, will spend concentrated time working in each classroom as a group, helping, planning and critiquing—leveraging the expertise of an entire teaching staff for the benefit of every individual teacher. For many, it’s the first and only time their teaching staff will have an opportunity to actively collaborate to improve student learning.
“All these opportunities to work together, to plan together, to look at actual work, and observe and interact with kids together as a group of teachers, really informs our teaching strategies,” said Steve Boolos, instructional coach for Federal Way’s Lakeland Elementary. “The teachers, coaches, and principals are all really excited about the Math Learning Lab and the possibilities it brings to teaching—and that excitement’s spreading. In my school, the principal asked our teachers what opportunities for professional development they wanted to participate in next year. Ninety percent wanted to do Math Learning Labs. I think that says something pretty significant.”
According to Kent’s Pre-K through 12 Mathematics Coordinator Renee Gallagher, “Working alongside educators from Seattle and Federal Way has been great. The strongest benefit has been that our schools and coaches are becoming leaders of the work. It’s a sustainable model, and resource wise—because it’s about building our own expertise.”
Both Boolos and Gallagher have high praise for INSPIRE’s approach of having everyone, UW researchers included, act both as teachers and learners in the work.
“It’s a very collaborative approach,” Gallagher said. “I see a very different receptivity to the work because of that approach. It’s not like the UW is just giving us some package of information to learn. Everybody is really honored to be here, both as teachers and as learners.”
“The UW researchers and staff are as eager to learn from us as we are from them,” Boolos said. “They’re very excited about the process, and they have so much insight, knowledge, and so many skills. They’re really great at reflecting and guiding us through the process.”
“I really want people to understand that this isn’t something where the UW wants to come across like we’re the experts,” said Elham Kazemi, Geda and Phil Condit Professor in Mathematics Education and INSPIRE’s co-director along with Associate Professor Morva McDonald. “That’s not the flavor here. The flavor is more that there are lots of people working on very important parts of improving schools and learning experiences. The power of making things really happen is about making connections across these ideas. It’s about working together.”
What the Big Idea?
TLA Learning Labs are just one element of INSPIRE’s multi-pronged approach to bring what it calls its “big idea” to fruition. So what’s the big idea?
“INSPIRE aims to bring everyone’s knowledge and expertise together in the same room, at the same time, to support student learning,” Kazemi said. “We wanted to create an infrastructure here at the College of Education to support many types of collaboration. We want INSPIRE to convey our values of working side by side with practitioners on real problems.”
The Learning Labs in Math or Literacy are one part of that strategy. Both take place during the school year, with special sessions held throughout the summer. Another INSPIRE initiative is the recently launched TEDD (Teacher EDucation by Design) web portal, designed for active teacher education and collaboration.
“It’s important to remember that INSPIRE is just getting started,” Kazemi said. In the spirit of open, meaningful collaboration, she hopes INSPIRE will attract new initiatives from the relationships and partnerships themselves—and by making itself available as a supportive resource to other College researchers and educators in the field.
“We have many faculty whose scholarship is all about practice,” Kazemi said. “And we haven’t had a way inside the University for us to collectively work together or think long-term about where these projects are headed. Our hope is that we can support connections between these ideas and entities and centers—not to become an umbrella organization, but to be a resource available to everyone.
“It’s about building relationships. People are getting to know each other across their various spheres. I think about INSPIRE long term as this vibrant idea hub that helps people leverage expertise across settings for the benefit of students. I hope people will find that our work over the long haul has helped create more connected systems of support for learning.”
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