Jul 16 2014

A College of Education initiative to dramatically improve teaching quality in area schools kicked off this summer with a Teacher and Leader Academy for nearly 90 local educators.

The intensive academy is the launching point for INSPIRE (Innovations in Professional Improvement and Redesigns in Education), the College's new effort to collaborate with local partners in designing innovative ways for schools and districts to organize professional learning. INSPIRE focuses in particular on improving the quality of education at poverty-impacted schools. 

Teachers and administrators from nine Seattle elementary schools took part in the inaugural TLA, hosted at South Shore K-8 and supported with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The program exemplified the collaborative nature of the INSPIRE initiative by bringing together partners from Seattle's Office for Education, Seattle Public Schools and the Puget Sound Educational Service District who co-facilitated the academy. During the academy, participants designed and revised lessons in English language arts and math. Working with elementary students attending South Shore’s Summer Splash, participants gave real-time feedback to fellow educators about how students were making sense of the instructional goals.

"Traditionally, most professional development has taken place away from the classroom where students are actually learning," said Elham Kazemi, professor and co-director with Morva McDonald of the INSPIRE initiative. "But it shouldn't be about being perfect and delivering perfect lessons, it's about trying new things and working together to find out what works."

In one lesson devoted to spatial reasoning, for example, TLA participants worked with children to take a small model made out of blocks and build larger versions of the structure with the same proportions. Participants prompted children to explain their reasoning. When a teaching move didn't seem to work, other participants or a teaching coach would step in and suggest different strategies.

After lessons, educators gathered to debrief and discuss what they observed, what worked and what didn't work in order to revise their plans for the next class. The power of collaborating together on instruction was a common refrain that Kazemi heard.    

"We want teachers and leaders to practice, debrief and revise on a continuing basis in their own schools with one another," she said. "It's critical to help teachers feel part of a community where they are supported and continue to learn and improve, because so often teachers are by themselves during the day."

One key goal of INSPIRE is to create scalable designs for professional learning so that school districts in Washington and beyond can continually improve the quality of teaching. It's not enough to just hire good teachers or have teachers attend summer workshops, Kazemi said. Rather, the crucial step is to build professional learning communities within schools and districts so that educators can develop better teaching practices during the school year itself.

The nine schools participating in the TLA will continue the work that was launched over the summer. INSPIRE and its partners will provide support to leadership teams from the schools as staffs work together next year.

In a silent conversation held at the end of the academy, educators' comments confirmed a strong desire for continuing the professional learning communities they experienced.

One participant talked about how meaningful it was to be valued by one's peers: "I am most appreciating about my colleagues the ability to give and take equally. We all need things from others, and, at the same time, we all have things that we can offer to others."

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Elham Kazemi, Professor of Education

206-221-4793, ekazemi@uw.edu

Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications

206-543-1035, dwunder@uw.edu