My growth goals for the 2015-2016 school year were around improving my students’ ability to make claims based on evidence in their writing for my freshman science classes. I was spending hours in the evenings trolling the inter-webs looking for high-quality resources. I was writing exemplars and had no idea whether those exemplars were any good. I had a newborn and three other children and not a lot of time.
As an early career science teacher, I was familiar with the Shifts in instruction for college and career readiness and I believed in the importance of embedding the Shifts in my classroom, but as a Biology/Chemistry major, I did not feel confident actually teaching these literacy and writing skills within my science classes. I kept thinking to myself “There has got to be a better way to do this! I know I am not the only one in this school teaching students to write with evidence and there are probably people who know a lot more than I do!”
I approached one of our administrators in the spring of 2016 and asked whether it would be possible to create an interdisciplinary professional learning community (PLC) focused on how we could help our freshman students make claims based on evidence in their writing. One year later, we have a fledgling (and growing) group that has energized my teaching and led to dramatic growth in our students’ writing skills as well as their willingness to write.
I would like to share some of what we have learned:
1. Start with a small, achievable goal.
Ours was basically: “We want our freshman students to become better at writing with evidence and we want to figure out some common language and strategies that will help them do this.” It took us the better part of a school year to figure out where our students were, skill-wise, and what those high-impact strategies and common language were going to be. But it was worth it when we saw how those strategies helped students become successful, not only in writing lab conclusions, but also in curriculum-based assessments in social studies and argument paragraphs in ELA.
2. Call it a “pilot.”
This was one of the best pieces of advice I got the summer before we started. When we had hiccups in our work or it felt like the progress was going slower than we would like, it was comforting to be able to say “Hey guys, remember this is a pilot project. We are figuring out a lot of things this first year, and next year we’ll be able to do a better job of …. (insert thing we wanted to do better here).” We were able to secure a small grant, so now, during the second year, we will be able to scale up our work and devote more time to reflecting on the data and outcomes, but that would not have happened without that first “pilot” year.
3. Teachers are hungry to make connections between departments.
When I first started recruiting, I figured this would be something all the participants would be doing on our own time. Our group ended up getting support to meet every other week for a little over an hour, but the bulk of the work was still done on our own time because it was something we saw working for our students. Getting the opportunity to have conversations with other teachers about what our students were learning and practicing throughout the day was absolutely worth my time. Best of all, I discovered that English teachers ROCK! (And they are very patient when I put commas in the wrong place on agendas.) Speaking of agendas…
4. Share leadership, but have a key organizer.
Teachers have a lot of demands on their time. Obviously. How do you translate a lot of good ideas into progress in the classroom? It really helped us to have one person (I happened to be that person the first year, but the mantle will be passed to another person in year two) in charge of making agendas, following up on action items, and communicating progress and needs to administrators. There were weeks in the depths of the school year where we were all struggling just to get through our busy days, but I knew it was my responsibility to send out an agenda and follow-up notes, so it got done. That accountability can be the difference between “Wouldn’t this be a good idea!” and “Look what we have done!”
Be sure to watch for my next blog post where I’ll outline some of the high-impact strategies for teaching writing with evidence at the high school level– the fruits of our PLC work!