Kris Ferguson, a first grade teacher at West View Elementary School, will never forget the first time she used a strategy called plus-delta with a student. She asked the student what worked and what didn't work in her classroom.
She remembers the student saying, "Seeing my old test helped me know what I did wrong and helped me do better." Ferguson was stunned. "The fact she was able to identify it and talk about it, I was just like: 'I love you!'"
The West View first grade teachers – Ferguson, Angela Hulsey and Becky Miceli – have worked hard at building a culture of growth in their classrooms. In addition to student-directed learning, they use Plan-Do-Study-Act and work closely with the Title I teachers and tutors in the building to target learning for each child. The trade-off? They had to relinquish control and be vulnerable with one another, constantly re-evaluating their teaching.
Soon they realized it was not a trade-off but a gift.
West View instructional coach Kelly Mossop says it's remarkable how comfortable the team is reaching out to one another. "It's one thing to get together and plan a lesson," she said. "But they are coming back to the table and asking: 'How did that go?'"
The team technically meets twice a week but, in truth, they talk about their lessons and how to improve them all the time. The conversations are honest. They've said, "Oh my gosh, I did that and it totally flopped," according to Ferguson.
The students were totally on board with the continuous improvement approach. They set goals and made graphs for their goals. They knew whether they were in the red, yellow or green zones and celebrated moving from one to another. Their buy-in made the teachers even more invested.
A focus on student-directed learning and collaboration is not confined to the first grade team at West View. The entire school's effort paid off last year in scores on the Illinois Assessment of Readiness, or IAR. The percentage of students who were proficient in English Language Arts at West View grew 7 percentage points. Math proficiency increased 12 percentage points.
Only students in third through eighth grades take the IAR. But the foundation for academic success must be built in earlier grades, like first grade.
The teachers at West View were hesitant at first about trying such a team-centric approach, but the fear went away fast. "The more people you have in and out of your room, the less anxious you get when you have people coming in and out of your room," said Hulsey, who is a finalist for the Golden Apple Award this year.
"You can look at your first year teaching, and you can look at your 15th year teaching, and you can say, 'Did I grow?'" Hulsey said.
"Truthfully, if you have positive people around you who help support you and uplift you when you are struggling, you are going to have a better chance of succeeding in this career. This is a very hard career that we've chosen. You can really easily fall off the grid and quit and throw in the towel if you don't have a support system."
Hulsey said having a good team makes all the difference. "That's one thing I'm very thankful to say. Our grade level shows that."
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