Improving Schools from Within – Taking a Look Inside of the Classroom

Monroe Junior High School is comprised of a very ethnically diverse student body. The school grade, according to state evaluation standards, is consistently a “C,” and while there are many great points about the school, including a very respected and beloved athletics department and plentiful extracurricular activities for the students, the academic record of the school is lacking and has been for several consecutive years.

The teachers care about their positions and their students and many individual efforts have been made to try and improve said situation. The principal was very concerned with the continued lack of academic success and with the approval of the superintendent took action in proposing a school-wide reform. He brought in an outside consultant and went over various reforms to see which he thought would best serve his school with various committee members put in place specifically for the project. A lot of effort went into the research and the committee decided on changing the curriculum from a standard one to a more hands-on approach, and it also included abundant professional development to school the teachers on how to better reach and interact with the students, academically, with new, more interactive and student-centered teaching methods.

The symptoms of the academic challenges at Monroe were obvious, as grades were mediocre at best and scores on standardized testing was consistently low. The various causes of these symptoms, however, were less prominent in nature. By all accounts the students should have been receiving high marks on the aforementioned. They were for the most part from good, middle-class homes with parents that cared about their education, they had teachers taking an avid interest in their success, and they themselves took a great interest in learning and had an unmistaken willingness to learn. Trying to figure out what was the root of the underachievement was the challenge that was faced. After careful observation and researching Principal Mayer came up with the theory that everything was just too stagnant. He believed the teachers were in a rut with their teaching style and simply were teaching only in the manner to which they had become accustomed and not trying to improve upon it or change it in any way to better conform to the individuals in the classroom. And while the teachers did have an interest in their students’ progression, they did not seek innovative ways to try and improve upon any of the teaching methods they had been using for years. It was not that they did not want to; it was that they simply never thought to because their method of teaching was indeed working. It was more than Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½working’ that Mayer was looking for though, he was looking for teacher excellence.

Saddled by a restrictive budget, Mayer did a lot of the research on his own to try and find the proper outside consultant to come in and help him take a look at and assess what was going wrong. It turned out that his theory on the stagnation that had taken place within the teaching was in part true, and that also, parents were interested in their children’s education as stated, but many did not take an active role in helping them to want to achieve. After a carefully selected committee board (composed of key players from all aspect of the schools, and headed by Mayer) was comprised of the situation, three major reform efforts were chosen to take place school wide: More student-centered teaching was to be implemented, community involvement was to be actively encouraged, and anonymous teacher evaluations were to be given to the students periodically throughout the year to assess how effective they thought their teaching efforts were.

Student-Centered Teaching

The steps that were taken towards student-centered teaching were not huge ones, and were not costly, but they took some getting used to. The first step to be taken was that traditional seating styles in the classroom, chairs, facing the front of the class where the teacher lectured, were to be changed to a more learning -friendly environment. Because budgeting did not allow for group desks, existing desks were put in small groups (usually of five students each) in the shape of a circle. This was done to encourage peer interaction and give every student equal opportunity for eye contact with each other and with their teacher; something that was not possible in the traditional seating method.

The second step taken was that teachers were taught the importance of not only teaching the students new facts and encouraging recitation (the most popular two methods of teaching in the school) but also how important it is to build on the existing knowledge that students already have, to encourage cognition, and hands-on learning to better drive home the facts they wanted their students to learn. They were encouraged to create projects that built on previous lessons, and to find ways to get the lessons to relate to interests that the students held individually. Not only were students to learn facts but they were to investigate and learn why facts were relevant and how they related to what students already knew. The lessons were changed from memorization to authentic learning in that they were designed to get students actively involved in the processes of what was going on and to learn to understand the why’s and how’s of what was being taught vs. simply learning the what it was that actually happened, or what it was they were to specifically learn.

In the third step of the student-centered learning tasks, students were encouraged to lead the lessons with direction and seek out the opinions of their classmates in doing so. Guidelines were to be set that stressed the importance of allowing individuality and the importance of respecting one another’s opinion. This was done to build trust amongst the students and teach the significance of being able to work together as a team. It was to be a tool to teach students how important group interaction is and hone their thinking so that they would realize how much further in-depth the learning process could be with the active involvement of their peers. Teachers, instead of lecturers, became a part of the teams and became more like their peers rather than their leaders. Responsibility for learning shifted from the teacher alone to each and every student.

Results and Analysis

The new style of seating arrangement created way more pros than cons. The only major con that took place was that if students were left idly too long with nothing to do, conversation amongst groups became personal and not related to learning content and sometimes the teachers had a hard time getting students back on task. The pros, however, were phenomenal in that the seating arrangements encouraged interaction among students and even the students who normally would not speak out in class were joining in on the conversations. Because the groups were small, and each student was a member of a group, participation seemed to be more of a given than in a traditional setting where one or two students tend to take over the answering of questions in a lesson. It is amazing that something as simple as the way the students are seated could make such a huge difference in the learning process, but make a difference it did, and a very positive one at that. The small groups seemed to take away the threat of failure for students as each student was given a voice and encouraged, even expected to use it. Smaller groups allowed for more personalization of discussions as well, and fostered a sense of trust amongst the classmates and a sense of unity that could not be denied. The transformation of student participation was astronomical and this step towards student-learning was garnered a success.

Teaching students so that their prior knowledge and interests of/in a subject were considered proved to be somewhat of a challenge. Mostly this was true because classroom populations were large and the teachers had no aid to help them with their classes. Simply getting to know each individual enough to know what truly interested them and figure out ways to build on it was easier to theorize than to put into practice. Because it is a junior high school, classes were no longer than one hour a day and getting to know such a large number of students in such a short amount of time, on such a personal level as was required was not easy at all. Teachers came across as being shallow or trying too hard sometimes, and students sometimes lost interest in wanting to participate. This was especially true if a teacher knew one or two students thoroughly and only had a skimming knowledge of what interested another. The teachers would focus on the students they did know and tend to leave the others alone. There was a pro though, in that the small groups encouraged one another to learn personal interests of each other and inadvertently used that knowledge to further their understanding of a lesson and find ways to apply what they were learning to be tailor fit to the members of their groups’ interests and thoughts.

The use of hands-on projects, such as getting each group to perform a skit on what was being taught to the classroom, drawing a group picture of what was being learned, creating models, or preparing outlines/timelines of what was being taught to their understanding did serve to pique the interest of the children in their learning process in a way that recitation never could. It created an environment where all students were actively involved in the learning process and individual input was expected and valued. The down side was that teachers tended to sometimes become too complacent in their own involvement when projects were put into the learning environment. They tended to oft times give too much control to the students and step out of the learning process almost entirely. One teacher was even noted to go to her desk and grade papers while students built a project amongst themselves, and in this type of scenario the lesson was many times lost. In the classrooms where the teacher went from group to group and encouraged students to explain why their project was related to the learning going on, success was much more imminent in authentic pedagogy. If the teachers were enthused and interested in the projects and expected high results, the students were more prone to living up to those expectations. If the teachers were disinterested or uninvolved the projects merely became tasks and really successful supplements to learning.

In the third aspect of student-centered learning, students were encouraged to take the lead in the classroom discussions. In the classrooms where specific guidelines were given this was a success. In others where teacher’s left the rules unspoken or non-existent this aspect was not a success. For example, one successful method came from a teacher who assigned reading to the classroom as a whole, gave a specific time for the reading to be done, and then stated that each student was to make a comment on what they read and call on another student to elaborate or add to it. No student was to be called upon twice (for the sake of time constraints) and no answer was to go over two minutes. This was a success in that students expected to have to contribute and thus did their reading well and formed their questions and thoughts as to what was being taught on the interaction that was taking place. The discussion took off at an accelerated rate and the interest level in the discussion was high. In a similar effort in another classroom, the teacher assigned reading, gave a specific amount of time for the reading and then told the students they were to note what they read and how it related to what they already knew. The problem here was that no guidelines were set and participation by all was not encouraged outside of the reading. What happened was a few outgoing students ended up answering all questions and looking to the teacher for approval of what was being said. The teacher assumed the leadership role and students seemed to feel they were only answering to please the teacher. Many become disinterested or uninvolved. Looking around the classroom, some students were doodling in their notebooks, one student was listening to music through headphones, and one child was writing a note totally unrelated to the lesson being taught. The results of this type of teaching showed that students needed to have guidelines, be encouraged and expected to participate, and that communication standards needed to be set wherein the children knew to communicate with one another or else the old teaching style of raising their hand and answering a question from the teacher fell back into place.

Community Involvement

The next phase of the school reformation effort was community involvement. Teachers created projects that required students to go out in the community for their answers or to go into their homes and seek the involvement of their family members. For example an interview with an elder was an assignment that each student had in one classroom and this got the students to get their family members or neighbors involved in the learning process. Getting interest from outside members of the school served to purposes, one it reiterated the importance of education to the students as they saw those they cared about taking an avid interest, and two it reiterated the importance to the community members as they found a way to become involved in the learning process. There are many examples of how this was done, from touring businesses to the home interviews mentioned, but all-in-all it was a win-win situation.

Evaluations

In the traditional school setting, teachers receive an annual review from the assistant principal based on outside and sporadic observation. The reviews were standard and teachers knew what to expect from years past. The assistant principal really had little knowledge of the actual happenings of the classroom and as such could not effectively evaluate what changes might need to be made to increase the actual learning that was being done in the classrooms. As such, in addition to the traditional review done by the assistant principal, anonymous evaluation forms were given to the students three times a year to encourage a truthful evaluation of what was being done in the classroom. Teachers hoped to receive positive feedback as well critical ones to note what might or might not be working. In theory this was a good idea that was agreed upon unanimously by the initial reform committee, but in practice was highly ineffective. Students, although not required to state their identity, were sometimes not entirely truthful in their evaluative efforts because they felt they would be recognized by their writing style or pattern of written speech. Thus they wrote what they thought the teacher wanted to hear instead of how they truly felt and the purpose of the evaluations was entirely thwarted.

Future Plans

In light of the outcome of the reform efforts many thing were learned and a plan for improvement was put into play for the future. Regarding the student-centered learning, the grouped seating arrangements were to be kept, hands-on learning was to be further encouraged, and teacher involvement in projects was to be mandated. The efforts towards community involvement were decidedly good, but not enough, and a committee was to be put into place that consisted of teachers, staff members, and students to try and come up with innovative ways to better involve the students in the community and vice versa. The third reform criteria, student evaluations, was not perceived as being a success but teachers did not want to eliminate it because the few truthful criticisms they did receive they found to be helpful. A plan was put into place that future evaluations would be read by someone other than the teacher and students were to receive the knowledge that their individual teachers would never actually see the writings that were being submitted. This was decided as a way to help encourage the students to speak openly and honestly about their classroom learning experiences in the future.

Although the reform effort was not a complete success, it did offer some very encouraging steps towards future success. The state evaluation of the school, although still a “C” grade during the first year of the reformation effort, was more positive than in years past, and upgrading to a higher level of teaching was firmly in place. Standardized testing scores did improve slightly and the teachers and staff at the school were very pleased with the results. The reformation effort will remain intact at Monroe as the teachers and staff tries to come up with ways to fine tune it until success is reached. Morale at the school is at an all-time high and the hope of increasing student learning is prevalent. It is with high hopes that the school will continue along with their basic reformation efforts in hopes of achieving standards above average. There is no doubt in the minds of those involved or those watching that this reformation will, in the long run, prove to be a success.

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