• May 2010

Educator Peter Noonan On "Common Language, Common Definitions"

By Hope Katz Gibbs
Editor and Publisher
Be Inkandescent magazine
And Peter Noonan
Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Services
Fairfax County Public Schools

“Creating a set of clear and consistent best practices for student learning has long been a priority for Fairfax County Public Schools,” says Peter Noonan, Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Services, Fairfax County Public Schools. “So, the Instructional Services team accomplished that goal by identifying a set of research-based Best Practices for Teaching and Learning that have been proven to increase student achievement and help every FCPS child reach their academic potential.”

Noonan gives a nod to Diane Kerr, the Fairfax County Public School ESOL coordinator who helped spearhead the initiative.

“We knew that each best practice would need to be applicable from PreK to 12th grade,” Kerr says. “We also wanted to concretely define the concepts and terms so that every teacher, principal, staff member and administrator throughout the entire county has a common understanding.”

More than a dozen FCPS leaders worked on the project, including principals, specialists from the four core curricular areas, the Special Education and ESOL offices, directors of Cluster V and Cluster I, and representatives from the Department of Professional Learning and Accountability.

The group looked at an array of external research and initiatives that FCPS had focused on for the last two years, as well as training initiatives provided by teachers.

The initial outline was reviewed by 992 teachers and 145 FCPS principals who were asked to evaluate the impact of each best practice on student achievement. The synthesis of the information became the FCPS Best Practices framework.

Kerr says the team knew that concepts such as “building relationships” and “cooperative learning,” had to be defined in the same way by everyone. They were also determined to provide easily accessible training materials that would deepen the understanding of core best practices.

“Every educator I know and work with agrees that the goal is to close the achievement gap for students, and that means meeting the needs of all of our kids. This is just another way to help us do that.”

Kerr says she is happy to report that everyone who has used the FCPS Best Practices for Teaching and Learning online framework has been enthusiastic about it.

“The reality of working in education today is that to be effective, we need to have a common vocabulary. Now, when we talk about teacher collaboration, as well as other practices, there is no confusion about what it means or looks like.”

Kerr is determined to have the document be the core of the FCPS teaching culture. “Our thousands of teachers can now go online to learn, build, and sustain common language and beliefs around the definitions of best practices.”

Create a Student-Centered Learning Environment

To create a student-centered learning environment, a teacher will: set up the classroom for many types of learners; know how the many roles of teacher apply to the learning experiences teachers create; and build relationships that promote a safe and positive environment in which students are responsible, self-motivated, and self-evaluating.

Relationships: Build collaborative and respectful relationships with students, colleagues, and parents. Consistently encourage, support, and appropriately challenge students to ensure student success. Facilitate development of relationships among students to promote mutual respect and support in your classroom.

Procedures and Routines: Structure the classroom to create an orderly learning environment, communicate expectations that support positive student behavior to facilitate high levels of student engagement, and build a shared community of learners.

Arrangement of Classroom: Organize the classroom for a variety of learning opportunities that encourage both whole group and small group teacher-directed activities, and independent and cooperative learning experiences.

Displays: Support academic learning by using instructional resources (such as word walls, models, and anchor charts) that are clearly accessible. Make student work a focal point in the classroom. Post classroom and community expectations.

Tools: Make appropriate materials that support learning and make them accessible for all students.

CASE STUDY: Student-Centered Learning in Action

At Glasgow Middle School in Fairfax County, VA, Principal Deirdre M. Lavery says that one of the most important parts of creating a student-centered learning environment is to build strong relationships.

“This has been a focus at Glasgow, and I believe that of the five elements outlined in this best practice, it’s the key one because if a teacher can’t connect with, get along with, and inspire kids — the other four elements don’t matter.”

She believes that the ability of the teacher to develop a purposeful relationship with each and every student is the cornerstone of student success.

“By purposeful, I mean teachers aren’t just being nice to kids, a buddy to them, or are focused on having their classroom be a ‘fun place’ to be. Of course, you want all of that to happen — but teachers need to take the relationship much deeper.”

Lavery says that teachers need to know about students in terms of what type of learner they are, their special interests, their home situation and how all of those things factor into a child’s ability to learn.

“Teachers must hone in on what it takes for each and every student to become passionate about the unit. When each child comes through every morning, a great teacher will know that they just participated in a soccer final or that the family went away for the weekend to take care of a sick aunt. It has to be authentic.”

The reason, she says, is simple: Once teachers establish that level of a connection with students, it’s easier to develop unit plans and lesson plans that take into account what students know and what motivates them.

“Without this strong relationship, students can go from being active learners to passive learners. What we know about the process of learning is that students need to be engaged. At Glasgow, we are determined to focus on cultivating the relationship, because the time we take to do that pays off in spades.”

Plan and Teach for Student Learning

To plan and teach for student learning a teacher will: set learning goals and plan assessments in alignment with the POS/SOL; purposefully plan to adjust teaching practices to meet the needs of individual students; employ teaching strategies, techniques, and resources that meet the needs of all students; and be responsive to the variety of ways students demonstrate thinking and learning.

Lessons Aligned with POS and Pacing Guides: Align lessons to FCPS curriculum paying attention to pacing in planning and delivery to ensure that student-learning experiences are vertically aligned for all students.

Teacher Collaboration: Participate in collaborative learning teams (PLC) to analyze data and collaboratively plan for instruction and assessment.

Content Knowledge: Develop a deep understanding of assigned content areas. Design and differentiate learning that is relevant and challenging for students.

Instructional Delivery Model: Use a FCPS supported plan for learning.

Critical and Creative Thinking: Promote conceptual understanding and higher-order thinking skills by creating learning experiences that allow students to construct knowledge.

Engagement: Actively engage, challenge, and motivate students. Provide varied and ample opportunities for students to practice and process new information.

CASE STUDY: How to Best Plan and Teach for Student Learning

Centreville Elementary Principal Dwayne Young is the first to admit that getting students to learn is an art, not a science.

“How teachers effectively put all of the essential ingredients together for effective instruction is something that not only takes years of training but takes years of hands-on experience,” he says. “Sometimes new teachers come into our schools ready to teach, but there are many more powerful things that have to come together to make them truly prepared to teach.”

Young takes issue with the current push to bring more teachers into the profession who don’t have classroom experience.

“With the recession and layoffs impacting every profession, many people are willing to go on the fast track to get into the teaching business. From the outside, it is inviting because it seems like a stable profession that nearly anyone can do. But what people don’t realize is that teaching is a complex and demanding career that is not easy to jump into.”

He firmly believes that the first requirement for being a good teacher is having a passion for learning as well as having a deep desire to be a catalyst for change in others.

When it comes to planning and teaching for student learning, good teachers realize that success does not mean simply having students master the SOLs.

“Teachers need to have an understanding of student development, and they must believe that every student is able to access and develop capacities at varying levels,” he adds. “They also need to be someone who builds a positive relationship with kids. We learn from people we like and from those who are interested in us.”

From there, the real work begins, for Young also believes that success in life comes from the ability to problem solve.

“As adults, you need to deal with a lot of things coming at you at the same time. Our job as educators is to help students master this important ability. For many people, it doesn’t come naturally. Students need to be taught how to master higher-order and critical-thinking skills.”

To that end, he instructs his teachers to give students hands-on experience with every lesson where it is possible.

For example, if the class is studying a unit on plants, Young not only wants students to learn from the textbook, he wants them to grow plants in class and go outside to experience nature firsthand.

“When students experience a lesson in action, whether it is how a plant grows or anything else, they become engaged in the material and develop a deeper understanding of what they are studying,” he says. “Learning is not checking things off a list. It’s giving students intimate, personal experience with the world around them. Because each child learns differently, a teacher must assess how each and every student in class will master the lessons — then create lesson plans that engage them.”

Young realizes this is a tall order, and knows that teachers need to work collaboratively so they can truly educate all the students in the class.

“It certainly can’t all be done by yourself, which is why Professional Learning Communities are critical,” he notes.

Young also realizes that every lesson needs to be done with assessment in mind.

“It is a fact that tests are important, mostly because they help teachers understand what kids have learned and what they haven’t.”

But that doesn’t mean teaching to the test, he says. Rather, the bottom line for Young is that educators need to take responsibility for preparing kids to tackle big issues — such as how to protect the environment.

“If we are not helping prepare them to understand how to tackle this challenge and the other big problems they’ll have to solve when they are adults, the nation — and the world — will be in trouble.”

He believes the great thing about America is that we have the “roll your sleeves up” mentality.

“Our kids are filled with the gift of unlimited possibility. We just need to plan and teach for student learning for that to happen.”

Assess Student Learning

To assess student learning a teacher will: adapt teaching, based on evidence, to meet the needs of the student; check student progress in meeting standards; actively involve students in assessment to promote continuous learning; and inform students, parents, and others about student achievement.

Expectations for Learning: Develop and communicate learning targets, set learning goals with students, and mutually determine what success looks like in terms of reaching targets.

Checking for Understanding: Use a range of approaches to identify what students have learned up to a certain point, gaps in student learning, areas where students have exceeded expectations, and questions students wish to explore.

Feedback: Provide consistent opportunities for students to receive detailed information on how to advance in their learning (descriptive feedback). Effective feedback can come from teachers, peers, or student self-reflection.

CASE STUDY: How to Best Assess Student Learning

In the new era of fair grades, and formative and summative assessment, the real question is have we been effective in delivering instruction and have our kids learned, asks Marshall High School Principal Jay Pearson.

“As educators, we’re pretty good at summative assessment, whether it’s an end of unit test or preparing for the SOLs. But we have a lot of capacity to build around formative assessment.”

At the high school level, Pearson believes teachers struggle with the notion that formative assessments should actually be graded.

“We need to shatter the paradigm around how we arrive at grades, particularly with formative assessments. We all need to decide that it’s ok for students to know where their deficiencies are and for teachers to know when they need to re-teach.”

What educators need kids to learn isn’t a mystery, for concrete targets are determined by the FCPS Program of Studies, the Virginia Standards of Learning, and the standards of the International Baccalaureate program.

“To ensure teachers are on task, they meet on Friday mornings from 7-8 a.m. in their Professional Learning Community teams to talk about the scope and sequence that has been provided,” he says. “Our teachers then focus on creating common assessments and having proficiency determined prior to students taking them.” To assist, Marshall’s teachers use an instrument called Senteo, an interactive response system that is an assessment tool designed to enhance learning.

“It’s a good technological solution,” says Pearson. “We need to constantly be providing feedback to students, and finding ways for them to participate in the assessment process so they have ownership of their work and do more self-assessment of their own learning.”

Pearson knows this will help them better understand their deficits so they can know what to work on to achieve the required targets. “It’s a two-way street for students and teachers to work together to assess student learning so that every student reaches their potential.”

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