Learning communitiesThree years ago, when the New Jersey State Board of Education was considering the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), I sat down with some teachers and administrators in my school, Camden County Technical School (Gloucester Campus) to work out a plan to better prepare our students for what seemed like an impossible challenge. Ultimately we created a program in our school, The Learning Community, which has had a profound impact on our professional practices, our students’ learning, and the lives of all those involved.

When my colleagues Teri Hardmeyer (social studies), Nick Tarasevich (mathematics),  Mike Ritzius (science) and I (English) first met with our building principal, we had no idea what our end product would look like. We started to generate ideas. Soon we asked special education teacher Priscilla Curtis to join us. Our principal suggested we re-think the traditional school model and design a “school within a school.” “If you could create a school,” she asked, “what would it look like?”

What a powerful question. Have you ever thought about it? If you could re-create public education from the ground up, what would you do differently?

At first, we were timid and only thought to change small things. We would put less emphasis on formative assessment and more on summative assessment. We would focus less on traditional tests and quizzes and focus more on inquiry-based projects. It wasn’t long before our imaginations took over, however, and we began to completely rethink everything. We wanted to revise the school mission, the vision, the schedule, the courses, and perhaps the most profound change: we wanted to align the curricula of the separate courses. We did not realize it in those first few months, but we had already created what we would soon call The Learning Community.

Once we figured out the logistics, that is – the schedule, the mission and vision and the faculty handbook – it was time for us to re-work the curriculum to meet the needs of the students.

As we brainstormed, we realized that everything came back to curriculum. We realized there was significant overlap between math and science (Algebra I and fundamentals of science), and between English language arts and social studies, (English I and world history). We realized there was potential to effectively teach these four courses as two blended courses; we called them STEM I and Humanities I.

This idea was a perfect fit with the Common Core State Standards since they integrate many traditional subject areas. The Common Core’s emphasis on cross-curricular instruction lends itself to and supports this type of teaching. In a traditional setting, English class might cover the rhetorical appeals ethos, pathos, and logos with a text. While this is happening in English, in another room a U.S. history teacher might be covering Patrick Henry’s famous “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech and its significance in the American Revolutionary War. In the traditional setting, these two important elements of each class might go on as an important, but separate and isolated, piece of instruction in the sequence of learning. However, the Common Core calls for teachers to work together. Historical documents like Patrick Henry’s speech should not be taught only as  documents that helped America decide to fight for independence from Britain, but they should also be examined for their rhetorical merit. When the courses are combined, it enables the teachers to touch on both the rhetorical merit and the historical impact simultaneously.

Educators with a common goal

The summer before our first school year was hectic. Although we were all experienced classroom teachers, we felt like first-year teachers again. We didn’t know what to expect – how would teaching an English lesson truly mesh with history? On paper, it sounded perfect, but the four of us entered the year with much apprehension. After all, we know how territorial teachers can be!

Learning communitiesBut as the year unfolded, we quickly grew to not only enjoy working with another content area teacher, we grew to love it. It’s funny how something that seemed so foreign at first quickly began to feel as if it were the “natural” way to teach. Not only could our math teacher help explain make scientific concepts, but he now had a real-world context in which to explain mathematical concepts - something that he had been struggling with throughout his career.

The same was true for me. As an English teacher, I constantly found myself without a real context in which to explain grammatical concepts. Now as we paired novels with certain historical periods, the kids welcomed the full immersion into different eras in history. Not only were the students learning in a different way, but we quickly realized that our collective professional practice was evolving with each passing day  . Before we had the time to organize and plan for it to happen, we were quickly transformed from a group of teachers trying something different to a group of determined educators with a common goal. By November of that first year, we had transformed into a high-functioning professional learning community (PLC).

Throughout my career, I have participated in many formal observations from district evaluators that helped me grow as an educator. But nothing could have prepared me for what I would learn about my own practice working with another classroom teacher. In the world of school, where each subject exists in its own silo, we very rarely have the opportunity to look at challenging concepts from another content area teacher’s perspective. Initially, I think Teri and I were both nervous about how we would “cover” our respective curricula; after all, we looked at what students “need” to learn in two completely different ways. However, as we began to work with each other, we realized that it wasn’t about “covering” our curricula, rather it was about delving into challenging concepts and skills from both content areas that would require the students to think. This realization came from countless discussions about our two curricula, our differing interpretations of the Common Core, and the best pedagogical approaches for the wide range of skills and concepts we both wanted to teach. This works because we examine every lesson, every assignment, and every learning outcome together. To this day, we have never taught a lesson without a timely and authentic post-lesson debrief. Because we work as a collaborative team and not as individual teachers, we are constantly engaged in discourse to improve learning for our students.

Aside from providing a sometimes-elusive context to various topics, having two teachers in one classroom also helps provide the students with a stronger sense of purpose. Most classroom teachers know that teaching, at its core, is simply managing relationships. The stronger and more authentic the relationships, the more the students will be willing to take academic risks, and, consequently, the more they will learn. It is like the old adage, “people won’t remember what they have learned, but they will remember how they felt.” In our school, this is especially important as we have a high attrition rate, a high poverty rate (85 percent of students on Free/Reduced Lunch), and a high special education population (47.5 percent of students have disabilities). So it is safe to say, that when a teacher is assigned 130 students, it is very challenging to provide the support that each student needs in order to feel comfortable, and consequently learn – there is simply not enough time. However, in The Learning Community we have three teachers in the room at any given time. That is, two content area teachers and one special education teacher. Three teachers working as a single unit makes it much easier to reach all of the students. We work together and make a concerted effort to know our students as individual people – not simply scores to be improved, something that is crucial for learning.

Advisory period allows students to learn independently

The last component of The Learning Community that is integral for our students’ success is their ability to work independently on cross-curricular assignments and projects. Because our courses are blended, most of the assignments, tests, quizzes, and projects are blended as well. Because we work with the Common Core standards, and we combined two content areas, we felt (and we learned we were correct) that the students would essentially be “re-learning” school; this is not easy. So we provided a time for students to work independently every day. For two periods, we allow the students to work alone with the supervision of their four content area teachers and the special education teacher; we call this time Advisory.

Learning communitiesTo an outsider, Advisory looks and functions like a traditional study hall. However, to someone who works within the program, it is much different. Advisory is when learning happens. As we worked through this program, we were informed by district administration that the new PARCC assessment required a higher-level of “reading endurance.”  That is, the students have to work with difficult texts, difficult mathematical concepts, and challenging writing pieces for extended periods of time, all, of course, on their own. We knew that if things didn’t change in the schedule, our students would never have time to practice strengthening their “endurance.” Our school’s typical schedule only had 40 minutes slated for each academic class, which makes it difficult to practice extended reading and mathematical endurance. We wanted to take it one step further. Rather than having the students engaged in difficult readings, writings, and math problems, why not have them engaged in self-directed learning for longer periods of time? We figured, if they can work through the difficult process of learning independently, then they would be prepared to work through challenging tasks independently. So, Advisory became a time for students to enhance their learning endurance and still have access to all of their teachers for support and assistance. Another important component of Advisory is our students’ access to computers, which was made possible by the administration.

The blended learning, combined with extra classroom support and time for students to work independently, has taken us some time to get used to, but now, a year and half into the life of The Learning Community, it feels like it is the way teaching should be. Our students love it, their parents love it, and the school is happy the program has been successful and continues to help the students in our district. The program was so well received that we looped with our students (who are now sophomores) and we are currently in the process of planning the junior year for our students.

Making a difference for students

The question remains: does this blended-learning approach to school actually enhance the learning experience for students? The answer is hard to figure out at the moment. Over the past two years, since the existence of The Learning Community, our school has been through major changes. We haven’t had a consistent, schoolwide assessment for more than one year’s time. We did, however, find that our lowest scoring students’ lexile levels improved astronomically compared to their counterparts outside of The Learning Community. Last year, the lexile score of average “low scoring” freshmen in our school improved by 50-80 points throughout the year;  “low scoring” freshmen in The Learning Community, on average, increased their lexile by 250 points!

Aside from test scores, we have had success in many other dimensions of student achievement. Over the past two years, we have observed an increase in student attendance. Absenteeism can be a challenge in our district, and providing a strong sense of community has helped to counteract frequent absences. We have had an overwhelmingly positive response from parents. In years prior to my work with The Learning Community, I would expect no more than 10 parents to visit my classroom. Since The Learning Community began, I talk to at least 35 parents on parent’s night! Typical parental feedback includes statements like: “ My son/daughter never liked school, and I don’t know what you are doing differently, but he or she absolutely cannot wait to come to school every day.” Having students enjoy school has been one of our best rewards as educators. While we don’t know what’s in store with PARCC test results, we do know that whatever the challenge, our students will be prepared to take and pass the test, and to succeed in the “real” world.

Getting started in your school

In my mind, what we have done at our school, is what schools are all about – meeting the needs of learners and teachers. If you are thinking about starting a program like this at your school, here are the four things you will need:

  • Dedicated and determined teachers
  • Open-minded and supportive administrators
  • An understanding of the Common Core State Standards
  • A dash of technological integration.

As we went through our first year, and are journeying through our second, we have learned more than we could have imagined. We did not set out to create a high-functioning, teacher-driven professional learning community (PLC). But when we built a program that we thought was the best way to boost student achievement in the era of the Common Core, we ended up growing and learning right beside them. When schools function like this, it is hard to put a cap on the potential of students and teachers.

Matt Stagliano is a 10th-grade teacher of English at Camden County Technical Schools, Gloucester Township Campus. He also works as a professional development and instructional issues consultant for NJEA. He can be reached at mstagliano@njea.org .