In-School Instruction


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WHAT'S WORKING:

Bryant Public Schools help us understand how to:

+ Foster teacher ownership of school curriculum

Encourage student ownership of learning

+ Communicate directly with students and parents about rigorous, high-quality standards

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We’ve got the freedom to choose the curriculum to teach so that our kids can master those standards,
— Nancy Papacek, Kindergarten teacher, Bryant Elementary

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From the beginning, Bryant High School English teacher Lisa Stine supported the move to Common Core State Standards, even though it meant broad and extensive changes. 

She felt the need for change on a personal level. An Arkansas native, she thought her own schooling under the old state standards hadn’t fully prepared her for success in a global economy. Many of her fellow teachers felt the same way.

Four years after initiating those big changes, administrators and teachers in Bryant were proud of what they had done to support the implementation of more rigorous standards in the classroom. Beyond the strategic value of starting the process early, they attributed their success to three key factors:

  1. Teacher ownership of curriculum
  2. Student ownership of learning
  3. Direct communication with students and parents about standards and the underlying purpose of what students are learning

Teacher Ownership of curriculum

The first step for Bryant teachers was to write a new curriculum that aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Kim Akers, a first-grade teacher at Hill Farm Elementary, said the process was fully collaborative and directly led by teams of teachers. The process yielded a new curriculum that was uploaded to a Google site. That site served as an interactive blackboard where teachers laid out their ideas and collaborated on classroom instruction strategies.

Stine’s cohort at Bryant High School went through a similar teacher-driven process to develop a curriculum that promoted improved educational outcomes for students. She stressed that the process itself was also valuable; “learning by doing” helped deepen her expertise. “Teachers themselves need to be held accountable for the design of curriculum,” she said, “because that forces them to become acquainted with the standards and to know them in-depth.”  

Student ownership of learning

Thanks to a growing confidence in this new instructional approach, Stine felt free to challenge her students to take ownership of their learning. For example, Stine used the Socratic Seminar, a student-led discussion based on their understanding of a text, to teach speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

Different academic subjects like math required different instructional strategies, but Bryant teachers made sure students in every grade level and area of study remained actively engaged in their learning. Akers and her fellow elementary math teachers used cognitively guided instruction (CGI) to help students solve math problems in the way that worked for them and so they could share their problem-solving techniques with peers. Using CGI, students were able to “make sense of problems and persevere in solving them,” as outlined in the Common Core State Standards. Akers saw the approach yield dramatic results: in just a few months, one kindergartener went from not being able to write numbers or count to 25 to being fluent in addition.

Direct communication with students & Parents

Beyond employing effective strategies in the classroom, Bryant teachers learned the value of clearly communicating standards and their purpose to students and the community. In response to the confusion and even distrust that accompanied the shift to Common Core, teachers and administrators spoke directly about the standards and dispelled the myths. Stine began each school year by putting the English language arts standards on the classroom overhead for her ninth graders to read. Once the students understood the standards and their purpose, they grew less anxious about the year ahead and more receptive to the challenges Stine gave them.

Bryant teachers explained that conveying that same message about the new standards to parents was harder, perhaps due to the misinformation that arose in the public debate over Common Core. Teachers hosted open houses called Math Nights to clear up misconceptions and field questions and concerns about education standards. For Nancy Papacek, a kindergarten teacher at Bryant Elementary, this kind of outreach was an opportunity to speak openly and directly with parents. “We’ve got the freedom to choose the curriculum to teach so that our kids can master those standards,” she said. “Once parents understand what it is they’re shooting for, they don’t push back as much.”

Teachers were encouraged by the steady, incremental advances they saw in their classrooms. And because their curriculum was a “living document,” they were able to tweak it in ways they believed would only yield better outcomes for their students.