Education is built upon a foundation of strong communication. Students, communities, parents, principals, and teachers are constantly collaborating to elucidate and accommodate the needs of students. As such, a teacher’s role in this correspondence is vital. Over the past two years I have been fortunate to work in a district that backs the notion that teacher voice is a powerful tool. The observations and discussions of teachers can help to build upon the school’s structure, environment, and philosophy.
At the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year, Molly Knott (1st-4th grade Talent Development Teacher) and I began receiving emails from teachers asking what they can do to address the needs of their high ability learners. We started talking about different ways we could help the teachers, and decided to write a “Strategy of the Week.” After acquiring permission from our principal, and after much discussion, the inaugural email was written. Throughout the course of the year, we have written a new strategy each week to help teachers think of new ways to address student needs. Our topics have ranged from using Frayer Models, to creating passion projects, to allowing students to participate in newscast interviews. Below are three of my favorite strategies from the year.
In the silent discussions, students work collaboratively on a teacher-created, shared Google document, to answer and discuss questions. In this model, the teacher begins by assigning groups a shared document that contains 5-10 questions. Each student selects a text color to use. Students take turns answering the questions in the boxes. They may also respond to what their peers have written. The rules for a silent discussion included: only one student may write in a box at a time, and all responses must include evidence to support why you agree or disagree with your peers.
The um contest is a tool used to enhance students’ listening and speaking abilities. The game also helps students with writing, as it forces them to remain focused on a topic, while answering a specific question. During the activity, students must attempt to speak for a designated amount of time about a specific subject, without using any filler words (um, ah, like). At the conclusion of every round 15 seconds are added to the timer to increase the difficulty level.
The teacher begins by selecting four main characters from a novel. Students must then create interview questions to ask each of these characters. They must also become experts on the characters in order to answer questions, from the characters’ perspective. On day one, students prepare their questions and practice interviews with peers. Their goal is to continue a dialogue for 5 minutes. On day two, the teacher selects names from three different containers. In the first container is a student’s name. This student becomes the first interviewer. In the second container is a second students’ name. This student becomes the interviewee. In the final container are the four characters names. This determines what character role the interviewee will play. Each pair can either present to the entire class, or you can have pairs meet up around the room for interviews as you monitor. This activity keeps the students engaged, while letting you gauge their depth of understanding.
Through this forum, we have been able to share strategies that work with students at the high end of the educational spectrum as well as those of varying ability levels. Our efforts were met with overwhelming response from both our principal and teachers, who were able to find new tools that worked for them. The most valuable piece that Molly and I gained was in knowing that our ideas and thoughts were valued and that our district encouraged us to share our thinking. Throughout the year teachers have shared with us how they have used, and/or modified one of the ideas to work with their students. In fact, the other day a teacher came up to me and informed me that they were shocked to find that during the “um” contest one of their quietest students was able to talk the longest. She was amazed at how focused the student was able to remain, and how eager the other students were to play another round. Although this is just one example of how teacher voice assisted others in our school, there are many more examples of teachers helping one another throughout our district.
The celebration of open communication and teacher voice has been evident in our district throughout the year. Our new superintendent made the effort to visit each school and hold open forums amongst faculty. He did the same with the community, which promoted the mindset that our faculty is available and ready to listen to not only teachers, but all members that hold a stake in the education of District 102 students. It is through these efforts and examples that our staff finds value in the work they do. Too often I have worked in districts in which teachers can be heard grumbling during lunch breaks about issues that reflect a lack of communication between administration and staff. In great schools where teachers, students, and parents are all truly excited to be a part of the community, the key component is teacher voice. Listening to the ideas we each have, whether for scheduling changes, strategies we use, or how to handle a particularly difficult situation creates a feeling of efficacy and purpose. The best ideas most often come from those with similar experience and insight.