You Had me at DBI

This post was written by Angie Tweit, a Kindergarten teacher in Juliaetta. Angie was a Core Teacher during the 2014-2015 school year and is currently part of the Alumni Program. Read how she leverages the mystery of a DBI to empower her learners.

I received several emails from Jill and April with an invitation to attend an upcoming Alumni Core Teacher workshop. I glanced at them feeling the immediate tug-of-war between wanting to attend and knowing the demands in my classroom and school. As my eyes scanned through the fourth, and probably final email, three words jumped off the screen: Document Based Inquiry. The pull from April’s invitation had just given that final tug and I knew I had to go!

Why document based inquiry? I have experienced the power of this amazing activity first as a learner and then as a teacher. My first experience was the Mann Gulch DBI. This experience inspired me to craft an elementary DBI: first for my kindergarten class (it was kind of a flop…but good to go through the process) and then for a 3-6 grade history club group (this one was, if I do say so myself, AMAZING!)

tweitdbiHere is what I have found to be empowering about DBI’s:

The Hook: There is something about a sealed envelope with mysterious documents that gets the learner’s blood pumping!

The Scaffolds: Reading through an abundance of complex text can be overwhelming. Breaking the reading and writing into chunks supports the learner by making the task at hand less daunting.

The Collaboration: Everyone gets a chance to share their thinking. There is power in comparing and contrasting the evidence gleaned from the text.

The Evidence: When you have eight-year-olds referring back to the text to prove their argument, you’ve empowered them with factual evidence they can trust and use to prove their point. For many, this will be a first and strong building block for future investigation, evidence-seeking, and argument-building.

The Interpretation: This is where the “boys become men” through synthesis. Students connect the information and developing an interpretation that is backed up with text-based evidence.

The Flow: The sense of urgency and discovery provide a moment in time where the outside world just disappears and the reader is sucked into a vacuum-like state where only the text before them exists.

By creating an environment where learners can fully immerse themselves in rigorous content, we give them the opportunity to stretch their critical thinking limits, as they also become more proficient readers and writers.

Standards Implementation Meetings

This post is written by Carolyn Kluss, the ELA Department Chair/Librarian at Sacajawea Junior High in Lewiston, Idaho. Carolyn was a Core Teacher during the 2015-2016 Core Teacher Program and is currently part of the Alumni Program. Read how she empowers her fellow teachers through a strength-based approach during monthly department meetings. 

During our September Alumni meeting in Lewiston, with April Niemela and Jill Diamond, Core Alumni members each brought a core-aligned strategy or celebration to share with the larger group. After participating in this “Celebration Circle,” I recognized the power it has to affirm the great work being done and allow teachers to share ideas, strategies, successes or even the lessons that didn’t quite work the way we pictured them, in a celebratory, nonjudgmental format.  I decided to bring this strategy back to our monthly English/Language Arts department meetings.  I am the ELA department chair and serve as school librarian now, no longer actively teaching in a classroom.  We have nine people in our department, two at each grade level (7-9), two exploratory/elective teachers, and myself.  Five of our nine staff members (including myself) have taken (or are currently in) the Idaho Core Teacher Program, and my goal for this celebration circle was to spread the ideas and excitement to all ELA staff by sharing resources, gaining knowledge and core-aligned strategies, and hopefully enticing additional ELA staff to participate in the Idaho Core Network in future years.

I modeled the “guided feedback” on sentence starters used during our Alumni celebration sharing and have the following feedback options:

  • When you _________, it [supports, challenges, creates] by ____________.
  • This strategy has the power to _________ by [providing, honoring, creating] ________.
  • Your support of student learning is apparent by ____________.
  • OR Your own choice of response.

Kluss.jpgThese are posted on an easel close to the circle, and I provide sticky notes and pens for all of us to provide feedback once each person has shared.

Our “Celebration Circle” has gone over very well and we are doing this each month, so that core teachers can showcase and celebrate their core aligned strategies and all teachers can share their successful strategies and lessons with excitement and among willing listeners.  Staff members have spent time talking about vertical alignment and sharing resources during and after each meeting.  It has been very positive and productive and teachers can follow up on these discussions during our monthly grade level meetings.  This strategy has been a great addition to our monthly meetings, and we get a chance to celebrate each other’s great lessons and ideas, which brings a positive energy to our sharing.  It also gives teachers another option/idea to utilize guided feedback and have options for classroom discussions.

We have discovered that we only have time for 4 or 5 teachers to share, in our 30 minute time frame, so about half the ELA staff shares each month.  We will definitely continue to use this strategy in our meetings, possible with some additional focus (argument writing lessons), as we approach ISAT testing season!

Shoveling a Path Through the Snowdrifts for New Teachers

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, closeupThis post was written by Amy Ballard, who teaches English, Creative Writing, Speech, and Drama at Camas County High School. She is a Returning Teacher in the Idaho Core Teacher Network program in Region V. Catch her presentation entitled “Faith and the Public School Teacher” at the Federal Programs Conference in Boise in April. Amy also presents on topics in ELA at conferences and in school-level professional development settings. Contact her at amy (at) or visit her Web site, This post was cross-posted from her personal blog.

“The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” –II Timothy 2:2

Record snowfall, sub-zero temps, high winds. . .the perfect recipe for a snow day. My southern Idaho district has had a few of them this year–five, to be exact–and the weather forecast indicates prime conditions for another snow day tomorrow. Some of my fellow teachers are sick to death of snow. And it has been inconvenient. But then, I know a farmer who prays every year for just such an “inconvenient snow” to give moisture for the summer’s crops. This year, she sure saw her prayers answered!

Yesterday, I uncharacteristically picked up a shovel and cleared a path through some three feet of snow (deeper in places where the wind had drifted it) to the woodshed. The experience reminded me how wimpy I really am (had to take a break half-way through, and by the time the path was clear, I was so tired I didn’t know if I could survive the actual carrying-the-wood part). How much more grateful I am today for my wood fire because of the effort I went to to get it.

Now, my three kids can use the path I cleared. This morning they each brought me an armload of wood from the shed–something they would not have been able to do if I had continued to ignore the arduous chore of shoveling that path.

In teaching, sometimes, we need someone to clear a path for us, too. As a young teacher, I often found myself struggling with classroom management, organization, or maintaining student engagement. Teachers with far more experience offered a listening ear and the much-needed use of their tool-kits at the moment when I was most frustrated. God placed compassionate, skilled mentors in my life who had shoveled that path, clearing the way for me to find success in the classroom. I’m so grateful!

If you’ve been teaching for fewer than ten years, you probably don’t feel like an “expert” yet. Maybe you never will, because teaching is a constantly changing world, and wise teachers know they must continue to learn and grow throughout their careers. But even with a few school years under your belt, you have the needed perspective to help someone newer than you.

In fact, you might already have put in the grunt work to clear one of these paths for new teachers:

  • Identifying priorities in work and in life
  • Aligning lessons to standards
  • Lesson planning
  • Creating effective plans for subs
  • Communicating with parents
  • Meeting the needs of diverse learners
  • Implementing character education or other program
  • Getting the most out of professional development
  • Planning for efficient use of prep time
  • Using formative assessments effectively
  • Reflecting on successes and growth areas
You’ve been down that path. You had a tough time, and it was work. Real work. Now it’s time to take on the role of a mentor and help someone else get through the same snowdrift.
What “snowdrifts” could you help another teacher through? What drifts do you need help shoveling? Share in the comments, then go get that shovel!

Lakeland Core: Driving Change through Three Vehicles

Lakeland Core Teachers Amy Sheppard, Chantelle Kirk, and Kelly Chaney give feedback on Essential Questions during a gallery walk on a Lakeland Core Workshop Day.

By Katie Graupman, Region 1 Idaho Core Coach

Have you ever wondered what would happen if teachers from the same district were given job-embedded time to explore student-centered learning, collaborate, and create units for their students?   The Lakeland Joint School District is finding out.  And the drivers of this change?  A group of nine teacher leaders who have all participated in at least one year of the Idaho Core Teacher Program.

Three Vehicles

The group, which calls itself the Lakeland Core, came together in the 2015-2016 school year with a proposal for the Lakeland School District.  They began by offering the district three plans, which they called the Bicycle Plan, the Car Plan, and the Plane Plan.  The Bicycle Plan, which the District adopted the first year, involved each teacher leader delivering four professional development sessions, spread throughout the year, on late-start Mondays.  Covering topics from Growth Mindset to Document-Based Inquiry, teachers differentiated for grade level teams while engaging the entire district in workshops on the same topic.  

Lakeland Assistant Superintendent Lisa Sexton explains, “When Idaho adopted the Core Standards, it was evident that very large shifts in instructional practice had to occur for our students to excel in this environment of increased rigor.  Early on, a group of forward thinking Lakeland teachers applied to participate in the Idaho Core Coaching Network.  These teachers brought professional development back to their buildings.  We saw the spark of a grassroots movement in our district as a result.  In the ensuing years, this dedicated group of teachers pooled their talents and considerable areas of expertise and created a strong framework for professional growth for teachers in our district.”

Megan Ferguson, a teacher leader with the group, said last year was “crucial” for the Lakeland Core.  It developed a common vocabulary among all the teachers in the district, and, as teacher leader Connie Wilkerson points out, it “planted the seeds” for what was to come.

What was to come was an upgrade to the Car Plan.  As a vehicle for learning, the Car Plan offers 15 teachers in the district, representing every grade level, eight days of job-embedded learning (two in summer 2016, five over the school year, and one in June 2017) to collaboratively create, teach, and refine units for the district.  

“We learned we needed to go deeper,” said Teacher Leader Cherokee Gorton.  “We needed to get to application.”  

The Plane Plan, which has not been adopted, involved creating instructional coaching positions at the secondary level.  

Incredible Impact

As a result of the Car Plan, teachers, administrators, and students are experiencing the difference.

“More teachers have gotten involved,” said Teacher Leader Julie Anderson.  “Teachers are excited to start, learn, and develop units.”  

It’s also creating collaboration across the curriculum.  “As a content [science] teacher, I have found that it’s not just about teaching the content, it’s about teaching skills.  And because of that, I can collaborate with a social studies teacher about students learning the same skills,” Gorton said.

Trisha Miles, a Garwood Elementary special education teacher participating in the Lakeland Core said the Core offers her “collegiality and work time we just don’t get in the classroom,” explaining that she appreciates spending time “perfecting our craft…Even though it’s hard work, it’s an enriching environment to be in,” she said.

Administrators have seen results.  Kathy Thomas, Athol Elementary Principal, calls the professional development modeled by the Idaho Core and the Lakeland Core, “the strongest professional development I’ve seen us participate in.  It becomes so embedded, and it’s different from the traditional workshop, which creates great intentions with little follow through.”  Instead, Thomas points to the “support, structure, and instructionally sound” practices promoted in the Core as making the difference.

Sexton adds, “Our incredible teacher leaders are replicating the learning they did as part of the Idaho Core Coaching Network.  The professional development they are offering is highly engaging, relevant, and most importantly strongly impacting student achievement in our district.”

As Sexton points out, the end result is a better learning experience for students.  “Students are finding it valuable, taking it home and talking to parents about what we’re doing in class,” said Teacher Leader Julie Anderson.  

“Students interact with the content.  It’s no longer sit and get,” said Teacher Leader Laura Spurway.  

Three Key Components

The teacher leaders of the Lakeland Core are quick to point to key components that make their group viable.

  • Democratic Values: While Ferguson, a high school teacher; Spurway, a gifted and talented teacher; and Anderson, an elementary teacher, are the three official leaders of the Lakeland Core, decisions are arrived at democratically among all nine teacher leaders.  All nine teacher leaders meet once per quarter to plan, demonstrate, and refine their own teaching practices with one another in preparation for working with the Lakeland Core teachers.  This gives each teacher leader voice in the process. 
  • District Buy-In:  Although the teacher leaders proposed and run the Lakeland Core, they quickly point out this would not be possible without District support.  The District has allocated time, money, and resources for this endeavor. “We view this as the District giving back to teachers,” Spurway said.  

From the District perspective, Sexton says, the Lakeland Core has led to authentic, lasting change.  “Change that is directed and mandated from the top down does not occur system-wide, especially second order change.  But when change is facilitated from the ground up, teachers buy-in and are empowered to be the best they can be for their students.  The impact of the Idaho Core Coaching Network is far-reaching in our district because teachers took the lead in effecting change.  Our professional development model is one of the great things happening in Lakeland of which I am most proud.  I fully support these fine teachers and have learned that the best way to help them is to stand back and let them do what they do so well, teach!”

  • Risk Taking:  The teacher leaders in the Lakeland Core explain they never would have reached this point had they not been willing to take risks. Proposing such a bold plan to district administration in the first place required faith in the skills and content they had learned in the Idaho Core Program.  The program also gave the teacher leaders a community  of like-minded teachers, which made it safe to take risks with one another, experiment, and grow.  During their quarterly planning time, for example, teacher leaders workshop their workshops, give feedback to one another, and refine their practices.  

I once heard at a Teach to Lead Summit, “Every problem in education can get solved if you just get a teacher involved!”  Imagine the possibilities when you get a group of twenty-four teachers involved, all with a common purpose, commitment and understanding.  

In Lakeland, they’re finding out.

What is Your Hope?

Post written by Janell Teichmer, a 7th grade teacher at Sacajawea Junior High in Lewiston. Janell was a Core Teacher during the 2014-2015 school year, a Returning Teacher during the 2015-2016 school year, and is currently part of the Alumni Program. Read how she builds a strong risk-taking community even as she engages her students in deep thinking around the topic of hope and making a difference.

I am the type of teacher who begins having nightmares at the end of July that my classroom will not be ready for the first day of school at the end of August.  I start waking up in the middle of the night and planning what my new back-to-school bulletin board will look like or how I want to arrange my desks.  I think this is my body’s way of saying, “You’ve had enough mental rest, now get to work!”

So in those hot days of this past summer, I began to think about my hopes for the new school year.  I hoped my students would feel safe, supported, and excited to embark on this new year with me.  One of the biggest struggles I have in junior high is creating a classroom community; I only have each class for 47 minutes a day, so it’s imperative that I start the year off with building that positive community as my main focus.  

The first day of school in a new junior high is so stressful for students.  They are worried about what we adults perceive as little things, but are huge worries for them; who will they sit with at lunch?  What if they get lost in the hall?  What if they forget where their locker is?  In addition to the stress, they are on an emotional rollercoaster.  They are so excited to be a junior high student, yet as the day progresses, their excitement slowly ebbs.  They’re tired.  They’ve heard about rules in every class.  They’ve gone over procedures that they won’t remember tomorrow.  They’ll  been assigned seats that they’ll forget.  They’re over it already!  So as I started my mid-summer freak out about what I’ll be teaching the first week of school, I knew I wanted it to be different than what I had done before.  I knew I wanted to jump right in with building community and getting to know my students as writers, readers, and overall humans!!  

As the end of August was creeping in, my beginning of the year plan was still blank.  Although I’d spent many fruitless hours searching Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers, I truly could not find what I was looking for…until I stumbled upon a text in a teacher training.  Typically I’m not a very emotional person, especially in teacher trainings, but for some reason this text just resonated with me.  It was a short, powerful story about how one person can change the world. “The moral:  You can change the world – maybe not all at once, but one person, one animal, and one good deed at a time.  Wake up every morning and pretend like what you do makes a difference.  It does.”

All the Difference in the World text

I literally got goosebumps reading this text.  I knew it was something I could use right off the bat in my classroom.  It’s such a powerful, motivating message.  That night, after a full two days of teacher meetings, I whipped out a beginning of the year lesson that I was SO EXCITED about!  I finally had something that I knew would help me get to know my students’ fears, dreams, hopes, and help me get started with building connections with them right away.

As my new students entered the room the very first day, I was nervous.  What if it was chaos because I wasn’t assigning seats or going over rules and procedures?  Instead, they chose a seat, received a notecatcher, and began writing down their notices and wonderings from an envelope of pictures.  These pictures consisted of memes with motivating quotes about making a difference, and a photo of the beautiful moment from the 2016 summer Olympics (another moment that gave me goosebumps!).   


Read Full Story Here


From Notecatcher

After sharing their wonderings in table groups, we watched a short video called “What is Your Hope”.  I had noticed this video circulating on social media, and as soon as I found the All The Difference in the World article, I knew this would be a good match.

What is Your Hope video

Honestly, students seemed less impressed with this video than I was, but I needed it to transition into the next activity.  We modeled what the teachers and students did in this video and charted our hopes on posters around the room.  This is where things got interesting.  I learned so much from this short activity.

 hope-1  hope-2

Mostly, they have huge, compassionate hearts!  They noticed that most of their peers had the same fears, hopes, and wishes for the future.  This helped ease their first day jitters, and also opened up conversations about how to help others achieve their hopes and overcome their fears about the first days of school.  But most importantly, they have already learned how to respectfully argue…

 trump “I hope that Trump is a good president.”


“I hope we don’t get Trump.”



We then transitioned into reading the All the Difference in the World text.  My intention was for students to realize that small acts can have a huge impact on others.  I ended the lesson by watching a short video, A Smile Can Change a First Impression (PERFECT for the first days of school!).  With these four tasks in place, students had enough information to begin brainstorming a list of ideas of how they can make a difference in the world.


Finally, we were ready for our final writing task.  Students were asked to answer the essential question: How can I make a difference in the world?  As students began their final task, I roamed around the room making informal observations and anecdotal notes.  I could tell who embraced writing with a passion and the ones who came to my room with a fixed mindset about their skills…all of this within the first few days of school.  I knew their hopes, their worries, their writing skills (as well as parents’ political views!) But most importantly, I started fostering a collaborative and caring classroom community from the first days of school.  In the process, they all figured out that our classroom rules are to be respectful, be engaged, and be hopeful...and they didn’t have to sit and listen to me lecture it to them on day one!

I hope I remember to do this next year…

User Stories

We want to thank Tammy McMorrow, Region 3 teacher leader, for allowing us to publish this post. Her take on user stories elaborates upon an important component of unit design. Truly, the first graders in Miss McMorrow’s classroom are blessed to have such a thoughtful, caring teacher. Be sure to check out more of Tammy’s posts at foreverin1stforeverinfirstnewdesign

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Saturday Sayings: User Stories

Who are the users represented in your classroom? No doubt you have a unique set.

Here are a few of mine.

  • the active student
  • the special needs student
  • the advanced student
  • the reluctant student

I’m in a program this year called the Idaho Coaching Network which supports teacher leaders specifically in the areas of ELA and Literacy. The coaches have prompted us to think about our users when designing units.

Who are my users?
What will my users want to get out of this unit?
How do I best meet their needs?

Yet the most enlightening part of this conversation came when I was asked to consider user stories. Here is the user story template.

As a (role) student I want (feature or practice) so that (benefit).

For example, when considering my active students, I wrote their user story like this:

As an active student I want to move and create so that I can learn and think better.

Each user has their own story, and the challenge is to keep their stories in mind when planning our time with those users. I believe it’s worth taking the time to write their stories down and then think deeply how to meet their needs in a practical way throughout our teaching. I know I’m guilty at times of teaching to the elusive average student, who by the way doesn’t even exist, while there are students around the edges who need an open door to content. They need a teacher who is aware of their needs and has provided a way to access the curriculum. As Couros suggests, it’s wise to think about the learning from their perspective.

Using Model Texts with Students

Our humble thanks to Cyndi Faircloth, a Region 2 Teacher Leader and 6th grade teacher from Moscow Middle School in Moscow, Idaho, who has penned this next blog post. Cross-posted from a collaborative blog she contributes to, Pens & Palsthis post describes a book that Cyndi is considering as a model text for her 6th grade language arts class.

Memoirs aren’t always very useful for a middle school teacher as a model text. Many times what makes a memoir “memorable”, or worth telling the story, is how the author overcame the emotional trauma left by some dramatic incident(s) in their life.

But one of the books I reread this summer provides some passages that may be useful in talking about craft with my sixth graders next year. I have used it with high school students before, but I reread Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, by Bich Minh Nguyen, with a younger audience in mind and believe the subject matter will definitely appeal to them. The author of the memoir is remembering the period in her life when she was of an age with middle school students, and her experiences are engaging and vivid.

Saving Buddhas DinnerNguyen tells the story of growing up in the midwest during the ‘70s and ‘80s. She was a Vietnamese refugee who, according to the book’s liner notes, was “filled with a rapacious hunger for American identity.”

Nguyen describes various family members with detail in such a way that passages might serve as models for indirect characterization. When the reader first meets Nguyen’s Latina stepmother, we glimpse how the melding of cultures might look when merging a Mexican-American single-parent household with a Vietnamese one. In this scene, Rosa is meeting Nguyen’s grandmother, Noi, for the first time.

Soon, Rosa would be standing in our house on Baldwin, laughing at the fruit on the altar. It belonged in the kitchen, she said, not the living room. She picked up an orange from the altar and Noi shook her head. Without English to explain, my grandmother gently pulled the fruit out of Rosa’s hand and set it back on its plate. Rosa understood then. “It’s your custom,” she would say later, year after year, Tet after Tet. “It’s the way Vietnamese do things.” (p. 21)

Small details, but Rosa’s words convey an acceptance of differences more vividly than a direct description might. The paragraph can serve as an example of how the reader might make inferences about a character from the details included.

I imagine using a paragraph like this one in discussing characterization with my students. As a follow-up writing exercise, I may have them choose a random characteristic and brainstorm some actions that might convey that characteristic without naming it. Then they can share their list of actions, and see if other students can guess the characteristic they would be trying to give their character.

Another passage would serve well for a model text about description. It is a scene where Nguyen has been invited to dinner at the house of one of her American friends for the first time. She contrasts dinner at her house with dinner at Holly’s house. Nguyen explained that she was nervous and planned to copy everything that her friend did, in order to navigate this new experience.

At her house, the family “…fell to eating, using chopsticks to loop up skeins of noodles and suck them into their mouths, and Chinese spoons to slurp the broth. Having dinner with the Jansens, I realized how much noise, how much of a mess, everyone in my family made. We chomped down big mouthfuls of food, splashed the table and ourselves, snatched sprigs of coriander with our hands. We spiced our soups until our tongues burned, our foreheads glazed with sweat.”  (p. 92)

In the next paragraph, she contrasts these details with a description of the formality she experienced at Holly’s “American” house.

“…I picked up the knife and fork, grasping them the way she did. I planted the fork into the graying wedge of meat, making sure I had a good grip. But cutting the meat wasn’t as easy as it looked. The pork was tough, and I couldn’t figure out where the bone was exactly, or how to maneuver around it. My heart pounding, I continued sawing away. I began to feel some progress, some give. Inside, the meat was a duller gray, and dry straight through.” (p. 92)

I imagine using these examples to discuss how contrasting details can convey information about a setting, person, or thing.

I thoroughly enjoyed Stealing Buddha’s Dinner as a book to read. The book is definitely full of humor. But it also conveys what it might be like to be a refugee: trying to survive, adapt, and (ultimately) assimilate into American culture, but at the same time to honor and remember aspects of one’s own culture and heritage.

It is such a timely topic in the world today.

But, I also found myself wearing my “teacher hat” frequently and underlining phrases, folding down corners, and writing notes in the margins of my book to remember how I imagined using pieces of the book as a model text.

If you’re looking for a book with “voice”, this is one of my favorite examples. Has anyone else used it in their classroom?

Author’s Note: Cyndi Faircloth contributes to a blog called The three teacher-authors of this blog have been “pen pals” for several years, collaborating via email and text message to share ideas for teaching. This year, they decided to formalize their collaboration and blog about their ideas and experiences. They reflect on the trials and triumphs of teaching, share ideas about books – both to use in class and to share with students — as well as write about the kinds of teaching-related issues that always seem to come up when two or more teachers run into each other somewhere.

Active Learning: Good for Teachers Too.

The bell rings… rushing into the gym it smells like stale socks, new sneakers, and Axe body spray. There they are… The dreaded ropes. I can’t believe this. It is the first day at a new school, and I have got to be the smallest kid in here.

Is that a boy or gorilla? Heck, he is the hairiest person I have ever seen. He can’t possibly be just 14 years old.

The words of warning my brother had shared echoed in my brain. “If you don’t make it up, the older boys will never leave you alone.”

The nightmarish daydream was shattered by Coach Peterson yelling, “Older boys on the ropes…” as he walked in the gym. This might not be the  worst year of my life, but I am going to have to learn how to hide in the midst of the sweaty beasts. Lay low and don’t be seen ever again.

While this may seem quite different from your Freshman English class, the truth is that both new and experienced teachers feel like the smallest kid in gym class, laying low by keeping their classroom doors and mouths shut, afraid that disclosing their struggles will reveal inadequacies as a teacher. The prospect of sharing unit plans or student work samples makes many teachers feel as vulnerable and exposed as a freshman in their first day of gym class.

A supportive team, like the Idaho Coaching Network, creates an environment where teachers feel comfortable to share their work, warts and all, for the purpose of learning from one another in order to strengthen planning and instruction. That process may feel as daunting and exhausting as the first day of gym class, but it offers the same kind of reward for a teacher’s spirit as exercise does for their body, and like Coach Peterson’s gym class, the Idaho Coaching Network serves as a supportive and caring community for teachers to fling their classroom doors open and strengthen their skills. It’s a gym for professional practice with many that have gone before, without the yelling and ropes.

Bodies get stronger when they move. Likewise, a teacher’s brain needs to be engaged in active learning strategies to strengthen his or her professional practice. Charles Bonewell and James Eison (1991) define active learning as any instructional method that engages students in the learning process, thinking about what they are doing. Their definition of active learning is as broad as the number of exercises that be can be found in a gym, and there are just as many options for teacher professional development. An essential active learning strategy for educators in the Idaho Coaching Network is reflection on their unit plans and student work. This is a versatile practice because every classroom harbors the opportunity to consider the relationship between a teacher’s planning and what a student produces through the learning process. Despite the value, it is an exercise that many teachers avoid, for fear of being vulnerable.

The experiences of a pair of first grade teachers in the Idaho Coaching Network, JK and LD, illustrates one way that makes teachers more comfortable with vulnerability, a shared-interest. LD teaches in a rural district, with few colleagues in the same grade level; while JK works for a large suburban district. Both of them drafted units about math instruction with the intention of revising and sharing them as example units with colleagues. Before sharing with a wider audience, they exchanged those units, along with their student work, with one another, a form of active learning because they reflected on their classroom experiences together. Over the course of four days, they revised their units, based on the reflection process and feedback they exchanged. Their shared interest in math instruction and the joint process of thinking about what they did in their unit made them comfortable being vulnerable with one another and allowed them to engage deeply in active learning.

Another factor that made this active learning meaningful for JK and LD is the peer to peer support. Coaches within the Idaho Coaching Network are available to support teachers throughout the year. The connection between teachers provides a different and powerful form of engagement because they are going through the same experience with a peer, rather than a mentor/mentee power dynamic. When a group of teachers reflect on their practice together, it makes it easier to start the process and engages them deeply in the work.

Numerous forms of professional development for teachers may employ active learning strategies, and it is easy to steer away from the ones that may trigger feelings of discomfort, such as reflecting on unit plans and student work, but grappling with topics of interest, with colleagues makes the more daunting forms of active learning more accessible and feasible. In the Idaho Core Coaching Network, the work accomplished is about digging deep into lesson design, forging strong professional bonds, actively learning with the end goal of impacting student achievement. The work we do is tantamount to the bellowed words of Coach Peterson. In the Idaho Coaching Network, “No one climbs the ropes alone!”
Bonwell, C.C., and J. A. Eison. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1, (iii).

Rethinking the power of content focused PD


Like a team of superheroes, the Idaho Coaching Network is made up of experienced educators with a variety of strengths who come together to form a dynamic team. With  Avenger-like power, content focused professional development transforms educators into powerful forces for learning and learners. This type of professional development sets up a support system for helping teachers rebuild, restructure, and rethink their approaches to their instruction.

According to co-director, Dr. April Niemela,  “Content area focused PD focuses on shared literacy strategies and supports teachers through transfer and application into specific subject areas” (2016). This means that they can take these tools and use them to scaffold and sequence instruction.  For example, in the Bear Lake School District, a middle school math teacher had practiced a Socratic seminar in a meeting and was so impressed with the conversation generated by the strategy that she took it back to her math class and created a Socratic seminar focused on math concepts. Students questioned and shared their thought processes about mathematical questions, which deepened each student’s conceptual and procedural  knowledge and understanding. Another teacher in Boise who teaches English was able to participate in a Socratic seminar and then transfer not only the seminar into her classroom but a technological component as well. By inviting students to tweet while sitting in the outside circle of the seminar, all students were able to discuss and question. This conversation continued throughout the day, and students who participated in the seminar in the morning were able to continue to the conversation in the afternoon via Twitter. Students carried the discussion outside of the classroom and made the seminar an engaging, authentic experience.

Another method of providing content area PD is through inquiry. Through the practice of inquiry, educators mine their content standards for critical elements and focus on the powerful components. According to inquiry guru Jeff Wilhelm in his book Inquiring Minds Learn to Read and Write (2009), inquiry focuses on the why of learning and makes it authentic for participants. When teachers go through the inquiry process themselves, they understand the why of their content and transfer it to their instruction. Students then transfer their learning to their own world, which adds to the number of informed, critical thinkers in our communities. And this, of course, is the superpower that will change the world.

Written by: Brandon Bolyard, Nancy Chaffin, Ann Christensen, Idaho Coaching Network coaches

Collective Participation

        “What am I doing here?  I teach physical science!”  

When Tammie, seated at a table with other teachers from her district, expressed this concern, I began to move toward her to share words of encouragement.   Deanna got there before me.  “I teach third grade but I want to create a science unit.  Here’s what I’m thinking…”  Heather chimed in, “Oh!  I want to do a unit on weather.”  Tammie looked relieved, if not a little surprised, and accepted these invitations to collaborate.  

        Tammie, Deanna, and Heather were experiencing Collective Participation.  They were from different districts and taught different grade levels (middle school, 3rd, and 4th grade, respectively), but they shared the content of science.  Through this lens, even thought Tammie was incorporating the ELA skills of speaking, listening, reading, and writing in ways she had never practiced before, she was bolstered by her colleagues and able to contribute, share, and grow with their support.

        The teacher is not an island, after all—and that’s a good thing!

As part of the exploration of effective professional development, the Idaho Coaching Network has taken a look at the power of Collective Participation and its impact on teacher learning, growth, and self-efficacy.  Collective Participation involves the participation of teachers from the same school, grade level, or content department. When teachers have the opportunity to participate in professional learning with “like” teachers, research shows that they are more likely to integrate strategies into their classroom practice — and that this learning impacts student achievement scores (Greenleaf et al., 2010).

In many Idaho school districts, especially in rural districts, there may be only one secondary science teacher, or only one 3rd grade teacher, or even one music teacher for the entire district. Through participation in the Core Teacher Program, teachers are intentionally grouped by grade level and content area and provided time to discuss and problem-solve. When Angie Tweit, Kindergarten teacher from Juliaetta (Region 2), shared her desire to get students engaged in purposeful talk with a preschool teacher from Genesee and other Kindergarten teachers from Kamiah, she found both validation and ideas for age-appropriate discussion strategies. After pre-teaching and modeling, her 5 and 6-year olds actively engaged in a Gallery Walk on the various jobs people have, discussing their observations along the way. At other times, teachers are grouped heterogeneously, as we recognize the power of cross-pollination and outside perspectives. (concrete example). And it’s partly due to this working with other teachers in purposeful ways that generates synergistic collaborations. 

For Idaho’s larger schools and districts, Collective Participation means inviting multiple teachers of the same grade level or content area to participate. Research
emphasizes the importance of developing these pairs of teachers or even pockets
of professional communities within schools where teachers participate in professional development together, then go back to their schools to collaborate, share resources, tackle shared problems of practice, and sustain change over time (Garet et al., 2001).

Tammie, Deanna, and Heather were provided a professional learning community in which teachers can collaborate, share curriculum and resources, and discuss how students learn in science.

The three worked together throughout the year and unit design process; serving as thinking partners, brainstorming sequencing and learning opportunities, and counting on each other as colleagues even though they worked in different districts and at different grade levels.  Each teacher benefited from the insight of the others.  With every conversation, each was convincing the other that science and ELA do go together; each was building the confidence and competence of the others.