IE’s Academic Teaming Featured in Carol Ann Tomlinson’s Book

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The following excerpt was published in So Each May Soar by Carol Ann Tomlinson (2021, p. 224-229) and was reproduced with permission.

Shelby Bellamy teaches 2nd graders at William D. Moseley Elementary School in Putnam County, Florida. In 2017, Moseley was the fifth-lowest-performing traditional public school in the entire state. As part of turning the school around, Mrs. Bellamy and other Moseley teachers began to use a new instructional process called student-led academic teaming*, which was developed by Instructional Empowerment (IE’s) Applied Research Center. In just two years, Moseley rose from a low-F letter grade in Florida’s accountability system to a C. School leaders and faculty aspire to become an “A” school and believe they are on the way. In addition to the gains in academic achievement, Moseley saw improvement In social-emotional learning, academic rigor, and students taking true ownership of their own learning. Shelby Bellamy and Taylor Barahona from IE collaborated on the account that follows.

*For more information on academic teaming, see Toth & Sousa (2019) or https://instructionalempowerment.com/

 

Helping Students Own Their Own Learning

It’s mid-morning, and Mrs. Bellamy has just delivered a mini lesson to acquaint her students with science vocabulary she knows will be useful to them in today’s assignment. She takes care not to “over-teach” the words, knowing how it is important for her 2nd graders to unlock the significance of the terms themselves, working as scientists do to draw on current knowledge in order to discover new knowledge.

Mini lessons are a trusted part of Mrs. Bellamy’s instructional toolkit. On other days, and with other subject areas, she might model for the students how to look for context clues if they encounter an unfamiliar word in a text or share a think-aloud about how to use a chart or photograph as a tool for understanding text. She has seen how giving students regular opportunities to watch their teacher puzzle out a word or try different approaches to unlock meaning gives them confidence that they can do so as well.

The question Mrs. Bellamy’s students will explore in their academic teams today is How are flowers and pinecones alike? It’s a question is based on a science standard related to the life cycles of plants, and they’ll be approaching after having already learned about different types of plant life cycles in a prior lesson.  The “big idea” of life cycles helps students focus on what’s essential in the content and connect the various investigations they conduct.

Notably, when sharing the day’s questions Mrs. Bellamy does not specifically ask the students to compare the life cycles of plants and pine cones. She knows that her students need to realize for themselves that in focusing on the concept of life cycles, rather than solely on a set of factors and or details about plants and pine cones, they have found the key to what makes flowers and pinecones alike.

Students Own Every Lesson

As they usually do, the 2nd graders are working in their academic teams – typically groups of four students who work together toward a common academic goal.  Once these heterogeneous academic teams ae established, membership remains consistent over a period of about nine weeks so that its members can learn to share the same vision and values, work together almost seamlessly, trust one another, and support one another’s growth.   Two key student roles on academic teams are the facilitator, who leads the team and ensures that all students participate equally, and a learning monitor, who continually tracks the group’s progress toward meeting those criteria. Sometimes Mrs. Bellamy asks students to fill other roles as well.

The learning target for today’s science lesson, is actually derived from a reading standard: I can describe the connection between a series of historical events, scientific ideas or concepts, or steps in technical procedures in a text. The success criteria are: (1) I can identify the most important events, ideas, or steps in a text, and (2) I can explain how the events, ideas, or steps are connected. As Mrs. Bellamy and her colleagues plan lessons together, they regularly connect reading targets to a variety of content-area texts so that their students become accustomed to applying reading skills in whatever they read.

Each Monday, Mrs. Bellamy gives every student a chart that lists the week’s learning targets, success criteria, the mini-lessons she will lead, their Academic Teaming tasks, and exit ticket questions. Although they are only 2nd graders, each student knows how to use the chart to see what each lesson requires of them and what success will look like.

Once in their Academic Teams, students discuss the lesson’s learning target and success criteria. Mrs. Bellamy monitors these discussions closely, pausing at each table to listen attentively to each team’s conversation. If students accurately explain the learning target and what it will mean to achieve the success criteria, she knows the team is ready to move ahead. If the early discussion suggests their grasp on the lesson isn’t clear, then she poses a “small” prompting question to the team, designed to help students rethink their current understanding.  In cases where the group’s interpretation is just a little off course, she asks the clarifying question and moves on without waiting for an answer. If the team’s explanation indicates significant misunderstanding, she waits to hear the group response to her question. If necessary, she prompts again. Her goal is not to redirect the students herself, but rather to enable them to redirect themselves. Complete student ownership of the work is a key aim of student academic teams.

Next, each team establishes a plan for its work. Today, Step 1 calls for students to read a text segment related to the question for the activity. Sometimes the students “whisper read” to themselves so Mrs. Bellamy can hear them if she leans in and listens closely. Sometimes they decide to read in pairs or to have one student read the text aloud to the group. Teams often make this latter choice when one or more team members struggle with reading. They take seriously their responsibility to support one another’s success.

Today, after the reading is complete, students work independently to summarize their thinking about the lesson’s question, informed by both their prior knowledge and the content in the reading. To make their thinking public, they write their summaries on a corner of a “learning mat” that rests in the center of their table. The team members then share their summaries, discuss each student’s ideas, debate various options for answering the day’s question, come to a consensus on a team answer, and write the consensus answer in the center of the learning mat. To help students work efficiently and with focus, Mrs. Bellamy breaks the process into steps or stages, using a timer to let students know when they should be completing a segment of work. As students develop greater agency, individually and as a group, they will be able to manage their own time more effectively.

Four elementary-aged students in a classroom are sitting on a couch and the ground gathered around a small table. They are each writing on one side of a large square mat with dry erase markers.

Students Support One Another’s Success

As the teams move through the stages of their work, it’s common to hear the 8-year-olds ask one another questions such as, “What strategy did you use to figure that out?” and “Where in the text is your evidence for that idea?” Challenging one another’s thinking is a way of ensuring both group and individual understanding.

If any team member has a question or encounters a problem, that student knows to first consult their teammates for help. If the team cannot help unravel the problem, the student would turn next to another team. Everyone knows they can also go to Mrs. Bellamy for help, but they know too that working first with peers to address a dilemma or gap in understanding helps them all become more autonomous learners.

As in all classes, there are times when a student struggles, feels lost, wants to give up, or is just out of sorts. Today, Emma, an English learner, is having a hard time understanding a word in the text and is getting frustrated. Her teammate, Lily, realizing that Emma is bogged down, turns to help her, but she knows better than to just give Emma the answer, because that would not help her learn. Lily asks Emma a sequence of probing questions, waiting quietly for Emma’s response after each one. Other team members add helpful comments as well, including a reminder to use context clues to try to make sense of words. Mrs. Bellamy watches the exchange from a distance, pleased to see that Emma’s productive struggle, in the end, deepens her learning. Emma not only figures out the meaning of that particularly frustrating word but also gets the satisfaction of succeeding with a challenge that seemed out of reach just a few minutes before.

As she watches the group, Mrs. Bellamy reflects on how Academic Teaming supports students’ social growth as well as their academic growth. Emma has taken her work seriously since coming to Moseley Elementary, but before entering Mrs. Bellamy’s class and participating in Academic Teaming, she didn’t talk with other students or play with them on the playground.  In fact, Emma was so quiet that it took teachers a very long time to realize she had a significant language impairment beyond the challenge of learning a new language. Now, as a result of the bonding that happens among students on their teams and the opportunity teams provide for safe dialogue and contributions, Emma’s social skills and confidence have soared. The combination of “push and support” on the teams gives her much-needed oral language practice and academic vocabulary acquisition and also helps her feel like a contributing part of a team – accepted, cared about, and supporting the success of every other member.

Mrs. Bellamy has been struck by how teaming allows students to shine in ways they don’t or can’t in a more traditional teacher-centered classroom. “Working alone most of the time, many students aren’t going to be able to meet expectations; in the teams, they speak each other’s language, they say things in a way that an adult might not say them, and they have a level of comfort they will never have with adults,” she says. “It’s just different when they learn from peers and when they learn how to work together successfully. And they develop a level of agency in the teams that I just didn’t see in our students before we began using academic teams.”

She refers to another student who came into her class having already attended four other schools. It was quickly evident that he couldn’t read, and he only rarely spoke. The idea of being on a team was frightening to him, and he was embarrassed by his lack of literacy. But his team didn’t judge him, and with their help, he began demonstrating both academic growth and social growth on an almost daily basis. While he couldn’t read text at first, he could comprehend well when it was read to him, so while his teammates helped him with learning to read, he helped them understand what they had read. Now, when a student on his team is frustrated like he used to be, he will say to the student, “You don’t need to be frustrated. We can figure this out. Let’s work through this together!” If you ask Mrs. Bellamy, academic teams changed this boy’s life. He went from rarely having anyone in his corner to having a whole team – a whole class, a whole learning community – he can count on.

If you ask Mrs. Bellamy, academic teams changed this boy’s life. He went from rarely having anyone in his corner to having a whole team – a whole class, a whole learning community – he can count on. Click To Tweet

A female elementary-aged student is smiling with a mask on and standing in front of the data wall pointing to a small label which indicates her improvement. Ongoing Assessment is Key to Teacher and Student Success

As the pinecone lesson comes to an end, Mrs. Bellamy asks the teams to share their team summaries with the class and leads them in discussing and synthesizing what they learned in the lesson. Her pleasure in the students’ thinking is evident. After the discussion, each student completes the exit ticket for the lesson – a slip of paper posing a question that is related, but not identical, to the question for the lesson and calls on students to understand what they were exploring and transfer it to a slightly different context in order to answer. Also on each exit ticket is space for students to assess their own individual progress toward the learning target. The information Mrs. Bellamy gleans from exit ticket responses and exit ticket self-assessments, from team reports, and from class discussion, combined with her careful observation and systematic recording of responses during student teaming, keeps her well aware of individual, team, and class growth and learning needs. Based on what she learns, she regularly provides feedback to students and also conducts “micro interventions” with teams and individuals, as well as “full interventions” with small groups of students pulled from their groups for a short time to work directly with targeted needs.

In addition to her own persistent tracking of student progress, Mrs. Bellamy involves her students in understanding their own progress as well as the progress of their team and of the class as a whole. She notes, “My students know which targets they have and have not met before they begin a new team task. They have to be able to explain the targets so that if someone in their group hasn’t yet met one of them, they are ready to help that learner move forward.”

After a few more lessons, each academic team will create a comic strip that demonstrates their understanding of what life cycles are and how they work. The main character will be a plant of the team’s choice, which they must both depict and describe. Mrs. Bellamy points out that the stepwise format of a comic strip is well suited to depicting the stepwise sequence of a life cycle, and the students eagerly accept the challenge of generating work that is not only accurate but also communicates clearly and demonstrates their creativity. Mrs. Bellamy smiles as she recalls the energy and creativity that last year’s students displayed as they worked, including one group that named their plant Laura-Phil as a play on the word chlorophyll.

The classroom in which Mrs. Bellamy and her students work is now a place that nurtures and extends each student and their teacher. Academic Teaming has proven to be a learner-centered catalyst for the academic, emotional, and social development of each student and for all-around growth of their learning community.

Learn more about Academic Teaming

 

From So Each May Soar, by Carol Ann Tomlinson, Alexandria, VA: ASCD. © 2021 by ASCD. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. https://www.ascd.org/books/so-each-may-soar?variant=118006

 

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