Yesterday afternoon, Melrose teachers presented the second annual Teacher Action Research Mini-Conference at Melrose Veterans Memorial Middle School, facilitated by 8th Grade ELA Teacher Ms. Means and Roosevelt Kindergarten Teacher Ms. Tully, and supported by Asst. Supt. of Teaching and Learning Dr. Adams and Director of Global Language Dr. Talbot. About 80 Melrose teachers and colleagues from surrounding communities attended. Presenters took on this work in addition to their regular teaching duties, and with an interest in improving student learning in the Melrose schools while earning PDP’s that support maintaining their state licenses.
What is Teacher Action Research (TAR)?
TAR is teacher-directed professional development, in other words, teachers studying teaching practices in a systematic way. (Here is an explanatory blog post with brief video: http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/living-in-dialogue/2011/10/improving_teaching_101_collabo.html.) To do this, they identify a “problem,” develop a research question around that problem, develop an action plan (learn about the process, engage in monthly meetings and a mid-way consultation to sustain progress), collect data using different methods like online research/student assessments/surveys/observations, reflect on the process and change instruction or implement new practices to support students, and present findings to other teachers for mutual understanding and potential improvement for all. Nine sessions were featured in the 2½ hour conference and almost all Melrose schools were represented. Here are a couple presentation samples:
Making Music Matter
Mr. Repucci, Band Director for Grades 3-12, presented his research around 2nd year elementary music student instrument practice, beginning with the belief that playing music (vs. just listening to music) reflects all four “c” skills (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity), improves memory functioning, and allows students to experience the beauty in music. (Here is the video he showed to explain “How Playing an Instrument Benefits your Brain”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R0JKCYZ8hng.) In order to engage in music in this way, he wanted students to increase instrumental practice and wondered about the environment he needed to support that would help realize that intention. His basic idea was that students need to be persistent in their instrumental practice to improve. He studied the psychology of practicing, provided the students practice logs, had them set goals, and created ways they could showcase their music. After his study was complete, he found students practiced more by setting goals and that his encouragement to meet those goals was useful. He also learned that the “group mentality” was supportive (there was more practice leading up to performances, especially when those performances were with others and to their peers), and that enthusiasm was a key factor in getting students motivated. Ultimately, he found that practicing should be self-directed, enjoyable, goal-oriented, process-oriented, and regular. One of the biggest successes was an impromptu performance in a school hallway – a way to present the results of student practice in a way that energized students and makes music fun – and motivating them to continue to practice.
What’s the Problem? Dissecting and Persevering through Math and Chemistry Word Problems
Lincoln School 4th grade teacher Ms. Iuliano and MHS Chemistry teacher Ms. Martin teamed up to reveal their exploration around “experiences implementing bar models and the think-aloud strategy for solving word problems.” Ms. Iuliano focused on developing the parts of solving this type of problem, along with teaching the vocabulary necessary for its solution. She set achievement goals for students to measure how well her new teaching method was working, and found some successes combined with areas in which she wants to improve her teaching to improve student outcomes. In her reflection, she thought about how she might tailor problems to a student’s interest, how collaborating with colleagues might improve outcomes, and the fact that she gained many insights that would positively impact her general teaching.
Ms. Martin had noticed that many of her AP Chemistry students struggled with multi-part free response questions (some with six sections). Students would “freeze,” and she wanted to find strategies that would help. On-line research revealed the Think Aloud Paired Problem Solving (TAPPS) approach and she decided to make it her research model. (It involves forming student pairs, designating a problem solver to read the problem and talk through the reasoning process in an attempt to solve it, and a listener to encourage out-loud thinking, asking clarifying questions and offering suggestions without actually solving for the partner.) TAPPS steps include understanding the problem, devising a plan to solve the problem, implementing a solution, and reflecting on the problem. (More at Classroom cognitive and metacognitive strategies for teachers: Research-based strategies for problem-solving in mathematics K-12 from the Bureau of Exceptional Education and Student Services at the Florida Dept. of Education (2010).) To help students define questions and help with strategies, Ms. Martin developed a sheet reflecting “Common Free Response Issues and Techniques to Fix Them,” defining an issue (like “Not understanding what the question is asking”) and then providing techniques (like “Look at keywords and break down the question”). Upon reflection, she found that students benefitted from TAPPS and that building individual study plans for students based on their strengths and weaknesses would be helpful as a next step.
In sum, data shows that teacher professional development is a key factor in improving student learning. Melrose teachers are not only taking advantage of the many professional development offerings provided by the district, they are creating and sharing them independently and supported by Melrose administrators and other teachers.
Applause to all educators who continue their own learning while working hard to improve learning for students!