While reporting on how to help students who are struggling academically during the coronavirus pandemic, Joy Resmovits found some hope in a call with Susanne Jerde, chief academic officer for Highline Public Schools.
“She told me about a strategy called ‘acceleration.’ Immediately I wanted to know more,” Resmovits, a Seattle Times reporter, said during a Feb. 17 Ed Lab Live virtual workshop with educators from Highline’s McMicken Heights Elementary School.
Resmovits said she felt like she had a good abstract understanding of this concept. But to translate it to Seattle Times readers, she wanted to talk to teachers, too, so she could “translate it in a tangible way that could be useful, applicable, and could maybe help someone find inspiration. The next thing I knew, I was in a Zoom room with our amazing panelists.”
The panelists included McMicken Heights Elementary Principal Alexandria “Alex” Haas, third-grade teacher Annie Nguyen and Emotional Behavioral Center primary teacher Jaymie Torres Ibarra. Torrey Palmer, director of New York-based education consulting group TNTP, was also featured in the program.
In 2018, TNTP published “The Opportunity Myth,” its findings on a study about students who spent much of their academic time working on assignments that were below their grade level — too easy. The study found kids were more likely to excel if they were given work that challenged them and instruction that motivated them to want to meet the challenges and grow.
Palmer said there’s a tendency among educators to want to remediate students who come in with a learning deficit or are behind in their work. The mindset is “to meet them where they are, then try to push to catch them up.”
“But with accelerated learning, the idea is that we’re holding the grade level content or grade level bar [up] and then really thinking about the scaffolds or identifying those scaffolds and trying to … get those students as efficiently as possible back up to the grade level content,” she said.
Haas, as the school’s leader, brought in coaches and training opportunities last summer to support her teachers, helping them understand this new process.
“We recognize how incredibly hard everybody’s working and just feel that this approach does hold a lot of optimism for the other side and where we go next,” Haas said.
In The Seattle Times article, “How a diverse school district is using a strategy usually reserved for ‘gifted’ students to boost everyone,” Resmovits described how Nguyen and Torres work together to use the acceleration approach — one typically used to advance gifted and talented students — to help all their students get ahead, regardless of their learning level.
To demonstrate this, the workshop began with a video clip of Nguyen talking through a multiplication problem with a third-grade student. The two discussed different approaches the student could take to understand and solve the equation. The clip shows how the third grader used skills such as saying the numbers and formula aloud and drawing pictures to help her to solve the equation. Nguyen gives positive encouragement to the student about her choices and concludes by praising her for her work and inviting her to serve as a “coach” for her peers.
This process takes time.
“This didn’t happen overnight. This involved trust and vulnerability,” Nguyen said. “But once we got there, we were able to look at each other’s work, ask each other questions and even be paired up with one another to go through some peer-to-peer coaching cycles on a strategy we wanted to learn from someone else.”
When administrators provide teachers resources and train teachers to help each other, it “empowers teachers and builds up their confidence, and then together we are able to become this team with a shared vision and goal,” she said.” And that helps all of our students as they move up that through line through the grade levels with all of us.”
Here are some other tips from the panelists for using the acceleration approach to help students get ahead:
Torres: “Annie and I co-teach full day in a classroom of students with all different needs. We both have different strengths: Annie comes as a third-grade content expert and I come with a lens of differentiation.”
The teachers plan together using spreadsheets. They then identify the standard they’re teaching, what skills students need to demonstrate to meet that standard and what scaffolds or supports they might need to understand the lesson. They also think about ways students can expand or enrich what they’re learning.
Nguyen: When multiple teachers consistently use the same vocabulary, language and references to talk with students about learning targets and success criteria, students are less likely to be confused.
“Through that repetition, that immersion, we’ve seen a lot of student success,” she said.
Torres: Whether you’re a teacher or a parent, you can use sentence stems — phrases like “I agree with you because …” and prompts like, “Tell me what part is confusing to you” — to encourage your student to talk and share about their learning.
“Many teachers are happy to share their sentence stems for families to use at home,” she said.
Torres: “Focus on encouraging your student to keep going in their learning process. Sometimes it can be easy to get frustrated if things aren’t coming as quickly as they would like. Keep encouraging them, keep supporting them in accessing those grade level standards.”