At Newmarket School, a school-wide teacher inquiry approach was prompted by problems of practice. Teachers identified the need to build a greater understanding of the learning needs of Māori and Pasifika students who under-achieve.
The inquiry and knowledge-building approach has long been a strong aspect of our school systems and practice. This approach is based on the importance of instructional leadership, of self-regulated inquiry, and the building of professional knowledge. The seeds for this approach were first planted in 2003/4 when Newmarket was a pilot school for the Literacy Professional Development Project (LPDP). At this time, all staff started a journey that focused closely on building effective interactions and relationships, building on students’ cultures and identities, and explicit teaching. Initially, we focused on building common goals and expectations across the school in the teaching of writing, with the inquiry an examination of technical aspects of our teaching practice. The focus for all teachers (and leaders) was to accelerate the progress of Māori and Pasifika students. While the professional learning was, at times, very challenging over this period, after the two years, teachers requested a continuation of this approach with a focus on effective reading practice.
An inquiry approach that focused on the technical aspects of our practice had, and still has, very positive results. However, several teachers saw a need to build on, and move beyond, a technical focus. Teachers, experienced in the inquiry model, felt very accountable to raise their capability, and recognised that the work we were doing with our students was still not working for all students. There was evidence to suggest that our inquiries needed to go much deeper than examining the technical aspects of our practice. School-wide data showed that some students did not maintain the gains or were more challenging to accelerate.
After some discussion amongst school leaders, we decided that our next step was to inquire collaboratively to begin looking at an area that was a common thread in several previous inquiry projects. The strategy we chose to focus on was also signalled in our professional reading. Our inquiries would look specifically at what effective interactions and relationships look like in practice.
In the first example of a collaborative inquiry into teaching practice, I worked with deputy principalEilleen Dixon. We worked together on a collaborative inquiry that looked at effective interactions and relationships and explored student motivation, self-efficacy, and some tried and tested strategies for the teaching of reading. We worked with a small group of nine Māori and Pasifika Year 5 students who were identified as not maintaining previous acceleration gains. These students had highly effective and skilful teachers previously.
Our first step was to discuss the barriers or problems we expected to encounter in order to mitigate these – for example, the reasons the students might not engage with us or their previous experiences. Given that two of our students had special learning needs, we ensured our planning factored in any known barriers to the success of our intervention. Our mind-set was that it was not the students who had learning problems but that we as teachers had to problem-solve the barriers to success for each of our students. We discussed students’ previous experiences, our understanding of how they would respond to us, and were clear on the connections we would need to make with each of them. We thought through how our learning and work with the students would transfer back to a class situation. Together and individually, we researched strategies that would progress the learning of each learner in our group. And progress they did!
So what did we do? Key to our success was that we created spaces where our students could share their learning and tell their stories, both with whānau and the group, especially about their challenges and progress. This approach supported our learning about our learners. Within a safe environment we developed a reciprocal teacher/learner approach. For example, we made explicit over many lessons a reading strategy that they replicated as teacher with the group and their siblings/whānau. Students used iPads to film themselves as teachers and to critique their (and our) performance. The iPads were also useful for supporting vocabulary development and understanding of particular concepts and ideas we came across in the texts we read together.
We ensured the strategies we used were shared with and used by teachers in the reading groups of these students once back in class. Strategies we used were not new and included many old favourites, such as questioning, making explicit how texts were structured, creating mental images, and summarising. We used a great many sticky notes to record ideas and questions as we read, we had the flashiest reading book bags and resources we could afford – fitting to Year 5 students – developed a self-monitoring reading log, and confused ourselves by developing levels of achievement that students kept outstripping.
One of the most powerful strategies we used was motivating students to accept home reading mileage goals and finding fun ways to reward them when they did. Readers improve reading by reading. The reward of using an iPad for the day back in class was highly prized. Though once students were self-motivated to read, the rewards became less important. We ensured the home reading material used by the students was appropriate, challenging, and highly engaging. We selected the reading materials with each student, e-books, e-comics, graphic novels, and other new library material, comics, journals, plays and poems, and Lego catalogues, to name a few. We were blown away, as were class teachers, with the students’ motivation to achieve targets, and at how motivated they became to read at home. Initially, we asked that they read for 20 minutes per night on top of any class homework, the majority of our group far exceeded this time. Over ten weeks, one student logged 60 hours of home reading, a remarkable achievement for a boy who initially told us he did not like reading.
What we did from a teaching perspective was not rocket science or particularly new. On reflection, the point of difference was the strength of the shared nature of the inquiry, the co-construction with students and each other of our intervention, and the strength of the connections we made with each other, students, and their families.
The second example of a collaborative inquiry learning model at Newmarket School involves Virginia Kung, the assistant principal, working with Sonya Van Schaijik, ESOL & ICT leader. They, too, used the strategy of making greater connections with individual students and their families as a focus for their inquiry. These teachers decided to inquire into the utilisations of Pasifika students’ interests to motivate and accelerate learning. The vehicle they used was the high-interest Bro’Town television programme illustrated by Ant Sang.
Kung and the students identified SMART goals with the students in reading and writing and worked on authentic tasks relating to planning a global forum that included a focus on illustrator Ant Sang and his work. Kung and Van Schaijik worked together to problem-solve ways to empower and motivate their students. They leveraged student leadership and responsibility as a means to ensure gains in literacy. Were the students successful? Over 1000 students in both Australia and New Zealand took part in the forum run through Skoodle and organised by the students supported by their teachers.
Kung and Van Schaijik were learners as well as teachers during their inquiry. They both learned more about the use of technology, utilising authentic teaching contexts and personalised learning. Their students learned new and challenging skills and met the high expectations of them. They were highly motivated to read and write.
The third collaborative inquiry involved school leader Odette Penno, Eilleen Dixon, and music specialist Lee Barry. Collaboratively, these teachers developed an inquiry that focused on developing Māori and Pasifika students’ digital literacy as a means to accelerate reading and writing skills. They brought their diverse teaching strengths in film-making, relationship building, and music to the inquiry. They used the strategy of making greater connections with individual students and their families as a focus for their inquiry. Key themes of the inquiry included examining ways of nurturing Māori identity, student ownership of learning, and motivation of learning through a focus on student stories and interests. Effective interactions and relationships across discipline between teachers, students, and whānau underpinned the inquiry.
Encouraging a strong role of whānau helped the development of this student-led project. A group of students told their story through film from a Māori perspective of guardianship. They worked with whānau, teachers, and other students to develop a film that looked at Kitiakitanga. They directed and produced the film and worked with Barry to develop an original soundtrack for their film. They identified that one of their challenges was to manage the audition process, with many of their friends wanting to be actors in their film. Recently, they entered their film in The Outlook for Someday competition. From a student perspective, they are chuffed that they are now finalists in this filmmaking competition.
So did this approach raise achievement? Gains in literacy achievement were made by all participants in the project; it utilised much goal setting, reading, writing, and research. From a teachers’ perspective, Penno, Dixon, and Barry are well under way to developing the collaborative skills necessary for teachers of 21st century learners.
After ten years of utilising the inquiry model, and more latterly, the collaborative inquiry model, Newmarket teachers see the value and rich outcomes of fostering a mind-set of continuous improvement based on problems of practice. For 2013, we intend to build on the collaborative inquiry model. I have my sights on an inquiry into the utilisation of teachers and teaching space as a means of raising student achievement. Watch this space.