by Lauren Morris
During the fall of 2021, leadership from the Advanced Learning Team decided to explore ways to improve the Advanced Learning Services at the elementary level. Working with ROCKiT, the team formed a design team of directors, coordinators, teacher leaders, and an MMSD parent with the goal of enhancing the process for accelerating learning in the 4K-5 space. The team wanted to use innovation and design processes and tools to develop ways to increase equity in Advanced Learning student representation and participation, improve elementary services and supports to better engage all five domains of advancement (general intellectual ability, specific academic [such literacy, math, etc], visual and performing arts, leadership, and creativity), and to increase communication around the AL services between staff and families.
What We Did
Despite staff shortages caused by COVID-19, this team worked through the Liberatory Design process over 6 months. In order to dig into the problem and better understand the elementary Advanced Learning experience, the team gathered empathy interviews from 10 teachers, 10 parents, and 10 students, focusing on Black, Indigeneous, and People of Color (BIPOC). From our analysis of the empathy interviews and immersion, the team was able to pull out 3 main learnings:
A need to strengthen communication with both staff and families around a clear definition of advanced learning and it’s renewed purpose and the resources that outline the subject specific indicators
A need to better exchange information and resources with school based staff who support Advanced Learning students and how to support them so that these teachers can effectively advocate for and incorporate student needs in the skills and identifiers from all five AL domains.
Ways to encourage and support students in basic, more natural ways of differentiation with Advanced Learning Teacher Leader support
From here, a persona canvas was created to maintain the focus on one user group. Going into the work, the team assumed their main client would be students, but in digging deeper that felt focusing on the teacher would ultimately hold the best benefit for students, as they are the primary recommenders for Advanced Learning and the main curriculum delivers. Their rationale is that by supporting the teachers, as the service providers, they could enhance the Advanced Learning experience and access.
The design team used information from their original empathy interviews (as highlighted in their persona canvas), as well the additional learnings from the immersive experience of subbing and supporting schools in the spring to determine and prioritize four potential areas of improvement in the Advanced Learning program while further defining the problem. These include: 1. Strategies to improve identification, especially of non-traditional and underrepresented participants, including advancements beyond the standard math and literacy, 2. Improve communication to staff and families around student’s Advanced Learning status and expectations (particularly at key transitional periods), 3. Integration of Advanced Learning teacher leaders and regular educator work, and 4. Identify how to improve staff access to advance learning strategies and support in their core content planning.
“Prior to advanced learning, students are not effectively challenged in a flexible, differentiated way. This allows for a more balanced instruction giving students who are not typically identified as advanced learning to achieve at a higher level. This results in disproportionate representation of white, not low-income students in high school advanced learning. Teachers should have access to engaging, differentiated curriculum and pedagogical strategies that relate to and honors students in different advanced learning disciplines.”
- MMSD Staff quote from empathy interview
In order to honor a wider range of skills and more students, the small Advanced Learning Teacher Leaders team will need to focus some energy on providing resources to support teachers’ differentiation and communication around student abilities and tips for support. The team used their understanding of the problem, along with other data around Advanced Learning during an ideation session where the team came up with over 24 potential ideas for how to solve this problem.
After deciding on a direction and breaking the solution into components, the team prototyped a document called “AL At a Glance” that would allow teacher leaders to more formally share information and connect regular education teachers and support staff, similar to the way that English Language Learners and Special Education staff connect. The intention was that, If we provide teachers with an “AL At a Glance” document then staff will be better equipped to intentionally implement more strategies and differentiation to support students in all five Advanced Learning domains. Additionally, if teachers are not readily recognizing advancements and encouraging services access is impeded or interrupted year to year. Parents would also have access to the “at a glance” resources.
“Lack of monitoring and accountability - every year, especially if you transfer schools, the data doesn’t follow the child or someone has to go find it…It seems like a portfolio could follow - like exemplar work - teacher notes - assessment scores, etc… More regular check-ins are important when making changes like subject acceleration - make sure it’s going well.”
- MMSD Parent quote from empathy interview
The design team spent a couple weeks testing out some ways to strengthen the flow of useful, supportive information through meetings and formal documentation that may be helpful to current and future classroom teachers, as well as parents. A Teacher Leader drafted a sample AL at a glance document for staff members at their supported school to review, comment on, and edit. In a reflection meeting around the small test, the team decided they wanted to continue testing out the document with more small groups in the upcoming year. We are super excited to see where this work lands and the direction the team takes this moving into next year as we are currently wrapping up this phase of ROCKiT support.
What we learned
Through this structured innovation process, the team learned a lot about perceptions around Advanced Learning from students, staff and parents that would influence their five-year plan. Three major realizations were around communication, inclusivity, and barriers to access.
Communication: To improve communication, the team is working on ways to more clearly define of advanced learning and the subject specific indicators for identifying advancements in all five domains: General Intellectual (overall high ability), Specific Academic (Literacy, Math, etc), Visual and Performing Arts, Leadership, and Creativity. Additionally, communication is not just about resources and upcoming projects or events, but also about the students, as they learn and grow and transition or as the work catches up to them.
Inclusivity: The “AL at a glance” document allowed space for communication and inclusivity by allowing staff to pass information between disciplines and grades as students progress and as the work catches up with them. It also allowed space for people to incorporate all five domains of advancements, and not just their original Advanced Learning tag.
Barriers: By shifting to the teacher as the client, since they are the agents that uphold the work, it positioned the Advanced Learning Specialists to focus on how they can be a resource to the teacher for the betterment of student learning. By completing, and subsequently updating the AL at a Glance document, Teacher Leaders will be able to effectively pass information, tips, and tricks onto current and future classroom teachers and better connect classroom differentiation to their focused Advanced Learning student sessions.
What It Took
The Design Team:
2 Advanced Learning Leadership
3 Central Office Teacher Leaders 1 Elementary School Advanced Learning Teacher Leader, 1 Middle School Advanced Learning Teacher Leader, and 1 Curriculum & Instruction Teacher Leader
1 MMSD Parent
4 virtual sessions for 3 hours each and a total of 12 hours
From the Research & Innovation Team:
2 Innovation Strategists from ROCKIT to plan, facilitate, and guide the team through the process
1 Quantitative Analyst from Institutional Research + Evaluation team to pull related data
Approximately 220 hours over 15 weeks