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Creating reciprocal teaching and learning at Parkway Northwest

By Guest blogger on May 17, 2011 03:38 PM

The heart of SHARE, besides the teacher collaboration, was the research process. Our library, under the outstanding leadership of librarian Tina Weinraub, was a central site for discussion, making, researching, and planning. Here, students are creating a visual textbook in the form of a chicotte, which is a whip used by Belgians to punish enslaved Congolese rubber workers.

This guest blog post is the latest in a series from Christina Puntel and Geoffrey Winikur.

As a way to talk back to the Inquirer's “Assault on Learning” series many teachers wanted to describe teaching and learning through a different lens. As teachers, we are often conditioned to view our students though misleading quantifiable measures, and thus often become complicit in deficit-based thinking about students and our profession.

What does it take to re-imagine school as a site for reciprocal teaching and learning? At Parkway Northwest, Geoff, Christina, and a group of colleagues participated in the act of re-thinking what a college preparatory curriculum looks like.

The experience at Parkway Northwest revealed a desire among teachers to teach social justice content in ways that gave students a balance of autonomy and companionship. This dialog, and the resulting SHARE project that developed at the school, turns deficit talk upside down and reclaims school as a fertile site for teacher and student learning. 

Reform from within: Discourse and dialog

Parkway Northwest High School for Peace and Social Justice is a small high school that complements the School District curriculum with opportunities for students to learn about peacemaking, social justice, and leadership. Two years ago we were forced to confront the fact that many of our students were not prepared to complete a substantive research paper. This led us to grapple with the question of what it really means to prepare our students for higher education. 

We began to meet, both formally and informally, in order to think about what skills students need to both enroll in college and graduate. This process was very complex and involved many lengthy discussions between teachers about what we were doing well and where we needed more professional development. As a language teacher, Christina noted her overreliance on worksheets and prepackaged curriculum. In college, language study was about culture, politics, and identity. Other discussions among teachers focused on implementing basic-skills instruction versus valuing multi-disciplinary projects that engaged students in both skills and process learning. 

Given our school’s mission, we decided that the best to way to develop school-wide research skills was to design interdisciplinary projects based on research about social justice issues. Although Geoff’s experiences at Gratz provided some insight into how this could be done, we also visited a few other project-based schools and quickly realized that we could not replicate another model; rather, we had to reform from within. 

Reform from within: Teacher collaboration

The process that we used as teachers to develop ourselves into learners turned out to be a generative one. Teachers who enjoyed a degree of flexibility in their classes decided to build on many of the sustainable reform models that our principal, Ethyl McGee, was already implementing. They created a collaborative research project for all 9th graders that also included a group of upperclassmen across four content areas: Spanish, history, art, research, and English (SHARE).

Teachers chose curriculum around a question, “What is culture?” We deliberately chose content that we felt connected to, that we knew well. Initially, as a teacher collaboration team, we agreed on four ideas that we wanted to see to fruition in the work:

  1. We wanted to plan our teaching around content we knew well, and around ideas that energized us. We thought that if we had deep connections to the content we were teaching, students would engage at a high level along with us in the learning process.
  2. We wanted to differentiate instruction for all learners, those with IEPs, late arrivers, non-attendees, students who were on their game all the time, students who worked well in groups, students who worked best alone, etc. We thought we could do this by making explicit the teaching strategies in our lessons and by building in a cooperative approach. We also thought we could do this by providing exciting content, to give all students the desire to know more, to question, to re-read, to re-imagine.
  3. We wanted students to work on challenging projects together with a nice mix of freedom and support. We thought that if we provided just the right mix, students would rise to the occasion, work interdependently and show us what they learned in authentic ways.
  4. We wanted students to research some aspect of the content we were exploring together to present to the school during schoolwide teach-ins, or workshop days. We thought that learning in order to teach others would make the work meaningful. We also knew we had to model the teaching strategies we thought students could use during their teach-ins, and encourage them to think about teachers from their past in order to practice some of the methods that worked for them.

As a collaboration team, we learned a great deal about teacher learning, student learning, and research. In the next post, we will share more about what actually happened during the project when students studied social justice issues like violence and anti-violence through different scholarly approaches.

The guest blog section is a place for people, other than our regular cast of bloggers, to share their views. (See our "About Our Blog" note at the top, right.) Got something you'd like to write about? Email us with a pitch, idea, or a completed post.

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Comments (8)

Submitted by retired veteran Phila. teacher (not verified) on May 17, 2011 5:21 pm

Refreshing to read about real academic work -- not for justthe high-scoring students, but "for all learners, those with IEPs, late arrivers, non-attendees, students who were on their game all the time, students who worked well in groups, students who worked best alone," Is there a pendulum that will swing the rest of us back to this kind of education?

Submitted by Ms Wooley (not verified) on May 18, 2011 4:21 pm

Just yesterday, at my last PD for the year, the art department for the School District lectured us on a four year study done in several non-AYP schools that implemented this philosophy. They of course had schools that were non-AYP that did not receive the "treatment" of cross-curriculum, specifically the "arts" being incorporated into 4-6 grade classrooms, to compare the two results. The art department for the School District wanted to prove that arts do matter with other subjects and can improve test scores. It proved to dramatically raise scores and attendance. It doesn't just have to be the arts, although a plus by any means, but it goes to show and reinforce our different learning styles. We don't all learn from a book. For example, in the study, if you were learning about geography in 4th grade, the art, music, and theater teachers would base a lesson around that one lesson from the grade teacher. Thus, a student who learns by listening and learns the material mostly in the music class, can then go back and write about it in the grade teachers room because they can now relate it back to what they learned in music class. Furthermore, the student begins to master writing because they can freely write about it. It now makes sense to the student, where as they didn't get it just by reading the text. Hmmm, sounds smart, now if we just get rid of those day by day curriculum books that some teachers must follow to a "T" and bring the creativity back to the teachers, we may get somewhere!

Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on May 19, 2011 6:23 am

Two aspects of your process stand out - collaboration and reflection by teachers at the school and developing a model for your school. Too often 440 N. Broad imposes their model on us - especially at "empowerment schools" / neighborhood schools - and there is little flexibility. Project based learning does not "neatly" fit into the 7 Step Lesson we are required to mimic every class period. (It may work to drill a skill but project based learning is not about drilling a series of skills for a standardized test.) You also had the time and commitment to collaboration to develop a model for your school. Allowing "empowerment" schools to have this flexibility would be ideal. We spend so much time testing (the month of May includes Achieve 3000 level sets, benchmark tests, predictive tests, Read 180 tests, etc.), that "finding time" between the testing is a stretch.

I would be very interested in what ways of knowing, attitudes, skills, experiences, etc. you concluded students need to be "college ready." As a teacher at an "empowerment" high school, all I hear from 440 is what students need to be PSSA ready which is not related to college readiness.

I'm looking forward to your next post.

Submitted by Geoffrey (not verified) on May 19, 2011 9:07 am

It is extremely frustrating to consider that the PSD organizes the 11th grade English curriculum around "eligible content" for the PSSA. They are basically admitting that they want us to teach to the test, yet cannot account for how this pedagogy will prepare students for serious college work. They do not even consider that the Elements of Literature is deeply flawed and reflects the logic of faulty scholarship.

The "Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equinao" is but one example. The text poses this as an autobiography, when in reality, there is considerable date as to whether Equiano ever set foot in Africa. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that he was born in South Carolina and actually wrote a collective narrative based on stories that he was told. This fundamentally different than the way that authorized text presents the story.

Another concern about the Equiano narrative is that it is situated in a vaguely multicultural section of early American literature. Wouldn't it be more interesting and useful to juxtapose this text next to a serious of colonial revolutionary texts in order help students better understand the contradictions that have existed in this county since its "founding"?

Some will say that this issue isn't really that deep, but I would suggest that it is only one example of the widespread mis-education that our students are subjected to. I know from firsthand experience that most students feel deeply devalued by standardized texts and methodologies. They lead to disengagement and the belief that adults in power do not take them seriously as learners.

As Philly Parent states, the neighborhood schools are subject to the rudimentary approaches in which teacher agency is limited. We are expected to be highly qualified, yet many are asked to leave their strongest qualifications at the door. Of even deeper concern is that the seven step lesson flies in the face of all serious research and theory about culturally relevant teaching and learning, particularly for African American learners. I rather doubt that the Ladson-Billings', Delpits', Alfred Tatums' and Sonia Nietos' of the world would endorse the widespread curricular mandates that are currently featured in the majority of PSD schools.

Submitted by Dave (not verified) on May 19, 2011 10:25 am

I would like to write a book or article entitled "The Death and Rebirth of the The Great American Teacher." Prior to the state takeover, we did teach to the needs and interests of the students. Teachers were treated as professionals and could design their own course in keeping with a flexible curriculum and a more comprehensive view of methodoloy.

The curriculum that is imposed upon you is a test taking curriculum that is centered on the needs of self centered adults and the high stakes testing lunacy. Just the fact that we teach to the test and teach the test invalidates the PSSA scores.

No credible expert on methodology advocates for scripted lessons. It is demeaning to teachers and demeaning to the students. They get the message.

Renaissance refers to the rebirth of intellectual thought and endeavor and in school reform it should mean a "rebirth of teaching and learning."

You are the new Great American Teacher and it is up to you to be a leader in the return to student centered instruction and sound pedagogy. Good luck.

Submitted by Ms Wooley (not verified) on May 19, 2011 12:47 pm

I am lucky as an art teacher to have free range of what I teach. The school district gives me example lesson plans from a core standards book, but I haven't even cracked it open. But I know it is there in case I run out of ideas, which rarely happens to me. I am usually overflowing with ideas for lessons and I am sure other teachers of other subjects are too. With this, if the school district ever mandated an art curriculum, I would not be able to do my job as an art teacher, sufficiently. I sympathize with teachers that have to be on this lesson, this page, this sentence and this question on this day at this time. Really, c'mon. Life doesn't even work that way. Then with all this stress of timelines and testing, the students have now been cycled out of thinking creatively. I have to try and retrain them to think outside the test question. I find that if students aren't getting something, I may have to stop and readdress it. For example, they are just not getting color schemes for this latest lesson. I had to change things around, but I can do that in the art room, thankfully because I don't have to be on Pop Art, Warhol, Pg 263 of the Art History Text on Monday May 16. It makes no sense to me. When teachers are given the freedom to plan around the needs of their students, they will truly learn the concept, not the test answer. Project based learning puts that back into the hands of teachers and students, not to the few of 440.

Submitted by Christina (not verified) on May 19, 2011 2:22 pm

One of the best classes I had as a kid was an inter-curricular studies music and history course. It was wonderful for my fifth grade self to see lots of songs I knew from home in a very new light. Dr Goode showed me what those songs meant in history, to movements, to our people-hood. It was a learning stretch for me, based on music I thought I knew very well....

When we teach our students to "read" the world like this, I know what can happen. I know because I became a better reader, a more accomplished historian, and could see more connections than ever before. I also developed a large set of specific skills like reading music, looking for patterns in history, using first person resources in research... Skills are a natural product of this kind of large thinking and connecting.

It is a waste, a huge waste, that teaching is about testing or about isolated skills.

We have to do a take over of the word "renaissance." We have to do a take over of the word "walk through." We have to do a take over of the word "failing."

Submitted by rheaseo25 (not verified) on May 23, 2011 1:17 am

I am always amazed to see such wonderful work by fashion students,amazed by their creativity and how they use the talent they have been blessed with..

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