May 17 — 4:38 pm, 2011

Creating reciprocal teaching and learning at Parkway Northwest

student share photo

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.


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