These academic coaches are nowhere near the sideline

27-Mar-2015

As they assist teachers -- as well as students -- to master rigorous standards in the classroom, curriculum coaches team up to review data, discuss strategies and lessons, and plan next steps.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​It's a quarter to noon, and Jessica Kato is busy helping ninth-graders navigate a complex writing assignment.

After watching two Tim Burton classics, "Edward Scissorhands" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," some 20 students must now write essays analyzing cinematic techniques by drawing evidence from scenes to back up their theses.

Students are scattered, clustered in groups based on their progress developing a thesis, introduction, body and a conclusion.

"What is 'transition?'" one student asks while staring blankly at a worksheet dotted with erase marks.

"It is a word that transitions you into the end," explained Kato.

"Ah, like transport?" the student asked to a nod of approval.

With the corner of her eye, Kato catches a boy who appears to be slacking, roaming the class. The student is actually ahead, having already finished his paper, including a typed final draft. Without hesitating, Kato immediately hands him a new task.

"It's really important to keep them busy," Kato explains. "If kids who end (their work) start walking around, others will think it's OK."

Kato, however, is not the teacher in this Farrington High classroom. As an English language arts coach, she is assisting first-year teacher Brad Tanabe adapt to the realities – and multitude of distractions – of a freshman class. But just as importantly, she is also ensuring lessons align to the more rigorous learning goals of the Hawaii Common Core standards.

Scores of these curriculum coaches are supporting new and veteran teachers as they adjust to new standards implemented statewide in the 2013-14 school year. The standards are triggering major changes in instruction as educators equip students with higher-level analytical and critical-thinking skills required for post-graduation success.

Increasingly, excelling beyond high school means being ready for college. By the year 2020, seven out of 10 jobs in Hawaii are expected to require a college education, according to a Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce study. The Hawaii State Department of Education (DOE), encouraged by significant improvements in key college and career readiness indicators, believes the Common Core will open those doors for even more students.

"The Hawaii Common Core focuses on college and career readiness for all students with the emphasis on real-world problem solving and application," said Gayle Kamei, a Waiakea Intermediate Title I and Science, Technology, Engineer and Math (STEM) coordinator, who also works with mentors supporting 12 beginning teachers at the Big Island campus.

"Students are now challenged in math with the 'shifts' — focus, coherence and rigor — as well as ample opportunities to explain and justify their reasoning," said Kamei (pictured at left).​

Investing in coaching positions is one of the most effective ways for schools to align teaching to the higher expectations of the Common Core, said DOE Deputy Superintendent Ronn Nozoe.

Coaches, he said, lead reflective conversations "about the real art and science of teaching."

"Whenever we are implementing new things, new curriculum, or new standards and assessments, these positions are absolutely critical to the success of the school," Nozoe added. "It's a very key, important professional development position. It has got to be a teacher who has the full bag of tricks."

At the state level, the DOE created Complex Area Support Teams, or CASTs, which this school year focused on rolling out Common Core-aligned curriculum materials and providing professional development on topics such as, for example, how to tailor programs for English language learners, explained Petra Schatz, educational specialist in the Office of Curriculum, Instruction and Student Support.

"Like students, teachers learn differently," said Heather Wilhelm, principal of Mililani Uka Elementary. "Coaches are skilled and have the flexibility to give the teachers the support that they need when they need it."

Also, coaches who are free from myriad grade-level teaching responsibilities spend their time exclusively on providing regular and immediate feedback to teachers, she added.

Her school's efforts have not gone unnoticed. In February, Mililani Uka coach Jana Fukada earned the prestigious $25,000 Milken Educator Award, a national honor widely regarded as the 'Oscar of Teaching.'

"We see, learn and get to share all of the wonderful things that each teacher does with other teachers," Fukada said. "And we learn from them all the time."

At Farrington High, administrators realized early on the rigor of the Common Core would present challenges for educators. Seeing a growing need to support staff, they tapped Kato, a nine-year Farrington High teacher, to serve as a coach.

A former Massachusetts teacher, Kato praises the rigor of the Common Core as a significant improvement over what Hawaii's previous academic standards expected of students – as well as of educators.

"It is really hard," she says. "There's lots of new vocabulary for students, and teachers too."

Today, Kato still finds time to teach an Advanced Placement class, but her typical schedule includes observing and assisting teachers, modeling effective instruction, and one-on-one debriefings to review data, discuss strategies, lessons plans and next steps – as is the case today with Mr. Tanabe.

As soon as the bell rings and Tanabe's classroom empties, he walks over to Sato's office.

"So, what did you notice about the class that was different?" Kato begins as she opens a blank screen on her laptop. 

"A lot of them felt comfortable working individually," Tanabe says. "They didn't give up, they noticed that they could get a lot of work done … so they felt less intimidated by the task."

He monitored students' progress on the assignment by writing their names on a grid projected on the blackboard. As students completed each task – from thesis to a second draft – Tanabe checked a box. That gave him an immediate visual into who was advancing and who was falling behind.

Tanabe's fingers quickly slide toward the names of a few students where many of the checkboxes are empty. The conversation shifts to strategies to support struggling students, from differentiating instruction based on each child's needs, to following up with counselors on frequent absences and tardiness.

After a wide-ranging discussion, Tanabe thanks Kato as he leaves with more confidence and better equipped to tackle the next unit on poetry.

"There is a lot, there is a lot," Kato says. "That's what our job is as curriculum leaders: to help the teachers come up with supports to meet the rigor. If you don't have that time, and you are on your own, it would be daunting."​

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