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Collaboration gives teachers a new window of knowledge

Willow River Elementary School second-grade teachers, from left, Dan Murray, Tricia Griffith, Julie Warren and Joe Behnke were members of one of the teaching teams that participated in Action Research this year. They are shown with their project board which outlines their research and results. Photo by Margaret A. Ontl

If you have ever met Hudson School District's learning services associate director Peg Shoemaker, you know she brings a passion for education and teaching to her job that raises the bar for everyone around her.

Shoemaker has introduced the concept of Action Research to teachers in the Hudson district. It may pave the way for a collaborative atmosphere among teaching professionals throughout the district.

May 12, teachers who participated in the Action Research this year, presented their findings. Much like a student science fair, 18 elementary school teachers presented results for 10 research projects. Most of them were literacy related.

Basically, action research applies a scientific model to education with teachers using research to determine evidence based "best practices." Those practices may be teaching techniques, teacher training and/or evaluative assessments.

"I have this dream of a gym filled with teachers exhibiting their classroom research," said Shoemaker. "All researchers publish their work. This gives non-participants a chance to see the results."

"The teaching profession used be very isolated," said Shoemaker. "Over the last four or five years that has been changing. It is now proven that when teachers collaborate, student learning increases."

"It also makes your teaching practices much more public," continued Shoemaker.

Since the advent of the MRI in 1970, the first time researchers could look inside the brain it became apparent that individuals respond differently to stimuli, in this case that includes teaching methods.

"Most of the time teachers have the answer within themselves," said Shoemaker, "The teacher as a researcher has a chance to try out and apply teaching strategies. This looks at the classroom as a lab. What I love about it is that it honors teachers, they are problem solvers on their own."

The Willow River group, consisting of four second-grade teachers, wanted to determine how these three practices would affect the reading fluency of their below grade level students: Guided Reading Groups (small reading groups of students at the same grade level), Target Time (a time block used to work with a small group of targeted students reading at the same level) and Parent Volunteer Reading Program. During Target Time, which is 30 minutes, the students can chose between several activities such as partner reading, alphabet blocks, spelling games, independent reading, reader's theatre or R.0.A.R. (repeated oral assisted reading).

"It was part of our profession goals for the year," said Dan Murray. "Our idea was to look at the lowest achieving group of students in second grade." Each of the four teachers, while collaborating also, used different practices. While three of them had parent volunteers, Julie Warren, did not but introduced a concept called 'Fast Phrases."

"We found that all of the students made gains. Although the gains were different for boys than for girls." said Tricia Griffith.

Parent volunteers were crucial but next year they will have prescribed times and will sign an agreement that they will provide a substitute if they are not available.

"When you do action research it is never really done," said Murray. "Each year you learn more and can fine tune what works."

Once a week, the Willow team meets for 45 minutes for common planning time.

"It is shared ownership for the students," said Shoemaker. "The teachers don't feel so isolated. You cannot have collaboration unless it is built into the schedule."

This year the program was optional for the elementary school teachers. Next year it will be optional for all grade levels.

"It is certainly being tried around the country," said Shoemaker, of the action research. "The piece that intrigues me is that it authenticates what the teachers are doing. Teachers see real evidence that their work matters."

"When we were setting up the displays at Rivercrest Elementary School, the students walked by and said, 'Look the teachers are having a science fair,'" said Shoemaker. "And it is a science fair for adults. When you hear the teachers talk about their work and you can hear their passion for it, it is pretty inspiring."