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Literacy: The power of professional learning conversations

Teachers at Napier Intermediate School (NIS) think nothing of diving into rigorous learning conversations to help drive change in their school. This has resulted in some sustainable practices in literacy that have become an integral part of the professional learning culture at Napier Intermediate School.

The Literacy and English Language Learning project in the Central North region is specifically designed to strengthen school/kura capability to implement quality literacy practices. Through a deliberately differentiated and strategic approach, schools are supported to engage in quality self-review, identify appropriate Professional Learning and Development (PLD) responses, monitor and track progress, and maintain an unrelenting focus on student achievement, with a particular focus on meeting the needs of priority learners. For more information on the impact of the Literacy and English Language Learning project see the 2014 infographic data

The story so far

NIS teacher inquiry 2Amongst the many strengths at Napier Intermediate, management identified a need to raise student achievement in writing. The school's intended goal was to, "To implement effective school-wide practices consistently through the school, that will ensure students are achieving at their expected levels”. There was a specific focus on, “2015 targets: 80 students in the well below level will move to below or better, with particular emphasis on boys and Pasifika students. 160 students in the below level will move to at or better with particular emphasis on boys and Maori students.” The school co-constructed a literacy strategy with a clear focus on school-wide practices that would accelerate the progress of underachieving students in writing.

What happened?

NIS teacher inquiry 3As part of the Literacy PLD, Te Toi Tupu literacy facilitators Natasha Jacobs and Gemma Gardiner, guided the professional learning focus within professional learning groups , so that teachers could build and sustain their own capabilities to have deep inquiring conversations. Initial support was provided around having powerful learning conversations (Joan Dalton and David Anderson). Strategies such as 20/20/20 were used to structure the PLD, so that teachers could have 20 minutes dedicated to professional learning conversations, 20 minutes focused on professional reading and 20 minutes designated to content knowledge (purpose-based, authentic teaching contexts looking at acceleration). This process worked well to address both individual and syndicate-based inquires.

An important part of the process was teachers driving the shift to improve literacy outcomes through a cycle of inquiry. Two to three PLG meetings have been facilitated per term, working with groups of three, based on their inquiry around their target students in writing.Teacher inquiry goals have included a desire to:

  • Facilitate shared learning… to allow students to feel comfortable with their learning in front of their peers.
  • Encourage reflective thought and action…placing themselves as the reader, self-assessment and feedforward around the learning intention and success criteria. 

Often the last 20 minutes of the PLD, was a “now what” reflection.Resources were shared and tasks set, so that teachers could trial new ideas and transfer new learning (National Standards and embedding Literacy Learning Progressions) into their classrooms between facilitator visits. Professional learning group processes have resulted in:

  • Inquiring deeply into problems of practice
  • More rigorous monitoring and tracking with triangulation of evidence to make an Overall Teacher Judgement
  • Use of exemplars as part of the modelling process
  • Observing colleagues teaching writing with critical feedback/feedforward (noticing and responding)

Impact for teachers

There have been identified shifts in both teacher beliefs and practice. Teachers now realise that lifting achievement in learning largely involves them and that everything they do from now on effects their students’ learning. There are also new ways of working which include explicit, targeted, differentiated group teaching. Teachers have a clearer understanding about learning targets, can identify true acceleration and implement deliberate acts of teaching to enable this to happen. Teachers now:

Napier Intermediate School

  • group students according to abilities and needs and run targeted workshops to model specific skills
  • use Literacy Progressions to create individual learning pathways for students and inform teacher practice
  • use students as peer mentors for quality feedback
  • use online tools such as Storybird to invite engagement from an audience
  • have professional learning conversations using data boards to map students’ learning (using five pieces of evidence)

In the following video (11.44sec), teachers Amy, Karla and Mike elaborate on how the literacy PLD has affected their teaching practice and most importantly, the learning outcomes for their students.

Impact for students

As a result of changes in teacher practice, students have more interaction and engagement with their writing and with each other. Students have more ownership and agency around what they are learning and why. They have also developed more skills in self-regulation, where they are beginning to articulate the ‘how’ of learning in literacy. Students also have a better understanding about the purposes of writing. This is modelled using tools like Storybird and Google Docs to publish to a wider audience. Web links are shared with peers, parents and whānau who are invited to leave comments about the stories. Students value teacher and peer feedback, because the comments provide additional information to improve the writing piece.

Storybird image

As a result of targeted teacher interventions, students at Napier Intermediate now demonstrate better attitudes, understanding and appreciation for literacy. Comments include, “At the start of the year I wasn’t confident about writing and didn’t enjoy it. My teacher has lifted me. Writing is now a habit because I’ve learnt it properly.” (Year 7 student). In the following video (12.04sec), students talk about their shifts in attitude to, and ability in, writing.

Careful monitoring and tracking of targets for students also showed accelerated learning and achievement in Literacy as shown on the graph below.

Careful monitoring and tracking of targets for students also shows accelerated learning and achievement in Literacy as shown on the graph below.

Napier Intermediate School data

At the time of testing, time 1 data (March 2015) showed 55% of students were 'At' or 'Above' standard. A time 2, data (early November 2015) showed 69% of students were 'At' or 'Above' standard for writing. This is an increase of 14%.

Impact for leaders

Leaders have identified a need to mentor and monitor groups of teachers as well as individuals, so that teacher inquiry goals to increase writing achievement can be realised. As Louise Taylor (Deputy Principal) says,

“The most significant impact the Literacy Writing contract team had on my practice was the implementation of professional learning groups.  Actually practising these discussions after seeing them being modelled was crucial to embedding this practice into any professional learning discussions I had with staff. It was also incredibly noticeable in any conversations with staff that the structure, questioning and pedagogy of the professional learning group was being authentically practised and valued. Hearing staff speak so professionally and passionately about their writing programmes and student progress they were observing in their students was amazing and hugely beneficial.  I look forward to another year of professional development around writing, holding professional learning groups and further developing teacher inquiry in our school.”  

In summary

A continued focus is to ensure the professional learning groups have rigor, without falling in the traps of closed questions and providing solutions. Literacy facilitators will continue to find ways to support individual teacher inquiries in the classroom, possibly modelling co-teaching strategies - depending on what the teachers need. Future PLD models include re-grouping teachers to look at different aspects of research and readings, then summarising and sharing these back between groups during staff meetings.

NIS teacher inquiry 1

Teachers now understand what makes a difference in writing, and are particularly focused on developing effective practices to improve writing outcomes for priority learners (those students below the National Standards in writing). Beyond facilitated support; targeted team planning, teaching, mentoring and monitoring is driven by the teachers and supported by group leaders. This system has had such impact, the process will be embedded across the school in 2016. 

Next steps are targeted to help assist students with self-agency using resources and techniques such as ‘kids speak’ Literacy Progressions. You can view the video of Natasha Jacobs discussing the benefits of making the progressions accessible to students in TKI.

Further information about the Literacy and English Language Learning PLD Programme is available on our website or contact Sandy Harrop.