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Townsend: Confidence in teaming grows for students - and teacher

TEACHERS IN ACTION: LEAH TOWNSEND

This is the fourth in a series of stories we are publishing focused on ways GIPS teachers are putting new skills in action to grow student achievement.

After the supplies were gathered by the helper, the team members have their workbooks open. The five scientists are ready to begin their experiment. Along with the helper, the facilitator, recorder, checker and regulator are all set.

No one speaks at first as they each look to the pages, then the plastic cups filled with various items for their investigation, then back to their pages and then to each other.

The facilitator asks the question.

“Does anyone have any ideas?”

“I do,” says one of the team members, the regulator. “Let’s combine all the stuff …”

“What do you mean ‘stuff’?” interrupts the facilitator.

Unshaken, the regulator backtracks and continues. “The sediment. Let’s mix the sediment with all the other stuff …”

“All what other stuff?”

Again, unphased, she answers. “The water mix …”

No feelings are hurt. No arguments are started. It’s understood questions from one another help the team make the best decisions. Others on the team begin sharing their ideas with the facilitator, who, like the others, is a fourth-grader in their Dodge Elementary class.

A team works together during a science experiment.

They’re familiar with the process of working in teams. But it didn’t come easy - certainly not for their teacher, Leah Townsend.

“Early, when it wasn’t working, I was doing this only because I was told to do it. Not because I thought it was effective,” said Townsend. Her honest answer to the question about putting students in teams says a lot about her progress since school started in the fall.

“As the year has gone by,” she continued, “I’ve had the opportunity to go see a model school. I’ve picked up ideas on the student readiness piece. As the kids have grown while working in teams, I have seen the benefits.”

Dodge teacher Leah Townsend monitors a team working on a science experiment.

Dr. Carrie Kolar, Dodge Elementary principal, recognized the hardship in the journey.

“There have been some struggles,” Kolar said. “She continued to work on different issues, but always focused on solutions and moving forward.”

The results of that attitude have paid off.

“She took it step by step,” Kolar said. “She continued believing and trusting in the process. Soon it spread throughout all four sections of fourth grade. Walking through the steps, they actually ended up sharing at a Dodge professional learning day. They have remained focused on the next step the entire year.”

Townsend said she is surprised at the change in difficulty and her lesson planning.

“The more I’ve done it, the easier it has gotten,” she said. “My mind is focused on teaming and teaming activities. I’m focused on it and truly how it can work.”

Two students discuss possible actions during a science experiment.

Although teaming is a new strategy for Townsend, Kolar said the concept of finding a way for EVERY student to succeed is not.

“She’s always been strong at closing achievement gaps within her students,” Kolar said.

Townsend was proud of her students working on the science experiment. Looking at the group highlighted earlier, she pointed out that two of the students are in special education.

“You’d never know which ones are SPED,” she said. “I’m seeing more participation in class from kids who haven’t before. They are thinking in ways they hadn’t before. I’m seeing SPED kids doing well. I’m seeing all types of students do well.”

Dodge teacher Leah Townsend explains the roles for each member of the team for a science experiment.

While there are times when it isn’t working for all students (“It’s not always perfect,” she said), Townsend noted students have gained confidence as they’ve taken on more ownership, just as she has gained confidence in teaming as she’s given that ownership to them.

“Kids needed to get used to teaming,” Townsend said. “As the year progresses, student conversations are becoming thinking conversations centered around solving problems.”

Kolar says Townsend and the fourth-grade team are a great example of grit and resilience students can look to as inspiration.

“The change in her classroom is the clarity and purpose,” she said. “As a grade-level team, they’ve focused on tasks that would work in the grouping. She has an ability to focus on solutions. Every roadblock they come upon, they find a way to move forward throughout the year.”

This is something Townsend is pushing to her students, too.

“If the students can’t figure out a problem,” Kolar said, “she’ll give them videos to access for help. Their independence level has grown this year.”

Another bonus Townsend has seen is how into the school day her students are. She said she used to have activities to get their minds reengaged.

“That’s not necessary now,” she said. “Their brains don’t fall asleep anymore. They are engaged. They are with it. They enjoy the learning.”

A team works together during a science experiment.

Back to the science experiment, each student is working together, yet remembering their role for the day. Townsend has a part to play with pouring water into cups but mostly she floats around the room monitoring the work of individual students.

Any questions that come her way are answered with probing replies put back on the owners of the learning: the students.

After a discussion about the different ideas put forward - and the checker ensuring the team is consulting the success criteria - the facilitator finally makes the call.

“Let’s try her idea and see what happens,” he says. “We’ll figure it out from there.”

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