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Laporte students left this message for their teachers when classes ended last May. Faculty members have embarked on a pilot project that uses peers to help improve lesson plans. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Laporte teachers get new training

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A rural revolution has begun at five small northern Minnesota schools, including Laporte.

A $225,000 grant is teaching teachers how to teach more effectively, becoming more introspective.

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The focus is on the lesson plan itself, not the teacher. It starts at the bottom, with improving the lessons that fell flat, and moves onward and upward.

"I remember when I was teaching, I had this one particular lesson I thought was fantastic because I really enjoyed teaching it and I thought the students were getting every bit of it because I enjoyed it," recalls Laporte Superintendent Harvey Johnson. "I don't know if it did or not."

And that's the crux of Authentic Intellectual Work, a program designed to let teachers share and critique lesson plans with peers in order to enhance the learning process and improve student performance.

Select groups of teachers have begun training that will be implemented throughout the district by next year. This year Laporte will focus on mid- and upper-level math, social studies, music, Spanish and special education.

Gone is the philosophy that "we've always done it this way before."

"AIW is going through a teacher's lesson to determine if it's appropriate for the age group, if it addresses the concept you're trying to get across," Johnson said.

"It's helping to distinguish between the more complex accomplishments of skilled adults and the usual work students do in school. Authentic intellectual work involves original application of knowledge and skills rather than the routine application."

The first meeting core committee was Tuesday. Instructions: bring a lesson plan that fizzled.

"The idea is to build lesson plans that reach all students and develop student critical thinking by applying lesson concepts to real world applications," said Dr. Bruce Jensen, executive director of Northwest Service Cooperative.

"This approach does not require the schools to purchase new curricula and works with lessons they already use," Jensen added. "The potential for success is real and immediate within one to three years."

The peer-to-peer examination of what works and what doesn't focuses on the subject matter, Johnson reiterated. A prescribed process outlines how the lesson plan is to be scrutinized.

He admitted teachers can be apprehensive initially, but the focus is how to improve what didn't work, not highlight any teacher's shortcomings.

The theory is that improved teaching will engage students and carry the lessons beyond the classroom.

"How to present the lesson, how to include the higher order thinking, deep knowledge and student understanding, how do you get a substantive conversation? What's the value beyond school?" Johnson summarizes the approach.

"It doesn't matter what your curriculum is," he added. "It just has to do with putting together meaningful lessons and how you go about doing it."

Teachers score the lesson and discuss any discrepancies in the scoring.

The teacher then discusses what aspects of the feedback were most useful.

"That's the instruction part of it," Johnson said. Then the student presentation begins.

"If you give the students a task, let's say building a diorama of a particular Civil War battle. First of all is that realistic? It may well be if you have the equipment to do it and the previous knowledge," he said.

The student project is presented to the committee just as a football coach analyzes the game films.

What was the execution?

Did the students carry out the assignment or was something lost in translation?

"Where before it was right or wrong answers, off you go," Johnson said, describing the old approach.

The teacher puts together the same lesson plan with the critiques inserted and back to the classroom.

"As we move through, we certainly hope to bringing what we are now considering our least effective lessons, say a year or two down the road..." Johnson said.

"We'll look at the first lessons we brought and there should be a giant gap between the two, from being not-so-effective to being very effective lessons."

And that should also enhance teacher evaluations, which will be implemented by the 2014-15 school year.

From Madison through Iowa

The program was the brainchild of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

It filtered into some Iowa schools and became so successful, the Iowa Department of Education mandated it statewide.

Iowa's program stresses an in-depth understanding of a subject, not just teaching a superficial overview.

That's what captivated Johnson and his faculty.

The teamwork approach also builds liaisons with community experts. That will blend well in Laporte, where the school relies on some volunteers to teach specialty areas like music.

But, as in Iowa, Johnson wants his faculty to develop a common vision of teaching.

"We want the staff, teachers to become reflective about what they're teaching," Johnson said.

"They may have taught the same bloomin' thing for 20 years. Is it appropriate today? Is it of any value? Was it ever of any value, just because you enjoyed teaching it? Were you getting the concept across to the students?"

The pilot program has energized his faculty, Johnson said.

"The people who are involved in this thing right now are pretty excited about it," he said.

Other schools covered under the grant include Bagley, Clearbrook-Gonvick, Fisher and Kelliher.

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Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers Hubbard County, courts and breaking news.

(218) 732-3364
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