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Common Core Pioneer: Nooksack Valley Middle School

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Common Core Pioneer: Nooksack Valley Middle School

Two-woman team Joyce Perkins and Megan Vigre make sure every teacher helps every student meet or exceed standards in the small, rural Nooksack Valley Middle School.

The sixth-grade “gallery walk” is underway at Nooksack Valley Middle School. Each student group tapes up its graph describing an eight-hour bike excursion – a trip that includes wind speed and other variables. Then they start the classroom walk, armed with stickies. Like critics at an art opening, they assess one another’s work, scribbling on the little yellow squares and using mathematical terms in ­­­­their mini-reviews. “Needs an x and y axis,” comments one sticky.

The “gallery walk,” connected to Common Core standards focused on critiquing skills, is the brainchild of innovative educators Joyce Perkins and Megan Vigre. The sixth-grade math and science teachers are a tight team, working within a broadly collaborative district culture; they partner on everything from curriculum and classroom strategies to assessments and professional development for peers.

In classrooms just across the hall, Vigre and Perkins teach the same content at the same time, using shared moves like the “gallery walk” to promote rich academic discourse. They may spend long hours developing a single lesson together, diving deep into content, aligning it to Common Core problem-solving skills, coordinating practices, and making sure each lesson is engaging and pushes student thinking.

“Mathematics is about problem-solving, not memorization,” says Perkins, who has a master’s degree in science education. “It’s about how am I going to solve problems in real life … whether it’s how much cement I need for a patio or how much a loan costs in the long run. They can always look up a formula, but if they can problem-solve and feel confident, they can do mathematics for life.”

During the course of the day, the two teachers may swap groups of students to provide enrichments for one group and “re-teaching” for another. The teammates consider every student in either class “their” student.

“I glean so much from the depth of knowledge Joyce has in science and mathematics,” says Vigre. “She is really great at digging in and finding out why this student is thinking what they’re thinking.”

“Megan has the gift of seeing how to change the system as a whole, whether it’s at grade-level or school-level or district-level,” responds her partner.

“It takes two,” adds Vigre. They both nod their heads.

Within their rooms, the teachers work intensely with students. “If you don’t understand something, Mrs. Vigre explains it to you individually,” says one of her students. The reviews echo in Mrs. Perkins class:  “She makes things easier to understand by giving us clues to what we’re supposed to be learning. She’s awesome!”

Outside the classroom, Perkins and Vigre are busy as teacher leaders. They mentor new teachers, teachers-in-training, and teachers switching grades. They’ve also created a learning studio where middle- and high-school teachers, grades 6-12, gather once a month to “do math” together and figure out where students are struggling.

“Joyce and Megan are invaluable in their willingness to be leaders,” says principal Joel VanderYacht. “They have led a lot of the work in making sure that practices are consistent from grade level to grade level.”

The commitment to collaboration runs deep in this small, rural, forward-thinking school, where the staff watches teaching videos together, discusses assessment and other hot topics, shares best classroom practices, and examines student data together.
Remarkably, every teacher, every day, has a full hour and fifteen minutes to work with teammates on ways to ensure every student in the school meets or exceeds standards.  The district focus on that goal is intensive, the work toward it deliberate.

All decisions on student learning are based on data, including state, district, and school-initiated assessments. If numbers point to student learning gaps, the school offers multiple layers of interventions including an after-school tutorial, a “lunch and learn,” and small group work during class hours. Three days a week, students attend “Academy,” a 45-minute early-morning session that provides personalized help for under-performing students and enrichments, such as guitar class, for proficient performers.

“We’re getting more precise about where our students’ gaps are, but we still haven’t reached all the students. So we keep looking at all the layers of intervention, asking ‘What’s the next one?’ “says Vigre, who is studying to become a principal at the University of Washington.

Perkins and Vigre use pre-testing and post-testing to gauge student learning levels. The partners also developed a “learning log” tool. Students write down the day’s learning target, based on state standards, and, at class end, illustrate that they understand it. The teachers review every log every day. Until at least 70 percent of students demonstrate full understanding of the daily target, they don’t move on.

The logs provide an in-depth picture of learning for both students and parents “Students constantly get feedback on what do I know and what do I not know yet. It’s not just that we know the standards; they know the standards,” says Perkins.
She and Vigre have both recently earned Teacher Leadership Certificates from the University of Washington, thanks to district leaders who strongly support professional development.

“Because of all the professional development we have, we are always learning,” says Perkins.

Adds her teammate:  “It’s priceless. It’s what keeps you motivated as an adult learner.”

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