By Vicki de Vries
What do three teachers–Alissa Stoever, Lilli Ross, and Paul Bianchi–beside different subjects and grade levels, have in common?
In a word: TARP, short for “Teacher Action Research Project,” a cutting-edge program that Dr. Lyn McKay, newly elected Superintendent of Schools, initiated when she was Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction as a way of engaging teachers in educational research projects. Three teachers explained why TARP is quickly proving to be the “killer app” for educational progress on a practical level…
Supercharging the Classroom
In keeping with the “lifelong learning” mantra characterizing the award-winning Chappaqua School District, teachers selected for the TARP program, now in its third year of operation, create a research question they answer in their classrooms.
Alissa Stoever, a kindergarten teacher for four years at West Orchard School, says TARP allowed her to consider new ways of improving her teaching: “My students were blossoming and growing as learners and problem solvers,” but something was missing in Playland.
During their unstructured, 40-minute playtime, her typically curious five year olds went back and forth from the housekeeping center to the block center to the writing center and so on in an aimless fashion. “Their maturity level and social interaction skills did not match up to their academic performance,” and students would switch centers as often as five times, or, on average, spend only eight minutes per center.
This wasted time became the focus of Stoever’s “action research” question “How can play time become more productive?” Designing a “workshop model” to help students develop their language and higher level thinking skills proved to be the answer. Students would sit on a carpet and listen as she explained a strategy for them to consider using during play time.
One successful strategy utilized the simple rhyme “When you think you’re done, you’ve only just begun,” which the class used in their writing center. “It was as if a light bulb went on when they applied this rhyme to what they could do at the centers,” said Stoever, who collected data to track how many times students were changing centers. The results were remarkable. Many students were able to stay at the same center for an entire play period, while others, for as long as a week.
A Great Learning Experience
“Some things I did were not always highly successful, but I learned from them,” said Lilli Ross, a 5th grade special education teacher at Seven Bridges School, where she provides collaborative support in math, reading, and writing and co-teaches math in a fully inclusive classroom. Ross’s first-year project focused on how to help special education students develop self-management techniques. “I learned how resilient students are about learning new things,” said Ross.
“What do powerful writers do?” became her new research question, which she answered by using a variety of approaches to connect basic writing skills with real-world events, including inviting a local journalist to speak. As a result, “my students began to see themselves through a new lens,” said Ross. “Engaging in action research is rigorous and time consuming, but when you see the effect on the kids, it’s definitely worth it.”
New Ways to Revitalize Teaching
For Paul Bianchi, a physics teachers for 26 years, 13 at Horace Greeley High School, TARP has revitalized his teaching approach: “This is what most teaching will be like in 10 years. Technology has made it possible to rethink what happens in the classroom.”
Still in his first-year research project, Bianchi enjoys answering the question “How does making class notes available online affect student performance?” by daily posting his course notes on Blackboard, Greeley’s online software portal for class assignments and documents. “Students discuss online notes and solve physics problems in small groups, and I can spend more time helping the students.”
Bianchi is already planning for next year’s research question: “Where will I take this?” A likely answer may be linked to technology. Bianchi waxed philosophical: “It’s easy to lose a bit of idealism and the excitement that first attracted you to your work. TARP has made me feel a great deal of enthusiasm in my work.”
Another attractive feature of TARP is sharing research findings with other TARP participants and staff developers, who meet every six to eight weeks as a group. Core groups of three teachers from different grade levels meet every month. “It’s amazing how much cross-fertilization takes place,” said Ross, “and it’s contagious!”
Vicki de Vries is a writer, editor and educator who thinks this TARP should be cloned.