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Douglas County teachers lead District's innovation, excellence

CASTLE ROCK - In his latest book, World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students, Dr. Yong Zhao says that we need to view teachers as leaders in a school community, and not simply someone who only manages and teaches in a classroom. Superintendent Liz Fagen recently hosted her Let’s Talk Education segment on Castle Rock Radio, and introduced the Douglas County community to not one, but four amazing teacher leaders within the Douglas County School District.

Dr. Fagen spoke about the educational transformation happening within the District.  

“The bottom line is that the world has changed, the kids have changed and we have to change with it,” said Fagen.  “We want to be a model of American education that works—one that was not built by policy, but built by teachers.” 

These four teachers, along with hundreds of others throughout the District, have been busy writing and developing new curriculum for the 21st century and digital native kids—kids that have always lived in world that introduced technology to them at an early age.  

“This work is truly being done by teacher leaders,” said Fagen.  “The whole world is telling us to rethink our curriculum—to ask if students really need to know a specific fact—since information is pretty much infinite at this point.  We have to filter the most important and high level concepts that will make our kids the most successful in the world,” explained Fagen.  

The District currently has about 65,000 students and 3,400 teachers and is growing.  District teachers have eagerly stepped forward to become education pioneers.  

“They are doing work that no one else in the country or even in the world is actually doing,” said Fagen.  

These teachers are designing the best educational opportunities for their students through their amazing work on curriculums and assessments.  

Heather Kuzma is Building Resource Teacher (BRT) at Redstone Elementary.  This is her first year as a BRT, and she has attended many District-level meetings to learn more about what drives the District and all the work behind the scenes.  

“I wanted to become a teacher leader, and that is why I really pushed myself to get into this role as the building resource teacher,” said Kuzma.  

She also serves on the Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum (GVC) committee and if that isn’t enough, is on the Change Agent committee.  

“The GVC is not just the curriculum of the Common Core Standards,” explained Kuzma.  “It really pushes to the next level in getting to World Class outcomes and getting students to go above and beyond the Common Core Standards.”  

While it may sound easy, it really is not.  

“It’s hard, but is great work.  When you can see the end picture in mind, it is amazing to see the transformation at our school—from where we began to where we are now with the steps our staff has made—it’s been really great to see that growth,” said Kuzma.

Stephanie Crowe is a sixth grade teacher at Sage Canyon Elementary.  Sage Canyon focuses on project based learning—basically, learning that builds deep content understanding while encouraging student motivation and learning through problem-solving and investigation.  Crowe has been with the District since 1996 and quickly realized that she had a passion for assessment.  She is her school’s BAS (Balanced Assessment System) advocate as well as involved on the Standard Six Taskforce, a group working on balanced assessment refinements that tie into student achievement.  

“To see how all of these things are coming together and how they have changed over the years has been very exciting, along with making it authentic and meaningful for both students and teachers,” said Crowe.  

The assessment work that Crowe and her fellow teachers are building now is completely different from what it was ten years ago.  

“We are trying to get away from the simplistic multiple choice questions and instead, trying to get kids to really think and reflect on their work,” Crowe added.

Eric Sonnentag is an eighth grade science teacher at Mesa Middle School.  While he has only been with the District for three years, being a teacher leader is something he had not considered until nudged by his fellow science teachers.  He started by looking at ways to build more authentic assessment tests for his students.  

“I don’t look at chapter tests—I look at more of those project-based tests and balanced assessments,” he said.  

He is a member of the District’s Standard Six Taskforce, the World Class Education Targets Group and the GVC committee.  

“It’s been a kind of whirlwind being on so many committees and teaching full-time, but being new to education, I feel it’s important to have people that see the vision of the District and want to push forward that agenda—to cause change,” said Sonnentag.  

Jean Taylor, a second grade teacher at Mountain View Elementary, has been with the District for 13 years.  

“As a mom, I am very invested in our District.  I have four children, so I see both angles,” she said.  

Over the last year, Taylor has been a BAS advocate, on the GVC committee and recently joined the Change Agent committee. Along with her principal, Taylor has been working with District professional development coordinators in crafting a long-term professional development plan for her fellow teachers and staff.  

“I think the way to help our teachers realize the case for change and that we are all in it together is to learn it ourselves and then model it for our staff,” said Taylor.  

Fagen added that it makes sense for the District’s professional development to model what she and her team hopes to see for students in the classroom.  

“We have been given the opportunity to have someone backing us up and we have time to dialogue with other professionals in the same situation.  We are bouncing ideas off each other and fine-tuning.  It is hard work, but we are in it together and are very excited,” expanded Taylor. 

Putting this all together is a pretty tall order, and throughout Douglas County, teacher leaders have been working on developing GVC version 2.0, and are even starting to discuss version 3.0 for preschool, kindergarten, first and second grade students.  As a science teacher, Sonnentag feels that the GVC must be viable.  Everyone does not need to teach it the same way, as long as the outcomes are the same.  

“We need to pull in the real world, authentic type of information that kids need for 21st and even 22nd century jobs,” said Sonnentag.  

As a building resource teacher, Kuzma gets to hear these initiatives and take them back to share with the teachers and the staff.  

“When it did finally come together, it was an ‘aha moment’ of now that we have gone through this, they were able to make the connection between what they have done and the new GVC with World Class Outcomes, “said Kuzma.  

As a BAS advocate, Crowe is charged with going back to her school and communicating with teachers.  

“We want them to know what resources we have and how we are working as leaders to develop everything we need,” said Crowe.  

Having one group develop the outcomes and another working on assessment to measure those outcomes ties it all together.  

“In reality, when you get together and see how things fit together—like a puzzle, it is coming together to make sense for teachers and for real classrooms on an everyday basis,” said Crowe.  

When it comes to assessments, some parents worry that their kids are going to be assessed or tested constantly.  

“The best assessments don’t feel like tests at all.  If you build an amazing project-based unit, that product, particularly if it is authentic and meaningful, becomes the assessment.  Students won’t think of it as a test,” said Fagen.  

“Having our teachers being a part of building these assessments and quality questions will really help in the long run,” added Sonnentag.  

Teachers have been able to give feedback on interim assessments and get to make changes that make them more authentic.  For example, Sonnentag’s students will be building an alternative-fueled vehicle.  

“I will be looking to see if they understand the content we have gone through in the last few weeks—that is the authentic assessment and real life learning,” added Sonnentag.  

These teacher leaders are raising the bar by saying that our kids can do more by giving them the chance to show that.  

“We have eighth grade students building alternative-energy vehicles and kids at Rocky Heights Middle school making full-length feature films.  These are not things that have traditionally been part of a middle school experience.  They really plug into this kind of learning,” said Fagen.  

Teacher leaders have been an integral part of Dr. Fagen’s team throughout her career, starting in Iowa.  Mary Stimmel, an Iowa high school teacher, came to Dr. Fagen eight years ago with a proposal to reinvent the way she approached teaching Spanish.  Stimmel asked for 25 computers (and got five initially), contacted a book publisher for a copy of a book that wasn’t even published yet and revamped her whole course over the summer.  

“I am having a lot of fun and still cannot see the end of my career at this point,” said Stimmel.  

Five computers eventually turned into an entire lab, and Stimmel said they now teach Arabic, Spanish and French at Lincoln High School.  

“Those five computers instilled a passion in our students for going beyond the basics,” said Stimmel.  She said that the school’s foreign language class enrollment has also gone up with the use of technology in the classroom.  

“We are not just teaching from the textbook—we are teaching real world, real culture, in real time.  It can happen with the click of a mouse,” said Stimmel. 

“These teachers are not afraid of reinventing our profession for the future.  They are teaching full time and on top of that, each of them is working on at least three other things as teacher leaders in our District, and I am really thankful to have them here in Douglas County,” said Fagen.

You can listen to Dr. Fagen’s show here:  Scroll down until you see the Let’s Talk Education section and click on the 3.6.13 Teacher Leadership link.

October 14, 2013 | By Anonymous | Category:

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