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Preschool Matters Today

Building a Better Classroom Experience


November 8, 2017
Kaitlin Northey

Learn to read. Learn to make friends. Learn to add. Learn to follow directions. The early learning “To Do List” is filled with academic and social-emotional milestones. Whether young learners acquire these skills depends a great deal on what happens in their classrooms with their teachers.

To help teachers provide instruction that is both developmentally appropriate and academically rigorous, the New Jersey Department of Education in 2015 teamed up with NIEER and the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education to develop the First through Third Grade Implementation Guidelines outlining best practices for early elementary school educators.

However, state guidelines, no matter how great, cannot change practice. To encourage and support teachers adopting better practices, NIEER developed a Professional Learning Series using the key components of effective practices and recently published a new Professional Learning Community Guide to help teachers implement best practices for first- through third-grade instruction.

The 2016-17 Learning Series featured five sessions including 250 teachers and administrators from 29 New Jersey school districts. With guidance from a trainer, teachers collaborated with other first-, second-, and third-grade teachers to make their classroom environments and the learning opportunities they offered students more developmentally appropriate and academically rigorous. Another 20 districts are enrolled in our 2017-18 Learning Series.

During the sessions, teachers were asked to apply their new knowledge to their teaching and their classroom environments, report their experiences and lessons learned back to the group, and collaboratively, with peers and the support of a trainer, plan next steps. Many teachers reported covering the usual topics and concepts, but this time offering students more opportunities to collaborate and learn through exploration.

One teacher, who traditionally taught about properties of magnets using direct instruction to the whole group, instead moved magnets to a center and allowed children to freely explore the materials and log or report what they were learning. Through scaffolding, this teacher ensured the content she wanted to cover was addressed, such as introducing vocabulary to students as they explained their discoveries. As a result, the learning that occurred was not only more likely to stay with students, but the teacher observed students making more connections between what they were learning about magnets and other concepts in their curriculum — surpassing the content she typically taught and offering a springboard for future explorations.

Participating teachers and administrators were excited about the outcomes and wanted to share ideas and insights with colleagues who could not attend the series sessions. Our new Professional Learning Community (PLC) Guide does that not only for New Jersey classrooms but also for any districts seeking to improve early education practices.

Many districts already use professional learning communities as part of their ongoing professional development, but PLCs must be well-structured, meaningful, and engaging to enable teachers to connect research and practice. During the Professional Learning Series, teachers felt their discussions with each other (whether they were brainstorming ideas for making a unit of study more hands-on or reflecting on their implementation efforts) is where learning occurred and, most often, when they felt inspired to change their practices. Just like the first-, second-, and third-graders in the classrooms, adults learn best when they can engage with content in meaningful, authentic ways.

The PLC Guide helps make the most of the time available for teachers to work together by providing a framework for reflecting on the Guidelines as they deepen their understanding and implementation of developmentally appropriate academic rigor. This PLC Guide also helps support teachers’ reflection and discussion of their implementation efforts. Designed to accompany the Guidelines, the Guide includes sessions such as: Young Children as Learners; Setting Up to Support Children’s Learning; Exploring Classroom Content; and Teaching and Instructional Strategies. Depending on the needs and interests of the PLC members, sessions can be repeated, skipped, or completed in order. Each session has a protocol that teachers can follow, or adapt, as they make connections between the Guidelines and their own practices.

We believe teachers want their students to be excited about learning, challenged and engaged. We hope the PLC Guide will enable teachers to share more engaging, hands-on learning opportunities with their students. And we won’t be surprised if it makes them more excited and engaged, too!

Kaitlin Northey is a Research Project Coordinator at NIEER and a doctoral candidate studying early childhood and policy at Rutgers University. Kait has worked as a teacher and curriculum leader for children birth through eighth grade and frequently teaches undergraduate and graduate-level courses at the Rutgers University, Graduate School of Education related to early education theories and practices, curriculum integration, and the arts.  She holds a B.A. in Art and Education and Child Study and a M.A.T. in Elementary Education from Smith College.