At Westlane Middle School, Teachers Are Breaking Down Walls

Posted 03/20/13
Last updated 03/20/13
  • Topics: Formative
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    By working together across subject areas and finding new ways to adjust instruction to student needs, educators at Westlane Middle School in Indianapolis are making a difference in student learning.

    Westlane Middle School is nationally recognized as a School to Watch by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform.

    How do you get middle-school kids—average kids, not science prodigies—interested in learning about cells? At Westlane Middle School in Indianapolis, Indiana, science teacher Bill Pitcock has found one method that so excites his students they pepper him with pleas: “When can we start learning about mitosis?”

    His bait: Novels. Instead of relying just on teacher lectures or dry texts explaining cell division, DNA and other concepts, Pitcock lays out a feast of exciting reading—including young-adult thrillers like Code Orange and Double Helix, along with memoirs like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks—all books containing information about cell topics.

    “We have a lot of kids who love to read but don’t like to read informational text. That’s why the novel idea has helped so much,” says Pitcock.

    Pitcock isn’t the only teacher at Westlane who uses literature—as well as writing projects—to draw kids in to subjects that were previously taught with textbooks.  Other teachers in science and in humanities do this, too—assigning kids historical novels, for example, to rev up interest in a particular time period or subject.

    These moves are part of a push at Westlane to create excitement about learning and a love for reading, using two key strategies:

    • Teachers working together—both within their subjects as well as with teachers in other subjects
    • Paying a lot more attention to information about student progress on a daily basis, so that teachers can more efficiently target students’ problem areas

    Teachers Working Together

    Westlane serves a diverse population of about 900 students, 55 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced lunch. “We live in million-dollar homes and in the poorest apartments,” says Principal Linda Lawrence. “So I’m excited to see that I can bring these kids together.”

    Lawrence also brings teachers together in regular, twice-weekly meetings, both with those who teach the same subjects and with teachers from other subjects. The team meetings let teachers develop themed units together so students learn more about a topic from different perspectives.

    For example, a new unit about the Westward expansion will involve humanities students in developing towns typical of this time period; math students in studying the area of irregular shapes created during the expansion and calculating the costs of beginning a town; and language arts students in reading and writing relevant short stories and poems.

    “It’s all about breaking down the walls in middle school,” says Pitcock. “So many times, you’re teaching in isolation. English teaches English, science teaches science, art teaches art: The kids feel like they are going to eight very distinct classes. But now they're seeing, ‘in English we're doing this, and in science we’re doing this, and oh, I see how we're working on this in humanities and math too."

    Adjusting Teaching to Student Needs

    As in most US schools, kids at Westlane take regular, state-mandated standardized tests, with results that often take months to arrive—long past the time when a teacher can do anything with the information to actually help a student learn more about a specific subject.

    At Westlane, teachers are collecting information more regularly so they can see each student’s strengths and weaknesses better, and adjust their teaching accordingly. Teachers also get data from daily “exit tickets”—notes students write before leaving class that demonstrate what they did (or didn’t) learn that day. Another data source: interactive, personalized computer programs focused on reading and math that are used by students in remedial classes. These, too, identify just where a student needs help.

    Simpson points to one boy in particular who was helped by this “data driven” approach. The 8th grader had moved often, attending 11 schools across the country. He was bright, with great ideas he’d share in class, but had difficulty writing.

    From reviewing the boy's test results, Simpson found key areas of writing mechanics that he hadn’t mastered. She went over these areas  with him—something he said no other teacher had ever done—and helped him develop a list of problem areas to focus on, such as making sure subjects and verbs agreed. Since then, the boy's academic writing has improved and he has gained new confidence.

    “Just today he showed me a notebook he’s been keeping at home with story ideas for three stories he wants to write,” says Simpson. “He is very proud of himself.”

    Teachers working together across subject areas and using students' work as a guide to improving teaching—these are key factors that have helped to create a culture of learning at Westlane, says Lori Kixmiller, a Washington Township School District literacy coach.

    “It’s a fun culture to walk into . . . The vibe you feel at any given time is that there’s thoughtful, engaging learning happening in each of the hallways. ”