New Schools Project builds teacher communities

“I agree with what Carolina said. The girl in the book was really brave to talk to the dragon like that.”

[img_caption src=”×150.jpg” link=”” align=”right” alt=”Leslie Popchoke”]Those words, spoken by second grader Ivan about Robert Munsch’s book “The Paper Bag Princess,” are music to the ears of teacher Leslie Popchoke, M.S. ’10.

They demonstrate that Ivan understands the book, is comfortable discussing it, and feels safe enough in his classroom community to speak up — important social-emotional and literacy skills she has been working on with her students.

Popchoke is a second-grade teacher at Erie Elementary Charter School, a dual-language school in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood that is a leader in PreK-3rd reform and a longtime partner of Erikson’s New Schools Project.

In a sense, Erie, Popchoke, and the New Schools Project “grew up” together, starting in 2005 when Erie was founded. Erikson consultants helped write Erie’s charter and design the school’s literacy and social-emotional frameworks. Five years later, Popchoke started student teaching at Erie with cooperating teacher Kim Linton-Strauss, M.S. ’07.

Popchoke has now been involved in the New Schools Project at all levels: as a student teacher, an Erie teacher participating in the New Schools Project’s intensive three-year professional development cycle, a current cooperating teacher for a student teacher from Erikson, and now one of Erie’s teacher leaders.

“Leslie is a New Schools Project star,” says Gillian McNamee, professor, director of teacher education, and interim director for the New Schools Project. “She has grown into the hopes we have for all our participating teachers.”

Building the foundations of educational success The New Schools Project, a collaboration between Erikson and nine Chicago public schools, is designed to create high-quality, developmentally informed prekindergarten through third grade experiences for children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

The New Schools Project is grounded in the understanding that a solid foundation, especially in oral language and literacy, in PreK-3rd grade is essential to later educational success. Project staff works with partner schools to build continuity across grade levels, classrooms, and schools as the key to building a strong foundation for long-term educational achievements.

Erikson consultants work with teachers and administrators at each partner school to create a professional development plan around the strengths and challenges of that school’s PreK-3rd program. The New Schools Project’s instructional framework, upon which professional development is built, is centered around creating intellectually challenging experiences that integrate rich content, foster higher-level thinking, and build inclusive, supportive learning communities.

The intensive three-year professional development cycle is conducted on-site by an Erikson facilitator, and includes learning labs and workshops to introduce new classroom practices and instructional strategies, as well as individualized coaching and modeling. During the 2013–14 school year, for instance, Jane Fleming, professor and professional development coordinator, conducted an in-depth professional development series on “Rigor in Reading Comprehension” at Erie.

“The collaboration has been invaluable. With Erikson’s support, we are maximizing the talent we have in this building,” says Erie principal Velia Soto. “There is a social-emotional aspect to everything the New Schools Project brings us, which makes it much more meaningful, practical, and effective for the teachers.”

The child-development lens

In Popchoke’s classroom, a basic Erikson tenet — that an understanding of child development is essential to good teaching — comes alive.

“I understand that children this age are in a fragile place socially and emotionally,” she says. “A big developmental shift is taking place. They are just starting to see themselves as a piece of the larger puzzle. They desperately want independence, but they need a lot of guidance and modeling.”

That’s why a day in Popchoke’s class involves a lot of problem-solving, either in classroom meetings or with a smaller group in one of the room’s “problem-solving corners.” She also leads role-playing, games, discussions, and team-building exercises to further the children’s social-emotional competence.

These activities are based on what she learned at Erikson, Popchoke says. “When I first started my master’s degree program at Erikson, I was working in a Head Start prekindergarten program. I couldn’t understand why these three-year-olds were being so ‘unreasonable.’

“Through my coursework, I began learning about children, how they grow and learn. I learned that it is unreasonable to expect a three-year-old to sit on the carpet for 30 minutes. I understood that the child who followed me around all day with a constant stream of ‘why?’ questions was not being obnoxious — he was learning. He was soaking up vocabulary and verbal exchange. I began to focus my teaching through the lens of child development.”

That child-development lens is why Principal Soto relies on Erikson as a pipeline for new hires at Erie, where one-half of the K-3rd team are Erikson graduates. “It is my go-to for new teachers. Not all teachers are equipped to meet the social-emotional needs of their students. It’s great to have a pool to pull from, knowing that their educational values line up with ours.”

A safe and accepting place

Popchoke says that developing relationships with her students’ families and becoming familiar with their cultures has made her a better teacher.

To strengthen and reflect the cultural identity of her Hispanic and African American students, she chooses books that feature urban settings and diverse characters. She also invites families to “publishing parties,” where children read their original stories, in English or Spanish, and celebrate with favorite snacks.

Creating an accepting, safe classroom community “lays the groundwork for intellectual challenge,” says Popchoke. “Now the students can navigate content,problem-solve, ask questions, and speak their minds.”

Principal Soto feels that this emphasis on community-building is one of the biggest gifts the New Schools Project brings to both students and teachers. “Teachers learn to build a classroom community and develop trust among the students, which then facilitates learning,” she says.

Passing the reins

New Schools Project relationships do not end when the initial, intensive three-year cycle is complete, as Erikson consultants “pass the reins” to teachers at the partner schools to create self-sustaining teacher leadership.

As a New Schools Project teacher leader at Erie, a school which continues as part of the Erikson network, Popchoke acts as a liaison with Erikson, coordinates ongoing professional development, facilitates collaboration among teachers, and helps them find the support they need.

In this way, the New Schools Project continues to expand, share knowledge, and give more PreK-3rd grade students in the Chicago Public Schools the chance to grow up with a high-quality, developmentally informed, literacy-rich education.

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