By Sara DeMartino and Michael Telek

The IFL, in partnership with Dallas ISD, researchers from the Learning Research and Development Center, and the Center for Urban Education, secured funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation in 2018 to form the DISD/IFL Network for School Improvement. The goal of the network is to identify and eliminate inequities in literacy instruction to improve teaching and learning for students in underperforming schools in grades 6-9. The network is currently made up of seven middle schools and their seven feeder high schools.

“The network teachers who committed to give students opportunities to write about and to talk amongst themselves in pairs or trios about the big ideas in texts has opened up learning and student engagement,” said IFL Director Anthony Petrosky. “It’s a pleasure to walk these classrooms, to hear the student-to-student talk, and to feel their engagement, their enthusiasm, as they explain their thinking and argue about ideas.”

Across their time together, Dallas ISD teachers and the IFL have worked to develop the DISD/IFL instructional model. This model of instruction invites students to engage with a coherent sequence of text-based tasks that begin with comprehension. The tasks are developed around a set of student-centered routines that invite students to annotate, use quick writes, share their thinking in pairs, and then make their thinking public during a gallery walk or whole group discussion. The frequent engagement with these routines has led students to became more confident and competent in their own thinking. As students’ expectations for themselves shift, teachers have begun to expect more from their students.

“I always said that I had a real problem, working with students that struggle, but I realized that all students struggle, it was just a different kind of struggle,” said Janie Payne, an ELA teacher at Atwell Middle School. “I mostly used to work with the Pre-AP and honors students. We would be going and they’d struggle too. I just had to see it in a different way. I think my greatest success is realizing that I can teach any student and get those students to learn. I can foster their ability to question themselves and to get in there and get those mental processes doing that. They weren’t accustomed to doing that because nobody made them do it, but in my classroom it’s a no, no, to say I don’t know. It’s I don’t know yet. We don’t do I can’t. We get help to figure it out.”

JoeAnn Nguyen, an LRDC researcher on the project, said the teachers who were very purposeful and humanized themselves to their students saw significant change in the classroom and on their achievement tests. By empathizing with each other, both students and teachers built bonds that strengthened their communities.

“One of the teachers talked about how she wrote a letter to her students letting them know who she is. Then she had [the students] use that as a model to write a letter back to her,” said Nguyen. “It’s a humanizing theme. She now knows about her students, who they are outside of school, and then they know who she is outside of the school. But she also used the letter as an assessment tool that I thought was a really cool way of learning where they are in their informal writing.”

The NSI hub team of IFL fellows has also worked to build community with teachers in the network. The hub serves as a guide for the project. Hub members collaborate with teachers on literacy instructional change ideas, advise teachers on instructional practices, and organize whole network meetings, where teachers share and reflect on their practice. Through monthly network convenings, teachers have come to trust the hub team and each other for advice and feedback on instruction.

“I had a teacher who was so reluctant with the IFL work,” said Crystal Newman, a team coordinator at Zan Holmes Middle School. “Why? Because English teachers, we like to control everything. The IFL work, its student centered right? And so, she was afraid to really let go and to let her students do the thinking and talking and go through everything. One lesson I said, ‘Hey, just trust your kids.’ And when she finally came back to me, she was like, that was so good, they have so much to say. It was really worth it. To see her go from ‘I don’t want to do IFL,’ to ‘my kids can really do this; let’s do more’, that was amazing.”

As the NSI enters its fifth year, both teachers and the IFL team are looking forward to meeting together again in person after spending the past two years engaged in virtual meetings. Data analysis on the impact of the NSI instructional practices on student achievement has shown positive results for teachers who consistently implemented the instructional model, and network members are hopeful that student achievement will continue to grow as teachers and the IFL continue to work together to improve literacy instruction for every student in network schools.