JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | First-grade teacher Jillian Coster (right) uses a book to illustrate her idea for a math project at Briarcliff Elementary School in Shoreham. From left, first-grade teachers Linda Burke and Ronnie Malave and special education teacher Christine Bradley.
An hour before the school day started Tuesday at Briarcliff Elementary School in Shoreham, a group of first grade teachers sat in little blue chairs and huddled around a tiny table.
First-grade teacher Linda Burke started the discussion by spreading out pins depicting cartoon characters. Her task is to come up with a project to encourage students to discuss their opinions.
“I can seem them saying, ‘This is my favorite because one year I was at Disney on my birthday,’ ” Ms. Burke said to her colleagues as she pointed to a birthday pin. “Or this one because they like the Boston Red Sox.”
The Shoreham-Wading River School District now provides weekly professional development workshops to replace the superintendant conference days that were scheduled throughout the year. The workshops are intended to help educators cope with recent changes in the teacher evaluation process.
Earlier this month, the state approved the district’s annual professional performance review plan, known as APPR. The teacher evaluation requirement originated in 2010 after the state was awarded a grant of nearly $700 million under the federal Race to the Top program. For school districts to qualify for part of this grant, the state requires them to im- plement their own APPR programs.
The state later approved legislation requiring school districts to replace their two-tier teacher evaluation system — satisfactory or unsatisfactory — with a four-tier rating structure — highly effective, effective, developing or ineffective. A mathematical formula combining observations by the principal with student assessments determines a teacher’s score.
Shoreham-Wading River High School instructor Erin Schmalzle, who has taught electives in the district for over 25 years, said she’s grateful the district is providing professional development time because it helps her further develop what are known as Socratic seminars.
This teaching style differs from a typical lecture because it involves creating an open forum for students to share their ideas and discuss their opinions, she said.
Ms. Schmalzle said that because it gives students the opportunity to direct the learning process, this type of teaching will achieve a “highly effective” ranking in the state’s eyes.
“I barely speak,” she said. “I’ve had kids tell me they hate me because I’m making them think. So, hate me all you want for not making you just spit back memorized information.”
Superintendent Steven Cohen said the Board of Education and the teacher’s union agreed this year to the weekly workshops and he’s excited about the district’s new approach to professional development.
“They agreed having a little professional development all of the time is better than having it in big chunks,” he said. “It’s more tailored to individual needs and it’s the teachers driving the process.”
Ms. Schmalzle said although some workshops provided at superintendent conference days could be valuable, she believes the new arrangement for teacher professional development is more productive.
“This seems to me to be a whole lot more helpful because it’s driven by us and that’s what education is supposed to be anyway,” she said. “It always seems that we’re told ‘race to the top, but we’re not giving you any money or time to figure out how to do it.’ ”
Ronnie Malave, a Briarcliff first-grade teacher, said she believes the new professional development time is “extremely beneficial” because it gives her a forum for meaningful conversations with her colleagues about new teaching methods, such as the state’s Common Core Standards. This program integrates learning in different subject areas while focusing on the literacy and mathematics skills needed for problem-solving in all educational settings.
Shoreham-Wading district teachers have also come up with ways to see students’ progress through pre- and post-assessment methods. For example, one way the Briarcliff first-grade teachers are pre-assessing their students’ opinion-writing skills is by having them write letters to a groundhog explaining why they do or don’t want him to see his shadow on Groundhog Day. After the class completes the section on opinion-writing, students will write another opinion piece and the progress between the two pieces will be evaluated.
As these Briarcliff elementary teachers continued to kick around ideas for opinion projects Tuesday morning, Ms. Burke slapped two clear plastic bags onto the table filled with little animal figurines.
“We could ask them which one is your favorite animal and why,” she said.
The idea piqued her colleagues’ interest. “You have a nice collection,” Ms. Malave said. “My kids are in college, so I don’t have a whole lot.” “My kids are older, too, but I still keep this stuff,” Ms. Burke said as she arranged the toys. “This is great,” Ms. Malave said. “Do you think I could borrow your collection?” “Of course,” Ms. Burke said.