May 29, 2012
A professional development coach for secondary schools, Leslie Hergert has traveled to some of the largest school districts in the country. She recently came back from Nashville, Tennessee, where she met with teachers who are making big changes in the way they work with students.
“I work with a program that helps students connect classroom content to skills they need in the business world. That program, the Ford Partnership for Advanced Studies [Ford PAS], was developed at EDC and is now being implemented in high schools all over the country, including Glencliff High School in Nashville.
I go to Nashville every two months. We do workshops with teachers about the approach of Ford PAS, and then we watch the teachers in their classrooms. We talk to them about their classroom practice and give them suggestions about how to adapt their teaching so it links academics and career skills.
Working with teachers is a collaborative process. I ask a lot of questions: How are things going? What do you want to do better? I draw on things that I know from having worked with schools and teachers for decades. Working in Nashville is an opportunity to see change really happening in a high school.
There’s an English teacher at Glencliff who had the idea to connect A Raisin in the Sun to a Ford PAS module on personal finance, since financial security is a central theme in the play. So I helped him design a unit linking those personal issues with the play. He started the unit by asking students what they would do if they suddenly received $10,000. This is the central event in the play, and the characters all grapple with the question of how they should spend it.
After reading the play, the teacher had students write a persuasive essay describing whether they would spend such a windfall on college, the purchase of a house, or starting a new business. He wanted them to have an opinion and then defend it. And this is important—not just because the state writing test for juniors consists of a persuasive essay, but also because the task teaches students some of the challenges of personal finance. After teaching this way, he said it was the first time his students didn’t say, ‘Why do I have to read this book?’
This type of change really takes a lot of effort. We are lucky in Nashville because there are people in the school who are well trained, and the school and district administrators are committed to our approach. But this approach of linking academics and career skills is a big shift for a lot of the academic teachers. We emphasize communication and teamwork. Teachers need to get messages of support, and they also benefit from in-the-moment coaching, questions such as ‘It seems like this approach didn’t work as well as you had hoped; how do you think you could change it so it works next time?’ Change is a process, and it requires ongoing encouragement and reflection and support.
Glencliff is a turnaround school, and the school’s leadership team is new. They could have followed many other schools in this situation and adopted a much more directive, teach-to-the-test approach to instruction. But Glencliff and Nashville chose not to; they believe such one-way teaching doesn’t work. And you know what? Test scores at the school have increased over the last five years, so the school was headed in the right direction even before we came in with Ford PAS. And the district has organized all its high schools into career academies. Students are all learning in context.
When I was there in December, I sat in on a business class. The students were studying the environmental risks associated with a fictional new oil rig. They had been organized into stakeholder teams—environmental groups, developers, city government. And then, out of the blue, one student says, ‘Wait—didn’t this happen? Wasn’t there this big oil spill last year?’ And she was right—she was connecting what she was studying in class to a real-world event. It was nice to see
Glencliff has some great students, and they know that being able to articulate their ideas is important. They are really business-minded. And they are poised and prepared for the workplace. I think that’s related to the work we are doing.”