ROCKFORD — Last fall, Cara Wolfe and Aubrey Barnett started their first year teaching English Language Arts (ELA) at Flinn Middle School in Rockford ready to change things up. In 2020, standardized test scores at the school were in the lowest-performing 5% of Illinois. Now add a few years of COVID disruption on top of that.
Barnett says a culture of learning was missing. But coming in and making big changes in your first year is hard. She says it took a while to get going.
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“I was so disappointed and disoriented by what I saw other people doing with it and by people’s complete lack of understanding,” she said. “I actually brought it up right early at the beginning of the year, and it got tucked away for the first two quarters. And when we approached nonfiction, our third quarter of research-based writing, we’re going, ‘Hey, we’ve got to be a little different.’”
That’s when their Language Arts colleague Elizabeth Krampota suggested they introduce their 8th graders to an entirely new learning model: PDSA. It stands for Plan, Do, Study, Act. It might sound complicated, but the fundamental idea of PDSA is to flip the classroom dynamic and get students to take the reins of their education.
Barnett says that so often in education students are assigned activities and homework, but don’t understand the skill it’s connected to. They often ask, “WHY are we doing this?” Not here.
“What our students can tell you is the exact learning standard,” said Barnett. “Not ‘I’m reading this novel,’ or ‘we’re doing this activity,’ but ‘I’m actually learning towards gaining vocabulary and roots and suffixes so that I can apply that to my new readings.’”
Students choose from a group of standards they need to learn. It could be something like “how to identify when an argument is biased.” PDSA asks them to explain it in their own words and then map out a project to show they’ve engaged with that standard using a topic of their choice.
Cara Wolfe said they’ve had PDSA projects about everything from “Does pineapple belong on pizza?” to violence in Myanmar. And the projects can take many forms, including essays, skits, presentations and more.
“I had an interactive graphic where the student actually made an animation using Google Slides for their standard,” said Wolfe.
Then they reflect on their learning to see how they can do better the next week, with a new standard. Their team of teachers does the same and looks to see where they’re seeing the most student growth and engagement.
It took a few weeks for students to get the hang of PDSA. Then the kids ‘got it.’ And their teachers say that the results, so far, have been beyond what they could have expected. Students who were struggling and bored became engaged and started thriving. And those who were already doing well only benefited more from the new challenge.
Wolfe says that jaws dropped when their first test scores started coming in for assessments like “Measures of Academic Progress” or MAP Growth. In 2018, the average 8th-grade growth score at Flinn was 5. The score for their PDSA classes this year was 13 — nearly triple the average four years ago.
She said they made huge gains, especially with kids considered high poverty, and low performing.
“Honestly, to me that says that kids who struggle to engage in learning struggle to comprehend what’s going on,” said Wolfe. “They don’t need worksheets, they don’t need lectures, they need to be interactive in their learning.”
They aren’t the only school in Rockford using PDSA. But Barnett says that their team of teachers, working together, along with their foundation in social-emotional learning, is why they’re getting the best out of their students.
“I learned a lot because Ms. Barnett, she’s made me feel safe and at home in this class,” said Hector Canchola, an 8th grader at Flinn. “At the beginning of the school year, I really didn’t like ELA at all. But because of Ms. Barnett, I’ve started to pay attention and like this class.”
Flinn students said it’s not just that their scores were higher, they’ve also noticed their classmates are happier and more excited about school — even talking about projects outside of class.
Brianna Arreguin says getting to choose the standard and a topic she was interested in made a huge difference.
“I always had a love for ELA, but I just started getting older I kind of stopped reading, I stopped paying attention,” said the 8th-grade student. “But after we did the PDSA, and we got to pick whatever topic we wanted, I felt that I was able to learn so much more because it was a topic that I was interested in. And I felt that it was really nice that I got to share my knowledge with others about a topic that I enjoyed.”
Barnett says the students finished the year by hosting a museum of their projects where they invited younger students and parents to come by and learn about what they’ve studied.
“I’m not over it,” she said. “I’m gonna sing it from the mountaintops. I’m gonna be obnoxious about it. I’m gonna put it in people’s faces again and again and again because creativity and love and personalization yield results.”
Barnett and the rest of the PDSA teacher team say next year the plan is to expand and weave PDSA into other classes like social studies too, in hopes of having an even bigger impact on their kids.