George MuellerAs a teacher leader in his school and a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow, George Mueller helped initiate his school’s transition to Smaller Learning Communities , which has transformed relationships among students and teachers.

School: Dunbar Vocational Career Academy
District: Chicago Public Schools
State: Illinois
Submitted by: Teach Plus

George Mueller is a high school social studies teacher at Dunbar Vocational Career Academy on Chicago’s South Side.  Among George’s proudest accomplishments is the creation and implementation of a school-wide initiative to form small learning communities or SLCs.  Through the SLCs, students are placed into groups that allow for greater teacher collaboration.  Here is his story:

Four years ago, my high school, Chicago’s Dunbar Vocational Career Academy, underwent an administrative change which brought in renewed collaboration between administration, teachers, and students. From the very start, Dr. Camilla Covington, the new principal, focused on transforming student and teacher relationships in an effort to raise student achievement levels. This was the genesis of the school’s seven SLCs.

As part of the school’s plan, I was tapped to lead the implementation and curriculum development in my SLC.  To create the program, Dr. Covington, two assistant principals, and I traveled the Midwest and the East Coast to observe the SLC model in other schools and gain an understanding of how to prepare teacher leads and develop curriculum which would be SLC-centric.  We subsequently created a plan to implement our school’s SLCs, which place students in smaller learning pods with a cohort of 15 teachers. This team of teachers then aligns instructional units using the Common Core State Standards. The curriculum for each SLC transferred across all areas of teaching disciplines.

I have always been interested in teacher leadership and the SLC initiative gave me the perfect opportunity to incorporate my M.Ed. and work with Teach Plus into my school setting. I took on the responsibility of teacher lead of my SLC’s 15 teachers and 250 students. As we planned, observed, and transitioned to the SLC’s implementation phase, it became apparent that we needed more consistency in aligning our work to the Common Core. To resolve this, I developed a streamlined approach in which our students would be exposed to the same Common Core standards and strategies across all classes. I started with an introduction to the Common Core and ways to amalgamate the standards into our existing lessons. These strategies involved scaffolding, teacher modeling of proper pacing and inflection, text annotation, close reading, markup strategies, and primary and secondary document analysis and questioning. We held weekly SLC meetings where we discussed the progress of the integration and looked at data trends.  As we enter our fourth year of the SLCs, the practice of incorporating Common Core has become seamless, allowing teachers to create more lessons that capture the essence of the Common Core standards. To help teachers better visualize, grasp, and utilize Common Core in their classrooms, I use Odell Education, Reading Like a Historian, and Engage NY – all nationally-recognized sites focusing on Common Core and teacher development.

Implementation of the SLCs was not easy but the rewards went beyond the intrinsic satisfaction I felt when the plan came together. Over the course of administering weekly meetings and Common Core planning, I have witnessed the teaching staff grow as educators who are not afraid to try new lessons, observe fellow colleagues, or ask for recommendations. I have seen teachers collaborate across all subject areas on common teaching approaches that incorporate scaffolding and differentiation, which in turn has created more congruent lessons. Teachers are now utilizing various websites I showcased in an effort to keep their lessons current, rigorous, and student-centered. Students are seeing and recognizing consistency in teaching approaches. Through the focus on common tactics, they are more cognizant of their learning when they break down complex texts on summative exams. And students are now getting more marketable life skills that strengthen their ability to think critically and to problem solve. This will lead to greater success not only during high school, but also in college.