Activating a Common Vision for Excellent Instruction
Talking with Michigan District Leader Jennifer Slanger
Earlier this year, I profiled Dr. Jennifer Slanger’s efforts to improve students’ opportunities in West Michigan’s Wyoming Public Schools. As the Director of Teaching and Learning for the district, Dr. Slanger is leading system-wide efforts to strengthen learning in math and ELA. This second installment details her journey as a school and system leader.
Bold Change Starts With Self
Dr. Slanger began to dive more deeply into work on instructional access and belonging during her principalship. She learned an important lesson as she and her team started to recognize and unpack personal biases.
I used to think leading for equity meant you are keeping at the forefront your Black and brown children that are in your care seven hours a day. Of course that’s true. What I know now is that access to high-quality teaching practices and high-quality, rigorous instructional materials provide a strong foundation for all learners. We have to move beyond intentions and do that work.”
She also reflects that it’s important to identify the things you don’t know and course correct, something she saw first-hand recently as her district went adopted a new standards-aligned math curriculum.
As WPS continued the curriculum adoption process, Dr. Slanger says teachers and school leaders began to understand that “providing an equitable education means that we are teaching grade-level content standards to all students, while also being mindful of what they’re entering with and what they are leaving with.”
Find Windows, mirrors, and Sliding doors
As teachers and school leaders started critically examining their materials, it became clear that the materials teachers were putting in front of students needed to be more representative of the schools’ demographics. Dr. Slanger realized that she could easily relate to the books she read during her school experience; all the characters looked like her. However, that wasn’t the case for everyone in her class.
New approaches take practice
The teaching team learned how important it was to build capacity in the Common Core shifts and set an instructional vision for the entire K-12 school system. At the time, the district had a math resource that wasn’t considered a highly aligned curricular resource.
We really put together a comprehensive process with the first portion of it just building capacity around the aspects of rigor, the shifts in teaching mathematics. Then we looked as a grade level, ‘Do I know what standards I should be teaching?’ Our teachers were spending copious amounts of time trying to figure out, ‘Okay, is this a third-grade standard I’m teaching? Or a second-grade or a fourth-grade standard?’”
Building capacity with new materials is important for any new curricular resource. Finding the time for teacher leaders, instructional coaches, and building leaders to engage in the learning they can then take to classroom teachers can be a challenge
Set clear expectations and roles
To build toward equitable access and outcomes, it was important to have clear expectations for math research and implementation.
Aligning all the different systems where priorities or capacity could diverge is crucial for the success of coherent instructional improvement. Dr. Slanger reflects:
When you have a clearly understood process in place for your building leaders, district leaders, and teachers to follow that helps to build a compelling why, then everyone understands, ‘Here is where teacher voice is going to be leveraged. Here’s where district voice is going to be leveraged, And here’s where school leader voice is going to be leveraged.’ It’s all of those layers that come together to form that system.”
Top of mind was also considering how teachers would feel about any changes that were happening in the district.
Wyoming Public Schools is now looking ahead to an ELA curriculum adoption process, and Dr. Slanger is mindful of the lessons learned from the district math adoption process.
I am trying to capitalize on all the things that I heard from the committee”, she says. “At the top of my mind is making sure that as a facilitator, I’m creating a safe space to engage in learning and dialogue.”
Dr. Slanger acknowledges that ELA is different, and it’s important for educators to understand how students learn to read. “When I think about ELA, and I think about the complexities of how we learn to read as young children, I recognize that teachers, if they’re lucky, had one course in reading in their undergraduate experience. So, teachers will be offered an opportunity to build that capacity and do some learning around the early literacy essentials from Michigan, around the science of reading, and what research tells us about how the brain learns to read.”
The district is looking to form an ELA committee in the fall of 2023, and they are mindful of who should be included in that decision-making process. While teachers and system leaders will be included, Dr. Slanger wants to make sure another very important group is part of that process: the scholars. The diversity in the district and the students’ lived experiences can help educators make the hard choices needed to ensure all students experience high-quality and equitable instruction.
Take Your Next Step
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