“Given the constraints of busy schedules, fatigued colleagues, and mindsets of scarcity and fear in the school year of Covid-19, we accomplished meaningful, replicable work that I fully intend to continue because it feels within reach; it is achievable.” – Emily Marshia, Barnes Co-Researcher
During the summer of 2020, six UVEI Master of Education candidates were selected to be co-researchers for the 2020–21 Barnes Initiative’s network design development study. The broad topic of the study, “Educator Deeper Learning with an Emphasis on Equity and Antiracism,” was chosen by UVEI faculty to focus the study on designing powerful and impactful learning opportunities for educators as they strive to be more equitable in their practice. We wondered how the same concepts that govern deeper learning for students (such as application of knowledge and skills, a focus on inquiry cycles, fostering metacognition) could be directly applied to educator learning.
The co-researcher team was composed of the following MEd candidates (now graduates):
- Colby Baker, music teacher at Coe-Brown Academy in Northwood NH (and currently Dean of Students at Keene High School), and site leader for UVEI
- Jenny Bradley, 4th grade teacher at Hanover Street School in Lebanon, NH
- Laura Bradley, who taught at Randolph Union High School and Tunbridge Central School and co-site leader for Sharon Elementary
- Gerlisa Garrett, middle school science and language arts teacher at Stowe Middle School
- Emily Marshia, middle school global studies teacher at Tunbridge Central School
- Liz Spriggs, preschool co-director and teacher at Sharon Elementary School
With this topic in hand, the work of the co-researchers was just beginning. For a full year they were tasked with following the Networked Design Development model and collaborating with UVEI faculty, to
- consult the knowledge base on educator learning and equity and antiracism in schools and classrooms;
- conduct a needs assessment at each of their sites to better understand their colleagues’ goals and needs in relation to developing more equity-focused practice;
- construct a collective problem of practice and theory of action that is based on their knowledge of the literature and their sites;
- design and implement an intervention at each of their sites to address the collective problem and impact teacher learning;
- through collecting relevant data, evaluate the impact of the intervention and improve the design; and
- share and disseminate their findings and learning.
Conceptually, this is a substantial individual and collective challenge! The co-researchers chose to engage in the Barnes Networked study as their MEd action research, and agreed to accept the emergent and collaborative nature of this kind of collective design work.
Early in the year, the co-researcher team identified the following problem of problem of practice that seemed to emerge from both their understanding of the literature on teacher learning and their assessment of their schools’ needs:
Teachers’ learning tends to be episodic, fragmented, isolated, and divorced from classroom practice. Teachers rarely examine the equity and antiracism implications of their practice, and when they do, it tends to be done in isolation.
In order to address the problem of practice, the co-researchers convened a group of interested colleagues at their schools and designed and facilitated a sequence of professional learning conversations designed to engage teachers in communities of practice to identify, interrupt, and explicitly redress inequitable practices and social injustices, prioritizing action and reflection. One site was UVEI with two teacher candidates as participants. They referred to their conversations as equity circles, with the following elements:
These circles took place in the spring of 2021 across five sites, including UVEI. Through a rigorous analysis of participants’ survey, exit, and entry ticket responses, and transcripts of their circle conversations, the co-researchers concluded that intervention had made the following impact:
- In findings related to Educator Awareness, teachers and school leaders participating in the study were able to improve their awareness of their actionable space, instructional choices, motivation to learn about inequity and racism, as well as reflect on their ability–or lack thereof–to act when issues rise.
- In findings related to Educator Discourse, the structured conversations improved educators’ ability to apply the inquiry cycle to dilemmas and practice metacognitive reflection to develop an equity-conscious lens; structured, focused conversations about real and present issues helped deprivatize the PD experience; collegial conversations about tough topics served to strengthen the Professional Learning Communities.
- In findings related to Educator Action, the intervention inspired educators to take action in ways they may not have had they not been invested in the conversations and stimulated by the group’s commitment to improving equity. Between the weekly sessions, two participants applied their growing understanding to make adjustments to their instructional practices and to discuss problematic racist language in a text with their class of fourth graders; two administrators felt better prepared to engage their school community in a discussion about gender-neutral bathrooms; and one participant felt better prepared, emotionally and psychologically, ready to support a parent-of-color’s concern about bullying by applying a stronger equity-conscious lens with which to view the situation.
At all sites, participants reported that they felt empowered to take steps to improve their instructional or leadership practices, take action with colleagues and students, and to continue the practice of taking internal, self-reflective action to improve their antiracist, equitable profession.
Presenting the Findings
As a first step in sharing and disseminating their research, the co-researchers held a symposium at the Upper Valley Innovations in Education Forum at Lake Morey Resort in August. Many educators attended and were inspired to begin having equity-focused conversations in their schools.
Finally, the co-researchers were able to reflect on their year-long design experience, and share how they learned about themselves and their communities through the process.
The Co-Researchers Reflect
“I know I have this little web of people that I can reach out to and who will reach out to me when problems of practice arise. It feels like this little beautiful snowball. I hope with help from each of them we can roll our snowball around in the snow and keep picking up a few more people, and keep growing this net of educators who are willing to engage.” – Jenny Bradley, Barnes Co-Researcher
Jenny, talking about the impact of this project on herself and her colleagues, shared, “The questions that my participants asked and the issues they raised sharpened my thinking and got me asking new questions as well. Moving forward I know I have this little web of people that I can reach out to and who will reach out to me when problems of practice arise. It feels like this little beautiful snowball. I hope with help from each of them we can roll our snowball around in the snow and keep picking up a few more people, and keep growing this net of educators who are willing to engage.”
Colby, in thinking ahead to his new leadership role, stated, “The types of conversations had and the issues raised by this study are not going away. They will remain at the forefront of education for quite some time. As such, I feel even better prepared to help schools navigate the complex waters that are before us as school administrators (and teachers). In order for the school to make these changes, I will need to put into practice many of the skills cultivated during our Barnes research, namely: facilitating teacher learning and analyzing qualitative and quantitative data, looking for trends in order to inform future practices.”
Laura, touching on the potential for and need for equity-focused conversations in schools, stated, “To bring on a full reckoning of socially oppressive systems and their inherent implicit practices, everyone will need to identify a common denominator as a starting point. I will continue to try to identify the meeting place between the polar perspectives. I have found that the understanding I have gained through my work as a Barnes co-researcher has also provided me with new confidence to speak and write about problematic social issues and the critical need for change.”
Liz, reflecting on her growth as a leader, shared, “This intervention allowed for me to demonstrate that I can take on a leadership role and do so in a collaborative and constructive manner. I have hope that this intervention can become a part of our school professional learning process. How this will look, I am not yet sure.”
Emily, putting the conversations in larger context, stated, “Given the constraints of busy schedules, fatigued colleagues, and mindsets of scarcity and fear in the school year of Covid-19, we accomplished meaningful, replicable work that I fully intend to continue because it feels within reach; it is achievable. In its simplest form, the model bookmarks the kinds of conversations that dismantle fear and silence, replacing them with curiosity and hope.”
Finally, Gerlisa, echoing the thoughts of many of her fellow co-researchers, wondered, “Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is clear that in future iterations of this design, we need more diverse voices at the table. Our research group is overwhelmingly white, as were our participants at each site. Further consideration needs to be paid to finding ways to include and invite more diverse participants and facilitators to the table.”
To sum up, this iteration of the Barnes Initiative was successful because of the care of the co-researchers for each other and for the project.