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Interview Of The Month: Kelly Young

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I’m starting a new feature called “Interview Of The Month.” I was inspired by David Kapuler’s Inside The Cyber Studio, where he interviews teachers about how they use technology in the classroom.

My “interviews of the month,” though, will have a different focus. I’ll be talking with anybody in the education world who I want to get to know better and who I think others might be interested in, too. How’s that for a broad criteria?

Future people who I’ll be talking with for this series include:

Claus von Zastrow, the director of the Learning First Alliance, a partnership of 17 leading education associations. He writes the influential Public School Insights blog.

David Cohen, one of the key people behind The Accomplished Teachers Forum and co-author of a recent Op Ed piece titled Test scores poor tool for teacher evaluation.

John Norton, director of The Teacher Leaders Network.

Anne T. Henderson, co-author of Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family/School Partnerships.

Jim Burke, author of numerous books and founder of the popular English Companion Ning group

I’m starting off this series with Kelly Young, who I consider a key mentor.  I’d be surprised if there is  anybody else in the country who knows more about effective instructional strategies than Kelly.

Kelly is the founder of Pebble Creek Labs, which provides curriculum and professional development to urban high schools across the United States in Language Arts and Social Studies.  Kelly has been a teacher, principal, and district Superintendent (and a lot else along the way!).

Luther Burbank High School, where I teach, has had the advantage of working with Kelly as we have completely restructured our ninth and tenth grade English curriculum — and instructional strategies. We  have done the same with Geography and World History.   A great number of our teachers say that working with Kelly has transformed the way they teach – including me.   Readers know by the student evaluations I’ve shared here that students like the results, too.  I don’t believe that test results are the be all and end all of assessment, but it’s good information to have, and our test scores have gone up, too.

Other ESL teachers and I at Burbank have also been able to successfully adapt these engaging instructional strategies to these classes. I share a number of examples in my forthcoming book “Teaching English Language Learners: Strategies That Work,” which will be published next year by Linworth Publishing.

Because of Kelly’s talent and expertise, I asked him if he would agree to answer a few questions:

Based on what you’ve seen in the time you’ve spent in hundreds of schools across the country, what have you seen working most successfully and what have you seen not working well?

Well I’m biased, but I find that teachers get energized when working on instruction.  Teachers want more tools, more options. Relative to engaging and challenging students, teachers want choices.  They need repertoire, our favorite word.  They want to think about the science and art of teaching—learn more, talk and share, practice and get better.  The work is more satisfying and stimulating, also they become successful, so it becomes a self-renewing and self-sustaining proposition.

What breaks spirits and creates cynicism is prioritizing things other than teaching, turning down the screws relative to test scores, and not giving teachers’ relevant tools, skills, and support.

As part of your work, you do professional development regularly with hundreds of teachers.  How do you think they would characterize the challenges they face today?  What do you think they take-away from your trainings?

My, the challenges…  If you think too hard about it, it blows you away.  It overwhelms.  It breaks your heart.  The good news is how much students need good teachers.  Forget how badly they deserve them, regardless of ability, SES, race, gender, language, their antennae is sharp; they can sniff immediately when they have a teacher that a) cares, and b) has tools that will help them.  Our professional development is all about application and classroom practice.  The take-away is that what I learn today I can use tomorrow, and the more I practice it, the more I can help students.  And students can smell that.  They know when they are in the hands of a teacher who learns, who cares, who believes in their skills and is eager to change student learning trajectories and really, lives.

What do you think are the three most important skills/strategies for a teacher to have in their repertoire in order to help students learn?

Just owning a rich, powerful repertoire is huge.  And that journey never ends.   We have to study our craft continually.  There is a huge library of instructional strategies, stuff I knew nothing about when in school or in my early years of teaching.   But when I found out about the concept of repertoire, it was like a religious experience.  Imagine playing guitar your whole life knowing only two chords.  When you know there is much more, it is freeing, and a life long study.  So three?  Hard question.  I’m going to cheat a little by being a bit broad in my answer… 1. Literacy strategies to help students engage with text and make meaning.  There are a lot of them. 2. Strategies to help students talk with one another about their learning.  They like school more, and learn more, when they have to dialogue, purposefully, about their learning.  It is also a vital skill for work and life.  3.  The Inductive Model.   This strategy is so rich, so full, can go so many places.

Can you expand a bit on those three skills you think teachers should have?  Could you briefly “paint a picture” of what each might look like?

I could write and talk for days about this… but I’ll try to exercise brevity…

  1. Students HAVE to learn how to make sense of text.  There is no getting around that, as a high school student, college student, worker or adult.  But students have been woefully unprepared, especially with expository text, which is 90% of their reading in high school, college and workplace.  So we MUST learn techniques that teach and help students think while they read. Our curriculum provides strategies, that with modeling and lots of practice, make a big difference for students.

  1. Learning groups, and later work groups, talk to one another.  They problem solve, they read, discuss, argue, interact.  Schools where teachers talk and gab and blab some more aren’t doing students any favors, especially with students of limited engagement and lackluster skills.  Students need daily practice with working in teams, with reading text and writing to prompts and talking to one another about their work, their ideas, their problem solving.  We simply don’t have enough classrooms where dialogue is student to student around text, ideas, student work.

  1. The Inductive Model is a learning/teaching strategy that is as powerful as they get, and few teachers know about it. It’s a natural higher-order learning strategy, and if students used it daily they wouldn’t just like learning more, AND learn their content better, they’d actually become smarter.   I cannot say enough about its power.

I understand that Pebble Creek Labs is in the midst of some changes.  Could you share what those are?

We began as a consulting shop that helped teachers grow their instructional repertoire.  Studying teaching is fun, real, relevant, useful, inspiring.  I began to write curriculum to help teachers practice the strategies daily, to get more expert with strategies faster.  This also exposed what a lack of engaging curriculum there is out there.  It is sad.  We had to start somewhere, and chose to start where the greatest need is— the early years of secondary school, in literacy.  The work took off and we got so busy helping schools with our curriculum that we become kind of nichey… inadvertently.  We want to help teachers of all levels, at all disciplines, with learning about teaching.  I really believe in our curriculum, and have seen amazing results.  I believe in the need to help urban, traditionally underserved, secondary schools and their students.  Having said that, we also want to work with students and teachers everywhere on instruction and repertoire.  All students, and all teachers, want to be in classrooms of diversity, depth, challenge, creativity.

If a school or district has a relationship with Pebble Creek Labs, what does it look like?

It depends.  We start with a focus on instruction, and a commitment to practice.  We have curriculum materials to move the process along.  We have other embedded structures to assist with professional community.  Mostly we care about a commitment to learn and get better, and establishing and developing a learning relationship together.  We don’t do “in and out” work. We partner with the school and/or district and go on a learning journey.

What cities are you working in now?

We’ve been lucky to work in interesting projects and towns over the years.  We spend between 35-50 days a year in a site, so we get to know it well and develop some really special relationships with school and district personnel.  It’s a joy and pleasure.  Most of our projects are multiple years. We are into our sixth and seventh year in a handful of projects, so the impact and change is profound.

Presently we have large projects in Milwaukee, Austin, Sacramento, Houston, with a number of smaller projects across the country.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with this blog’s readers?

Oh, well, probably some dirt on you…..  Nah, actually I’d like to share how much fun it has been to watch your growth as an educator, and how satisfying it is to see how much you model what it means to be a “professional teacher.” Your readers see your expertise through your web site and blog, but probably don’t get how much you are an “everyman”  teacher… like them, with classes that go well, and classes that don’t.  With colleagues that are amazing and colleagues that aren’t.   My guess is your readers are much like you—smart, dedicated, committed.  So I guess I’d like to thank you for your contribution to the field, and for keeping it real.  And I’d like to thank them, who by virtue of reading this website are kindred spirits. Let’s keep helping kids and representin’ this wonderful profession.

How should people get in touch with you if they’d like more information?

We have a new, improved web site we are just launching…. pebblecreeklabs.com We want it to be dynamic, helpful, fun.  Check it out and help us improve it.  I can be reached at [email protected] .  We care, we respond.  Please feel free to connect.

Your new web site has a blog, doesn’t it? I know that I, and I suspect other teachers,  would be very interested in hearing your views.

Well I’m not afraid to share my views, and maybe, hopefully, my musings will be of interest to readers. Our new site will have a blog, in some respects inspired by yours.  We are still learning about the new web site and its applications.  We know we want it to a) explain the company, b) provide a place for Pebble Creek teachers to talk and share and problem solve with one another, and c) to allow for us at Pebble Creek to share all the great things we see, as well as to comment on and “weigh in” on topics of interest and importance to teachers and the field.

People can visit and subscribe to Kelly’s new blog here

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

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