G-Rod’s “Dream Team” Ups Its Game

Melissa Bailey PhotoBefore joining the “Dream Team,” rookie teacher Mark Cofrancesco would sometimes catch students “zoning out” after he launched into 40-minute lectures. Now he’s got a new game plan.

Cofrancesco is one of seven teachers who signed up last fall to join the Dream Team, a group of Wilbur Cross High School teachers who meet for extra training led by fellow teacher Gloria Rodriguez. In a festive final meeting last week, Cofrancesco and his colleagues shared what they learned over the course of 16 after-school sessions with Rodriguez, aka G-Rod, a top-rated teacher who has worked at Wilbur Cross for 32 years.

The biweekly meetings are part of a new effort, funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to create a teacher-to-teacher learning network throughout city schools. Rodriguez is one of 49 teacher “facilitators” who get an extra $5,000 stipend in exchange for helping small groups of their peers improve their craft. The city plans to expand the program, dubbed Empowered Effective Educators (E^3), to include up to 100 more facilitators next year, and 300 total facilitators by 2015-16. The program aims to make professional development more personalized and meaningful, and to find ways for teachers to lead without leaving the classroom.

Rodriguez, who teaches history and social studies, welcomed her team into her classroom last Wednesday for a 16th and final meeting.

“G-Rod!” teachers greeted her as they entered her room.

Rodriguez passed out agendas ending with a large-font message: “Thank you for making our team so great.”

“Welcome,” she called out, scurrying to push together tables to form a large table. “Get some food.” She snipped off the tops of Modern Apizza boxes and revealed three warm pies.

The pizza was a thank you for her teachers, who had spent the year staying after school with her of their own volition, without extra pay.

Rodriguez, New Haven’s 2006 teacher of the year, is just the type of instructor whose “sphere of influence” the district aims to expand. She’s seen as a master teacher, an expert in her field. She “never wanted to leave the classroom,” which is the traditional way to take on more leadership in a school system. In the past, the only way she found to raise her income without becoming an administrator was to earn a master’s in history, which she did to better support her family. Before this year, she had led some professional development events for her peers, but only here and there.

Last summer, she signed up to attend a summer boot camp for teachers interested in taking on more sustained responsibility for coaching and helping their peers. Sixty-four people participated in the boot camp, run by National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education (NAATE). Of those, 52 decided to sign up as teacher facilitators, setting up small groups of teachers in their schools. A few teachers dropped out along the way, leaving 49 facilitators as of the current count, according to Justin Boucher, a teacher tapped to oversee the $1 million Gates grant funding the E^3 program.

At Cross, Rodriguez started assembling a “Dream Team.” She didn’t just pick all the best teachers, all the most struggling, or all teachers from her area of expertise. She picked a variety, from different fields and with different experiences. The team includes veteran teachers like Damaris Martinez, who has taught for 31 years. And it includes some teachers closer to the beginning of their careers.

One of her recruits, Cofrancesco (pictured), who’s 55, started teaching just two years ago. He took a circuitous path to the job: He earned a physical education degree from Southern Connecticut State University in 1980, which certified him to become a teacher. Then he decided to join his family business instead of teaching. For three decades, he worked in construction and as a cabinet maker. Then he switched careers.

He’s now in his second year as the shop teacher at Cross, in charge of five classes of kids. When Rodriguez asked him to join the Dream Team, he didn’t hesitate.

“G-Rod” is “revered around the whole school,” Cofrancesco said. “She really is.”

At the outset of the year, G-Rod’s seven Dream Teamers identified goals they planned to work on as part of their job evaluation, in which teachers are graded based on goals they set.

Cofrancesco’s goal was to work on classroom management. To get kids to better cooperate in class, he realized he needed to change his teaching style. When he started out teaching, he said, he would sometimes give lectures of up to 40 minutes on topics such as how trees grow. In the business world, where he had been for 30 years, the lecture format is a normal way to share information, he said.

He found that method didn’t work so well with teenagers.

“They don’t have the endurance to observe a lesson for as long as I thought they might,” he said.

“Some kids were acting out and some were zoning out” during his lectures, he confessed.

Rodriguez helped him figure out how to “chunk” the lesson, or break it up into smaller parts, “so as not to be overly tedious and lose kids,” he said. He learned ways to make his lessons more hands-on and student-centered (the lecture format is considered “teacher-centered,” a traditional style of instruction that modern-day educators are moving away from).

Cofrancesco said he also learned how to “differentiate” instruction for different kids. In a single class, he has special-ed students who struggle with basic hammering and high-level students who zip ahead. In the past, he used to give them all the same assignment. If a student finished more quickly, he or she would help other peers instead of taking on more challenging work.

This year, working with the Dream Team, Cofrancesco began to offer different levels of difficulty for a single task. Asked for an example, he popped across the hall to his shop, where his students have been building mirror frames made from wood from ash trees. One student, who has severe disabilities, had completed the basic frame. Another had zoomed ahead. He had her soup up her project by adding extra molding and staining it red with tung oil.

“I have a [different] goal for everyone,” he said.

Teachers said they learned not just from Rodriguez, but also from each other. Martinez (pictured) and another special-ed teacher came to the group with a goal of helping special-ed English-language learners tackle key vocabulary, such as “where” and “were” and “there” and “they.”

She said the group enabled her to work on that specific goal, but more broadly, to “be able to collaborate and encourage each other.” Teachers talked about how to help “reluctant learners.”

Susan de Alejos, another special education teacher, has been teaching for 15 years. She has jumped at extra chances to learn and teach beyond her regular course load, such as attending teacher-run skill sharing sessions on weekends and becoming a “super tutor.” (The district ended up accepting all 102 teachers who applied for that post, according to Boucher.)

This year, de Alejos (pictured with Rodriguez) wanted to learn more about the teenage male brain. She looked at her caseload and realized that most of the students she is assigned to help are boys. She said learning about boys’ impulse control and development helped her to become “a little more patient with them,” and to give them time to sit quietly before participating in the lesson if they need to.

Rodriguez has emerged as “one of our best” facilitators this year, said Boucher, who has seen her group in action.

He said Rodriguez was “willing to push her participants to share” on days when they didn’t feel like doing so. “Her willingness to ask for a lot from her group members” made her stand out, he said. “It was her ability to say—like she would say [to] her students—I need you to do a little bit more.”

“She’s so welcoming,” Boucher added, “it’s hard to go into her room” for a Dream-Team meeting “and feel like this is just another thing” to do.

Not all of the groups worked out so dreamily. Three of them fell apart. Career High teacher Gretchen Gurr, whom the district promoted as the face of the program at a press conference in November, left mid-year to relocate to Vermont. Her group, in which teachers had been helping each other problem-solve lesson plans at Mamoun’s Restaurant, stopped meeting.

Another challenge of the program, Boucher said, “is tying [the work] closely enough to the school-level priorities that it supports the school’s mission without giving up teacher autonomy over their own development.” Put plainly: There has been a tension between the groups focusing on what teachers want to learn, versus on what the school leadership wants them to work on.

“Finding time for groups to meet has been a challenge,” Boucher added. The district set up the program without setting aside a time when teachers could meet during the school day. “Some groups found that it was a heavy burden to get together every two weeks,” he said.

As the district looks to grow the program next year, some schools have marked off a time for teachers to meet during the school day. Finding time for teachers to meet is made easier by the new teachers contract, which adds one half-hour per day of teacher collaboration time to the school day starting next year. However, some schools have booked up that time for school-directed professional development, not teacher-driven sessions.

De Alejos, who showed up at the pizza party with a handwritten thank-you card for G-Rod, said she definitely plans to re-sign with the Dream Team next year.

“I crave getting together with people,” she said. “I get a lot out of it.”

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posted by: Noteworthy on June 18, 2014  10:25am

G-Rod’s the Bomb Notes:

1. For an investment of $5K - look at what we get. This beats a lot of what the BOE sells as innovation and turnaround and at a fraction of the cost.

2. G-Rod approaches her students in much the same way - a different approach to engage and encourage.

3. The most successful teachers are the ones that care - that are slightly off chorus with all the conventions - and they’re winning with the students. Another teacher at ESUMS - incorporates character and integrity lessons into Math. And he responds to emails and phone calls in less than 24 hours.

4. Do we really need millions, tens of millions of dollars to turn these schools around?

posted by: Brutus2011 on June 18, 2014  1:41pm

To answer Noteworthy’s question:

No, we really don’t need to tens of millions of dollars to turn our schools around.

We need qualified and committed adults to teach with the proper support from those who manage our school district.

Therein lies the problem: those who run the district know full well that if they adequately fund the classrooms by adding appropriate staffing and resources, then it is very likely that acceptable progress in student achievement can be realized.
But they don’t because success will mean less philanthropic, state and federal money.

And, less middle class jobs for the chosen.

So, the beat goes on.

posted by: WC parent on June 18, 2014  9:06pm

Great job G-Rod and Mark.  You’re both committed to doing the best you can under extremely tough circumstances. 
Group meetings like this are especially needed for new teachers.  New teachers graduate to the classroom without having had much classroom experience and that initial experience is with a mentoring teacher. From there you get hired and thrown to the wolves (kids and parents).  Little to no mentoring.  Asking for help to be viewed as a sign of incompetence or weakness. 
Often times these new teachers get overwhelmed and discouraged.  It’s just you and 25 kids - all day long.  Some learn from the experience and get better or even great. 
If provided assistance like that described above, a great many more would become very good teachers and assets to the school system. 
Keep smiling Ms. Rodriquez and have a great summer.  Recharge those batteries and come back fresh and strong for another great year.

posted by: Pantagruel on June 22, 2014  12:25pm

G-Rod not wanting to leave the classroom to be an administrator is a common sentiment in many fields—not wanting to “move up” from what they love to pushing paper and manage people.

The evidence indicates that effective schools have principals who take an active role in education.

Perhaps we should divide the role.

Have a principal—the educational leader who keeps a hand in the classroom. And a COO who pushes paper.