A School on the Move: How the Donald McKay School and BU Wheelock Formed a Lasting Partnership

Celebrating the Payzant Prize. Photo courtesy of EdVestors

When the Donald McKay School became the first school in East Boston to win the prestigious Thomas W. Payzant School on the Move Prize in November, 2018, the city took notice. Stories ran in the Boston Globe, WBUR, and East Boston Times. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh offered his congratulations, stating that “great schools like Donald McKay are the beating heart of our city.”

The Payzant Prize is awarded each year to a Boston Public School that has shown significant improvement, based on MCAS scores and a narrative created and submitted by the school. The McKay was among the finalists in 2017, and Principal Jordan Weymer attributes this past year’s victory to a variety of factors, including a new approach to that school-submitted narrative.

Principal Weymer decided to engage the community in the creation of this year’s narrative, seeking out input from students, teachers, and parents who could speak directly about their experiences at the McKay. That collaborative approach echoed another important quality that helped put McKay in contention for the EdVestor’s prize: an emphasis on community partnerships.

When Principal Weymer became principal of the McKay in 2013, it was a very different place than what it is today. “The culture just wasn’t there,” he says, describing a “close your doors and teach” approach that limited opportunities for teacher collaboration.

But, Principal Weymer also saw the potential for something special. “[The McKay] has always been a wonderfully supportive environment for families,” he says. “Even before I got there, families have always been welcomed and supported at school.” This strong connection between the school and the local community it served was a starting point, something for Principal Weymer and his faculty to build upon. As they worked to build more connections—collaborating with each other as professional educators, and with partners who could bring teacher learning opportunities to the school—their partnership with a group of BU Wheelock faculty members emerged as a “game changer.”

The partnership between BU Wheelock and the McKay School started in 2015, when a BU Wheelock ESL teacher candidate was placed at the McKay for their practicum. Principal Weymer had previous practicum experience with teacher candidates, and hoped that bringing them to the McKay would contribute to the developing culture, turning the school in to a “learning lab humming with interns and research.”

After that first BU student completed their work at the McKay, Principal Weymer reached out to Dr. Christine Leider to see about hiring more BU students to intern at the McKay, sowing the seeds for the partnership between these two institutions. “The Bilingual Education and TESOL-Licensure Programs have had a relationship with the McKay since 2015” says Dr. Leider. “Through this relationship we have paired a number of ESL Teacher Candidates with McKay teachers for their practicum. I have also worked closely with some of their teachers.”

Dr. Leider also made one additional, crucial contribution to the McKay. In their pursuit of new professional development opportunities, faculty at the McKay had been reading a book by Dr. Jeff Zwiers, an expert instructional mentor who serves as the director of professional development for Stanford University Graduate School of Education’s language and literacy programs. They’d convinced Weymer to reach out to Zwiers to arrange for the professor to fly out to Boston and speak to the faculty.

When it became clear that bringing the professor cross-country was not a viable option, Zwiers suggested that they reach out to someone more local who could take his place. He recommended a professor who had decades of experience studying classroom discussion and academically productive talk, someone he had worked with in providing professional development to teachers in California. That professor was Dr. Cathy O’Connor, who happened to be a colleague of Dr. Leider’s at BU Wheelock. Dr. Leider made an introduction, and Dr. O’Connor and Weymer made plans to meet.

When Principal Weymer and Dr. O’Connor met over lunch, Principal Weymer shared his desire to create a cohesive culture at the McKay, in part through supporting teachers to use discussion in their classrooms. Research has demonstrated that classroom discussion is complex and not widely used in schools, but it can provide opportunities for students to reason with each other, and find their own voices, which ultimately leads to community building, and deeper learning as well. But discussion is difficult for teachers—they have many competing objectives and priorities, and discussion can be difficult to sustain. Dr. O’Connor had provided professional development (PD) on discussion to many districts over the years but had been dissatisfied with the results. It’s well known that the typical “two-hour PD” approach is not effective, but schools generally have only limited time for outside PD.

Dr. O’Connor and Principal Weymer were brainstorming about how to support teachers’ increased use of discussion, when she thought about an innovative, job-embedded professional learning program that she knew Dr. Lynsey Gibbons, part of BU Wheelock’s Mathematics Education faculty, was working with to support teacher learning in math. She wondered if that program might work as a vehicle for teacher learning about discussion itself.

Dr. Gibbons’ professional learning program has roots in a design called Math Learning Labs. Unlike many professional learning designs, Math Learning Labs take place in the teachers’ own classrooms, provides space for lesson co-planning, and give teachers the opportunity to incorporate their new learning together rather than in isolation. It’s a design that emphasizes student learning as well as collaboration between teachers. In 2016 and 2017, Dr. Gibbons used funding from EdVestors—the same group that awarded the Payzant Prize to the McKay in 2018—and from the BU Consortium to bring Math Learning Labs to teachers at BPS.

She’d first learned about the design while completing a postdoctoral fellowship under the guidance of Dr. Elham Kazemi at the University of Washington. At the same time, another future BU Wheelock faculty member, Dr. Andrea Bien, was working at the University of Washington with the Seattle Teacher Residency. “We had both been working with this model of this job-embedded professional learning but in different contexts,” says Dr. Bien. “With our teacher residents, we called them studio days.”

That parallel work became a true collaboration after Dr. Gibbons and Dr. Bien came to Boston University. Together, Dr. O’Connor, Dr. Gibbons, and Dr. Bien expanded the original Math Learning Labs design to include more grade levels and content areas, all built around a focus on classroom discussion. They developed a version of the Learning Lab design, called “Discussion Labs” which would be used to support teachers to learn about orchestrating discussion in both English Language Arts and mathematics. Dr. Gibbons felt that working with the teachers at the McKay would allow the BU Wheelock team to “to go in together and all be engaged and think about the work and teaching while it’s unfolding and having this shared experience.”

Principal Weymer saw the program as a way to address one of the more significant issues facing the school. Twice each year, for the past three years, teachers from each grade band (groupings of close grades, e.g. all 2nd and 3rd grade teachers) participate in a full day of professional learning. Principal Weymer provides substitute teachers for two grades at a time, so that teachers who work with kids across a wider range of grade levels can participate for a full day together. Most principals do not provide support for a full day of “job embedded learning,” but Weymer understood the power of this emerging model of professional learning, both for student learning and to build a collaborative culture among teachers.

Facilitated by Dr. Bien, Dr. Gibbons, and Dr. O’Connor, Discussion Labs at the McKay require teachers to work together on lesson design, intentionally reflect on their practice, and work collaboratively to improve outcomes for their students. Each Discussion Lab day starts the same way. “The teachers are physically in the same room together in the basement of the school” says Dr. Gibbons “and school is going on around us, but we’re all together in this professional learning space.”

“And in that space, we start the day by working on some sort of content” adds Dr. Bien. “It might be content in a discipline, like mathematics or in my case English Language Arts.”

The groups then co-plan a lesson that includes new classroom discussion strategies, introduced by the BU Wheelock team. Dr. Bien cites how important it was to focus their time with teacher groups on the realities of their current classrooms. “We try to learn what teachers are working on in advance so we can bring examples from their units, specifically from their texts, their curriculum, wherever they are,” she says. “Then we plan together and go in to one classroom all together and teach. And what that teaching looks like is varied.”

Bringing the groups of teachers into their actual classrooms to work with students that same day is essential. In teams of six or seven, the teachers put their new lesson into practice with a group of about twenty students. The dynamic can vary: teachers who aren’t speaking might position themselves around the room or sit with the students.  Often, teachers will take turns teaching the lesson, using a “pass the pen” technique.

“It often looks like multiple people teaching, having divided up parts,” says Dr. Bien. Any teacher who isn’t speaking is actively observing, paying close attention to how their peers are facilitating the new lesson. They’re also there to provide immediate support: “They’ll do what’s called a ‘teacher time out’ where they literally pause the lesson and ask for input from the other teachers if they get kind of stuck or confused,” says Dr. Bien. Outside of sessions like these, teachers rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to teach together or to pause a lesson and consider what to do next.

After the class is over, the group of teachers leave the room and debrief by sharing observations and feedback. “We then revise the lesson plan based on what we learned,” says Dr. Bien. “Then, we go back into a second classroom and do it again.”

The teacher learning that takes place during a Discussion Lab is not limited to the content. These sessions are intentionally dynamic, designed to allow teachers to build camaraderie and address issues that they are facing in their practice, together. While the first two years of Discussion Labs introduced teachers to new discussion strategies they could use in the classroom, recent labs have been used as forums for faculty (including Principal Weymer) to address specific issues of practice teachers are facing at the McKay. This past year, the teachers used their Discussion Lab day to focus on race, gender, culture and equity.

When asked about the impact, Dr. Bien notes that the teachers are “thinking about equity in a very different way. They’re thinking about why students are or aren’t talking in class, they’re thinking about who they’re calling on and why.” Dr. O’Connor added that “discussion involves both talking and listening. Teachers in some sessions began to observe which students were not being listened to as closely by their peers, and their thinking about access to discussion became more nuanced. The McKay teachers are incredibly committed to supporting all of their students so they’re willing to grapple with the complexities of discussion.” 

“I think that school transformation is a series of small events” says Principal Weymer. “It doesn’t happen miraculously overnight as some books will tell you.” But he cites the introduction of Discussion Labs as a key moment in the change he’s overseen at the McKay. “I think a huge turning point at our school was when Cathy, Andrea, and Lynsey came in,” he says. He also draws a connection between the professional and cultural development enabled by Discussion Labs and the recent EdVestor’s award. “So much of a culture of collaboration and teacher learning has been built through Discussion Labs. I think a big part of the prize is replicability and I think the work that we’re doing is 100 percent replicable.”

Going forward, BU’s partnership with the McKay will continue to grow. Dr. Gibbons, Dr. Bien and Dr. O’Connor are all involved in a research project on classroom discussion, supported by a $2.5 million grant from the McDonnell Foundation. The research team (which also includes their fellow BU Wheelock colleagues  Dr. Eve Manz, Dr. Beth Warren, and Dr. Rebecca Gadd) is focused on how teachers learn to use discussion in ways that simultaneously support two crucial commitments: (1) equity, access, and educational justice; and (2) disciplinary learning in math, science, and English language arts. All three BU faculty are hoping that the McKay teachers and Principal Weymer will continue to work with them to learn more about this complex yet potentially powerful form of teaching.

Grace Hagerty