On a Thursday afternoon in October, Maria Goslin, a 1st-grade teacher at Corkery Elementary School in South Lawndale, gathers her students on the floor in front of an over-head projector.

It’s time to look at “math messages,” the results of a weekly assessment Goslin uses to find out whether her students are learning what she has been trying to teach them.

She begins by going over the scoring system, or “rubric” in educational jargon. “OK, this is a math rubric. Remember? If you turn in a math assignment with no work on it, you will get a zero. See, a zero means no work was done,” she repeats, pointing to the scoring guide she’s projected.

“One [1] means you didn’t understand the problem. Two [2] means you understand enough to solve the problem, and three [3] means you understand the problem and reached the correct solutions. So, what’s the best score you can get?” Goslin asks.

“A three,” the class shouts out enthusiastically.

This week’s assessment required students to draw a clock and then mark the hands to indicate various times of the day. First up for class discussion is 3 o’clock.

“Is the 12 in the right place?” Goslin asks.

“Yes,” shouts the class.

“Does this show 3 o’clock?,” she asks.

“No, it shows 6 o’clock!,” a student shouts out.

“Right, so this student gets a 1+.”

“Well, they didn’t know that this was 3 o’clock, but they did label the numbers on the clock right, and the long hand is in the right place,” Goslin answers.

She then leads them through samples of increasingly better work. Throughout, she asks if students understand why she graded the work the way she did.

State was impetus

Goslin says that when she began teaching 11 years ago, it never occurred to her to examine student work with students or with other teachers. She’d never heard of rubrics, “alternative” assessments or higher-order thinking skills. At the time, she had a bachelor’s degree in psychology but had not yet earned a teaching certificate.

Laughs Goslin, “I rarely spoke to other teachers in the building. As a new teacher, I was … well, it was a mess. I didn’t have an education background. I was not familiar with the curriculum. No one said, ‘Here’s a teaching guide.’ I closed my door and taught the best way I could.”

That began to change six years ago, when the state was pressing schools to devise multiple ways of assessing student achievement. “The way I remember it is that the state wanted schools to do learning outcomes, and we had to prove how we knew our kids were learning,” says Goslin.

“We asked ourselves ‘What should the work look like?’ and that’s when we started developing rubrics,” recalls Marcie Seigel, Corkery’s staff development coordinator.

Says Goslin, “I remember the experience being very trial and error and difficult.”

Seigel agrees, “We questioned each other, ‘How do we know what to look for? Does the work reflect our assignments? Are we giving good assignments?’ And while some teachers took risks and changed to be able to do this, some were very rigid.”

Early in the school’s efforts, Goslin was chosen to coordinate staff development. Initially, she was to serve for a month, but that month stretched into two years.

“I don’t know why he [the retiring coordinator] chose me,” says Goslin. “I didn’t have as much experience as other people. I had only been there four or five years, and I was to lead groups who had been there for a long time. … Some teachers told me how they had been doing things in certain ways for so many years.”

Being younger (25) than the average teacher at the time didn’t help.

However, the new practice slowly began to spread. Principal Elena O’Connell agrees that seasoned teachers were suspicious.

“But we made everything an option; then I’d talk to them and ask them to try it,” she says. “But I’ve been blessed with a good faculty, because a lot of them did.”

She acknowledges, though, that she “created some stress for some people,” who requested transfers.

Corkery was guided in this process by Participation Associates, a local non-profit consulting firm. It helped staff refine the rubrics and deepen teachers’ understanding and skill in teaching higher- order thinking skills.

However, in Goslin’s view, the most important contribution the consultants made was helping the school break down barriers between teachers.

“I remember Participation Associates really working with us to get us to talk and feel comfortable sharing what we do and not feeling threatened,” says Goslin. “It was kinda tough. We had to make adjustments to each other. The veteran teachers were saying, ‘We go through this [a new program] every five or six years.’ And us younger teachers, we were naive; we didn’t know what to think. I think we had to work through this for the first two years.”

“It was the first time we started getting together and saying, ‘OK, all the lst-grade teachers will do this assignment,'” recalls Goslin. “People started sharing and letting their guards down.”

Now teachers meet regularly by grade level and in larger groups to share their students’ work.

In November, Goslin and the other lst-grade teachers were planning a lesson built around a trip to the zoo. Students would be required to write a narrative paper, describing the visit. Later, the teachers would examine samples of the writing assignment.

“We do this to assess our kids and to see if as teachers we are on the same page,” says Goslin.

Goslin says that as a result of this shared attention to student work, she is learning from other teachers and her students think more about what they are doing, evaluate themselves and work harder.

“They all want 3s,” she laughs.

What’s needed

Seigel says schools need three things to effect this kind of transformation: leadership, outside help and time for teachers to meet.

“Schools need a strong, inspirational leader who can set a culture of continuous improvement and [who] knows that her most important resource is her teachers and their skills,” she says. “This leader also involves parents and kids, so they know what is expected of them.”

“You do need outside resources, like Participation Associates, who can guide you through the process and provide the expertise,” she continues. “We also need people like Debbie Meier in New York to see what other schools were doing, so we knew it could be done.”

Meier, now working in Boston, is the founder of the famed Central Park East schools in New York City’s District 4.

“We restructured our day so teachers could meet,” says Seigel. “And we’ve budgeted in subs to release our teachers from classrooms to attend workshops.”

Corkery and its partner schools in a network funded by the Chicago Annenberg Challenge—Saucedo Magnet School, also in South Lawndale, and Calhoun North in East Garfield Park—now are working to put student work on the Internet to share with others.

“We’re still in the preliminary stages, but we’ve got big plans, “says Seigel. “Our goal is that teachers be able to put work up on the web and get advice on it, or we can make work public to show other teachers what good writing looks like, or math.”

Back in the classroom, Goslin, 32, is a different teacher than she was even five years ago. She pushes her students to use higher-order thinking skills by giving them assignments that challenge them to think, and she’s up front with them about the kind of work she expects.

“I used to think my kids were too young to push, but they aren’t,” she says. “And they really surprise me a lot; they are really doing well.”