Q&A With Marysville Early College High School Teacher Jodi Robertson

Topics: Early College High School, Education Policy, ESSA

In honor of Early College High School Week, we did a Q&A with teacher Jodi Robertson. Jodi is a 9th grade Humanities teacher at Marysville Early College High School, which opened at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year. She is the Social Studies teacher but co-teaches with an English teacher. Prior to joining Marysville Early College High School, Jody taught 7th and 8th grade Social Studies and was an Instructional Coach for grades 7-12 ELA and Social Studies.

What is your favorite part of teaching?

My favorite part of teaching is the problem-solving. Whether it be lesson development, curriculum design, determining a feedback loop, or addressing the social-emotional needs of students; every aspect of my job entails some sort of riddle to solve. These riddles keep me actively engaged and inspired by my job. It turns potentially frustrating situations into exciting opportunities. I love that doing my job well means I am always on my toes, looking for the next opportunity to change my way of thinking and my approach to guiding my students’ learning.

How would you describe Marysville Early College High School to someone?

I would first describe it as an ongoing, never-ending design challenge. Marysville Early College High School is built on the principle of never becoming comfortable with a status quo. As a result, there are only a few elements that remain consistent. Our students and parents must be resilient and flexible to change. We utilize the design process we want modeled by our students. We identify problems, plan and create solutions, and try to communicate those to parents and students.

One concrete element would be the opportunity to earn college credit when you are ready, rather than the pre-determined and somewhat random age of 18. Those credits also come at a great savings at a time when the cost of college is real concern for most families.

Another unchanging philosophy is mastery learning. We believe all students can learn and make growth, which is embodied in this philosophy. Students must master 80 percent of the standards to pass the course. This means we regularly measure their progress and plan our units based on the gaps we see. Students go back into the standards they get a “Not Yet” in and work on achieving “Mastery” for as long as it takes.

The path to mastery grading is standard/skills-based learning. Our conversations revolve not around activities, but learning. What do kids know or what they can do? How do we know that? Our staff collaboration room is constantly abuzz with attempts to breakdown learning and solve the problems we confront. Students must demonstrate mastery of skills and standards, not tests and quizzes. This forces a type of conversation I have not found consistently present in past positions. Point to an assessment question or rubric, and any one of us can tell you why we put it there and what we hope to learn from it.

Part of our KnowledgeWorks coaching is on making sure every lesson relevant to the student’s real world. Can you give an example of how you do that? Why do you think making that connection is important?

As a result of combining English Language Arts with Social Studies, we can easily identify to students why every outcome we work toward is relevant. At the onset of introducing any new learning target, we discuss with students why we have chosen that target and in what ways it applies to their learning and life.

With each unit, we attempt to include a rich, relevant product. For example, the last unit we did we a “Campaign for Change” in which students identified a problem in society and built business proposals and presentations for a call to action. They researched the Gilded Age and Progressive era for examples of strategies others have used in the past to improve society. Our local United Way and a group of women who have recently started an organization to educate young girls about the dangers of the sex trade in the US, came and spoke to the group about their experiences, and then returned to judge our top group presentations.

Respecting our students as learners requires us to insure the relevance of our lessons. As a matter of utility, students are also more engaged and less resistant when the relevance of a lesson is made apparent. Our job is to prepare students for their life outside the inevitably generic confines of our building. This simply cannot be done without relevance at the center of all learning.

Can you share an example of when you have seen one of your students have an “A ha!” moment and really connect all of the pieces in a lesson?

The best “A ha” I’ve experienced this year was not over a single lesson, but a realization the student had about himself and what he was capable of. This student was failing every class in the first quarter. He was overwhelmed, angry and defeated. He is in my Nucleus (advisory group) and we sat down to really plan how he was going to dig out. His “A ha” happened over a series of weeks, but I watched him see what it takes to be a “learner” and not just a task accomplisher. This week he came to see me to fix an assignment from the beginning of the year. I flippantly said, “You have an ‘A.’ already. He looked at me and said, “I no longer see myself as someone who should keep ‘Not Yets.’ It bothers me to see it when I check my mastery.” This kid who was at the bottom rung of learners just two months ago, totally schooled me in that moment. He has had this profound “A ha” moment that is better than any I could ever hope to get out of a single lesson. Now the challenge is how to create that in even more students.

Can you share an example of how the professional development a KnowledgeWorks coach has been providing at your school has affected what you do in the classroom?

We have had the opportunity to have a few of the KnowledgeWorks coaches come work with us throughout the development of this building. One example that sticks in my mind was not necessarily a specific Professional Development session, but rather guidance through the bumps along the way. We are fortunate to have started with a staff that is highly motivated, philosophically driven and inspired by the potential this model offers. As a result, much of the support we needed was not in the realm of how to do mastery learning or design-based instruction, but instead how to navigate the many bumps along the way that this shift creates. Lori Phillips, Assistant Director of Teaching and Learning for KnowledgeWorks, has spent a number of days listening and providing advice to our staff. This time has been invaluable to us as a staff and a problem-solving team.

In terms of the work KnowledgeWorks is doing with your school, what are you excited about when thinking about the future?

I am hugely excited to continue the journey with these students into the early college model. I have never been a part an early college and am continuing to learn what that means in action. I see the great potential this environment and curriculum make possible and am curious to see functionally how it works as students progress forward.

Your school has several big partnerships. How do those community partners affect what’s happening in the classroom?

It is still incredibly early in our process and we are excited for the strong and continual growth in our partnerships. Our partners were integral in deciding upon and planning the pathways available at Marysville Early College High School. They are pathways that are responsive to the demands of the work market place right now and into the foreseeable future. Schools have always been great at providing supply, but often without consideration for demand. These partnerships help bridge that gap.

What makes you most excited about the early college high school model? What do you think it offers your students?

I am most excited about the opportunity for personalization that this option provides. As each level progresses, students become more attune to the pathway their life is heading toward. This model ties their personal journey to their academic journey in a meaningful way. For our struggling learners, their education adjusts to find what success looks like for them. For our more gifted learners, junior and senior year no longer risk becoming a hollow experience waiting for college to start. Individualization is the key to successfully educate all kids and this model moves us in that direction.

Thanks so much for your time! It’s been great talking with you. Is there anything you want to add?

I feel like it would be remiss to write about this school without heavily emphasizing the staff involved. I have never worked in a more collaborative, innovative or flexible environment. We have struggled through this year together, been one another’s support system, and most importantly inspired one another to be reliant and innovative though it all.

Learn more about KnowledgeWorks early college high schools and how you can bring one to your community.