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Coaching with CLASS Instructional Support and the Project Approach

09 Jun 2015 by Guest Blogger

Editor's Note: In November 2013, Teachstone attended NAEYC's annual conference. One presentation stood out more than others—a research project investigating the use of CLASS and The Project Approach. A veteran Head Start teacher told true classroom stories about how his class changed while implementing CLASS Instructional Support within the Project Approach framework. Teachstone  recently reconnected with the researchers leading the study to check in on its progress. This blog series, written by guest blogger Carol Bolz and her colleagues, tells the story of this project and recounts key classroom anecdotes that highlight the powerful pairing of the Project Approach implementation bolstered by effective CLASS interactions. 

The Tree Graph Story

"Preschool children involved in a long-term investigation of trees were invited by their teacher to survey and tally the trees in their yards at home. The teacher conferred with his Head Start coach about next steps. The two knew that the children had experience with comparing quantities using graphs, and wondered what the children would do if they were challenged to create their own graph based on their tree surveys.

The teacher gathered a core group of six children and got them started by asking how they would represent their trees on the graph. The children jumped right in and started making stacks of circles on a large blank piece of paper. When the teacher asked them to compare the number of trees, the children struggled. The teacher referred the children to their past experiences with graphs to get them thinking about solutions. As the children worked together, they figured out that a line at the bottom of the graph was needed. Using a fresh piece of paper, the children drew circles moving up from the baseline, and wrote their names to identify their own tree counts. The children seemed pleased with their efforts and the teacher acknowledged it was easier to compare the number of trees on the new graph. Then the teacher noticed, “Luke has four trees and Israel has four trees but on our graph, it looks like Israel has more trees.” Israel worked alone and drew a simpler graph with only two stacks of circles, one stack for his four trees and the other for Luke’s four trees. Since he made the circles the same size, he seemed satisfied with the results and told the teacher, 'Now they look like the same.'"

Inquiry within a Community of Practice

This story was shared with a group of coaches at Mid-America Head Start and their community partners from local universities who met monthly to collaborate on their own professional development. The coaching community of practice had been inquiring into strategies for supporting teachers with the sort of teacher-child interactions that are described in the Instructional Support Domain of the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS). The inquiry evolved into a research project where the group spent the first year of the project providing weekly, individualized, classroom-based coaching to teachers. The coaches engaged teachers in side-by-side analysis of video of teaching practice using the CLASS Instructional Support Domain as a framework. Teachers were invited to set goals for improving their interactions and coaches provided support toward achieving these goals. One of the community partners, Dr. Catherine Wilson, a roving member of the group, met with individual and small groups of coaches, and brought attention to their important discoveries. Another community partner, Dr. Sue Vartuli, identified measures, including CLASS scores, and collected pre- and post-test data to evaluate the effectiveness of the coaching.

The Project Approach

The data from the first year of coaching was promising, with significant improvements in CLASS scores, but the coaches felt that more was needed to improve classroom practices. They thought that teacher-child interactions might be further enhanced if they were embedded in a more sustained and integrated set of learning opportunities. Therefore, the coaches turned to the Project Approach as a context for effective instructional interactions. With this decision, a Project Approach Fidelity was created to highlight essential features of the Project Approach, and measure adherence to and meaningful interactions using this curriculum framework.

Lilian Katz, Sylvia Chard, and Judy Harris-Helm, three experts in the field of early childhood education who have written and trained extensively on project-based learning for young children, define projects as in-depth investigations of worth-while topics and describe and identify the development of intellectual dispositions as the goal of project work. This emphasis on intellectual development seemed to the coaching community of practice to connect well with the focus on higher-order thinking and language development from the CLASS Instructional Support Domain. The coaches and their community partners believed that project work would provoke children and teachers to think, talk, and learn together. 

Chard (1998) describes three phases of the Project Approach.

  • Phase 1: Beginning the Project—Teachers discuss the topic with children to find out about their related experiences and prior knowledge. They invite children to represent experiences and demonstrate their current understanding and develop questions to pursue. They also communicate with families about the investigation and ways to engage.
  • Phase 2: Developing the Project—Children are provided opportunities to investigate the topic by conducting field work, interviewing experts, and accessing resources such as books, websites, and videos. Teachers encourage the young investigators to represent what they are learning in a variety of ways.
  • Phase 3: Concluding the Project—Teachers arrange for a culminating event and support children in reviewing and evaluating the project. Children represent their new knowledge and help choose appropriate materials for display as they plan for sharing the work with others. 

The Mid-America Head Start coaches and their community partners believed that work in each of these phases of the Project Approach would provoke children and teachers to think, talk, and learn together. 

Teaching and Learning

By pairing the CLASS data and the Project Approach, teachers and coaches learned new ways of being with children and the coaches observed a beneficial coherence among experiences had been created. Everyone was immersed in the same process of learning. Children, supported by teachers, investigated real-world topics. Teachers, supported by coaches, researched engaging learning experiences and interactions with children. Coaches, supported by community partners, continued to inquire into effective strategies for teacher development. At all levels, communities of learners and practitioners were thinking, figuring it out together.

Throughout the project, there were many examples of meaningful interactions and experiences when teachers were coached to facilitate project work. Children investigated real-world topics such as birds in their neighborhood, tools used by workers, shoes and shoe stores, the people in their buildings, musical instruments, elevators, and doors. 

Research Results

The sense of accomplishment felt by children, families, and educators was reinforced by the observational research results. There were significant pre/post gains on both CLASS scores and Project Approach Fidelity (PAF) ratings. Teachers improved interactions and learning opportunities with children on both measures. There was a strong positive relationship between CLASS scores and PAF ratings. Higher PAF ratings were found to predict higher CLASS scores. 


 To read further about the 5-year research project on coaching with CLASS Instructional Support and the Project Approach, follow this link to an article in Early Childhood Research & Practice. http://ecrp.uiuc.edu/v16n1/vartuli.html

 Links to websites and on-line journals related to the Project Approach follow:

The blog was authored by the Coaching Community of Practice from Mid-America Head Start. Education support staff from The Y of Greater Kansas City, Kansas City Public Schools, The Family Conservancy, Independence School District, Operation Breakthrough, St. Mark’s United Inner City Services, and Plaza de Niños have been involved in coaching with CLASS Instructional Support Domain and the Project Approach with support from Drs. Catherine Wilson and Sue Vartuli for the past seven years.



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