Sioux Center Middle School Hosts Visiting Educators from Ogilvie MN—Guest Submission by Fred Nolan, AIW Coach

Can teachers from two states and over 300 miles apart score and learn from one another? Judging by the recent visit of Ogilvie MN High School teachers to Sioux Center IA Middle School, the answer is a resounding, “YES!” Principal Julie Schley, AIW Coach Katy Evenson, and seven Sioux Center teachers hosted Principal Jake Nelson, Superintendent Kathy Belsheim, three Ogilvie teachers, and AIW Coaches Fred Nolan and Jehanne Beaton Zirps. For Jehanne, it was a homecoming of sorts, as she was the original AIW Coach for Sioux Center’s Middle School. Now Sioux Center has gone district-wide with AIW.

Since Ogilvie went full school with AIW last year, Jehanne was instrumental in linking Ogilvie with Sioux Center (SC) to see what is possible multiple years into AIW in students’ engagement, HOT, Deep Conceptual Understanding, and Value Beyond School. 

SC rolled out the red carpet. Principal Schley began by providing background information on how SC uses AIW standards in unit planning, in curriculum mapping, in sharing with school board and parents through “fish-bowl” scoring, in raising expectations for students through rubrics, and through professional development for students. In their first PD for students, Principal Schley and Coach Evenson taught students HOT/LOT, explained what teachers are asking for from students and why, and discussed student responsibilities. Their next session will be on assessments and substantive conversations.

Five SC teachers from 5th-8th grade welcomed the MN visitors into their classrooms to see parts of lessons that were developed with AIW standards in mind. 

  • Students in 6th grade science were gaining deep understanding of the earth-moon system by preparing to study the phases of the moon with flashlights, blue balls and golf balls. (Jill Hulshof)
  • 7th grade students were using elaborated communications to debate the ethics of President Truman’s decision to use the atom bomb to end WWII. (Bruce Anliker)
  • 6th grade band members were constructing their knowledge of the E flat scale (which was new to them) in what can only be described as a game show with the “contestants” getting help from the audience. The band members then reflected on what they heard themselves play and evaluated whether the scales were played correctly. (Monica Boogerd)
  • 5th grade students were using three equations to solve story problems explaining why a particular formula fit a story problem. (Michael DeSmit)
  • 8th grade students in Humanities (English and History) were engaged in an entire class symposium (all desks in one circle) with student leaders, recorders, and observers. Among other questions posed by the leaders, the 8th graders engaged in a spirited discussion of the relative merits of learning history from primary or secondary sources. (Joe’l VanderWaal)

In addition to AIW, other examples of high quality PD and pedagogy were present in the lessons including focusing on the big ideas such as the one posted in the social studies class: “Does nationalism cause conflicts?”; the use of KWL in science with posters of questions about astronomy and with post-its when learning had occurred; the multiple use of TAG, which is an SC rubric for students’ writing answers to questions; multiple uses of differentiation in the written assignments; and school-wide respect and responsibility posters. SC Middle School takes their responsibility to provide high quality instruction seriously, and it shows.

After a great lunch, the visit culminated with two scoring sessions with three groups of professionals with Ogilvie and SC intermixed. The first session was an assessment being designed by Jill H. for the astronomy unit she was currently teaching. All three groups’ scores were posted for all to see. The discussions revealed a remarkable similarity—whether participants were from SC or MN—on which portions of the standards were easier to score and the standards for which the assessment task was more difficult to score. And the full mixed group gave Jill a number of suggestions to consider.

The second scoring session was on instruction, and the video-taped lesson was a demonstration lesson from another PD initiative on essential and guiding questions. The overriding conclusion of the AIW scorers was that the lesson could have had much higher scores on HOT and substantive conversation had the teacher allowed students to articulate fully the conclusions they were reaching, instead of cutting the kids off and doing the summarizing himself. As one SC teacher put it, “It makes me so angry to see teachers do that and rob kids of the achievement of deep understanding themselves.”

For me, this highlights just how much farther AIW takes us as professionals in understanding that it is all about student learning. AIW provides us the language and processes of scoring together to continually improve our teaching skills, in order  to truly bring about student learning at a deeper level. 

Many thanks to Sioux Center Middle School for being such great hosts, and to Ogilvie for being such intrepid travelers. And apologies for having digital technology and not taking one picture the entire day. You do see the red spot on my forehead where I have hit my head one more time.

Literacy, AIW Focuses on Professional Development


Literacy, AIW Focuses on Professional Development

Spencer Daily Reporter

Kris Todd

Just as students attend classes to become educated, teachers brush up on their skills to retain and improve upon what they learned in college.

Professional development sessions, such as what Spencer instructors participate in on a monthly basis, help. The district's next teacher inservices are scheduled for Monday, Oct. 17 and Wednesday, Oct. 26.

With Barb Besch, Spencer's director of school improvement, on an approved medical leave, Elli Wiemers has been hired to serve as the district's interim school improvement director. In this new role, Wiemers, a Spencer High School teacher, continues to teach math in the morning and then serves as an instructional coach in the afternoon.

She is assisted by Pat Briese, a fellow SHS teacher. The 2011-12 school year marks the third both women have served as half-time teachers and instructional leaders in Spencer.

"We're all getting our feet under us without Barb here right now," Wiemers said days after being hired to serve in the interim position.

"Fortunately, Elli and I had both worked this summer on laying out our secondary professional development plan," Briese added. "So, we feel good about how that's ready for us to implement."

At Spencer's middle and high school levels, professional development focuses on departments and what is happening in each. The departmental approach, which happened locally last spring, is aligned to bring in Iowa Core standards—which all schools are required to fully implement in grades nine through 12 by July 1, 2012, and in grades kindergarten through eight by the 2014–15 school year—as well as implementation of new textbooks and curriculum revisions.

"We're on a seven-year cycle with that," Wiemers said. "So, depending upon what department falls in what year, the work is a bit different. It's kind of building-block work."

The district's professional development sessions also have universal learnings which thread through content areas.

"For our professional development specifically, those universal learnings include literacy in the content areas, promoting reflective practice by teachers and development of what we're calling anchor tasks, which are summative assessments, preferably performance in nature, that assess the big ideas and concepts of a unit," Wiemers said. "Everybody 7-12 is working on those three things."

An important piece of Spencer's professional development puzzle is secondary-level instructors continuing to teach content-specific literacy skills. The district's system of educational professionals are also incorporating the common language of Authentic Intellectual Work, which helps in accomplishing this task.

"It's the glue that makes Pat and I—as teachers of English, social studies, and mathematics—be able to talk to each other on the same playing field," Wiemers said.

Through AIW, instructors aspire to bring authentic experiences into the classroom, which encourage students to think like actual social scientists, mathematicians, and other professionals. At the same time, AIW allows students to experience "value beyond school."

"We don't want kids to come to school and then play school; we want them to have authentic experiences," Wiemers said. "Because of this, kids are getting the idea that they really have to play a big role in their own learning. We have what we call 'substantive conversations,' where kids have to know it's on their shoulders to interact with their peers, to make connections and to make meaning together."

Consultant Dana Carmichael, of the Center for AIW, will meet with Spencer teachers three times this school year to augment their AIW knowledge.

"We prefer to think that we've not really made a lot of changes from last year to this year in professional development," Wiemers said. "Rather, we've looked for the natural extensions of the work. [We're] working as much as we can to have the teachers do the work that makes sense to them. We try to ask for their opinions and get their input on it. This is not a top-down decision and the nice thing about AIW is that it honors the experts in the room."

So, how are Spencer teachers viewing professional development?

According to one of the district's instructional coaches, its historical downfall has been learning "this year's new thing."

"For five years now, Spencer's 7–12 focus has been on literacy and Authentic Intellectual Work. We've drawn upon some historically good professional development, including the Understanding by Design framework, something Kathy Elliott began with us six to eight years ago. As practitioners, the good thing is we've been victims of that 'this year's new thing,'" Wiemers said. "Teachers tell us what's working and what's not working. We know that as long as we continue to try to hold a steady path, and the school board and administrators have recognized this as well—this isn't a Pat-and-Elli thing, this is a district movement—then it makes teachers less skeptical about professional development. We've also tried to give teachers a choice in their professional development."

The Transformation of Reading Achievement in One Rural AIW School

Atlantic Community School District began doing Authentic Intellectual Work in 2009 with a pilot team of 10 teachers. They were also a school in Need of Assistance (Year 1), according to the Federal No Child Left Behind law. In a bold move, Superintendent Mike Amstein and Matt Alexander, Principal and Curriculum and Professional Development Director along with building administrators decided to rollout AIW to the entire district staff of 125, K-12. AIW became their sole districtwide professional learning focus.

“At first it felt like too much, too fast,” says Lead AIW coach, Tina Wahlert, their assigned Consultant for Continuous Improvement from Green Hills Area Educational Agency in the southwestern part of Iowa. However, the learning environment has begun to transform over the past 15 months. Wahlert attributes their success to determination, perseverance, and teacher and administrator leadership. "We are all so impressed with the growth in student achievement, especially the reduction in gaps in reading."

In fact, reading will be a subject of celebration this month as Amstein and the board president accept the “Breaking Barriers to Learning and Teaching” Award later this month on behalf of the district. The Iowa Department of Education gives this award only to those schools which make significant progress in closing achievement gaps in English Language Learner (ELL), Individualized Education Plans (IEP), or Socio-Economic Status (SES). To receive an award, the DE must see an increase in scores of 20% or more in at least two subgroups and no more than a 5% decline in any other subgroup of students.

The Atlantic District will be receiving their award for the remarkable gains in reading on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) of low SES students in Grades 3 and 6 based on their 2010-11 test data.

In 2009-10, the low SES third graders scored 61% in reading on ITBS. Their non-SES classmates scored 80%. In 2010-11, the SES third graders scored 85%, an increase of 22%, exceeding the growth of non-SES students, who scored 78%.

Sixth graders had even more impressive results in reading. In 2009-10, the low SES sixth graders scored 50% in reading on ITBS. The non-SES sixth graders scored 75%. In 2010-11, the low SES student scores jumped 21% to 71%, exceeding the gains of non-SES sixth graders who scored 88%, a 13% gain.

Wahlert points out that for the last two years, 100% of their districtwide professional development time has been focused on AIW. “We have no doubt that the job-embedded PD focus on AIW has contributed to the success of Atlantic students.”


For more information about AIW at Atlantic, contact Matt Alexander ( or Tina Wahlert (

AIW and 21st Century Schools

Ken Kay is CEO of EdLeader21, a professional learning community for district and school leaders committed to 21st century education. His latest Edutopia blog references AIW. Click here to check out the blog, Becoming a 21st Century School or District: Use the 4Cs to Build Professional Capacity. 

He and colleague Valerie Greenhill are working on a book on this topic for Pearson.