What used to be a plain, red brick wall outside of the 2020 Laundromat on Hanover Street in Springfield, Massachusetts, is now splashed with a colorful mural featuring scenes of a whimsical water park operated by fantastical animals. Thanks to two passionate third-grade teachers, a thought-provoking unit from their literacy program, and a positive school culture, an entire classroom of students can say that they had a part in painting that mural — artwork that will beautify their local community for years to come.
“We just had a big idea,” said Aleyda Torres, special education teacher at the William N. DeBerry Elementary School in the Western Massachusetts city. “And our curriculum is about big ideas and how communities change over time. Living here, I’ve seen how our city has changed and [the students] get to experience the same exact thing. The city is changing and they are a part of it.”
The beautiful student-painted mural is the result of when a school culture — one that fosters collaboration and innovative instruction — meets a high-quality literacy curriculum that provides students with meaningful, real-world learning opportunities and impactful projects.
ELA Instructional Leadership Specialist Kendra Levesque, who helped implement the school’s new reading and writing program, Savvas Learning Company’s myView Literacy, attributes the DeBerry’s strong school culture to Principal Elizabeth (Beth) Fazio’s commitment to cultivating teacher autonomy.
“I think with Beth’s leadership, in giving that autonomy to the teachers, it helps them work more as a team,” she said. “They’re collaborating more. And so this whole project that our third-graders had done was made possible because of that.”
Creating a Culture of Teacher Autonomy and Collaboration
Principal Fazio believes in creating an environment where teachers feel encouraged to make their own decisions about instruction that best meet the needs of their students. This approach not only creates a positive environment for teachers by giving them agency over their teaching, but it also helps to inspire out-of-the-box thinking that leads to better student and teacher engagement and builds stronger connections.
“I think that the key to the culture here is the teacher autonomy — their willingness, and the freedom to be able to make decisions,” she said about the teaching staff. “It allows them to really shine in knowing who their students are and really connect with them. It makes their learning more meaningful.”
The principal and her staff have also worked hard at structuring a plan for frequent collaboration. They do this by carving out time in the weekly schedule when grade-level teachers can work with English as a second language and special education teachers to meet and plan instruction together. She and her leadership team also created professional learning communities where teachers can meet regularly to share what’s working or seek advice from one another and think of new teaching strategies to try out.
“We have such a supportive staff,” the principal said, noting that the DeBerry teachers meet and help one another on instructional planning even outside of the school day. “They collaborate before school. They collaborate after school. Some teams collaborate on the weekends. Some stay very late at night. … So, having spent the past few years really honing in and structuring that has been really helpful.”
In addition to being given the flexibility to be creative and the time to work together, DeBerry teachers use a technique where they plan instruction “backwards” — they begin planning lessons by first looking at the end goal so they never lose sight of the objectives and standards they ultimately want their students to meet. “They’re always thinking about where the student is going to be at the end of the unit,” said Kendra, the ELA instructional leadership specialist. “It really helps the teachers internalize the purpose of the lesson.”
The Big Idea
During one of their early-morning planning sessions at the beginning of the school year, third-grade teacher Catherine Kabochi and special education teacher Aleyda Torres discovered that one of the units they would be covering in myView Literacy ended with an inquiry-based project.
“As we were entering unit 4, I looked through it and thought, ‘Okay, the end product is supposed to be a project about a place where a community has changed’,” Catherine said, noting that at the end of the curriculum’s unit, which asks the essential question, “How do communities change over time?” students are asked to create a poster of a town or a city from their reading that has evolved.
That’s when Catherine and Aledya came up with their “big idea” — connecting the unit to their own city. Springfield, the fourth largest city in New England, is the home of America’s first armory and American-made automobile and is best known as the birthplace of basketball and Theodor Geisel, a.k.a “Dr. Seuss”.
“We live in the ‘City of Firsts.’ That’s actually our motto,” said Aleyda. “We have so many treasures in our city. Why go anywhere else?”
Aleyda had seen beautiful murals popping up around her city. So, she contacted the organization behind the artwork, Fresh Paint Springfield, an offshoot of Common Wealth Murals, a MA nonprofit dedicated to creating public art that is “by, for, and of the communities” impacted by the art. She contacted Britt Ruhe, the director of Common Wealth Murals, who was excited to include her third graders in creating a mural that just happened to be scheduled to go up right in their own neighborhood.
“It was so special. They truly organized everything,” said Aleyda. “They had everything all set up for us the day we did the paint party. We not only advertised it for third grade but we advertised it for the whole school. So some of the parents and the kids could come right after school and finish off whatever was left. It was really awesome.”
Making Connections and Seeing Growth
As the school year was about to end, the finished mural was officially unveiled to the public on June 3, 2022, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony with city officials and members of the school community, as well as the muralist, Gaby Sepulveda, whose design the students painted.
“Something that’s really cool about this is that it’s right in their community,” said Kendra. “So we have families that walk by it every single day coming to school. I think that’s so important that they see their work out in their own community.”
But it didn’t end there. After the class was finished with unit 4, they moved on to unit 5 in myView Literacy, where they would be working on writing poetry. Catherine asked the students if they wanted to write a poem about the mural. “So we wrote a poem!” said Catherine. “It kind of kept connecting and connecting. We called it our never-ending project.”
With the DeBerry School back to in-person learning last year along with a new, engaging curriculum, and a strong plan for a healthy school culture, the school’s leader saw her students become more engaged in their lessons and their confidence take off. “We continue to have high expectations. We continue to apply the right scaffolds to the right students at the right time … Continuing to have all those with this new invigorating curriculum,” she said, has led to her seeing a new “confidence (in the DeBerry students). I see that growth.”
Special Education Teacher
Special education teacher Aleyda Torres believes that if teachers can identify what they’re passionate about and then weave that into their instruction, students will be more engaged.
“What is your passion?” she asked. “How can you make it connect with what the kids are learning?” She suggests that when students can see that their teachers are passionate about what they’re teaching, the students will jump on it. “They’ll see that passion in you. They get excited when you get excited.”
Grade 3 Teacher
Third-grade teacher Catherine Kabochi says it’s crucial to get to know your students in order to adapt your instruction to match their needs and interests.
“Know your kids,” she said. “You have to be flexible. Always think about what the students are going to gain and how they’re going to benefit from whatever you’re working on.” She says that even though the instructional material can often be the same from year to year, each group of students is different. She recommends creating projects that work with the students you have at that time. “So, the biggest thing is to just know it’s for the kids. It's all for the kids.”