The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District has put a new twist on teaching and lesson planning through an innovative program called Lesson Link.

“Lesson Link” is a classroom-based professional development system designed and implemented by Educational Services in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD).

The coordinators of Lesson Link are Cindy Kratzer, district literacy coordinator, and Amy Teplin, coordinator of teacher support for the district.

“We’re former teachers with a couple of decades of experience,” said Kratzer.

The Lesson Link model was started last year in the district as a pilot program and is now in the second year of a three-year implementation.

The program was adapted from the similar Japanese Lesson Study program to meet the needs of American classrooms and culture.

“I would say that teachers learn best when they collaborate with each other and watch each other teach a lesson and get feedback on how that went, and this process [Lesson Link] does those things,” Teplin said.

In Lesson Link, two or three teachers (a “team”) co-plan one lesson based on student needs, observe each other teaching the lesson, and debrief and revise the lesson after each observation, say Kratzer and Teplin, who have both participated in Lesson Link.

A well-trained facilitator sees the teachers through the entire process. Some of the current facilitators are even teachers who participated in Lesson Link last year.

“The facilitator is present for all aspects of the Lesson Link cycle — for the planning, for the actual teaching of the lessons, for the revising of the lesson,” said Kratzer. “They guide the team through the process.”

This Lesson Link cycle occurs over one to two school days. The teachers are replaced by substitutes in their regular classrooms to observe the lesson taught by their colleagues and to also teach the lesson to their own students.

The cycle is repeated three times during the school year.

“It’s teachers meeting together to co-plan a lesson, watching each other teach the lesson, talking about how the lesson went, and then revisiting it and refining it to make it better,” said Teplin.

The goal of Lesson Link is to “deeply embed teacher learning in classroom practice.”

Kratzer and Teplin say that Lesson Link helps create richer and more effective lessons because teachers can pre-plan for moments when their students might get “stuck” in the learning process.

“We wouldn’t be doing it [Lesson Link] if we didn’t think it would benefit students,” said Kratzer.

Schools participating in Lesson Link this year include Roosevelt, McKinley, Franklin and Grant Elementary Schools; Lincoln Middle School; Will Rogers Learning Community; Edison Language Academy; John Adams Middle School; Santa Monica High School and four Malibu schools.

Last school year, ten teams, approximately 30 teachers and nine facilitators participated in Lesson Link.

After participating in the program, the most common changes teachers reported were connecting the lesson to prior student work, clarifying lesson objectives with students and adapting lessons for where students might have had trouble, according to initial analysis provided by school officials.

Additionally, teachers who participated in Lesson Link reported a shift in their thinking about lesson design, Teplin says.

“We’ve heard again and again from teachers how powerful the model is and we couldn’t be more thrilled and more excited about how this model has blossomed here within SMMUSD,” said Teplin.

Kratzer agrees.

“It’s very exciting to take what we know from the research and adapt it to the needs of our teachers and our students and make it work in our local district context,” she said. “It’s a flexible model and that’s something we’re most proud of. It can work in many different situations.”

This year, 29 teams, approximately 91 teachers and 29 facilitators are participating in Lesson Link. Participation is voluntary.

“We hope to see the model expand,” said Teplin. “We’re finding that it is expanding because teachers really want to participate in the model.”

“We hope that some form of this will be expanded to all classrooms and all teachers in the district,” Kratzer said.

Still, there are some costs associated with Lesson Link.

“There’s the cost to have teachers be ‘subbed out’ of their classroom and the cost of the extra planning time that often occurs after school,” Kratzer said.

But Kratzer and Teplin’s hope is that the planning time will eventually be incorporated into professional development time teachers already have scheduled during their school week, reducing the cost of the program.

Next year, Kratzer and Teplin anticipate that over 50 percent of the teachers in the district will participate in Lesson Link.

“If you can improve instruction, you will improve student achievement, and that’s the goal,” Kratzer said.