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Hunters Point Middle School teacher Taryn Martinez describes her shift to mastery-based learning.

Mastery Collaborative Active Member school Hunters Point Community Middle School (HPCMS) in Queens hosted a Showcase Schools visit this year on using collaborative team structures to develop schoolwide mastery-based and project-based curriculum.

Living Environment teacher Taryn’s part of the Showcase visit presentation is adapted here.

Thanks for sharing this, Taryn and HPCMS!

I started my career with the idea that testing was the most important indicator of success. I started teaching at a school that focused on teaching to the test, and that’s what I believed in. Moving to a mastery-based school was a big culture shift for me in many ways. At Hunter's Point Community Middle School, classrooms are built around community, creativity, and scholarship. We use schoolwide learning outcomes, project-based work, and learning across content areas.

When I first started at HPCMS though, I didn’t let myself believe that culture would work to support students. I continued to teach with the mentality that all that mattered was prepping for the test. However, all of that focus on test prep didn’t give me the results I wanted. 76% of our 8th graders passed the Living Environment Regents, and only 16% earned a score of 85 or higher. These were not the stellar rates I was expecting.

My next year, I did something different: I took the plunge and let myself try interdisciplinary teaching and learning, based not on the test but beyond the test.

I revised and relaunched the 8th grade interdisciplinary project, called Mission Outbreak, with a focus on epidemiology. Epidemiology is found nowhere in the Regents. Students conducted in-depth research about a disease of their choice to assess its mortality rate and its epidemic potential. They took field trips to places like the NYU Spatial Epidemiology Lab and Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health to speak with experts. They learned about health conditions of tenements  in social studies. They wrote and graphed exponential equations in math, comparing rates of infection to rates of inoculation. They designed PSAs in ELA to inform the public about disease prevention. They researched impacts on body systems and cells in science.

And, shocking to me, this type of teaching did give me the results I wanted.

83% of our 8th graders passed the Living Environment Regents, and 30% achieved an 85 or higher.

Now I know those test scores aren’t the whole picture, and they’re not all that matter. I can tell this mastery-based, interdisciplinary teaching works because students told me it works. They wrote to me in no uncertain terms thanking me for the real experiences they had in my class. They started fundraisers for environmental groups after we learned about ecology. They enrolled in more challenging high school courses because they knew they were capable.

Making the time and space for myself to believe that a mastery-based model that puts students in the center of their own learning works. It transforms the educational experience. It allows students to not just pass the test, but to become deeply invested in their learning.