of Phi Delta Kappan
DEVELOPMENT THAT WORKS
That School Where Everything's Scripted!
One Teacher's Journey Toward Effective Literacy Instruction
in a school in which teachers are told
what and how to teach might be easier than
having to make difficult teaching decisions
for oneself. But if one is lucky enough
to work, as Ms. Paez does, in a school
that supports teachers' growth with thoughtful
and ongoing professional development, the
challenges are not so overwhelming. And
the primary beneficiaries are the students.
BY MARIKA PAEZ (Marika Paez started her teaching career through
Teach for America and has been teaching for five years. She currently
teaches second grade at the Future Leaders Institute (FLI) in Harlem,
District 3. She is also a MetLife Fellow with the Teachers Network
Policy Institute, New York City.)
WHEN I GIVE the signal, Leo puts his books back in his green vinyl
book baggie and drops it in the blue bin on his way to the "Yellow
Table." At the last minute, he races a girl for his favorite seat
at the head of the table and grins in triumph. He cocks his head as
he tries to peer over my arm to read the title of the book we will
be reading today in his "guided reading" group. His expression
turns wary, suspicious even. In a class of generally easy to please
first graders, Leo is one tough customer. He is an incredibly bright
child, easily bored and easily frustrated. He is a demanding learner,
and I have become sensitive to his critical eye rolling when a lesson
is not going well.
I am hopeful that today's lesson will not only capture his interest
but also help him and the other children in the group think more strategically
about how to monitor their thinking as they read longer texts.
To make a connection to the story's topic, I start the lesson by asking
the five students gathered around the table what they know about how
someone goes about getting a job. They eagerly volunteer their ideas.
I explain that today I want them to stop and think every few pages
and use a "sticky note" to mark places where they do not
understand the story. I tell them that later we can go back together
and think more about those parts. I want this group of students to
learn that they might need to re read to really make sense of a text.
Halfway through the book, Leo is bouncing in his seat and humming lightly
as he reads. Suddenly, he stops, looks up, and announces, "I love
While I am glad that Leo enjoyed the lesson, even more important to
me was his successful use of reading strategies. By many measures,
the lesson was an effective one. It was designed and tailored to meet
the needs of these individual students. They were engaged and actively
learning throughout the lesson. I explicitly introduced the strategies
to be used during reading, and the students were held accountable for
using those strategies.
If you had observed my class a year ago, you would not have seen me
giving this type of instruction. My understanding of the best way to
teach reading and writing was transformed through many hours spent
reading and thinking about how children learn to read and write. Even
more important, I spent time learning from colleagues and mentors.
In many ways, the seeds of this lesson were planted during my school's
weekly professional development meetings.
When I first visited the Future Leaders Institute (FLI), the school
in which I now teach, I was impressed with the teaching, especially
in the area of literacy. The students were able to talk deeply about
books, referring to the text to justify their arguments. Instruction
was individualized, with students working in small groups on skills
that were relevant to them. The strategies used by good readers and
writers, which seemed like such a mystery in other classrooms I'd visited,
were explicit here listed on charts and repeated often in both whole-class
and small group instruction.
In September 2001, I accepted a position at FLI and was informed that
the school was committed to providing extensive professional development
for teachers to learn to teach reading and writing using a "balanced
literacy" approach. I would be required to spend time after school
each week to meet with colleagues and to reflect on my teaching. There
were five other K-2 teachers who were also new to FLI, and all were
using the balanced literacy approach for the first time. As we met
each week, I began to see changes in my teaching of reading and writing,
and I wondered if others were also seeing changes in their instruction.
I wanted to explore what we were taking away from the meetings and
what kinds of instructional changes were occurring in our classrooms
as a result of our weekly meetings. I was also curious about what aspects
of our meetings seemed to be helping me to transform my instruction
Since during the school year I was serving as a MetLife Fellow with
the Teachers Network Policy Institute (TNPI) and needed to conduct
an action research project, I decided to study the effects of our professional
development activities. The Teachers Network is a nonprofit education
organization that connects teachers around the country. Within the
organization, MetLife sponsors a number of fellowships through TNPI
to allow public school teachers like me to conduct research in our
classrooms that will provide a basis for making recommendations to
When I began my project, I wanted to focus on how the weekly professional
development meeting affected other teachers. However, I realized that
the personal growth I was in the best position to measure was my own.
During the year, as I looked over my journals and planning book, I
saw that I was becoming my own case study, and I decided to focus mainly
on documenting my own growth as a teacher and to use this as the data
for my research.
WHAT MATTERS MOST
Research shows a clear link between effective professional development
and increasing student achievement. Linda Darling Hammond has asserted
that "a more complex, knowledge based and multicultural society" is
creating "new expectations for teaching."1 These
challenging new expectations mean that teachers will need to know their
subject areas deeply and also understand how students think in order
to create experiences that actually work to produce learning.
In communities that are affected by poverty, such as the one I teach
in, the importance of having a highly qualified teacher is magnified.
Catherine Snow and her colleagues offer dramatic evidence of this
in their book, Unfulfilled Expectations. After researching
the effects of highly supportive classroom teaching on students
with low levels of home support, they found that students who had
a supportive, knowledgeable teacher for at least two years in a
row were able to keep up with the achievement of their peers, despite
their home environments.2
Many researchers agree that thoughtful, sustained professional development
is one way to ensure that all teachers are able to rise to these new
challenges. In the past, professional development consisted mostly
of teachers sitting passively while an "expert" trained them
on new techniques. This training was often disorganized, one shot staff
development with minimal opportunity for sustained inquiry or discussion
over time. Regrettably, this is still the model of professional development
in all too many schools. Ann Lieberman has argued that this model of
professional development is inconsistent with the research on how people
learn best through active involvement
and through thinking about and becoming
articulate about what they have learned.
Processes, practices, and policies
built on this view of learning are
at the heart of a more expanded view
of teacher development that encourages
teachers to involve themselves as learners
in much the same way as they wish their
there are schools and districts like
mine where policy makers and administrators
support this type of learning for teachers.
These schools and programs are serving
as models for other schools as they seek
to enact a reform agenda that supports
a learner-centered view of teaching.
This is not easy work, as Darling Hammond
has pointed out:
of this agenda ultimately turns on teachers'
success in accomplishing the serious
and difficult tasks of learning the skills
and perspectives assumed by new visions
of practice and unlearning the practices
and beliefs about students and instruction
that have dominated their professional
lives to date.4
of this new type of professional development
must become inextricably linked to student
outcomes. According to Dennis Sparks
and Stephanie Hirsh, a professional development
model's success should be judged "not
by how many teachers and administrators
participate in staff development programs
or how they perceive its value, but by
whether it alters instructional behavior
in a way that benefits students."'
As more and more teachers participate
in sustained professional development
that encourages teachers to be active
learners, Sparks and Hirsh remind us
that we need to keep one eye fixed on
what truly matters most transforming
instruction to ensure achievement for
A SUPPORTIVE SCHOOL SETTING
FLI is a small public school in Harlem. It was created in 1999 to provide
a high quality education to neighborhood students, a population that
has long been neglected and marginalized by the New York City school
system. FLI serves approximately 145 students in kindergarten through
sixth grade. The school uses a balanced literacy approach to the teaching
of reading and writing that is modeled on other successful programs
in neighboring districts.
Dorothy Hall and Patricia Cunningham liken the balanced literacy approach
to the way parents ensure that children have a balanced diet. Each
of the food groups needs to be represented in order for children to
grow, and no one food group should be overemphasized or neglected.
The "food groups" of balanced literacy instruction include
word study (learning about spelling patterns or high frequency words),
shared reading (teacher and students reading a text together with the
teacher demonstrating reading strategies), guided reading (small group
reading instruction), independent reading, read aloud, and writing
Using a balanced literacy approach can be difficult. There is no scripted
manual in which teachers can find out what to teach each day. Much
of the instruction is driven by assessment. Teachers must know their
students' strengths and weaknesses and use this information, combined
with their knowledge of how children learn to read and write, to decide
on strategies and processes that will help the children further their
The two directors of the school decided that we would meet weekly with
a staff developer to learn more about teaching balanced literacy. Because
of budget cuts, we were not paid for these meetings, which usually
consisted of the kindergarten teacher, two first grade teachers, the
second grade teacher, and the Reading Recovery teacher, who worked
in each of our classrooms for 30 minutes of guided reading during the
school day. Occasionally, the upper grade science teacher, who worked
in the second grade classroom for guided reading each day, would join
us if the topic was relevant to her teaching.
To work with our group, the directors hired a staff developer with
more than 20 years of experience, Lucy Malka. Her many roles as staff
developer included being a resource for us by offering her own ideas,
feedback, knowledge, and experience, as well as recommending books
and providing articles and videos. In addition, she guided our discussions
by pushing us to think our ideas through more deeply and by encouraging
We also had other opportunities for professional development at the
school through study groups that discussed professional readings, numerous
observations by the school directors with one on one feedback and debriefing
meetings afterward, curriculum planning meetings, and visits to schools
that were successfully implementing a balanced literacy approach.
ATYPICAL BALANCED LITERACY MEETING
Each Tuesday at 3:30 p.m., six teachers straggled into a classroom
and met until 5:30 p.m. sometimes even later. Toward the end of the
year, the meetings were restructured so that the whole group met until
5 p.m., and individuals met with the staff developer on a rotating
basis until 5:30 p.m.
Lucy kicked off the meetings by asking simply, "How's it going?" Since
teachers often came to the meetings ready to ask questions, celebrate
what was going well, or vent their frustration, the first part of the
meeting usually involved addressing these matters. Lucy offered her
thoughts and ideas and invited others to join in. If the teachers had
many issues or questions, we gave more time to those things, sometimes
putting aside our set agenda for the day entirely, sometimes modifying
it only slightly. If no teachers brought issues or questions, we would
often spend the first few minutes simply looking around the classroom
we were meeting in and asking questions about or commenting on what
seemed to be happening in that classroom, sparking teachers to talk
about their own classrooms.
Then the meeting would become more structured, as we addressed the
topic of the day. Topics often came up as a result of Lucy's opening
question or through subsequent discussions. Sometimes we would follow
a single topic, such as guided reading, for many weeks in a row. The
topics were addressed through informal discussions facilitated by Lucy,
or by reading and responding to an article on a topic. We also directly
observed teachers teaching either by having someone in the group do
a demonstration or by watching a master teacher on videotape. During
this time, Lucy was the "expert," but she also constantly
asked us, "What do you think?" She would continue to probe
and work to get us to articulate our own ideas and opinions and to
use one another as resources. The meeting generally concluded with
a reflection on that day's meeting and agenda setting for the next
I used a journal to record what we discussed each week during our meetings.
This became the documentary basis for my research project. The notes
I took were as much for me and for my own learning as they were for
my research, so they focus on the topics I found most salient during
each meeting and do not always include everything discussed. From my
notes, I was able to glean not only a list of the topics discussed
each week but also a glimpse of my growing understanding of the teaching
of reading and writing. Next I compiled these notes into a list of
topics discussed each week and assigned them to one of the following
four categories: Instruction, Procedure, Standards, and Big Ideas.
The topics I grouped under Instruction show that our discussions dealt
with practical ideas about how to teach students a concept. I also
included lesson ideas and catch phrases or possible language to use
when teaching. Big Ideas topics show that our discussions also took
up what is important to teach children about reading and writing and
why it is important to teach a given concept to students. These were
not discussions of discrete skills and techniques; they were more about
learning goals. Our Big Ideas discussions did include some talk about
New York State Standards, though, as well as some talk of child development.
Topics under the Procedure category focused on management, routines,
and classroom environment elements of teaching that are not strictly
academic in nature. Topics categorized as Standards indicate that our
discussions attempted to answer such questions as, How much? How often?
How good is good enough? These discussions were not limited to talk
about the New York State Standards.
I also recorded in my journal when we watched a teacher do a demonstration
lesson. Some of these lessons were videotapes of model lessons, and
others were "teacher demonstrations" that were performed
by different members of our group.
I used a separate personal journal to record my feelings and attitudes
about my literacy teaching. Throughout the year, I jotted down revelations
and intense feelings I had about my teaching and our professional development
My lesson plan book also became a critical piece of data, as I sought
to discover how I was integrating what we discussed in our weekly meetings
into my teaching. My plan book contained daily lesson plans, outlines,
and long term plans for various units of study, as well as notes from
post observation meetings with one of my school directors.
Finally, to examine how teachers were responding to their balanced
literacy professional development, I audiotaped 20 to 30 minute portions
of two of the meetings one in December and one in February. Then I
transcribed short two to three minute segments that seemed most relevant.
Big Ideas. By participating in a weekly professional
development meeting with a master teacher and my
colleagues, I increased my knowledge and ability
to articulate the Big Ideas about how students learn
to read and write. A significant amount of time in
our meetings was devoted to discussing how students
learn to read and write, as well as what they need
to know in order to be successful readers and writers.
These were the kind of topics I categorized as Big
Ideas. Eighty-eight percent of our meetings contained
at least some explicit talk about the Big Ideas in
learning to read and write.
This focus on the Big Ideas seemed to drive our discussion away from
procedural or management issues. Such conversation took place in only
a quarter of the meetings, and those were mostly during the first three
weeks. Gradually, references to Procedures, such as making up rules
for the listening center or how students should check out books from
the library, disappeared from my journal. Instead, I saw more notes
on Big Ideas, with valuable lists of student learning goals and strategies
to teach during shared reading.
In looking back on my journal, my plan book, and my weekly meeting
notes, I can see my understanding of the Big Ideas in teaching reading
and writing grow over the course of the year. For example, my notes
from the meeting on September 9 include an outline of some of the Big
Ideas we wanted students to learn about writing for an upcoming unit.
Four out of the six ideas were Lucy's. By contrast, at a May meeting,
we drafted a list of Big Ideas we wanted students to learn in the coming
year about how writers use craft. I contributed eight of the 10 learning
goals to the list. After a year spent discussing what was important
for young writers to learn, I was finally able to articulate what was
important for them to know.
One particular journal entry stands out as evidence of how my thinking
was influenced by the meetings. In December, I marveled at "my
growing understanding of how meaning drives reading." I
recalled an epiphany I had in the middle of our previous weekly meeting,
when 1 finally realized why it is so important for students to be thinking
about the context of the whole story when trying to understand a tricky
part of their reading. After much discussion and thinking, I finally "got" this
Big Idea. Such epiphanies didn't happen often during our weekly meetings,
and most of my learning was much more gradual.
Instruction in action. Participating in these
weekly professional development meetings gave me
the opportunity to see instructional strategies in
action, and this increased my confidence and competence
in implementing more focused instruction. The broad
category that appeared most frequently in my notes
was Instruction, which applied to any practical discussion
of the best way to teach a concept. During 93% of
the meetings we spent time talking about topics I
categorized as Instruction often linked to discussion
of the Big Ideas.
The conversations flowed back and forth, with the Big Ideas informing
the Instruction and vice versa.
Much of the focus on Instruction in our meetings consisted of talk
about and direct observation of a teacher teaching. In 11 out of the
24 meetings, I had the opportunity to directly observe a teacher in
action. Five of the observations were videotaped lessons, which we
paused frequently to discuss and critique. The other six observations
were demonstration lessons that we did for one another. During our
eight week study on guided reading, each teacher in the group brought
in a small group of students and taught a guided reading lesson, while
the rest of us watched. After the demonstration, we discussed the lesson.
These discussions were rich and lively, as we shared hypotheses about
students' stumbling points, pondered the dilemmas we faced in our own
practice, and shared potential solutions.
This continuing opportunity to observe others helped me teach more
focused and explicit guided reading lessons in my own classroom, such
as the one I described at the beginning of this article. When introducing
the lesson, I asked students to activate their background knowledge
and make a personal connection to the text. By observing similar lessons
during our weekly meetings, I had concluded that children were more
successful in reading the text after this type of introduction. I also
set a clear purpose for the reading, a direct result of the lessons
I had observed in our weekly meetings. I realized that having a purpose
enables readers to actively monitor their own reading. These are just
two examples of the many ways that seeing "instruction in action" helped
me improve my own teaching.
Even when we were not doing formal demonstration lessons for one another,
the weekly meetings became a place to try out new language and rehearse
new teaching strategies. Many of my notes on my colleagues' demonstration
lessons include phrases and prompts that I heard them use during their
teaching that have since become a part of my own teaching repertoire.
Through meeting together weekly, we created a shared bag of tricks
from which we could all draw. We began establishing a shared language
that we could use in all of our classrooms. Through our dialogue, we
were able to rehearse ways to make the tough teaching decisions we
face every day. And I felt my confidence in my ability to make those
environment. These weekly professional
development meetings also gave me a
supportive environment in which to
make a transformation in my teaching
that sometimes seemed overwhelming.
Changing my literacy instruction to
a more assessment driven, standards
based approach was time consuming and
challenging. My journal entries in
September and October reflect these
I'm just having trouble knowing what
makes most sense for me to teach
first--I want them to know everything!!
slightly dissatisfied at the moment
with how teacher centered the class
is right now.
Tomorrow my school director is coming to observe me. I have no
idea how it will go. I'm a little bit nervous because she'll be
observing read aloud, and I'm not sure where I'm headed with read
aloud. My instruction has been murky in focus.
frustrated and already feel so far
I felt more in control of the management
and procedures involved in teaching with
a balanced literacy approach, and my
focus shifted to trying to assess my
instruction and my students' learning:
moment, teaching feels too easy, too
effortless students do what I ask when
I ask them to; they participate in
discussions and listen (sometimes)
to each other. Now I realize that my
teaching career has been more about
management than anything else learning
how to manage 20 human beings, with
the goal of creating as little chaos
as possible. And now I'm thinking,
Are they learning anything? How are
they learning it? I want to get in
close. Have opportunities for real
dialogue and meaningful instruction.
Do students understand what they're
doing? Why they're doing it?
meetings were a safe place to bring my
new questions, doubts, and struggles.
They also offered me feedback on my teaching,
as I wrote in February on the day after
I taught a demonstration guided reading
lesson for my colleagues:
director told me she heard I taught
a "textbook guided reading lesson
yesterday. Wow! I can't believe Lucy
said that. Now I just have to try to
do it all the time. Right. The amount
of preparation I did for that lesson
just seems impossible to keep up! Totally
unrealistic on a day to day basis,
so what can I take away from it?
meetings also offered us a place to support
one another and to commiserate about
the difficult aspects of our experiences.
My audiotape from December includes a
discussion prompted by my airing my problems
about deciding when to stop and just
tell a student a word, when to move on,
and how to keep the parts of the lesson
in mind even as I keep it moving. We
all expressed how overwhelmed we were
and how enormous we found the task of
making smart teaching decisions. "Too
many choices!" I said. "Gimme
that school where everything's scripted!" came
one colleague's reply. We all laughed
However, while we joked that a "scripted" school would have
been easier for us, we knew that really wasn't how we wanted to teach.
We appreciated the chance we had to examine our teaching closely each
week, to share our frustrations and feelings of confusion, and to work
together to come up with solutions and new ideas that we could bring
into our classrooms every day.
IMPLICATIONS FOR POLICY
My research and experience suggest that, when teachers participate
in professional development of this kind, they become more knowledgeable
and articulate about student learning and about instruction. They gain
confidence and competence in implementing more focused and explicit
instructional strategies. And they benefit from the support they need
during the sometimes overwhelming process of changing their instruction.
These findings suggest that we need policy changes at several different
levels. School, district, and state policy makers should be committed
time for teacher collaboration. Schools
need to provide time in the schedule
for teacher collaboration to improve
instruction and learning. The time
I spent in my weekly meetings was
invaluable to my growth as a teacher.
While teachers may not be compensated
for this time, it is important
to at least make time available
for this type of interaction.
instructional demonstrations. Schools
should provide professional development
that allows teachers multiple opportunities
to observe one another in action.
I benefited greatly from being
able to watch master teachers and
my colleagues give demonstrations
that we could then discuss as a
literacy training that focuses
on the Big Ideas. Teachers
need more professional development
that allows them time to discuss
Big Ideas. In literacy instruction,
such ideas include what students
need to know to be successful readers
and writers and why they need to
know those things. When schools
think of teachers as active learners
and provide this type of opportunity
the teachers are then able to work
better with their students and
improve their achievement in reading
professional developers to work
collaboratively with teachers. Teachers
and their students will benefit
if they are provided professional
developers who can act as consultants,
resources, and facilitators of
teacher discussion rather than
didactic "teacher trainers." Lucy
did not merely stand in front of
us each week and lecture at us.
She was a coach, facilitator, teacher,
and consultant. She pushed us to
think and encouraged our discussion
and collaboration. This type of
ongoing instruction proved to be
very effective for me and my colleagues
and allowed us to see one another
as sources of information with
valuable ideas and opinions.
end, I really appreciated not being in
a school where everything was scripted.
I was lucky to be teaching in a school
that valued and implemented many of the
policies that I recommended above. Although
it was a challenge for us to learn new
ways of teaching, our meetings gave us
something many educators never experience--a
safe, supportive environment in which
to collaborate and to grow as professionals.
I was given the opportunity to grow in
my understanding of how students learn,
to question my colleagues, to risk trying
new things in my teaching, and to share
my progress with others. Though attempting
to transform my teaching in this way
was a demanding process, I am committed
to continuing this work, for it is from
this process that thoughtful, effective
teaching practice can emerge. This is
the teaching that children like Leo need
and deserve. It is the teaching that
all our children need and deserve.
1. Linda Darling Hammond, "What Matters Most: A Competent Teacher
for Every Child," Phi Delta Kappan, April 1996,
E. Snow et al., Unfulfilled Expectations:
Home and School Influences on Literacy (Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991).
Lieberman, "Practices That Support
Teacher Development: Transforming Conceptions
of Professional Learning," Phi
Delta Kappan, April 1995, pp.
Hammond, p. 197.
5. Dennis Sparks and Stephanie Hirsh, A New Vision for Staff
Development (Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and
Curriculum Development, 1997), p. 5.
6. Dorothy P. Hall and Patricia M. Cunningham, Month-by-Month
Phonics for First Grade (New York: Carson Dellosa, 1997), p.