Professional Development and
One Teacher’s Journey toward Effective Literacy Instruction
by Marika Paez, Future
Leaders Institute, New York, NY. E-mail
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 another 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. 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 wary of 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 respond with their ideas. I explain that today I want them to stop and think every few pages and use a Post-it to mark places where their comprehension breaks down – where they do not understand the story. I tell them that later we can go back together as a group and think more about those parts. I want this group of students to learn that they may 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. He suddenly stops, looks up and announces, “I love reading group!”
While I am glad that Leo enjoyed the lesson, even more important to me was his successful use of reading strategies in the lesson. By many measures, the lesson was an effective one. It was designed and tailored to meet individual students’ needs. The students were engaged and actively learning throughout the lesson. I explicitly introduced the strategies to be used during reading, and 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, because I spent time reading and thinking about how children learn to read and write. Even more importantly, 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, the school in which I now work, I was impressed with the teaching, especially in literacy. 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 for them. Strategies of good readers and writers which seemed secret in so many classrooms were explicit here – listed in charts and repeated often in both whole-class and small group instruction.
In September of 2001, I accepted a position there 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 weekly to meet and reflect on my teaching. There were five other K-2 teachers who were also new to F.L.I., and all were using the Balanced Literacy approach to teach literacy 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 kind of instructional changes were occurring in classrooms as a result of our weekly meetings. I was also curious as to what aspects of our meetings seemed to be helping me to transform my instruction most.
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 professional development for my project. 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 lead us to make education policy recommendations.
When I began I wanted to focus on how the meeting affected other teachers. However, I realized that the person whose growth I was in the best position to measure was my own. During the year as I looked over my journals and planning book and saw that I was becoming my own case study, I decided to focus mainly on documenting my own growth as a teacher and use this to make policy recommendations.
What Matters Most
Research shows a clear link between effective professional development and increasing student achievement. Linda Darling-Hammond asserts that, “a more complex, knowledge-based and multicultural society” is creating “new expectations for teaching.” These challenging new expectations include teachers knowing their subject areas deeply as well as understanding how students think in order to create experiences that actually work to produce learning.
In communities that are impacted by poverty such as the one I teach in, the importance of having a quality teacher is magnified. Catherine Snow provides dramatic evidence of this in her book Unfulfilled Expectations. After researching the effects of highly supportive classroom teaching on students with low levels of home support, she 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 an unsupportive home environment.
Many researchers agree that thoughtful, sustained professional development is one way to ensure that all teachers 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 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 argues that this model of professional development is inconsistent with the research on how people learn best:
[P]eople 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 that same way as they wish their students would.
Fortunately, 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 points out:
The success 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.
The measure of this new type of professional development must become inextricably linked to student outcomes. According to Dennis Sparks, 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 reminds us we need to keep one eye firmly on what truly matters most—transforming instruction to ensure achievement for all students.
A Supportive School Setting
The Future Leaders Institute, or F.L.I., is a small, public school in Harlem. F.L.I. 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. It serves approximately 145 students in the Kindergarten through sixth grades. The school implements a Balanced Literacy approach to the teaching of reading and writing modeled on other successful programs in neighboring districts.
Dorothy P. Hall and Patricia Cunningham compare the Balanced Literacy approach of teaching reading and writing to the way parents ensure 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 (student and teacher reading a text together with the teacher demonstrating reading strategies), Guided Reading (small group reading instruction), Independent Reading, Read Aloud, and Writing Workshop.
Using a Balanced Literacy approach to teach reading and writing can be difficult. There is no scripted teacher’s manual where teachers can look each day to see what to teach. Much of the instruction is assessment-driven. 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 the children need to learn to further their growth.
The two school directors decided we would meet weekly with a staff developer to learn more about teaching Balanced Literacy. Due to budget cuts, we met unpaid each week. The meetings usually consisted of the kindergarten teacher, two first grade teachers (including me), the second grade teacher, and the Reading Recovery teacher, who worked in our classrooms for thirty 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.
The directors hired a staff developer with more than 20 years of experience in teaching and staff development to work with us. Lucy’s many roles as staff developer included being a resource for us by offering her own ideas, feedback, knowledge, and experience. She also connected us with resources by recommending books, providing articles and videos. Additionally, she guided our discussions by pushing us to think more deeply through our ideas and nurturing our questions.
We also had other opportunities for professional development at the school through study groups of professional readings, numerous observations by the school directors with one-on-one feedback and debriefing meetings afterward, curriculum planning meetings, and visitations with schools that were successfully implementing a Balanced Literacy approach.
A Typical Balanced Literacy Meeting
Each Tuesday at 3:30 p.m., six teachers straggled into a classroom and met until 5:30 p.m. or even 6:00 p.m. Toward the end of the year, the meetings were restructured so that the whole group met until 5:00 p.m., and individuals met with the staff developer on a rotating basis until 5:30 p.m. Lucy kicked off meetings by asking, “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 issues. Lucy offered her thoughts and ideas and invited others of us to join in. If many teachers had issues or questions, we took more time with those things, sometimes putting aside our set agenda for the day entirely, sometimes only modifying it slightly. If no teachers brought issues or questions, we would often simply spend the first few minutes 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 the “How’s it going?” question and through subsequent teacher discussion. Sometimes we would follow one 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 a teacher doing a lesson either by one of us doing a demonstration or by watching a master teacher on video. During this time, Lucy often acted as the “expert” but also usually asked us, “What do you think?” to probe us to articulate our own ideas and opinions and use each other as resources. The meeting generally concluded with a reflection on that day’s meeting and agenda-setting for the next one.
I used a journal to record what we discussed each week during our meetings. The notes I took were as much for me and for my learning as a teacher as they were for my research, so they contain topics I found most salient during each meeting and do not always include everything discussed that day. 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. I then 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”.
Topics in “Instruction” indicate that our discussion centered on practical ideas about how to teach students a concept. I also included lesson ideas, as well as catchphrases or possible language to use when teaching in this category. “Big Ideas” topics indicate that our discussion centered on what is important to teach children about reading and writing, or why it is important to teach a concept to students. This was not discussion about discrete skills and techniques, but more about learning goals. It included some discussion about New York State Standards here, as well as discussion about child development.
Topics categorized as “Procedure” are centered on management, routines, or classroom environment – elements of teaching that are not strictly academic in nature. Topics categorized as “Standards,” indicate discussion that attempted to answer the questions “How much? How good is good enough? How often…?” It was not a discussion about the New York State Standards, although sometimes Standards were discussed. I also recorded when we watched a teacher do a demonstration lesson. Some of these lessons were videotapes of what Lucy had deemed generally excellent lessons and others were “teacher demonstrations” performed by someone in our group while we observed.
I also used a separate personal journal to record my feelings and attitudes about my literacy teaching. For a few days during different times of the year, at the end of the day I jotted revelations and intense feelings I had about our development sessions.
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, and notes from post-observation meetings with my school director.
Finally, to examine how teachers were responding to their Balanced Literacy professional development, I audiotaped 20-30 minute portions of two of the meetings – one in December and one in February. I then transcribed small two to three minute portions that seemed most relevant.
Discussing the Big Ideas
By participating in a weekly professional development meeting with a master teacher and fellow 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 spent discussing how students learn to read and write, as well as what they need to know in order to be successful readers and writers, which 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.
I also can see my increased understanding of the “Big Ideas” in teaching reading and writing in my journal, lesson plan book, and weekly meeting notes. 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. In contrast, at a May meeting we drafted a list of Big Ideas we wanted students to learn next year about how writers use craft. I contributed eight of the ten learning goals to the list. After discussion through the year about what was important for young writers to learn, I was able to articulate what was important for them to know.
This focus on the “Big Ideas” of reading and writing seemed to force discussion away from procedures or management. These types of conversation were only in a quarter of the meetings, and mostly during the first three weeks. Gradually, I stopped seeing references to procedures in my journal such as making up rules for the listening center or how students should check-out books from the library. Instead, I saw more notes on “Big Ideas,” with valuable lists of student learning goals and strategies to teach during shared reading.
The brief notes and jottings in my journal also highlighted my growing understanding of the Big Ideas in reading and writing. 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 I finally realized why it is so important for students to be thinking about the context of the whole story when trying to problem solve at a tricky part in their reading. After much discussion and thinking I finally “got” this Big Idea. These sudden epiphanies did not happen often during our weekly meetings. On the contrary, most of my learning was much more gradual. However, these meetings offered multiple opportunities to examine and discuss the Big Ideas in learning to read and write, and this greatly improved my ability to understand and articulate them.
Observing Instruction in Action
Participating in a weekly professional development meeting with a master teacher and fellow colleagues gave me the opportunity to see instructional strategies “in action,” which increased my confidence and competence in implementing more focused and explicit instruction.
The category of discussion that appeared most frequently in my notes was “Instruction,” any practical discussion of the best way to teach a concept. During 93% of the meetings we spent time on “Instruction” talk, which was also often linked to discussion of the “Big Ideas.” The conversations flowed back and forth, with the Big Ideas informing the Instruction, while the Instruction reflecting the Big Ideas.
Much of the focus on “Instruction” in our meetings consisted of talk and direct observation of a teacher teaching. In eleven out of the twenty-four meetings, I had the opportunity to directly observe a teacher in action. Five of the observations were videotaped lessons, which we stopped frequently to discuss and critique. The other six observations were demonstration lessons that we did for each other. 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 dilemmas we had in our own practice and shared solutions.
This continuous opportunity to observe others helped me teach more focused and explicit guided reading lessons, such as the lesson I described at the beginning of this article. When introducing the lesson I asked students to activate 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 reading the text after this type of introduction. I also set a clear purpose for reading in my lesson with Leo, a direct result of lessons I had observed in our weekly meetings, where I realized that setting a purpose for reading enables readers to actively monitor their own reading. These are just two examples of the many ways that seeing instruction “in action” each week helped me improve my own instruction.
Even when we were not doing formal demonstration lessons for each other, 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 I heard them use during their teaching that have now become a part of my own teaching repertoire. During a meeting in December that I audio taped, teachers questioned each other about how and when to best address mechanics in a writing conference:
E: I will occasionally address it, and when I do, I say, “The first letter in the sentence should be a capital. Why don’t you change that?”
R: What if he writes this word with a capital ‘T’?
L: I would say, “You know what, this is how we write it…”
Through meeting together weekly, we created a shared bag of tricks from which we all drew. We began establishing a shared language that we could use in all of our classrooms. Through our dialogue, I was able to mentally and verbally rehearse how to make the tough teaching decisions I face every day, and I grew increasingly confident in making those decisions.
Participating in these weekly professional development meetings with a master teacher and fellow colleagues provided me with a supportive environment in which to navigate a sometimes overwhelming transformation in my instruction. Changing my literacy instruction to a more assessment-driven, Standards-based approach was time-consuming, challenging and often overwhelming. My journal entries in September and October reflect these feelings:
…Mostly I’m just having trouble knowing what makes most sense for me to teach first—I want them to know everything!!
…I feel 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…
…I’m just frustrated and already feel so far behind…
…Again, did I mention that trying to shift to a Balanced Literacy classroom is overwhelming? So many things that I have to try to keep track of and not feeling sure of what my priorities should be…
In November, I felt more in control over the management and procedures involved in teaching using a Balanced Literacy approach, and my attention turned toward the “Big Ideas” in literacy instruction:
At this 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 twenty 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?
I remember being shocked on that particular day when I realized how much my students could do behaviorally, and yet I had very little idea of what they were absorbing from my teaching. I desperately needed assessment – both assessment of their learning, and assessment of my teaching. I needed to know how I was doing with this new approach to instruction. The weekly meetings offered me a place to bring my doubts, my questions, and my struggles. It 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:
[My school 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 the day-to-day, so what can I take away from it? …
The weekly meetings also offered us a place to support each other and commiserate on the difficult aspects of our experiences. I captured some of these moments on audiotape in a meeting in early December after watching a skilled colleague do a demonstration:
M: When do you choose to just tell the student a word?… E seems to know the goal for each part of the lesson -- you know when it’s useful to stop and teach, and when to move on. I wish I was more skilled at making those choices…
L: You can get bogged down if you try to teach too much during a conference. You can really dig yourself into a hole.
M: I’ve been in that hole! (laughs)
R: Many times! (laughs)
We also expressed how overwhelmed we were and how enormous the task of making smart teaching decisions could be:
R: I have two questions. How often should we be doing running records?
L: All right, when can you do running records?
K: Guided Reading
M: Independent Reading
L: You can do it during Guided Reading, during Independent Reading. And you can do different kinds of running records—you can have the student reading an unfamiliar text in a more formal situation or you can take a running record of a book he’s had in his book baggie for a while. You might want to take a running record of the book they read in guided reading the day before… So you have a lot of choices.
M: Too many choices!
R: Gimme that school where everything’s scripted! (laughs)
M: Yeah, really! (laughs)
However, while we joked that a “scripted” school would have been easier, we appreciated our choices. Unlike many teachers, we were able to share our frustrations and feelings of confusion with each other and work together to come up with solutions and ideas that we could then translate into our classrooms on a daily basis.
Implications for Policy
My research and experience suggests that when teachers participate in this model of professional development they become more knowledgeable and articulate about student learning and instruction; gain confidence and competence in implementing more focused and explicit instructional strategies; and experience support during the sometimes overwhelming process of changing my instruction. This indicates a need for policy changes at several different levels. School, district, and state policymakers should be committed to:
Make 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 group meetings was invaluable to my growth as a teacher. While we were unable to be compensated for this time, it is important to at least make time for this type of instruction.
Implement instruction in action.
Schools should provide professional development that allows teachers multiple opportunities to observe each other using instructional strategies in action. I benefited greatly from being able to watch other master teachers and colleagues give live demonstrations that we could then discuss as a group.
Provide literacy training.
Teachers need more professional development time that allows them to discuss the “Big Ideas” in literacy instruction: what students need to know in order 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 instruction, teachers are then able to better work with the students to improve their achievement in reading and writing.
Hire professional developers to work collaboratively with teachers.
It is beneficial for teachers and students for schools to provide professional developers who can act as consultants, resources, and facilitators of teacher discussion rather than didactic “teacher trainers.” Our professional developer, Lucy, did not merely stand in front of us each week and lecture as us. She was a coach, facilitator, teacher and consultant who pushed us to think and encouraged discussion and collaboration. This type of instruction proved to be very effective for me and my colleagues, and allowed us to view each other as sources of information with ideas and opinions.
In the end, I really appreciated not being in a school where everything was scripted. I was lucky to be a teacher in my school, who had already implemented many of the policies listed above. Although it was a challenge for my colleagues and me to learn new ways of teaching, our meetings provided us with a safe, supportive environment to collaborate and grow as teachers, something many educators never experience. I truly enjoyed the opportunity I was being given to grow in my understanding of how students learn; to question my colleagues; to risk trying out new things in my teaching and to share my progress with others. Though attempting to transform my teaching this year has been a demanding process, I am committed to it because it is what children like Leo need and deserve – it is what all my children need and deserve.
Linda Darling-Hammond and Milbrey W. McLaughlin, "What Matters Most: A Competent Teacher for Every Child," Phi Delta Kappan, April 1996, p. 194.
C.E. Snow, W.S. Barnes, J. Chandler, I. Goodman, and L. Hemphill, Unfulfilled Expectations: Home and School Influences on Literacy, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).
Ann Lieberman, "Practices That Support Teacher Development: Transforming Conceptions of Professional Learning," Phi Delta Kappan, April 1995, pp. 591-596.
Linda Darling-Hammond and Milbrey W. McLaughlin, p.197
Dennis Sparks and Stephanie Hirsch, A New Vision for Staff Development. (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1997), p. 5.
Dorothy P. Hall, and Patricia M. Cunningham, Month-By-Month Phonics for First Grade, (New York: Carson Dellosa, 1997), p. 2.