Spotlight On Literacy
Leaving Nothing to Chance - Professional Development That Impacts Student Achievement
by Rebecca McKay
Key message #4: We transfer responsibility—“You can do this.”
This year the classroom of Kelly Williams and Nekia Roberts is a special place in Muscogee County, leaving nothing to chance. After careful scrutiny of the spring 2008 Developmental Reading Assessment scores, it was clear that the incoming first-grade classes at St Mary’s Elementary School had children who could not be left behind. By tackling the huge gaps in the students’ reading levels and surface structure skills, Kelly and Nekia faced a dilemma. Could they take the children with the lowest DRA scores, build a community of Cornerstone literacy learners, and bring the children to grade level or above by the end of their first-grade year?
Over the past weeks since the last Spotlight on Literacy, teams of teacher researchers have continued to gather and give feedback to these two teachers who choose to leave nothing to chance. In an earlier article, entitled Caring, we visited this classroom through video clips to find Kelly and Nekia focused on the needs of their children while teaching with intention. The two continually seek strategies to bring the children to grade level and close the gap in their knowledge of surface structure systems. They are fast becoming “phonics experts” who have an “I can do this!” attitude that is catching.
The journey of these two coaches began three years ago as they investigated the way they were teaching phonics school-wide. In 2006, Cornerstone began a collaborative process with school partners to build a phonics compendium to accompany our extensive framework. Early on, St. Mary’s Elementary school lead by Principal Brenda Byrd and the Cornerstone coaches embraced the phonics work and like many other schools, they worked in grade level teams to design a system and a sequence for their phonics instruction. The leadership team chose an explicit and systematic phonics progression that follows the Hear it, Say it, Read it, Write it lesson plan format featured in the Cornerstone Phonics Module. Kelly and Nekia utilize many of the tools and materials from the online module alongside their own materials designed with their students in mind.
Spreading good work
Word has spread across the Muscogee County School District about the St. Mary’s phonics plan. Queries about how this plan works with students and how it impacts their reading are frequent. Recently, the Muscogee County School District/Cornerstone Lesson Study Planning Team asked the school to open its doors to share their learning about the implementation of a school wide program of research based phonics instruction. The opportunity was perfect and the time was right to try out some research- based staff development with phonics as the content.
Building a district culture of inquiry
Every Thursday in the Muscogee County School District, teachers from Cornerstone schools gather for a public Lesson Study. These interactive professional meetings allow teachers to research their instruction, to discern if students are learning the intended curriculum, and to collaborate on writing lessons that meet rigorous standards. Gerald Duffy (1997), an esteemed literacy researcher, suggests that there is a critical need for entrepreneurial teachers to study their work carefully, to use a variety of tools and materials, and to fit instruction to the needs of children. The Thursday Lesson Studies provide a way for these three important things to occur while making an impact on student achievement.
By the time this newsletter goes to print, 17 public Lesson Studies will have occurred as the second nine weeks of the school year closes. It is not unusual to have 30 teacher researchers in these studies. Two new Cornerstone schools have recently released their full faculty for a morning Lesson Study and an afternoon professional development session. For a view inside one of these new school lesson studies, see Dr. Laverne Brown’s article in this newsletter.
“What would happen if…?”
The Thursday Lesson Studies are building a tradition of teacher scholarship and inquiry. Momentum is growing as it is strongly supported by a district that values children and teachers. Teachers are developing an “I can do this!” attitude and renewing their practice as they experience staff development in a clinical setting. Lesson Study is emerging as a viable means for Cornerstone and Muscogee County Schools to partner in the spread of good work.
Lesson Study topics are chosen by teachers and are often based on questions developed from the previous Thursday lesson. Prior to the lesson observation, the morning sessions are timed for short studies of the research around the topic of the day’s Lesson Study. The afternoon professional development explores current research and best practices related to the topic of the lesson under study. Recently, interest about phonics instruction surfaced after a first-grade lesson. The Lesson Study participants posed a question: “What would happen if we focused the next study on phonics and invited teachers in the Lesson Study to try out an explicit phonics lesson with a small group of students?”
Contact was made with the next week’s host school, St. Mary’s Elementary School, and the planning took on a life of its own! As the planning team left nothing to chance, research on staff development that impacts student achievement was on the bedside table of each team member. The findings from the research of Joyce and Showers (2002) were the most salient for planning the phonics Lesson Study. Four essential training components were: developing knowledge by exploring theory to understand the concepts behind a skill or strategy; the demonstration or modeling of the skill; and the practice of the skill and peer coaching. All four components were incorporated into the design of the professional development for the phonics Lesson Study.
The day we tried to answer our question…
Thirty teachers from across the school district met at St. Mary’s. We studied the research on explicit systematic phonics instruction, watched a video of a lesson based on Hear it, See it, Read it, Write it, and talked through the lesson plan that we were about to research. Kelly Williams taught the research lesson with a small group of her first-grade students while we studied her every move, taking notes and charting her language and student responses.
After tweaking the lesson, it was our turn. Five teachers stepped up to re-teach the lesson with children that they did not know. Breaking off into small groups in separate rooms, the re-teach lesson was observed by the remaining 25 teachers while their brave colleagues took on the re-teaching responsibility. The children were the real heroes this day as they worked alongside the five teachers to make clear they knew the lesson format. At one point, a child reminded his teacher researcher group that they do the lesson format every day and the “Hear it” part is the most fun!
Viewing the video clip of this experience provides a window into professional development that impacts student achievement. Teachers immediately trying on an explicit phonics lesson for fit to their personal teaching style is an example of the entrepreneurial spirit described by Duffy (1997). The video exemplar shows teachers studying their work carefully, using a variety of tools and materials, and fitting instruction to the children’s needs not to mention the inspiration to take on the“I can do this!” attitude of two inspiring teachers, Kelly Williams and Nekia Roberts.
One cannot help but wonder what view the students in the Lesson Study classrooms hold of teachers in these Thursday Lesson Studies. As students “read” the pedagogical approach of teachers in the Lesson Studies and see the teachers as role models, then it is likely that the inquiry approach is something they will view as a part of the school culture. The “doing” of research lesson studies, provides a model of the inquiry approach we so diligently pursue in our classrooms for the 2009 Winter Conference Lesson Study. In this month’s Backtalk: Building Bridges to Student Success, Derek Greenfield (2008), cites the research of Maher and Tetreault who state that teachers are text and students read teachers through their actions. This is a reminder that what we do speaks louder than what we say as adult role models. As Greenfield asserts, teachers’ actions show students what we value, and what is valued in Muscogee County Schools is inquiring into any important matter and embracing an “I can do it!” attitude.
“If we want students to take intellectual and personal risks by exploring new ideas, we ought to model this by taking the first risks and opening ourselves up to them and their realities.” (Greenfield, p. 312)
Duffy, G. (1997). “Powerful models or powerful teachers? An argument for teacher As entrepreneur.” In S. Stahl & d. Hayes, (Eds.), Instructional Models in Reading. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Greedfield, D. (2008). Backtalk: Building bridges to student success. Phi Delta Kappan: The Journal for Education. v. 90, 4, 312.
Joyce, B. & Showers, B. (2002). Designing Training and Peer Coaching: Our needs for learning, VA, USA, ASCD.
Joyce, B. & Showers, B. (2003). Student Achievement through Staff Development retrieved online Dec. 6, 2008.