When Professional Development is about us, the teachers

On Friday, our school district held a half-day professional development sessions around literacy. This PD continues the work of our Literacy Initiative (still in its first year) and I want to give props to our administration for listening to the feedback from teachers after our Literacy Conference in November in which many of us asked for grade level meetings for sharing out some of our own best practices around literacy. The idea really echoes the philosophy of my National Writing Project, where teachers are at the center of the learning.

I am part of our district’s Literacy Committee (our district is a pretty large geographic area with five elementary schools and then a combined middle/high school — although the ms/hs folks apparently have “opted”out of the Literacy Initiative — which surprised me because I didn’t know staff would have that option …) and so I helped plan the day, and I was asked to co-facilitate the sixth grade teachers’ session with my co-teacher. The district had teachers in grades K-2 in one building in one town and 3-6 in another town because of space issues.

Every group first discussed the Five Components of Reading and how these ideas come together in our teaching practice, no matter what level you are at:

  • Phonemic Awareness
  • Phonics
  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary
  • Comprehension

We then each had ample time as grade level teachers to share out a lesson plan, an activity, a strategy or maybe some student work. (I brought in ideas around developing rubrics and questions around reading comprehension, for example).

As sixth grade teachers, we focused most on vocabulary and comprehension skills, and it was great just to have space to talk, chat, ask questions and learn ideas from each other. One of the projects we have in mind is to develop a summer reading list for upcoming sixth graders and I am already envisioning using Etherpad among my colleagues for collaborative writing around this idea. If nothing else, the meeting on Friday sparked us all to want to collaborate more on ideas and become more of a community of teachers.

At the end of our grade level sharing, all of the teachers in 3-6 gathered together to share out our points from our discussions, and I was the facilitator of this large group gathering as well.

Here are some things that I saw as themes emerging from the teacher-based discussions:

  • Playfulness with words enriches vocabulary instruction for students;
  • Reading skills are important beyond the Language Arts class. We must pay attention to reading in the content areas;
  • Moving students to think “beyond the text” has been a struggle for many of us (note: I personally think that the use of Accelerated Reader in some of the middle grades of our building is partially to blame and told our principal that after the conference);
  • Students benefit from skill of learning common roots, suffixes and prefixes;
  • Repetition and Practice in comprehension-style questions are crucial — also, in use of vocabulary;
  • Reading aloud, mixed with silent reading, benefits fluency;
  • There needs to be even more family support for reading and literacy at home forĀ  many of our students;
  • The question of how to appropriately reach all learners across the spectrum came up here and there — how to use differentiated instruction;
  • and more …

I did notice that much of our whole group discussion focused around vocabulary instruction more than comprehension, and fluency seemed to get very little attention.

I wonder how our colleagues in the K-2 grades did at their session (Gail?). Our administration is supposed to compile all of the general discussions into one file and share with all of the teachers so that we can all see any trends around our literacy instruction and identify possible ideas for improving what we are doing in the classroom.

I hope the focus continues to be on what teachers need and already do around literacy, and not some top-down, cannedĀ  Literacy Program that dictates what should be taught, when and how. I am hoping that the use of our time on Friday for teacher-led discussions is a good sign of where we are heading right now.

Peace (in the discussions),

  1. Interestingly we are in our 2nd year of Literacy Professional Learning Initiative in our area. It is a large push from our education department and developed through our regional offices. We have many planned ‘PD’ days outside of the school for coaches and Literacy leaders, but often the best learning, as you said, comes from the discussions had by teachers, at school.

  2. I can’t believe the upper schools opted out. Our high school is in the middle of a literacy initiative as well, many of the items you targeted are the same for us – especially reading across the content areas. We’ve designated a 20 minute period each day that is set aside for reading. This is separate from any other classes. Informal results seem to be that it works very well for teachers who believe it is of value and who love reading themselves. Unfortunately not all teachers are on the same page about it though. There is still a rock-solid culture of content-based curriculum delivery trumping cross-curricular learning skills (like being able to read, believe it or not) in many high schools. So, I guess I do believe that your ms/hs opted out after all, it’s not too far away from reality.

    • I suppose there are always some pockets of resistance, and to be fair, our principal explained the “opt out” in terms of them being overwhelmed by other initiatives (of course, we are, too). No sense in pitting lower grades again upper grades, though, but I thought it fair to point this out. (We noticed when we were forced into a new math curriculum that it all stopped at sixth grade).

      • Maybe it is because our government has mandated a reform that, this year, has finally reached grade 11. In order to achieve the goals of the education reform we need to work together, for one reason because we have very few English language resources to work with yet still have to teach the courses and evaluate our students according to the new competencies.

  3. As a whole, our school is moving toward more common understanding and goal setting in the literacy area. Our Communities of Practice time has been focused on literacy all year. We are at the point now where we have heard the speakers, discussed what it looks like in our classrooms, implemented instructional timelines and now we are plugging in additional assessments. All of this is using the Fountas and Pinnell program as the guide.
    On Friday, Kindergarten along with 1 or 2 PreK teachers met for our focused session. We were asked to bring some activities we use that work on Phonemic Awareness. First we did a think – pair – share on each of the 5 Components. The question came up – Is phonemic awareness really the most important part of K literacy. None of us was comfortable with that. We teach all components – albeit they may look a bit different from upper grades. We can comfortably give a nod to PA as the strongest because we have to get the most basic skills out to them in order for students can meaningfully navigate text. We do teach the other components and rattled off lists of ways we do this – each and every single day. Our basic skill and drill work is in phonics and phonemic awareness. A huge early childhood activity is Read Aloud/Interactive Reading. The teacher models fluency. The students imitate this while “reading” pocket charts etc. We directly teach vocabulary in all areas of the curriculum with special attention to the vocabulary of our books. We know that content vocabulary is a big piece as well. As for comprehension, Interactive Read Aloud is our strongest ally. We pull out carefully selected pieces of a story and illustrations in order to go deeper in our understanding of the author’s message. These books can be revisited over and over again with new and precious bits of text and illustrations highlighted. We also teach plenty of phonics while developing an ear for the sounds in words.

    We finally met as a K-2 group and shared our discussions. Everyone agreed that the 5 Components work together. It was interesting that Gr 1 was focusing on Phonics as they teach the students more about decoding words by using what they already know about letters, sounds, and how they work. That piece is really emphasized in Gr 1, but again, everything is taught. Gr 2 brought the whole discussion back to developing a rich vocabulary, and a stronger look at fluency. Every group recognized that comprehension of all text, whether read by themselves or by others, was the most important goal. One of our Gr 2 teachers (who happens to teach math and science in the morning and coordinates math work for the school in the PM) voiced the question of what the lower grades are teaching. It is clear that we need to have across grade level PD to better understand how students were prepared before they came to us. As an example, a Gr 1 teacher once voiced surprise that K students had been taught how to write lower case letters. They don’t do a very good job at it, especially since preschool experience has them only using upper case for the first 5 years – tough to break bad habits.

    • Thanks Gail.
      I knew you would weigh in and now I have a better understanding of your session.
      We also talked about multi-grade-level meetings, which some of us do informally but not formally. This seems crucial if we are to make real progress in coming together as a school and a district around literacy.
      See you in a few days

  4. As a middle school reading specialist, I totally agree with your assessment that Accelerated Reader may be limiting the inferential abilities of your students. Following are short summaries of the most common arguments made by researchers, teachers, parents, and students as to why using AR is counterproductive. Hence, The 18 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader:

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