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'National Faculty' Staff-Development Program Helps Teachers Polish Knowledge of Subjects

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By Karen Diegmueller

Violet Anne Golden thinks she has discovered the secret to showing 7th graders how to do equivalent fractions. "They said, Miss Golden, that is not the way we learned it,'" she says. Undaunted, she explained to them, 'What is the joy of mathematics. You learn it a lot of ways."

On an even more fundamental level, the teacher at Arthur Richards Junior High School in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands explains what her deepening knowledge of mathematics has enabled her to do in the classroom: "It's to let the kids be creative, to reason in class."

Ms. Golden, to put it in terms that she most assuredly would appreciate, did not get from premise to conclusion on her own. She, along with other teachers in the Virgin Islands, had help from the National Faculty- -a two-decades-old organization that links teachers and college faculty members to promote professional development. The group just might be one of the best-kept secrets in education. "We have worked very quietly," says Benjamin Ladner, the president of the Atlanta based group. "We are not out to get people to pay attention to the National Faculty."

While the importance of preparing better teachers beth before and after they get into the classroom has moved into the national forefront since the mid-1980's, the National Faculty has been working on-site with classroom teachers since the late 1960's.

"We are radically committed to the centrality of teaching," says Mr. Ladner. "For so long, education reform focused on every- thing else, all of which is fine, but... what about the teacher? Three days of in-service doesn't get it."

A Simple Approach to Improvement

The National Faculty was the brainchild of Barnaby Keeney, the late president of Brown University, who, in the early to mid-1960's, conceived of a way to use university resources to benefit teachers.

"The idea was very simple," says Mr. Ladner. "What if we establish a committee, simply take the best we have as college professionals, and approach schoolteachers as equals? By focusing on what we have in common as professionals, {we can] make our teaching better."

Funded primarily by the National Endowment for the Humanities and assisted by Phi Beta Kappa, the fledgling organization started on an experimental basis with a nucleus of 50 scholars. "What happened is, we touched a nerve that was quite remarkable,'' says Mr. Ladner.

What makes it appealing, he says, is that the National Faculty offers teachers, largely isolated, the opportunity to talk about their work.

First, they form teacher teams, whose members decide what they need to shore up their teaching.

If team members wanted to increase their knowledge of 19th-century history, for instance, the National Faculty would match them, say, with an expert from Stanford University.

"We will find you the leading people in the field and bring them into your school," Mr. Ladner explains.

Since its modest beginnings, the organization has boosted its network of scholars to nearly 600 and has worked on projects in all 50 states as well as in the U.S. territories. It runs about 15 to 20 projects a year.

From a Single School to 60 Sites

No two projects are alike, Mr. Ladner explains. They can range in scope from a single school to 60 sites within a district.

No discipline is ruled out, but the focus clearly is on teaching content. "We think pedagogy arises out of content," says Mr. Ladner.

The length of time for each project varies from two to five years in order to ensure that it will leave a lasting mark.

Typically, members of the National Faculty network hold week-long summer seminars; they are followed by two- to three-day monthly or bimonthly visits.

There are no curriculum guides, printed matter, or prescribed materials; each project is composed individually in collaboration with both the faculty and the local district. As Mr. Ladner explains, even though simultaneous history projects may be going on in Portland, Me., and Tucson, Ariz., they will be different because the people involved are different.

"In a way, the concept is scandalous," he says. "We feel you have to reinvent the wheel each time we have a project."

The network, however, tries to learn through trial and error. One crucial lesson it has learned is the importance of local "ownership" of a project. "We try to be a catalyst, a resource, a friend," Mr. Ladner says.

Schools and districts are selected in a variety of ways. In some instances, funding organizations come forward with a specific project; in others, the National Faculty elects to take on a project in response to what it perceives as a targeted goal. Most often, a phone call from a school or district sets the process in motion.

Once a school or district is identified, the organization sends out a program officer to learn if the prospective client meets accepted criteria. First, it has to define its own needs. Then, officials must commit to systematic teacher involvement, a significant amount of time, participant release time, administrative support, and funding.

Tailor-Made for the Virgin Islands

The Virgin Islands project began two years ago with the long- range goal of helping children of limited English proficiency improve their mathematical skills.

To do so, teachers and administrators who were identified as potential math leaders were trained by National Faculty scholars. These leaders are expected, eventually, to train other teachers.

Two summers ago, 27 designated math leaders from St. Croix came together for an institute; this summer 38 from St. Croix and St. Thomas received training.

The way the program was designed for the territory, scholars visit the Islands every other month for two-day sessions.

Funded by beth the federal and territorial governments, the project cost about $52,000 the first year and $62,000 the second.

"It is not a project that they picked up from California or New York. They tailor-made it for our specific needs," says Maria E. Sanes, the Islands' coordinator for bilingual and English-as-a- second-lang@age education. The scholars involved have included a National Science Foundation official, an Ohio State University mathematician, and John Firkins, a mathematics professor at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash.

Mr. Firkins has gone to the Virgin Islands three times now, conducting two-day workshops as well as participating in a summer institute. With teachers observing him, he taught in the schools to children who spoke Crucian or Spanish, not English.

He broke through the language barrier via the language of mathematics. He measured the 1st graders' smiles with pieces of string and then showed the children their smiles were the length of four lima beans.

"Part of the work I saw myself doing as a person from the National Faculty was to change the teachers' attitudes and the kids' attitudes," says Mr. Firkins. "I want- ed the teachers to see the kids' reactions. Then I think they bought into what we were doing much more easily."

The district will not have hard data on the project until the end of this year, the third year of the project. Meanwhile, educators have to rely on their observations to judge the results.

"The enthusiasm they have engendered in our teachers has been nothing short of miraculous," says Marion Gallo Moore, the district coordinator of mathematics for St. Croix. "Math is fun, and {the teachers] are infecting students with it."

Ms. Gallo Moore says she has observed more activity in the classroom, more interaction between teachers and students, and more use of the pedagogical techniques that the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics advocates.

Geared to limited-English-proficient students, the project nonetheless has aided other students, says Lionel Sewpershad, the assistant principal at Charles H. Emanuel Elementary School. "Where we have mixed classes, the same technique is being used with all these kids,"he says.

No Universal Success

Not every National Faculty project has succeeded, Mr. Ladner acknowledges. Sometimes the fault has been the organization's, he says. Because of an error in judgment, the project may make a wrong match between scholar and site. Or a scheduling foul-up may sour the fragile beginnings of a new relationship.

At other times, he says, the fault lies with the school or district: Funding dries up, a new superintendent scotches the project, or the community gets in an uproar over a subject involving race or sex. Other projects have fallen to lengthy teacher strikes.

In the eyes of Violet Anne Golden, though, the project in the Virgin Islands is succeeding handsomely. Were it not for the scholars from the National Faculty, she says, she would not be where she is today.

"Our teachers were inspired at those sessions," Ms. Golden says. "Langnage didn't mean anything for the first time in my life. The demonstrations were in our language-mathematics."

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