The elementary school teachers sitting in a conference room, pens and notepads in hand, look as if they could be students waiting for the morning's first lesson.
But as one lobs a question to the others--"How can we get our youngest students eager to read more books?"--one suggestion sparks another, ideas start to fly, and the group's enthusiasm level suddenly begins bubbling over.
"Maybe for the Head Start students, we can make the books part of their 'housekeeping' area," suggests one teacher.
"We could make a library, and the kids can play librarian," offers another. The participants express a chorus of approval.
"We could probably get the bigger kids to come down and be 'buddy readers,"' says a third.
That suggestion inspires another teacher to chime in, "I can think of a few from our school who would be fantastic for that."
The group's facilitator, John O'Flahavan, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Maryland's
college of education, encourages the group to respond to their students' interest in reading. "Let's double the amount of reading they're doing," he says. "If they run over to hear you read a book, do it more often."
Although the gathering has taken on the relaxed atmosphere of lunchtime in the teachers' lounge, the eight teachers have actually convened for a loftier purpose: They are part of an innovative professional-development effort linking local public school teachers with the college of education at the university.
The teachers come from Adelphi and Cool Spring elementary schools in Prince George's County, Md., two of the four "professional-development schools" in the area that are linked with the university under O'Flahavan's direction. In the professional-development schools, teachers, novices, and teacher-educators come together to study problems and conduct research on teaching. This morning's small group, known as a "faculty inquiry group," is part of an initiative aimed at addressing teachers' concrete and practical needs.
The idea of the faculty-inquiry group, its coordinators say, is to bring teachers together in a setting where they feel comfortable sharing their concerns, while making the resources of the university available to help them address those concerns.
The university reaps benefits from the project by involving its own student-teachers in these professional-development sessions. Student-teachers are expected to participate in the groups to partially fulfill the requirement for classroom experience. They also fill in for the classroom teachers so they can participate in the groups.
But the faculty-inquiry group has another key purpose: At a time when critics charge that schools of education offer lessons that are vague and out of touch with reality, Maryland's project makes a solid effort to bridge the gap between theory and professional practice.
"What we want to do is provide theoretical frameworks within which to solve practical problems," says Willis D. Hawley, the dean of Maryland's college of education. "The way to do that is often to start with the problem, not the theory."
This inquiry group at a complex adjoining the two elementary schools is one of 13 similar monthly groups the university coordinates for a total of about 85 teachers. The two-hour sessions take place during the school day, and although attendance is voluntary, the participating teachers commit for a semester and attend regularly.
The groups, which operate by consensus, began the school year by agreeing on a pressing concern to keep as a focus for the year. The Adelphi-Cool Spring group, for instance, chose to focus on early literacy.
The dialogue this morning, as in the other faculty-inquiry groups, alternates between a teacher voicing a concern and O'Flahavan suggesting resources or offering to coordinate a site visit to another classroom.
And the discussion usually yields a resolution for further action on the problems discussed. In the case of the Adelphi-Cool Spring group, for example, teachers decided to set up a working group to discuss home literacy in families where students' parents cannot read.
The teachers and the university both benefit from what is almost a symbiotic relationship. Site visits allow the teachers to enhance their own development by seeing innovative classroom approaches at other schools. The teachers can afford to leave the classroom because student-teachers from the university can step in--a boon to the student-teachers, as well.
O'Flahavan notes that the faculty-inquiry groups are just part of his efforts in the schools to help teachers solve problems and collaborate. For example, he recently began a seminar on spelling instruction for about 35 teachers from his inquiry-group schools.
He says he is committed to making outside resourcesincluding teacher visits to other schools and professional journalsavailable because they aid in teachers' individual professional development and, thus, overall school improvement. "You can change a school as you're changing individually," he says.
The university also benefits from exposing its students to real-life situations, O'Flahavan adds. "We couldn't bring our students around, have them develop as fast as they're developing, and get experience without a school like this," he says.
Theory in Context
Hawley, the education school's dean, says that the inquiry groups represent one part of the school's strategy to use real information and real data to solve problems.
"We see these inquiry groups as not just places where teachers can solve problems but as places where universities can get insights," he says.
He points out that the university is not trying to dismiss the role of theory in teacher education but wants to show that theory "is best understood in a particular context."
Richard Clark, a senior associate with the University of Washington's Center for Education Renewal, confirms that many education schools are trying to create such a synthesis.
"What people who are working with professional-development schools are trying to do is to blend the theory and practice closer together," Clark says. Among several examples, he noted that the University of Louisville's school of education has actually moved some of its classes out to the schools with which it is working for professional development.
Hawley also says that fostering an environment in the faculty-inquiry groups in which teachers can feel comfortable speaking out and raising questions is a key feature of the Maryland effort.
"Even though it sounds like that makes a whole lot of sense, you look at other organizations, and that doesn't take place," he says. Having a complete understanding of theory is particularly important for teachers, he says, because their work affects their students' development in critical ways.
Thinking and Communicating
Jackson Road Elementary School in nearby Montgomery County, Md., is another professional-development school where teachers have participated in a similar discussion group for three years. Jackson Road's teachers and principal seem to have developed a comfort level with each other in their group discussions.
After a recent afternoon session, several of the 10 participants lingered to reflect on how the groups have aided the teachers' professional development and helped them better communicate with administrators.
Alice Moore, who teaches English as a second language, says she has tried to make the most of O'Flahavan's university resources in solving her problems in bilingual education. "I bounce my ideas off him; I bounce my questions off him," she says. "He'll say, 'Have you read this article or that article?"' In today's session, for example, O'Flahavan recommends two teachers in other schools she could visit to observe their reading programs for non-English-speaking students.
A 1st-grade teacher, Ginny Knopf, points to the fact that at that afternoon's session she challenged one of O'Flahavan's statements as evidence that the discussion group has improved her thinking and communicating skills. "Five years ago, I wouldn't have yelled at John," she says, grinning at him.
On a more serious note, she adds, "inquiry groups have made us better teachers. We're better evaluators; we're more observant."
Principal Jane Litchko confirms that the sessions have helped her as well as the teachers. She then points over to a corner of the room where several of the teachers have continued to discuss that afternoon's issues among themselves, even though, at 4 p.m. on a Friday, it is well past the hour they are required to stay. "This whole thing has brought on an understanding that time to talk to each other is a valuable time," she says.
Litchko adds that teachers of all levels benefit from the discussions. "I think it's important for [student-teachers] to hear that even teachers who have been here five to 10 years still have issues that they're working out," she says. "If you're stuck in your classroom and you're not getting any ideas, you're not going to grow."