What began in 1984 in one teacher's living room as an informal coffee klatch of 11 teachers now has blossomed into the Genesee Valley Developmental Learning Group, with more than 850 members scattered across the northwestern part of New York State. The group has helped these teachers gain a voice in school policy, overcome the isolation that so often crushes the spirit, and tap into a limitless source of energy--themselves.
The members, mostly elementary school teachers, usually meet in small groups at least once a month--on their own time and with their own funds-- to grapple with some of the tougher issues educators face. Although they occasionally gather as a whole group for topical sessions (such as this one on hands-on science) or to hear speakers, what really keeps the teachers coming back are the small meetings, where they roll up their sleeves and thrash out their concerns.
"Going to those meetings is a stimulator, let me tell you,'' says Sharon Christman, a 1st grade teacher at Lincoln School Number 22 in Rochester, N.Y. "I go, and the energy there carries me. It makes me feel like, 'O.K., I can get in there and keep going, and I know I'm doing the right thing.'
But the group sessions are more than just energizers. They also help the teachers break through the isolation that most encounter on the job. "There are times when I think, 'What am I doing? Maybe I'm doing things all wrong,'' Christman says. "We tell each other things. Without it, you get to feel like you're alone and isolated.''
Genesee Valley founder Miriam Thomas is a native New Zealander who taught there and in England and Canada for a number of years before coming to the United States. Thomas, who now teaches kindergarteners in the Lincoln School's literacy center, says she was surprised when she arrived in this country to find that curricula here were so "prepackaged.'' She set out to do something about it. Her initial effort was modest; she invited 10 teachers to her home to share ideas and learn how to apply New Zealand's approach to schooling, which she says is more childcentered. But news of this lively study group quickly made its way to other teachers. "It spread mostly by word of mouth,'' Christman says. "But Miriam is a driving force. I mean, the woman is dynamic.''
The group soon outgrew Thomas's living room and moved first to a local teachers' center, and then later to a school. In 1987, it was divided into four satellite groups that began meeting once a month in the four corners of New York's Monroe County. Now, for some 850 teachers in the Rochester area, the first Monday of the month is sacred.
As the group grew, so, too, did the scope of the discussions. The informal chats about New Zealand's teaching methods evolved into more formal discussions of what members call a "whole-language'' approach to learning, which has become the group's common denominator. For them, the term transcends the "whole-languageversus-phonics'' debate. Rather, these teachers strive to teach by tapping into their students' inherent curiosity. They emphasize reading because they see it as an important tool that will help their students learn, but they use many resources to stimulate learning. They often organize their curricula around themes that emphasize the connections between subjects rather than segregating them.
Christman's 1st grade classroom is a good example of what she calls the "Genesee philosophy.'' The room is bursting with books. They are pouring out of milk crates and laundry baskets, proudly displayed on tables and shelves, and tucked into each child's desk. The support she has received from the group has given her the courage to teach the way she has always known in her heart was right. "It's a natural process,'' she says. "Phonics and the alphabet both play an important part, but your main goal is reading and literacy--education.''
Although the whole-language approach is what unites the group, it's the mutual support that keeps the organization going. "It has really filled a void for a lot of teachers,'' explains Ann Van Horn, one of the founding members. She says the encouragement and good ideas she receives from her peers are rare and valuable assets. Not surprisingly, word of the group's activities has spread beyond the Genesee Valley; at least four or five independent offshoots have taken root in other parts of the state.
"We created the satellites because from the very beginning the essence of the group was interaction,'' Thomas says. Teachers "need to be able to bare their hearts,'' she says, but they find that difficult to do when the group is too large.
Bare their hearts--and minds--they did, in a smaller group discussion after the hands-on science meeting. When the corks and balloons were cleared away, 15 Genesee members stayed on to discuss what they had just experienced.
They talked about journal articles and books. They considered how to go beyond teacher-driven experiments to teach kids to ask their own questions and find their own answers. One teacher talked about a student. Another described an incident that happened in her class. They even discussed their own group dynamics--acknowledging how valuable it was to talk about what they had learned that afternoon. That prompted one of the teachers to point out that students sometimes need the time to discuss lessons and make connections, too.
A typical satellite session begins at 4 P.M. at a local school and attracts 30 to 50 teachers. For the first half-hour, they talk informally and exchange books from the group's mobile library. (Teachers pay $5 for library privileges and a $15 annual membership fee. Most of the money collected is used to buy children's literature and professional books for four satellite libraries that now contain more than 5,000 books.) Then, a member will take 10 to 15 minutes to summarize and review literature for the rest of the group or to present a book or article of interest. The library enables teachers to rotate a fresh supply of books through their classrooms, and the presentations and available professional literature keep members informed, according to Van Horn, a 3rd grade teacher at Village Elementary School in Hilton, N.Y.
But, she says, the discussion time is the real meat of the meeting: "It's always something that you need at the moment. You go with anticipation. You think, 'I'm going to find something out.' Or you go with a question in your mind. You wouldn't belong if you didn't feel you got something out of it.'' Discussion topics range from student evaluation, classroom organization, and parental involvement to storytelling, integrating music into the curriculum, and child development.
Often, members don't seem to know when to go home. "Teachers get caught up in it,'' says Thomas, speaking animatedly. "They forget about contract hours and all that.''
The teachers' commitment to the whole-language approach has not gone unnoticed. Although its members say the group is not a "political organization,'' the power of their collective conviction has, at times, influenced local education policymakers. "Our original intent was to have a lot of teacher interaction,'' says Ardis Tucker, the current chairperson. "As time goes on, though, there is more concern about getting [administrators and state policymakers] to our events and letting them know our stance.''
As a result of the efforts of Miriam Thomas and her colleagues, the Rochester area has become a model for wholelanguage learning. The New York State Education Department has shown its commitment to the Genesee-inspired reform by sponsoring a whole-language conference and training some teachers in whole-language instruction. Five years ago, the Hilton School District became a "whole-language district.'' And the Rochester City School District is currently debating the possibility of having a whole-language pilot school.
But most of all, the Genesee Valley teachers have had an impact on the profession simply by challenging each other. Says Christman: "If you can't get the teachers thinking, how are you going to get the kids thinking? Teachers have got to start saying, 'Hey, what am I all about? Why am I here? How can I make things better for these kids?' Those are the things that are really important for teachers to understand about themselves. Through Genesee Valley, that's what's happening. Teachers are encouraged to reflect.''