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A Philadelphia Story

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Although held in members' homes, the discussions are quite a bit more formal than those of other teacher groups. A chairperson begins the discussion by raising a question. Teachers sit in a circle, and each person participates. The chairperson summarizes, develops themes, and tries to keep the discussion focused.

The Philadelphia teachers often conduct what they call a "staff review,'' in which they focus on a given student, discussing his or her strengths, weaknesses, interests, and relationships with adults and peers. The teachers then try to develop strategies that will help the student fulfill his or her potential. At one recent meeting, for example, the group focused on one quiet but talented girl--all because one teacher wanted to come up with some ways to help well-behaved girls in her class excel in a room full of boisterous boys.

Sometimes, the group reflects on a child's classroom work--an essay, a drawing, or even casual conversation--in order to understand a problem, such as fighting, sadness, or stealing. The members take turns describing the piece of writing, conversation, or art in hopes that the discussion might shed some light on what is going on inside the student.

The cooperative also touches on some broader issues, such as standardized testing, classroom control, teacher research, equal opportunity for children in education, and school-based decisionmaking.

The group is truly a "cooperative'' in that all the members are involved in choosing topics, collecting materials, and running the meetings. Every two months, they hold a planning meeting to set an agenda and to choose a chairperson for each meeting. Betsy Wice, a reading teacher at Frederick Douglass Elementary School, says this kind of cooperation makes the meetings very different from the more traditional in-school staff meetings. "It's voluntary, and the format encourages participation from everyone,'' she says. "There is a higher level of trust.'' --E.S.

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