The Long Haul

By Ann Bradley — August 01, 1996 13 min read

As Ellin Keene lugs a battered canvas tote bag into Cottonwood Creek Elementary School in Englewood, Colo., she meets up with Don Biery, who is wound tighter than a spring despite the early morning hour. “My kids have mutinied,’' the 5th grade teacher tells Keene bluntly. “They hate questioning. They say it’s stupid, that it ruins the book, that it makes them forget what they’re reading.’'

He blames himself for the trouble his students are having with the new technique for improving reading comprehension. Keene offers some soothing words and reassurance that the student rebellion might actually mean that they’re learning something.

Biery is one of six Cottonwood Creek teachers who have opened their classrooms to Keene and Chryse Hutchins, both trainers with the Public Education and Business Coalition, a nonprofit organization that links five Denver-area school districts with local business and community groups. For the past 10 years, coalition trainers like Keene and Hutchins have been providing in-depth professional development for teachers, particularly in the areas of reading and math instruction. In some cases, entire schools have been transformed. The work has been going on long enough for the coalition to have found a strong link between teachers’ participation in the reading project and increases in student reading comprehension.

Still, the going has not always been smooth, as Biery’s frustration this morning shows. But then, genuine learning--for students and teachers alike--is hard work. As Cottonwood Creek’s teachers are finding out, it takes a willingness to study, practice, reflect, and try again. “This project is about depth,’' says Keene, who is the coalition’s director of programs. “We trust that if you provide good information, teachers can and will--with coaching over time--make it work.’'

Over the course of the school year, Keene and Hutchins will each spend a total of 10 days at Cottonwood Creek--a virtual lifetime considering that professional development is usually squeezed in after school, on weekends, or before and after the school year. Both trainers give demonstration lessons in Cottonwood Creek classrooms and then meet to pick apart those sessions with the six program teachers and any others who want to participate. They also host after-school study groups, distribute and discuss research articles, and lead field trips to other schools. Sometimes, they have to do a little handholding and cheerleading.

Schools that participate in the program begin by taking part in a three-year coalition Literacy League project, which focuses on creating child-centered classrooms not dominated by textbooks. They then move on to the three-year reading project or a similar mathematics project. The program costs schools $5,000 a year.

Before each school visit, Keene and Hutchins spend hours on the phone with the core teachers, planning their lessons. They arrive at school in the dark, armed with stacks of photocopied research articles, and depart in the dark. Keene leaves most of her materials in the car, making hourly trips to the trunk to fetch what she needs. Hutchins favors a bag-lady style, lugging her supplies down Cottonwood Creek’s carpeted hallways.

The school, in the affluent Cherry Creek school district south of Denver, is in the first year of the reading project. The administration is so intent on spreading the fruits of the proj-ect schoolwide that it pays for substitutes so grade-level teams of teachers can attend the demonstration lessons and “debriefing’’ sessions. “This is the only way to do it,’' 3rd grade teacher Holly Hargrove says. “If you go to a workshop, you get a big stack of papers but no follow-up and no accountability. You might try one or two things, but your teaching doesn’t change in a big way. You can’t just go for a weekend. You have to have support.’'

Hargrove says Hutchins’ regular visits to her classroom keep her on her toes and force her to try new things: “When I know Chryse is coming,’' she says, “I know that I have to get it done.’'

On this particular day, Hutchins pulls from her large bag a book called Coming Home, which is about the childhood of poet Langston Hughes. Hargrove’s class is seated on the rug in front of her, at the foot of an inviting pillow-strewn couch. A table lamp casts a soft glow as Hutchins asks the students to look at the book’s cover illustration and reflect on its subject. “Readers who really think ask deep, important questions and get a picture in their heads as they read,’' she reminds them. “Before you start blasting away at words, you should activate what you know.’'

The children, who haven’t been taught anything about the African-American poet, call out questions. Is the book about a lost boy? About slavery?

Hutchins looks over the students’ heads to Hargrove and the other 3rd grade teachers who are observing her today. “Watch what they are telling us,’' she says. “I wonder if the questions will get deeper.’'

“What does that mean, deeper?’' one teacher asks.

Hutchins explains that the children are asking “surface’’ questions. “Right now,’' she tells the teachers, “the questions posed are where they should be--on the what and how.’' But as they start building knowledge about the poet by close reading, the children’s questions should get more complex.

Through the reading project, teachers learn how to introduce their students to strategies that successful readers use. One strategy is asking questions--of themselves, the author, and the text they are reading. (It was these questioning activities that caused so much turmoil in Biery’s class.) The teachers also learn that good readers make inferences, use prior knowledge to make sense of their reading, create visual images from the text, and employ a variety of “fix up’’ strategies when they don’t understand their reading.

Keene, who is writing a book that draws heavily on her work in the project, believes American schools spend too much time teaching youngsters to sound out words and not enough time making sure they understand what they read. As a result, students hit 6th grade and are handed a five-pound health textbook that they can’t make sense of. And their middle school teachers typically don’t know how to help them. Ideally, Keene would like to see teachers use comprehension strategies with students through the 12th grade.

As she winds up her lesson, Hutchins tells the students to use a code they quickly devise together to mark sections of their reading. Already accustomed to using “sticky notes’’ to flag passages, the youngsters agree to code the notes with a “C’’ if they’re confused or with a “P’’ if they have a prediction about what might happen next. Then they quietly return to their seats to work.

Hutchins and the 3rd grade teachers pair off to hold reading conferences with students. Today, for the first time, Hutchins requires the teachers to actively participate in her lesson. If permitted, she confides, “they would sit and watch me work until it freezes over.’' But such passivity is not allowed. As one teacher questions a student, the other scripts the dialogue. Then, they trade off. The teachers ask the children to explain why they’ve marked certain passages with the sticky notes and how they selected the books they’re reading.

Student Molly Newman tells Hutchins that a poem she’s read about a deadly octopus reminds her of the time she was stung by a jellyfish at the beach. “This is working for her big time,’' Hutchins concludes after spending time with Molly. “It’s the difference between being an active and a passive reader. She’s manipulating the text so that it makes sense to her.’'

After conducting another demonstration lesson in a 2nd grade class, Hutchins sits down with 2nd and 3rd grade teachers to discuss their conferences with students. “The things they said are pretty profound,’' says Barb Fritts. “There is less of the casual reading.’'

“That was only the ninth conference I’ve done in my life,’' confides Vanda Livingston, who had talked with a boy reading a book about vampires. “My problem is I can easily get off track and not really stay with the purpose of the conference. I felt like we talked too much about vampires. I thought, ‘I should stop this. I am never going to be able to bring this to a close.’ ''

Hutchins reassures the teacher that she did fine but reminds her to close the conferences by telling students that she expects them to write down their thoughts. She eases some research articles across the table for Livingston’s consideration. There is a handout on how to get students to write in journals and information on five ways to assess readers’ prior knowledge.

After the teachers head back to their classrooms, Hutchins says she’s feeling elated about making her “first big connection’’ with the 2nd grade team. Most had been emphasizing skills instruction, but they are beginning to view comprehension strategies as important.

As the school day winds to a close, Keene slumps onto a couch in the media center and heaves a sigh. The going was rough in Biery’s class. His students complained vociferously about interrupting their reading to ask questions. “This is the stuff that people who breeze in and teach an in-service don’t have to deal with,’' she says.

Part of the problem with Biery’s students, Keene believes, is that they’re used to skimming along and reading for entertainment. Now, their teacher wants them to stop and appreciate what they’re reading. It’s like the difference between savoring a well-made Merchant-Ivory production and watching an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, she jokes.

The long day is not yet over. As soon as the students leave, Cottonwood Creek teachers who are interested join the two trainers in the library for a two-hour study session. Soft classical music plays as the teachers sit down with cans of soda. Some of the 16 groan with disappointment when it becomes apparent that no one remembered to bring munchies.

The ensuing discussion is wide-ranging, covering techniques, a new bookstore with inexpensive children’s literature, research articles, and teachers’ experiences that day. There’s general agreement that not enough time is spent letting children read and that it’s easier for teachers to ask questions than to give students time to come up with their own.

Fourth grade teacher Todd McLain reports that his class spent two and a half hours on reading today, including acting out portions of a book. It was difficult for McLain, who prides himself on running an orderly classroom, to turn groups of children loose to create their own skits. But it was worth it, he says: “It was looking ugly, with all the noise and the off-task behavior. I said, ‘I don’t think I can do this again.’ It scared the wits out of me. But the presentations were all a little different, and every kid in every group was participating. They were great. Every answer was OK. They were very creative.’'

Livingston also had an epiphany of sorts after seeing her students’ written responses to a piece of literature. “I thought that kids just needed to read and to enjoy what they were reading and that writing makes it real work,’' she tells the group. “But I had two kids who changed my mind. This was the first time these kids had tried, and the kinds of things they were coming up with blew me away.’'

According to Cottonwood Creek principal Suzanne Loughran, the project is gaining momentum and attracting more interest among the faculty. By the project’s third year, she estimates, two-thirds of the school’s 30 teachers will be on board. “Their level of involvement is not forced,’' she says. “When we provide the flexibility, those teachers who are more deeply involved get excited. Their influence over their [grade-level] teammates is much longer-term than the effects of a top-down expert coming out and saying that their way is the only way.’'

Coalition trainers insist that for teachers to help students become proficient readers and writers, they themselves must read challenging books and write, write, write. During her six years working with the faculty at Samuels Elementary in Denver, Hutchins and a study group of teachers at the school read and discussed books together, including The Shipping News, the critically acclaimed novel by E. Annie Proulx.

To her sorrow, Hutchins has come to the point where she must pull away from Samuels, which is considered one of the coalition’s biggest success stories. Over six years, the school has undergone a transformation from workbook-oriented instruction to an emphasis on the reading and writing process. It all began, Hutchins says, with a committed principal who understood quality teaching and sought the help his faculty needed to grow. Among other things, he installed a bookshelf with professional reading material in the teachers’ lounge, took over playground duty so teachers could meet, and attended teachers’ study groups.

Now, Samuels’ teachers are regular presenters at Denver-area workshops. Margo Rector, a 3rd grade teacher at Samuels, is so skilled that her classroom has become a lab for teachers from other schools. They often spend the morning observing her teaching and the afternoon questioning her about what they’ve seen.

Rector’s classroom is large, inviting, and jammed with books neatly organized in labeled plastic crates. Each classroom at Samuels has between 300 and 500 books. Some were bought with a $4,000 grant from a program sponsored by the DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund that seeks to make school libraries a focal point for restructuring. Others were purchased with money the school saved when it stopped buying textbooks and workbooks for reading instruction.

Kathy Dilg, who teaches 2nd grade at Cottonwood Creek, quietly walks around Rector’s classroom, reading from the poster paper tacked to the walls. The hand-lettered signs list rules for reading-workshop time and explain how to conduct a book group and revise a piece of writing.

“It’s nice to see different approaches,’' Dilg says. “Her school is very different from Cottonwood Creek’'--Samuels Elementary serves many low-income students--"but Margo doesn’t let it matter. She has high expectations for her students, no matter what.’'

Dilg and the other visiting teachers try to slip into the background as the school day begins and Rector and her students get down to work. When the class breaks into “book clubs’’ to discuss books the students have read, the lab teachers hover nearby, listening to the conversation and scribbling notes. The students ignore them.

Later, during writing time, Rector teaches her students how to revise a story. In her soft voice, she reads aloud a charming story she’s written about her family and the “turkey silverware,’' a set of flatware her mother bought with the proceeds from a wedding gift of live turkeys. Afterward, the visiting teachers help Rector’s students edit and polish their own stories--about the birth of a sibling, a family trip, a visit to the dentist, and other episodes from childhood.

At the end of the morning, Hutchins asks the visiting teachers to take 20 minutes to write down their observations and a few questions for Rector. Later, after lunch, the teachers gather in the conference room of a Denver office building to talk about what they’ve seen. They ply Rector with their questions: How does she arrange her room? How does she set up the book clubs? Do her students’ parents read with the kids at home?

As the teachers chat, Hutchins hands out materials on student book groups. Then she steers the talk on to student assessment. The teachers trade information on how their schools grade and how they take notes during student conferences.

What makes this kind of professional development experience valuable, Dilg says later, is the hands-on work. “There are kids right there,’' she explains, “and you can see somebody practice what they preach.’'

Until recently, Dilg says, she really wasn’t making a difference at Cottonwood Creek. Members of her 2nd grade team had been locked in to a set curriculum, teaching units on such things as penguins and the rain forest. But now, she says, people are beginning to open up.

“Now, we’re understanding how to get away from specific book units and get students to read anything; they don’t all have to read the same things,’' Dilg explains. “It’s starting to click with people how to do it. We’re on the same page and using the same language about what we want for kids. We’ve really come a long way.’'

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as The Long Haul