The Long Haul

For the past 10 years, teachers in schools around Denver have been receiving in-depth training—the kind reformers say should be standard for all teachers. The effort is paying dividends for teachers, students, and entire schools.

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

As Ellin Keene lugs a battered canvas tote bag into Cottonwood Creek Elementary School on a frigid winter morning, she meets up with Don Biery, who seems wound tighter than a spring despite the early hour.

Inquiring Minds:
Creating a Nation of Teachers as Learners
The Missing Link
Union Dues
Money Talks
Teacher to Teacher
A Virtual Network
The Long Haul
Let the Buyer Beware

"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."

Biery blames himself for the trouble his students are having in using a new technique for increasing reading comprehension. Keene offers the teacher, who is heading off to a before-school meeting, some soothing words and reassurance that the students' rebellion might actually mean they're learning something.

What matters most is that Biery--and five other teachers in his school--have been willing to open their classrooms to Keene and another trainer with the Public Education and Business Coalition, a nonprofit organization that brings five school districts together with Denver-area business and community groups.

For the past 10 years, the coalition's cadre of trainers has been providing in-depth professional development using many of the practices that reformers are now urging become the norm for teachers. In some cases, entire schools have been transformed. And 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 their students' reading comprehension.

The going has not always been smooth, as Biery's frustration shows. But then, genuine learning--for students and their teachers--is hard work. As Cottonwood Creek's teachers are finding out, it takes a willingness to study, practice, reflect, and try again, and to be open to discussing progress and setbacks with fellow teachers.

"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."

This school year, Keene and trainer Chryse Hutchins will each spend 10 days at Cottonwood Creek--a lifetime, considering that professional development is usually squeezed in after school and before and after the school year.

The trainers give demonstration lessons and meet with teachers afterward to pick apart the sessions; host after-school study groups; distribute and discuss research articles; and conduct field trips to visit other schools. Depending on the day and the teacher, they also do some hand-holding, cheerleading, and gentle prodding. Schools start by participating in the coalition's three-year Literacy League project, which focuses on creating child-centered classrooms not dominated by textbooks. Then, they can move on to three years of the Reading Project or the Mathematics Project. The programs cost schools $5,000 a year.

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

The school, in the affluent Cherry Creek school district south of Denver, is in the first year of the Reading Project. Because of turnover in principals and trainers, Cottonwood Creek's experience with the Literacy League was limited at best. Now, though, teachers seem serious about homing in on how they teach children to read.

Cottonwood Creek is so intent on spreading the fruits of the Reading Project schoolwide that the school pays for substitutes to allow grade-level teams of teachers to attend the demonstration lessons and "debriefing sessions."

"This is the only way to do it," Holly Hargrove, a 3rd-grade teacher who works closely with Hutchins, says of the PEBC training. "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."

Having Hutchins visit her classroom regularly, Hargrove says, forces her to be prepared to try new things: "When I know that Chryse is coming, I know that I have to get it done."

Hutchins pulls a book called Coming Home, about the boyhood of the poet Langston Hughes, from her bag. 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 wonder aloud about 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 boy who got lost? About slavery?

Hutchins looks over the students' heads to Hargrove and the other 3rd-grade teachers observing her lesson. "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.

The Reading Project is built on research into the strategies used by successful readers. Teachers learn how to teach their students to use the same techniques, which include asking questions of themselves, the author, and the texts they read--the activity causing so much turmoil in Biery's class. Good readers also make inferences, use their prior knowledge to make sense of their reading, create visual images from text, and employ a variety of "fix up" strategies when they don't understand their reading.

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

As she winds up her lesson, Hutchins tells the students to mark their reading according to a code they quickly devise together. Already accustomed to using "sticky notes" to flag passages, the class agrees to code the notes with a C if they're confused by what they read, or with a P if they have a prediction to make about what might happen next.

The children quietly return to their seats. Hutchins and the 3rd-grade teachers pair off to hold reading conferences with students. This is the first day that Hutchins is requiring the teachers to actively participate. "They would sit and watch me work until it freezes over," she confides. But passivity is not allowed. As one teacher questions a student, the other scripts the dialogue. Then, they switch roles. They ask the children to explain why they've used sticky notes and how they selected their books.

Molly Newman tells Hutchins that a poem 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, Hutchins sits down separately with the 2nd- and 3rd-grade teachers to discuss their conferences with students.

Barb Fritts, who talked with a boy who is "wired differently" and speaks slowly, says her patience paid off when the student said the cartoons in his book reminded him of some his brother had drawn.

"The things they said are pretty profound," Fritts reports of her students. "There is less of the casual reading."

"That was only the ninth conference I've done in my life," confides Vanda Livingston, who 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's 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 of the teachers had heavily emphasized skills in reading, she says, but they're coming around to view comprehension strategies as important.

As the school day winds to a close, Keene slumps on a couch in the school media center and heaves a sigh. The going was rough in Biery's class, where the students complained vociferously about stopping 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've been 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 over. As soon as the students leave, any Cottonwood Creek teacher who is interested will 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. There are some groans of disappointment when it becomes clear that none of the 16 remembered to bring munchies.

The discussion is wide-ranging, covering questioning 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.

"How comfortable are we when kids pose questions we don't have answers for?" Hutchins asks rhetorically.

Todd McLain, a 4th-grade teacher who works closely with Keene, reports that his class spent 2-1/2 hours on reading today, including acting out portions of a book.

It was difficult for McLain, who prides himself on having an orderly classroom, to turn groups of children loose to invent 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 has had an epiphany of sorts after seeing what kind of written responses her students were capable of making 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!"

Suzanne Loughran, Cottonwood Creek's principal, says the Reading Project is gaining momentum and attracting more teachers' interest as it progresses. By the project's third year, she estimates, two-thirds of the school's 30 teachers will be "on the train."

"Their level of involvement is not forced," she notes. "When we provide the flexibility, those teachers who are more deeply involved get excited. Their influence over their teammates is much longer-term than the effects of a top-down expert coming out and saying that their way is the only way."

For teachers to help students become proficient readers and writers, the PEBC trainers assert, teachers must challenge themselves to read cutting-edge books and to write, write, write.

During her six years at Samuels Elementary School in Denver, for example, Hutchins read The Shipping News, a complex and critically acclaimed novel, with a study group of teachers. Teachers also are encouraged to share their writing with their students and with one another. In the summer, the PEBC hosts seminars and workshops with some of the leading writer-theoreticians of the process movement, including Donald Graves, Lucy McCormick Calkins, Linda Rief, and Shelly Harwayne.

To her sorrow, Hutchins has come to the point where she must wean herself away from Samuels, which is considered to be one of the coalition's biggest success stories. This year, Hutchins is working closely with two teachers who will carry on professional-development activities when she is gone.

Over six years, the school has undergone a transformation from workbook-oriented instruction to an emphasis on the reading and writing process. Samuels students, many of whom ride buses to the school from a low-income neighborhood, write research reports on Colorado history and insects and readily share their stories--including one about adopting a dog from the pound that is "too cute to forget."

It all began, Hutchins says, with a committed principal who understood quality teaching and was willing to support his teachers in getting the help they needed to grow. He bought a bookshelf and installed 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 and "share and exchange" sessions. Margo Rector, a 3rd-grade teacher at Samuels, is so skilled that her classroom has become a lab for teachers from other schools. They visit Rector's class periodically throughout the year, spending 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 Library Power grant to Samuels, part of the national program sponsored by the DeWitt Wallace Reader's Digest Fund that seeks to make school libraries a focal point for restructuring. The school also no longer buys reading textbooks and their accompanying workbooks, which saves a lot of money that can be spent on literature.

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 the 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," she says. "Her school is very different from Cottonwood Creek, but Margo doesn't let it matter. She has high expectations for her students, no matter what."

When it's time for the day to begin, the visiting teachers melt into the background as Rector and her students get down to work. The students will break into their book clubs to talk about books they've chosen to read and then spend time polishing stories they started before the holiday break.

The lab teachers crouch down to hear the children's book clubs. Pens move rapidly across the paper as they take notes, but the students ignore the hovering adults.

During writing time, Rector teaches her class what it means to revise their stories. 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.

The visiting teachers circulate and help out as Rector's students set to work editing and polishing their stories about the births of siblings, family travels, visits to the dentist, and other hallmarks of childhood.

When the morning concludes, Hutchins asks the teachers to take 20 minutes to write down their observations and 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 ask Rector all manner of questions--everything from details on how she arranges her room to how she sets up book clubs to whether her students' parents read with them.

Dilg shares her experience of writing mystery stories with her students. She had put her writing on an overhead projector to model for the class, only to find that her students started to finish writing her story instead of their own.

"They didn't get it," she confides. "I was mortified. Then I got smart and wrote my own and then showed them later."

As the teachers chat, Hutchins hands out materials on student book groups. Then she steers the talk into how to assess students' work, and the teachers trade information on how their schools issue grades and on how they take notes during student conferences.

What makes the experience valuable, Dilg says later, is the hands-on work. "There are kids right there, and you can see somebody practice what they preach."

Even though her school participates in the Reading Project, Dilg feels like she has had "an impossible time making a difference" at Cottonwood Creek because her team members have a "set agenda" for the curriculum, teaching units on things like penguins and the rain forest.

"Now, we're understanding how to get away from specific book units and get [students] to read anything, and that they don't all have to read the same things," she 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."

Vol. 15, Issue 30, Page s41-48

Published in Print: April 17, 1996, as The Long Haul
Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories