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Collaborative voices: one university-school model.


In a shift from traditional professional development, a university professor and principal propose a new model to create relevant, dialogue-driven collaboration among K-6 educators and the university. The primary result of this collaboration was increased dialogue among teachers at the school site around writing instruction. This ongoing professional development model impacted teacher practice and student learning in one elementary school.


In the last decade, teachers have been asked to change the way they perceive their roles, teach curriculum, and assume responsibilities as teachers. Many professional development opportunities present ways to create and maintain the new mandates (Lieberman & Miller, 1999). However, many teachers are frustrated with the type of professional development they receive from districts. A majority of professional development workshops provide a "one-shot deal" for curriculum strategies that align with district testing (Strickland et al., 2001; Wilson & Berne, 1999). Many of these in-services cover a breadth of material without focusing or addressing depths of understanding in terms of content. After the initial visit, the presenter disappears and is never seen or heard from again.

The purpose of this new collaborative model was to create relevant, dialogue-driven collaboration among K-6 educators and university faculty and to increase communication among colleagues at the school site. The planning model has three stages: 1) dialogue and collaboration with the professor, teachers, and principal before the workshops; 2) dialogue with the professor and faculty in the workshops; and 3) dialogue among colleagues in grade level groups.

The first stage was finding the needs of students and teachers around writing instruction. The professor looked at materials, past professional development, and had conversations with teachers about teaching writing. The second stage included two workshops that used the themes and requests of the teachers in developing expository and narrative writing. The professor brought materials, lessons, and theoretical frameworks that provided models to start dialogue around writing with K-6 students. The last stage was to create grade level sessions to share student work samples for teachers who wished to participate. During those monthly sessions, the professor brought suggested materials to share around analysis of student work and feedback from the teachers as to what problems they encountered in teaching writing genres. Teachers brought pieces to share with the group to problem-solve strategies to use with students of all levels. Ongoing dialogue was encouraged, and some grade levels met to discuss writing outside of the monthly workshops.

Through these collaborative workshops, teachers learned to dialogue with colleagues and a university professor to change their teaching practice. These conversations led teachers to look more closely at student work and to discover the relevance of sharing their practice with others. Teachers freely exchanged ideas on how to teach students who had specific writing issues and in turn, teachers were more eager to try out new strategies with their students to improve the quality of writing.

The Principal's Perspective

The university professor and the principal agreed that teacher learning needed to be ongoing, interactive, and supportive (Ball, 1996; Little, 1993). They found that teachers generally do not directly connect professional development programs to classroom practice because ongoing programs are rare. During traditional professional development sessions, there is no forum for discussion of trial and error after the ideas are put into practice (Fiszer, 2003). Without follow up interaction, it is extremely difficult to implement a new pedagogy not adjusted for the needs of the school's population. Too often no structured method is in place to help teachers improve practice by encouraging them to interact with or watch other colleagues in action (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2001; Little, 1999). In addition, collaboration in professional development must go "beyond personal, idiosyncratic reflection, or dependence on outside experts to a point where teachers can learn from each other, sharing and developing their expertise together" (Hargreaves, 1994, p. 186). With this research in mind, we created an ongoing model that increased dialogue among faculty around their teaching practice.

Grade Level Collaboration--Time Well Spent

After the initial sessions, we planned times when the professor would be available to return. The principal offered the optional sessions to all grade levels, and a few teachers took advantage of the opportunities. The optional nature of the sessions was a key factor in generating positive experiences around student work and teacher dialogue.

Fourth grade teachers found they needed samples based on the exact same prompt to make a review session worthwhile. The team had gathered samples based on a compare/contrast theme but found it difficult to generate useful "next steps" since they were not all basing their findings on the same prompt. Second and third grade teachers brought writing samples for review purposes. By comparison, a few teachers seemed relatively unenthusiastic, but others were more positive to meet on this topic. However, several good ideas were generated for future use. One teacher was eager to implement a color-ceding approach where students would write their topic sentence on green paper, supporting sentences on yellow, and conclusions on red. This teacher had found that students had a difficult time identifying main and supporting ideas. She was eager to experiment with the color-coded graphic organizer in her classroom. Kindergarten teachers freely expressed themselves about the high expectations placed on student writing at such a young age. The teachers communicated in a way that showed trust of the professor and took in her comments in an open manner. It was the level of trust that seemed to allow them to connect. They were not teachers who said "the right thing" in front of the principal at that time, but rather they were educators expressing their valid views to each other about what worked and what did not in relation to their practice. The discussion resulted in some modifications to the writing rubric they had created when content versus mechanics issues were reviewed.

This type of dialogue session showed how ideal a relatively unstructured format can be. The pros and cons of kindergarten work sample rubrics were discussed. This led to a review of the structure of lessons in the classroom and how the team meets to plan. The value of having a professor available to take an objective view of practice was refreshing for teachers. She asked open-ended questions about strategies used in teaching writing. Teachers then reflected on how those strategies worked in their individual classrooms.

The University Professor's Perspective

Teaching can be an isolating experience. To open the door and collaborate is not only difficult, but also scary at times. The university professor wanted to help teachers see that talking about their teaching practice helped create a way to end their isolation and build dialogue. Teachers were brought into the initial conversation to validate their views and integrate their needs into the process. The history of top-down professional development by outside sources was still ingrained in their thinking. The university professor needed to gain teachers' trust, not only as an "expert" from the university, but by presenting herself as a colleague who spent many years teaching in elementary schools. Alternative ways to look at teaching through examining student work was offered.

Initially, the university professor was seen as the expert in writing after the first K-6 workshops. The sessions were interactive but contained more elements of a traditional professional development. An overview of the writing process, graphic organizers, rubric development, and the connection between literature elements and writing was presented. Faculty participated in creating rubrics with criteria, connecting picture books with the elements of literature, and had opportunities to brainstorm strategies across grade levels. At the end of the session, they requested more materials on rubrics and assessments. Teachers wanted to try several different types of rubrics to compare which format might possibly work best with their students.

Each time the university professor met with individual grade levels, the dynamic changed from expert-led to teacher-led discussions. Although several strategies to develop expository writing were shared, teachers wanted to discuss the patterns they saw in student work. Most of the conversation centered on revision and how to help students become more serious about changing their subsequent drafts. One teacher asked, "How do I get them to read and revise past the grammatical errors and really look at what they are saying? Another teacher wanted to help her fourth graders with adding details during the revision process. As the meeting ended, the professor only added a few open-ended questions to consider for the next time. The teachers decided it would be best to give a prompt and then bring samples to discuss. They decided they needed more common ground to further analyze their students' expository writing.

In the second meeting, the fourth grade teachers dominated the conversation. Most of the focus was on the prompt and paragraphs students wrote using graphic organizers. Teachers shared stories of how they presented and tried these new strategies in prewriting, hoping to have students think about idea organization prior to starting their first drafts. They debated the validity and structure of a new writing program they had started to use. One teacher loved the new program because it used writing frames and was prescriptive. Another colleague disagreed and stated "creativity was taken from the writing process because they used the writing frames. Every draft sounded the same because the structure was the same." While the conversation was heated, colleagues spoke respectfully to each other. It was interesting to see the change in both their attitudes about sharing their practice and their willingness to challenge each other's thinking.

Another teacher admitted her lesson on revision flopped. She said, "I know I did not give them enough examples in context. I will have to try a different strategy. I think I will use a writing sample to dissect with my students." Honest teaching struggles were revealed without repercussions about how they were perceived by their colleagues. During this session, these teachers transformed their participation from listening to engaging each other in dialogue about their practice:--questioning and reinventmg their notion of teaching writing.

Analysis of the Collaborative Process

Collaboration among colleagues brings together a community of learners around common goals:--to change teaching practice and to increase student learning (Lieberman & Miller, 1999). As university faculty, we strive to help students make sense of what happens in real classrooms to real students. Being part of a teaching community where the definition of community is open to all teachers from Pre-K to 16 extends the notion of a community of learners. Teacher educators are not just seen as experts but as part of the continuum of teaching that extends beyond the traditional definition of a school community.

As educators, we all run the risk of being isolated in our practice. We plan alone, implement the curriculum and teach our students alone. When we open the doors to our colleagues, it is only for evaluative purposes and not necessarily to share. In public schools today, the environment is much the same: teachers work in isolation and collaborate only when mandated by school leaders or the district.

In this model, the principal and university professor wanted to change the perceptions of elementary teachers about professional development and university-school partnerships. In most cases, teachers have contact with university personnel when we ask to place student teachers for observations or student teaching. Much of the relationship is one way. In fact, most university partnerships with district schools are created to facilitate the placement and training of new teachers. We wanted to find a way to increase the reciprocity between schools and universities.

In this model of professional development, the principal, teachers, and teacher educator wanted to create a collaborative model where school faculty had a voice in how they were to proceed with changing their practice of teaching writing. First and foremost, teachers perceived they needed more guidance with prewriting and revision strategies, and how to use rubrics and criteria with their students. They wanted to learn how to help students create ownership of their writing without using prescriptive writing programs. Teachers explored the connection between good literature and how real authors write to help students see how each dovetails with the other. Finally, teachers wanted more time to problem-solve issues of student writing with their colleagues.

During the year, the decision to return and meet by grade levels helped forge relationships with individual teachers, creating a more open environment for dialogue and honesty. As the role of the university professor changed, teachers used student work to focus their conversations about writing. Each group debated and shared teaching strategies around creating lessons for prewriting and revision. One teacher explored how to create criteria and rubrics with his class. "It was amazing how the students knew what to look for in good writing once we created the rubrics together in class. Your idea really worked!" In this model of professional development, the atmosphere was not directed towards an "expert" sharing with novices but a seamless connection between practitioners of all teaching communities.

Implications for Practice in Teacher Education

Part of our work as teacher educators is to connect with all teachers at various stages of their development. By opening doors and creating a different type of relationship with teachers in elementary schools, one teacher educator has found that dialogue and reflection on practice to be universal. During the last year, the journey to change teachers' perceptions of university professors was explored. We are not just evaluators of student teachers but part of the same teaching community as those in the field. By creating the writing professional development through collaboration, the definition of school community was extended to teacher educators as partners in schools.

In this model, a university professor was part of the larger community of teachers who work with students to increase their success in writing. Many times, preservice teachers ask each other, "When is the last time you think our professors have been in a classroom?" Students want to know their university instructors are current with their practice as well as the research they study. They want to know if the methods they are learning will actually work with real students. If we extend the idea of the teaching community to include all schools including universities, we will shatter the idea of isolation between these two communities of learning and create a pathway that continues to help teachers grow in their teaching practice.


Ball, D. (1996). Teacher learning and the mathematics reforms: What do we think we know and what do we need to learn? Phi Delta Kappan, 77 (7), 500-508.

Cochran-Smith, M. & Lytle, S.L. (2001). Beyond certainty: Taking an inquiry stance on practice. In Teachers caught in the action: Professional development that matters (pp. 45-58). New York: Teachers College Press.

Fiszer, E.P. (2003). How teachers learn best. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow.

Hargreaves, A. (1994). Changing teachers, changing times: Teachers' work and culture in the postmodern age. New York: Teachers College Press.

Lieberman, A. & Miller, L. (1999). Teachers-transforming their world and their work. New York: Teachers College Press.

Little, J.W. (1993). Teachers' professional development in a climate of educational reform. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 15 (2), 129-151.

Little, J. W. (1999). Organizing schools for teacher learning. In L. Darling-Hammond & G.Sykes (Eds.), Teaching as the learning profession: Handbook of policy and practice (pp. 233-262). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Strickland, D., Bodino, A., Buchan, K., Jones, K., Nelson, A., & Rosen, M. (2001). Teaching writing in a time of reform. The Elementary School Journal, 101(4), 385-400.

Wilson, S. & Berne, J. (1999). Teacher learning and the acquisition of professional knowledge: An examination of research on contemporary professional development. In Iran-Nejaf, A. & Pearson, P.D. (Eds.). Review of research in education, 24 (173-209). Washington, D.C.: American Educational Research Association.

Joyce Burstein, California State University, Northridge

Edward Fiszer, Pinetree Elementary School

Burstein, Ed.D., is an assistant professor of elementary education. Her teaching-research agenda includes writing, social studies, the arts, and multicultural education.

Fiszer, Ed.D., is an elementary principal and author of How Teachers Learn Best. His interests include professional development and educational leadership.
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Author:Fiszer, Edward
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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