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Developing a repertoire.

Last fall I team-taught 10- and 11-year-olds one or two days a week, for just a few hours at a time. I worked with Rob Caramella, the 5th- and 6th-grade teacher, to carefully articulate the skills and knowledge we wanted the kids to master. We then agreed to try a new approach to organizing curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment that would challenge both of us. We decided to work on what the Foxfire Teacher Outreach Centers call a student-centered curriculum (Wigginton, 1986). We asked the kids to select a topic or a project that interested them as a group, preferably something that would benefit, and involve them with, the community. Whatever project they chose, it had to include note-taking, creative and transactional writing, a new computer application, some mathematics, and some observational activities. After much debate, they decided to tutor younger children, in response to President Clinton's call to help all children learn to read by the end of 3rd grade.

The 10- and 11-year-olds decided that they would tutor K-1 children from a neighborhood school, and they would keep records of their work and of their tutees' progress. The class planned to use this information to develop a cross-age tutoring manual, which would go on our Web page. To get organized, they mapped out the neighborhood and figured out which kids would most likely be interested in working with us. They also charted the way they themselves had learned to read. Some kids had learned by phonics, some by sight recognition, and some by memorizing old favorites. Some learned from parents and grandparents, while others learned from teachers or other kids in their classes. When we asked them which strategy they would choose to focus on, they looked at us as if we were not paying attention at all! "We can't leave any approaches out," they said slowly and emphatically, as if talking to fools. "The President wants EVERYONE to learn to read. We can't leave any strategy out or we wouldn't get to EVERYONE." If only practitioners and academics had so much sense.

In order to build their tutoring skills, the children designed a staff development seminar for themselves. The librarian visited the class and taught them how to select books and how to read to younger children. Two of the faculty members in the college literacy department taught them techniques for whole word identification, how to use pictures as clues, and how to sound words out phonetically. They even applied for a $4,200 grant to help us develop the Web-based cross-age tutoring manual. So that they would have information and examples to put on the Web page, the students developed observation techniques, as well as forms on which to record their observations after each tutoring session. They constructed an annotated bibliography. They drew character sketches of their tutees. They read to each other, and, then, reasonably prepared, they went to work.

We marveled as they began the tutoring. Boisterous kids became soft and attentive when paired with their younger reading buddies. Shy students became purposeful and confident. Within minutes of locating their partners, the room settled into a purposeful, quiet buzz - with everyone reading.

Everything went along smoothly until mid-February. I walked into the classroom on an assigned tutoring day to a barrage of complaints. "We don't want to do this anymore! This is boring! We aren't making any progress! My kid is still reading the same old things and I don't think he's getting any better. We do the same old thing, week after week, and the little kids are bored. They won't pay attention. They wander around the room. I hate this!"

Oh, my, I thought, this was familiar ground. My own students had demonstrated their boredom with great projects I'd developed. I recognized where these youngsters were as teachers. So, Rob and I met with the kids to diagnose the problem.

All of the tutors had developed a routine, relying on techniques that had worked for them when they began reading. Sam sounded words out for Marco. Fiona covered up parts of words to help Jennifer identify smaller words and pieces of words. Hayley read out loud each week. The tutees had figured out the routine and were acting out their frustration with the sameness of it all.

The Dilemma

Our students revealed one of the knottiest problems that teachers face: the tension between the classroom routines and the repertoire teachers use to facilitate learning. At the beginning of the year, students are interested and enthusiastic. As they figure out the routine, however, they become bored. They complain that school is just the same old stuff. One middle school student said, "My school is killin' me - fill in the blanks, fill in the blanks, fill in the blanks." Teachers complain too, but with a different twist: "The kids just don't push themselves. It's so irritating. They are so passive." And, "They only work hard when they are completely entertained. It's as if all the years of watching TV have filled them with expectations that we, their teachers, should do the same. They don't want to work. They want us to do all the work!"

Embedded in this debate is a cyclical, mutually defeating pattern. Kids quickly figure out the routines in school and immediately determine how to expend minimal effort. If, in 4th-grade language arts, the routine is "Read a book, have a discussion, write a paper," the students figure out how to use shortcuts. They get the best reader in the class to explain the book, or they divide the book up among themselves, or they learn that the teacher's class lectures will give them all the information they need to write the paper. If the routine in math class is "Review the homework from the night before, learn a new dimension of the math function, begin working on the homework applications, take a test," the kids divide up the number of problems and copy them over before school so that each has to do fewer problems, or they rotate who does the homework.

Most teachers believe that they have developed a stimulating range of instructional approaches. Unfortunately, most see the curriculum as the renewable and changing source in their repertoire. In language arts, teachers switch from short stories to plays to poetry to nonfiction. In math, teachers switch from addition and subtraction to multiplication and division. In science, teachers switch from butterflies and bugs to animals. Each new topic brings new challenges, and important implications. But teachers' instructional and assessment routines often remain the same.

Because students do not always find the content as stimulating as their teachers do, both teachers and students find themselves locked into a rather unfortunate, mutually disadvantageous cycle.

The Exception

Fortunately, routine approaches do not always predominate. Over the years, I have seen exceptional elementary teachers who vary the approaches they use with students, so that the kids stay engaged and involved as they progress from subject to subject and from unit to unit. One teacher I know integrated all the disciplines into a study of markets. Students walked to local markets, and learned how produce and staples arrived, and where they came from. They read about markets in different parts of the world. They learned about transportation routes and costs, and then set up a market in their own school. They also learned to balance the books. When the students studied rivers, they learned to collect data and compare it to that from previous years. They learned what rivers are used for. Teams of students researched famous rivers, discovered what threatens their viability and how they can be cleaned up, and then applied that knowledge to nearby rivers. Another class studied ancient civilizations, and then assembled a photographic exhibit on the nature of communities today. Students interviewed local people, took and developed their own photos, mounted them, and wrote the captions. Such teachers function like actors or artists who have developed fine, varied repertoires. They have professional portfolios that include many approaches that demonstrate range not only in curriculum, but also in instruction and assessment.

Re-imagining teaching towards the development of a repertoire suggests that teachers are constantly building their skills and abilities so that they are always interested in, and stimulated by, the freshness of their work with children. In addition, the storehouse of approaches they are building helps them to work with the infinite variety of children in their classrooms.

Repertoire As an Educational Concept

Thinking about a repertoire as it applies to education is not, by any means, new. John Dewey suggested that teachers need a wide range of approaches for working with students in order to create meaningful educational experiences (Dewey, 1963). Hilda Taba (1962), in her work on instructional strategies, suggested that teachers need a number of cognitive tools for approaching students' learning. Joyce and Weil (1972), in Models of Teaching, outlined a range of approaches that they believed teachers needed for working with students. While some of these theories now seem mechanistic and/or incomplete, they establish the idea that teachers constantly need to be building new approaches for dealing with children.

John Goodlad, in A Place Called School (1984), documented that teachers use a limited range of approaches for working with students, and he, too, suggested that every teacher needs a broader range of approaches in order to engage students. Recent research done by cognitive psychologists (e.g., Gardner, 1983; Sternberg, 1994) suggests that humans do not uniformly process information and experiences, and so no single approach is likely to be appropriate for an entire classroom of children. Recent work on the effects of culture on learning also suggests that teachers should provide students with a variety of ways in which to approach subject material.

While the argument for a repertoire is not new, and while it has growing support from the research, repertoire is not necessarily embraced as an important, necessary descriptor of teaching. Teacher preparation, school structures, and professional development practices are not yet organized to emphasize the need for a repertoire. Teacher education programs do not clarify the notion that the initial one- to two-year preparation program is really just the beginning of a lifelong responsibility to build an ever-broader and deeper range of approaches for engaging students' minds.

At the same time, while there are ongoing requirements for licensure, and while districts and colleges offer ongoing professional development, there is no professional organization or body that explicitly suggests that teachers' range of instructional approaches is definitively related to their students' success.

Furthermore, the incentives to build a coherent repertoire are weak. Teachers often are told that going to inservice courses is optional, and the only real incentive for doing so is to move teachers up on the pay scale. Thus, most teachers select training courses based on personal interest, rather than focusing on what they explicitly need to help them work with many types of students. Most teachers with whom I have talked do not remember any explicit conversations that link success in teaching to the range of skills being developed.

While the need for developing new skills has been recognized over the last 20 years or so, research suggests that most professional development falls short of its intended mark. Many of the courses offered by districts, unions, professional organizations, colleges, and universities do not have a sustained effect on teacher practices in classrooms. Teachers do not get enough time to practice new suggested techniques in courses; courses are unrelated to district or state priorities, making it hard for teachers to work on the newly learned techniques; and teachers attend courses alone, not with colleagues from their own schools, and so they lack the ability to determine whether they are correctly applying the new techniques. Professional development providers, in turn, stress how complicated it is to learn something new. Thus, too many teachers and administrators get the message that what is new and innovative can fix education's ills, rather than emphasizing the sustained effort it takes to master a new technique before moving on to another.

Imagining a Teacher's Repertoire

Since discovering the relationship between routines and repertoire, I have been talking with teachers, and scanning through historical and contemporary images of teaching. What I have gleaned is that excellent teachers have known about this relationship for a long time. Not all teachers, administrators, and teacher educators know it, however, and so the structures set up to prepare and support teachers do not generally emphasize the need for a repertoire.

Currently, however, two organizations are advocating to make the development of repertoire a more explicit goal. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is attempting to build a self-regulating profession by encouraging thousands of teachers across the country to stand for professional board certification over the next decade. The process requires that experienced teachers display a range of techniques and approaches for working with students. Furthermore, the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future has recommended a three-tiered certification process requiring that teachers demonstrate new competencies as they advance in their careers. In addition, the Commission recommends that funds be made available to mentor new teachers and that financial incentives accompany demonstration of teacher growth. While such measures will be helpful in setting the policy context for the improvement of conditions within teaching, we still need strong images of masterful teachers demonstrating polished repertoires, and we need research that links a teacher's repertoire with students' academic achievement.

The Rationale

We need a repertoire because:

* No two kids are alike.

* No single approach is strong enough to support a changing curriculum and a culturally varied student population.

* Our responsibility is to engage students so that they expend maximal effort.

* Effort and interest are, for many, tied to freshness, newness, unfamiliarity.

* In order for teachers to sustain learning in children, they need to be learning themselves.

This rationale is critical because it ennobles teaching, provides strong philosophical underpinnings, and makes explicit the enormous responsibility teachers carry.

The Definition

To develop a repertoire, teachers must conscientiously and continuously work to add skills and approaches that they might use when working with children. These skills and approaches are gathered in all of the areas that constitute teaching: curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Teachers select the approaches they need to work on by analyzing the support their students need most. They find other teachers with whom they can work on the development of a given skill, so that they can check their own work and broaden their own understanding. Wherever possible, they find experts to offer important feedback. They research the effects on students' learning of the various skills they use, keeping one eye on the students' reactions and the other on the span of the year.

The Implications

Thinking of teaching as the development of a repertoire has implications for preservice education as well as for inservice education. Elementary teacher education programs need to work with their surrounding school districts to identify the essential skills novice teachers need to survive. While this will be no simple task, it should bring some relief to the pressure a teacher might encounter to cover everything.

Once those skills are determined and the scope of the work is narrowed to a tighter, more concrete focus, all of those who provide ongoing professional development support for teachers need to rethink the way in which they provide that support. The success of school district staff developers, unions, professional development organizations, and colleges' continuing education divisions will, in the long run, determine the viability of repertoire as an organizing professional metaphor.


Where does all of this leave the 10- and 11-year-olds who had become frustrated in their tutoring efforts? Rob and I asked the kids to list all the problems they were encountering. "Our tutees are bored," said our students. "They are squirmy and don't seem to want to pay attention. They start poking each other. They sigh a lot."

First, we needed to build consensus about continuing. "Well," I said, "it sounds like it's not working. Why don't we just quit?"

"What?" cried the girls, horror-struck.

"YEAH!" shouted the boys, delighted.

"What about your commitment to them?" asked Rob, scowling at me across the room. "Don't you think they are counting on you?"

As a homework assignment, all of the kids wrote a paper about whether or not they should quit. Even the least enthusiastic tutors, after thinking about it, said we couldn't quit. Scott wrote in his journal, "Even though I am really getting sick of this, I would feel like a dog if we quit. I just can't do it."

Therefore, we set about solving the problem. Since it appeared that each session had simply become too routine, each tutor had to find a way to reengage the youngsters. Another faculty member came to work with our tutors and taught them how to construct three reading games to play with the kids. Armed with a new technique, they returned to tutoring, and were delighted by renewed enthusiasm.

And so these 10- and 11-year-old kids taught me to see, a little more clearly, the benefits and satisfactions of building a teacher's repertoire. What worked for them in helping little ones to read holds promise for all of us. It has the potential to fuel our intention to reach all of our students and, as a result, strengthen our world.


Dewey, J. (1963). Experience and education. New York: Collier-Macmillan.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind. New York: Basic Books.

Goodlad, J. L. (1984). A place called school: Prospects for the future. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Joyce, B., & Weil, M. (1972). Models of teaching. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Sternberg, R. (1994). Allowing for thinking styles. Educational Leadership, 52(3), 36-40.

Taba, H. (1962). Curriculum development: Theory and practice. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Wigginton, E. (1986). Sometimes a shining moment: The Foxfire experience. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

Patricia A. Wasley is Dean, Bank Street College, New York City.
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Title Annotation:student-centered curriculum; The Expanding Role of the Teacher
Author:Wasley, Patricia A.
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Aug 6, 1999
Previous Article:Ockham's Razor applied.
Next Article:The changing roles of early childhood educators in preparing new teachers.

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