Just Showing Up: Supporting Early Literacy Through Teachers' Professional Communities.
COMEDIAN AND filmmaker Woody Allen attributed a large percentage of his success to just "showing up." His comment reminds us that some of life's challenges are not about complex or complicated solutions and processes. Similarly, in dealing with some of the more intractable issues of urban schooling, we may need to do a better job of "showing up" for our students. In this article, we detail a collaboration between ourselves - two university researchers - and a group of primary-level teachers who are attempting to improve the early literacy abilities of children at risk of school failure.
We work in a community where public schools are well regarded. Among its four comprehensive high schools, there are approximately 50 National Merit finalists each year. Realtors brag to prospective home buyers about the quality of the public schools and point out how well the students perform on standard measures when compared with students both in other parts of the state and nationwide. At the elementary level, the student/teacher ratio is about 22 to 1, and the elementary schools continue to have specialist teachers in art, music, and physical education. Each elementary school is equipped with a library that is staffed by a certified librarian.
However, in the midst of all these resources and support, there are pockets of failure. Some schools in the district serve children and families who are living in poverty. Many of these children are students of color or students whose primary language is not English. The failure of these students to succeed in the local public schools has been a particular challenge to the school district, to the specific schools, and to the individual classroom teachers. Similar concerns about the academic performance of children of color and children living in poverty have been expressed by school districts with similar achievement and demographic profiles.1 How can it be that, even in some of the nation's best public schools, some students regularly and predictably fail to benefit from schooling?
The school community we began working with is the Bret Harte School.2 It is a large elementary school serving about 700 students, located on the side of the city that is home to a substantial number of working- class families. The homes in the community are older and more modest than the homes in other sections of the city, and the school also serves a number of apartment buildings. Many of the children at Bret Harte who have experienced school failure come from a low-income apartment community.
Two years ago, we began a discussion with the district superintendent about how we might collaborate with teachers to help support the literacy abilities of early learners (K-2). Students throughout Wisconsin are required to take the Third-Grade Reading Test, a criterion-referenced test developed by teachers in the state. Although controversy exists over the validity of the Third-Grade Reading Test, its designations of below basic, basic, proficient, and advanced have serious consequences for how students are taught. Students who fail to achieve at the basic level or above are more likely to be placed in pull-out programs, such as Title I or Reading Recovery. Indeed, failing the Third-Grade Reading Test seems to have consequences that extend throughout students' academic lives in the district. Our concern, however, was not whether or not some students were in need of special services, but rather why students of color and students living in poverty were overrepresented among this group.
We made clear to the superintendent that we would not be teaching students or "teaching" teachers. Instead, our work was based on a theoretical notion that teachers' ability to create a professional community is integral to improving teaching and student learning.3 Our work is influenced by the work of a number of teacher education researchers.4 Instead of using a model in which external "experts" tell teachers what to do, we are committed to working with teachers in ways that allow them to share their own expertise and local knowledge in an effort to improve their teaching.
Teachers Helping Teachers
We named our project "Teachers Helping Teachers" to signal the role we expected teachers to play in ensuring their own professional development and in supporting students' literacy. Our initial meeting with the teachers at Bret Harte School was an opportunity to establish the terms of our working relationship. Seven teachers agreed to participate in the project. They included kindergarten, first-grade, second-grade, Title I, and Reading Recovery teachers. We had funding to pay the teachers for attending monthly meetings and to offer them a biannual stipend for allowing the researchers to observe in their individual classrooms throughout the year. We also made clear to the teachers that, if the project was successful, we would expect at least two of them to join us as facilitators in subsequent teacher groups in other district schools.
The model of collaboration we employed involved our asking critical questions to stimulate conversation. We hypothesized that the conversations would stimulate teachers to think about their own work and to make pedagogical changes that would benefit students who were deemed to be at risk of failing to become literate. In between the monthly meetings, we (with the help of graduate assistants) spent time observing in classrooms during literacy instruction. We collected field notes of our observations and shared summaries of those notes with the teachers. We did not intervene in the classrooms, but we were available to do tasks assigned by the teachers (e.g., reading with individual students, examining student work, and so on).
For the first monthly meeting, we assigned the teachers to bring a list of those students about whose literacy they were most concerned. We were not surprised to find that the names the teachers brought were overwhelmingly those of students of color and students living in poverty. However, we deliberately refrained from calling attention to the students' minority or socioeconomic status. We believed that early in the process of collaboration we needed to assure teachers that we were not judging them or suggesting that they were exhibiting aspects of racism or discrimination toward the children in their classrooms.
Some five months passed before the teachers acknowledged the pattern of school failure. After looking at data from the school's literacy test, one of the teachers remarked that the school wasn't doing very well "with the African American boys." This statement about the pattern revealed by the data needed to come from a teacher. The teachers had to own this problem, and we had to establish an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect so that teachers would feel safe talking openly about race and class discrimination as they worked toward improving children's literacy.
Our strategy was to allow the teachers to talk frankly about their students and to encourage them to think about what capabilities the students might have. We asked them to consider the question "What strengths does this child have?" This question provoked the teachers to think about what resources the students already possessed. Thus it was not unusual for a teacher to say, "Well, she really likes to listen to stories," or "He can remember lots of details in a story." By letting teachers identify these strengths, we wanted to help them see that their students did have something on which to build.
During the school day, we spent time in selected teachers' classrooms, observing their literacy teaching practices.5 We carefully documented those practices so that the teachers could see how their practice might appear to others. Our field notes were summarized and presented to the individual teachers for their review. Often teachers brought information from these summaries to the monthly meetings. However, the analysis of individual teachers' literacy teaching practices was never the primary focus of our work. Instead, we were attempting to see whether helping to create and support small professional development communities might lead teachers to make the kinds of changes that they felt were important to improving children's literacy.
We structured the monthly meetings around a critical question for teachers to ponder. We recognized that many of the teachers in the district used a "literature-based" approach to reading. However, not all of the teachers understood what such a practice entailed. A number of the teachers did things that looked procedurally like a literature- based approach to literacy. They introduced students to well-written, lively illustrated trade books. They permitted children to make their own reading selections and to read with reading buddies. The children were encouraged to write about their books and to make illustrations to accompany their writing. This strategy seemed to work well for those students who already knew how to read - mainly the white students from middle-income homes. However, the children who lived in poverty and the African American children who lacked phonemic awareness were often at a loss as to what to do with the books they selected other than look at the pictures.
After having observed this practice in the classroom, we asked the teachers to respond to the question "What did you teach in reading last week?" To our surprise many of the teachers struggled to articulate what they actually had taught in reading during the previous week. Teachers spoke in detail about various writing activities they had conducted and about the stories they had read aloud. But they could not tell us what reading instruction they had conducted. The only teacher who was able to describe the previous week's reading instruction was a teacher who had been considered by many of her colleagues to be "old- fashioned." Her reading instruction included a variety of word-attack strategies, comprehension exercises, and guided reading. The revelation that many of them were not teaching the students (particularly those most in need of instruction) to read became a crucial turning point for the group. Unlike Woody Allen, these teachers found out that they were not even "showing up" for the children who needed them most.
Changed Classroom Practices
Although we were not trying to change the practice of individual teachers, we have begun to see how listening to one another's struggles and solutions can serve as a catalyst for changing ways of thinking about students who have experienced school failure. Such changed thinking can change practice. Because many of their students were experiencing success in early literacy, it was easy for teachers to forget the few who were not. Typically, such students were referred to specialists (e.g., Title I or Reading Recovery teachers), and teachers assumed less responsibility for their literacy.
It also became clear to us that students who received academic services from a variety of professionals were more likely to be confused about to whom they were responsible and for what. For example, at one of our early meetings, the Title I teacher told a classroom teacher that she had directed a student to follow a particular procedure. The teacher commented that she had told the student something different. Soon the reading specialist chimed in that she had told the student something altogether different from the first two, and finally the special education teacher admitted that she had requested that the student respond to a fourth set of directives. "No wonder he looks like a deer caught in the headlights," replied his classroom teacher. "The poor kid doesn't know which one to pay attention to." The professional development meetings were becoming a way to increase the communication among the teachers so that they could better serve their students.
Other changes we have observed as a result of the teachers' participation in the monthly meetings are shifts in the ways teachers talk about children and their families and alternations in the sense of responsibility they feel for ensuring that all students learn to read, write, and speak well. During our early meetings, the teachers seemed intent on venting about the students and their families. We learned about which students came from households in which the adults were unable to provide basic necessities. We learned which children might be experiencing various sorts of trauma - a parent in prison, homelessness, family dissolution. These issues dominated our early conversations with the teachers. However, by consistently refocusing the dialogue on students' learning, we became more successful at helping the teachers talk about their students' academic needs and strengths.
At one group meeting, for example, one of the teachers talked about her ongoing struggle with a youngster. The student seemed to have little in the way of family support, and his own frustrations with failure were prompting him to act out more in the classroom. In exasperation the teacher commented, "I just can't teach this child!" An uncomfortable silence came over the group. Pronouncements such as this had previously been glossed over, and other teachers would redirect the conversation. But on this day one of the other teachers said, quite emphatically, "You don't mean that. Of course, you can teach that child!" This kind of within-group accountability has created a sense of empowerment that cannot be imposed by the get-tough sanctions that many current reform efforts entail.
At another group meeting, we invited someone from the district research department to bring a copy of the data from the school's reading assessments. Prior to this meeting, the teachers had simply been told that the standardized test scores were available in the office, or they had picked up a local newspaper to see how the schools ranked in relation to one another. Previously, little or no consideration had been given to using test scores to diagnose students' strengths and weaknesses so that teachers could develop appropriate curriculum and instructional strategies to improve achievement. Granted, since large numbers of students in the district do well on such tests, there was not much precedent for using the tests as tools to improve teaching and learning. However, the observed pattern of failure among poor students and students of color required the teachers to begin to see the tests for what they are: tools that can provide some baseline data for improving schooling. We wanted the teachers to move away from the antagonistic position that the tests were an indictment of their teaching and to begin to ask questions about how such measures might be more useful to them in their work.
The first look at the test data was disheartening. All the identified students were performing significantly below grade level. All the African American students had performed poorly on phonemic awareness. All the socioeconomically disadvantaged children had performed poorly on comprehension. One of the teachers let out a sigh of despair and said, "Our children are just so low." However, within a moment or two, another teacher remarked, "It doesn't matter how low they are right now. [It was then October.] What matters is where they are in May, and that's our responsibility." Once again, we were amazed at the way the context of a small, intimate, and ongoing professional community created opportunities for support and encouragement that would have an ultimate payoff for the students.
Having the teachers identify the students about whom they were most concerned gave us (and them) somewhere to focus. Teachers understood that, when we came into their classrooms, we would be looking at what was happening with the identified students. The added attention we were giving those students probably made teachers feel compelled to pay more attention to them also - to "show up" as teachers for them. Even if we were unable to visit a classroom in a particular month, the teachers understood that their contributions to the group conversation needed to begin with a discussion of the progress of their at-risk students. They needed to be able to discuss how they, as teachers, were "showing up" for students who typically fall through the cracks.
Linda Winfield's work on teachers' beliefs about students placed at risk is instructive in helping us understand the kinds of strategies teachers may deploy to deal with student failure.6 According to Winfield, teachers believe that students who are not achieving can be either improved or maintained. Teachers who believe that students can improve have an orientation that suggests that, regardless of students' past failures, something can be done pedagogically to raise their academic achievement. Teachers who believe that students can only be maintained see the school's role as avoiding "slippage." Instead of pushing a student to higher academic improvement, such teachers are preoccupied with making sure that the student neither loses ground nor proves to be a disruption. Winfield also contends that teachers see this dichotomy of improvement versus maintenance as something for which they are responsible - or for which others must assume responsibility.
The teachers who believe that students at risk of school failure can improve and that they as teachers are responsible for that improvement are called "tutors." They take time each day to work with the students individually to make sure that they receive the expert, individual help that the teacher can give. The teachers who believe that students at risk of school failure can improve but that it is someone else's responsibility to foster that improvement are called "general contractors." They take responsibility for the finished product, but they search out knowledgeable others to provide the specific pedagogical support.
The teachers who do not believe that at-risk students can improve - the teachers who believe that they can only be maintained - and who also believe that they as teachers are responsible for that maintenance are called "custodians." They are the teachers who find a way to keep struggling students in their rooms and quiet, typically doing such busy work as worksheets and
puzzles that fail to challenge their intellect or improve their skills. The teachers who do not believe that at-risk students can improve and who believe that those students' maintenance is someone else's responsibility are called "referral agents." They see their role as finding someone else (e.g., the special educator, the Title I teacher, the reading specialist) to teach the students.
Winfield's rubric is helpful for looking at schools that are organized in traditional ways, with each teacher working alone and in isolation. However, the development of a professional community makes public those activities and behaviors that were once private. No teacher in our group could come in month after month and respond to our questions about supporting student literacy by reporting that he or she had sent Shaniqua or Jose to someone else. The public conversations and supporting documents served as testaments to whether or not teachers really were "showing up" for those students in most need of help.
We have also been able to track changes in the teachers' attitudes over time. We recruited teachers who wanted to participate in this project. We realized that the financial remuneration might be an incentive for some teachers, but we knew that the money would not be enough to sustain them throughout the process. One of the teachers seemed not to have much to contribute to our monthly discussions. This teacher was often impatient to leave and sometimes made excuses for missing parts of the meetings. However, when we began to focus on the progress of one of the students in her classroom, she started to contribute more to the group and began to incorporate more of the group conversation into her practice. Our observations helped us to see that this teacher was using a variety of effective practices to manage her classroom and that she took a strong interest in developing a wider repertoire of effective teaching strategies.
After spending a week at a reading conference, this teacher came back enthusiastic and happy to be able to share some of what she had learned with our study group. "I really felt like I understood what I need to be doing to help the children who are struggling," she said. "Right now, the work in this group is helping us along, but after a while when you guys are gone, we'll become keepers of our own vision." This expression - "keepers of our own vision" - became a metaphor for our work with the teachers at Bret Harte. The professional community that was forming at the school was a way for teachers to begin to take both risks and responsibilities.
After we and the teachers had worked together for almost 18 months, the scores for the Third-Grade Reading Test were released. For the first time in recent memory, all the target students at Bret Harte met the standard. The good news of the improved test performance was announced on the school's public address system. The principal telephoned one of the researchers at home that night and purchased a cake to help the faculty celebrate. We had no magic formula to share. The primary teachers had been willing to engage in a long-term professional development effort aimed at ensuring that the students who often are forgotten would receive regular and deliberate attention during the literacy instruction.
Expanding the Circle
Beginning with the 1998-99 school year, we expanded our project to two additional schools with demographic and academic profiles similar to those of Bret Harte. However, instead of both researchers working with the professional communities in the two new schools, each of us has taken leadership responsibility for one of the schools and asked one of the Bret Harte teachers to accompany us. Our intention is to expand the growth of professional communities throughout the district by developing enough teacher facilitators at these three schools to allow our withdrawal from the schools.
What we have noticed at the two new sites is that each new effort places us right back at square one. Once again, we listened as teachers shared a litany of problems about the children. We heard about a child who rolled on the floor and refused to participate in classroom activities. We heard about another child who seemed to come apart at each and every transition. The move from opening exercises in the morning to reading activities was always a battle. The change from reading to music resulted in a tantrum. The requirement that the student attend the Title I classroom meant tears and sulking.
Once again, our role was to redirect the teachers' conversations toward the students' strengths. One teacher paused for a long time when she was asked about one of her student's strengths. Finally, she said with a smile, "He can ride the bus!" This comment seemed out of context. However, the teacher pointed out how complex the public transportation system was in the city. It is a system that depends on a central transfer point. All buses come into the center of the city and go back out again to various parts of the city. The teacher further commented, "I'm a grown woman, and I don't know how to ride the buses in the city. He can do it, and he's only 7 years old. That tells me that he's an intelligent little boy. He just doesn't know how to read."
At one of the new sites, a primary teacher focused our attention on a Latino child named Fernando, the eldest of the three children of a young neighborhood couple. Throughout the fall and early winter, the teacher bemoaned Fernando's immaturity - his continual talking with neighbors and constant moving around the room. For many months, other teachers in the group responded to the complaints with bemused smiles, indicating their quiet support - they, too, had students like this one.
As the weeks passed, the teachers began to take up an "asset model" of looking at children, and one winter afternoon, another teacher responded to the complaints, "You know, Fernando always is smiling. He seems happy in school. I think he loves you as his teacher." Fernando's teacher's mouth dropped and her eyes widened. "Hmm," she said. "He does like me, doesn't he?" Then she blushed, recognizing that her comments may have led others to think that she did not like Fernando. Clearly, "showing up" means more than teaching children the skills of reading and writing; it means personally investing in their development as readers and writers.
On another occasion, a teacher in the group began talking about how many of the children struggling to learn to read and write at the school were children of color. We had hoped to open this conversation numerous times earlier in the year. However, each time someone would initiate a question concerning race and achievement, others would look away, subtly change the subject, or shift about in their seats, signaling their discomfort with the topic. Seated at the table in each of our meetings was a white teacher with her toddler baby who came to nearly every meeting because of the complexity of scheduling late- afternoon day care. Swallowing hard, and smiling at her little son, the teacher said:
I think a lot now about when Trenton goes to school. How will teachers treat him and talk to him? They will see an African American boy. Maybe they will see a child who they believe can't do things. If they knew me, and he went to this school, Trenton would probably be okay; everyone would say, "Oh, that's Callie and David's son." David smiles at me when I tell him I think this way. He thinks I am just waking up to what he has always lived through as an African American. But what if Trenton goes to our neighborhood school and people don't know us? What will happen? How will people think about him and teach him? What will they expect? I think about it all the time, and I think about us as teachers, how we think about other people's kids.
That day, because we had been talking together for so many months and because Callie's voice broke and because we had been passing Trenton around, kissing his soft cheeks and feeding him bits of fruit and cookies, it was hard to ignore her plea and our responsibilities. We talked softly and slowly, uneasy with our unmet obligations, willing at last to take them up, bit by tiny bit.
Recently, we began planning a second year of work at our two additional sites. At one planning meeting, the teachers came ready "to take action." "Last year," one teacher said, "we talked a lot about what worried us about our literacy program and which children weren't making progress. This year, we need to make a plan. How are we going to make changes across all of our classrooms? What is important to do?"
That morning, we laid plans to:
* send a book home with each primary-grade child every day to encourage family reading pleasure,
* develop biweekly staff breakfasts and after-school coffees to support the same kind of professional community among the entire school staff as we have experienced as a small group,
* write and distribute a memo to the parents of primary-grade children offering tips on supporting their child's reading and writing skills at home, and
* develop a fall literacy program night for each grade, featuring a children's performance and an open library time when families can check out books.
As the meeting broke up, the teachers smiled at one another. It felt good to take action together on behalf of children's learning. It felt a little scary, too. We recognized that there was much to be done and that there were only nine of us on a very large staff, working with dozens of children struggling to learn to read and write. While it remained unspoken, the idea that we would be showing up - together - heartened our group.
The work we have done with these teachers is obviously more complex than just sitting around holding monthly conversations. Our own theoretical, philosophical, and pedagogical perspectives have shaped the way we have approached this work. And one assumption that undergirds our work with the teachers is that one of the major causes of children's academic failure is the failure of teachers to teach them. We believe that no teacher sets out to be unsuccessful with certain students. However, we have seen teachers compensate for their initial lack of success with poor children and children of color by literally ignoring them. By spending more of their time with the more successful students, teachers can convince themselves that those students who are failures are not really their responsibility. The failing students fail because their parents do not read to them or listen to them read or even care about their education. Sometimes, telling ourselves these stories about the children creates enough of a space between the children's failure and our own efforts that we can pretend that we have done our best for the children.
We also believe that the only way to improve the quality of teaching and learning is to improve teachers' skills and abilities. Thus we see professional development as the linchpin of school reform aimed at raising academic performance. No amount of standards, benchmarks, and high-stakes testing can bring about school improvement without attention to teacher quality. We believe that teachers have to be active participants in their own professional development. And we cannot expect that one-shot, one-size-fits-all workshops directed by "expert" consultants can produce the kinds of changes in pedagogical practices that will support student learning.
The evidence from our project has persuaded us that improving teachers' knowledge and supporting changes in pedagogical practice will be a slow and painstaking process that must be grounded in a specific school/community context. We also know that the very first step in changing teaching practice is in helping teachers learn to "show up."
1. Such school districts as Ann Arbor, Mich.; Chapel Hill, N.C.; Shaker Heights, Ohio; and Evanston, Ill., have experienced similar disparities between the performance of white, middle-income students and that of students of color and students living in poverty.
2. All school names used in this article are pseudonyms.
3. Caroline Clark et al., "Conversation as Dialogue: Teachers and Researchers Engaged in Conversation and Professional Development," American Educational Research Journal, vol. 33, 1996, pp. 193-231.
4. See Kenneth M. Zeichner, "Traditions of Practice in U.S. Preservice Teacher Education Programs," Teaching and Teacher Education, vol. 9, 1993, pp. 1-13; Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Susan L. Lytle, eds., Inside/Outside: Teacher Research and Knowledge (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993); Mary Louise Gomez and B. Robert Tabachnick, "Telling Teaching Stories," Teaching Education, vol. 4, 1992, pp. 129- 38; and Gloria Ladson-Billings, "Shut My Mouth Wide Open: Conversations Among Eight Successful Teachers of African American Students," in Conrad Kottak et al., eds., The Teaching of Anthropology: Problems, Issues, and Decisions (Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield Publishing, 1996), pp. 342-52.
5. In addition to the authors, our research team included two graduate students, Janice Kroeger and Jennifer Rushneck.
6. Linda Winfield, "Teacher Beliefs Toward Academically At-Risk Students in Inner-Urban Schools," Urban Review, vol. 9, 1986, pp. 253- 67.
GLORIA LADSON-BILLINGS and MARY LOUISE GOMEZ are professors in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Wisconsin, Madison. Funding for the research reported here was provided by grants from the Center for English Language Arts, the Evjue Foundation, and the Madison Metropolitan School District, but the opinions expressed are solely those of the authors.
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|Author:||Ladson-Billings, Gloria; Gomez, Mary Louise|
|Publication:||Phi Delta Kappan|
|Date:||May 1, 2001|
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