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Teachers Network in the News
Article courtesy of Phi Delta Kappan



Gimme That School Where Everything's Scripted!
One Teacher's Journey Toward Effective Literacy Instruction

Working in a school in which teachers are told what and how to teach might be easier than having to make difficult teaching decisions for oneself. But if one is lucky enough to work, as Ms. Paez does, in a school that supports teachers' growth with thoughtful and ongoing professional development, the challenges are not so overwhelming. And the primary beneficiaries are the students.

BY MARIKA PAEZ (Marika Paez started her teaching career through Teach for America and has been teaching for five years. She currently teaches second grade at the Future Leaders Institute (FLI) in Harlem, District 3. She is also a MetLife Fellow with the Teachers Network Policy Institute, New York City.)

WHEN I GIVE the signal, Leo puts his books back in his green vinyl book baggie and drops it in the blue bin on his way to the "Yellow Table." At the last minute, he races a girl for his favorite seat at the head of the table and grins in triumph. He cocks his head as he tries to peer over my arm to read the title of the book we will be reading today in his "guided reading" group. His expression turns wary, suspicious even. In a class of generally easy to please first graders, Leo is one tough customer. He is an incredibly bright child, easily bored and easily frustrated. He is a demanding learner, and I have become sensitive to his critical eye rolling when a lesson is not going well.

I am hopeful that today's lesson will not only capture his interest but also help him and the other children in the group think more strategically about how to monitor their thinking as they read longer texts.

To make a connection to the story's topic, I start the lesson by asking the five students gathered around the table what they know about how someone goes about getting a job. They eagerly volunteer their ideas. I explain that today I want them to stop and think every few pages and use a "sticky note" to mark places where they do not understand the story. I tell them that later we can go back together and think more about those parts. I want this group of students to learn that they might need to re read to really make sense of a text. Halfway through the book, Leo is bouncing in his seat and humming lightly as he reads. Suddenly, he stops, looks up, and announces, "I love reading group!"

While I am glad that Leo enjoyed the lesson, even more important to me was his successful use of reading strategies. By many measures, the lesson was an effective one. It was designed and tailored to meet the needs of these individual students. They were engaged and actively learning throughout the lesson. I explicitly introduced the strategies to be used during reading, and the students were held accountable for using those strategies.

If you had observed my class a year ago, you would not have seen me giving this type of instruction. My understanding of the best way to teach reading and writing was transformed through many hours spent reading and thinking about how children learn to read and write. Even more important, I spent time learning from colleagues and mentors. In many ways, the seeds of this lesson were planted during my school's weekly professional development meetings.

When I first visited the Future Leaders Institute (FLI), the school in which I now teach, I was impressed with the teaching, especially in the area of literacy. The students were able to talk deeply about books, referring to the text to justify their arguments. Instruction was individualized, with students working in small groups on skills that were relevant to them. The strategies used by good readers and writers, which seemed like such a mystery in other classrooms I'd visited, were explicit here listed on charts and repeated often in both whole-class and small group instruction.

In September 2001, I accepted a position at FLI and was informed that the school was committed to providing extensive professional development for teachers to learn to teach reading and writing using a "balanced literacy" approach. I would be required to spend time after school each week to meet with colleagues and to reflect on my teaching. There were five other K-2 teachers who were also new to FLI, and all were using the balanced literacy approach for the first time. As we met each week, I began to see changes in my teaching of reading and writing, and I wondered if others were also seeing changes in their instruction. I wanted to explore what we were taking away from the meetings and what kinds of instructional changes were occurring in our classrooms as a result of our weekly meetings. I was also curious about what aspects of our meetings seemed to be helping me to transform my instruction most.

Since during the school year I was serving as a MetLife Fellow with the Teachers Network Policy Institute (TNPI) and needed to conduct an action research project, I decided to study the effects of our professional development activities. The Teachers Network is a nonprofit education organization that connects teachers around the country. Within the organization, MetLife sponsors a number of fellowships through TNPI to allow public school teachers like me to conduct research in our classrooms that will provide a basis for making recommendations to policy makers.

When I began my project, I wanted to focus on how the weekly professional development meeting affected other teachers. However, I realized that the personal growth I was in the best position to measure was my own. During the year, as I looked over my journals and planning book, I saw that I was becoming my own case study, and I decided to focus mainly on documenting my own growth as a teacher and to use this as the data for my research.


Research shows a clear link between effective professional development and increasing student achievement. Linda Darling Hammond has asserted that "a more complex, knowledge based and multicultural society" is creating "new expectations for teaching."1  These challenging new expectations mean that teachers will need to know their subject areas deeply and also understand how students think in order to create experiences that actually work to produce learning.

In communities that are affected by poverty, such as the one I teach in, the importance of having a highly qualified teacher is magnified. Catherine Snow and her colleagues offer dramatic evidence of this in their book, Unfulfilled Expectations. After researching the effects of highly supportive classroom teaching on students with low levels of home support, they found that students who had a supportive, knowledgeable teacher for at least two years in a row were able to keep up with the achievement of their peers, despite their home environments.2

Many researchers agree that thoughtful, sustained professional development is one way to ensure that all teachers are able to rise to these new challenges. In the past, professional development consisted mostly of teachers sitting passively while an "expert" trained them on new techniques. This training was often disorganized, one shot staff development with minimal opportunity for sustained inquiry or discussion over time. Regrettably, this is still the model of professional development in all too many schools. Ann Lieberman has argued that this model of professional development is inconsistent with the research on how people learn best:

People learn best through active involvement and through thinking about and becoming articulate about what they have learned. Processes, practices, and policies built on this view of learning are at the heart of a more expanded view of teacher development that encourages teachers to involve themselves as learners in much the same way as they wish their students would.3

Fortunately, there are schools and districts like mine where policy makers and administrators support this type of learning for teachers. These schools and programs are serving as models for other schools as they seek to enact a reform agenda that supports a learner-centered view of teaching. This is not easy work, as Darling Hammond has pointed out:

The success of this agenda ultimately turns on teachers' success in accomplishing the serious and difficult tasks of learning the skills and perspectives assumed by new visions of practice and unlearning the practices and beliefs about students and instruction that have dominated their professional lives to date.4

The measure of this new type of professional development must become inextricably linked to student outcomes. According to Dennis Sparks and Stephanie Hirsh, a professional development model's success should be judged "not by how many teachers and administrators participate in staff development programs or how they perceive its value, but by whether it alters instructional behavior in a way that benefits students."' As more and more teachers participate in sustained professional development that encourages teachers to be active learners, Sparks and Hirsh remind us that we need to keep one eye fixed on what truly matters most transforming instruction to ensure achievement for all students.


FLI is a small public school in Harlem. It was created in 1999 to provide a high quality education to neighborhood students, a population that has long been neglected and marginalized by the New York City school system. FLI serves approximately 145 students in kindergarten through sixth grade. The school uses a balanced literacy approach to the teaching of reading and writing that is modeled on other successful programs in neighboring districts.

Dorothy Hall and Patricia Cunningham liken the balanced literacy approach to the way parents ensure that children have a balanced diet. Each of the food groups needs to be represented in order for children to grow, and no one food group should be overemphasized or neglected. The "food groups" of balanced literacy instruction include word study (learning about spelling patterns or high frequency words), shared reading (teacher and students reading a text together with the teacher demonstrating reading strategies), guided reading (small group reading instruction), independent reading, read aloud, and writing workshop.6

Using a balanced literacy approach can be difficult. There is no scripted manual in which teachers can find out what to teach each day. Much of the instruction is driven by assessment. Teachers must know their students' strengths and weaknesses and use this information, combined with their knowledge of how children learn to read and write, to decide on strategies and processes that will help the children further their growth.

The two directors of the school decided that we would meet weekly with a staff developer to learn more about teaching balanced literacy. Because of budget cuts, we were not paid for these meetings, which usually consisted of the kindergarten teacher, two first grade teachers, the second grade teacher, and the Reading Recovery teacher, who worked in each of our classrooms for 30 minutes of guided reading during the school day. Occasionally, the upper grade science teacher, who worked in the second grade classroom for guided reading each day, would join us if the topic was relevant to her teaching.

To work with our group, the directors hired a staff developer with more than 20 years of experience, Lucy Malka. Her many roles as staff developer included being a resource for us by offering her own ideas, feedback, knowledge, and experience, as well as recommending books and providing articles and videos. In addition, she guided our discussions by pushing us to think our ideas through more deeply and by encouraging our questions.

We also had other opportunities for professional development at the school through study groups that discussed professional readings, numerous observations by the school directors with one on one feedback and debriefing meetings afterward, curriculum planning meetings, and visits to schools that were successfully implementing a balanced literacy approach.


Each Tuesday at 3:30 p.m., six teachers straggled into a classroom and met until 5:30 p.m. sometimes even later. Toward the end of the year, the meetings were restructured so that the whole group met until 5 p.m., and individuals met with the staff developer on a rotating basis until 5:30 p.m.

Lucy kicked off the meetings by asking simply, "How's it going?" Since teachers often came to the meetings ready to ask questions, celebrate what was going well, or vent their frustration, the first part of the meeting usually involved addressing these matters. Lucy offered her thoughts and ideas and invited others to join in. If the teachers had many issues or questions, we gave more time to those things, sometimes putting aside our set agenda for the day entirely, sometimes modifying it only slightly. If no teachers brought issues or questions, we would often spend the first few minutes simply looking around the classroom we were meeting in and asking questions about or commenting on what seemed to be happening in that classroom, sparking teachers to talk about their own classrooms.

Then the meeting would become more structured, as we addressed the topic of the day. Topics often came up as a result of Lucy's opening question or through subsequent discussions. Sometimes we would follow a single topic, such as guided reading, for many weeks in a row. The topics were addressed through informal discussions facilitated by Lucy, or by reading and responding to an article on a topic. We also directly observed teachers teaching either by having someone in the group do a demonstration or by watching a master teacher on videotape. During this time, Lucy was the "expert," but she also constantly asked us, "What do you think?" She would continue to probe and work to get us to articulate our own ideas and opinions and to use one another as resources. The meeting generally concluded with a reflection on that day's meeting and agenda setting for the next one.


I used a journal to record what we discussed each week during our meetings. This became the documentary basis for my research project. The notes I took were as much for me and for my own learning as they were for my research, so they focus on the topics I found most salient during each meeting and do not always include everything discussed. From my notes, I was able to glean not only a list of the topics discussed each week but also a glimpse of my growing understanding of the teaching of reading and writing. Next I compiled these notes into a list of topics discussed each week and assigned them to one of the following four categories: Instruction, Procedure, Standards, and Big Ideas.

The topics I grouped under Instruction show that our discussions dealt with practical ideas about how to teach students a concept. I also included lesson ideas and catch phrases or possible language to use when teaching. Big Ideas topics show that our discussions also took up what is important to teach children about reading and writing and why it is important to teach a given concept to students. These were not discussions of discrete skills and techniques; they were more about learning goals. Our Big Ideas discussions did include some talk about New York State Standards, though, as well as some talk of child development.

Topics under the Procedure category focused on management, routines, and classroom environment elements of teaching that are not strictly academic in nature. Topics categorized as Standards indicate that our discussions attempted to answer such questions as, How much? How often? How good is good enough? These discussions were not limited to talk about the New York State Standards.

I also recorded in my journal when we watched a teacher do a demonstration lesson. Some of these lessons were videotapes of model lessons, and others were "teacher demonstrations" that were performed by different members of our group.

I used a separate personal journal to record my feelings and attitudes about my literacy teaching. Throughout the year, I jotted down revelations and intense feelings I had about my teaching and our professional development sessions.
My lesson plan book also became a critical piece of data, as I sought to discover how I was integrating what we discussed in our weekly meetings into my teaching. My plan book contained daily lesson plans, outlines, and long term plans for various units of study, as well as notes from post observation meetings with one of my school directors.

Finally, to examine how teachers were responding to their balanced literacy professional development, I audiotaped 20 to 30 minute portions of two of the meetings one in December and one in February. Then I transcribed short two to three minute segments that seemed most relevant.


Big Ideas. By participating in a weekly professional development meeting with a master teacher and my colleagues, I increased my knowledge and ability to articulate the Big Ideas about how students learn to read and write. A significant amount of time in our meetings was devoted to discussing how students learn to read and write, as well as what they need to know in order to be successful readers and writers. These were the kind of topics I categorized as Big Ideas. Eighty-eight percent of our meetings contained at least some explicit talk about the Big Ideas in learning to read and write.

This focus on the Big Ideas seemed to drive our discussion away from procedural or management issues. Such conversation took place in only a quarter of the meetings, and those were mostly during the first three weeks. Gradually, references to Procedures, such as making up rules for the listening center or how students should check out books from the library, disappeared from my journal. Instead, I saw more notes on Big Ideas, with valuable lists of student learning goals and strategies to teach during shared reading.

In looking back on my journal, my plan book, and my weekly meeting notes, I can see my understanding of the Big Ideas in teaching reading and writing grow over the course of the year. For example, my notes from the meeting on September 9 include an outline of some of the Big Ideas we wanted students to learn about writing for an upcoming unit. Four out of the six ideas were Lucy's. By contrast, at a May meeting, we drafted a list of Big Ideas we wanted students to learn in the coming year about how writers use craft. I contributed eight of the 10 learning goals to the list. After a year spent discussing what was important for young writers to learn, I was finally able to articulate what was important for them to know.

One particular journal entry stands out as evidence of how my thinking was influenced by the meetings. In December, I marveled at "my growing understanding of how meaning drives reading." I recalled an epiphany I had in the middle of our previous weekly meeting, when 1 finally realized why it is so important for students to be thinking about the context of the whole story when trying to understand a tricky part of their reading. After much discussion and thinking, I finally "got" this Big Idea. Such epiphanies didn't happen often during our weekly meetings, and most of my learning was much more gradual.

Instruction in action. Participating in these weekly professional development meetings gave me the opportunity to see instructional strategies in action, and this increased my confidence and competence in implementing more focused instruction. The broad category that appeared most frequently in my notes was Instruction, which applied to any practical discussion of the best way to teach a concept. During 93% of the meetings we spent time talking about topics I categorized as Instruction often linked to discussion of the Big Ideas.

The conversations flowed back and forth, with the Big Ideas informing the Instruction and vice versa.

Much of the focus on Instruction in our meetings consisted of talk about and direct observation of a teacher teaching. In 11 out of the 24 meetings, I had the opportunity to directly observe a teacher in action. Five of the observations were videotaped lessons, which we paused frequently to discuss and critique. The other six observations were demonstration lessons that we did for one another. During our eight week study on guided reading, each teacher in the group brought in a small group of students and taught a guided reading lesson, while the rest of us watched. After the demonstration, we discussed the lesson. These discussions were rich and lively, as we shared hypotheses about students' stumbling points, pondered the dilemmas we faced in our own practice, and shared potential solutions.

This continuing opportunity to observe others helped me teach more focused and explicit guided reading lessons in my own classroom, such as the one I described at the beginning of this article. When introducing the lesson, I asked students to activate their background knowledge and make a personal connection to the text. By observing similar lessons during our weekly meetings, I had concluded that children were more successful in reading the text after this type of introduction. I also set a clear purpose for the reading, a direct result of the lessons I had observed in our weekly meetings. I realized that having a purpose enables readers to actively monitor their own reading. These are just two examples of the many ways that seeing "instruction in action" helped me improve my own teaching.

Even when we were not doing formal demonstration lessons for one another, the weekly meetings became a place to try out new language and rehearse new teaching strategies. Many of my notes on my colleagues' demonstration lessons include phrases and prompts that I heard them use during their teaching that have since become a part of my own teaching repertoire.

Through meeting together weekly, we created a shared bag of tricks from which we could all draw. We began establishing a shared language that we could use in all of our classrooms. Through our dialogue, we were able to rehearse ways to make the tough teaching decisions we face every day. And I felt my confidence in my ability to make those decisions grow.

Supportive environment. These weekly professional development meetings also gave me a supportive environment in which to make a transformation in my teaching that sometimes seemed overwhelming. Changing my literacy instruction to a more assessment driven, standards based approach was time consuming and challenging. My journal entries in September and October reflect these feelings:

  • Mostly I'm just having trouble knowing what makes most sense for me to teach first--I want them to know everything!!

  • I feel slightly dissatisfied at the moment with how teacher centered the class is right now.
    Tomorrow my school director is coming to observe me. I have no idea how it will go. I'm a little bit nervous because she'll be observing read aloud, and I'm not sure where I'm headed with read aloud. My instruction has been murky in focus.

  • I'm frustrated and already feel so far behind.

In November, I felt more in control of the management and procedures involved in teaching with a balanced literacy approach, and my focus shifted to trying to assess my instruction and my students' learning:

At this moment, teaching feels too easy, too effortless students do what I ask when I ask them to; they participate in discussions and listen (sometimes) to each other. Now I realize that my teaching career has been more about management than anything else learning how to manage 20 human beings, with the goal of creating as little chaos as possible. And now I'm thinking, Are they learning anything? How are they learning it? I want to get in close. Have opportunities for real dialogue and meaningful instruction. Do students understand what they're doing? Why they're doing it?

The weekly meetings were a safe place to bring my new questions, doubts, and struggles. They also offered me feedback on my teaching, as I wrote in February on the day after I taught a demonstration guided reading lesson for my colleagues:

My school director told me she heard I taught a "textbook guided reading lesson yesterday. Wow! I can't believe Lucy said that. Now I just have to try to do it all the time. Right. The amount of preparation I did for that lesson just seems impossible to keep up! Totally unrealistic on a day to day basis, so what can I take away from it?

The weekly meetings also offered us a place to support one another and to commiserate about the difficult aspects of our experiences. My audiotape from December includes a discussion prompted by my airing my problems about deciding when to stop and just tell a student a word, when to move on, and how to keep the parts of the lesson in mind even as I keep it moving. We all expressed how overwhelmed we were and how enormous we found the task of making smart teaching decisions. "Too many choices!" I said. "Gimme that school where everything's scripted!" came one colleague's reply. We all laughed knowingly.

However, while we joked that a "scripted" school would have been easier for us, we knew that really wasn't how we wanted to teach. We appreciated the chance we had to examine our teaching closely each week, to share our frustrations and feelings of confusion, and to work together to come up with solutions and new ideas that we could bring into our classrooms every day.


My research and experience suggest that, when teachers participate in professional development of this kind, they become more knowledgeable and articulate about student learning and about instruction. They gain confidence and competence in implementing more focused and explicit instructional strategies. And they benefit from the support they need during the sometimes overwhelming process of changing their instruction. These findings suggest that we need policy changes at several different levels. School, district, and state policy makers should be committed to:

  • Making time for teacher collaboration. Schools need to provide time in the schedule for teacher collaboration to improve instruction and learning. The time I spent in my weekly meetings was invaluable to my growth as a teacher. While teachers may not be compensated for this time, it is important to at least make time available for this type of interaction.

  • Providing instructional demonstrations. Schools should provide professional development that allows teachers multiple opportunities to observe one another in action. I benefited greatly from being able to watch master teachers and my colleagues give demonstrations that we could then discuss as a group.

  • Providing literacy training that focuses on the Big Ideas. Teachers need more professional development that allows them time to discuss Big Ideas. In literacy instruction, such ideas include what students need to know to be successful readers and writers and why they need to know those things. When schools think of teachers as active learners and provide this type of opportunity the teachers are then able to work better with their students and improve their achievement in reading and writing.

  • Hiring professional developers to work collaboratively with teachers. Teachers and their students will benefit if they are provided professional developers who can act as consultants, resources, and facilitators of teacher discussion rather than didactic "teacher trainers." Lucy did not merely stand in front of us each week and lecture at us. She was a coach, facilitator, teacher, and consultant. She pushed us to think and encouraged our discussion and collaboration. This type of ongoing instruction proved to be very effective for me and my colleagues and allowed us to see one another as sources of information with valuable ideas and opinions.

In the end, I really appreciated not being in a school where everything was scripted. I was lucky to be teaching in a school that valued and implemented many of the policies that I recommended above. Although it was a challenge for us to learn new ways of teaching, our meetings gave us something many educators never experience--a safe, supportive environment in which to collaborate and to grow as professionals. I was given the opportunity to grow in my understanding of how students learn, to question my colleagues, to risk trying new things in my teaching, and to share my progress with others. Though attempting to transform my teaching in this way was a demanding process, I am committed to continuing this work, for it is from this process that thoughtful, effective teaching practice can emerge. This is the teaching that children like Leo need and deserve. It is the teaching that all our children need and deserve.

1. Linda Darling Hammond, "What Matters Most: A Competent Teacher for Every Child," Phi Delta Kappan, April 1996, p. 194.

2. Catherine E. Snow et al., Unfulfilled Expectations: Home and School Influences on Literacy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991).

3. Ann Lieberman, "Practices That Support Teacher Development: Transforming Conceptions of Professional Learning," Phi Delta Kappan, April 1995, pp. 591 96.

4. Darling Hammond, p. 197.

5. Dennis Sparks and Stephanie Hirsh, A New Vision for Staff Development (Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1997), p. 5.

6. Dorothy P. Hall and Patricia M. Cunningham, Month-by-Month Phonics for First Grade (New York: Carson Dellosa, 1997), p. 2.


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