Professional Learning Teacher Inquiry

Creating a Culture of Inquiry Through the Use of Model Lessons


The students in TJ’s third grade classroom listen intently as their guest teacher, a Northern California Writing Project (NCWP) teacher-consultant, reads an article about how ancient Egyptians mummified bodies. Four teachers—third and fourth grade colleagues of TJ’s—sit with him in the back of the room watching this model lesson and taking notes as part of a yearlong inservice series anchored by model lessons.

Model lessons are like lab lessons, where an experienced teacher-consultant demonstrates key concepts in the teaching of writing in the classrooms of the teachers to whom the writing project is providing professional development. These lessons are followed by a collective debriefing session where teachers design inquiries into the schoolwide use of the concept demonstrated.

This classroom in Sierra Avenue Elementary School, a diverse rural school near Oroville, California, with nearly 80 percent of its students coming from families receiving AFDC assistance, is a good example of how NCWP uses model lesson structures in multisession inservice programs.

During the second reading each student identifies and writes down ten key words from the article. The guest teacher explains key words to the students as words that unlock meaning. In this lesson key words are words that the students already understand that will help them to remember the content of the article.

Derek shares some of his list: “mummy, protect, process, nostril, dried-out.” Mai shares a similar list and adds “salt” and “preserve.” Pairs of students share their key words and summarize the article.

After the discussion the class collaborates on writing a summary. All students copy the summary, and then each makes a “claim” about the most interesting fact in the article. Making this claim helps the students reflect on their reading and shows them how they can formulate claims in their own writing. The observing teachers take notes and write down questions, preparing for a whole-school inquiry later that day into the use of key words in nonfiction reading.

The Use of Model Lessons

Examples of the topics of model lessons include the use of informal writing-to-learn experiences, writing strategies for comprehending nonfiction, writing about literature, making a claim, using evidence, and evaluation.

Experienced teacher-consultants present these lessons in each grade level at the school, with appropriate adjustments, so by the end of the day the whole school has had the chance to experience the same model lesson. This sample schedule (PDF) shows a typical schedule when a school has a “minimum day” schedule built in for professional development.

We have had to coach our teacher-consultants to be very clear with the school from the outset that these model lessons are professional development for teachers, not simply good lessons for their students. Occasionally teachers have misunderstood the purpose of model lessons and have scheduled parent conferences or used the time to catch up on their grading and planning.

In addition to sharing promising practices, the purpose of these lessons is to introduce an idea about the teaching of reading and writing as a topic of further exploration and inquiry by the staff. The important end-of-the-day debrief revolves around examining the model lesson and planning for each participating teacher to do further inquiry into the idea in his or her own classroom.

TJ wrote in his evaluation about the debrief sessions, “The debrief sessions, in particular, helped our staff understand the theory behind the model lesson. The discussions that followed the day of model lessons served as a source for us to put the concept of the model lesson into our everyday teaching. As a school, we developed shared vocabularies and shared practices that we could discuss and refine.”

In the example of “key words” in the sample schedule, teachers would first discuss the use of key words and then design a mini research project for use in their classroom. At the next session, they would bring student work from their research project to discuss. Participation in the model lesson work is voluntary, as is participation in the follow-up discussion.

Benefits to the School Community

Using the same model lesson up and down the grade levels supports collective teacher inquiry into key concepts of teaching reading and writing. Teachers see the concept presented live in their classroom and can witness its effectiveness with their own students.

The students’ enthusiasm for our model lessons and the shared debriefing sessions we offer for teachers encourage teachers to design similar activities for their students, research them, and then bring their student work to the next session. Such a cycle of work changes the culture of the school by integrating change and inquiry into the everyday lives of teachers.

Model lessons also offer schools a financial advantage, not to be overlooked in these days of financial challenge. Fewer substitutes are needed to release teachers for professional development than are required for whole-school workshops.

For instance, Sierra Avenue hires roving subs to cover classrooms. Two substitutes can cover the whole school-day inservice session. If the second and third grade teachers are scheduled to observe in a second grade class, the subs go into the other second and third grade classrooms and teach for forty-five minutes, releasing the teachers to watch the model lesson.

Frequently, schools combine classes for a reading time or to watch a movie in order to save money and limit the number of subs needed to cover classes. Other schools have used support service paraprofessionals to provide coverage. Some schools enlist the help of the librarian, and one principal at a small K–8 school used his eighth grade students to help him design a physical education day for all students, managing to cover all classes without any financial outlay for substitute teachers.

Many schools in NCWP’s service area work with extremely limited budgets. It is pointless to offer powerful inservice programs that no one can afford. For the partnership work with Sierra Avenue, the school paid NCWP $5,000 for forty hours of professional development.

One Model Lesson, Different Grade Levels

The first model lesson day at Sierra Avenue School was designed to show students how to explore the work of moving from a topic sentence and details to making a claim and providing evidence for the claim.

The inservice coordinator for the series used the children’s book Horace and Morris, But Mostly Dolores by James Howe to teach the lesson. The story begins with a claim, “Horace and Morris, but mostly Dolores love adventure.” Students then track the proof that Howe supplies for his claim, and continue with subsequent claims and evidence. The reading of the story continues with pauses to chart important words, to explore vocabulary, to examine the power of the print, to identify general and specific, and to make predictions.

After thinking through the author’s model, the students begin thinking about their own claim and supporting ideas based on the story. For example, in Horace and Morris, a story about the friendship between three mice, the boys join a club for boys only, so Dolores joins a club for girls only. Finally Dolores quits the girls’ club and with a new friend seeks out the two boys, who have also quit their club, and with another friend the four mice create a club for everyone.

Each classroom collaborates to make sense of the story, including the kindergarten class, where orally they make a claim about the story and support it with details from the book. Students then make and support their own claim, “If I were to join a club it would be a club for _________ because…” The evidence for the claim needs to be specific and concrete. The youngest students stand up and “perform their claim.”

Though Horace and Morris is written for younger grades, the topic of gender-exclusive institutions is meaningful for any age. Thus the lesson is scaled up for the upper grades using the same book. The difference is that the discussion of claims and evidence becomes more complex and sophisticated in the upper grades.

NCWP’s use of this lesson works well at other educational levels. We have had amazing responses, ranging from Chico State students engaging in a heated discussion about the role of women in combat to a group of sixth grade boys at Cedarville Elementary forming their own book club.

NCWP has additional model lesson days designed to focus on a variety of essential elements of a successful writing program. Typically, each inservice series includes four model lesson days followed by afternoon meetings. The series is enriched by the examination of student work, professional reading, and guest presentations, followed by classroom inquiry into the topics. Each series differs, depending on the design developed by the school’s site leaders and the NCWP team.

At the end of each series, teachers fill out a Student Writing Evaluation form (PDF). The school uses the information, which includes data on student achievement, to create a graph suitable for using at board meetings to report on the school’s progress and make a case for its investment in the writing project. This process gives NCWP an idea of how the inservice program is progressing.

Preparing Teacher-Consultants to Conduct Model Lessons

The NCWP leadership meets with teachers at the school to arrange for a schedule that fits with their needs. Sierra Avenue teachers wanted to focus on persuasive writing, so NCWP created a schedule of topics that progressed from “informal writing” to “using writing to learn from nonfiction” to “persuasive writing.”

The Schedule of Sessions (PDF) shows the plan for yearlong professional development offerings at Sierra. The challenge of presenting a concept rather than a “lesson” to both upper and primary grades requires a teacher-consultant with significant experience. While demonstration lessons from the invitational summer institute are a resource, those demonstrations need significant transformation to work as a model lesson.

To that end, NCWP provides teacher-consultants with a set of experiences, post–summer institute, that prepare them to conduct model lessons.

Initially, teachers spend their fall reunion after the invitational summer institute recasting, remaking, and revising their demonstrations to emphasize the conceptual framework in order to make it more available to a wider audience and give it more potential for use as a model lesson in an inservice.

Additionally, NCWP regularly offers advanced institutes for inservice presenters, where teacher-consultants can work specifically on how to shape their ideas into model lessons.

In Northern California the writing project faces challenges of distance, competition with prepackaged programs, pressures from an emphasis on raising test scores, and, of course, financial limitations. However, NCWP’s innovative use of model lessons in an inservice series keeps programs relevant, effective, and affordable.