Professional Learning

Imaginary Gardens and Real Issues: Improving Language Arts in the Urban Elementary School


Former Boston Writing Project director Joe Check creates "an imaginary school filled with real issues" to explore the role that Writing Project sites can play in helping schools create lasting improvements in literacy instruction, shifting focus from scaling up "exemplary programs" to scaling down and fostering "exemplary contexts." Importantly, for any site leader beginning work with a school, Check reminds us that many schools have experienced waves of prior reform, often through the commitment of existing faculty whose hard-won improvements are potentially at risk in any new effort.



I offer three connected approaches to permanently improving literacy education in urban elementary schools: first, a portrait of an imaginary, composite urban school—East Elementary—that illustrates some of the reasons why lasting change is so difficult to achieve; second, consideration of some relevant research findings concerning reform and language arts instruction; third, suggestions for a new way to think about change. My purpose in this three-pronged focus is to highlight implementation issues that occur in schools when outsiders—reform experts, university faculty, content-area “coaches”—attempt to work closely with insiders—teachers and principals—to create lasting change. If such collaborations are ever to succeed, I believe we must shift the focus of effort from exemplary programs created by outside agents and supported by short-term funding, to the creation of exemplary contexts, the set of conditions that will allow a particular school with a unique history and faculty to integrate outside interventions into a process of sustainable success on its own terms.