How can teachers respond when facing mandated programs that may or may not address their particular students’ needs?
Teacher-consultants in the San Diego Area Writing Project (SDAWP) launched a teacher research initiative with the intent of investigating how teachers could meet state mandates without sacrificing their teaching principles.
The mandated curriculum was the Houghton Mifflin Reading Series, Grades K–6. While the series is intended to be appropriate as a language arts curriculum—one that includes reading, writing, speaking, and listening—the writing component seemed disconnected and had little relation to the stories students read.
“It seemed pretty much an afterthought,” said Kim Douillard, the site’s director.
The research initiative began as a series of informal but pointed discussions between Douillard and teacher-consultant Christine Sphar, and their dialogue quickly blossomed into a study group. Soon teacher-consultant Christine Kane and others were joining the conversations for a lively investigation into ways that writing project beliefs about good writing practice could meld with the mandated program.
Mining the Materials for Solutions
The group identified a set of priorities. Some were immediate: how do we support teacher-consultants in trying to negotiate this mandated program with their writing project practice? Others spoke to the long-range self-image of teachers: how do we counter the below-the-radar message frequently sent by packaged programs that teachers are incapable of making intelligent teaching and curricular decisions in their classrooms?
A third priority was to shift the image of SDAWP held by some teachers and administrators in the surrounding districts, who perceived the site as too removed from the reality of classrooms needing to negotiate mandated programs.
Based on these intentions, the SDAWP study group initiated a systematic way of looking at the issues. A core group of six participants began the research by examining the materials that came with the mandated program.
The news was not all bad. The literature selections of the program were of high quality, a variety of types of writing were required, and writing lessons were embedded in the worksheets.
Still, the program provided little support for teachers implementing writing instruction. There seemed to be, according to Douillard, an assumption that worksheets teach students how to write.
Adapting Program to Beliefs about Teaching Writing
The group set out to adapt these materials to create a better fit between the program and their beliefs about teaching writing. For instance, they looked for ways to provide “mentor texts,” that is, models that provide examples of aspects of strong writing.
Douillard explains, “Our teachers would determine what skills or processes students would need in order to successfully complete the type of writing required—a personal narrative, for example. If the type of writing demanded a focus on a time-order sequence, teachers would look through the stories students had already read—even going to the previous year if necessary—to find models that spotlighted that skill.”
Sphar tells of a teacher who was trying to figure out a way to teach transitions in writing. Together, she and the teacher sat down with the mandated text, culled a wealth of transition examples, and developed a means for getting students to examine those works.
Teachers replaced worksheets with minilessons and used the stories and writing types to teach grammar lessons, all in the context of the writing they wanted students to do.
By connecting these activities to the research work of authors such as Katie Wood Ray and using the rich literature provided in multiple sets by the Houghton-Mifflin series, teachers were able to help students “read like writers.”
Support from an NWP Minigrant
Eventually the group raised a question: how might our work both benefit other teachers facing mandates and help build our capacity to provide professional development in surrounding districts? Douillard and the core group applied for and received an NWP Teacher Inquiry Communities (TIC) Network minigrant for the purpose of developing workshops and institutes.
The resulting professional learning opportunities provided teachers in San Diego area schools with a range of ways to adapt their needs and practices to the mandated program. The workshops, which functioned as mutual inquiries, empowered teachers, according to Douillard. The investigations that the participants conducted gave them some control over the direction of their practice.
The minigrant provided the necessary funds to involve more teachers in developing and facilitating professional learning work. Those who had been involved in the initial dialogue were able to widen the discussion to include more colleagues. Also, given the need to describe the work to others, the mere act of applying for the grant helped to crystallize an action plan.
Going On from Here
Having hade a great response to their presentation at the 2007 NWP site directors meeting in New York, San Diego teacher-consultants plan to continue inquiring into issues that grow out of classroom practice, particularly in the area of mandated curriculum.
And the work has generated a new respect for SDAWP among teachers in the San Diego area. As Christine Kane affirmed, “Our [mandated writing program workshops] work for teachers tomorrow. SDAWP is substantive all of a sudden.”
Of course, as we all know, it always was.