Policy and Research Professional Learning

Planning for Study Groups: An Advanced Institute at the NWP in Vermont

Author: Patricia McGonegal

Summary: This article describes the design and development of an advanced summer institute where teacher-consultants prepare to lead study groups in their own schools. Within this experiential institute, teacher leaders immerse themselves in the practices and theories essential to making study groups productive and powerful; they participate in a study group, reflect on this experience, and begin to design study groups adapted to their specific contexts. While this article can be viewed as a guide to preparing teachers to lead study groups, it could just as easily be used as a general guide for any site planning an advanced institute to support teachers as professional development leaders.

Original Date of Publication: June 16, 2010

The Vermont Writing Project has seen the benefits of teacher study groups—teachers learning together in their own schools—in improving the site’s inservice program and developing long-term partnerships with schools. A crucial component of a study group’s success is training our teacher-consultants how to conduct long-term study groups.

That’s why, in the spring of 2009, Vermont site leaders began planning for a summer advanced institute to prepare teacher-consultants to lead study groups in their own schools.

The advanced institute is a logical next step for sites whose teacher-consultants are ready to become inservice leaders—ready to go beyond sharing their inquiries and demos to become flexible and well-prepared agents of professional development within a school, whether through a study group or some other format.

As University of Mississippi Writing Project Director Ellen Shelton suggests, “Sites often make the mistake of sending out [teacher-consultants] into several days of inservice, only to lead to disappointment and frustration on all parts. We don’t want to send anyone into that trial by fire moment. Advanced institutes are a regular way of organizing our thinking around special topics wherever we see a demand and we need to get folks trained.”

Based on a few years of study group experience by several teacher-consultants, the Vermont institute focused on the following:

  • Teacher-consultants participate in a study group and reflect on the elements of this model.
  • The group designs approaches for linking the work to school goals.
  • The group explores and organizes study group resources.
  • A collaborative plan markets the idea to administrators and teachers.

This approach appeals to our site leaders in Vermont as a means of balancing a school’s “strategic plan” with the research-based approaches NWP can offer a school.

The Vermont Writing Project’s model was initially designed by the Denver Writing Project (as reported in Study Groups Build Community in Vermont Site’s Inservice Offerings). In year 1, a group of teachers, facilitated by one or more NWP teacher-consultants, explores a problem or issue. Then for years 2 and 3 and beyond, teachers and site leaders custom-design inservice programs that address the specific needs of the school, partially determined by the work of the study group.

Creating a Study Group for Study Group Leaders

To enlist teacher-consultants who could do this work, I teamed with Director Lisa Italiano to invite teacher-consultants who intended to lead site-sponsored study group work in their schools in the coming year to a three-day August institute. At the same time Lisa sent a letter to teacher-consultants’ schools inviting their support.

Seven teacher-consultants participated in the advanced institute, including a few veteran study group leaders. We paid each participant $100 per day, planning to incorporate this expense into the support donated by the schools.

An open discussion of study groups had begun months earlier on our site’s Ning, a social networking platform solely for members of our site. Ideas bubbled up from teacher-consultants’ study group experience, and sparked and fed conversation around issues such as audience and student engagement.

One discussion thread asked the question, “How does a team of teachers look objectively and productively at student writing?” The online conversations also surfaced some new readings to support the work of study groups in schools, including Tom Newkirk’s Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones, Deborah Dean’s Genre Theory: Teaching, Writing, and Being, and Rick VanDeWeghe’s Engaged Learning.

Two veteran study group leaders, Ellen Temple and Joyce Sheehey, cofacilitated the institute and met with Lisa and me to fine-tune the three-day institute agenda (PDF).

“We built in time for three elements,” said Ellen. “Individual exploration of resources, sharing and cross-pollination of issues and ideas, and outreach: planning for documentation and linking this work to teacher and administrator concerns.”

The Work of the Institute / The Work of Schools

Key to the success of the institute was keeping the work very close to the needs of the teacher-consultant leaders working in their own schools. Tools for this work came from a traditional combination of writing project sources: relevant texts and handouts from the office library, online resources from the local site Ning and the NWP website, and experiences and questions teacher-consultants brought to the institute.

In fact, the institute was grounded in issues the seven participants described as burning issues at their schools:

“Our school adapts canned programs (The Kansas Intervention Model) or spends all professional development time analyzing data from standardized tests. Teachers don’t buy in….”

“Teachers are reluctant to share student work, open themselves up to collaboration.”

“Initiatives are brought in; nobody to see that the momentum continues.”

“What’s the difference between assigning and teaching writing?”

“Teachers need a theory base in writing instruction.”

“Seventh- and eighth-graders spend little time writing in class. Only write three or four pieces a year; there isn’t enough time built into the day for writing.”

Each day the group took on these and other challenges through discussion, writing, and exploring resources. The cofacilitators met each morning to revise the agenda in response to the discoveries the group made together; a lot of time, for example, had to be built in to explore the issue of voluntary versus mandatory participation in the study group, and a longer-than-expected session focused on addressing the concerns—and participation—of administrators.

Study Group Resources: Finding Them, Becoming Them

The teacher-consultants built a rich collection of texts, online links, and handouts that they and others could draw on in planning for study groups. Each customized a binder of materials for his or her own use, taking common materials as well as copies of resources they found specifically useful to their colleagues.

In addition to the tangible resources, across the week the teacher-consultants mined and participated in virtual resources: both the local Vermont Ning and NWP’s Site Leaders’ Ning. The NWP in Vermont Ning continues to provide a space for posting resources, issues, and feedback among the leaders.

Sheehey walked the group through the NWP website, encouraging teacher-consultants to explore and incorporate into their sessions the ideas, models, and opportunities there.

Approaching Administrators

The group developed strategies for taking the program to their administrators to address the needs and challenges of individual schools. Teacher-consultants adapted the points in Italiano’s generic letter to principals and policymakers, custom planning a written or oral presentation of the issues and a study group proposal in their particular schools. Download the letter (PDF).

As the group read and talked, new issues opened new challenges and demanded additional resources. How to market these programs to teachers? How to introduce NWP ideas without “taking over” the group? What formats are useful for feedback? Evaluation? Continuity to a second, third year and beyond? Continued dialogue among group leaders, via the Ning and regular meetings, can help nourish and fortify the connections and address the ever-emerging questions.

Closing institute reflections show the diversity in the learning of these teacher-consultants, targeting the professional work of course, but also their classrooms, their research, the ways they think about teachers and teaching:

“I’m finally coming to understand what the NWP does in the schools.”

“A renewed sense of enjoyment in participation with educators.”

“I want to provide this environment for my class: maybe they can become an inquiry group. What if we applied these ideas to other learning communities. I’m interested in looking at these inquiry strategies with my students. If I get positive results from students, maybe this format can become a model for teachers.

What We Learned

In debriefing the advanced institute, these principles emerged to guide future advanced institutes:

  1. Allow time for advanced institute leadership to plan collaboratively.
  2. Support some pre-institute online conversations to raise interest.
  3. Invite teacher-consultants who can help participants see the value of working at their own schools.
  4. Name the issues, individual and collective.
  5. Design a program mission statement* that aligns with site philosophy.
  6. Set up time and structure for using and sharing resources.
  7. Keep an agenda both structured and flexible.
  8. Work toward a product—a binder, bibliography, anthology, or online presence.
  9. Plan for specific follow-up and follow-through.

*National Writing Project in Vermont Study Group Mission Statement: NWP-VT’s Study Groups engage teachers across the disciplines and equip them to improve student writing. Through collaborative inquiry and reflection upon student work and teacher practice, the study group becomes a catalyst of change.

Download “National Writing Project in Vermont Advanced Institute Agenda”
Download “National Writing Project in Vermont Study Group Letter to Administrators”

Related Resources

Original Source: National Writing Project, http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/3185