Professional Learning Teacher Inquiry

School-Based Study Groups Build Community

When she was thinking about ways to improve her site’s inservice program, Patricia (Tish) McGonegal, site director of the National Writing Project in Vermont, had a breakthrough: “Where better for teachers to learn together than in their own buildings alongside the colleagues they work with day to day?” she asked herself.

McGonegal looked for help to other sites she knew had gone in the direction of creating in-school study groups. Two sites had described their experience in the National Writing Project at Work monograph series: Saginaw Bay Writing Project in The Saginaw Teacher Study Group Movement, and Kennesaw Mountain Writing Project in The Professional Leadership Development Project.

Then in 2006 Vermont site leaders, using the Denver Writing Project’s Trinal Model, developed by Denver directors Rick VanDeWeghe and Rich Argys, launched their own study groups.

Teachers Take Control of Their Learning

Like Denver, the National Writing Project in Vermont recognized that groups will need time to develop professional expertise and effective community, so it expects a three-year commitment from teachers and schools taking on study groups. In Year One, participants choose a focus question or challenge and study it. For example, in Vermont, one middle school focused on how to reach kids who hate school, and a high school looked at how to integrate social studies curriculum and English curriculum.

Based on the discoveries and concerns of this first year, teachers plan Year Two and Year Three. They may continue a study group or choose other forms of professional development to answer essential questions generated by the group. Throughout, the groups are facilitated by teacher-consultants.

McGonegal finds that the open-endedness of the study group replicates the principles that make a summer institute succeed. In a summer institute, she says, “teachers are intellectually and emotionally nurtured, rejuvenated, and empowered. They assume a measure of authority over their own learning.”

Likewise, teachers are expected to take responsibility for their own growth in study groups. “If we do too much for participants, they become consumers only,” says McGonegal.

Voluntary study groups are not preplanned; the content is not mandated; and planning and decision making are exclusively in the hands of teachers.

Victoria Taylor Smith, a Vermont teacher-consultant who facilitated one of the study groups, comments on the power of this orientation: “It’s beautiful when it comes from within. Teachers can say, ‘We’re who you want to solve this problem, not some third party you pay to come in.'”

“Oh, Study Groups, We Know How to Do That”

Initial recruiting in the schools was also—at first—sluggish. “One of the responses we came up against,” McGonegal says, “was ‘Oh, study groups, we know how to do that.'”

She needed to convince school administrators that NWP teacher-consultants are uniquely well prepared to lead teacher study groups, so she gave them three compelling reasons: First, teacher-consultants have experienced in their summer institute a voluntary professional learning community, typically an extraordinary one. They have watched skilled facilitators bring a group together, make it safe to share practice and take risks, and deal with people who might not fit well into the group. In short, teacher-consultants come equipped knowing what a professional learning community is.

Second, they have expertise in literacy. When the group has questions, often the teacher-consultants know the answers, but when they don’t, they have the resources of the NWP at their fingertips. And third, in sharing their own practice during the summer institute, teacher-consultants have experienced going public with their teaching—a common practice in study groups.

While McGonegal and her colleagues make a strong case for the benefits of study groups for participants, she also sees significant advantages for the site and its teacher-consultants. “I was looking for new ways to keep teacher-consultants active and growing at the site,” she says. “And I think more teacher-consultants are suited to running a study group than giving a workshop in their own district.”

A Community of Teachers

When the study groups actually began work, there were of course both successes and glitches. Victoria Taylor Smith explains how her group began in its work. The district had offered teachers a menu of professional development options. The eight teachers who chose the study group began by designing their own process. “We decided to bring problems and questions to the table and discuss them as professionals. All voices were honored. I found teachers are extremely hungry for peer information and problem solving.”

The content included everything from how to get reluctant writers to write to how we each address the six standard writing portfolio pieces required for the state.

This year, 2007–2008, the group has grown to fifteen members because, Victoria reports, “word spread that this group shares solutions, rather than having an expert.”

In the same year, Vermont teacher-consultant Joyce Sheehey facilitated, in her words, a “flawed” study group, flawed because teachers signed up for study groups as their professional development without knowing what study groups were and how they worked. Some folks who joined quickly discovered they didn’t want to be there. Not understanding the purpose and the structure, they wanted an expert to tell them what to do.

And one district had set up a huge study group inservice program but owing to incomplete understanding or conflicting administrative goals, they had made membership mandatory.

The Essential Ingredients

The National Writing Project in Vermont learned from this first year that study groups had enormous potential as inservice and there are two essential ingredients: 1) the group has to be voluntary; and 2) it has to want to come up with a common essential problem it will study.

This year (2007–2008) there are four new study groups at the National Writing Project in Vermont in addition to Smith’s second-year group. Site leaders believe they are providing an opportunity for teachers to take charge of their professional development for three years. These teachers are positioned to emerge, in the words of Susan Rosenholtz on professional learning communities, having “a high sense of their own efficacy” and empowered to make informed recommendations for school reform based on their research and experience.