Democratically Led Professional Development for Schoolwide Literacy Improvement

Since its inception in 1999, Poland Regional High School and Bruce M. Whittier Middle School (PRHS/BWMS) has been at the forefront of school reform. Some of our programs and structures that help our students learn and grow: our students are grouped heterogeneously, we use a co-teaching model to include our special education population in the mainstream, our advisory program reinforces personalization and student success, we have integrated our social studies and English curricula, we have interdisciplinary teams that loop at the ninth and tenth grade levels, and we have a Junior/Senior Integrated Team collaborative learning community.

All of these initiatives go a long way to helping our students to be successful. However, we have struggled with the fact that many of our students have difficulty reading. They were daunted to the point of paralysis by challenging texts, and they didn’t read for pleasure. In addition, our scores on major assessments did not seem to reflect our students’ abilities.

During an allotted time at faculty meetings, many staff members were already working on identifying problems and developing ways to improve students’ literacy. These conversations were fascinating and set the stage for later events. When the faculty decided on the schoolwide goals for the 2005-6 school year, literacy was overwhelmingly an issue for teachers across many content areas.

Later in the summer, our Professional Development Task Force, a group made up of teachers and administrators, met to determine the best course for the year. We devised our mission: “In-house professional development that improves the learning of all students, prepares educators to understand and appreciate all students, supports excellence in teaching and learning, supports school, [district] U29 and individual initiatives, offers opportunities to engage intellect, honors teacher as learner, and values collaboration.”

With this in mind, we decided to channel our energy into a few areas that would benefit the students the most. We came up with a plan with literacy at the center. We agreed to devote part of each faculty meeting to literacy, to establish a Literacy Team, and to take advantage our half-time Literacy Coach, a new position for the upcoming academic year.

PRHS/BWMS’s innovations come from the faculty. Teachers initiate programs to support our mission and vision. They constantly reflect on the work that they do, and are skilled in the classroom. There is a real professional learning community here. In order to think about how to work with such a pool of talent, members of the Literacy Team, including the Literacy Coach, a Humanities teacher, the Librarian, a Math teacher, a middle school English teacher, and the principal participated in Promising Futures Level II: Adolescent Literacy Summer Academy, a three-day workshop sponsored by Maine’s Department of Education. We learned about energizing faculty members, the power of a group of educators working on a common goal, effective options for professional development, and how administrators could support a literacy initiative. We also spent some time with a school coach to develop an action plan for the year. We went back to PRHS/BWMS with a solid plan for how to continue and expand our literacy initiative.

Professional Development
We decided that we would use the time allotted to literacy professional development in faculty meetings to teach the staff several effective research-based strategies that they could use to improve students’ experience in the classroom. Our first faculty meeting of the year felt very important; it would set the tone for the year. We decided to broach this topic with our faculty by opening with an activity that would be both an icebreaker and a literacy activity. We broke into groups to discuss books we had read over the summer. We took pictures, shared our experiences, and eventually made a big display for the opening of school. When the students entered the school on the first day, the display of teacher reading demonstrated that reading was going to be an important focus for the year.

In this meeting, we also introduced our initiative for the year. We celebrated what our faculty was already doing, shared our school wide plan for literacy, and surveyed the staff about their knowledge of literacy strategies. The most important message of our meeting, as Julie Meltzer of the Center for Resource Management has written: “Literacy is not something extra on the plate, it IS the plate.”

This literacy strategy survey was the guiding force for our professional development. From it we learned, for example, that many faculty members were already using literacy strategies like think-pair-share, peer editing, the writing process, and reading response journals. Other literacy strategies, such as RAFT, SQ3R, Semantic Feature Analysis, and the Frayer Model, were not as widely known. We later collected further data on departmental needs so that we could try to make our workshops as effective as possible. As we analyzed the data, it was evident to us that reading strategies were a good place to start. Many faculty members, particularly in the Humanities Learning Area, had solid reading strategies skills but still wanted to know more. We felt that a focus on active reading in particular would present an opportunity to share strategies that work and also learn new ones.

Over the course of the next few months, our faculty worked on literacy at every full faculty meeting and on workshop days. The pattern for each meeting was similar: celebrate accomplishments of faculty who tried strategies, introduce a new strategy, practice the strategy, reflect on the experience of using the strategy, and finally write down some action steps for using the strategy within our classrooms. After six sessions, the faculty learned strategies to support each phase of the reading process. We introduced strategies like anticipation guides, KWL, and the Sequential Roundtable Alphabet for pre-reading. We approached the “during reading” phase with the SQ3R method (Survey, Question, Read, Recite, and Review). Finally, we shared strategies for after the students have read a text. We practiced Save the Last Word for Me, Text-based Discussion, and Write Around. Each faculty member received a packet of materials to take away.

The response to the literacy sessions was generally very positive. Mike Carter, a humanities teacher, said, “The sessions were organized in such a way that I not only received handouts of specific literacy strategies, but had the opportunity to see examples of the strategies in different classrooms and to practice using the strategy myself for use in my own classroom. It was especially helpful to hear how teachers in other subject areas use the strategies, especially since it is nearly impossible to get into all these teachers’ classrooms to observe what they do.”

Many faculty members reported that the strategies were immediately applicable in their classrooms. Pam Rawson, a mathematics teacher, said, “Using Anticipations Guides in Math 4 helped my students to focus on the important information and gave them a purpose for reading.” Principal Bill Doughty even used some of the strategies with the School Board. “I’ve been impressed with how helpful literacy strategies are when working with school committee members and administrators. We’ve used several strategies with the school committee this year and always have better, deeper discussions.”

Eventually, we decided that it was time to differentiate the activities for our faculty. Everyone had a bank of strategies and a common language to use regarding literacy. We decided to offer several choices during the last few faculty meetings. The Literacy Team took another look at the survey data. From this data we decided that faculty wanted more information on vocabulary development, study skills, and building discussion. We also needed to offer different learning opportunities for teachers. Therefore, we gave the faculty several choices for the last few meetings. The first choice was to continue in a similar vein as the other workshops. Teachers could come to a session, learn a new strategy, talk with other teachers, and take away a packet of materials. Other choices included working with content area colleagues, with a buddy, or on an individual plan. We offered the packet of materials to those groups, but gave them the option to work on strategies.

Differentiating for our faculty was a valuable experience. By offering choice, people had the option to work on integrating the strategies they had learned into their classes, they could learn new strategies, or they could focus on an area of literacy specific to their content areas. We asked that the teachers document their work in Learning Logs, which we collected. These logs were not just for accountability; when the Literacy Team reviewed them, we were able to see what people worked on, what they struggled with, and what they planned to try in their classrooms.

The PRHS/BWMS faculty welcomed this approach to professional development; as Mike Carter said, “As the year went on and a common language and knowledge base was built, it was nice to have more choices at each session. Having the opportunity to choose to work with a large group or a small group, or a fellow colleague gave me flexibility but required me to reflect on where I was in using literacy strategies in order to make the best choice for my own professional development. Often, professional development means a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. That was not the case here.” The Learning Logs revealed that many faculty members also benefited this approach.

The Literacy Team and the Literacy Coach
This work on literacy was successful, in part, due to the fact that PRHS/BWMS has a Literacy Team, a professional learning community that meets once a month, and a half time Literacy Coach. The literacy team is made up of fourteen teachers from math, science, humanities, special education, visual and performing arts, as well as the school librarian. We developed the Literacy Action Plan at the beginning of the year, we reviewed the data collected from the faculty surveys and Learning Logs, we practiced the strategies before they were introduced to the faculty, and we had a day-long retreat to plan the differentiated sessions. Literacy Teams served as table leaders during the large group sessions and also developed the course proposal for the Strategic Reading class that will be offered next year to students who are below grade level in reading. Our last action this year was to create and implement two literacy surveys: one for faculty to gauge the success of our ongoing professional development, and one for students to ascertain if the professional development impacted their experience in the classroom and also to gather data about their reading habits.

In my job as the Literacy Coach at PRHS/BMWMS, I have been responsible for leading the professional development at faculty meetings, facilitating the Literacy Team, doing research for best practices in literacy, becoming a “strategy expert,” working with individual faculty members to integrate literacy into their curriculum, and publishing The Plate, a monthly literacy newsletter.

Where Do We Go from Here?
As the year winds down and thoughts turn to summer, we still have many things to do to finish our literacy initiative for the year. We are in the midst of surveying the students and teachers, so that we can use the data both to evaluate the work we have done and to think about what we are going to do next year. We have one final faculty meeting left, in which we plan to have teachers reflect on the work they have done this year.

Our primary focus for the summer work is to establish a plan for next year. Literacy will probably not be the focus for faculty meetings, so our Literacy Team will need to strategize about how to keep the momentum going. We are sending a team to the Promising Futures Summer Academy to plan for next year. Also, our action plan stipulates that we create a tool, perhaps a web page or a CD/DVD, to remind teachers of the strategies we worked on this year. We will also analyze data from the two surveys.

Upon reflection, the literacy initiative at PRHS/BMWMS has been very successful. This is evidenced by the informal conversations, feedback from literacy sessions, the willingness of faculty members to learn and implement new strategies, and that two math teachers and the Literacy Coach are working on a proposal for a math and literacy session at next year’s CES Fall Forum. Dean of Faculty Angela Atkinson-Duina sums up our work this year very appropriately, saying, “Two things about this initiative have been really powerful: professional development was embedded into our regular meeting time and leadership for the initiative rests within our faculty.”

References Cited
Meltzer, Julie, “Washington County Adolescent Literacy Project.”

Poland Regional High School and Bruce M. Whittier Middle School Facts
PRHS/BWMS are rural public schools serving 715 students in 7-12th grades. PRHS/BWMS draw students from several area towns in southern Maine.

Literacy Strategies Defined
Some of the literacy strategies the Poland Regional High School professional learning community has studied and implemented include:

Think-Pair-Share: Students think about a question or a statement on their own, compare answers with a partner, then share with the group

Reading Response Journals: Students use journals to respond to important passages of text, character actions, interesting writing, plot events, etc.

RAFT (Role, Audience, Format, Topic): Students develop their understanding of a concept by writing about in a particular role, for a specific audience, and in a set format about a topic. Example: imagine you are a soldier from WWI. Write a letter to your mother explaining the difficulties of trench warfare.

SQ3R: A method of active reading in which the students survey, question, read, recite, and review.

Semantic Feature Analysis: This strategy helps students to understand a word’s meaning by comparing its features to those words that are in the same category. After completing a semantic feature matrix, students have a visual reminder of how terms are similar or different.

Frayer Model: A graphic organizer that helps students to understand concepts by studying them in a relational manner. Students analyze a word’s essential and nonessential attributes and choose examples and non-examples of the words.

Anticipation Guides: Students read a series of broad statements about a text they are about to read and decide whether they agree or disagree with the statements. Then they can compare their own answers with the content of the text.

KWL: What I Know about the subject, what I Want to know about the topic, what I Learned about the topic.

Sequential Roundtable Alphabet: Using an alphabet chart with boxes, students create an A-Z of the topic they are about to study. The completed chart serves as a prompt for remembering vocabulary words, facts, or events.

Save the Last Word for Me: Students highlight or underline five passages from the text that they find interesting. In groups, one person shares one of her/his statements. Each person responds to the statement. Finally, the person who shared the statement gets “the last word,” a chance to share why the statement was chosen. Repeat the process for each group member.

Write Around: Follow the same procedure as Save the Last Word for Me, but in writing. Each student writes his or her statement and passes it to the next person who responds to it. After each person responds, the author reads the comments. Each student gets an opportunity to respond orally to the writing on her/his sheet.

Heather Manchester is a Humanities Teacher and Literacy Coach at Poland Regional High School and Bruce M. Whittier Middle School, where she has taught since 1999. Now in her tenth year of teaching, Manchester is a graduate of Wheaton College and the University of London.

Web Exclusive!
This issue of Horace will be posted to the CES website in September 2006. We invite you to revisit these articles and read new web-only features such as:

  • Where to Go for More, Horace’s resource overview geared particularly for Essential schools
  • A web-exclusive article by James Frickey, mathematics teacher at Eagle Rock School in Estes Park, Colorado. Frickey writes about planning and teaching heterogeneously grouped math classes organized around an open-ended problem or a large project that allows for multiple entry points and successful completion points. Discussing curriculum, instruction, and assessment, Frickey focuses both on the philosophy of differentiated mathematics teaching and provides specific examples, ideas, and strategies to make it work in your school.

Look for Horace online in September! And visit for all past Horace issues dating back to 1988.