A REPORT OF BEST PRACTICES 

from the Rice Research Team, Linda M. McNeil, Principal Investigator

June 15, 2001

Houston Annenberg Challenge Evaluation Research, October 16, 2000 to August 31, 2001 

Sunnyvale* Middle School

New Jersey Writing Project: The Fine Art of Connection-Making

Sunnyvale Middle School has implemented the training of its teachers in the New Jersey Writing Project (NJWP) for an integrated reading and writing improvement under the Houston Annenberg Challenge (HAC) reform. This constructivist program implements the schools philosophy of hands-on, process-oriented activities for critical language literacy. NJWP facilitated by the work of Janet Emig in the 1970s continues with the work of Donald Graves and Regie Routman promoting language literacy that connects to students personal experiences. Giroux (1987) commends NJWP for valuing students histories and experiences and linking them to their language learning. Following Vygotsky's (1978) pedagogical lead, teachers emphasize small group learning that provides scaffolding for students in the growth of their critical language literacy.

Characteristic Student choice has guided the reading and writing activities in the language arts classes in grades six to eight as a means of stimulating interest. Students choose from consumable young adult literature. The need for a variety of reading selections has caused teachers to launch a continual search for quality books to meet the needs and interests of their primarily minority students. Teachers and students read silently from their book selections daily. Directors chairs, reading corners with carpet squares, and an old-fashioned bathtub provide interesting reading spaces for students. Authentic literature and authentic writing experiences guide the choice of materials and activities for literacy development.

Connections are made from a group reading selection to the students life and to a writing activity, as illustrated in the second model lesson below. Links to the literature students are choosing individually and to the literature students are reading in a large group in class are made through group and individual writing supported by small and large group discussions. Grammar is taught using the students writing and reading. Students find examples of grammar rules in their own writing and in the books they are reading as the teachers are guided by an authentic, constructivist pedagogy.

Conversations and process-oriented products provide additional links in the reading-experience-writing connection. Students discuss problems they have encountered in their individual readings and possible solutions. They offer their own problems, and the ways they are working to solve them. The classroom and the teacher provide a safe haven for these discussions. Process-oriented products like writing tortillas based on Tortilla Moon and story-element pizzas containing the analysis of setting, characters, plot structures, and literary devices are spawned by the NJWP philosophy. Prereading activities include discussions on topics similar to the reading selection and questions that encourage students to anticipate the story line from the title. Students use their individually chosen reading selections to connect to their own lives, to literary devices, and to grammar syntax and language rules. Often the students have a bank of prewriting activities even before they begin writing. Some of these activities can provide individual paragraphs in a larger essay. Other prewriting activities offer starters for different kinds of writings like comparison-contrast, persuasive, descriptive, or narrative writing.

The teachers see themselves as a community of intellectuals who are creating their own learning community and engendering a community of learners among their students (Giroux, 1997). Funded by HAC, Sunnyvale provided the language arts teachers with an opportunity to participate in a three-week institute supplemented with five Saturday workshops during the year and two days of observation of teachers by NJWP trainers. The teachers attended local, state, national, and international conferences as presenters and attendees, and led the district in professional development. These professional teachers enjoy reading and writing as well as discussing their work in small groups. In a spirit of continual renewal, this language arts department pursues additional pedagogies that support and extend the critical literacy development of their students. This professional process continues into the classroom where they read, write, and participate in small group discussions with their students about student reading and writing. Students read in other classes when they finish their assignments. Sometimes, they read before they finish other assignments. One student took a book home and never returned it. The student explained to her teacher that all the members of her family had read the book and loved it. "So," the student announced, "I think were going to keep it."

Model Lessons

Consistent with the teachers goal of engendering a community of learners among their students, one of their favorite shared orienting lessons is a literary response to Little Clifford and the Porch People. The purpose of this lesson is to build trust in the classroom and foster the bonding of students and of the teacher as they reveal valuable sections of their life histories. Just as the little boy in this 1940s story went shopping for special butter for candied potatoes, so students go shopping into their own life histories and experiences.

The students create their personal books with four lunch bags. Each bag contains a symbol, an item, or a picture that represents a staple, a spice, a magic skillet, and special butter from the students histories. The staple comes from something basic in the students life like her family or pets. The spice is something really "cool" or unusual about the student. The students talents, habits, or interests create the magic skillet. A strong memory provides the special butter. Students write the explanation of the contents of their four connected bags on note cards in a short anecdote, a poem, a list, a recipe, or the written form of their choice. Each of the bags is decorated in keeping with its contents. The teacher and the students share the bags and their contents with each other in individual or gallery presentations. The writings can be connected into a longer essay in the future. The teacher describing this activity still remembers a student whose special butter was a conversation with her grandfather that she shared with the class as she showed a picture of them together.

A second lesson shows how teachers are encouraged to personalize their lessons to the needs of their students and the teachers creative abilities. The lesson continues the demonstration of the reading - writing - personal experience connection that includes a hands-on activity. The teacher introduces a book drawing their attention to the book cover and title and encourages the students to anticipate the storyline with their own story creations. The students form a reading circle with their carpet squares and pillows propped against the pushed aside chairs and tables as they respond to meanings of literary devices and character reactions to situations. The teacher introduces her own childhood memory stimulated by the story, and the students return to their group tables and chairs to make drawings of their favorite childhood memory. They share their drawings in small groups and then write narratives that reflect their artwork. Their writing is fluent with one and two page narratives that become part of their prewriting bank for their next large essay.

Evaluation

The success of NJWP at Sunnyvale Middle School is evident in several ways. Throughout the school day, teachers at Sunnyvale find students with books in hand, reading after their class work is finished, laughing at a funny section, passing a book to another student to share a favorite passage. Teachers have stories to tell about a non-reading or a non-writing student who made reading or writing connections. A young African American girl found Warriors Don't Cry, about integration at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. This literacy connection stimulated her writing as well as her reading, and she began to enjoy the drafting and revising process. A Mexican American girl who did not like writing or reading began writing to her teacher in her journal about her favorite subject, boys. This student who had nothing to write about moved on to other subjects with fluent writing skill and found books through her teachers suggestions in their journal correspondence.

The success that appealed to Sunnyvale's school district was the improved scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) Test and the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS). Students who were functioning below grade level on the ITBS were above grade level in three years. Reading and writing scores on TAAS improved without the skill and drill routines because teachers were offering instruction above the basic skill level of the test. Students improved by 20% on the TAAS reading test and 30% on the TAAS writing test in three years.

Lighting the Way for a Larger Learning Community

The school district was impressed with the success of NJWP and the additional practices that the teachers are implementing at Sunnyvale. Together with funding from HAC this year, the district has extended the integrated reading and writing program of NJWP and newly developing practices to all middle schools and high schools for 10 Saturday workshops. The HAC peer review team suggested that NJWP be extended into the history program of the school. The Annenberg funding of NJWP has helped integrate the reading and writing program at Sunnyvale encouraging the development and growth of a learning community that is infecting the district Sunnyvale Academy serves.

References

Giroux, H. A. (1987). Critical literacy and student experience: Donald Graves approach to literacy. Language Arts, 64, 175-81.

Giroux, H. A. (1997). Pedagogy and the politics of hope: Theory, culture, and schooling. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Graves, D. H. (1996). Spot the lifetime writers. Instructor, 105, 26-27.

Routman, R. (2000). Conversations: Strategies for teaching, learning, and evaluating. Portsmouth, NH: Heineman.

Schriener, S. (1997). A portrait of the student as a young writer: Re-evaluating Emig and the process movement. College Composition and Communication, 48, 86-104.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

 

Longview High School

Of the many powerful reform programs in place at Longview High School, two - Camp Soar and Capstone - are featured here because of their direct impact on students. This document describes these positive, powerful educational practices in detail, provides analysis of why they are effective, and how other schools may find them useful.

Camp Soar was chosen because it blurs the arbitrary line between the functions of schooling and the work communities and families do to raise their children. Through Camp Soar, run during the summer for children ages 8-11, the school takes responsibility not only for the academic life of youngsters who will attend Longview in the future, but also for a variety of activities usually considered outside the purview of schooling. The program serves the community by addressing a stated need, knitting more tightly the relationship between Longview and those it serves.

The Capstone program was chosen because it is an outstanding example of authenticity and rigor in academics. Through its thoughtfully constructed frameworks, carefully based on the theories and practice of authentic pedagogy, it provides opportunity and structure for a group of students to complete a truly challenging academic project, then to demonstrate their understanding publicly through performance.

Camp Soar

How can a high school lay the groundwork for its incoming students, help them get used to the idea of high school, become socialized to its norms and expectations, and ensure they have the reading, writing, math, study, and personal skills to succeed? How can a high school run a program that develops leadership in its own students, possibly interests them in careers working with children, and connects them more strongly to their community? How can a school begin to address the very problems so often cited when students fail in high school: they weren't ready, they didn't have the right academic background, they were overwhelmed by the large scale and anonymity of high school? How can a school respond to the need of the local community to occupy children during the summer with constructive pursuits?

All these questions were answered at Longview High School by the creation of a stunning, widely praised program called Camp Soar. Held over four weeks each summer since 1999, Camp Soar this year welcomes 160 local children, ages 8-11, free of charge. It was designed, in the words of its director, to "provide guidance and molding" for children in upper elementary and middle school, in part to prepare them to succeed in high school. As an added benefit for Longview students, Camp SOAR provides summer jobs for about 20 high school students who act as counselors, during which time they have the opportunity to interact closely with the twelve faculty who run the Camp, mentor younger children, and to try out working with children.

Beginning as early as 7:30 a.m. with a pre-camp program, children report to Camp Soar each of these days, which can stretch to 6:00 p.m. for parents finishing their workday. The pre-camp program, from 7:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. begins with fun programs to interest the kids, such as:

Gods and Goddesses of Greece

Leather Working and Design

Animal Safety

Horse Riding Safety

The Science of Ice Cream Making

Mask Making

During the main portion of the camp, from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., each student participates in a home group with a theme. Last years themes included Peer Pressure, Diversity, Helping Others, and Healthy Earth. From within these groups and their themes, the children pursue projects and field trips. With the regular camp day, they also take turns attending skills classes, visual arts classes, computer instruction, and swimming. Its a curriculum mixed with fun, or a curriculum disguised as fun. It is clear from testimonials from the students and teachers, as well as the full enrollment each year, that the children enjoy their time at Camp Soar. Learning is integrated into thematic projects. Each home group creates a culminating portfolio that includes their work, pictures of their work, writing about their experience, and other artifacts.

An excerpt from one researcher's notes vividly describes the milieu at Camp Soar:

Arriving at Camp SOAR, we see that the children are divided into groups that instill values under specific themes. One groups theme, Healthy You/Healthy Earth, has led the camp by collecting canned goods for the local homeless shelter and organizing a clean-up detail for the grounds and following meals. Each group has a teacher-counselor and two paid student counselors. Student counselors praise the team atmosphere of the program as they interact with the twelve faculty members who run the camp. There are also specific teachers for the visual arts class, the education-portfolio class, and the computer technology class. These classes coordinate some of these activities around a central theme tied to their weekly field trip. Preparing for a trip to the Houston Natural Science Museum meant an interdisciplinary solar system project, butterfly art, and a visit from Reptile Awareness, with live snakes and tortoises. As part of their introduction to the high school, the students move from classroom to gym to art room to swimming pool, to the outdoor track on a six-period-a-day schedule. Camp SOAR culminates when parents arrive on the last day for a swim meet, basketball tournament, talent show, and a barbecue prepared by the schools FFA program.

Last year, 18 Longview HS students served as counselors at Camp Soar. In her written reflection on the experience, one states simply but powerfully that Camp Soar "was my first job." Others have written eloquently about how it feels to help younger children, and that the experience has sparked an interest in helping younger people or becoming a teacher in the future. In this way, Camp Soar provides meaningful jobs and learning over the summer for a group of Longview students. The work they do with the children each day helps them to better understand the community where they live, reflect on their own school experience, learn to share what they know, and learn to lead others by example and through teaching. The high school junior counselors, as they are called, undergo several days of training, then work each day of camp in the home groups, the classrooms, the cafeteria, and throughout the campus. This is a wonderful aspect of the program in that it promotes the growth of the older as well as the younger children and offers them important, powerful learning experiences.

The story goes that Camp Soar was founded because of complaints in the community that middle school aged children from a local apartment complex were getting into mischief over the summer, although one can see many additional layers of reasons such a program benefits the community. Even though the complex owner who initially offered to fund the camp sold his apartments, Longview undertook the project by using Annenberg funding, and obtaining many community partners.

Because approximately 80% of the students have been identified by the city as at a low socioeconomic level, the Houston Parks and Recreation Department provides daily box lunches. Kroger, Domino's Pizza, HEB, and PepsiCo supplement the Annenberg funding with reduced and/or free food and drinks for breakfast and two daily snacks. Teachers volunteer to give up part of their summer vacation and lead workshops at the Early Bird Program from 6:30 - 9:00 a.m. where they show students the science of making ice cream, or discuss racial perspectives by making cut-and-paste masks.

The camp is a wonderful example of the multi-layered fostering of community that Longview does so well. In addition to its inspiring work with the younger children, it provides opportunities for high school students to mentor and be mentored in their work as counselors, prepares and shapes future Longview High School students, and constitutes a model program for the community. It addresses the isolation of the school by drawing links to a wide range of people and institutions in the community. Over its three-year existence, Camp Soar has strengthened the curriculum component of the program, partly in response to requests from students and parents.

Camp Soar provides an example of a preventive care approach: by working with elementary and middle school students who will likely attend Longview in the future, this program helps smooth their way academically, socially, and emotionally for a successful high school experience. Instead of seeing the school as a stand-alone, or isolated institution, Camp Soar takes Longview outside the school to become part of the wider life of the community, by providing a program that helps families and children develop.

Capstone

How can a school provide an academically rigorous, authentic curriculum project for students? How can a school develop structures around this project to guide teachers and students toward deep intellectual work, and sow the seeds for an ever-wider circle of faculty and students to pursue it?

Two years ago, Longview piloted the Capstone program, a senior exhibition project meant to help students focus in on a particular topic, research it, act on it by organizing an event in the community, and present their findings to a panel who would assess their understanding.

The Capstone projects have become a very powerful experience for a group of seniors who volunteer each year. Unfortunately, the project has not expanded beyond a small group (20 last year, 12 this year), for reasons that will be discussed in the forthcoming yearly report on Longview. However, Capstone merits description as a Best Practice because its construction and guidelines are as high-quality as those at well-known schools that utilize portfolios and exhibitions for graduation, such as Central Park East Secondary in New York, and because of the quality of the students work, evidenced by their reports, portfolios and presentations, and the testimony of the students regarding their learning.

Extensive documentation of the Capstone program is contained in the Longview school portfolio. To illustrate the process, it is worth quoting from the handbooks provided to Capstone students and mentors, which describe the philosophy and goals of Capstone, and how it should help each student develop positive habits of mind, habits of work, and habits of heart.

The Capstone Philosophy

  • We believe that mastery of academic, social, and personal skills is gained through the development of excellent habits of mind, work, and heart.
  • We believe that the mastery of these skills may be exhibited through performance of meaningful, real-life tasks.
  • We believe that the Capstone Project demonstrates mastery of knowledge, skills, and values, which will ensure success.
  • We believe authentic learning occurs when a student senses the wonder and joy of worthy pursuits.

The Capstone Process Rationale

  • Students must be able to think and be prepared for the real world.
  • Students must be able to apply learning and appreciate the educational received.
  • Students must be able to perform appropriately in academic, social, and cultural settings.
  • Students must be equipped with necessary intellectual skills. Students must be comfortable with themselves, recognizing limitations and working on them to build more self-confidence.

With this philosophy and goals in mind, the faculty involved in the Capstone program attempt to build these habits for each student:

Habits of the Mind. Members of the Longview community are lifetime seekers of knowledge, problem solvers, and intellectual risk-takers in all learning environments.

Habits of the Heart. Members of the Longview community are sensitive toward others, appreciate quality, and are committed to the pursuit of excellence.

Habits of Work. Members of the Longview community exercise initiative, self-direction, and flexibility, recognizing the roles and responsibilities needed in life situations.

According the manual for mentor teachers, Capstone students are required to design an overall project, the assessment of which consists of a paper, an oral presentation, and a portfolio. The project, says the mentor and student manuals, "should be an emotional, physical, reflective and intellectual learning stretch while practicing responsibility, enthusiasm, independence, decision-making, and task analysis."

Each student must write a research paper (from secondary sources) and an I-search paper (based on personal experience and interviews) about the chosen topic. They must also "prepare and deliver an oral presentation that synthesizes the research and the project, and that "demonstrate[s] not only exceptional communication skills, but also the ability to use multi-media tools."

Finally, each student must produce a portfolio, defined as "a notebook that documents your Capstone journey." It must be "organized and comprehensive," and include the research and I-Search papers, a learning log, letters, interviews, notes, pictures, and a resume.

The student chooses a mentor for the project by approaching a member of the faculty. The mentor and student handbooks provide guidance for choosing a topic, writing the research papers, constructing of the oral presentations, and developing the portfolio. Detailed assessment rubrics are included for the written presentation and for the overall project. These help students understand how their work will be judged, set norms around quality, and provide meta-cognitive guidance for the students to direct their own learning. Copies of these handbooks are available, and may be appropriate for posting on a web page of "best practices."

The following descriptions are drawn from the rubrics for "exceptional" work on the Capstone project:

Habits of the Mind.

  • Practices Inquiry: Poses hypotheses, asks questions, and explores options in order to address a concept, problem, or issue. Accesses and prioritizes information that shows the student understands why facts - qualitative and quantitative - are important. Evaluates through thoughtful questioning and constructs understanding through analysis and synthesis. Formulates and follows plan that demonstrates understanding of concept, problem, or issue.
  • Demonstrates Intellectual Risk-Taking: Motivated to learn beyond his/her knowledge base as evidenced in the learning log and has the ability to establish an intellectual agenda with his/her own questions. Inquires into the assertions/beliefs of others and shows appreciation for different perspectives by exploring and gaining evidence.

Habits of Work

  • Dignity in Work: Acts in an honest, reliable, and appropriate manner: students work is his/her own and sources are appropriately documented and/or acknowledged. Exercises initiative, flexibility, and self-direction. Organizes, plans, allocates, and manages time, materials, and resources efficiently. Listens critically and acts appropriately upon knowledge gained (recognizes additional knowledge may be available).
  • Connects with Life Situations: Recognizes and demonstrates the appropriate roles needed in life situations. Understands and clearly demonstrates that work is knowledge in use. Transfers knowledge and skills to real-life application. Demonstrates understanding of technology and applies appropriate technology throughout the project. Uses all the tools necessary to accomplish the end - logical, mathematical, technological, and artistic.

Habits of the Heart

  • Demonstrates Awareness of a Need for Success of the Community: Demonstrates understanding and exhibits due regard for the rights, interests, and property of others. Exhibits empathy and compassion toward all people. Honors and demonstrates sensitivity to the accessibility and equality of opportunity for all individuals.
  • Exhibits Integrity: Exhibits self-awareness and self-discipline in predictable and unpredictable situations. Demonstrates full responsibility for the work and the quality of the exhibition. Demonstrates value of personal well-being and health (example: students allows adequate time for planning so that they are not stressed out near presentation time or as evidenced in the learning log). Demonstrates an appreciation for aesthetics through the creativity of the project.

These guidelines provide the structure by which students and mentors work, and by which a panel of judges, composed of teachers, students, parents, and other community members judge the Capstone presentations. The written component of the Capstone project has a separate rubric. In addition, the guidebooks provide process guidance, such as a work log, and checklists for conducting thorough research.

For many or most students, Capstone is the most significant project of a lifetime thus far, stretching them intellectually, and emotionally. Students who have completed Capstone projects have written reflections on their experience. In general, they see Capstone as a significant project that stretched their perseverance and abilities. Below are quotes from students reflections on completing the Capstone experience:

Capstone is a very challenging thing. It is no walk in the park.

[Capstone] exposed me to something I would never have done, regularly, in school. Even when researching for a major project I was never motivated to think deeply about what my topic was. This year I saw things from a new perspective. Never before was I asked what I would say if I were to sit down at a table with Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon. I think this program, along with the help of my mentors, has made me look at things differently.

Capstone was one of the hardest things that I have ever attempted and accomplished. I was so happy that I got through what I had intended to quit three times.

Capstone has taught me to go the extra mile. I believe that in doing this project I learned to work hard and that there is more in me to give.

Everything that I have learned in this program will benefit me in all of my pursuits. From school to work, to personal pursuits, Capstone has helped to equip me with the skills necessary to succeed and thrive in life.

I am kind of nervous when I speak in front of a group of people, but with my presentation I felt I had more confidence in myself. Also with this project I felt I was capable of researching on my own and editing my own video I created. I never thought I was capable of doing this type of project, but my mentor and all the teachers involved and the project itself proved me wrong.

Capstone is exemplary as a pilot program that uses authentic learning and assessment to structure a learning experience for students that, according to their own testimony, is very powerful and pushes them beyond what they had previously considered within their capacity. Other schools can learn a great deal from the thoughtful construction and careful execution of this project at Longview.

 

Port High School

Coming Full Circle: The Port Learning Community Writing Project

Rosita stepped up to the microphone and took a deep breath. Then with great drama she read her story about a haunted house. Her audience sat rapt, intrigued that she could write so scarily in Spanish. Her tale built through parallelisms and repetition, as though perhaps learned from Poe. Heart-stopping verbs, chilling adjectives and Spanish-rendered sound effects created a tense suspense. Rosa is a writer.

The two boys stood on the second step so both their voices could be captured by the single microphone. They read an antiphonal poem, alternating their voices with the dualisms in the text, two friends reading together the poem one of them wrote.

One after another the children, from early primary grades through middle school, added their strong voices as readers c and as writers c to the afternoon event. They read in English. They read in Spanish. They read quietly, almost shyly, or they read with booming emphasis. And they listened. First graders eyes widened to hear of the haunted house. The older children nudged each other to be sure no one missed the eloquent first grader or the choral reading (why hadn't they, the big kids, thought of that first?). And at the end of the afternoon, three high school students read. They read with a great pride in their writing and with respect for their much-younger listeners. They had heard the little kids read c they knew that they, too, were becoming writers.

The Port Learning Community Writing Project brings the reforms at Port High School full circle. It is offered as an exemplary practice because it brings the Annenberg-related reforms of this group of schools back to the origins of those reforms. And it demonstrates how powerful reforms can be when they are structurally innovative, grounded in theories of learning and in rich curriculum, owned by a faculty, and centered on children.

Port High School, long underfunded and essentially neglected by the district, was not untypical of a large and largely anonymous urban high school until a principal and group of teachers decided to make dramatic changes. They saw that many students were not graduating and many who did graduate did not go on to productive futures. Many of the Port students seemed to come to school with little purpose. The teachers were eager for ideas to make the school important in the lives of their students.

One Teacher's Learning

An English teacher credits her experience in the School Writing Project (SWP) with providing the faculty with new possibilities, first in their classrooms and then in the rethinking of the school itself.

The Rice University School Writing Project, a program of the Rice Center for Education, brings small groups of teachers together in semester-long seminars to learn more about the teaching of writing. Unlike many other writing pedagogy programs, this one begins with engaging the teachers in writing. They relearn what it is to write, to develop a voice as a writer, to make ones writing public. They share their writing in peer editing sessions. They read professional literature, share ideas from their own classrooms, and bring in samples of their students writings to examine for what they reveal about their teaching. Within the SWP seminars, a community of writers is established and experienced by the teachers, modeling a way for them to engage their students in purposeful writing.

One Port teacher who participated in the School Writing Project soon transformed her classroom. She says she was stern and rigid and aimed at "covering the curriculum" until she learned to let students rewrite, try out ideas, and develop as writers. From the SWP seminar readings, she learned to teach writing through Paper People, life-size paper cutouts her students would bring to life through descriptive writing, through dialogues among the Paper People, through persuasive essays about the issues in Paper Peoples lives. She interested her students in literature by bringing short stories and novels to class whose characters shared the dilemmas or personalities of the class' Paper visitors. It was known that there were some students who otherwise would not be coming to school who came just for this English class. It became their ticket back into school.

This teachers class showed other teachers what the students could achieve when their lessons connected with their lives. Soon other teachers signed up to participate in a School Writing Project seminar. And informally, the SWP teachers opened their classrooms and their teaching files to their other colleagues at Port. There were many successes: Port students joined in the end-of-year readings of SWP students at the university. A corporation sponsored a one-act opera project with Houston Grand Opera, with music, lyrics and staging created by the students.

From the Classroom to the Whole School

These small but powerful successes showed the Port faculty and principal that the students were not the limitation to the schools success. Somehow the school needed to become a place where these small successes were no longer exceptions. The school as a whole high school needed to be able to foster real, deep, sustained and eager learning.

The Paper People teacher, in reviewing the origins of school-wide reform at Port, credits School Writing Project with more than classroom ideas about writing. The professional community of writing teachers was encouraged to explore the professional literature, to travel to conferences, and to exchange ideas with educators in other cities. It was through these opportunities that she was able to attend a conference on small schools: Smaller high schools, smaller in size, more focused in academic program, and more centered on the students. In the small schools model she saw the structure that could make Port a high school that could educate all of its students.

She brought the idea, as well as stacks of readings and names of successful small schools, back to her principal. Within weeks the principal and faculty were discussing how to break Port High into four or five separate schools. Should they be separate schools? Houses within a school? Divided by academic theme? By students interests or abilities? By choice or assignment?

While School Writing Project pedagogies and instructional theories continued to guide her classroom teaching, this lead teacher found that her view of the school - and that shared now by many of her colleagues - was beginning to be shaped by the culture of teaching represented by School Writing Project and by the now more familiar small schools.

Port High divided into houses based on academic themes. It managed to group students and teachers in ways that helped students become better known by their teachers, and teachers better accessible to their students and to each other. The small schools/house model solved many of the alienation problems in the school, and some of the instructional weaknesses. But it always lacked adequate funding to carry out the mission of the particular themes (environmental studies, business and technology, and so on). It was at this intersection of promise (small schools) and deficits (inadequate resources) that Port made the decision to submit a proposal for large-scale reform to the Houston Annenberg Challenge.

From the High School to the Feeder Pattern

Houston Annenberg funded Port to work with its feeder schools, six elementary schools and one middle school. The tough work of improving teaching and learning within Port was now complicated by the burden/opportunity of working more closely with these early grades. There had been virtually no culture of shared practice, even shared communication, across these schools. It took almost a year to create a way of working productively together, overcoming the geographic isolation and neighborhood divisions represented across the schools.

How could the unwieldy work of coordinating across schools yield improved teaching and learning? How was curriculum to be affected? How could teachers work together?

In the first year of the Houston Annenberg Challenge grant, much of the energy of reform was centered in creating the working relations across this varied set of schools. During the second year, teacher study groups (Critical Friends Groups) across subject fields were developed to promote the rethinking of teaching, learning and curriculum. In these small groups, sustained over time, teachers read professional practice literature, shared classroom pedagogies, and discussed students academic work. They visited each others classrooms and attended external training seminars. They managed to overcome much of the isolation within and across their schools.

The question remained, was students learning being changed as a result of teachers changed work? What should the teachers be doing to assure that all this reform effort the adults were undertaking was transforming the children's understandings of their school subjects and of themselves as learners?

Completing the Circle: Back to the Classroom

The students who read in the well-stocked library of the elementary school that sits perilously near the freeway were not the star creative writing students of these schools. They were students who were finding their voice as writers. They were students whose teachers were spending a semester in a School Writing Project seminar led by the teacher who originally brought SWP - and small schools - to Port in the pre-Annenberg years. The new Port Lamplighter Writing Project brought the high school expertise together with the teachers in lower grades, to create a learning community of teachers focused on children's writing in this set of high-poverty schools.

The Port Lamplighter Community/School Writing Project teachers represented the whole range of children in these schools: primary grades, upper elementary, middle school, and high school; White, Latino, and African American. Some are verbally bilingual; others are stronger in English or Spanish in their schoolwork. Some of the teachers are veterans, their schools leaders. Others are newer to teaching, including one Teach for America teacher. The Teach for America teacher sought out the evaluation researcher at a public event to say how valuable SWP had been to her teaching. "This has made my year; I can't imagine that I could have taught my students - really taught them - without this project and all we learned from it."

Henry Levin, founder of Accelerated Schools, talks not about outcomes, but about "powerful learning," learning that provides children with what they need to be successful in their next grade, helps them be fully ready for learning opportunities to come, equips them to be able to keep developing as students and as people.

There could be no doubt in the minds of anyone seated on the tiny chairs of the elementary school library that the student writers had had a year of powerful learning. In their writing they painted complex word pictures, developed characters through dialogue and description, held their readers with ideas that built through repetition and rhetorical devices such as questions and knowing pauses. As they wrote their stories and poems, they were writing their new definitions of themselves as students.

Their teachers saw, and expressed, a very direct connection between their own learning (new pedagogies, new kinds of writing, new ideas about how children develop as language learners) and their students learning. They learned that real writing conveys substance and ideas and connects with an audience. Most of all, they learned that students write as they develop their voice as writers.

The Annenberg imperatives of breaking down isolation, personalizing the learning environment and supporting teachers learning all come together in the Port Lamplighter Writing Project. What also comes together in this project, so clearly made visible in the faces and words of the student writers, is the Port commitment to teacher learning that serves children's learning c begun years before Annenberg when one teacher signed up for the School Writing Project. As she says, "and the rest is history."

Teacher learning can lead to whole school change that then supports extensive learning across subjects, across schools and among very varied groups of children, all eager to write and to listen to each others stories.

 

Knight High School

Pathological schools, sick schools, tell us little but that something is wrong....If we want schools to improve, we need to look at healthy schools. These schools will give us vision, food for our dreams, that is necessary if we are to improve the daily lives of children and adults in Americas schools (Wood, 1992, p.4).

Wood clarified for his readers why he chose to visit and write an account of the schools which "make learning come alive" (p. xv) by explaining that he was after an answer to just one question: "Could every American school work so well for every child?" The conclusion he arrived at was the answer to the question is yes. But only if we redirect our focus in the quest for good schools (p.xvi).

He concluded these prefatory comments with a caveat to his readers that these are schools and teachers whom "we should watch, listen to, and learn from" (Wood, 1992, p.xviii). The caveat is immanent in the choice of action verbs he used: watch, listen and learn. While these verbs centralize the action in the observed school or teacher, they place the burden of future action on the observer. It is particularly the learning action that needs to be focused on and analyzed. If learning is viewed as merely the transmission of knowledge then perhaps copying verbatim the actions of successful schools is implied. On the other hand if learning is viewed as facilitative, contextual, and authentically related to the learners needs then the actions of successful schools should provide, as Wood (1992) recommends, the food for individualized and contextualized dreams and visions.

Kinchloe (1991) made a similar argument to Wood (1992), but perceived successful schools primarily from the perspective of successful classroom-based teachers. Successful teachers to Kinchloe, citing Carr and Kemmis, (1986), needed to gain the skill to "interrogate their own practices, question their own assumptions, and to understand contextually their own situations" (italics added, p.18). Hence, observing the effective practices of these teachers is observing practices that are contextually successful, and implicit in Carr and Kemmis comments is the caveat that they will not necessarily transfer successfully to another site without the required contextualization at all stages - planning, implementation, and evaluation.

Professional Learning Community

One of the cornerstones of reform efforts at Knight High School has been the belief that building an organic and dynamic professional learning community will contribute to achieving the schools overarching mission: providing transformatory learning experiences for the students in their care. The crucial nature of this exercise, the need to build a learning community, is predicated on the notion that such a community would allow the school to translate its core aims into action through the provision of genuine, authentic learning experiences that would ultimately lead to a transformation of the lives of the students.

The Knight High School community believes in and is working towards the creation of an authentic professional learning community by identifying and immersing itself in authentic intellectual learning experiences. This in turn allows for authentic learning experiences for the students.

The creation of this learning community is not one single master process but a number of complementary processes embedded within each other. It is the methods of achieving complementarity amongst the different processes used by the Knight community, rather than the processes themselves, that provide opportunities for other communities to observe, and explicate the basic assumptions upon which Knight's actions are based. The learning opportunities for the observers are present identifying not merely the promising methods employed, but more specifically to identify the constantly changing contextual conditions, and suit method to contextual demands.

At Knight, the faculty begins with the assumption that it is a learning (rather than a "teaching" community. This assumption is overlapped by a second assumption that the faculty is one part of the community of learners that includes students, parents and the surrounding local business community. Both are embedded in the encompassing belief that all the actions of the learning community must ultimately be defined by their responsibility to ensure the achievement of their overarching goal - provision of authentic learning experiences for their students in their care.

These assumptions provide the foundation and guidelines for continuous planning, implementation and evaluation processes they designed. In the planning stage two keywords guided their design processes, learning and community.

  • Learning required the provision of suitable and accessible opportunities for learning to take place.
  • Community required that this learning take place not merely on an individual basis, but co-operatively. Thus requiring creation of group processes that allowed for collegial discussions leading to consensus building opportunities.

At Knight these theoretical tools were used to organize operations. Learning community meetings, the three two-hour weekly meetings of the whole faculty, are devoted to the continuous cycle of planning, implementing and evaluating all aspects of the curriculum. All three processes include student representatives on a permanent basis. Parents and surrounding business community are called upon on as required.

The result of this process at Knight is that reform is a present continuous verb reforming, rather than a noun. Knight is aiming towards being a reforming school that is neither simply proactive nor reactive, but rather an active (proactive and reactive) community. It is a community that creates and recreates continually its educational agendas to enhance the learning experiences presented to the students.

The learning community in this school takes advantage of all opportunities to learn c some available and others created as the need arises. They learn from each other as a teaching faculty, they learn and teach their students as a learning community, and through their Service Learning Program teach and learn from the surrounding business community.

They learn from other schools around the country that share similar foundational beliefs. During the course of the last academic year all members of the teaching faculty (twenty-five in number) visited different schools in other states. The observations from these visits provided the material for collaborative learning opportunities at their weekly meetings at school on their return.

They bring in consultants into the school to work with the faculty on identified issues. This past academic year they focused on bringing together the learning and assessment cycle. The purpose of the consultancy was to facilitate making the learning experience an organic part of the assessment program, and to make both learning and assessment authentic experiences for the teachers and students. Further, the consultancy was not a one-off experience in the one-day inservice mode. Rather it was organized to continue over a period of time, with time in between to allow for evaluation to become a part of the consultancy cycle. Finally, on a micro level the consultancy was arranged to allow group work in both interdisciplinary and discipline-based teams, as well as programming time for individual meetings with the consultants.

Faculty, Staff, and Student Attitudes Toward Evaluation

At Knight High School the attitude to evaluation activities, both internal and external, may be considered an example of an effective practice in the enhancement of student learning and achievement.

The foundational belief of the school community in a culture of continuous improvement is closely allied to what the school terms curriculum monitoring. This phrase does not refer to a punitive program, but rather to an internal program devoted to a regular and collegial evaluation of curriculum implementation through the use of team structures. In addition to setting up the structures described in the previous section to meet regularly, the Knight community is also involved in an active and ongoing effort to ensure that structures operate in a collegial fashion. Specifically, they are paying as much attention to the process as to the product, in the belief that if the process is faulty so is the product. On the other hand, they also are aware that process is not an end in itself.

The community is making time concurrently with the regular meetings devoted to discussing curricular issues, to discussion of issues that either help or hinder teamwork. In their particular context, one of the major issues is how the generalists (faculty who are responsible for the organization and implementation of the interdisciplinary exploratory foundations program) work with the content specialists (faculty who teach specialized disciplines such as math, science, or languages). Evidence from the regular evaluations shows some tension between these two groups around the issue of integration of the curriculum.

Of note here is that the leadership was aware of and provided evaluatory opportunities for the tacit to be made explicit, and then made explicit efforts to deal with the results of the evaluation in a positive manner. Evaluation is thus made an open and integral part of the culture of continuous improvement. The entire learning community is aware of these opportunities and takes advantage of them in a variety of forums, at faculty meetings, through formal evaluation instruments and through informal meetings.

The learning caveat in this instance is that before evaluation results can be made explicit, it has to be ensured that the context (particularly the human context c the people involved) is able to deal with such explicitness. Specifically, the people who are members of the community must be able to deal with the negatives in a positive manner. Hence Knights effectiveness is the result of a consistent and constant prior effort to make evaluation a regular feature of community building. Observers of evaluation process in this context must understand the time and effort involved in building community before deciding that evaluation is a replicable exercise.

At Knight High School, acceptance of the culture of regular internal evaluation affects the schools attitude to external evaluation (in this case, the presence of the Annenberg on-site evaluator). For students, faculty, and staff, the presence of the external evaluator was not just an accepted fact, but also a welcomed fact. The external evaluator was free after the original orientation and introduction to the staff to wander at will throughout the school, treated politely and in a friendly manner by students, faculty, and staff.

Although some teachers were more comfortable with the evaluator visiting the class after having made a prior appointment, an equal number were quite comfortable with unannounced visits. It did not seem that either group was performing in any special manner for the visitor. This was evident from the manner in which the class was conducted and student response to the teacher. All teachers were quite happy to be interviewed in the observed class. In some cases they themselves queried whether the evaluator wanted to speak with them after the class observation.

Similarly, students were very comfortable being interviewed and discussing the operation of the curriculum at Knight. The evaluator was free to speak to any students, and chose students working independently in the library as well as those in class. The presence of an observer in their classroom rarely raised more than a cursory and friendly query from the students, and then was ignored as the lesson began.

Conclusion

No practice is best for everyone. A practice that works on one site is result of intensely and honestly felt beliefs grounded in the very particular needs of that community. The processes that follow the acceptance of these beliefs will necessarily represent the community that engendered them.

One size does not and should not fit all. What should fit all is the notion that each learning community must know itself, and use this self-knowledge to design and implement structures to meet its needs. The relationship between the knower and the known is both critical and crucial in the development of practices that are effective in ensuring genuine transformatory learning experiences for all students.

Wood (1992) cautioned that the schools and teachers he described in his studies "are not meant to be recipes to be copied in every school. Rather, they are models," each one offering educators something different. (p. 5). Reforming, he concluded, "was to be done in a decidedly individual way" (p. 231).

References

Carr, W., and Kemmis, S. (1986). Becoming Critical. Basingstoke: The Falmer Press.

Kinchloe, J.K. (1991). Teachers as researchers: Qualitative inquiry as a path to empowerment. New York: The Falmer Press.

Wood, G. H. (1992). Schools that work: Americas most innovative public education programs. New York: Dutton. 

 

*All school names are pseudonyms

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Updated 1/21/2003