Sunday, March 25, 2012

Planting a S.E.E.D. for Literacy

Yesterday was the annual Bernadette Mulholland Glaze* Language and Learning Conference at George Mason University.  This annual convergence of teaching professionals celebrates all that is good about effective practice in language classrooms.

The annual rite features a leading voice in the world of writing and reading.  The keynoter spends the afternoon with K-12 teachers after a morning of presentations by the Teacher Consultants of the Northern Virginia Writing Project.

The philosophy of the project is on display: teachers leading teachers and offering choice in professional development to thinking practitioners.

The assumption is that practicing teachers know what they need to know (choice) and are best at translating theory into effective classroom practice (demonstration lessons).

The presentations are hands on.  Teachers try their hand at using writing as a tool for learning, writing creatively, thinking in writing, sharing, discussing.  In other words: making meaning for themselves through coached inquiry.

This year was no different, and the keynoter was a Writing Project Teacher Consultant writ large: Donalyn Miller, a sixth grade teacher from Texas who is known to most classroom teachers by her nickname and self titled book, The Book Whisperer.

She drew in over 350 teachers who voluntarily spent a Saturday honing their skills.

In her presentation Donalyn was warm, humorous, and student-centered--just what one would expect from a teacher of excellence. She used pictures of her sixth graders throughout her description of research-supported classroom practices.

Her classroom is real. She pointed out where not everyone was on-task every minute--just in case the audience might assume her kids "weren't like everyone else's."  Her students appear happy in a book-stuffed room as they zoom through self-selected books.

In her budget-reduced, student-swollen classrooms (all of her classes are over 30 students each) her students read anywhere from a low of 19 books to a high of over 70 last year.  (Have you read 70 books this year? Have you read 19?) All without brow-beating, threats, grade deductions, public humiliation....

The Writing Project, long the gold-standard for professional development--and so frequently used as an exemplar in national reports when indicating the standard for collegial, intellectual, transformative, and sustained teacher development that it is almost cliche--lost its funding from Congress last year.

Luckily, robust local sites like the NVWP housed at George Mason University have been able to maintain services while planning for an uncertain future.

Earlier this month, some of that funding was restored.  The National Writing Project was awarded an 11.3 million grant, roughly less than half of the $24 million lost in last year's Congress.  The money came through Title II's Supporting Effective Educators Development (S.E.E.D. - the DOE is big on acronyms) program.

Yay for the Writing Project.  This is money well spent because the dividends reaped in building effective teachers has proven to have a rippling influence within schools and across districts.

The SEED money is awarded through a competitive application--yet another "race" proposed by the office of our basketball-player-in-chief Arne Duncan.

Others who benefited from this round in the competition: TFA and the the New Teacher Center in Santa Cruz.

The Absolute Priorities were Number One:  Teacher and principal recruitment, selection and preparation -- especially in areas that serve high-needs students.  That would cover TFA and TNTP,  though I would argue against the effectiveness of TFA practices where student achievement is concerned.  TFA received $8.3 million - on top of the $50 million awarded in yet another competition last year. The New Teacher Center received 4.98 million for work in Hillsborough County.

Priority two includes "Professional development enhancement of teachers of English Language Arts with a specific focus on writing."  That would be the NWP, an organization that has proven itself time and again in its ability to improve instruction in writing and in building teacher leadership.

Apparently the SEED money ran out before those who met Absolute Priority Three were awarded funds: Programs that result in Advanced Credentialing.  The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards did not receive funding.  I cannot put into words the irony of funding TFA over the NBPTS.

The Obama Administration wants to beef up the funding for the SEED program in the current budget cycle.  (Good luck.)

For this early spring, at least one worthwhile SEED has been planted in my backyard.

Donalyn Miller's visit was rejuvenating.  Here is a teacher who lives the project philosophy:

  • Teachers who read and write for and in front of their students are better teachers. (Only as an aside did she point out that all of her students pass "the tests."  She devoted exactly that much of her two-hour commentary to standardized testing, demonstrating the lack of faith accomplished teachers have in these measurements of student achievement.) 
  • Teachers who have investigated their practice in a Summer Institute carry this habit of mind into their classrooms and continue to revise practice.  Donalyn peppered her talk with ongoing decision-making and student-watching that is part of her daily mindfulness. She openly testified that she would not have written a book if she had not gained confidence in writing through the Summer Institute.
  • Teachers who have confidence in their abilities influence their peers (a best selling book? an auditorium of over 350 teachers? a blog? Need I say more?  This was federal money that has reaped far more than was sown.  Other popular Professional Development books have been penned by NWP Teacher Consultants, including Tim Gillespie, Kelly Gallagher, Sheridan Blau, Linda Christensen, Harvey Daniels and on and on.)
  • Teachers who use writing as a tool for learning grow critical thinkers who make meaning rather than memorize facts.
  • Teachers who teach teachers model professional demeanors and habits.  See all of the above.
Thanks for a rich day of celebration.

*Bernadette Mulholland Glaze, Bernie to those of us who worked with her, was a long-time member of the NVWP who influenced legions of teachers and students through her roles as teacher, instructional coordinator at Fairfax County Schools, and as a Co-Director of the project.  She devised the Language and Learning Conference and sadly left us when she succumbed to cancer.  We still miss her energy and vision.

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