During the 2008/2009 school year, I was the fortunate recipient of a TLLP grant from the Ministry of Education in Ontario. TLLP stands for Teacher Learning and Leadership Program and is a project-based activity for selected experienced teachers. The three main components of the program are professional learning, leadership development and knowledge exchange. I wrote my project proposal, submitted it and was accepted at the board level, and then learned from the Ministry that I would be awarded a grant for $9700.
My proposal had two distinct aspects. Dedicated to the goal of developing literacy skills, I wanted to provide books for our students to both read and keep, and to provide time, during the instructional day, for our division to meet in a true Professional Learning Community.
My prior work with a Boys’ Literacy initiative combined with my extensive experience at the school had led me to understand that although all students want to become better readers, many lack the resources outside of school to continue to develop their skills. My goal, therefore, was to provide three free books for all the students from grade 4 to grade 8 over the course of the school year. The first two were ordered from Scholastic while the third was selected during a half-day field trip to Chapters. The students were totally enthusiastic about receiving their free books. One mom of a reluctant reader in grade 7 reported that his free book was the first one he had ever actually read.
The trip to Chapters was by far the highlight of this aspect of the project. When the junior division entered the store, it almost felt like we were walking down the red carpet at the Oscars. The staff had opened early in order to accommodate our schedule and were standing on either side of the entrance waiting to give tours of the store and to offer any assistance that might be required. This was the first time that a number of the students had had an opportunity to visit and make a purchase from a book store. Once all of the students had selected a book to a maximum value of $15, we traveled by bus to a local park where the students had a picnic and read and shared their new books.
The other main component of the TLLP was the development of a junior / intermediate Professional Learning Community at our school. Increasingly popular throughout Ontario, PLCs are dedicated to improving student achievement through a collaborative effort of a group of educators who build knowledge through inquiry, and consistently use data to inform instructional decisions in the classroom. Our junior / intermediate PLC was entirely teacher-driven. As facilitator, I selected our professional reading for the year, decided on the agenda for the monthly meetings, and took the lead in chairing our discussions. Of course, each decision was made in consultation with the principal. However, unlike some PLCs, which become dominated by an administrative agenda, having earned the trust of my principal, I also earned the primary responsibility for planning and leading the meetings.
The goal of the PLC was to establish consistency in literacy teaching practice and expectations throughout the junior and intermediate divisions. Our first step was to commit to the consistent use of a literacy assessment tool. We decided to use CASI (Comprehension Attitude Strategies Interests), a reading assessment for grades 4 – 8. Our choice was based both on ease of accessibility and the fact that our board strongly supports the use of CASI. Although the decision to use the assessment was fairly clear, members of the PLC did express some reservations and consequently the consistent implementation of CASI did not occur immediately.
Using a common assessment tool also allowed us to begin to establish consistency in our teaching practice, in the language that we were using to talk about literacy instruction to both the kids and to each other, and in how we were using data to influence our instruction in the classroom. We would identify a specific skill such as summarizing, use CASI to establish baseline data, explicitly teach to that skill using a variety of fiction and non-fiction literacy resources, and then have the students complete a post-assessment of the targeted skill to assess the effectiveness of our efforts. Although it seems like a common sense approach to teaching, it was amazingly effective to clearly identify and teach to a target skill. As a reflective practitioner, I particularly appreciated what the data from the pre- and post- assessments told me about the effectiveness of my teaching.
Our work with the Professional Learning Community during the 2008/2009 school year leaves us well poised to embark on the challenges of implementing Teaching-Learning Critical Pathways in 2009/2010. Although we will be working without the TLLP funds, we will continue to meet on a regular basis to develop effective practices in literacy instruction. The next steps in our evolution will be a greater emphasis on collaborative instructional planning, creating more frequent opportunities for teacher moderation, and continuing to hone how we effectively use data to provide differentiated instruction in the classroom.
As I reflect on the passing of another school year, I am astounded at how much I have learned and how much more effective my teaching practice has become. My classroom transformed into a sea of chart paper as my consistent use of the gradual release model meant that I was always displaying anchor charts, modeled responses and samples of student work. My dialogue with colleagues also changed as I sought expertise both within the school and from others in the board when embarking on previously uncharted territory inspired not only by the move to a new grade but also by the transition to an improved form of instruction.
At the same time, I learned an incredible amount about the process of attempting to effect educational change at the school level. It was fascinating to recognize that even within a small cross-divisional group, educators embark on educational change not only from different starting points, but also committed to very different belief systems about classroom practice.
For all of this learning, I thank not only the Ministry of Education for providing the TLLP funds but also the consistent support of my administrator. It is with enthusiasm and confidence that I consider the possibilities for the upcoming school year.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cori Pitre is a grade 6 teacher at Wembley Public School in the Rainbow District School Board located in Sudbury, Ontario. She has a Master of Arts in Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning from OISE/UT and is currently a doctoral candidate in the Human Studies interdisciplinary PhD program at Laurentian University.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s September 2009 issue.