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Learning from the high leverage practices of experienced teachers

High Leverage Practices

New teachers learn how to teach reading and writing, in part, by carefully studying the practices of experienced teachers. The websites on Inside Teaching offer a valuable resource for such study in several ways. For example, teacher educators can structure conversations about and reflections on the elementary literacy classrooms documented in the K-12 sites. They can also design assignments that require novice teachers to examine the documented teachers’ practices. The interviews provided on some of the sites provide insights into the K-12 teachers' beliefs and choices, another rich resource for teacher education. In addition, the developers of each K-12 web site have attempted to provide sufficient contextual information to help prospective teachers understand the implementation of each practice and to adapt the practices for other classrooms. In the following sections, we explore some of the strategies teacher educators have developed around the K-12 sites to focus student teachers' attention on knowing students as literacy learners.

Knowing Students as Literacy Learners

Literacy methods courses emphasize the importance of knowing students as literacy learners, an approach based on the principle of using student observation to inform and shape practice. The teacher educator web sites in Inside Teaching illustrate how teacher educators have used the K-12 sites as examples of practice developed on this principle. In this Perspective, we highlight two such practices: Child Study assignments and the delivery and integration of on-going assessment in literacy classrooms.

Child Study Assignments

Child study assignments are common in teacher preparation courses. In literacy methods classes, these assignments may focus on the close study of the child as reader and writer with an emphasis on the experiences, interests and abilities the child brings to reading and writing experiences. Through literacy teaching, teachers can learn about their students in a variety of ways, using a range of assignments that focus on who the child is and what the child brings to the classroom. In Kathy Schultz's course, students watch videos from a K-12 web site as a foundation for a discussion about how one teacher comes to know her students well. This discussion grounds the Child Study Assignment, which asks prospective teachers to develop an interview protocol geared to gather information about a student's reading and writing. Upon completing the interview, the prospective teachers analyze their findings and write a description of each student as a literacy learner. Teachers can also learn about a child’s interests, including books that she or he might read. In addition, teachers often develop a series of interview questions and methods for observing and listening to children. The videos of classroom instruction on the K-12 sites serve as shared texts in teacher education for learning how to observe a child and look closely at that student work. Repeated viewings and uses of these videos as shared texts are key features of teacher educators' use of these sites.

On-going Assessment

Ongoing assessment is the cornerstone of many approaches to teaching reading and writing but one of the most difficult aspects of literacy teaching for new teachers to grasp. The K-12 web sites contain several examples of students' work as well as extended examples of their reading and writing in a variety of classrooms. Novice teachers can view these video clips multiple times as a whole class, in small groups with colleagues and individually. In her teacher education course at Mills College, Linda Kroll uses the K-12 web sites to provide an introduction to the process of ongoing assessment. Using the video clips, prospective teachers watch an elementary teacher mark “running records” as her students read. After a class discussion about what can be learned from this type of assessment, the prospective teachers focus on an individual child in the video and share what they learn about that child as a literacy learner. In this way, the K-12 sites provide both an introduction to the idea of ongoing assessment and an opportunity to practice this often difficult aspect of teaching.

Observing and investigating literacy practices of experienced teachers

A second high leverage literacy practice is learning through observation, investigation, and adaptation. The K-12 sites provide literacy teacher educators and prospective teachers with the opportunity to observe, closely analyze, raise questions about, critique and learn from a wide array of literacy teaching practices across a range of classrooms. Activities focusing on the web sites allow student teachers to learn about practices that are useful to their current context. In addition, teachers can become familiar with practices they may not have had the opportunity to see and experience. For instance, student teachers whose primary experiences are in upper elementary classrooms can use the sites to better understand those practices that might be critical for teaching younger children. Perhaps more importantly, the K-12 sites allow teacher educators to provide multiple examples of practices, especially practices that may be less common in urban districts where opportunities for innovation and variation can be scarce. The websites allow new teachers not only to view such practices, but also to study them with their colleagues to gain new perspectives and understandings. On many web sites, the teachers provide explanations for their decisions. These discussions of the beliefs that underlie teaching practices add an important layer to novice teachers' observations.

The collection of elementary literacy web sites includes a wide array of classrooms from California to Pennsylvania, with teachers demonstrating different methods of teaching literacy. The assignments developed by teacher educators to structure student teacher learning are critical, as they provide a focus on observation and investigation of reading and writing practices. Student teachers can imitate what they see, carefully adapt practices, and analyze how their adaptations reflect their own contexts and purposes.

Kathy Schultz supports this kind of adaptation in her elementary literacy course. Students explore the K-12 materials and select a discussion strategy for a young adult novel that they will then adapt for use in their elementary settings. Schultz captures this process through video footage of her students discussing the assignment, their choices, and their evaluation of the strategies they chose. She also provides links to students’ written reflections. By drawing upon the K-12 web sites, teacher educators broaden student teachers’ opportunities to see examples of reading and writing in classrooms, which can lead to one kind of change for literacy education. Focusing these opportunities through the lens of inquiry has the potential to be transformative.

Conducting reading conferences using a range of methods

Teacher educators have used the K-12 sites to help student teachers gain experience with reading conferences. Student teachers in some courses have watched video of teachers reading and discussing books their elementary students. Often, student teachers worked in pairs to discuss what they observed and how it related to personal observations in their student placement sites. In particular, Linda Kroll and Katherine Davies Samway used Jennifer Myers’s website and images of her conducting reading conferences to prompt student teachers to think more deeply about the ways that reading conferences fit into the Guided Reading approach.

Literature groups

In her elementary literacy course at Penn, Kathy Schultz focuses on the student teachers becoming a community of writers. In her view, the concept of literature groups is not simply an aspect of instruction that student teachers will engage in someday in the future. Schultz, therefore, asks student teachers to examine the ways that elementary literacy teachers structure classroom literature groups at the same time that the student teachers participate in their own groups during her class. This structure allows for reflective conversation about the practice based on both observation and experience. Later, student teachers are asked to adapt these practices to their own classroom contexts.

Writers' workshop

Teacher educators have incorporated the K-12 sites into their elementary literacy classes to teach student teachers about the important elements of writer’s workshop in a range of ways. Student teachers in Linda Kroll's class had the opportunity to observe many aspects of writer’s workshop using Jennifer Myers's K-12 website, including writing conferences and the author’s chair. In Kathy Schultz’s class, student teachers focused on the use of ritual and routine in the workshop setting, first observing and reflecting on elementary teachers' use of the ritual and then planning and implementing lessons that reflected their understanding.