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Sharing Tools, Building Castles

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Sharing Tools, Building Castles

I've learned that professional development can't happen teacher by teacher, nor be contained within isolated conditions.

A revolution is underway among the city's K-12 educators. It's called "collaboration."

For the past two years, New York City has carried out school reform on a gigantic scale. One result: thousands of the city's teachers are putting new emphasis on the teaching of writing.

As the Director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, which has been central to this effort, I learn more every day about providing teachers--especially in large urban districts--with the professional development they deserve.

I've learned that--at least in large city schools--professional development can't happen teacher by teacher, nor be contained within isolated classrooms. Instead, teachers throughout a school need to participate and collaborate.

In New York City, teachers are helping each other teach writing well. In June, teachers at hundreds of elementary schools gathered for a curriculum planning day. They developed study units for writing workshops, all to be taught in the same sequence, so that teachers can support each other in developing their students' writing skills. Most fourth grade teachers, for example, will now work together to teach children to write personal narratives, expository essays, poetry. In their grade-level meetings, teachers will try their hand at the writing they assign; imagine responses to student problems and create giant binders of mini-lessons, student writing, rubrics and mentor texts.

When schools commit to a workshop approach, and when their faculties plan shared units of study, teachers cease to be lone rangers who each invent a private curriculum. Some teachers bridle at this. Certainly, when I taught, I took pleasure in closing my classroom door, putting construction paper over the window, and teaching according to my own preferences. Yet ultimately loneliness and a lack of opportunities for shared inquiry drove me from the classroom.

For, as Roland Barth recently told principals at the TC Reading and Writing Project, "Too often relationships among teachers are like relationships among two- year-olds in the sandbox. One has a shovel, one has a pail. They talk all the time but never to each other. They never share toys and wouldn't dream of building castles together."
 
New York City's gigantic school reform project is changing that mentality--and not just among teachers. Each week, the TC Reading and Writing Project works with superintendents and principals, literacy coaches, assistant principals, parent coordinators, ESL instructors and, above all, teachers. And so it should be. For if professional development in education is to create a world of professional study, then all who support children's literacy need to share our tools--and build castles together.

Lucy McCormick Calkins is the Robinson Professor of English Education and Director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.


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