Picture this: One by one, middle school students flash across the computer screen. "I don't think I've ever read a non-fiction book that I enjoyed," one girl says. "I stutter a lot, sometimes. I don't like reading out loud to my class because I get nervous," a boy says.
Then, Laura Robb, middle school teacher at Powhatan School, an independent K-8 school in Boyce, Va., explains that middle school readers need strategies to read, despite having an elementary education. "When a child can't read and they're not successful academically, they see themselves as ... hopeless and stupid," Robb says.
The students are real. Robb is real. And anyone, particularly teachers, can benefit from seeing real teachers teach. The above example is just the beginning of a research-based professional development program, Scholastic's "Scholastic Red." It offers online courses, on-site workshops and direct in-class teacher support to improve student reading. It is complete with a VHS tape and a CD-ROM dubbed "Red TV."
It's about "the practical application of research-based reading strategies," says John Lent, Scholastic's vice president of professional development. "The main goal is to give teachers the ongoing support they need to be better teachers of reading."
Keeping Teachers on their Toes
Watching teachers teach via videotape or CD-ROM was nearly nonexistent up until a few years ago, although rookie teachers usually have a chance to watch veteran teachers deliver lessons.
Professional development has long been touted as a backbone of good teaching, keeping teachers on their toes and giving them support. And most ongoing professional development of the past involved more of a canned presentation of someone lecturing-not watching teachers in action.
"It's something that certainly all teachers can benefit from, but particularly new teachers," says Melinda Anderson, spokeswoman for National Education Association. More teachers are asking for this type of peer time now, she says. And it is more beneficial in helping lower-achieving students, particularly with new demands under the federal No Child Left Behind legislation. Teachers, she adds, are held to a higher standard to help students now.
"We think the whole principle of modeling-practicing and doing it is the best method of learning," says Jonathan Bower, president and CEO of Lexia Learning Systems. "So many of us learned from the talking-head method that that's how we envisioned delivering our services. If we have to improve results, we need to get beyond the talking-head style."
"Teaching is really an isolated profession," adds Texas first-grade teacher Susan Geddes. "We don't brainstorm and bounce things off of each other and talk about it. It's so good to get out and not only hear something, but also see it and say, 'This is how it can look in my classroom.' "
And No Child Left Behind is urging more schools to train teachers, particularly in scientifically based training methods. "We estimate that four million teachers will need to be trained in these methods," Bower says.
Videotaping Teachers in Action
While most videotapes and CD-ROMs of professional development programs are new, James Stigler, a UCLA professor and renowned educator, had been working since the 1970s on cross-cultural comparisons of classroom instruction. Then in 1995, the Third International Math and Science Study was conducted and the government wanted results. TIMSS is the comprehensive comparative international study of math and science achievement in students. The U.S. Department of Education awarded Stigler and his team a multi-million dollar grant to videotape and study teaching methods among random teachers in their classrooms for the TIMSS Video Study. "What we get is a picture of average teaching," Stigler says. "No one has done that." The study showed in part that teaching methods are much different "across cultures than within cultures," he says.
Stigler then created LessonLab to encourage teacher collaboration across the U.S. LessonLab videotapes classes, digitizes the tape along with supplementary teaching aids, such as overhead projections and Web links, and presents it online using transcripts of teacher-student dialogue.
The follow-up TIMSS, or TIMSS-R in 1999, video study results were to be released in January, while this issue was being printed.
Stigler says most American teachers don't watch others teach and if they do they don't absorb much variety. LessonLab finds alternatives so teachers can be aware of how they teach and analyze different classroom lessons. It also caters to individual school needs. If a particular middle school needs better math skills, LessonLab focuses on the district's standards for math.
"Unsuccessful lessons are a great source of learning," Stigler says. "If you see a teacher run into a problem, you ask, 'What do I think caused that problem?' ...It makes you think about it more like a science. Teachers learn a lot from problematic lessons."
In a LessonLab lesson, for example, teacher groups plan lessons together. One teacher will deliver the lesson while others watch a videotape of it and critique it. "Teachers love it," says Stigler. "We're doing research now to document the effect it has on student learning. We help them help their students learn more. ... They've been so starved for that kind of input."
Created in 2001, the Los Angeles Unified School District/UCLA Collaborative Institute is a California Mathematics Professional Development Institute, that aims to develop teacher confidence and competence in math. LessonLab co-developed the program using its technology.
In one video, a teacher leads a counting activity in a K-1 classroom. While teachers have a plethora of standards to teach, they don't have time for an entire lesson on numbers sense and place value. So teachers can incorporate counting, for example, five minutes every day.
At Glassell Park Elementary School in Los Angeles, students are not as anxious about answering questions in math now, in part likely due to the professional development institute, according to Yvonne Burch, a K-5 math coach and former teacher. Burch teaches teachers how to deliver lessons in part so students think more about strategy. It is part of a five-year district plan to improve math. She says teachers are taught how to teach based on what the student will have to know in a future and/or more advanced math class. In training, Burch has K-2 teachers watch a video of a teacher with a class. The teachers go back to their classes and do tasks with their students. A follow-up meeting with Burch and teachers discusses what changes and practices work. For example, teachers can have students start from a different number other than 1 when counting. "It allows flexibility," she says. Before, she says, "the way (students) thought was never validated or considered valuable."
"Teaching with meaning is a much more powerful way to go-having students understand strategy and articulate that," Burch says.
Students are now coming to class more prepared than in past years and test scores are increasing. SAT 9 scores for students in grades three and five increased at Glassell over one school year. Every grade in another area elementary school is now above the 50th percentile on the SAT 9 in math.
Herman Method now on Video
At Lexia Learning Systems in Massachusetts, the long-successful Herman method entered the 21st century -on videotape.
Named after retired California teacher Renee Herman, the Herman Method for Reversing Reading Failure -originally created for dyslexic and reading disabled students-is based on various senses while using systematic teaching of structured phonics and comprehension skills. It encourages teachers to use creativity and develop approaches for each student's needs. More than 1,800 schools nationwide have used the method for more than 30 years.
"While learning to use the Herman method, teachers see virtual or real teachers performing the activities they're discussing," Bower says. "The action in the classroom is the most important part of any professional development."
After 17 years teaching, Susan Geddes, first-grade teacher at Meadows Elementary School in Plano, Texas, can see the difference in professional development advances with videos. "Off and on for several years, I've seen some video," she says. "But more recently, I've seen it more frequently. There is something to showing and telling that is more powerful than just telling. And [with videotapes showing teaching methods] it's not so scary to teachers to go out and try it."
When Geddes started teaching, she was trained in the Herman method after Texas passed a law that had districts develop specific, formal programs for dyslexic students.
Then in the early 1990s, Renee Herman sought Geddes to help her train. Geddes traveled across the country from New York to California teaching the Herman method. Then Herman and Lexia joined forces last year-and now the work is available to virtually anyone interested.
About two years ago, Geddes took part in a three-day training video. The video simulates workshops with teachers conducting activities, including "large muscle writing," Geddes says. With an 18-by-24 paper, students use both hands to draw a big "b" or "d" to familiarize themselves with the symbols. "Once they get comfortable with that, they become better with writing and they're not worried about what it looks like," she says.
Geddes says her students have better vocabulary now. "They make more connections outside my isolated lessons, into their lives, at home," she says. "Just training overall in the past few years has gotten better. Videotapes are more applicable and training is more based on brain-based research."
Lexia is also about to release an interactive CD-ROM on "Teaching Reading: Stages and Strategies." It is designed to introduce teachers to modern methods of teaching reading based on phonemic awareness, phonics and multi-sensory teaching techniques. It also shows teachers the actual shape of a student's mouth when making the 'n' or 'm' sound, Bower says. "It's a very easy way to correct students," he says. "Turn it into a kinesthetic skill where you can feel the muscles in your face."
In one segment on Red TV, Robb instructs her students to make inferences about the story they just read. The students work in groups and swap ideas, saying one character was a liar and braggart. "You made inferences," Robb praises them. "You're reading between the lines."
Red TV is based in part on books Robb wrote on teaching strategies, including Teaching Reading in Middle School and Redefining Staff Development. Robb, a 38-year veteran educator, teaches a reading/writing workshop for grades six and eight and coaches teachers in her school.
Scholastic Red videotaped several teachers, including Robb, who were "proven masters of reading instruction," Lent says. The tapes were then edited to show "the very segments that really capture the most important moments of teaching," Lent says. And viewing guides are included so teachers could follow the video. Reading coaches meet with teachers in workshops and visit classrooms to coach them along.
"I call it professional study because study means ongoing," Robb says. Part of it involves training a facilitator at each school site who then leads workshops. The technology end of the course allows teachers to be "interactive." In the end, students become more interactive, she says.
"Reading and writing are a process," Robb says. "That was something that was not understood" 20 years ago, she says. "And learning is active and interactive, instead of being passive. ... It's active involvement and active learning."
For example, she says, if students don't know about the Ice Age they won't be interested enough to read a book about it. So Red TV shows a lesson in building a student's vocabulary in the subject before reading to inspire more interest.
Shawna Sirois, a sixth-grade teacher at Squaw Peak School in Phoenix, Ariz., is a Red facilitator to 21 teachers, who respond enthusiastically. "They love the fact they can go on any time they want and discuss the results we've done in the classroom and how we feel about things," Sirois says. "This was needed for a long time. You could take this at your own pace. The teachers learn strategy and go back to the classroom and implement it."
Over time, struggling readers improve test scores on reading sections, she says.
At Mountain View Elementary School in Bloomfield, Colo., teachers are benefiting from a $225,000 grant from Sun Microsystems for software and training. Under a partnership with Knowvation created three years ago, teachers are learning from mentor teachers. Teachers watch mentors deliver lessons. Mentors then work with teachers to design lessons and observe them in action in class and give feedback. Knowvation provides curriculum-focused technology professional development training and resources. The new Teacher2Teacher Online Resource Library helps teachers stay up-to-date with technology. It complements a school's in-house professional development program.
Knowvation also has a partnership with TaskStream, a Web-based suite of innovative, interactive tools for K-12 teachers. "We offer face-to-face workshops that build skills but we also bring in tools" that don't need expensive face-to-face contact, says Jacqui Celsi, Knowvation CEO and president.
At Mountain View Elementary, a coach visits teachers several times a year and helps them integrate technology into various lessons in math, social studies, science and writing. For example, a fifth-grade teacher wanted to hold a mock election two years ago for the presidential election. The coach showed the teacher and class how to use spreadsheets on computers to tally the votes and make graphs on different voting patterns, according to Steve Gandy, the school's technology director. After eight years as director, Gandy says it "solves the need in real time."
And school officials say test scores, particularly in writing, have increased.
"Teachers rarely have the time to do the research and extend their knowledge," Lent says. "The coach can take care of some of that. Time is of the essence. You're talking about minutes. How many minutes do teachers have to devote to anything new today? Zero."
Angela Pascopella, email@example.com, is features editor.