August 7, 1998
Summer gives teachers chance to refine their craft Rhode Island teachers at a conference outside Washington also learn how to pass on their new knowledge to their colleagues.
By D. MORGAN McVICAR Journal Education Writer
For two weeks recently, during prime beach season in the Ocean State, 27 Rhode Island public school teachers sat in meeting rooms in a suburban Washington, D.C., hotel from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, learning how to become better teachers -- and how they can help their colleagues do the same.
Suzanne Bartlett, with 26 years of experience in the classroom and having just completed the rigorous year-long process of applying for national teaching certification, knows a thing or two about teaching kindergarten. But from July 24 to Aug. 2 at the Washington National Airport Hilton, Bartlett says, she learned a host of teaching strategies and techniques she can't wait to try out in her Tiogue School classroom and pass on to her Coventry colleagues.
Renee Grant-Kane, a second-grade teacher at the Veazie Street School in Providence, has seen a lot of fads come and go in her 18 years in the profession. But she says what she learned about beginning reading instruction was valuable because it was based on what has already proven effective in the classroom -- not on someone's whim or theory.
And Karen Moriarty, a sixth-grade teacher at Warwick Neck Elementary School, has learned a lot about discipline in her nine years in the classroom. But she says the training she got in Virginia in managing antisocial behavior gave her new insight into how to establish and enforce a clear set of rules and consequences for breaking them.
At a time when Rhode Island and many other states are scrutinizing virtually every aspect of public education, struggling to get at the heart of why so many students are performing so poorly, perhaps no area has received more attention, and criticism, than teacher training.
Education schools, according to a recent national report, fail to adequately prepare teachers for the realities of the classroom. And once out in the field, teachers have scant opportunities to study and refine their craft.
That, however, is changing. In Massachusetts, the legislature eliminated lifetime certification in 1993 and now requires teachers to take 120 hours of education courses or professional development seminars every five years.
In Rhode Island, the General Assembly last year created a fund for professional development for teachers. And this year, the money invested grew from $840,000 to $2.8 million, or about $300 per teacher.
But how to spend it? Teachers say the customary one- or two-day in-service training sessions are invariably a waste of their time. And most of the state's teachers have exhausted the supply of useful courses at Rhode Island's education schools.
Enter the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, one of the state's two teachers' unions, and its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers. In 1981, the AFT launched its Educational Research and Dissemination Program, designed to translate educational research on teaching and learning into training programs for teachers.
The programs have expanded dramatically in the past few years. And in recent years, the RIFT developed its own teacher-training programs modeled after the national's. Last year, about 200 Rhode Island teachers participated in state-level, research-based training programs conducted by RIFT. And numerous workshops at the local level have been led by some of the 40 teachers who have been trained in Washington.
RIFT locals in Central Falls, Coventry, West Warwick and Providence, meanwhile, are at various stages of developing professional development programs and centers based on the Educational Research and Dissemination model.
"We're trying to help teachers with classroom-management skills, and with reading and math instruction," says Colleen Bielecki, RIFT's director of professional issues. "Researchers have studied effective and ineffective teachers. The reason it's important to say things in the ER&D program are connected to research is because it's not just somebody's whim. It's proven stuff."
The two-week summer program outside of Washington offers training in numerous areas, such as beginning reading instruction, early reading intervention, parent and family involvement and managing student behavior. In addition to being in class from 9 to 5, teachers had nightly homework and were required to make a presentation at the end of the two weeks.
The program cost $700, which the teachers' union locals paid, in addition to air fare and other expenses.
Suzanne Bartlett found the experience invigorating, because of what she learned about her craft as well as the chance to mingle with teachers from other states.
"Having the opportunity to talk with people from throughout the United States and share our best practices was both validating and enlightening," Bartlett says. "Teachers so often get closed off and isolated in their classrooms."
In the Foundations of Effective Teaching workshops she attended for 10 days, Bartlett said, she learned things that will help her with her kindergartners as well as techniques she can employ when she runs workshops designed to pass on what she learned.
"We spent three days on how adults process their learning," she says. "The point is, after I'm done, I'm supposed to go out and share."
As for her pupils, Bartlett was introduced to ideas about "modeling" and "reflection" that hadn't occurred to her.
"The modeling part, I do that already when I'm reading," she says. "If I come to a word I know they don't know, I say, 'This is how I'm going to figure out what this word is: It looks like this word, it sounds like this word.' We go through the process and think out loud.
"When I help kids write in their journals, I stand at the beginning of class and write in my journal. But I've never talked about what I was thinking about as I was writing."
Now she will.
"And the thing about reflection," Bartlett says, "I've been saying for years that new people coming out of college know about it, but us veterans don't know how powerful it can be for the learner.
"You go back and read and reread what you've written and put yourself in the place of your audience and decide whether what you've written conveys the message you intended. It helps you to understand your own thinking process.
"The writer brings his or her own meaning to what they've written. But it really doesn't have any value until you think of it from the reader's point of view. We need to make kids be a little more reflective even as young as kindergarten.
"I will definitely carry many of the things I learned [in Washington] into the classroom," Bartlett says. "I know they've affected my approach and technique. I see how vital continued professional development is. And I already have a notebook started of things I want to try and change."
Moriarty says she enrolled in the Managing Anti-Social Behavior workshops because "we're doing more and more inclusion, and with a bigger special education population coming into the regular classroom, it just seems like something I'd be able to use.
"It's not only special education children -- managing antisocial behavior shows you how to clearly define behaviors you will accept and will not accept in your classroom.
"We did a lot of role-playing, and we shared things we had done that had worked and things that hadn't worked," Moriarty says. "I'm going to have a definite, clear-cut set of rules and consequences, and be more consistent with my consequences.
"A consequence could be a warning or even a look. Once they know the rules, they know what they can get away with and what they can't -- running around the classroom, becoming aggressive with other children or aggressive toward the teacher.
"The course just validated things I do already in my classroom and gave me ideas on how I can improve on them."
Perhaps nothing has more impact on how a student does in school -- and whether he or she drops out -- than his or her ability to read. And research shows that if a youngster is not well on his or her way to being a reader by the end of the third grade, it is not likely to happen.
Grant-Kane, the Providence second-grade teacher, has seen the pendulum swing from phonics to whole language, and was especially interested in the latest solid research on beginning reading instruction.
"I got my master's degree in 1991," Grant-Kane says. "What I learned in college was whole language. But now we have research that says yes, it's good to have good literature, but that's not all you need. If a child doesn't know how to decode a word, break down the parts and know how it sounds, good literature is not going to help.
"That's the phonemic awareness."
Grant-Kane was first exposed to research supporting an "integrated program" of reading instruction, incorporating parts of the whole language approach and the phonetic, at a union-sponsored conference in Tennessee three years ago. Since then, she ran a workshop for teachers at Veazie Street and is working with the Providence Teachers Union to develop a program of workshops for other teachers in the district.
Children in Providence, she says, "are scoring very low in reading. The dropout rate is very high. So we have got to do something.
"I knew [the Washington conference] would be hard work, but I didn't mind giving up my time," Grant-Kane says. "Because I want to be the best I can be. I also want to help other teachers."
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