Multiple districts–Ellin Oliver Keene gathered 25 Breton Downs Elementary fifth-graders around her to read “The Tree in the Courtyard: Looking Through Anne Frank’s Window” by Jeff Gottesfeld.
While students settled in, 16 teachers from East Grand Rapids and other Kent ISD districts took spots at the back and sides of the room to observe.
Keene began to read, and the teachers began to write, including Bridget Rieth, whose students Keene was holding at rapt attention.
For the next 30 minutes or so, Keene read, stopping often to ask the students about the book, including the images the author was painting with his words and what feelings or images his writing was invoking in them.
The pace was deliberate, she later told SNN.
“There is a great deal of research to indicate that pausing to think aloud during a read-aloud is an important instructional tool in literacy and mathematics,” she said.
When she was done, she gave the students three choices for the remaining minutes of class. One was to simply read on their own from the ample supply of books in Rieth’s room.
Another was to write about images that Gottesfeld’s book had stirred for them.
And the third option was to write a more personal narrative and include in that writing an emphasis on images and feelings.
Discussing the Good and the Goofs
The idea, Keene said, is to help students see the connections between reading and writing, a literacy studio model.
“What they learn as readers can be applied as writers,” she said. “So, the second two options were giving kids the choice between responding to the text they just heard and doing some original writing. Each option, however, is focused on them applying what they have been taught in the lesson. If they chose to apply it through reading today, they’ll be asked to apply it in writing tomorrow.”
As the students dispersed to one of the three options, the teachers at the back and sides of the room continued to observe, to jot notes and even to quietly confer with one another.
After the class, Keene and the teacher-observers sojourned in a conference room at the school and debriefed on the hour they had just participated in together, a full and frank conversation about the lesson, what worked well and even the missteps along the way.
“My lessons are far from perfect,” Keene said. “We’re learning from what didn’t go as well as I had planned and from what seemed to work. I often think that discussions of the goofs are the most productive.”
Among the participants was Diane Titche, an early literacy coach at Kent ISD.
It was her idea three years ago to use Keene’s work to center a program called Ignite Engagement, a cohort of teachers that connects regularly with Keene to together challenge and inspire one another along their teaching journeys in the area of literacy.
Teachers Have Formed a Tight-Knit Group
The teachers in Rieth’s classrooms are from the first two years of the program, and they have formed a cohort that Titche said has become a very tight-knit group.
“They quickly recognized the level of collective teaching expertise in their group, as well as the individual strengths they each brought to the group,” she said. “Last year, still working together as a cohort through covid but in a virtual format, they stayed together and supported each other through all the challenges, frustrations and victories that arose throughout a year of uncertainty.”
Titche added that the ongoing nature of the Ignite Engagement model has some built-in advantages over what she called the typical “one and done” professional development model in which a speaker or educator meets with the whole staff on a professional development day, delivers helpful and motivating content and then leaves it to the teachers to implement.
“These days are generally well received by staff, and they are typically very motivated to try out what they’ve learned,” she said. “But once they return to the reality of day-to-day life in their classrooms, it becomes challenging to figure out how and when to do that implementation. The learning often falls by the wayside.”
A More Sustainable Form of PD
Ignite Engagement was designed from the start to be a more sustainable form of PD.
Titche said that teachers were encouraged to join the cohort along with a coach or teaching partner, someone else in their building who is learning the same content and trying out the same new practices.
“In addition, the cohorts meet together once a month to discuss the work they’ve been doing, brainstorm solutions to challenges they’ve experienced, and celebrate their successes together,” she added.
Titche serves as a coach to all the cohort members, visiting classrooms at least once a month to see what they are trying and to support them in whatever ways they might need.
“These visits also give me opportunities to observe the students’ level of engagement in their work and see the changes that take place over the course of the year,” she said.
And Keene does an in-person visit three or four times over the course of the year, something Titche said is “incredibly powerful.”
It also helps, said Titche, that from the beginning, the goal was to find teachers who were willing to step outside the box a little bit.
“A lot of districts are dictating how teachers need to spend their time in their language arts block,” she said. “So, we asked principals and superintendents to sign off on this and allow teachers to step outside some of their district mandates. That was a very important piece.”
‘Dove at the Chance to Join’
One of those principals was Breton Downs Elementary’s Caroline Breault-Cannon.
She was so taken with the idea that four of the 16 members of the cohort are from East Grand Rapids, including her. Other districts represented include Sparta, Rockford, Lowell, Kentwood, Belding and National Heritage Academies. And a new cohort that just began includes five members from East Grand Rapids.
“When I began the program, I was hoping to be able to learn more about how I can identify if students were engaged in the classroom,” she said. “I also wanted to be able to support our wonderful teaching staff by giving them specific feedback on how to engage students and strategies they could use with them. I’ve learned so much about what engagement means in the classroom and how to talk to students about engagement.”
For Reith, the Breton Downs fifth-grade teacher, the chance to learn from Keene was too good to pass up, and the face-to-face interactions with her and the others in the first cohort have been a boon to her literacy teaching.
‘A lot of districts are dictating how teachers need to spend their time in their language arts block. So, we asked principals and superintendents to sign off on this and allow teachers to step outside some of their district mandates. That was a very important piece.’— Diane Titche, Kent ISD early literacy coach
She said that “Mosaic of Thought,” co-written by Keene and Susan Zimmerman, was a formative text in the development of her philosophy around literacy teaching. She added that while Keene’s work has been centered around literacy learning, her engagement framework is applicable across the curriculum and spans grade levels.
“When the cohort opportunity arose, I dove at the chance to join,” she said. “It has been a privilege to observe and process with a master teacher like Ellin Keene. The opportunity to be immersed in this work with my students is a gift that energizes and feeds my teacher soul.”
Appleview Elementary to Transition to a Lab School
Sparta teachers have been so involved in and so enthused about the Ignite Engagement program and Keene’s work in literacy that Appleview Elementary is in the process of becoming a lab school, the first in the state, said Principal Mike Birely.
He said his teachers have been coming back from Ignite Engagement events fired up, and that he has seen the impact of the program in his school’s classrooms and among the school’s students.
Becoming a lab school means, in part, that Appleview will welcome visitors from other school districts to observe the research-based practices Appleview teachers have implemented that have been proven to increase students’ engagement in their learning, as the 16 teachers in the first Ignite Engagement cohort observed Keene in Rieth’s classroom. The lab school also will be designed to be a place for teachers to learn and collaborate.
Said Diane Titche, an early literacy coach at Kent ISD: “As educators, we never stop learning and working to improve our practice, even when we’re inviting others to come and learn from us.”
Being a Lab School Doesn’t Mean Being Perfect
Being a lab school doesn’t mean being a perfect school with perfect classrooms, Birely said. Rather, it means being a school eager to try new things and open to allowing people to come in and see what they’re shooting for, to see the overarching principles in place but not necessarily perfected.
“We want visitors to feel like they are part of a collective community of learners,” he said, “to feel like they can visit Appleview and take what they learn back to their own settings.”
To get there, Appleview plans to frontload professional learning over the next few years to build background knowledge for its whole staff. What that PD looks like and when Appleview might open as a lab and more is still being determined.
Fourth-grade teacher Sherry Kilpatrick, 28 years in teaching with 26 at Sparta, can’t wait. She’s been involved in Ignite Engagement since the start and said the experience has reignited her love for teaching.
“I feel like I have become a better teacher by observing Ellin in person over the past few years,” she said. “Her theory of how to teach reading and writing has transformed my classroom from one where the students sat and took in information to a classroom where students have choices of what they read and write and are engaged during this literacy studio time.”
Becoming a lab school, Kilpatrick added, means not only outstanding PD but also further opportunities to learn from Keene and Titche.
“My hope is that we become an elementary school where students become lifelong readers and writers,” she said.