“10 years ago, I accepted a teaching position in a Catholic school in Philadelphia. I began as a sixth grade teacher and became increasingly unhappy with my performance as a teacher. Although I was passionate about my subject matter, Literacy, I seemed unable to inspire my students with that passion. After 3 years teaching sixth grade, I asked my principal to move me. First grade was the only option at the time. While I had no idea what teaching first grade would mean, I jumped at the chance to move to a new classroom and hopefully begin a school year reinvigorated. Only after I accepted the position, did I begin to realize that I was completely unprepared for this new adventure.
My sister, who had been teaching second grade, was going to move down to first with me. We tried to prepare ourselves all summer long. We read teacher resource books. We sat and designed our classroom spaces together. We had long talks about which books we were most excited to read aloud. Then, in August, just before we were due to report back to school, we received a phone call from our principal saying that we needed to go to CLI training instead of going to school for PD. We had never heard of CLI. We didn’t know where it was or what it was and our principal was short on answers. We worried about what we were getting involved with. We worried that all of our planning and excitement were about to come to an abrupt end.
I remember that at the training, I felt like a fish out of water. They had a lot of opinions and a lot of insights. One day our trainer asked us all to recite a rhyme or a poem that would be appropriate for our age group. I was called on last and I didn’t have one. It was mortifying. I tried to blend in with the chairs. And yet, every afternoon I would leave and pore over the information we had received that day. My sister and I revised our plans for classroom setup.Our plans for read alouds expanded into units and author studies. Our enthusiasm grew.
Over the last 7 years teaching first grade, my enthusiasm has continued to grow as I see the progress that my students make every year. Now, I work at a charter school in Philadelphia that also partners with CLI. Because of our partnership with CLI, my school has chosen to fully implement Readers’ and Writers’ Workshop. We have worked to create long term plans that reflect the goals of teaching comprehension strategies through our Intentional Read Alouds. Our classrooms look and feel different from classrooms in other schools.
In our classrooms, students and their work are the focus, not the teacher. Instead of finding bulletin boards with cute smiling birds and flowers, our bulletin boards and classroom walls are covered in student work, anchor charts, interactive writing, etc. In my classroom, the Model Classroom, our anchor charts are prominently displayed. These charts have been created together throughout the year. A spelling strategies chart proclaims, “Tricky words!? We’re not afraid of you!” Students began to create this chart with me after we read The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything. Vocabulary walls from different units of study also adorn the walls. When students are writing, you may find one standing by the bat wall, copying down the
word ‘clutching’ or near the reptile wall, finding the word ‘invertebrates.’ These charts on the wall are active in our classroom–the students and I refer to them throughout the day. They are not stagnant posters designed to look pretty; they reinforce old learning, support new learning,
and allow us to track our growth throughout the year.
In this Model Classroom, though, there is much more to the environment than what is hanging on the walls. The room is warm, inviting, and calming. Students know where supplies and materials are located and they are independent enough to retrieve them when needed. Students understand that this is a shared space and they are responsible enough to return items to their designated location. Students work in partnerships without needing teacher support.Students cheer for their classmates when they have worked hard. Students understand that this is their classroom and that they have a responsibility and a stake in their learning.
Every year, in September and October, I wonder if this class is going to make it. How, I wonder, will we ever get there? And yet, every year, we do. Never by the same path. Never with the exact same lessons. Never without great frustrations or powerful moments of achievement. My professional development through CLI helps me to meet those frustrations and rejoice in the triumphs. As I am faced with new challenges with each new class, I find ways to extend my learning and extend my expertise. I think of students like Michail this year. He transferred to our school in January. He was reading and writing well-below grade level. In fact,he was unable to hold a pencil and write his name in a way that was comfortable or effective for
him. Writing letters was cumbersome and frustrating. Due to various circumstances, Michail was unable to receive support services from our Reading Specialist. In our classroom, though, Michail blossomed. He worked hard when he saw that other students were writing 3 page booklets and he was just writing letters. The other students in the class congratulated him for his efforts and supported him in his attempts to grow. Michail’s writing began to improve. When he wrote his Question and Answer book, he wrote that “snakes are vicious predators.” Michail’s reading also began to improve dramatically. After three months in our class, Michail is reading and writing on grade level. This didn’t just happen because Michail sat in this classroom, but
because he was an active participant in the class. He is an incredibly hard worker who had the support of his classmates to try, to fail, to try again, and to succeed. In addition, he had something, he had a goal to work toward. When he saw what some of his classmates could do, he said to himself, “Hey, I can do that too!” The story of Michail might seem like an anomaly. And, it doesn’t happen with every single student in my classroom, but in Model Classrooms
across the city, this story repeats itself over and over again. Students enter the Model Classroom and the environment is one of encouragement and support, high-expectations and scaffolding,routine and innovation. Many students who had been struggling previously, flourish in this new environment because it allows them find new paths to learning.
When I think back to who I was as a sixth grade Literacy teacher, I feel embarrassed. I wanted so badly to inspire my students with my own passion for reading and writing, but I didn’t have the tools to achieve that goal. When I attended the three-day institute, I found the framework I needed so could accomplish that goal. When I look at my students now, I see thestudents I wanted to see 10 years ago: excited about learning, working towards goals, passionate about specific books and authors, engaged in real conversations about books, etc. My ongoing professional development through CLI has made it possible for me to continue to grow eachyear, to add new practices and to see even greater results.“