How Study Groups impact school culture

Mia Valdez-QuellhorstPrograms, Support, Teachers

WITS believes that if we can develop a love of reading in students, it will positively impact their entire life. WITS knows that empowered readers change the world. Through the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award (RLTA), WITS’ flagship program for Chicago Public Schools teachers, we create communities of teachers who want to reconnect to their lifelong love of reading. If teachers are readers, they’ll foster that love of reading in their students.

Building communities in today’s schools come with unique challenges. Along with managing curriculum and testing demands, teachers are expected to help students become critical thinkers, responsible community members, and compassionate friends. Often, this leaves little time and space for inquiry, reflection, and collaboration.

Rochelle Lee Teacher Awardee leading a classroom reading activity.

The Rochelle Lee Teacher Award has long served to provide avenues for teachers to collaborate and build community. WITS believes that teachers know best how to teach their students.  Teachers know their students and their needs. Teachers know themselves and their practices. Teachers are looking for ways to improve. Using these beliefs as a guide, the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award empowers teachers to take charge of their own professional development. At the WITS Summer Institute, awardees choose from a catalog of hundreds of literacy focused professional development courses that align with their professional growth and the unique needs of their classroom.

WITS Study Groups are school-based professional learning communities that meet once a month, September through May, to tackle specific instructional gaps. Groups choose a topic and pick a text to guide their research. Teachers read, reflect, and try new techniques in the classroom before coming together with their group to examine progress in the context of the whole school community. At the monthly meetings, study group members collaborate, share student work, and problem solve, all while building community among peers. With doors open, teachers engage in a meaningful, sustained reflection-to-action process.

During the 2017 school year, WITS began to examine the structure and outcomes of the RLTA Study Groups to find ways to improve. Study group members commented on a lack of continuity between program years and how abrupt it felt to end such an intensive study at the end of a school year. “After spending months thinking about and working with close reading, it felt strange to put that topic aside the next year. We immediately started a new project with little tangible, lasting results from the year prior,” remarked one WITS study group leader. This led to the idea of “Going Public” as a way to showcase and synthesize study group learning.

Study Group members presenting at the 2019 Going Public event.

Study Group members presenting at the 2019 Going Public event.

The structure of Study Groups loosely follows the teaching strategy of inquiry projects. When embarking on an inquiry project, students ask a myriad of questions about a topic as each individual learner finds the most intriguing, interesting part to sink their teeth into. This is what Study Groups do: choose a topic of study and then examine it from different angles, using a collaborative, reflective trial-and-error process. What was needed was a way to synthesize a year’s learning so that it could continue to live in the classroom, beyond the one-school-year RLTA cycle. Borrowing from the inquiry philosophy, WITS added Going Public Projects to Study Group curricula. Now, Study Groups define a goal to work on throughout the year, including final projects that synthesize the groups’ year-long learning. In May, all Study Group members come together for a Going Public Showcase. All projects are displayed and shared. The school-wide impact of these projects is immense: curricula have been written, scopes and sequences adopted, parents engaged, conference presentations given, school-wide trainings led, and more. Study groups use the Going Public Project to share their learning with the school community. These projects have a noticeable impact on teaching and learning in  the entire school, not just RLTA classrooms.

In 2018, teachers at Brentano Math and Science Academy in Logan Square saw a deficit in their teaching practice and used the RLTA study group model to enact positive, lasting change to their literacy teaching practices. The Brentano group chose to focus on adding diverse anchor books and text sets to their teaching. Many schools use packaged curriculum. These curriculum give teachers lesson plans, scope and sequence, activities, homework, even scripted lessons. These curriculum vary in scope and quality, but all assign anchor texts – books and reading material that serve as the foundation for learning. Many of these titles are “classics.” Chicago Public Schools classrooms have a diverse population of students with a broad cultural footprint. Many of the texts championed by prepackaged curricula are not relevant to the experiences of the students being taught.

Rochelle Lee Teacher Awardee leading a classroom reading activity.

“I have learned a great deal from our study group this year. Our discussions of diverse books and how to incorporate them has led to tangible results in my classroom, as I have added many of these books to my library throughout the year. I’ve seen the impact these books have on students as they encounter characters that look like them, share their background, or share some of the same challenges,” Leah Stenson, Brentano study group member.

The teachers at Brentano realized that while they’d found text sets to address instructional needs, they had more work to do to integrate this learning into the larger academic fabric of Brentano. Eight teachers from Brentano applied and were accepted into a WITS Study Group for the 2019-2020 school year, allowing them to have two years of focused work finding and integrating culturally relevant texts into the school-wide curriculum.

From the individual awardees who are just beginning to reconnect with themselves as readers, to Study Group members teaching and learning from their peers, to coaches and workshop leaders who guide RLTA participants, WITS is proud to have brought together over 8,000 passionate educators. In its 31st year, the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award continues to empower educators to improve their practices and deepen their impact in the lives of their students. Our teachers will come together soon in the 2019 Summer Institute and begin the study group process anew. We are excited to share in the discovery and reflections of our 2020 cohort as they work to change the world one study group at a time.

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