Multiple Districts – Ellin Oliver Keene gathered 25 fifth graders from Breton Downs Elementary to read Jeff Gottesfeld’s The Tree in the Yard: Looking Through the Window of Anne Frank.
As students settled in, 16 teachers from East Grand Rapids and other ITS districts of Kent took places at the back and sides of the room to watch them.
Keene began to read and the teachers began to write, including Bridget Rieth, whose student Keene kept excited.
For the next 30 minutes, Keene read, often pausing to ask students about the book, including what pictures the author painted with his words and what feelings or images his writing evoked in them.
The pace was on purpose, she later told SNN.
“There is a lot of research to suggest that pausing loudly while reading is an important teaching tool in literacy and math,” she said.
When she finished, she gave the students three options for the remaining minutes of class. One was simply to read alone from the ample supply of books in Rieth’s room.
Another was to write about pictures that Gottesfeld’s book had moved for her.
And the third option was to write a more personal narrative with an emphasis on images and feelings.
Literacy and engagement expert Ellin Keene is part of a new Kent ISD initiative called Ignite Engagementt
Discuss the good and the flaws
The idea, Keene said, is to help students see the connections between reading and writing, a literacy studio model.
“What you learn as a reader can be applied as a writer,” she said. “So the second two options were to give the children the choice of responding to the text they had just heard or of writing something original. However, each option focuses on them applying what they learned in the lesson. If you have chosen to use it by reading today, you will be asked to use it in writing tomorrow. ”
While the students divided themselves into one of the three options, the teachers continued to watch in the back and sides of the room, took notes and even discussed quietly.
After class, Keene and the teacher-observers stayed in a conference room at the school and discussed the class they had just attended together, a full and frank conversation about the class, what worked well, and even the missteps along the way.
“My classes are far from perfect,” said Keene. “We learn from what didn’t go as I planned and from what seemed to work. I often think that discussions about the bugs are the most productive. “
Among those attending was Diane Titche, an early literacy trainer at Kent ISD.
It was her idea three years ago to use Keene’s work to focus on a program called Ignite Engagement, a cohort of teachers who regularly connect with Keene to challenge and learn from one another on their literacy teaching trips to inspire.
Teachers have formed a close-knit group
Breton Down’s fifth grade teacher, Bridget Rieth, takes notes while Ellin Keene reads with her students
The teachers in Rieth’s classrooms are from the first two years of the program and form a cohort that Titche says has become a very close-knit group.
“They quickly recognized the level of collective teaching skills in their group as well as the individual strengths they brought to the group,” she said. “Last year they still worked together as a cohort through Covid, but in a virtual format, stayed together and supported each other through all the challenges, frustrations and victories that came in 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-time” career development model where a speaker or educator meets all staff on a career development day , provides helpful results and motivating content and then leaves the implementation to the teachers.
“These days are generally well received by the employees and they are usually very motivated to try out what they have learned,” she says. “But once they get back to the realities of everyday life in their classrooms, it becomes difficult to figure out how and when that happens. Learning often falls by the wayside. “
Diane Titche is an early literacy trainer at Kent ISD and the founder of a new program called Ignite Engagement
A more sustainable form of PD
Ignite Engagement was designed from the start as a more sustainable form of PD.
Titche said 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 the same new practices.
“In addition, the cohorts meet once a month to discuss their work so far, to find solutions to the challenges they have experienced, and to celebrate successes together,” she added.
Titche coaches all cohort members and visits the classrooms at least once a month to see what they are trying to do and to support them in any way they need.
“These visits also give me an opportunity to see student engagement in their work and see how the year changes,” she said.
And Keene visits three or four times in person during the year, which Titche said was “incredibly powerful.”
It also helps, according to Titche, that the goal from the outset is to find teachers who are willing to go a little outside the box.
“Many districts dictate how teachers spend their time in their language arts block,” she said. “So we asked school principals and superintendents to sign this and allow teachers to leave some of their district mandates. That was a very important piece. “
A fifth grade student of Bridget Rieth in Breton Downs responds to reading time with her own writing time
A fifth grade student of Bridget Rieth in Breton Downs responds to reading time by writing about the book she just heard
“Pigeon at the chance to take part”
One of these directors was Caroline Breault-Cannon of Breton Downs Elementary.
She was so fond of the idea that four of the 16 members of the cohort are from East Grand Rapids, including her. Other counties represented are Sparta, Rockford, Lowell, Kentwood, Belding and the National Heritage Academies. And a new cohort that has just started includes five members from East Grand Rapids.
“When I started the program, I was hoping to learn more about how to determine if students were engaging in class,” she said. “I also wanted to support our wonderful teachers by giving them specific feedback on student engagement and strategies they can use with them. I’ve learned so much about what engagement means in class and how to talk to students about engagement. “
For Reith, the fifth grade teacher at Breton Downs, the chance to learn from Keene was too good to miss, and the personal interactions with her and the others in the first cohort were a boon to her literacy class .
“Many districts dictate how teachers spend their time in their language arts block. So we asked school principals and superintendents to sign this and allow teachers to leave 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 defining text in the development of her philosophy around literacy education. She added that while Keene’s work has focused on literacy learning, her engagement framework is applicable across the curriculum and across grade levels.
“When the cohort opportunity arose, I took the chance to participate,” she said. “It was a privilege to observe and process with a master teacher like Ellin Keene. The opportunity to immerse yourself in this work with my students is a gift that energizes and nourishes my teacher soul. “
Appleview Elementary for transitioning to a laboratory school
Sparta teachers have been so involved and excited with the Ignite Engagement program and Keene’s work on literacy that Appleview Elementary is in the process of becoming a laboratory school, the first in the state, said director Mike Birely.
He said his teachers had returned from the Ignite Engagement events and that he had seen the effects of the program in his school’s classrooms and among the students at the school.
Becoming a laboratory school means, in part, Appleview welcoming visitors from other school districts to observe the research-based practices that Appleview teachers have implemented that have been shown to increase student engagement in their learning, like the 16 teachers in the first Ignite Engagement cohort observed Keene in Rieth’s classroom. The laboratory school is also meant to be a place where teachers can learn and collaborate.
Diane Titche, an early literacy trainer at Kent ISD, said, “As educators, we never stop learning and working to improve our practice, even as we invite others to come and learn from us.”
Being a laboratory school doesn’t mean being perfect
Being a laboratory school doesn’t mean being a perfect school with perfect classrooms, Birely said. Rather, it means being a school that is eager to try new things and be open to people walking in and seeing what they are looking for, to see the overarching principles that are there but not necessarily perfected.
“We want visitors to feel like they are part of a collective learning community,” he said, “that they can visit Appleview and apply what they have learned to their own settings.”
To get there, Appleview plans to enable professional learning over the next few years to build background knowledge for all staff. What this PD looks like and when Appleview could be opened as a laboratory and more is still to be determined.
Fourth grader Sherry Kilpatrick, 28 years teaching, 26 of them at Sparta, can hardly wait. She has been involved with Ignite’s engagement from the start and said the experience rekindled her love of teaching.
“I feel like I’ve become a better teacher by watching Ellin personally over the past few years,” she said. “Your theory of how to teach reading and writing changed my classroom from a classroom where students sat and took in information to a classroom where students have choices about what to read and write and what to do during that literacy studio time employ.”
Becoming a laboratory school, Kilpatrick added, means not only great PD, but more opportunities to learn from Keene and Titche.
“My hope is that we will become an elementary school where students become lifelong readers and writers,” she said.