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When Collaborative Professional Learning Influences Curriculum, Part 1: A Case of Disciplinary Literacy Professional Learning and Instruction

By Christina Dobbs and Jacy Ippolito
 | Oct 10, 2018

Collaborative PLThis is the first installment of a two-part blog series about a standout school teacher collaboration around disciplinary literacy and citizenship, as an instructional focus.

Disciplinary literacy instruction is theorized to support students in learning the habits of various content disciplines more explicitly and ultimately being more fully apprenticed into these disciplinary communities. For the past two years, we have worked with teachers on one such project called the Disciplinary Literacy Initiative (DLI) in the Public Schools of Brookline, Massachusetts. For this project, cross-content area teams of middle school teachers from seven schools have regularly come together within and across schools to discuss their efforts to improve literacy outcomes for their students.

The design of the professional learning initiative has been unique in that every DLI school-based team has had freedom to follow its own agenda, however, the teams have all followed a basic professional learning process. The teams have met at least quarterly as an entire group, to engage in project-wide professional learning about core domains of instruction related to disciplinary literacy, for example, academic language use in classroom conversations and writing; reading discipline-specific and cross-disciplinary text sets; and so on.

The teams are all led by a peer—an elected “team leader" who has agreed to facilitate team meetings and help move each team’s agenda forward. Finally, each team has engaged in collaborative inquiry cycles focused on the core domains of instruction. Beyond these shared aspects, though, each team has been encouraged to design inquiry and instructional experiments that will best serve the specific needs of their respective students.

We are particularly grateful for what we have learned about the ways in which cross-disciplinary middle school teams move from collaborative professional learning, to piloting new curriculum, to making sense of students’ responses. Having worked on disciplinary literacy professional learning projects in a variety of schools and districts, we often find that high school teacher teams, coming from large departments with shared curriculum, often get to work quite quickly on the nuts and bolts of helping students to read, write, and communicate like historians, mathematicians, or scientists.

Yet, it can be difficult to always form teams of teachers that work on the same curricula, especially at the middle school level, where content area teams often tend to be smaller and configured differently. We have wrestled with how to drive curricular change at these sites where teachers either work on curricula alone, perhaps because role-alike colleagues do not exist in their school building or because cross-content area team work involves a great deal of explanation across disciplines before collaboration can really begin.

Our most recent experience with a cross-content area team of teachers from the Baker School in Brookline has given us some new ideas about how to carve out curricular improvement goals in cases where individuals don’t have many immediate curriculum collaborators.

The team at Baker and a new approach to changing curricula

The team from the Baker School is a group of experienced and passionate eighth-grade teachers who represent each of the content areas (English language arts, history, math, and science). None of the groups teach the same subject, but all teach the same students. This interdisciplinary structure was relatively new to us, given that most of our previous disciplinary literacy professional learning work focused on high school content area/disciplinary literacy.

As we have worked with an increasing number of middle schools, including smaller schools with only one teacher per content area working with students across multiple middle school grades, we find this to be a common and effective disciplinary literacy professional learning organization—grade-level teams that share the same groups of students, but with varied content area expertise. In many of the schools we’ve worked in, there is only one teacher of each subject, at each grade level, and contact with teachers with similar roles from other schools can be tricky to arrange. This can create a professional learning challenge when it comes to curriculum, as teams in these spaces may have little shared instructional content.

At first, the team at the Baker School had some of the same questions we did; since they didn’t share curricula per se, they wondered what changes they might make related to disciplinary literacy, and how they might make sense of their collaborative work together. We began by collectively considering approaches dealing with understanding students better, but that seemed like a separate enterprise from the one at hand.

The team was interested in ensuring that students’ literacy practices were being built such that they really connected to deepening the learning of content in more than one classroom. As they listed some of the practices they were interested in (such as increasing students’ response writing, using multiple texts to explore a theme, or emphasizing key vocabulary), they developed a plan that other teams at the middle grade range or in interdisciplinary structures might also be able to use. Thus “Citizenship Week” was born. In Part 2, we describe how the team dug into their work to offer a model that other middle schools and cross-content area teams might implement.

The teachers at the heart of this story are Jacqueline Hallo, Christina Collins, Sheila Jaung, Pamela Penwarden, John Padula, and Marisa Ricci, who are all educators at the Edith C. Baker School in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Christina L. Dobbs is program director and assistant professor of English education at Boston University. 

Jacy Ippolito is an associate professor and department chair of the Secondary and Higher Education Department for the School of Education at Salem State University in Massachusetts.

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