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A decade ago, when leaders of the Fitchburg Public Schools in Massachusetts realized that few teachers were regularly reading professional resources, they decided to organize a series of online book studies. They hoped the sessions would enable teachers to read and reflect on their own time and encourage them to use the materials strategically to address students' learning gaps. The district offered to pay for the books and a small honorarium, provided that teachers responded to prompts from facilitators, participated in online discussions, and completed written reflections about how they were using recommended strategies in their classrooms.
The result? Most of the district's 450 faculty members have completed at least one of the 160 collaborative studies, and collegiality and classroom improvements have soared.
"The level of professional discourse has really been elevated with the book studies," says Donna Sorila, director of mathematics for the Fitchburg school district. "It's anecdotal, but it's palpable. You can actually hear the change in the discourse."
Technology director Eileen Spinney says teachers now request studies of books they've read or heard about, in addition to using the resources identified by facilitators. With about eighty professional books already shared by faculty members, she says, "We're starting to get that professional culture."
Over the years, Fitchburg leaders have refined the professional development sessions to include both online learning and face-to-face meetings that typically involve classroom observations. Often the facilitator will also ask participants to try out a lesson or project adapted from the book, videotape the instructional sequences, and then share them with colleagues so they can reflect on the experiences together.
Nicenet.org, a free online service, enables participants to use web-based conferencing and share resources through an interactive platform. Facilitators post prompts and ask group members to respond to the question and to one another's comments. Each person also turns in a journal or notebook of collected reflections at the end of the session.
"That is their more personal piece," shared only with the facilitator, Sorila says. "We ask them to think about, 'What are your strengths? What area do you want to focus on for your practice?' Not only are they doing things collaboratively with the group, but then we're trying to push them a little deeper with reflections in the journals."
In addition to refining the hybrid book study model, Fitchburg's leaders now limit each group to fifteen members to ensure greater participation and camaraderie. They've also begun including administrators in the sessions, which has reinforced the value of incorporating trade books into professional development. Summer book study sessions usually last about a month, whereas sessions during the school year can stretch to six or eight weeks.
The hybrid learning model has continued to give teachers flexibility in when they read and respond but has also led to more accountability and implementation of recommended practices. For example, when reading Math Work Stations: Independent Learning You Can Count On, K-2 (Stenhouse, 2011), math coaches wanted to see how teachers in the district's four elementary schools were organizing math learning centers and developing students' conceptual understanding and skills.
"Teachers are a little reluctant when we bring in a video camera, but when they think about having that second set of eyes or being that second set of eyes they become much more reflective," Sorila says.
Julie Basler, math coach at South Street Elementary School, led a study of Math Work Stations last year for about twenty teachers, including those from special education and Title I departments. The school's K-2 teachers were already incorporating strategies from Debbie Diller's book, and Basler and principal Monica Poitras wanted to spread the practices to all classrooms. A key goal was ensuring that teachers were intentionally using math manipulatives as tools for learning, not just toys to make math seem more fun.
"I think one of the better results was greater camaraderie among the people who took this class together," Basler says. "There was a lot more insight into how other teachers teach. Sometimes when you see what someone else is doing in the classroom it might not be exactly what you need in your own classroom, but you are able to take that idea and adapt it and grow from it."
Teachers still talk about what they learned during their collaborative study of Math Work Stations, Basler says. "All of the comments were positive, but I remember some from the end of the session where people said, 'Oh, I wish we had done this from the get-go because I would have set up my classroom completely different.' They really saw the value of just about every part of the book."
Greater Respect for Reading About Math
Paula Carr, a third-grade math teacher at Crocker Elementary School, has led about twenty book study sessions for educators throughout the Fitchburg district. She usually asks teachers to create a lesson plan based on some aspect of the book in addition to responding to online prompts and reflecting in journals. She said guiding studies of math books has been so rewarding because traditionally professional reading was thought to be the responsibility of literacy teachers. One of the most valuable book studies she conducted featured Number Sense Routines: Building Numerical Literacy Every Day in Grades K-3 (Stenhouse, 2011). Author Jessica Shumway shares how teachers can help students develop strong number sense by practicing routines, just as athletes and musicians do. For example, they can learn to make reasonable estimates, see relationships among numbers, and design number systems.
Carr says the book resonated with teachers. "Every single journal entry I have read, every dialogue I have heard, there are lots of aha moments: 'I never thought of doing it that way. I never thought that younger kids could do that.' Quite honestly, coming into teaching years ago, I myself didn't realize how building strong number sense was so unbelievably important in laying a foundation for when students get older. Sometimes we move through so many topics so quickly, thinking kids have it, but this has really helped me focus on how deeply they know it and also focus on techniques that will help them really grasp the concepts."
Carr says she now incorporates number sense practice into every class, no matter what else students are working on. For example, when considering a subtraction problem of 154 minus 27, Carr will ask students to talk about the "reasonableness" of the answer, which is one of the ways they learn to perform mental math and develop flexibility and fluidity with numbers.
In their online conversations, teachers noted many great strategies from the book, including Count Around the Circle, which asks each student to contribute a number that builds on an identified routine, such as counting by tens. Teachers also mentioned the Organic Number Line routine, which helps second- and third-grade students develop a mental linear model for fractions and decimals. The line is "organic" because students add to it throughout the school year, and it changes based on the experiences in the class.
Crocker teachers said Number Sense Routines helped them appreciate the importance of sharing visualization strategies, particularly with special education students and second language learners who may need to see number representations as well as hear them.
"My teachers taught me the standard algorithm, and I memorized it," one teacher wrote on Nicenet. "Now I find that my number sense is growing deeper as I teach."
Another teacher quickly replied, "I too was a standard algorithm kid! Then when my own children needed help with their math homework I was told I was not doing it right, but I only knew one way. As a teacher I find that ten frames really help the students with number sense, and I am amazed when the students can tell me the different ways they solved a math problem."
For Paula Carr, the collegial book studies show how much teachers need and want to learn from one another. Reading and reflecting with teachers in other schools has been especially valuable, she says, offering glimpses into classrooms they might not otherwise see.
"It opens it up to everyone valuing each other's opinions and learning from each other instead of re-creating the wheel," she says. "You can discover people who are already doing fantastic things and get ideas from them."