The Words Came Down at Bailey's Elementary School

Because her student teaching experience emphasized direct instruction and worksheet practice, Cassie Jones says she felt underprepared for the creative and active learning at Bailey's Elementary School in Fairfax County, Virginia. Now in her third year teaching kindergarten at Bailey's, Jones enthusiastically supports letting students read, write, and talk across the curriculum using play, oral language, and the workshop structure to anchor learning. But it took a recent faculty book study of "The Words Came Down!" (Stenhouse, 2006) to help her understand how to weave those methods into all aspects of primary grades learning.

"I think it's interesting to see how things they talk about in the book-the play, the way that parents come in during the morning to learn with their children-are so influential to the kids and their progress in school," Jones says. "Reading 'The Words Came Down!' has really opened my eyes to a lot of concepts that I've thought about but have not implemented in my own classroom as much as the teachers in this book do."

Written by Emelie Parker and Tess Pardini, "The Words Came Down!" shows teachers how to help English language learners thrive in rigorous, joyful classroom communities. At the time they wrote the book, Parker and Pardini had spent more than thirty-five years at Bailey's, including teaching kindergarten, first grade, and second grade, and serving as writing resource teachers. Parker has since retired from Bailey's, but Pardini still works there as a Reading Recovery specialist. The book takes readers into their classrooms as well as those of their colleagues. Bailey's serves a predominately immigrant population from high-poverty homes. It is one of the largest elementary schools in Virginia, with more than 1,300 students in pre-K through fifth grade.

During the 2012-2013 school year, six teachers from Bailey's English for students of other languages (ESOL) department, along with the school's thirteen kindergarten teachers, decided to read and discuss "The Words Came Down!" during monthly meetings. Because the school is so large, Bailey's ESOL teachers aren't able to visit kindergarten classes every day, so they wanted to find other ways to assist their colleagues. Framing professional development around a book written by some of the school's own faculty members seemed a perfect solution.

"This was an amazing resource to help us start a conversation," says ESOL teacher Allyn Kurin. "We thought that by reading this book we are reaching teachers and therefore reaching more students because we know that every time we have a dialogue, it's positive for the students and ourselves."

One of the first things the kindergarten teachers discovered is how appropriate the book's recommended strategies are for all students, not just second-language learners. The authors suggest creating a safe and supportive community for sharing, asking questions that encourage conversation, and integrating language and subject matter. Kindergarten teacher Jennifer Tustin, who is in her first year at Bailey's, says the book showed her how to focus on oral language development, which led to immediate gains in her students' literacy skills.

"As a teacher you know you talk about things in the classroom, but this is really about getting kids to share what they are thinking, not just on an assessment, but can they really explain what they're doing and thinking," Tustin says. She realized her students could enrich their expressive language "through turn and talks, retelling familiar read-aloud books, and in a sense reading the books even though they are not yet reading. In math, they can recount the problems or even come up with their own story problems."

Focusing on one or two chapters a month, the teachers began each book study session with four questions that ESOL teacher Marilyn Rossen used to build a discussion protocol:

  • What strikes you as you are reading?
  • What ways will it affect your instruction?
  • What ways will it affect the way you will set up your classroom?
  • What ways can you change ESOL instruction and oral language?

After gathering together initially, the teachers broke up into small groups to discuss the questions and then returned to the larger group to share key insights. In this way they paralleled the instructional process of using a whole-group gathering to set the stage for a lesson and small groups to differentiate activities to address students' needs and interests.

Pardini attended most of the book study sessions and shared additional resources with her colleagues. She says she was delighted to know that the book was still relevant.

Rossen says that reading the book encouraged the ESOL and kindergarten teachers to jointly emphasize oral language development. While visiting kindergarten classrooms, she now makes it a point to ask students to explain what they are doing, whether in math, social studies, or reading. During one of their science units, the students got to write their own books and make scientific illustrations. To develop the students' oral language, the kindergarten teacher asked them to share their books with their classmates, their teachers, and then with another class.

"That was good to see how they were first rehearsing reading with their peers and then they went on to share with another class," Rossen says.

Jones says another insight from the book study was the importance of involving parents, particularly those who may not have strong literacy skills themselves, in the life of the classroom. Every kindergarten teacher was inspired to expand communication with students' families during the first semester. Jones says she and three of her colleagues hosted an after-school picnic where families could meet each other.

"It was fantastic," she says. "It wasn't even about us talking to the parents but the parents talking to each other and the kids interacting with each other. I think the impact is that the parents felt welcome and they felt involved and that we wanted them to be part of their kids' education."

For veteran kindergarten teacher Mary Anne Buckley, the book study served a different purpose. Although its themes weren't new to her-her classroom was featured in some sections-rereading the book reminded herto encourage more peer-to-peer dialogue instead of having students primarily respond to the teacher's questions.

"I remember thinking, 'I've got to get out of the way more,'" she says. "The book helps me remember that it's not about giving information as much as setting up the situation where all the content is floating around them and they have to use it. The more authentic you make their need to express themselves and be understood, the better they learn. If they can be successful orally then it makes it easier when they're writing and trying to read and understand the meaning."

Membersof Bailey's book study group say they would encourage other faculties to try to structure this type of professional development during the summer instead of during the school year. That way, teachers could put the recommended practices into place at the start of the term rather than intermittently. No matter when it's done, they believe a book study is a great way for teachers to hold each other accountable for learning along with their students.

As Cassie Jones says, "When you talk about it with your colleagues and you hear what they're doing in the classroom and what knowledge they have gained from the book, it sparks ideas of what I can be doing in my own classroom. It's a way for us to think about our own teaching and grow from it. I wish I had read this book my first year."