Threads of Understanding
by Kim Larson
Nebraska Writing Project
- The best teachers of writing are writers themselves.
- Teachers provide the best instruction for other teachers.
- Anyone, no matter her ability level, can improve her writing in a supportive context with other practicing writers.
- True school reform comes through democratic partnerships across grade levels.
- Teachers, students, and communities benefit when teachers form networks with other teachers and draw on collective expertise.
Belief Statements, Nebraska Writing Project
As I fly over the Nebraska prairie on my way home from a National Writing Project retreat, I stop reading for a moment and glance out the window. A quilt of perfect squares lay below--fields of soy beans, corn, and wheat, divided by miles of dirt and gravel road. I am tired from the hard work of writing, anxious to arrive home, and am reminded of the quilt that lay carefully folded on my bed--the quilt made for my dad by his grandmother, many years before. Each square of now delicate fabric was stitched in place with my great-grandmother's hands with thread that continues to hold despite many years of wear.
Like the threads that hold each square of my father's quilt perfectly in place, the belief statements that are the foundation of the Nebraska Writing Project (NWP) are the critical understandings that shape and securely hold the fabric of my professional world. I remember sitting among a circle of teachers during the first summer institute I attended, listening as Robert Brooke, the longtime director of the Nebraska Writing Project, said that teachers are the best teachers of other teachers. I was intrigued with this idea, but hardly believed it was true. At that time, I was sure that someone outside of my school had all of the answers to my questions about learning--why some children could grasp concepts easily, and others struggled to make sense of the very same ideas. I thought that knowledge could be passed from these experts to me, and then I would understand what they knew already. In much the same way, I was also sure that knowledge was transmitted by good teachers to their students, easily and efficiently. But because of my involvement with the Nebraska Writing Project over many years, I now understand that learning anything is a process--that knowledge isn't transmitted from one to another, but is developed within oneself over time through interaction, support, trust, need, interest, and opportunity.
When I began my job as reading and writing director with the Nebraska Department of Education (NDE) five years ago, I knew that teachers are the best people to make the decisions that can positively impact their students' learning--not people far removed from that environment in state and federal institutions. I also knew that change doesn't happen as a result of mandates, but rather through individual self-discovery and collective collaboration.
For many years I was a teacher of beginning readers and writers and felt valued, respected, and successful--but I lacked the same confidence in my new role as the interpreter and disseminator of information about state literacy education requirements. If I was going to succeed at my job of leading state literacy initiatives, I knew that I would need to find ways to hold onto my long-held beliefs about teaching and learning and utilize them as I met new expectations and responsibilities and formed new relationships. My understanding of the complexity of teaching and learning would be the thread that would bind my many job responsibilities--just like the threads that continue to securely hold the hundreds of small, multi-colored squares that combine to form the intricate design of my father's quilt.
Binding Four Nebraska Schools
After working at NDE for a short time, I longed to reconnect to my writing project past. As a classroom teacher, I learned about teaching and learning with other educators as I studied my students' literacy development. With other educators, I read and talked about text, wrote and talked about writing, and observed and documented the day-to-day literacy growth of many young students. It was because of my experiences in NWP that I discovered the power of learning with others and longed to recreate similar experiences for other Nebraska teachers. I hardly had extra time, my days filled with informing people in schools about standards, assessments, and reporting responsibilities. I felt that my role at NDE was viewed by teachers as one of informer and enforcer. I quickly realized that I needed to find ways to connect with teachers over extended periods of time and for meaningful reasons. I approached my supervisor and proposed developing and hosting a semester-long class for teachers that would focus on writing. She supported the idea, so I began the many hours of planning.
I remember my first glance at the TV screen located across the room from me as I sat in the distance learning lab several months later. I was getting my first look at the teachers collected in three different schools located many miles from where I was sitting in Elkhorn, Nebraska outside of Omaha. As each quarter screen of the television illuminated with faces and voices, those of teachers I had been corresponding with as this writing class was organized, I felt the excitement of being part of something unique. The conversation that day began like we were all in the same room, even though I was sitting in a technology lab at a local community college, and the teachers on the TV screen were located hundreds of miles away. Linda Beckstead, a Nebraska Writing Project colleague and an expert high school journalism teacher, and I had organized the course, learning how to use the equipment necessary for distance learning. We managed computers, cameras, TV screens, and microphones as we "met" monthly with the staff from several Nebraska schools. The schools that volunteered to participate in the class represented diverse sections of the state, including a reservation school in northern Nebraska and several small school districts that were normally separated by many miles of prairie. I bought book sets for each learning team member in every school, and each group created its own meeting and reading schedules. Through conversation they supported each other as they incorporated new ideas about teaching writing into their schools and classrooms. Over the course of a semester we connected the four sites monthly, hundreds of miles between us, through the use of technology. Linda and I, along with the class participants, also learned to use a Web-based support system for sharing resources and communication between our scheduled meetings. Even though there were many miles that separated us, all of us continued to learn about writing and teaching writing, discussed new concepts, asked and responded to each other's questions, and provided ongoing support for each other as we redefined ourselves as writing teachers. This wasn't a job assignment for me. It was instead a way I found to provide a meaningful learning opportunity for many Nebraska teachers. I was able to recreate a situation for others like many I had experienced as a NWP participant--where learning impacts change through networking, support, and self-discovery, not because a state or federal mandate requires it.
Seams that Connect at NDE
Two years later, my supervisor asked if I would like to organize learning teams for staff at NDE. She asked if I could create a structure for our curriculum department at NDE to learn together about incorporating reading into all of our content areas as a tool for learning. She knew that I had previously participated in several learning teams through the Nebraska Writing Project that had truly changed the way I thought about teaching and learning. I thought about one of these groups--one whose members chose to implement after-school writing clubs for first and second grade students. We were a small group of teachers that read, wrote, and studied learning together for many years as we provided young writers with a special time for writing outside of the regular school day. This study team, supported by the Spencer Foundation, had provided me with support, time, and focus for learning about the conditions and environments that encourage developing readers and writers. At first it was hard to imagine that there might be people at NDE who would be interested in taking the time to participate in ongoing study teams. Normally the work that we do does not involve deep study of topics--time is too filled with the day-to-day assignments that hover and circle endlessly. But I happily agreed to co-lead the project with Dean Folkers of our Nebraska Career Education team, knowing that a chance for us to study together to learn about reading instruction could directly or indirectly impact the work of teachers in many content areas and grade levels across Nebraska. We presented this unusual chance for learning, opening the invitation to join reading learning teams to all NDE staff, not just our curriculum team. I was thrilled when over forty department staff volunteered to participate, agreeing to read and discuss Rachel Billmeyer's book Strategies to Engage the Mind of the Learner: Building Strategic Learners in small groups of four to six over the course of a semester. Our group, like the others, met monthly. The six of us represented diverse perspectives--reading/writing, career education, marketing, world language, and early childhood, and even our NDE Commissioner joined us for some of the meetings. Together we established our own reading schedule, deciding to read a chapter or two each month. I selected Billmeyer's book because it provided a structure for learning team study, with suggestions for pre-reading activities and during-reading and after-reading discussion ideas that teams could utilize to aid their own understanding of presented concepts. The book focused on why supporting all students as readers was critical, along with strategies that could be used in any classroom. I was pleasantly surprised when group members arrived at our meetings with smiles, eager to talk about what we were reading, writing, and thinking. We looked forward to this time together--time that was relaxed and filled with comfortable, open conversation. Our meetings seemed to be a refreshing change of pace for all of us.
As we learned about reading instruction, we were engaged in the same activities that could benefit students' comprehension of text in classrooms, thus discovering, through personal experience, the value of supporting students as readers. Many of the staff incorporated what they learned from their group's study into workshops they presented to teachers of the content areas they represented, teaching teachers of business, agriculture, social sciences, world languages, and others the strategies that could support their students as readers.
Like my experience with the NWP teacher study team that learned with and from young writers that chose to join after-school writing clubs, the structure of this project provided people at the department with a chance to learn together through ongoing interaction. This project also gave us a chance to get to know others whom we would otherwise just pass in the hall on the way to a meeting or our way to the elevator. We could learn about them personally as well as about the work that they do at NDE. We continue to learn through reading book clubs, as they have now become part of the learning culture at NDE.
Connecting all the Pieces
People often ask me if I like working for a state department of education. I sometimes surprise even myself when I answer yes. Although there are endless meetings, assignments I'd rather say a polite "no thank you" to, and never enough time to get everything I need to finish completed in a day, I am glad for the opportunities my job brings me. I am able to influence policy, learn with and from people with diverse perspectives, and often guide the direction of an assignment so that it takes on the philosophy that I bring to the table--that it reflects the guiding principals of the Nebraska Writing Project. And every once in a while I find a way to create a learning opportunity for others that resembles the many I experienced during my years of active involvement with NWP. These opportunities have connected people with a variety of backgrounds and experiences, and given them a chance to learn together through interaction and personal reflection.
The fabric of my past and present and my hopes for the future are a blend of simple weaves and complex patterns. Like the cotton squares in the old quilt that lay on my bed at home, the fabric is delicate and easily torn, creating good days and bad. But just as it was when I was a classroom teacher helping young children to learn to read and write, I know I will continue to make a difference in the world of education through the learning environments I create for others. I'll continue this work even though the impact of the moments I share with others in our office and across the state may sometimes remain unknown to me. What I like most about my job is that I have discovered how to connect what I learned through my work with the Nebraska Writing Project and my work as a state curriculum director. I no longer exist between two separate worlds. The fabric of my past and present is held tightly in place with threads of understanding, creating the wrap of my future.