National Writing Project

The Writing Project and Tulsa Schools Collaborate for School Reform That Works

By: Eileen Simmons
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 9, No. 3
Date: 2004

Summary: Simmons reports on how writing project inservice can support local reform efforts by centering on pedagogy and designing a program around teacher questions and concerns.


The good, the bad, and the ugly of professional development. I've seen it all in my 35 years of teaching—much of it in the guise of education reform. It was bad in the early 1980s when the first wave of education reform hit Tulsa Public Schools. According to the reform ideas of someone in the central office, what teachers really needed was to present lessons according to educational researcher Madeline Hunter's seven-step lesson plan model:

  1. Objectives
  2. Standards
  3. Anticipatory set
  4. Teaching
    • Input
    • Modeling
    • Checking for understanding
  5. Guided practice/monitoring
  6. Closure
  7. Independent practice

Did teachers need this? Were they willing to spend the time learning it? Did they see any reason for it? Nobody knew because nobody asked. An administrative fiat went down: All teachers would be "Hunterized." Teachers were taken out of their classrooms for extended periods, parked in an auditorium, and lectured to for several hours by a person from the central administration. These deadly presentations featured one seemingly meaningless overhead after another, no opportunity for interaction or hands-on experience, and no follow-up. The teachers did get a lot of work done—reading, writing, needlework, paper grading. And the presenter studiously did her part by ignoring the fact that she was being ignored.

It was ugly.

Part of this reform plan called for teachers to indicate their use of the seven steps on their daily lesson plans and for principals to monitor their compliance. To ensure compliance at all levels, the Madeline Hunter Model became part of the district evaluation form (and elements of it are still there). But not even such overt coercion worked. In a masterful exhibition of passive resistance, Tulsa teachers simply ignored the Hunter Model or adapted it as needed for their individual classrooms. Veteran teachers predicted it would go away . . . and it did.

The implementation of the Madeline Hunter Model was a textbook case of bad professional development. The administrators who foisted it on teachers presented it as a magic bullet, a one-size-fits-all approach to education reform. Worse yet, teachers weren't involved in the reform effort at all; they were not considered professional enough to know what they needed or wanted in their own classrooms. (A note on this: During this time, one of my nonteacher friends serving on a community committee to improve education in the Tulsa schools became incensed when I asked for the names of the teachers on the committee. "Teachers," she said, "would only get in the way of education reform.") Sadly the administrators' use of the Hunter Model gave it a bad reputation that it did not deserve. The model was never meant to be a checklist for effective lesson plans.

Now, 20 years later, the Tulsa Public Schools are once more engaged in an education reform effort, but the model and the scenes are as different as they can be from what was tried before. Instead of a roomful of teachers who have been forcibly marched to a mind-numbing talking-head presentation, we now have lively discussions about learning, teaching and, almost incidentally, the Tulsa Model. Grounded in the research of Robert Marzano, Benjamin Bloom, and Howard Gardner, the Tulsa Model centers on pedagogy rather than content and is designed to be implemented in three stages. The reform effort advances through the stages, moving from teacher-centered to student-centered instruction. Teachers are asked to self-assess in seven areas: learning environment, curriculum, instructional strategies, leadership/citizenship, parent and community involvement, professional development, and continuous improvement.

Some of the teachers involved in this reform discussion are new to Tulsa schools and are participating voluntarily in the National Writing Project New-Teacher Initiative, through a partnership between the Oklahoma State University Writing Project and the Tulsa Public Schools. At a recent meeting, these new teachers had many questions.

"How can you use writing with kindergartners when they don't know how to read or write?" one teacher wanted to know.

From several directions, other teachers offered suggestions. "You can write down what they say," one suggested.

"Have them look at pictures and tell you what they think is happening," another said.

"You can use ABC books," a third teacher offered.

"How in the world will a field trip to the Tall Grass Prairie work with my math curriculum?" a skeptical teacher wanted to know.

And another math teacher had a suggestion: "I'm going to take my digital camera and find geometric shapes in nature."

"So how does all of this fit into the Tulsa Model and benchmarks and standards?" another new teacher asked.

The answer came from a member of the leadership team: "Field trips are `being there' experiences, which are an important part of the Tulsa Model," she noted. She explained that the Tulsa Model doesn't prescribe curriculum; it suggests an instructional approach. The standards, benchmarks, and pacing calendars work together to guide teacher decisions about course content. Then she referred the teachers to the Tulsa Public Schools benchmarks in each content area, which support the state standards. She asked the teachers to identify relevant benchmarks and standards for the Tall Grass Prairie "being there" experience. The room began to buzz as teachers, much to their surprise, found a myriad of applications.

This is professional development at its best—teacher-centered and designed around teacher questions and concerns. Through monthly meetings during the year and week-long summer mini-institutes, the teachers form a network and are assured of follow-up during which they will discuss their successes and challenges. They will find new questions and return to their classrooms feeling supported and valued.

Instead of being treated as threats to education reform, teachers are respected as professionals who are aware of what they need to know. The New-Teacher Initiative Leadership Team plans sessions to respond to the teachers' questions and concerns. They offer presentations, time, and space for professional conversations, writing, reading, and reflecting. And they guide the new teachers to understand the theory underpinning their practice—and the Tulsa Model.

The new teachers' responses are the most powerful testimony to this kind of professional development:

"I can integrate writing into math teaching. I didn't believe I could at first."

"I learned that I can effectively incorporate new strategies, reflect on them, and judge for myself with appropriate knowledge and understanding how they can be improved for next year."

"I found a network of people to glean from."

"I gained an understanding of the Tulsa Model."

The root of development means "to unwrap." The word makes me think of a gift—something wonderful—hidden deep in layers of tissue paper that I gradually peel back to uncover. Good professional development is a gift that helps teachers discover that the something wonderful is a sense of themselves as professionals. In the past two years of the New-Teacher Initiative, I've watched new teachers in Tulsa discover that good professional development is a gift they give themselves. That discovery is the beginning of significant and real education reform.

About the Author Eileen Simmons teaches English at East Central High School in Tulsa Oklahoma. She was recently made a co-director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project and is a member of the leadership team for the site's New-Teacher Initiative work.

Related Resource Topics

© 2024 National Writing Project