Voices in Education

Investing in Meaningful Professional Learning: A Case of Disciplinary Literacy
It’s that time of year again, the time that comes around every July and August—time to look ahead to the next school year. Many teachers are thinking ahead, with hope, excitement, and anticipation to a new year of literacy teaching and learning in classrooms.
 
But this is also a time when the teachers we work with start thinking about a new year of literacy professional development. And unfortunately, it is not always with optimism. 
 
In fact, as we talk with teachers in our summer classes and other spaces, we often see fatigue on their faces as they look toward a new year of literacy-focused initiatives and changes to be made. As we dig into those feelings of fatigue, and look at similar feelings we had as teachers, we see that they spring from past experiences and range from discouragement to hopelessness. As such, a list of attributes of ineffective professional learning emerges: 
1. This doesn’t have to do with my day-to-day teaching life.
2. This doesn’t apply to my students.
3. This is just like everything else—it will come and go, so there is no reason to invest.
4. This is just like everything else—it’s top-down, and nobody asked if I think it’s a good idea. Where are our voices?!?
As university professors who often design and implement literacy-focused professional learning in schools and districts, it is hard not to feel defensive sometimes when this list unfolds. But we know that, as educators, we must all seek make literacy professional learning more meaningful, authentic, and relevant. Especially if we want to bypass the feelings of discouragement that can occur when teachers face a new professional learning agenda.
 
As we have studied professional learning around disciplinary literacy for the past ten years, we have thought quite a lot about what makes professional learning take hold and engage teachers and their considerable talents. We’ve been lucky enough to see teachers excited and invigorated by our work, to see them embody what seems like the opposite of discouragement. We know that professional learning that results in change and engagement is context-specific, involves collaboration, and frames teachers as the agents of change and the source of new ideas that will reshape teaching and learning (Borko, 2004; Elmore, 2004). Over time, it has become clear that disciplinary literacy is a topic and initiative that can lend itself beautifully to this sort of sustained, site-specific learning and collaboration.
 
Disciplinary literacy is about apprenticing students, giving them their first taste of the professional communities they will later join in college and the workplace. That professional journey can begin in middle and high school (if not earlier), as students move from content-area classroom to content-area classroom and participate in the various communities they are learning about—communities of scientists and creative writers and musicians and mathematicians. And when we look closely at teachers’ goals for their subjects and their students’ goals and needs, we see some important avenues for making these disciplines more accessible for students. Most importantly, we want these student inquiry projects, instructional strategies, and class products to emerge from teachers themselves, as they are the experts in their disciplines and, with some guidance, are the ones who are able to reframe their practices to make discipline-specific habits and skills transparent. Their ideas lead the learning and the new approaches to teaching. And when this happens, hopelessness is nowhere to be seen on the horizon.
 
It is important, though, for schools not to focus professional learning on disciplinary literacy merely due to its potential outcomes or even its potential for teacher buy-in. Schools must still consider how best to involve teachers in the decision-making process—asking them to consider what types of learning are most likely to be generative—to help avoid the feelings of hopelessness and the common complaints outlined above. As part of our recently proposed (2017) framework for collaborative professional learning, we suggest that high-quality disciplinary literacy is all about context. Teachers need support as they learn how to induct students into multiple professional communities and how to do that in ways that are meaningful to them and their students, given the context of their schools. 
 
One particularly important part of our seven-step framework that educators may want to consider at this time of year is how teams of teachers form and begin to investigate the ways in which disciplinary literacy instruction might influence students’ thinking and work. Team formation, for the purposes of professional learning, is an often overlooked and under-theorized component of designing an effective professional learning initiative. And it is a place where teacher voice and agency can be key. If school leaders and teachers are not thoughtful about how to bring teachers together into action-oriented professional learning communities, then professional learning can stall quickly.
 
We recommend that school leaders and teachers carefully consider whether a discipline-specific team of teachers (e.g., cross-grade science teachers meeting together, math teachers meeting together, and so on) or a cross-discipline team of teachers (e.g., perhaps a grade-level team of math, science, ELA, and history teachers, or teams that include specialist personnel such as librarians and speech pathologists) makes most sense to further the collective learning about disciplinary literacy practices. Discipline-specific teams have some distinct advantages: they can focus on very similar content; they can pilot specific lessons and units in a lesson-study format; they already may have a great deal of shared language, knowledge about discipline-specific instruction and standards, and they may largely share instructional goals. However, discipline-specific teams might struggle to influence other content-area colleagues or the larger school. 
 
In contrast, cross-disciplinary teams often take a broader view of instructional change; place struggling students and their learning needs at the center of their inquiry work; and seek to influence multiple content areas and even the whole school. Either formation—discipline-specific or cross-disciplinary teams—can be successful ways to engage teachers actively and meaningfully in professional learning about disciplinary literacy instruction. However, the configuration of teams, with careful attention to helping teams nominate team leaders as facilitators and teacher leaders, can truly make or break a disciplinary literacy professional learning initiative. Discerning the right configuration—and doing this in full partnership with teachers in order to best respond to their learning needs—lays the foundation for effective, team-based learning throughout the year.
 
Now is the time to make a choice, and to do the up-front work needed to create powerful professional learning teams and experiences across the school year. It is the time to ask: How can we turn teachers’ mid-summer discouragement and hopelessness into early fall engagement and enthusiasm about disciplinary literacy?
 

About the Author: Christina L. Dobbs is an assistant professor in the School of Education at Boston University. Jacy Ippolito is an associate professor and department chair in the School of Education at Salem State University. Megin Charner-Laird is an assistant professor in the School of Education at Salem State University, Salem, Massachusetts.