Collaboration Takes New Knowledge Into Action: An Interview with Liane Ramirez
“The most powerful thing I learned in my community of practice was the true meaning of collaboration and that it was more than OK to take risks.”—Liane Ramirez
Last year, I spoke with Liane Ramirez about a community of practice she joined in 2010-2011 to develop expertise in Reader’s Workshop. Liane teaches severely handicapped and autistic students in the upper primary grades at Jellick Elementary School in the Rowland Unified School District in Southern California. At the time, the faculty at Jellick was just beginning to deepen their collaboration around instruction. Simultaneously, the district began an effort to support self-directed professional learning through communities of practice. Six teachers at Jellick, including Liane, decided to form a community of practice to study Reader’s Workshop. Over the course of the year, Liane’s community of practice met about every three to four weeks.
Q: Why did your group decide to form a community of practice?
Liane: We each had our own personal reasons to learn more about Reader’s Workshop. When we started, we shared why we were interested in Reader’s Workshop and our first memories of reading. Ultimately we realized we came together because we wanted to learn, not because we were forced to.
Q: What was your learning experience like in the community of practice?
Liane: I never really had a model of collaboration before. I think most teachers don’t understand what it should look like. I learned that each voice must be equal and valued. Sometimes people didn’t agree and that was okay. It was okay to be yourself. … It was okay to take risks. I think that as teachers we are so cautious, and we don’t teach unless we are “perfect” and know everything about what we’re teaching. In a community of practice, you’re learning and you’re teaching as you go. It’s not about being an expert now and sharing all my knowledge. Instead, I told my colleagues, “I’m going to learn this and I’m really passionate about it and I want to teach my students and I’m not perfect.” I think just saying that out loud as a teacher is really scary. That helped me grow as a teacher. If you wait until you know everything about everything, then you will never teach!
Q: Had you participated in anything like this before?
Liane: No. As I said, I hadn’t had much experience collaborating with other teachers. Our group was lucky to have Deidre [Larson] who had been in a community of practice before. And she knew a lot about Reader’s Workshop. (Note: Deidre Larson is a program specialist at Jellick, a quasi-administrative role that includes some coaching of teachers.)
Q: What role did she play in your community of practice?
Liane: Deidre pulled us together and led for a little bit, and then we all took responsibility and ownership. I’ve heard that other groups have one “expert” who leads the group for the whole year, and you would still at the end of the year be asking that person, “Did I do that right?” Instead, we were acknowledging our failures and no one was prompting us to do our work. Deidre started us off by facilitating our ordered sharing and doing our scheduling, but a few months into it, we all just took ownership. Deidre guided us and then released us. If one person is missing, the community of practice cannot fall apart. In the beginning we looked to Deidre for leadership, then we looked to each other. It came from a different kind of mentality: we don’t have an expert, and we’re all learners. We all have knowledge to share. It wasn’t a situation where one person was in charge and that person gives you “homework” and you do it. We didn’t just share what we did; we shared how we did it and the theory behind it—the “going deeper.”
Q: What made it possible for you to “go deeper” into Reader’s Workshop?
Liane: In January , we had a cluster day where different Reader’s Workshop communities of practice from across the district met together. (Note: organizing cluster days was part of the district’s support for communities of practice.) We really changed after that cluster day where we had to focus on data. In the fall, our model was to say we would try something and then in three weeks we would come back and talk about how our kids were doing, but there was no physical data, we just had our own observations. And then we would ask what could we work on next time. After the cluster day, we would say, let’s bring the data and let’s talk about it and really interpret it. That’s what really guided our instruction. A tweak in our collaboration totally changed us and really accelerated our group.
Q: What data did you decide to look at?
Liane: We chose a common assessment to use with our students: pre- and post- tests around a specific meta-cognitive strategy. That’s what we were focusing on in the fall, teaching students how to think. When we came back with scores, we noticed one teacher might give her students threes and fours; another would give ones and twos. We really had to look at the rubric and ask, “What is a one?” Because rubrics give you a guide, but kids fall all over the place; they’re not always exact. We first calibrated the rubric much more tightly. Then, as a group, we rescored all the scores. We went more methodically about how we were going to look at the pre- and post- tests and see if our kids were exhibiting growth over those few weeks. We continued to do this over two more meta-cognitive strategies and realized we don’t give the kids enough time to learn these strategies. So we continued working with those strategies and we became much more methodical about providing students enough time to learn and show that they do know them.
Q: What else made a difference for your learning about Reader’s Workshop?
Liane: At every cluster day, we had to write or revise our learning plan. And it had to have concrete action steps. Having an action plan was so important. It keeps us all aligned with our goals. It keeps us responsible for them and accountable to each other. Also, if I don’t know where I can get resources or help, just let me talk to some other successful teachers. We now talk to teachers from Yorbita [Elementary School] because they’ve been doing Reader’s Workshop. I can be resourceful simply by asking someone who is successful. This is something I think a lot of people struggle with. I don’t know if it’s because of egos or just because they haven’t thought to do it. There are so many knowledgeable people out there; we just need to ask questions.
Q: What impact did your participation in the community of practice have on your students?
Liane: My students learned that they could think. It seems so funny, and people laugh, but they were not aware that they were thinking. For a really long time, I had to teach my kids that they are thinking. I’d joke around with them: “Do you have a brain? Are you breathing? Then you’re thinking.” First, I got them to understand that they were thinking, then I got them to understand what it looks like. So if you’re smiling when we watch a movie, you must be thinking that it’s funny. I’m showing them; I’m talking out loud about what I’m thinking about every day. When they would come back from recess, I would ask them what they were thinking about, and by the end of the year, the students who were developmentally able could answer without using a standard response.
Learning that they were thinking really empowered them. It wasn’t about how well they could read or any kind of leveling. It was simply “think.” Think about what you are reading about. Think about the pictures. What do you notice? What do you wonder? Even the non-readers felt good about themselves. My hope is that for the students who are not able to read yet, that whenever they are able to read, they will have those thought processes that go along with reading. They won’t be as far behind the other kids.
Q: And how did the community of practice change you?
Liane: I felt like a changed teacher. It renewed my love of learning and challenged me to do more than what is expected of me as an SH (Note: severely handicapped) teacher. Most SH teachers haven’t even heard of Reader’s Workshop. I have the same skills any other teacher has, why can’t I use them? I find that I don’t focus as much on my students’ behavior and what they can’t do; I focus on what they can do.
Liane had gone beyond expectations, and just as her students became empowered students, she became an empowered teacher through her community of practice. I’d like to call out four factors that contributed to the development of Jellick’s community of practice on Reader’s Workshop. First, the group developed shared leadership and ownership of their work as a community of practice. Second, they used protocols for conversation (such as the ordered sharing from Process Learning Circles by the Caine Institute). that allowed all voices to be heard diligently and consistently. Third, they began to focus on student data using a common assessment. Fourth, they maintained an inquiry-based approach to their own learning.
The factors above represent some of the conditions that support educator collaboration that makes a difference for student learning, conditions that are explored in NCLE’s Asset Inventory. Do you work in a collaborative team that learns together about literacy instruction? You can use NCLE’s Asset Inventory, a short team self-assessment, to identify what works well and what needs work at your site. Are you getting the organizational support you need? Does your team have a shared vision of literacy learning? Completing this survey will help us point you to the resources you need to foster effective collaboration.