The Culture of Talk

December 18, 2014


Transforming urban charter schools through teacher leadership, trust and a common vision

By Nicole Geary

The literacy lesson in Amanda Johnston’s classroom begins typically enough. The teacher shows some materials on the board, describes what the class will be doing and gets things started.

“Miss J. is going to lead the discussion and it’s on who … ?”

“Us!” the kids shout.

“That’s right. You are going to do the talking.”

She calls on a student to answer the first question, and then the second-graders take it from there.

“The main characters are Poppleton and Hudson, and I know that because … ” one girl, Kennedie, continues as she flips through the storybook. When she finishes, her classmates immediately throw up their hands, twisting both wrists if they agree with her response, shaking a finger if they don’t. She looks at one boy in particular, “Robert, why do you disagree with me?”

Second-grader Kennedie Tate is a vocal, respectful participant as she and her classmates at David Ellis Academy in Detroit discuss questions about a story they have read.

Second-grader Kennedie Tate is a vocal, respectful participant as she and her classmates at David Ellis Academy in Detroit discuss questions about a story they have read.

Hearing his concern, that the third main character is Uncle Bill, the girl quickly looks to her text. Uncle Bill cannot be a main character, she argues, because he only appears on two or three pages and the others appear on a lot more pages.

Even as the class moves into deeper comprehension questions, the room remains mostly quiet except when each child speaks, or Miss J. is probing for more details. Later, when a student struggles to explain an aspect of the story, she says, “I need help,” and takes her pick among classmates eagerly raising their hands to rescue her.

It’s a glimpse of discussion-based teaching (or DBT) at its finest. Some would argue that DBT is just another new-fangled reform idea, or worse—that letting kids talk to develop ownership of their learning is simply not possible in high-poverty urban schools.

But this has become a regular day across grade levels at David Ellis Academy, a charter school in the heart of Northwest Detroit.

What you don’t see at a glance is the additional time that Johnston now spends reflecting with her fellow teachers, the regular all-staff meetings she attends or the moments she is observing and mentoring newer colleagues in the building.


Amanda Johnston, second-grade teacher at David Ellis Academy in Detroit.

Over the last four years, David Ellis has been implementing a new approach to professional development designed by Michigan State University Professor Randi Stanulis and her team in the College of Education. With guidance from MSU, the three-part program includes creating professional learning communities (PLCs) for the whole school, providing mentors to new teachers and maintaining a focus on DBT as a shared strategy to improve teaching.

“It did take me several years to come around and say, ‘OK, maybe there is something to this,’” admits Johnston of the school’s emphasis on “talk,” especially when it came to changing the level of student interaction in her own classroom. Frequent meetings on the topic got Johnston thinking about changing her practice, but seeing fellow teacher Rhonda Todd, the school’s first PLC leader, come into her room and model DBT successfully with her own students is what made Johnston a believer.

“A lot of the kids don’t really have that anywhere else in life—to give them that chance to really take ownership and control is empowering for them,” Johnston said. And she is drawing inspiration from being part of her own group of learners, the PLC. 

“It has given us that protected time to have discussions we need to have as professionals, all those things you don’t make time for as a teacher because you are so busy. We as a team are coming together.”

A broader impact

Stanulis has been directing the project in a total of 20 Detroit-area charter schools as part of a larger, $22 million project led by the Michigan Association of Professional School Academies (MAPSA), a statewide membership organization for charter schools. The overall TEAMS (Teacher Excellence and Academic Milestones for Students) grant, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, is a study of performance-based pay models as motivation to improve teaching.

Stanulis is not involved with answering the grant’s overall research questions about financial incentives. However, she says providing the professional development has yielded a wealth of insights for educators and teacher educators interested in teacher-led change.

Her work on the Launch into Teaching project over the past nine years in Michigan, Atlanta and Cleveland has changed how hundreds of mentors are prepared to help new teachers be successful in urban settings—where turnover is often greatest. Now with the MAPSA schools, she and program coordinator Jan Prybys, along with a team of doctoral students and postdoctoral associates, are exploring how to help schools achieve their goals by cultivating better relationships across the entire faculty.

“Professional learning communities are a brilliant strategy to think about reducing isolation at all levels, not just for new teachers,” said Stanulis.

PLCs can refer to nearly any group of educators empowered to work together on common goals. In the MAPSA project, each school has a PLC leader and multiple mentors picked from the teaching ranks. These teachers receive coaching and resources from MSU via large study groups and one-on-one sessions and, more recently, emails and webinars they can access remotely. They gradually introduce new strategies into their buildings and work to build consensus and trust among their colleagues.

The PLC process includes large monthly afterschool meetings in the schools and some smaller gatherings, often with teachers taking turns modeling instruction. Mentoring occurs in concert through structured observations and conversations during lunch or after school, usually every couple of weeks.

“Using full-time teachers as leaders is huge because we need more teachers who have an opportunity to make an impact and still be in the classroom,” said Stanulis. The targeted focus on DBT across all subjects and grade levels is also unusual, she says.

“Staying with one focus over time is the only way, I really think, to get something to take hold in school culture. Otherwise, we just jump around from topic to topic.”


Brave leadership

Staff instability also makes it difficult to change professional culture, of course.  And turnover tends to be particularly high in urban charter schools. In fact, only a “handful” of the 20 principals who started with the MAPSA project are still in those positions.

Recognizing the importance of supportive school leaders, Stanulis invited Kristy Cooper, an MSU assistant professor of educational administration, to facilitate training on effective leadership for principals in the project. It’s no surprise that the schools that maintained the most stable leadership among principals and PLC leaders have shown the greatest gains.

At David Ellis, Stanulis said Director Sylvia Green saw and cultivated the potential of a certain fourth-grade teacher, Rhonda Todd, as the school’s PLC leader. Green’s support allowed Todd to take the lead in building a new kind of community in the school, even reconfiguring the staff lounge to prompt more peer-to-peer chats about data and pedagogy. Now Todd has been promoted to student achievement coach, a role that gives her even more opportunities to help teachers grow.

At PACE Academy in Southfield, Mich., teacher Stephanie Smith says she feels transformed, from one piece of a “disjointed” school improvement effort to the leader of a more cohesive, cross-grade-levels team. Like all the PLC leaders, she had to be brave in front of peers, showing video clips of herself teaching and acting out live scenarios using DBT.

“It has brought the leadership role out of me that I just didn’t think I had,” Smith said. “It showed me that I can work as effectively with my students as with my colleagues, and really using some of the same strategies.”

Mentors express similar experiences. As Stanulis’s prior research has shown, once mentor teachers support someone learning to teach, they feel more motivated to improve their own practice as well. This is especially true, it seems, when the entire staff is also working on a cohesive strategy, such as the DBT model introduced by MSU.

“It allows the school to have a common, agreed-upon vision,” said Benita Dear, a mentor and sixth-grade math teacher at PACE. “I’ve always felt that I was a good teacher, but I really had no way to measure that before the partnership. I am now more aware of what I am doing in the classroom. It is more planned, less spontaneous.”

That may seem contradictory to the premise of discussion-based teaching, which actually requires letting students steer the conversations.

Math teacher Benita Dear gets her whole class of sixth-graders talking, and using gestures to show whether they agree or disagree with each other’s thinking, during a lesson about fractions. Dear is also a mentor to newer teachers at her school, PACE Academy in Southfield, Mich.

Math teacher Benita Dear gets her whole class of sixth-graders talking and using gestures to show whether they agree or disagree with each other’s thinking during a lesson about fractions. Dear is also a mentor to newer teachers at her school, PACE Academy in Southfield, Mich.

“Initially, I felt like I needed to tell students a lot, but now I try to ask rigorous questions, give them enough information so they can discover and share their own ideas,” said Dear. Like her colleagues, she enforces consistent rules for class discussions and even changed seating arrangements from straight rows to round tables more conducive to interaction.

Dear recently spoke to more than 100 project participants about how much DBT has improved her students’ understanding of the content—and how much more she knows about their learning in the process.

“The students that I teach in an urban setting, they are very active. They want to talk, they want to move … So I am just giving them something about math to talk about and making it relevant. I don’t have a problem with relinquishing the power that I have as a teacher and sharing that power with my students. That’s really what it takes.”

What’s next?

This academic year is the last year that Stanulis and her team will be working directly with MAPSA schools. The level of cooperation and collective change required under the TEAMS grant has been unprecedented for Michigan charter schools, says James Henderson, quality schools facilitator for MAPSA.

“For MSU to navigate across the leaders and the 800 teachers we have in the grant and be able to have success—that’s pretty impressive,” he said. “The MSU piece has been the most consistent we’ve had, and it’s probably going to be the one that has staying power once the grant wraps up.”

To help continue progress, MSU launched a peer coaching program this year in which all PLC leaders and mentors are paired with counterparts at the other schools. These duos share videos from school meetings with each other and engage in other activities to build their skills.

Stanulis and graduate students are embarking on research in some of the participating schools to look deeper at what’s happening in classrooms where DBT appears to be effective. “People still don’t believe that you can do it with certain kids,” she says. “We need more examples.”

She and Prybys are also involved in a project that supports the enactment of PLCs in every school in the Saginaw Public Schools in Michigan. But the next outreach project will keep her much closer to campus. Stanulis will soon be initiating a pilot preparation program for mentor teachers and field instructors who support teacher candidates at MSU during their internship year.

“We have very clear ideas about what mentors need to learn,” Stanulis said. “Using findings from many years in the field, we hope to refine the Launch into Teaching model to have a pretty big impact on our own program.”