The Institute’s ultimate curriculum goal is to expand the language arts “canon” to include more culturally diverse readings that raise social justice issues, and to create curriculum that engages students in linking the literature to their lives and the broader society.
Such a specific and directed reform isn’t successful if it is happening in only a few classrooms or in a couple of buildings. While in many areas of education decentralization and site control are positive changes, in the context of curriculum development and teacher education, a central vision and a district wide reform effort can have several advantages. Portland is a good example.
Linda Christensen — Portland Public Schools Language Arts Curriculum Specialist and Rethinking Schools editor — designed the Institute as an alternative model for teacher education. Christensen assembled a team of teacher advisors (one from every high school) who met monthly to assist in the development, planning, and revision of the Summer Literacy Institute and the other staff development workshops that take place throughout the year.
Too often, teachers are subjected to staff development that relies on outside experts lecturing at us from a distance, ignoring our own expertise and professional knowledge. Stuck in rows of chairs, we passively listen while highly paid outsiders impose their “wisdom” and authority. In the Institute, classroom teachers are the experts. The Institute promotes collaboration and fosters a sense of community; it is also a model for new-teacher training, pairing new teachers with veterans to help guide them in developing curriculum.
During this Institute, teachers engage in three main activities. First, they read research articles on literacy, language, and achievement.
Second, mornings are devoted to teachers sharing lessons — perhaps on using watercolor painting to access a novel’s meaning, or improvisation to understand a character’s motives and actions. In an effort to move toward reflection and critical analysis, we also devote morning time to issues such as creating independent reading opportunities, integrating English language learners into the classroom, and bridging the achievement gap. (This format was modified slightly after the first two years.)