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How to Improve School Cultures, Part 4b: A Case Study in Earnest and Amicable Argument as PD

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Last time, I laid out the case for argument as a means to radically enriching school cultures. You'll want to read that post before this one.

So: arguments make for rich school cultures — not just arguments in our classrooms, but arguments in our meetings. But what does this actually look like? Thankfully, there's a school in Wisconsin that's laid out a pretty good example of this.

Last August, I did some workshops for the Wisconsin State Reading Association, and I shared an idea that, at the time, I was calling “Pressing Question of the Month.” The idea is laid out pretty extensively on this page of my website, but here's the gist: Kids weren't getting as much knowledge from articles of the week (a la Gallagher) as I wanted them to, so I started grouping AoWs around a single, “pressing question” of the month.*

So: enter Patty Sankey, a reading specialist and literacy coach at a middle school in Wisconsin.

Sankey’s principal was in the habit of giving his staff weekly articles to read for professional development, and Patty saw the opportunity to cohere these articles around big questions relevant to their school.

The first question that Patty's colleagues wrestled with was this: What instructional strategies are most impactful and will help us work toward closing the achievement gap for the targeted student categories (e.g., gender, socio-economic status, etc).

Now, notice: by asking for the most impactful strategies, Sankey set things up to get argumentative. (Good, clear prompts are critical in setting up good argumentative conversations.) It's also important to note that this question was directly linked with the school improvement plan at Patty's school. (Typically, SIPs can be lifeless, gargantuan things, so approaching them argumentatively is a smart move for getting a staff intellectually engaged.)

With their argumentative prompt in view, teachers at Patty's school read related articles for a month, and then at their next professional development meeting they sat at tables of mixed disciplines and discussed the burning question, using the articles for support. (The articles help ensure that folks will make evidence-based arguments rather than relying on opinion.)

As a table, they had to list 2-3 strategies that the staff could use to close the achievement gap for their given targeted student groups. This is where the arguing happened. Even though Patty called these table conversations “Academic Collaborative Conversations” when she was leading the PD — and that was probably a smart move, as the word “argument” is so wrought with baggage that simply hearing it is bound to turn some PD participants off at first — make no mistake about it: these teachers were arguing. These conversations were rational, evidence-based, “let's get to the bottom of this” affairs — they were earnestly and amicably argumentative.

At the end of the PD, teachers individually reflected on one change they could make to close the gap for at least one student. This final application piece is a smart way to move from the big, pressing question into a manageable, “can't miss” application. When teachers are as busy as we are, such applications are inseparable from PD that actually creates change.

So: how did it all go? Here’s Patty’s description:

This method of PD was SUPER successful. By reading research, all the staff had background knowledge. Instead of paying thousands for an ‘expert,’ we all became our own experts. …The conversations were focused, professional, AND we came up with strategies to use that we could “buy into.” …[Before the end of the school year], we are going to use a 1/2 day in-service to work on our next steps which will involve everything from grant writing, to summer proposals, to committee work, to data analysis. We are ACTUALLY EXCITED to work on this. It's real. It's do-able. It's good stuff.

Can you sense in Patty's description the cultural impact of this kind of PD? There's no way around it: great school cultures aren't just safe — they're richly argumentative, too.


Huge thanks to Patty Sankey, reading specialist and literacy coach at Templeton Middle School in Sussex, WI. Patty is also an engaging storyteller, let me tell you. If you'r ever at the annual WSRA conference, be sure to look her up!


*I ended up finding the “of the month” part too constraining. There are some questions that I want my students pursuing all year long, not just for a month. That's how the assignment morphed into its present form: Burning Questions of the Year, or BQYs.

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