The district also replaced the practice of having all children read the same material, since research reveals the common-sense principle that kids won't learn to read if they're given books that are either too difficult or too easy for them. And the district instituted scheduled three-hour reading-and-writing blocks -- essentially consolidating the time many schools were already spending on these skills. "Some people might say, 'Why spend so much time doing independent reading in class when they can do it outside of school?'" Cordova says. "If kids don't have the basic skills to be able to do that, they won't read outside of school."
Because teachers were employing such different methods of reading instruction, they needed to learn how to teach in this new way, so last spring, DPS hired 184 elementary literacy coaches, 26 secondary-level coaches and forty educators with specialties in literacy, bilingual instruction and math. Last summer, the new specialists and coaches attended intensive training sessions conducted by educational consultants affiliated with the Institute for Learning. By the time the school year began in August, DPS was ready to debut its Elementary Literacy Program in every low- and unsatisfactory-rated school in Denver.
The program follows a very specific daily routine. District literacy specialists are supposed to spend four hours every Monday training the coaches how to work with teachers; the coaches, in turn, will teach teachers how to implement the program, which begins each day with a ninety-minute readers' workshop. The workshop itself kicks off with a 25-minute "opening meeting" in which students either read aloud or are read to. During that introductory period, the teacher also gives a five- to ten-minute "mini-lesson" that sets the focus for the day's reading. For example, the teacher might instruct the kids to figure out unknown words by looking for clues in the surrounding text during their sixty-minute work period, when they're free to read on their own or in small groups.
While the students are busy at work, the teacher picks groups of kids reading at the same level and helps them think and talk through the text. Also during the work period, the teacher holds short conferences with small groups or individual students in order to monitor progress. At the end of the hour, the students gather once more as a group to share what they learned.
At the end of the reading workshop, the teacher transitions them into the writing portion of their day. Another "mini-lesson" introduces the focus of the day's writing. For the next 43 to 48 minutes, students write independently while the teacher pulls them aside individually or in small groups for conferences. During those brief meetings, the teacher assesses the kids' writing and provides feedback on their projects. Like the reading workshop, the writing period ends with a short group meeting in which students share their work.
The last portion of the literacy section consists of a thirty-minute "skills block" in which the whole group receives lessons in spelling, phonics, grammar, vocabulary, punctuation and anything else that might help students become proficient readers and writers.
Those three lesson-packed hours aren't the only requirements of the new literacy program. Teachers are also expected to turn their classrooms into warm learning environments revolving around reading and writing by using a set of "routines, rituals and artifacts." And they are supposed to get kids accustomed to the structure of the literacy block so that they know what to expect each day when they come to school -- the theory being that kids who are "trained" to read on a daily basis will develop a lifelong habit of it. "There are no 'days off' when they can just sit back and watch," reads a district description of the program. "While they may have choices about what to read or what to write, they know they will be reading and writing."