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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
September 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 1

How Project READ Builds Inquiring Schools

Starting with classroom reading lessons and often extending schoolwide, Project READ inspires professional interaction, collaboration, and reflection.

Growth is a discouraging word for school reformers. Cautions that real change takes years are small comfort when another generation of children appears headed toward mediocrity. In Inquiring Schools, change begins immediately at the point of most significant action: the reading lesson. By fundamentally transforming this commonplace lesson, the program sows the seeds for fundamental organizational change.
What is an Inquiring School? More than a decade ago, in collaboration with local schools, we designed Project READ around two themes: (1) a shift from basic skills to critical literacy, the capacity to use language in all its forms to think and to communicate (Brown 1991); and (2) a move away from lockstep reliance on preplanned textbook lessons toward responsive instruction (Calfee 1991). Along the way, the Project READ collaboration, which now encompasses more than 100 schools spanning the nation, has evolved into the Inquiring School model (Calfee 1992).
We noticed the transformation in several READ schools in the mid-80s. These schools had become “communities of inquiry,” not by external mandate, not by top-down dictate, not through research. Instead, they had transferred structures and strategies for effective language use from the classroom to the school. The path to empowerment—literate inquiry—was neither bureaucratic nor managerial, but educational (Cuban 1991).
The Inquiring School arose from the realization that the structures and strategies of critical literacy work equally well in kindergarten or in 6th grade, in peer coaching or at faculty meetings. In all these settings, the literate use of language is the key to empowerment of individuals and groups.

Development of an Inquiring Community

For a school to develop into a community of inquiry, a paradigm shift is necessary. Schools are known for their chaotic agendas, shortage of time, isolation of people, and top-down management. Inquiry, on the other hand, requires a clear focus, a slow pace for reflection, social interactions, and genuine collaboration.
Classroom isolation is a stubborn hurdle, and the conversation requires a jumpstart. Our experience suggests that anyone can catalyze a faculty: the principal, a resource specialist, a lead teacher, even a consultant. But the topic needs to be authentic, and the conversation needs time (often measured in years) and structure (best put in writing) to unfold.
In the READ/Inquiring School model, change starts with a focus on quality classroom instruction, then shifts toward schoolwide change. Leadership develops in stages, as teachers, freed from prepackaged lessons, gain confidence in their professional judgment to frame curriculum goals and orchestrate instructional strategies. From this early sense of professional achievement as individuals, teachers then discover the power of professional collegiality in a schoolwide team.
  • Improved classroom practice is the school's central agenda, promoting critical literacy in all the grades.
  • Professional collaboration is pervasive across grades and roles (classroom teachers, resource specialists, and administrative staff).
  • Shared decision making is routine, in collaborative lesson planning, in “meta-lessons” (demonstration lessons in which one teacher conducts the activity while another provides running commentary), and in review of the school's educational mission.

Curriculum and Lesson Design

The classroom curriculum in Project READ addresses four distinct chunks of critical literacy (Calfee 1992): narration (stories), exposition (technical material), concept-vocabulary development (words and ideas), and decoding-spelling (phonics). These domains encompass reading and writing, speaking and listening, social studies and science, and the arts. They span kindergarten to 8th grade. They transcend language and cultures.
Lesson design in READ has four elements: Connect, Organize, Reflect, Extend (Calfee et al. 1991). Unlike direct instruction, the CORE model is designed to foster development of the classroom as an inquiring community. The teacher sets the stage by connecting students to an authentic task, introducing them to curriculum tools (webs, weaves or matrixes, and so on), and pressing them to explain their thinking and create products and performances that display their skill and knowledge. Collaboration is the norm, drawing on Vygotsky's (1978) notion of social learning. As students explain the meaning of their experiences to one another, reflective meta-thought evolves, after which internalized dialogue becomes self-reflection.
In combination, these approaches to curriculum and lesson design allow students to explore virtually anything they choose. Critical literacy unlocks the intelligence of the group, which is always greater than the potential of the individual. Possessing a common language for literate inquiry, students become strategic in approaching a task, in framing what they need to know, identifying resources, organizing information, and creating a product.
Project READ builds inquiring communities in various ways. For example, a 5th grade class prepared an “exposition” on standardized tests. After reviewing their experiences, and consulting with the principal and a district expert, they devised their own “Stanley Kaplan” coaching system. The results seemed too valuable to keep to themselves, so the students wrote the advice into a rap and performed it at a school assembly.
Our experience suggests that improving classroom instruction is a powerful engine for restructuring. In the Inquiring School model, the move toward schoolwide change springs not from institutional reorganization, but from teachers' discovery that they have something worthwhile to profess, something to speak for. READ provides a technical language to discuss curriculum (narration, exposition, semantic maps, story graphs, episode analysis), to describe learning and development, and to link assessment with instruction (Hiebert and Calfee 1992).

School Portraits

What does an Inquiring School look like? Thus far, we have emphasized the conceptual foundations; now we present a few concrete sketches.
Schools in the network are varied. North Shoreview Elementary in San Mateo, California, serves a multicultural, blue-collar neighborhood off the freeway to San Francisco International Airport. Meramec Elementary in Clayton, Missouri, sits amidst oaks and maples in a wealthy community west of St. Louis. Most sites are in urban areas: Howard Kennedy and Dundee schools in Omaha; 59th Street and Figueroa in the Watts area of Los Angeles; Cox and Lockwood in Oakland, California; Walt Disney near Chicago's Cabrini Green; and a dozen New York City schools scattered around Harlem, the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. Most are public schools, but Falk Elementary is a laboratory school at the University of Pittsburgh.
All are elementary schools, and most are relatively small: around 500 students and two dozen faculty. The sites in New York City and Los Angeles tend to be bigger, with the complexities that spring from their size. Communities of inquiry, we have found, come about more easily in smaller schools with simpler organizations.


Leadership is difficult in today's schools. People are often too busy with daily routines and bureaucratic intrusions to think about questions like: What should we be teaching? Sparkles glisten here and there, however, often through the principal's influence (Sagor 1992).
When Principal Evelyn Taylor arrived at North Shoreview Elementary School, the school had been neglected for a decade: low test scores, shabby buildings, a burnt-out portable on the playground, a dingy faculty workroom, a discouraged staff. Her first move was to improve working conditions with new paint and carpets, a schoolwide discipline policy, and open faculty meetings. Then she presented her agenda: improving instruction in a school where virtually every child was at risk. Having heard about Project READ at a Bay Area conference, Taylor suggested that her staff visit a few local READ schools. Three years later, the staff co-sponsored a summer institute with Stanford University.
At Meramec, the impetus for change came from a classroom teacher, Harriet Spilker, who is always on the lookout for challenges. Supported by her principal, she attended an International Reading Association preconference session on READ. Back at Meramec, Spilker experimented with the structures and strategies. Soon webs, weaves, and story graphs spilled into the halls. In April 1989 the entire Meramec staff (including the art, music, and physical education teachers) conducted their own preconference session for the Missouri IRA, enthralling more than 100 teachers.
In New York City, the Teacher Centers Consortium (TCC) has sustained a comprehensive professional development program for more than a decade, virtually the only such effort in the nation's largest city. Critical to the TCC strategy is the teacher specialist, an experienced classroom teacher who provides school-based instructional leadership. The specialist turns a vacant classroom into an environment filled with engaging and effective practice; a coffeepot and a caring shoulder ensure a steady stream of visitors. By 1988, cadres from 10 elementary schools, attracted by READ graphics and demonstration lessons, attended a week-long summer institute staffed by the specialists.
In Omaha and Pittsburgh, collaborations with local universities sparked interest in the READ program. Roger Bruning at the University of Nebraska and Barbara Schweiger of the Omaha Public Schools co-conducted a seminar for graduate students, including teachers from two urban schools, Kennedy and Dundee. Unhappy with existing approaches to reading and writing instruction, they discovered READ during a review of research on reading strategies. At the University of Pittsburgh, Falk Elementary wanted to revitalize its reputation as a model school. The board gave the new principal, Roy Creek, a mandate for renewal. Supporting that effort was Professor Rita Bean of Pittsburgh's School of Education, who had participated in the initial development of READ. In both these settings, school-university collaboration has become a reality.


Schools that have adopted READ generally see improved scores; in some instances, the increases have been quite dramatic. Student and teacher inquiry require a different approach. Here are qualitative snapshots of the impact of critical literacy on teachers and schools (for effects on students, see Calfee et al. 1988):
North Shoreview Elementary School. At North Shoreview, Principal Evelyn Taylor was the initial catalyst for change. Quickly handing over the reins to teacher committees, she sparked this dialogue:
“What do you need to make the READ ideas work?”
“Smaller classes!”
“How can we make that happen. What can we do with what we have?”
The dialogue was genuine. The faculty wrestled with cost-benefit questions. They proposed and implemented a schoolwide plan for integrating regular and categorical programs to achieve more workable student-teacher ratios (still large by national standards, to be sure). The process was reflective: the quest for reduced class size was driven by an instructional innovation, and teachers worked as collaborative teams to solve the problem. They took on the responsibility for leadership not from a bureaucratic mandate, but through a problem-solving process directly supported by READ strategies. Classroom weaves compared mammals and reptiles; workroom weaves contrasted different plans for resource allocation.
In the Inquiring School model at North Shoreview, shared knowledge became shared power. Classroom teachers who can explain themselves to visiting colleagues gain a sense of expertise and efficacy that marks them as professionals. It is not enough to do, nor even to know—the key to professional leadership is the capacity to explain (Calfee 1987). For the North Shoreview staff, this principle became a reality when they designed and conducted a week-long institute for teachers from throughout the region and from locations as distant as Los Angeles and Denver. Members of this staff exemplify Sergiovanni's (1992) four professional virtues: commitment to exemplary practice, to valued social ends, to the discipline, and to an ethic of caring.
Falk Elementary School. The second example comes from a quite different context. The teachers in this university lab school were exceptional teachers, and by any criteria their students displayed high levels of achievement. Nonetheless, the school board was concerned about the lack of sparkle. A lab school must justify itself as a center of new ideas and of outreach. For Falk, the Inquiring School model allowed the staff to articulate sound practice. The program organized a shopping bag of techniques into a coherent design.
Within months, Falk teachers were on the road to other schools in the region, modeling team planning, conducting demonstrations, facilitating faculty meetings at schools in the Mon Valley consortium. Leadership was scarcely new to this staff; Falk's hiring practices ensured selection of “born leaders.” The READ/Inquiring School combination bound them together as a community in which exceptionality flourished not on reputation, but on the capacity to foster development of other professionals.
Noteworthy at Falk was the power of effective models; staff from other schools began to assume leadership roles in their schools. For instance, from her collaboration with Falk staff, JoAnn Pisula, a teacher at Washington Elementary in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, became a university resource, serving as the peer coach for seven Washington teachers. At first, Pisula was hesitant: “I didn't consider myself an expert. I'm a peer, and I feel close to the other teachers and to what they are trying to do.” But Pisula didn't falter, and, following her lead, other teachers became coaches. Soon labels like “resource person” became meaningless. Given what we know about the hazards of becoming a lead teacher (Wasley 1991), this outcome is remarkable.
Modeling worked because the process went beyond personality and intuition. For example, the staff developed a video library of local lessons to introduce new faculty to the program and to support student teachers at the school. In the Great American Teach-Off, student teachers developed and executed their own lessons. Soon Washington Elementary began designing inservice sessions for other schools in the Mon Valley. Inquiry had become an integral part of the school culture.
Meramec Elementary School. Meramec Elementary's experienced and highly competent staff had gained confidence and respect in one of America's highest-achieving communities, but the task had become routine. At Principal Ruth Mach's suggestion, they began to look for a challenge. From READ/Inquiring School, they created a diagram of professional growth, which started at the classroom level, progressed to mentorship and peer coaching, and moved on to school partnerships. The staff bought into the notion that this model of professional development was not for the few, but should become the standard for the entire school. As mentioned above, a celebration of this commitment took shape as a day-long institute at the Missouri Reading Conference.
Teacher Centers Consortium. Moving further east, a Californian might be shocked by New York City schools: five and six stories high, mazes of corridors and stairwells, hordes of children moving through the hallways, grownups shouting for quiet. If something works in NYC, it will work anywhere. What has worked in New York City schools through READ/Inquiring School is a renewal of hope. The strategies and structures of critical literacy have helped, but “Ya gotta know the territory!”
Myrna Cooper and her Teacher Center colleagues know New York City schools. Each teacher specialist brings years of experience with “up the down staircase” and a compassion for the wild and crazy kids rampaging the hallways. Each specialist is selected for leadership qualities, which the consortium continues to foster. The consortium is a model of “what might be” in staff development, a striking contrast to the pitiful “investment in teachers' growth” described by Johnson (1990).
Our focus here, however, is not on the specialists, but on the teachers. On a hot, humid Saturday morning late in May, scarcely ideal conditions for a day-long workshop, the 200 teachers assembled at a conference center near La Guardia airport considered themselves fortunate. An additional hundred had applied, but there was not space. Six hours later, participants streamed from the center, spreading plaudits about the presenters' enthusiasm and the informative content of the workshop. And the presenters on this day were not specialists, but regular classroom teachers from 11 city schools.
The workshop capped a yearlong collaboration between the consortium and READ/Inquiring School. The partnership kicked off with a READ institute for 100 classroom teachers from 10 schools throughout New York City, who spent the last week of August learning READ strategies. Able to interact with colleagues both professionally and socially during the institute, teachers were amazed at the revitalization that came with a sense of community. They had the opportunity and the time to share knowledge and experience. Compared to late-afternoon workshops, a week devoted to educational matters was a euphoric experience. After the institute, each cadre reported to colleagues at a fall faculty meeting.
As winter approached, cadre members took increased responsibilities for staff development. Working alongside specialists, they conducted demonstration lessons, conferred with new teachers, and met with colleagues who had not attended the institute. In early spring, several teachers suggested a Saturday cook-off to display their ideas, and in April the consortium announced plans for a Teacher Fair. Teacher volunteers from each school—working on their own time at lunch, after school, or at the Teacher Center—refined meta-lessons, reviewed materials and activities, and drafted handouts. They culled student work from their classes and colleagues in reading, writing, social studies and science, and art projects.
An hour before the conference, the air was tense. For these teachers, “professional leadership” was no longer an abstract idea, but the chance to fall flat on your face. Away from the security of the classroom, encouraged by the response of school colleagues, they were headed front stage before strangers.
As noted, the Saturday session was a smashing success. These teachers were genuinely transformed, and they are unlikely to move back into their shells. They possess sound ideas about educational practice, and they have experienced the value of participation in a professional community. Profess has become an active verb for these teachers.

Inquiry Is a Hard Sell

Despite the successes, the Inquiring School label does not always have obvious appeal. More than one principal has told us, “Sounds interesting, but we don't have time in this business to think.” More appealing are programs that prescribe action (“Tell us what to do”) on a voluntary basis (“Do we all have to do this?”) with immediate payoff (“Can you guarantee higher test scores?”).
  • curriculum as the central focus,
  • the shift from basic skills to critical literacy,
  • professional interaction among the school staff as a model for classroom interaction,
  • the belief that continuing growth is a responsibility for all educators.
Inquiry takes time for reflection. It flies in the face of the directives that are reality in today's schools: “Read faster! Write more!” Some situations in life call for a hurry-up-and-do-more approach. But schools should teach students the importance of knowing when and how to slow down, reflect, check their bearings. Inquiring adults will be the most effective model for students.

Brown, R. G. (1991). Schools of Thought. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Calfee, R. C. (1987). “Those Who Can Explain, Teach.” Educational Policy 1: 9–28.

Calfee, R. C. (1991). “What Schools Can Do to Improve Literacy Instruction.” In Teaching Advanced Skills to Educationally Disadvantaged Students, edited by B. Means, C. Chelemer, and M. Knapp, pp. 176–215. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Calfee, R. C. (1992). “The Inquiring School: Literacy for the Year 2000.” In Teaching Thinking: An Agenda for the Twenty-First Century, edited by C. Collins and J. N. Mangieri, pp. 147–166. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum.

Calfee, R. C., M. J. Chambliss, and M. Beretz. (1991). “Organizing for Comprehension and Composition.” In All Language and the Creation of Literacy, edited by R. Bowler and W. Ellis. Baltimore: Orton Dyslexia Society.

Calfee, R. C., M. K. Henry, and J. A. Funderburg. (1988). “A Model for School Change.” In Changing School Reading Programs, edited by S. J. Samuels and P. D. Pearson. Newark, Del.: IRA.

Cuban, L. (1991). The Managerial Imperative and the Practice of Leadership in Schools. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Hiebert, F., and R. C. Calfee. (1992). “Assessment of Literacy: From Standardized Tests to Performances and Portfolios.” In What Research Says About Reading Instruction, edited by A. E. Farstrup and S. J. Samuels. Newark, Del.: IRA.

Johnson, S. M. (1990). Teachers at Work. New York: Basic Books.

Sagor, R. D. (1992). “Three Principals Who Make a Difference.” Educational Leadership 49, 5: 13–19.

Schaefer, R. J. (1967). The School as a Center of Inquiry. New York: Harper and Row.

Sergiovanni, T. J. (1992). “Why We Should Seek Substitutes for Leadership.” Educational Leadership 49, 5: 41–45.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Wasley, P. A. (1991). Teachers Who Lead: The Rhetoric of Reform and the Realities of Practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

End Notes

1 The Inquiring School idea is foreshadowed in Schaefer's (1967) vision of the school as a center of inquiry. Schaefer imagined an institution committed to practical research on practical problems, where teachers and principals were a professional team.

Robert C. Calfee has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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