The Ontario Action Researcher


Janet Trull, Early Literacy Teacher, GEDSB

In September, 1999, I thought it was impossible. Centrally assigned along with four other teachers to develop and implement an early literacy program, I became part of a dynamic team whose vision became: to strengthen early literacy programs for students through partnerships with teachers. As a group we were to build relationships with 500 primary teachers and demonstrate language activities in front of 10 000 students, as well as to promote literacy through workshops and presentations. While investigating the programs adopted by surrounding school boards, I met with Lisa, an experienced Early Literacy teacher.

“Your model seems to be set up for failure,” Lisa told me. “There is absolutely no way you can visit fifteen schools each week, consider the school literacy plans of each school, and support literacy programs effectively.” She was very helpful in showing me her school board’s Early Literacy Binder, explaining the inservice plan, and making it clear that the facilitator of the package was a primary consultant…not an Early Literacy itinerant teacher. Her job, as an itinerant literacy teacher, is to provide remedial reading and writing in two schools, supporting the primary teachers by giving one-to-one instruction to students at risk. She does not work with identified students, but students who are working at Level One in The Ontario Curriculum Levels of Achievement language curriculum expectations for their grade. The fifteen itinerant teachers in her board are given their assignments after the EQAO scores have determined the most needy schools. Assignments may change from year to year, as scores change.

I left Lisa’s office feeling overwhelmed with what I was beginning to perceive as an impossible assignment. She had only reinforced the doubts I was feeling as a member of a team which had yet to determine a role for itself, and my waning confidence as I travelled from one school to the next, meeting principals, secretaries, primary teachers, and thousands of children. I had an introductory spiel that I had delivered so often, I couldn’t remember who had heard it and who had not. I wandered around school corridors that looked familiar, and certainly smelled familiar, trying to find the staff room. Where was the photocopier? Where, for heavens sake, was the washroom? By the third week of September I was a wreck.

And then I learned something very important about my job. I had control over my time. I had a schedule that was not imposed upon me. I made appointments. I didn’t have yard duty. If I was invited to a staff meeting, or a division meeting, I was thoughtfully given the first place on the agenda, and then I was allowed to leave. This new control over my day was a surprising benefit that I hadn’t expected.

This new flexibility came with a number of new responsibilities, but I felt energized by the way that I was able to personalize my practice. My confidence took a baby step out of the cellar.

Being part of a team was a great support. Our team meetings had no external agenda. One of our first tasks as a group was to determine what expertise each member brought to the team. Barb was a Reading Recovery trainer and Mary Lynn had E. S. L. experience. Kelly felt confident in the area of teacher and classroom resources and Bonnie had used phonemic awareness programs in her classroom. I have a background in special education and modified programs. Grace, our program leader, was an encouraging facilitator during these initial meetings, giving us the direction we needed to develop our role and our vision, while respecting our autonomy.

One thing we all agreed upon from the start, was that we needed a method of evaluating our program. Action research was the obvious choice, as the cycle of inquiry would be an excellent structure for a role that seemed, as yet, so illusive.

Our question became, "How can five Early Literacy Teachers be effective in 7 schools?"

We took a leap of faith and dove in. I used a growth strand to track the early implementation of our inquiry, providing us with a tangible plan to use for reflection and possible revisions. The action research model justified the time in our team meetings dedicated to sharing stories of success and failure, joys and anxieties. The first month was a whirlwind of new faces, many welcoming, but many suspicious. We hadn’t expected instant acceptance, but neither were we prepared for the hostility that some teachers feel for "them". Suddenly, we were cast in the role that administrators and consultants must sometimes feel is a very heavy burden. “I’m one of you!” I reassured teachers again and again. “I’m not here to evaluate or judge. Fear not!"

The unconditional support of the team proved to be an essential infrastructure for our program. Alone, we would have surely collapsed. None of us predicted the energy and strength generated by five like-minded professionals.

The team was quick to recognize that this first year of our role needed to be one of building relationships, as opposed to facilitating change. When I look at the questionnaire that I took with me to my initial division meetings, I find it easy to understand why I was treated coolly. It was full of professional jargon and what may have been perceived as unrealistic expectations. Once we let our partnerships with teachers guide us, however, change began to happen. Trust grew. Doors opened. We revised our schedules to allow more time to meet with teachers during their prep time. We learned which teachers had time to chat before school, and which teachers stayed late. We found the time to listen to their stories. As the year went on, we heard fewer cover stories (Connelly, Clandinin, 1999). Once they realized that we were not bringing imposed prescriptions to their classroom, that we were not trying to force our vision of literacy on them, many teachers (not all) relaxed and shared their struggles as well as their successes. Their stories became our stories. Their students became our students. We walked into their classroom landscapes eager to help them succeed.

By the time the Act, Reflect, Revise IV Conference came around on February 18, 2000, I had adapted a model for delivery of literacy strategies which included a menu of demonstration lessons, and a full schedule of bookings that covered all 15 of my schools weekly. This gave me about a quarter day in each school, enough time for one demonstration lesson, a quick visit to answer a question from another teacher, and perhaps time to drop off some promised materials. I wouldn’t leave until I had a booking for the following week. By this time, I knew the fastest route from one school to the next. I knew which schools had coffee and which didn’t. I knew where all the washrooms were. And amazingly enough, I knew 105 primary teachers by name. I had taught over 2000 students,(very few of whom I knew by name.) They, however, all remembered my name, and it is truly rewarding to walk into fifteen schools and be recognized with smiles and hugs.

The conference was an important one for me. I was honoured to have my paper published last year, and this fact was thoughtfully recognized. I presented my project to a group of teachers in a round table discussion. But most important, I heard language throughout the conference that I have been able to apply directly to my practice. Listening to teacher researchers, I recognize a language that supports my daily work. It is the vocabulary of my teaching story that so closely reflects my personal values and justifies the time and passion I put into my professional relationships. It is a humanizing language, as opposed to a language of power and hierarchy. When I hear this language coming from Board administrators, I feel a great surge of optimism for the future of communication throughout this board. This language needs to be promoted so that it permeates all levels, until it affects the leadership styles of principals and legitimizes professional passion. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that statement! I recorded a list of the phrases I heard at the conference, and they proved to be of great help to me as I prepared the early literacy presentation for Program Council. “Make connections; model the asking of questions; promote inter-dependence; use creative ways to prevent teachers from becoming discouraged,” are a few ideas that I was able to apply to my early literacy practice. It is a language instantly recognizable in the teacher stories I share on a daily basis.

Now, in June, 2000, it is time for me to review my evidence. What influence have I had on students’ learning? Beyond building relationships, I see evidence everywhere. Often, when I enter a school, a teacher asks me to come to see a word wall that wasn’t there in September, or I’m invited to a performance of Readers Theatre, or a student reads proudly to me from his journal. I am most excited when a teacher takes a lesson I have demonstrated and extends it, improves it, and shares it with others. Teachers in my area have responded eagerly to opportunities to visit other classrooms. I feel like a philanthropist, as I encourage them to take advantage of a half day release time to see their peers deliver programs like guided reading, or to see effective literacy centres. When asked, most teachers are happy to share ideas, from alphabet songs, to parent communication letters, to term plans.

I have a new respect for primary teachers. Their dedication and concern is evident in every school I go to, from Oneida Central, a small country school where generations of families have received their elementary education, to Major Ballachy and other core Brantford schools where teachers and administrators struggle with transience, high absenteeism, and chronic late arrivals. These teachers are often discouraged. The breaking of the barrier into their classroom landscapes has given primary teachers throughout the board an opportunity to make connections that are mutually supportive. It has opened the door to an interdependence that brings expertise from one classroom to the next, from one school to the next, from one community to the next. In the fall of 2000, we look forward to strengthening that interdependence with the inservicing of our Early Literacy Strategies booklet, which includes practical classroom ideas from each of the three former boards. It covers reading, writing, oral language, and spelling strategies, with examples that promote shared, guided, and independent activities.

What have I learned? I have learned that five Early Literacy teachers can indeed be effective in improving student learning across great distances and against all odds, evidenced by photographs of students engaged physically in their own learning. I have learned that a new role needs patience. Our vision, to strengthen early literacy programs for students through partnerships with teachers, could not be forced and depended on regular reflection and revision to be successful. I learned that all classrooms are not equal. Some are rich in print, learning centres, and reading materials. Others are cold -- literally -- and bereft of materials. Some have students who have enjoyed literacy in their homes and preschools. They have library cards. They get bedtime stories. Others arrive at the Kindergarten door knowing nothing about print. A surprising number of five year olds are unable to identify the first letter in their own names.

I learned how stressful it is for teachers to prepare these students for Grade Three EQAO testing when they know that some students start so much lower on the skills development continuum than others. That is why it is our vision to strengthen early literacy programs for students through partnerships with teachers. I have learned how far a positive comment can go when I acknowledge the positive things I see happening in a teacher’s classroom. I’ve learned how rarely teachers receive positive comments and how important they are. I’m convinced that my greatest contribution this year has been in making connections, facilitating peer coaching, and encouraging the sharing of excellent practices. I learned something new every time I went into another teacher’s classroom…. a clever way to make a mini-greenhouse, or a control technique that saves a teacher’s voice. I’ve learned how little I knew one short year ago. "Collaborating," "participating," "connecting;" these words are part of an inclusive vocabulary that has improved the quality of my own practice.


Connelly, F. M. & Clandinin, D. J. (1999). Shaping a Professional Identity: stories of educational practice. London: Althouse Press.

Bibiographical Note:

Name: Janet Trull
Current Position: Early Literacy Itinerant Teacher - Grand-Erie Board of Education, 1999
Academic Background: Dunnville Secondary (very N. B.), McMaster University Honours English B. A. O.T.E.C. Hamilton B. Ed, Specialist - Visual Arts Brock University Specialist - Special Ed York University Reading Recovery Training
Current Research Interests:
1. - Early Literacy: early identification and early intervention, including the CANSTART program, a Canadian non-profit organization promoting a teacher-empowering program for pre-school and kindergarten teachers.
2. - First Steps: an Australian language program for reading, writing, oral language and spelling
3. - Sign Language
Mailing Address: 197 Big Creek Road, Onondaga, ON N3W 2G9 (519) 757-0740