The Writing Plot

To develop an effective and unified writing curriculum, start with what teachers are already doing and analyze the data.
One district’s bottom-up strategy.

By Juliette Heinze

Snapshot: Mamaroneck (NY) Public Schools

Location: 23 miles northeast of New York City in Westchester County between New Rochelle and Rye
Population: 35,000 residents
Number of schools: six (four elementary, one middle, and one high school)
Number of students: 4,762
Demographics: 80% Caucasian, 14% Hispanic, 4% African-American, 3% American Indian
Teachers: 376 (approximation, from 2002–03)
Attendance rate: 95.7%
Web site:

At Mamaroneck Public Schools (MPS), a suburban district about 25 miles north of New York City, Assistant Superintendent Annie Zimmer has spent the past two years working on one of the district’s multiyear goals: to develop a clearly articulated, consistent map for the district’s writing curriculum. Although much of what individual teachers were doing was excellent, there was no unity.

“In developing a district-wide curriculum, we wanted to honor and respect everything that teachers have put in place,” Zimmer reflects. “We wanted to know: What are they already investing in? We wanted to systematize all the good work that is taking place.”

To meet that end, Zimmer and her team decided to do a survey of the district’s 180 elementary school teachers. They planned to ask teachers about successful classroom practices and about what they value, and then plot the data so as to retain and refine the most effective teaching strategies.

Gathering Data From Teachers

In collaboration with Ellen Kenny, the district’s literacy coordinator, Zimmer created the survey content. The team wrote a range of questions that included multiple-choice with drop-down menus and open-ended responses about what curricula, strategies, and activities teachers were using to teach writing, and what types of professional development they consider valuable.

According to Carrie Amon, the principal of Mamaroneck Avenue Elementary School, “The biggest complaint is that the professional development comes from the top down. We wanted to ask teachers what they want.” Survey questions addressed the quality of professional development teachers have received through the district, the staff development structures they consider most effective in their schools, and the professional titles they read and find helpful.

District technology coordinator Ed Cofino and district technology coach Andrew Hess used FrontPage, one of Microsoft’s authoring systems, to set up the survey in an online format. Cofino also posted an optional test survey about teachers’ technology use to make sure he could capture data successfully without unexpected glitches.

During the five Superintendent’s Conference Days in June 2006 slated for staff development, teachers were asked to complete the survey. They rotated through three stations, where they spent a total of an hour and a half responding to questions. An aide was present to assist anyone who had technical difficulties. Cofino saved the results of each teacher’s survey submission in an Access database. Later, he cleaned the data and imported everything into an Excel spreadsheet.

Analyzing the Data

The team turned to TinkerPlots, data-analysis software designed as a teaching tool for students to learn how to explore and use data, which Cofino had purchased a few years earlier. Teachers were already using the software in the classroom to provide students with opportunities for collecting, analyzing, and manipulating data. MPS administrators quickly discovered, however, how useful it was in meeting their own data-analysis needs.

Administrators initially used the software’s various colorful visual representations—graphs, pie charts, scatter plots, and histograms—to look at student achievement. “It’s an easy way to get a nice picture of something,” says Cofino. Additionally, the software’s functionalities allow for users to qualify a query using up to three color-coded variables, making it easy to detect relationships, patterns, and trends. For instance, the user can view how second-grade teachers responded. Then they can look at how second-grade teachers who have been teaching for less than five years responded. Finally, they can place yet another condition on their query: How did second-grade teachers who have been teaching for less than five years and attended the same professional development workshop respond? With each query, the colorful graphs shift to reveal any differences.

When Zimmer, Amon, Cofino, Hess, and Kenny came together in June to analyze the survey results, they projected TinkerPlot graphs onto a screen and quickly identified relationships, questions to emerge. “You have to be flexible enough to see where it takes you. If you’re willing to let a question be asked and let the data answer it, then this is the program for you,” says Amon. Hess chimes in, “The data lead to interesting insights you might not expect.”

As a principal, Amon uses Tinker-Plots throughout the school year to interrogate achievement data, as well as make queries such as, Does the number of days students are absent have an impact on their test results? She then shares the graphs with parents and families, particularly those who are transient migrant workers, to show how seriously a child’s time away from school affects his or her learning. Amon also uses TinkerPlot representations of data to start conversations and promote reflection and inquiry among teachers about issues that pertain to instruction and achievement.

Disseminating the Results

After the group conducts some additional analyses, Zimmer and Cofino plan to disaggregate survey results by school building level. They’ll carefully package the results using TinkerPlot graphs, charts, and scatter plots so that when principals receive them, they can easily comprehend them and distribute them to teaching staff.

They also plan to include participants’ responses district-wide so that principals and teachers have a point of comparison. At the Superintendent’s Conference Day in the fall, Zimmer will report out all interesting and puzzling findings so that togethe, all of the stakeholders can discuss what the implications are for devising the district’s new writing curriculum and thus remain part of the process. As Zimmer concludes, “We are modeling best practices. If we are expecting teachers to use technology and be data-based, then we had better model it ourselves.” @