#WhyNCTE15: Because we all need to know literacy

This will be a short post, because the answer to this question/hashtag is simple: All educators need to know literacy. This goes for math teachers, science teachers, social studies teachers, specials teachers, administrators, and all other professionals working in education. It all comes back to literacy.

As an elementary principal, I cannot remember the last time I attended a conference for administrators. The topics for keynotes and sessions are worthy, such as school budgeting, thoughtful scheduling, and professional evaluations. I just cannot seem to rationalize going to one of these over a literacy-focused experience.

NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) is not my first literacy conference. For the last three years, I have attended the Wisconsin State Reading Association convention in Milwaukee. Both are worth losing a couple of days in school.

Why? Of all the disciplines, literacy experiences the most change. The influx of digital tools in our world alone have altered how we teach reading, writing, speaking and listening. Literacy integrates into every other discipline. It also binds the different subjects.

“But I am a principal. I don’t have time to spend learning literacy. That is the job of my instructional coach.” Really? Consider:

  • How can you budget your building dollars to best meet students’ needs, when you aren’t aware that having a broad selection of authentic, high-interest literature in classrooms is essential?
  • How can you properly schedule your building without the knowledge that students need lots of uninterrupted time to read, and teachers need this same time to confer with his or her readers?
  • How can you evaluate your teachers if you don’t know the difference between indicators of reading engagement, such as students selecting books based on interest, and reading compliance, for example being assigned books to read only based on level?

We all need to know literacy. My original background was not in this area. I had to read up on the topic, ask our teachers questions about reading and writing, and acknowledge that I have a lot to learn. I still do. So do you.

Why We Read: Reflections After Completing the Goodreads Book Challenge #NCTE15

50 books. 365 days. This was the goal for my reading life starting in January 2015.

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Having completed the challenge early, I had time to reflect on this experience, share what I learned about myself as a reader, and offer suggestions for educators who help students become lifelong readers.

1. Setting goals is important, so long as the goal doesn’t become the goal itself.

I set 50 books as my goal with the knowledge that I can read a book within a week on average. Sometimes I flew through a text. Examples include The Martian by Andy Weir and Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. With other texts, such as The Art of Slow Reading by Thomas Newkirk and Mindfulness by Ellen Langer, I took my time while reading. My deliberateness allowed me to reflect on the information and consider how I could apply this knowledge to my current position as an elementary school principal. With every book I read, I selected it because I wanted to read it, not to meet my goal. The goal of 50 books served to keep me accountable for reading more,  but not to simply read.

Implications for the classroom: If you are a classroom teacher, how are you developing reading goals with students? I emphasize “with”, because if you are doing the goal setting for students, there will be little ownership for the student. Also, the goal has to be meaningful. If it is a goal based on a skill or on volume of reading, do students understand the goal and what the results mean? If not, we promote compliance instead of engagement in our classrooms.

2. Fiction is not just for entertainment, and nonfiction is not just for learning.

I had little knowledge about space explorations before starting The Martian. But I was motivated to read it, with the movie coming out along with friends recommending it. I struggled with some of the science concepts and acronyms. Yet I persevered because the story about Mark Watney stranded on Mars was just so interesting. In the two days that I read The Martian, I explored various online webpages via NASA to learn more about Mars expeditions and what the future holds. I couldn’t “count” my additional reading, but that didn’t really matter to me. Fiction sparked interest in informational text.

Implications for the classroom: With all due respect to E.D. Hirsch and his acolytes, having enough background knowledge about a complex text before reading it should not always be required. Creating a dichotomy between engagement and information promotes the misconception that reading is done either for entertainment or for learning. The Common Core State Standards perpetuates this idea by separating informative and narrative reading. Educators need to embrace reading as a complex experience that can offer multiple benefits simultaneously. In other words, discovering new information can be enjoyable, and you can learn a lot from a story. Context matters.

3. Be intentional about the role of technology with reading.

One of the biggest surprises for me during this Goodreads challenge is how much I prefer reading on print versus eBooks. Also surprising is how my wife, a 2nd grade teacher and less techy than me, reads almost all of her books on her eReader. So why the difference? Because we read for different reasons. Lately, I have had a passion for learning more about education as a profession and writing about it. This situation created a necessary demand that I have print versions of the texts on hand for easy reference.

In my wife’s case, she connects with other readers/friends on Facebook, Amazon, and Goodreads. They recommend books to each other in their ratings and reviews, and want to read that next text without the wait. We also have two young children, so the natural light from her eReader allows her to enjoy a book when the opportunity presents itself in our busy lives. She is a part of a reading community, much like a classroom that promotes authentic reading experiences. These digital resources are necessary for some readers.

Circumstances change. Technology can also help readers adapt. For example, once I finished writing my most recent book, I welcomed the opportunity to read more fiction. A brief scan of my visual reading log on Goodreads confirmed that I had been favoring nonfiction lately. If my list of previously read titles had been text only, I would have had a harder time determining this. The ability of Goodreads to not only track my reading life but also to offer a visual summary with book covers provided this information more quickly. Goodreads also allows readers to create groups around a genre or topic to read and write about online. Currently, I am facilitating the group “School Leaders as Readers”, where we read and discuss texts relevant to our positions.

Implications for the classroom: Technology can be a necessary part of our reading experiences at school. Online reading communities and the availability of more books via the Internet and eReaders can serve to expand our students’ access to texts and how they interact with others about their reading.

Technology can also simply be nice. Take the one-to-one initiatives that put a device in the hands of all students K-12. Does every 1st grader need a tablet like they need paper, a pencil, and a good book to read? What opportunities for conversation and collaboration do we give up for students when we place a priority on being connected?

The biggest thing I learned from the Goodreads Book Challenge is that reading is a personal endeavor. If we are to create a personalized learning experience for our students, then educators need to make sure that goal setting is collaborative and meaningful, that the complexities of fiction and nonfiction are deeply explored, and that technology serves to support students’ reading experiences instead of driving them.

Action Research and the Art of Knowing Our Students #NCTE15

What happens when student data doesn’t agree with what you think you know, especially about a student’s reading skills and dispositions?

It’s a situation that happens often in schools. We get quantitative results back from a reading screener that doesn’t seem to jive with what we see every day in classrooms. For example, a student shows high ability in reading, yet continues to stick with those easy readers and resists challenging himself or herself with more complex literature. Or the flip: A student has trouble passing that next benchmark, but is able to comprehend a book above his or her reading level range.

Here’s the thing: The test tests what it tests. The assessment is not to blame. In fact, blame should be out of the equation when having professional conversations about how to best respond to students who are not experiencing a level of success as expected. The solution is not in the assessment itself, but in differentiating the types of assessments we are using, questioning the types of data we are collecting, and organizing and analyzing the various data points to make sense of what’s actually happening with our students’ learning lives.

Differentiating the Assessments

It’s interesting how reading, a discipline far removed from the world of mathematics, is constantly quantified when attempting to assess readers’ abilities. Words correct per minute, how many comprehension questions answered correctly, and number of pages read are most often referenced when analyzing and discussing student progress. This data is not bad to have, but if it is all we have, then we paint an incomplete picture of our students as readers.

Think about yourself as a reader. What motivates you to read? I doubt you give yourself a quiz or count the number of words you read correctly on a page after completing a book. Lifelong readers are active assessors of their own reading. They use data, but not the type of data that we normally associate with the term. For example, readers will often rate books once they have finished them on Amazon and Goodreads. They also add a short review about the book on these online forums. The audience that technology provides for readers’ responses is a strong motivator. No one requires these independent readers to rate and review these books, but they do it anyway.

There is little reason why these authentic assessments cannot occur in today’s classrooms. One tool for students to rate and review books is Biblionasium (www.biblionasium.com). It’s like Goodreads for kids. Students can keep track of what they’ve read, what they want to read, and find books recommended by other young readers. It’s a safe and fun reading community for kids.

Yes, this is data. That data isn’t always a number still seems like a shocker for too many educators. To help, teacher practitioners should ask smart questions about the information coming at them to make better sense of where their students are at in their learning journeys.

Questioning the Data

Data such as reading lists and reading community interactions can be very informative, so long as we are reading the information in the right way.

Asking questions related to our practice can help guide our inquiries. For example, are students self-selecting books on their own more readily over time? Also, are they relying more on peers and less on the teacher in their book selection? In addition, are the books being read increasing in complexity throughout the year? All of these qualitative measures of reading disposition can directly relate to quantitative reading achievement scores, informing the teacher with a more comprehensive look at their literacy lives.

Organizing and Analyzing the Data


Students filling out reading motivation surveys via Google Forms and Chromebooks

I recently had our K-5 teachers administer reading motivation surveys with all of our students. The results have been illuminating for me, as I have entered them into spreadsheets.

Our plan is to position this qualitative data side-by-side with our fall screener data. The goal is to find patterns and trends as we compare and contrast these different data points, often called “triangulation” (Landrigan and Mulligan, 2013). Actually, the goal is not triangulation, but responding to the data and making instructional adjustments during the school year. This makes these assessments truly formative and for learning.

Is the time and energy worth it?

I hope so – I spent the better part of an afternoon at school today entering students’ responses to questions such as “What kind of reader are you?”, “How do you feel about reading with others?”, and “Do you like to read when you have free time?” (Marinek et al, 2015). The information collecting and organizing has been informative in itself. While it takes time, by transcribing students’ responses, I am learning so much about their reading lives. I hope that through this process of differentiating, questioning, and organizing and analyzing student reading data, both quantitative and qualitative, we will know our students better and become better teachers for our efforts.


Landrigan, C. & Mullligan, T. (2013). Assessment in Perspective: Focusing on the Reader Behind the Numbers. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse.

Marinak, B. A., Malloy, J. B., Gambrell L. B., & Mazzoni, S. A. (July/August, 2015). Me and My Reading Profile: A Tool for Assessing Early Reading Motivation. The Reading Teacher, (69)1, 51-62.

Attending the NCTE Annual Convention in Minneapolis this year? Join Karen Terlecky, Clare Landrigan, Tammy Mulligan and me as we share our experiences and specific strategies in conducting action research in today’s classrooms. See the following flyer for more information.

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“Harvest” a Good Book – the @BookItProgram Principal Challenge #youngreaders #cpchat

Today is November 9, 2015 – the first day of the Principal Challenge. It is part of National Young Readers Week, sponsored by Pizza Hut.

Last year I went “hunting” for a good book. Students gave quick book talks for me, and I documented their suggestions for the whole school. This year, our theme is to “harvest” a good book. Our artist-in-residence is a local author, Lisl H. Detlefsen. She wrote a children’s book about a cranberry harvest, a top industry in Central Wisconsin. Lisl and her family run a cranberry marsh. Her book is accurate, engaging and fun to read aloud.

I started the week off by coming into school with my gardening gear – gloves, seeds, my hat, rake, ho, and some locally grown produce. I referred to myself as “Farmer Renwick”, although the students’ first impression was that I was a cowboy. I’ll have to work on my costuming for next year’ theme.

IMG_3942Once I shared a little bit about my own hobby, I tied it the concept of harvest to a book I read aloud to classrooms. Teachers signed their classes up for half hour slots during the day and met me in the LMC. Each book was selected for its gardening/harvest theme and its age level appropriateness.

Grade K-1 selections:

Grade 2-3 selection:


Grade 4-5 selection:


Inviting classrooms to sign up for a read aloud with me for the Principal Challenge had a number of benefits. First, the students got to see me in a different light. I was out of the office, dressed up like a farmer/cowboy, and able to share about a hobby of mine (gardening) that was connected to authentic literature. Second, I modeled instruction in front of my faculty. They observed me teaching their students. They also witnessed me making teaching mistakes during the read aloud and discussions. Finally, we set the stage for our artist-in-residence coming later this week. (Not to be forgotten is also qualifying our school for possibly winning 101 copies of the new Diary of a Wimpy Kid book!)

IMG_3940 (1)Principals: It’s pretty simple to set something like this up for your school. The best part is you have the rest of this week to make it happen!

(Picture: Previewing Time for Cranberries with my son’s 3rd grade class)

Join Me for an All Things PLC Twitter chat, Topic: Using Technology Thoughtfully in PLCs #atplc

Originally posted on Matt Renwick:

#atplc chat

Tonight at 8 P.M. CST (Thursday, November 5) I will be hosting an All Things PLC chat. This conversation is supported by Solution Tree (www.solution-tree.com). Our topic is around the use of technology in thoughtful ways within professional learning communities. Follow the #atplc hashtag on Twitter to join us.

Specifically, we’ll discuss what benefits can be found from leveraging digital tools to work smarter and not harder. We will also reflect on how technology can sometimes get in the way of professional conversations. Specific tools will be addressed, but the focus will remain on exploring the best ways to make collaboration effective in our schools with the help of today’s technologies.

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Three Books I’m Considering Reading Aloud to 5th Graders

This is one of the hardest parts about reading aloud: Selecting the title! One of the 5th grade classrooms invited me to read aloud in their classroom in November. As a former 5th grade teacher, I’ve scoured past and present titles. Here are my top three candidates, listed in order by author’s last name:

  • The Secret School by Avi (Harcourt, 2001)

This story takes place in a one room schoolhouse in 1925. Fourteen-year-old Ida Bidson wants to graduate from high school. Unfortunately, the teacher leaves and the school is set to close for the remainder of the year. While the rest of the students seem resigned to this fate, Ida’s determination to continue her education takes her from student to teacher, secretly taking over the classroom represented by many age levels and personalities.

Why I’m considering it: School has become an entitlement in the present day. What if school meant more to students that something compulsory? How might students today rethink these opportunities if public education was no guarantee? I would look forward to having these conversations with 5th graders if this book were selected.

  • The Landry News by Andrew Clements (Simon & Schuster, 1999)

A once-effective and now jaded educator, Mr. Larson, is going through the motions as a 5th grade teacher. Cara Landry is not settling for less regarding her learning, so she creates a classroom newspaper that highlights the issues in her classroom. As you can imagine, humor and drama ensue. The principal, Dr. Barnes, looks to use Clara’s reporting as a way to oust Mr. Larson from his current position.

Why I’m considering it: Freedom of speech is at the forefront of conversations today, especially with social media and other ways to communicate online. Tweens and teens need to have deep discussions about the importance of balancing “truth with mercy”. Stories like The Landry News, along with thoughtful questions and a teacher’s guidance, can facilitate this type of classroom talk.

  • Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998)

Joey has ADHD, and his medication isn’t working like it used to. The title for the story reveals an example of his situation: During class, Joey kept swallowing his house key, then bringing it back up via the string it was attached to…until the string broke. Gantos tells this story through Joey’s perspective, which includes living in a single-parent family. His situation at home, including a father who “doesn’t believe in meds”, makes life for Joey a challenge.

Why I’m considering it: As another educator once told me, you could throw a ball in the hallway at school during passing time and probably hit someone with ADHD. But what is school life like for someone with this condition? If I were to read aloud this book, I would look to build empathy and understanding for learners with all sorts of challenges.

Whichever book is selected, I am confident it will be well-received by the 5th grade class. Maybe you can help. Leave a comment on this post that includes the title we should enjoy in November and why. I’ll share your opinion with the class on November 3rd, when we vote on which one to read. Better yet, join us next month by reading aloud the same text to your intermediate/middle level classroom. Maybe we can connect online and share our thoughts with each other as a larger learning community of readers and thinkers.

Being Connected is Not the Same as Connectedness #CEM15 #edtechchat

This past weekend, my family and I headed south to visit family in Illinois. This is where I’m originally from, and most of my family members still reside there. The highlight of our trip, besides the “really awesome” pool our two kids enjoyed at a hotel in Rockford, was the Halloween party hosted by my aunt and uncle in Seneca.

12182435_10156289603010595_3597715382384628058_oCell phone service was very limited. It was just as well. Everyone who was there I rarely got a chance to see in person. We spent time with each other next to the night fire, sharing our news and our personal highlights. More than once, a relative referenced a picture and/or comment one of us made on Facebook (usually about our kids). We shared a laugh about the event that we would not have known without social media. These connections served to bring us closer together.


Online interactions are a mere shadow compared to the connectedness we experience when we physically come together as people. It’s not always easy, especially for introverts such as myself. But it doesn’t mean I should avoid it. Contrast this with my first day back at school: I started the week by leafing through the latest issue of EdTech: Focus on K-12 magazine. In one of the front pages is a highlight of tweets reposted within a section titled “Connectedness”. Here is a sampling I found, collected from a recent “#SatchatOC” chat:

How should we be defining connectedness? Many of us view this concept through the lens of social media and online networks. Do we prioritize our digital connections over the those we are in close proximity to every day? Can we be simply connected and still experience a feeling of connectedness?

My preferred definition of “connectedness” within the education profession comes from Parker J. Palmer, in his classic resource The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (Jossey-Bass, 1998, 2007). Palmer defines connectedness as the ability of teachers “to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves” (pg. 11). This web extends beyond our online connections.

While there is no question about the role of social media in education, we may view these digital networks as the main way for educators to pursue new knowledge and skills. Unfortunately, this mindset might lead to further distancing ourselves from the possible relationships right in front of us: Our colleagues in neighboring classrooms, departments, and schools. Have we successfully mined the possibilities that these potential face-to-face interactions will provide? My guess is no.

In her new book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin, 2015), MIT scientist Sherry Turkle documents studies describing the negative effects of keeping a largely online network of human connections:

  • The mere presence of a phone changes what people talk about, for fear of being interrupted by a text message or notification. (21)
  • Online messaging leads to less emotional connections compared to in-person conversations. (23)
  • People who use social media the most have more difficulty reading human emotions, including their own, when compared to those not as connected. (25)
  • For young people, online life is associated with a loss of empathy and a diminished capacity for self-reflection. (41)
  • People don’t like posting things online that their followers won’t agree with – everyone wants to be liked. (50)

This concerns me. What do we unknowingly give up when we add on and delve more deeply into online connections? Do we reduce our capacity for connectedness in our efforts to become “more connected”? I’ve attempted to counter these tendencies in my own role as a school principal. For the last two days, teachers have come together in face-to-face conversations regarding professional goals for the school year. When I listened to their ideas, I put aside my digital tools and gave them my full attention. Full disclosure: My phone was still present. :-/ Still, as I offered suggestions, I paid attention to how they responded physically, such as facial expressions and their eyes, as well as what they had to say. These verbal and nonverbal cues guided our conversation.

One of the best feelings is knowing that you are being listened to. It’s hard to articulate, but you know it when it happens. You feel appreciated, acknowledged, and supported. There are certainly situations where online connections are the best option. Usually it is in the absence of in-person conversations. But when the opportunity for a real conversation presents itself, is it a priority or merely a formality?

My mom and me

My mom and me by the campfire at the Halloween party