A Strong Bond

The following post is what I wrote for my weekly newsletter/blog for our school. I thought it might work here as well. -Matt

If you are in the market for a good movie you might have never seen, check out The Straight Story. I recently rewatched this favorite film of mine. The main character is a senior citizen (Alvin Straight) who decides to travel from Iowa to Wisconsin to visit his estranged brother. Because of his ailments, he cannot drive a car, so he decides to take his John Deere rider lawnmower for this trip.

Along the way, he meets several people with different stories of their own. The wisdom he departs along his trip changes the lives of those he encounters. In one scene, he meets a teenage girl who has run away from home. While enjoying a quiet campfire, Alvin shares a story he told his kids and grandkids. “You can break one stick very easily. But tie several sticks together, and you have an unbreakable bond. That’s family.” Before the girl traveled back home, she left Alvin a bundle of sticks tied together.

I share this as a metaphor for how we as a faculty at Mineral Point Elementary have started to forge a strong bond. In the fall of 2016 (my first year here), we developed seven collective commitments as a faculty. Everyone had input and came to consensus on these statements about how we would work together on behalf of our students, families, and community. If we do not meet these commitments, we do our best to hold each other and ourselves responsible.

As a faculty, we have also examined our beliefs about literacy. Last spring, three beliefs were agreed upon unanimously. We can now expect these instructional practices to be employed in the classroom. In the spring of 2018, we will re-examine our beliefs in the hope of adding more to our list.

Our commitments and beliefs are listed below. They serve as a lens when making decisions in our school. They guide us in which teaching resources to use in the classroom. They guide us in our hiring process. They guide us in determining what students should know and be able to do. These value statements create a strong bond to help ensure our organization strives to meet our district’s mission and vision.

Our Mission

Grounded by our history, as one of the oldest publicly supported schools in Wisconsin, MPSD is the heart of a small community that educates and inspires our students for a bright future in a big world.

Our Vision

• The Mineral Point School District will be a recognized leader in education.

• Students will attain higher levels of academic achievement, resulting in greater lifetime opportunities.  

• Individualized learning will be embraced through innovation and technology.

• The district will provide a collaborative and professional environment for teachers to learn and develop innovative instructional strategies.

• Student learning will be enriched by cultivating family, community, and business partnerships.

Our Collective Commitments

1. I will be open to and ready for learning from others as professionals and colleagues.

2. I will hear others’ ideas in various learning communities and be willing to try a variety of practices.

3. I will assume best intentions in our colleagues and help create a sense of belonging.

4. I will honor the whole child by treating them with respect and care, and attend to their social and emotional needs.

5. I will listen to the concerns of our students’ families, address their needs to the best extent possible, and make them feel welcome in the school.

6. I will utilize better practices to deliver a coherent and relevant curriculum across all grade levels.

7. I will hold all students to high academic and behavioral expectations regardless of background, label, or past experiences.

Our Literacy Beliefs

• A child’s written story can be used to teach phonics and skills.  

• You can assess a child’s phonemic awareness by examining his/her journal writing.

• Shared writing is an excellent way to record common experiences and connect to reading.

Silent Reading vs. Independent Reading: What’s the Difference? (plus digital tools to assess IR)

During a past professional development workshop, the consultant informed us at one point to end independent reading in our classrooms. “It doesn’t work.” (discrete sideway glances at each other) “Really. Have students read with a partner or facilitate choral reading. Students reading by themselves does not increase reading achievement.”

I think I know what the consultant was trying to convey: having students select books and then read silently without any guidance from the teacher is not an effective practice. Some students will utilize this time effectively, but in my experience as a classroom teacher and principal, it is the students that need our guidance the least that do well with silent reading. For students who have not developed a reading habit, or lack the skills to effectively engage in reading independently for an extended period of time, this may be a waste of time.

The problem with stating that students should not be reading independently in school is people confuse silent reading with independent reading (IR). I could see some principals globbing onto this misconception as fodder for restricting teachers from using IR and keep them following the canned program religiously. The fact is, these two practices are very different. In their excellent resource No More Independent Reading Without Support (Heinemann, 2013), Debbie Miller and Barbara Moss provide a helpful comparison:

Silent Reading

  • Lack of a clear focus – kids grab a book and read (pg. 2)
  • Teachers read silently along with the students (pg. 3)
  • No accountability regarding what students read (pg. 8)

Independent Reading (pg. 16)

  • Classroom time to read
  • Students choose what to read
  • Explicit instruction about what, why, and how readers read
  • Reading a large number of books and variety of texts through the year
  • Access to texts
  • Teacher monitoring, assessing, and support during IR
  • Students talk about what they read

You could really make the case that independent reading is not independent at all: it is silent reading with scaffolds, and independence is the goal. The rest of the book goes into all of the research that supports independent reading, along with ideas and examples for implementing it in classrooms. The authors also cite the Common Core Anchor Standard that addresses independent reading:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.10
Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.
Maybe this information will be helpful, in case you ever have a principal or consultant question your practice. 🙂

Assessing Independent Reading

The challenge then is: how do I assess independent reading? Many teachers use a paper-based conferring notebook. If that works for them, that’s great. My opinion is, this is an opportunity to leverage technology to effectively identify trends and patterns in students’ independent reading habits and skills, which can inform future instruction. Next is a list of tools that I have observed teachers using for assessing independent reading.

This is an iPad application that allows the user to draw, type, and add images to a single document. The teacher can use a stylus (I recommend the Apple Pencil) to handwrite their notes. Each student can be assigned their own folder within Notability. In addition, a teacher can record audio and add it to a note, such as a student reading aloud a page from their book. This information can be backed up to Google Drive, Evernote, and other cloud storage options.

In my last school, one of the teachers swore by this tool. “If you don’t pay for it,” she stated one day, “I’ll pay for it out of my own pocket.” Enough said! Teachers who use the Daily 5 workshop approach would find CC Pensieve familiar. It uses the same tenets of reading and writing to document student conferences and set literacy goals. Students can also be grouped in the software based on specific strategies and needs.

Teachers can set up a digital form to capture any type of information. The information goes to a spreadsheet. This allows the teacher to sort columns in order to drive instruction regarding students’ reading habits and skills. Also, the quantitative results are automatically graphed to look for classroom trends and patterns. We set up a Google Form in one grade level in our school:

I’ve written a lot about using Evernote as a teaching tool in the past. It is probably the tool I would use to document classroom formative assessment. Each note can house images, text, audio, and links, similar to Notability. These notes can be shared out as a URL with parents via email so they can see how their child is progressing as a reader. Check out this article I wrote for Middleweb on how a speech teacher used Evernote.

The previous digital tools for assessing independent reading are largely teacher-directed. The next three are more student-led. One of my favorite educational technologies is Kidblog. Classrooms can connect with other classrooms to comment on each other’s posts. Teachers can have students post book reviews, book trailers, and creative multimedia projects from other applications.

Whereas Kidblog is pretty wide open in how it can be used, Biblionasium is a more focused tool. It can serve as an online book club for students. Students can make to-read lists, write reviews and rate books, and recommend titles to friends. Like Kidblog, Biblionaisum is a smart way to connect reading with writing in an authentic way.

This social media site is for book lovers. Although 13 is the minimum age to join, parents need to provide consent if a child is under 18. Besides rating and reviewing books, Goodreads allows readers to create book groups with discussion boards around specific topics – an option for teachers to promote discussion and digital citizenship. Students can also post their original creative writing on Goodreads by genre. Check out this post I wrote about how to get students started.

What is your current understanding of independent reading? What tools do you find effective in assessing students during this time? Please share in the comments.

The Driver’s Seat

This is cross-posted from my school blog. It was also sent out as a monthly print newsletter for families. I thought you might enjoy reading it here too. -Matt

With a year under my belt and feeling more comfortable each day in my position as principal here, I am starting to find more time to engage in fun activities. One thing I enjoy is producing digital media of my family’s life captured on camera. Right now I am putting together images and video in order to create a multimedia presentation of our two kids’ experiences in Wisconsin Rapids, our former home.

In one series of videos, we documented our daughter learning to ride her bike. I held the camera while my wife jogged alongside her, holding the bike to provide that extra support while our daughter attempted to find her balance. My wife was giving constant feedback, telling her to “pedal faster” or “straighten out the handlebars” when appropriate. Eventually, as every kid does, our daughter was able to ride her bike independently.

Throughout this process, our daughter was the one pedaling and steering. We didn’t do a lot of modeling of how to ride or explain this skill in words. Our daughter got on a bike with training wheels at first, then removed them when we all felt she was ready. She was in the driver’s seat at all times.

This personal story relates to the professional practice we are striving for in classrooms. Instead of the teacher doing the majority of the work, we are shifting the reading, the writing, and the thinking to the student. Just like riding a bike, students cannot learn something new unless they are actively involved in the process. The driver’s seat in school is a pencil or a book in one’s hands.

This might seem obvious. Yet education has been traditionally delivered with the teacher expected to do the heavy lifting. We know now that our role as educators in today’s world is to be that guide on the side, supporting our students as they attempt time and again to improve in their abilities and become successful learners for life.

How we stopped using Accelerated Reader

This post describes how our school stopped using Accelerated Reader. This was not something planned; it seemed to happen naturally through our change process, like an animal shedding its skin. The purpose of this post is not to decry Accelerated Reader, although I do know this reading assessment/incentive program is not viewed favorably in some education circles. We ceased using a few other technologies as well, each for different reasons. The following timeline provides a basic outline of our process that led to this outcome.

  1. We developed collective commitments.

The idea of collective commitments comes from the Professional Learning Community literature, specifically Learning by Doing, 3rd edition. Collective commitments are similar to norms you might find on a team. The difference is collective commitments are focused on student learning. We commit to certain statements about our work on behalf of kids. They serve as concrete guidelines, manifested from our school’s mission and vision, as well as from current thinking we find effective for education.

We first started by reading one of four articles relevant to our work. The staff could choose which one to read. After discussing the contents of the articles in small group and then in whole group, we started crafting the statements. This was a smaller team of self-selected faculty. Staff who did not participate knew they may have to live with the outcomes of this work. Through lots of conversation and wordsmithing, we landed on seven statements that we all felt were important to our future work.

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At the next staff meeting, we shared these commitments, answered any questions about their meaning and intent, and then held an anonymous vote via Google Forms. We weren’t looking for unanimity but consensus. In other words, what does the will of the group say? Although there were a few faculty members that could not find a statement or two to be agreeable, the vast majority of teachers were on board. I shared the results while explaining that these statements were what we all will commit to, regardless of how we might feel about them.

  1. We identified a schoolwide literacy focus.

Using multiple assessments in the fall (STAR, Fountas & Pinnell), we found that our students needed more support in reading, specifically fluency. This meant that students needed to be reading and writing a lot more than they were, and to do so independently. Our instructional leadership team, which is a decision-making body and whose members were selected based on in-house interviews, started making plans to provide professional development for all faculty around the reading-writing connection. (For more information on instructional leadership teams and the reading-writing connection, see Regie Routman’s book Read, Write, Lead).

  1. We investigated the effectiveness of our current programming.

Now that we had collective commitments along with a focus on literacy, I think our lens changed a bit. Maybe I can only speak for myself, but we started to take a more critical look at our current work. What was working and what wasn’t?

Around that time, I discovered a summary report from the What Works Clearinghouse, a part of the Institute of Educational Sciences within the Department of Education. This report described all of the different studies on Accelerated Reader. Using only the research that met their criteria for reliability and validity, they found mixed to low results for schools that used Accelerated Reader.

I shared this summary report with our leadership team. We had a thoughtful conversation about the information, looking at both the pros and cons of this technology tool. However, we didn’t make any decisions to stop using it as a school. I also shared the report with Renaissance Learning, the maker of Accelerated Reader. As you might imagine, they had a more slanted view of this information, in spite of the rigorous approach to evaluating their product.

While we didn’t make a decision at that time based on the research, I think the fact that this report was shared with the faculty and discussed planted the seed for future conversations about the use of this product in our classrooms.

  1. We examined our beliefs about literacy.

The professional development program we selected to address our literacy needs, Regie Routman in Residence: The Reading-Writing Connection, asks educators to examine their beliefs regarding reading and writing instruction. Unlike our collective commitments, we all had to be in agreement regarding a literacy statement to own it and expect everyone to apply that practice in classrooms. We agreed upon three.

Beliefs Poster

This happened toward the end of the school year. It was a nice celebration of our initial efforts in improving literacy instruction. We will examine these beliefs again at the end of this school year, with the hope of agreeing upon a few more after completing this PD program. These beliefs served to align our collective philosophy about what our students truly need to become successful readers and writers. Momentum for change was on our side, which didn’t bode well for outdated practices.

  1. We started budgeting for next year.

It came as a surprise, at least to me, that money would be a primary factor in deciding not to continue using Accelerated Reader in our school.

With a finite budget and an infinite number of teacher resources in which we could utilize in the classroom, I started investigating the use of different technologies currently in the building. I found for Accelerated Reader that a small minority of teachers were actually using the product. This usage was broken down by class. We discovered that we were paying around $20 a year per student.

Given our limited school budget, I asked teachers both on our leadership team and the teachers who used it if they felt this was worth the cost. No one thought it was. (To be clear, the teachers who were using Accelerated Reader are good teachers. Just because they had their students taking AR quizzes does not suggest they were ineffective; quite the opposite. I think it is worth pointing this out as I have seen some shaming of teachers who use AR as a way to persuade them to stop using the tool. It’s not effective.)

With this information, we as a leadership team decided to end our subscription to Accelerated Reader. We made this decision within the context of our collective commitments and our literacy beliefs.

Next Steps

This story does not end with our school ceasing to using Accelerated Reader. For example, we realize we now have an assessment gap for our students and their independent reading. Lately, we have been talking about different digital tools such as Kidblog and Biblionasium as platforms for students to write book reviews and share their reading lives with others. We have also discussed different approaches for teachers to assess their readers more authentically, such as through conferring.

While there is a feeling of uncomfortableness right now, I feel a sense of possibility that maybe wasn’t there when Accelerated Reader was present in our building. As Peter Johnston notes from his book Opening Minds, ““Uncertainty is the foundation for inquiry and research.” I look forward to where this new turn in instruction might lead us.

 

Why Don’t Schools Focus on Literacy?

Our top hiring criteria — in addition to having the skills to do the job — is, are you a great writer? You have to be a great writer to work here, in every single position, because the majority of our communication is written, primarily because a lot of us work remotely but also because writing is quieter. And we like long-form writing where people really think through an idea and present it.

– Jason Fried of Basecamp, a web-based project management tool (NY Times)

As an elementary principal the last seven years, the schools I have had the honor to lead have hosted site visits. Other schools have come to observe the inner workings of our organization. These visits usually revolve around our literacy initiatives. We share how our continuous focus on reading, writing, speaking, and listening has resulted in increased achievement and engagement for our students. This isn’t something we brag about; it is how we have done business.

Out of the 15 or so schools that have come to visit, can you guess how many have walked away and started their building-wide focus on literacy? To my knowledge: zero. There is not one school that comes to mind when I think about who has walked through our doors and then started addressing a faculty’s capacity for teaching reading and writing. Why is this? What could be the reason for not focusing on literacy on a consistent basis for their professional learning efforts? Next are a couple of possibilities.

1. Schools are focused on something else.

I have been making a list of all the initiatives school leaders cite as the reason they cannot focus on literacy, at least at this time.

– Trauma-based learning
– Mindfulness
– PBL
– STEM/STEAM
– Personalized learning
– PBIS
– Responsive Classroom
– Poverty
– Equity
– Engagement
– Standards-based grading
– Blended learning or a 1:1 technology initiative

To be fair, many of these professional learning initiatives are promising. For example, our school has invested in Responsive Classroom training for staff and we have found it effective. But it’s not our focus. We employ Responsive Classroom strategies to better teach our students to read and write.

That’s the point we have made to a few school leaders. “You can still do __________ (fill in the initiative) while you are focused on literacy as a school.” They typically balk at this. Why? That might be the next reason…

2. Focusing on literacy doesn’t seem exciting.

Becoming better teachers of readers and writers may not sound as intriguing as a STEM/STEAM initiative or going 1:1 with technology. It might not make for good print or spark intrigue when proposing this focus to district leaders or a school board.

But what does that tell us? To me, I see a schoolwide focus on literacy as a safe way to innovate as a faculty. There are many routes you can go if one doesn’t want to start with the foundations of literacy. For example, a leadership team can begin by integrating effective reading and writing strategies with a STEM/STEAM initiative. A faculty could also delve into the new literacies while going 1:1. Media literacy, global literacy, and digital literacy are all relevant and important skills for students to acquire.

3. Schools don’t know where to start.

Building teachers’ capacity to teach reading and writing is a challenge. It can create some anxiety with school leaders not knowing how to get started with this initiative, nor how to keep the focus for several years (I’ve learned and read that changing teacher practice typically takes around five years).

explore-books.v20160906084450

The nice thing is there are a number of professional learning programs out there that can provide the direction and resources for a schoolwide literacy initiative. For example, the Regie Routman in Residence online professional development program offers videos, articles, and learning experiences for a multi-year approach to building teacher capacity to teach reading and writing. I have also heard good things about Linda Dorn’s Comprehensive Literacy Model. What both offer is a framework for teaching literacy, instead of a scripted or commercial program. Teachers have some autonomy and ownership in how promising literacy practices are implemented in the classroom. These types of programs also position teachers as leaders of the learning instead of merely recipients of knowledge and skills. I have seen with my own eyes how a faculty can come to embrace effective reading and writing instruction as a sustainable part of their school culture.

Considering these three reasons, I would add one more thought, a common thread for why literacy is not a focus: it’s not easy. School leaders might not have the desire or will to change teacher practice. Layering a less effective initiative over current instruction is an easier approach that looks good to the public. But if the initiative is not connected to literacy in some way, and a school cannot show that their students are successful readers and writers, then these efforts are a disservice to the families and community they serve.

(Image: Booksource)

D.E.A.R. – Drop Everything and Reflect

As a teacher, I instituted D.E.A.R. in my classroom: Drop Everything and Read. I joined in on the activity and silently read myself. Sometimes this classroom practice is referred to as S.S.R. – sustained silent reading.

Looking back, I now know I made mistakes in my teaching. I didn’t do anything harmful – I gave kids time to read, which is good. But I didn’t give every student the support they needed while reading independently. I could have been conferencing with students (I taught 5th and 6th grade, mostly). These assessment opportunities would have looked different for each student: personalized and student-driven, based on where kids were and where we wanted to go.

I am not going to engage in retroactive guilt. It’s not worth it. My penance is this post and others like it that I have written previously. Still, I do value some quiet space in a classroom, some time for students to be in their own minds about what they are reading and not worry about what others think.

So what if, instead of “D.E.A.R.” as we have known it, we instituted “Drop Everything and Reflect”? Reflection, the practice of considering our actions through writing or thinking, is not something that is given a lot of time for in classrooms. But we do know how important this is for processing our experiences and digging deeper into learning.

What might this look like in a literacy classroom? A few thoughts:

  • Each student has a reading notebook in which they record the title and author of the book they are reading, as well as write any surprises, questions, and observations they uncovered. They could share their reflections with a peer. Students could also blog about their reading using Kidblog or another digital tool to encourage visibility with our reading lives.
  • If a student is done with a book, they could write a book review (instead of a book report) for the classroom or school library. It doesn’t have to be long; a paragraph might suffice as long as the recommendation entices another student to want to read the book. Biblionasium is a digital platform for this type of work.
  • One student could get together with other students to discuss the books they are reading in informal literature circles. Teachers could limit the amount of time students would have to talk about what they are reading. Roles would be unnecessary. A learning management system such as Edmodo could be utilized to develop online book clubs around a title, series, or author if students wanted to discuss their reading beyond independent reading time.

The purpose of this post is to point out two things: 1) D.E.A.R. and S.S.R. are traditional activities that deserve an upgrade with more promising practices such as independent reading, and 2) students can be offered independence in their reflections on their reading and how they choose to reflect.

If you have traditionally used reading logs and/or emphasized 20 minutes of reading per day, I think you will find these ideas might be a better approach to improving student reading achievement and instilling student engagement in reading for a lifetime.

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Reading and Writing in the Real World

I’ve been thinking more and more about teaching literacy for students today. Digital media has become a primary source of information for many people. Do they know how to read a Twitter thread or write an effective blog post? If someone does not, are they fully literate? I wrote the following piece for our school’s families to start the conversation. I’m sure I will be revisiting this topic again soon.

-Matt

One of my sources of information is Twitter. I follow educators, leaders, journalists, and friends. I also subscribe to a few newspapers, although much of the content I read there is online. As I scroll through articles from a web browser or app, I find I have to work hard to keep my attention focused on the writing. My mind is drawn to the advertisements and other distractions that appear at the edges of the screen.

I share this information, both in digital and in print, for a reason. Mainly, when education is tasked with teaching students to read and write, we can no longer limit our scope to printed text. The advent of the Internet has created brand new literacies. In a connected society, we need to be globally literate, in which we can understand people’s perspectives from other cultures and locations. We also need to be digitally literate. Multimedia messages read and heard online require new strategies to comprehend them.

At a recent strategic planning for the district, a variety of community members got together with Mineral Point School educators to talk about what we want our students to know, understand, and be able to do. After a lot of conversation and debate, we decided on two big goals: community engagement and academic innovation and independence. These are pretty broad. Basically, we want to improve our connections with our local community around the concept of education, and we want to prepare our students for a changing world.

How do we get there? We have already started follow-up conversations at the administrative level. One of the things that we can agree on is for students to be readers and writers in the real world. That means being able to decode and comprehend text both in print and online. That means writing for an audience that could be one person or the world. Speaking and listening also have taken on new purpose when we can communicate with anyone from anywhere. These ideas are both challenging and exciting. I look forward to working with you to help project a course for our students’ futures.