Leading as a Reading Principal

As an educator, I have always been passionate about literacy and have continued to seek out new learning.  My literacy thinking has been refined as I’ve read books by Regie Routman, Donalyn Miller, Boushey and Moser, Richard Allington, Fisher and Frey, and now Jennifer Allen. Becoming a Literacy Leader is a goldmine of a book for literacy specialists/instructional coaches, making me wish I could go back into a role to focus just on coaching literacy to apply my learning from Allen, but then I remember that I love my job as principal too!  Since I wear many hats as a principal and cannot go in depth to the type of literacy support that Allen and literacy coaches provide teachers, I want to share some of the visible ways that principals can be reading principals. My ideas shared are not my own, I’ve gained these from the authors I’ve mentioned above and others in my Professional Learning Network.

1. Be a reader and share it with students!  I love to share with students that I’m a reader. I get into classrooms the first week of school to read a book to kick-off the new school year and I also go back in after winter break to talk about reading resolutions.

2. Encourage teachers to share their reading lives with students. I post my reading sign in the library for students to see (what I’m reading and how many books I’ve read) and ask teachers to do something similar to model for students that they are readers too.

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One year I asked all teachers to identify 10 things about themselves as a reader and we filled a bulletin board with who we are as readers for students to see. 

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3. Share your reading life with staff. With each new book I’m reading, I update my email signature to show it so each time I send an email, I’m also recommending a book! I have a few staff members who do this and I have gained new book ideas just from their email signatures.3.pngIn addition, my staff memo blog includes a widget to show the books I have read/logged on Goodreads this year.

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4. Talk about books with kids. I do this when I’m in classrooms during literacy or during the lunch room. I especially love getting kids talking at the lunch table because students need to hear their peers talk about books to be able to seek out book recommendations from others.  My oldest child is a hesitant reader. He can read, but he doesn’t like to unless he gets hooked on a book, but getting the hook is the struggle. A couple of years ago, I knew he would love The False Prince and I tried to get him to read it. Then one day out of nowhere he came home with a book he was so excited about that he heard his friends raving about so he started it. Guess what book it was?

55. Learn about literacy with your staff. Dave Burgess, author of Teach Like a Pirate (2012) asks the great metaphorical question “Are you a lifeguard or swimmer?” about whether or not you are walking the talk. He explains:“Lifeguards sit above the action and supervise the pool. Although he or she is focused, there is a distinct sense of separateness both physically and mentally. In contrast, a swimmer is out participating and an integral part of the action.” I have continued to learn right along with my teachers as we implemented Daily 5/CAFE, Lucy Calkins Units of Study for Writing and now moving into Units of Study for Reading. I even taught a summer school class to apply what I learned so I could be as supportive as possible for our teachers.

6. Ensure that classroom libraries have books for students to read. Gone are the days of the traditional basal that all students read (they weren’t all reading it!) or committing Readacide by having all reading the same chapter book together. We must ensure that classroom libraries have a wide variety of books that are of interest to students. What role do principals play in this? This means letting teachers budget for ordering additional books and letting them wait until they know their students as readers to make purchases later in the year to find books their readers will want. Supporting the librarian or IMC specialist to purchase books throughout the year so that when kids hear there’s a new book coming out they don’t have to wait until the next budget approval…they are waiting at the library the day they know the book is out eagerly hoping to be the first to check it out! 6.png

7. Continue to support teachers with professional learning. Provide your teachers with the opportunities to attend conferences, workshops, online webinars, or even purchase/share professional books, articles or blog posts.

8. Build up teacher leaders. Those teachers that got so excited about what they were reading and started applying it in their classroom? They have potential to be leaders in your building. Feed that hunger they have for growing as literacy experts. Let them lead a staff book study or present at a staff meeting/PD day. Cover another teacher’s class so they can observe in their classroom and learn from each other.

9. Encourage teachers to share book recommendations with each other. I love Allen’s examples in the book of having a place in the staff lounge for a teacher book swap (for personal reading) and a bulletin board for teachers to post read-aloud ideas for one another.

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Found on p. 13 of Becoming a Literacy Leader.

10. Make reading a fun part of your school culture. Support classrooms to have great places to read (not confined to a desk…you don’t do that at home when you’re enjoying a good book!) 8

Do crazy things to show that reading can be fun. During a Scholastic principals challenge, I read up high all day so kids could see (and I got a lot of great reading done) to enter our school in a contest to win books. Several classes even joined me throughout the day be reading on the floor for a while so I wasn’t alone all day during class time.

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Every once in a while I make a special weather announcement to inform the school that there’s a reading blizzard on the way so they have to stay prepared with a book no matter where they are during the day, because when it hits they will need to take cover with a book.  Then at a random time of the day, I make the announcement that the blizzard is here and they need to stop what they’re doing to read for 10 minutes. (This also helps build the habit to always have a book with you!)

I’d love to hear what other visible ways principals lead the reading culture!

Mistakes are Part of the Journey

I am excited and simply terrified at the same time.  After seventeen years as a K/1 teacher, I am making the leap to full-time Literacy Specialist at a new school in the fall.  It is everything I could dream of in a job. After a brief stint as a part-time reading and writing coach in my previous school, I know how important it is to say and do the right things when working with other adults.  One wrong move seems to embed itself in everything you do from that point forward.

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This is why I dove into Becoming a Literacy Leader as quickly as I could get my hands on it.  I am determined NOT to make the same mistakes.  I have a fresh start, with a dream job and only one chance to make a great first impression.

One of the things I remember feeling most successful in my previous stint was pouring over a professional text with colleagues.  The idea of a common topic, sharing ideas and struggles and the feeling that we were circling our wagons to help each other was a positive force in our teaching lives.  We came together.  That is why I was so excited to dive into Chapter Four where Jen Allen takes on study groups. I feel so lucky in this second edition to not only get her guidance but her MOST updated guidance after years of growing the idea – we ALL know the benefits of trial and error.

Jen shares how important study groups can be in bridging theory and practice and how important it is to give teachers the time to think through something deeply.  As one teacher in the book was quoted as saying, “It saves students from the ‘learn as we go’ approach” (60).

When I look at the points that she makes in this chapter, I can’t help but reflect on my past experience and ways in which I will avoid what I know now as predictable problems.  Once again, the benefits of trial and error.

Ask the teachers what topics THEY want to explore.  Old me would have jumped in and picked the newest and greatest professional text I was excited about and sent an email saying, “Who’s in?”  New me will build relationships with my teachers first by finding out who they are as people first, then as educators, finally finding out what topics most interest them.  Only then will I help them find a professional text that fits.

Study groups should lift the quality of existing instruction.  Old me would have just jumped in and offered up the book getting the most buzz at the time.  New me is going to make sure that I am not asking teachers to take on “one more thing” but find a text to circle around that will enhance the goals we already have in place.

Be the party planner, not the honored guest. When a party is planned, you think of the guests. Old me would have made sure there were fun snacks, the book provided and maybe even a fun take away (which was also my instinct without realizing how important it was for community) which I will still do, but old me would have also become very uncomfortable in silence or lulls in conversation and took over with my own thoughts and ideas.  New me will not make the study group all about me.  I will give teachers “think time” and provide enough to keep the conversation but not take over.  I will be okay with silence.

Create a predictable structure.  Old me would have jumped in with my own set of questions and hoped for the best.  New me is going to hold onto the great structure that Jen provided in her book like a life raft in class V river rapids for a bit until I can figure out my own community of learners and figure out what works best for us.  It is called survival!  P.S. I loved having the video clips to watch the structure in action.  I WILL be subscribing to Lead Literacy this year!

I am determined that I will not look back on past mistakes as failures but as part of the journey that has led me to this new job opportunity.  I am excited for the year to come and all of the ways I will learn and grow.  Bring on study groups, I am ready!

Hosting Study-Groups for Teachers

“Thank you, Dana,” the fifth grade teacher said to me on the last day of our lunchtime study-group. “This has been really, really helpful.”

9780325043579.jpgWe had just finished our six-week long study-group centered around Christopher Lehman’s book Energize Research Reading and Writing. We had read, learned, talked and laughed our way through the book. The teachers were eagerly using the things we had read about in their classrooms already. By all accounts, our study-group was a success.

In Chapter 4 of the new edition of Becoming a Literacy Leader, Jennifer Allen explains how she uses study-groups to meet the professional learning needs of the teachers in her school district. Leading study groups has become one of my favorite parts of my job as an instructional coach since I get to be “hostess and party planner” (page 65) and participant.

Find a Core Resource

Of course, you will need a core resource to study. I usually choose a professional book that aligns with our district vision and curriculum, but you could also use videos or a collection of blog posts on a given topic as your core resource. On page 67 of her book, Jennifer Allen provides a sample of the study-group options she offered one school year. I really like the idea of offering a menu of possibilities for teachers at the beginning of the year. This would provide a lot of choice in topics and timing, so hopefully there would be something for everyone.

Determine a Predictable Structure

To me, this is the golden nugget in all of Jennifer Allen’s wisdom about facilitating study-groups for teachers. Find a predictable structure and stick with it. Just like the structure of a reading or writing workshop helps students learn, a predictable structure for your study-groups will help teachers learn. A predictable structure provides teachers the comfort of knowing what to expect each week, and it eases the planning process for you as well! The structure we used for our study-groups was:

  1. Discuss the real-life application of the day’s topic.
  2. Discuss text.
  3. Try it out!

This format worked really well for Energize Research Reading and Writing. For example, the day we studied Chapter Three on note-taking, our agenda looked like this:

  1. Discuss real-life application. (5 minutes)
    Are you a note-taker when you read? Why do we take notes?
  2. Discuss text. (15 minutes)
    The author presents four possible lessons for teaching your students to take notes. What were your reactions to these lessons?
  3. Try it out! (20 minutes)
    Try lesson titled, “Even Kindergarteners Are Taught, ‘Find the Main Idea'”.

This format allowed us to both discuss the text and give it a go ourselves each week. This format also provided an easy planning template for me. I would formulate two questions or prompts to guide our discussions, and then prepare the materials for the “Try It Out!” portion. Planning for a fifty-minute study group usually took me about twenty minutes.

In Chapter 4 of her book, Jennifer Allen describes the predictable structure she uses:

  • Discussion/Sharing
  • Video Clip
  • Reading Excerpt
  • Toolbox
  • Putting Ideas into Practice
  • Follow-Up Between Sessions

I appreciate that she provides a bit of time for teachers to dig into the reading a bit during the study-group. We always did all of our reading outside of school, and I did my best to send reminders ahead of time. Decide on a structure that fits you and your teachers, and use it consistently.

Facilitating study-groups is one of my favorite parts of my job as an instructional coach. The feedback I receive each time is overwhelmingly positive, and there is never a shortage of teachers signed up to attend. I recommend finding time in your schedule for at least one each quarter/trimester. Like Jennifer Allen wrote, study-groups are a “worthy investment.”

Struggling Mathers

This past year was my 26th in this business. I spent 11 of those as a middle school language arts and social studies teacher. I spent 5 years as an instructional coach. I taught alternative ed and GED for 2.5 years. All of my working life I’d been concerned with the input side of literacy – reading.  This year, I am teaching high school math.

I am a complete newbie at teaching high school Algebra. And I feel like it. I spend long hours poring over content trying to understand the most sensible route to making this abstract subject comprehensible and engaging for my freshmen. They were placed with me at the beginning of the second semester this past year to repeat semester 1 because they had failed it. I am certainly no expert and lean on my new peers in the math department for help.

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This is one reason why I am thankful to be reading Jennifer Allen’s book, Becoming A Literacy Leader. Specifically, she opens with her call to creating a climate where “creating ongoing opportunities for shared experiences and conversations among staff” is the way forward in navigating the myriad demands we face as teachers.

One of the most striking parts of my experience has been a fresh set of unbiased eyes on a traditional subject. All my years of literacy instruction have given me a different perspective on this whole math thing. I watch students “get it” when I sit with them one-on-one and we read a word problem out loud together. They start to make sense when I ask them a few good questions to help them reflect and verbalize what they know from the problem. As much as I leaned on my team, I believe I brought perspective to our conversations. 

It’s like “good” readers vs. struggling readers. You know. All those things we know those good readers are doing in their heads, like, predicting, connecting the text to things they know, making a movie of the action in their mind, reading for a specific purpose, scanning, skimming, re-reading… the list could go on. I am finding that struggling mathers are not doing the things that “good” mathers are doing.

That the difference between them often lies not in some innate ability, but a collection of habits that they don’t have yet and are not employing to help themselves. I find myself often modeling my thinking out loud for them. They apply few of the Standards For Mathematical Practice (which I am only just getting to now, as you can imagine).

This is only one example of how I am “seeing” and wrestling with literacy in math.

Just as Ms. Allen notes in chapter 2, as “learning to read should be a joyful experience,” so should learning to math. My attempt this summer while reading Jennifer’s book is to find parallels to help foster and lead in literacy in the math world. I know I have tons of math resources available to me – I’ve spent a lot of time reading them these past few months – but I want to specifically think about my context, my assignment, my kids and how I can help them navigate math help and instructional resources. I think Ms. Allen’s book is the perfect platform for developing the questions I want to ask in order to explore this further.

 

To Know Your Writers, Be a Writer

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What does it mean to be a writer?

It means the words that come flowing out of your pen are driven by your heart.

It means that you have a message, a story that matters.

It means that you value communication and though it may be seemingly a one-way street when you publish, you yearn for that communication as a result of your writing.

You value ideas, because isn’t all writing about ideas?

You struggle.

You think.

You pause.

You write.

You question.

You revise.

You push that publish button and your heart beats a little faster as you’ve given a little of your heart to the world.

You hope that they understand and value your message, your story.

How do I know this?  Because I write.

In chapter three of Jennifer Allen’s book, Becoming a Literacy Leader, she talks about that moment that all literacy leaders worry they will find themselves in…the moment when you are standing in front of your colleagues, wanting to lead them to all that they are capable of, but your presentation is met with silence, lack of engagement, and withdrawal.  I know this feeling.  I’ve been there.

I love the rawness of this confession by Jennifer and I love her push to not give up after months of trying to move writing instruction forward in her building.  She did not give up.  She discovered the secret.

You become a better writing teacher by writing. She had not been asking her teachers to write.

After months of seemingly failed attempts at changing writing instruction, Jennifer began to ask her staff to write, write stories that meant something to them.  They then used the stories to practice revision practices.  It was after that moment that the staff began to talk about writing in the hallways. They began to share their stories. The staff began to implement those revision strategies in the classroom.  It was after that, that student writing began to change.

To be a teacher of writing and really know it, you have to write.  

You have to know the heart that goes into it, the struggle, the thinking, the questioning, the courage that it takes to communicate a message that matters.  This is what we ask our kids to do.  It goes way beyond teaching an engaging introduction or having effective transitions.  Those are the standards, not the writer. Not the heart of the writer.  Not the courage of the writer.

To be an effective teacher of writing, you have to know the writer.  Be the writer.

When professional learning isn’t your choice…

As teachers, we have all had times when we have been asked to participate in mandated professional learning. Before you read on, think about the last time you found yourself in this situation. How did you feel about being there? What elements worked for you and what rubbed you the wrong way?

For me, this type of learning reminds me of what our students must feel each day. I admit that I myself have not always been a huge fan of mandated professional development. It is ironic that planning and delivering this type of learning is now a regular part of my current position. Knowing that the feelings around this type of PD are not always talked about in a positive light, I was intrigued to read Chapter 3: “A Model for Required Professional Development” in Jennifer Allen’s book Becoming a Literacy Leader. I was genuinely curious to find out what might Jennifer offer to help me become a better facilitator for required learning sessions.

Right away I loved Jennifer’s honesty as she shared her moments of success and frustration. Anyone who has organized and led professional learning has had those moments where you clearly know you have failed. Jennifer begins with sharing some very challenging years that were not working for her. Paying attention to our mistakes and learning from them is important for all of us, regardless of our teaching context.

I began to think about my biggest fails from this past year. What did I learn? Probably the most important lesson I learned this year was to invest the time to learn the culture of the group. Not all groups work the same way and not all leaders want you to work with their staff in the same way. Asking questions and ensuring expectations are clear, helps things go more smoothly. Many times I am asked to introduce ideas and information that may challenge entrenched ways of thinking and working within schools. Another lesson I learned is to name this dissonance right at the beginning and open up space to disagree, in agreeable ways. My biggest learning continues to come from reflecting about the bumps in the road and what I could do differently next time.

In Chapter 3, Jennifer introduces us to three key ingredients she believes are essential when designing an agenda for mandatory professional development:

  • making meaning of content together
  • individualizing the learning
  • bridging theory and practice.

I loved her example of “My Life in Seven Stories”, but equally was a fan that she left room for me to contextualize these ideas and make them my own. When I thought about the three ingredients for professional development, I was able to immediately connect my own personal experiences with her framing.

Thinking about how groups can make meaning of new content together, I  realized how important good questions are for learning. Thinking in questions helps organize the main ideas and guide professional development but also leaves room for the learners to influence the direction and thus the learning. Framing professional learning through a series of questions signals to the participants that they will be actively making meaning together. Knowledge Building Circles are a great way to dig deep into important questions and make meaning of content together.

The second ingredient Jennifer suggests is to design professional learning so people can individualize the learning. This can be tough with very large groups but by providing choice within the session, we can increase autonomy and engagement. Choice can be as simple as offering a collection of articles to choose from, a variety of tools to use, or even providing the opportunity for groups to make micro-decisions about how to structure a block of time. Jennifer’s suggestion to take what you learn and apply it yourself (p.54), reminded me that we want our learners to be actively engaged in doing the learning and not just hearing about the learning. If your session is about reading, ask your participants to read. Taking off the teacher hat and putting on the learner cap is important for internalizing and personalizing learning.

The third ingredient was a recent epiphany for me. I used to wonder why we even needed theory. Just tell me what to do! Now I understand that theory helps us understand the ‘why’ behind our choices. Jennifer suggests that the bridge between theory and practice can happen by giving teachers time to play with the strategies in the classroom (p. 54). I think an important part of this ingredient is also to scaffold teachers to be able to name and understand what theory might look like in their classrooms before they leave the professional development session. Embedded planning time to bridge theory and practice during professional development has become a regular fixture in my planning. A handy protocol for this is ‘Connect. Extend. Try’. At the end of PD sessions, I ask participants to think about how the new learning connects with what they already know, what extends or challenges their thinking, and what is one new thing they will commit to trying.

Having only finished Chapter 3 of this book, I am excited to continue reading to discover more practical and inspirational ideas about leading literacy. I know I will for sure be stealing Jennifer’s “My Life in Seven Stories” to use at some point with teacher writing groups this year!

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Please consider adding your ideas about key ingredients or some ‘tried and true’ ideas for professional learning in the comments. I’d also like to invite you to join our reading community as we read and discuss Becoming a Literacy Leader together.

Thanks for reading,

Heather

Designing Intentional Spaces

I’m a new reading specialist coming from a background in music education. I taught K-8 music for nine years before I chose to make the transition to literacy. I jumped on the chance to read Becoming a Literacy Leader, to learn from Jennifer Allen’s journey. The program I went through was fantastic, but there’s nothing like experience and learning from others’ experiences to really teach the nitty gritty stuff.

My current position was vacant for just shy of a year before I started. Students weren’t receiving reading intervention services, and classroom teachers weren’t getting literacy support. If I look at the silver lining of the situation, I have a lot of autonomy in what I do. Since nobody was in the position, it wasn’t all that established what it should look like. I kind of get to write my own job description! That said, I am looking forward to utilizing my classroom space and the time in my schedule in a smart way to support students and teachers.

One of my favorite parts of being a teacher is getting my space ready for the new school year. New storage! Coordinated supplies! How many times have I succumbed to the dollar bins at Target and came home with 5 or 6 cute little buckets, or a seasonally-themed storage container having no idea what would become of it once I got it into my classroom?

So, despite having studied interior design for two years, reflecting on Chapter 2 was kind of like a lightbulb moment for me. Of course, I should think about the room’s purpose first. Isn’t that what all my beloved design books and websites tell me, too?

I love the reading room as a resource for classroom teachers – somewhere they can come to get ideas or to chat about literacy stuff while also being an inviting space for students to receive intervention services. One of my core beliefs in education is that for anyone to learn, there has to be a sense of comfort and trust. The physical space reflects that – do children and adults feel comfortable coming into the room? It is inviting and warm? I think of how I feel when I walk into an unfamiliar place – if the space is inviting, I can relax and better take in what I need to, whether it’s in a doctor’s office or a gym. My room is small, but I think with some ingenuity and strategic planning, I’ll be able to make it work.

What are the best parts of your classroom? What designs have worked well for you? I look forward to getting some great ideas!

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