Examining Our Beliefs About Literacy: Small Steps, Big Wins

During our school’s last professional learning community (PLC) experience, the entire faculty came together to examine our beliefs about literacy. Beliefs about teaching and learning are formed over time, through prior education, collaboration with colleagues, and classroom experience. Through structured conversations in vertical teams and watching professionals in the classroom via video, we found three areas in which we can all agree upon as best practice in literacy:

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.

This may not seem like a big deal, at least at first glance. For example, shared writing, an instructional strategy in which a teacher leads their class to develop a story or report together, makes sense for teaching phonics and grammar in context. Using personal writing as a text for independent reading is authentic, and it honors students as authors. Yet this might seem counter to some of the instruction that pervades schools. Many of our programs and kits silo the various parts of language arts in an effort to ensure standards are being met. 

We sometimes wrap our practices around resources, both digital and print, without first examining our beliefs. As we use these resources “with fidelity”, our beliefs are formed by our practices, which were informed by the resources. (See Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success by Regie Routman for more information.) Our identities as educators are intertwined with our work, which is made public daily in our classrooms. This is what makes it so difficult to change. It is also a reason why companies continue to produce resources that often promote antiquated practices. The bottom line is sales. We buy the resources because we know them. It helps to remember that these companies are not educational organizations; they are businesses. 

The hardest part about change is not the lack of knowing what to do. We have multiple sets of data to support the need for building our collective knowledge regarding how reading supports writing and vice-versa. No one disagrees that this is an area where our school can improve as a faculty. We are not doing poorly; we simply know we can improve. The hardest part about change is in revisiting current beliefs about literacy and adopting new ones as a faculty.

Our school will continue this work in building our collective professional knowledge about effective literacy instruction. The three beliefs we unanimously agreed upon are a big step in the right direction. We will revisit them at this time next year. It should not be understated that we were able to come together as a team and find consensus on key issues in literacy instruction. These beliefs are now expected to be evident in our teaching and learning, regardless of what a program or resource might expect. I am looking forward to observing how our new beliefs will inform our future practices. 

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Reading Spaces by Heather McKay (@HeatherMMcKay)

The other morning my five-year-old opened his eyes and his first words of the day were, “I loved reading books with you and daddy last night mama”. His words filled my parent and teaching heart to the brim. Words fuel me in all forms – long books, short stories, poems that make me gasp or laugh, and blogs that challenge what I thought I knew.  The greatest joy in reading for me is discovering another reader, online or in person, who feels the same way.

When I’m reading I fall into a private space, but when it’s a really good read, I immediately search for a social space where I can talk with someone else about what I’m reading. As a teacher, this lived in my classroom and hallway conversations and now as a literacy specialist, it lives in my work across schools with administrators and teachers. Regie Routman challenges us, “as conscientious educators to instill a love of reading in our students and to do whatever it takes to turn them into readers” (2014, p. 117). For my first post, I wanted to talk about what we do to intentionally create a joyful reading culture.

Through talking about texts that move us, disrupt us, and transform us, we share who we are and lay our reading identities bare. We express our reading identities through what we read, where we read, when we read, and how we talk about reading (Buehl, 2011, p.1). There are friends I can share research articles with, friends who love picture books as much as I do, and friends who mirror back their love of reading with late night texts demanding, “You just HAVE to read this book!”. As I move among schools working with staff in support of literacy, I get the unbelievable opportunity to share and grow reading identities with both students and staff.

I believe administrators and teachers play an important part of a creating a larger reading landscape in students’ lives. In my work developing and supporting our K-12 literacy strategy, I’ve noticed there are some strategic ways administrators and teachers are building a school-wide reading culture. When we intentionally create reading spaces, readers are born and thrive.

The following are three ways to approach building a school-wide culture of reading that caught my attention recently:

Administrators and teachers sharing their own reading lives

It could be a bookshelf that draws your eyes in your Principal’s office, a teacher sharing a professional read or picture book at a staff meeting, or an Assistant Principal popping in for an impromptu read aloud in a classroom. When administrators make time to share their reading joy, others will follow and the joy of reading grows. 

Students inviting others into their reading lives

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It might be a single bookshelf that students adopt for a week in the learning commons or digital book talks accessed through hallway QR codes. When students have the space to talk about their personal reading, they joyfully embrace it. Offering students dedicated ways to share the texts they enjoy builds their autonomy and engagement and acknowledges the social nature of literacy itself.

Administrators, teachers, and students talking together about books

My husband’s school hosts an annual ‘Battle of the Books’ where teams of readers choose a collection to read and battle over. Many teachers in our board used the hype of March Madness to bring a themed ‘Battle of the Books’ to their classrooms. Literacy experiences such as these bring adults and children together into a shared reading space. Apprenticing students into how we read and how we talk about books provides the gradual release and feelings of joy required to become lifelong readers.

We must intentionally design spaces for students to come to know themselves and others as readers and participate in a joyful literacy community. It is not enough to teach students to read, we must open the door to all of the joys and opportunities of citizenship that reading acts as the gateway for.

What would you add? How do you build a reading culture in your life, your classroom, or in and between schools? Let’s share ideas as fellow readers and build spaces for readers to find their books, their community, and themselves.

References

Buehl, D. (2011). Developing Readers in the Academic Disciplines. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Routman, R. (2014). Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough strategies for schoolwide literacy success. Alexandria, VA: ASCD

This is the first of hopefully many posts from another contributor to this collaborative blog. If you have a passion for literacy and leadership and would like to share your thinking within our space and with our audience, click here for information. 

Bring an Author to Your School

One of the best ways to increase enthusiasm for reading and writing in your school is by bringing an author on-site. It is mutually beneficial: the author receives support and awareness for their book(s); the students get a glimpse into the mind of a professional writer. I’ve been involved in several author visits at my schools and I have never been disappointed.

Next are three ways you can facilitate an author visit.

  • Skype an author

This is the most cost-effective way to bring an author into your school. Some authors will participate in video-based conversations for free, although I think it is great if you can pay them for their time. Title I funds would certainly support this. Skype chats with authors work well for individual classrooms or grade levels who might want to chat with an author in which they did a study of their books. It might also work as an entry event into a genre study in which the author’s work would apply.

Below is a short video of a Skype chat my son’s 1st-grade class had with Johnathan Rand, author of the Freddy Fernortner: Fearless 1st Grader series.

After this Skype chat with the author, the students were excited to read Rand’s early reader series. One student who was in Reading Recovery was so motivated after this event that she was able to decode and comprehend these chapter books while reading independently.

  • Partner with another organization

If costs are an issue and your school really wants to bring an author on-site, consider partnering with another local organization to help make this happen. Public libraries would be a logical connection. If the author has publications for both adults and kids, this can help the cause.

At my last school, we partnered with our local library in bringing Michael Perry to our building. Typically known for his memoirs and humorous writing, Perry had recently published his first book for older students, The Scavengers. After his talk at the local library the previous night for a citywide read of Population: 485, we brought the author over to our school for an hour-long chat with our 4th and 5th graders about his new series.

 

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Michael Perry speaking at our public library

 

While I was able to attend his appearance at the public library, I wasn’t able to make it to his school visit. From what the teachers told me, the kids really enjoyed his presentation.

  • Invite an author to your school

This is the preferred approach, as you get full access to the author for at least a day. The author can read aloud his/her book to the students, lead workshops on the writing process, and share personal experiences that led them to want to become an author in the first place. Prior to the visit, I have found it wise to discuss with the author what the day will look for everyone and how to make the best use of everyone’s time. For example, it is smart to consider the attention spans of younger vs. older students when scheduling classroom visits. Also, it is great to have copies of the author’s text in every classroom. In addition, I like to promote these visits to neighboring schools. If another school also wants the author to visit, it might help defray the costs of lodging and travel.

 

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Lisl visited my last school and my current school.

Our students, especially the young ones, may not truly understand where literature comes from until they meet an author in real life. The stories they tell, the experiences they share, and their simple presence in a school should be regular occurrences in every school. As a principal, I’ve personally witnessed the benefits of author visits in our students’ literacy lives.

 

 

Some of My Fondest Memories of High School were Read-Alouds

You could hear a pin drop in my classroom when I read aloud. It is their favorite time of the day. They beg me to read aloud to them.

-What a teacher recently shared with me

 

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I still remember when I got hooked on reading. My 3rd-grade teacher started reading aloud Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. The humor and plot hit home for me, also being an older brother like Peter, the main character. After hearing that book read aloud, I became a voracious reader. I now associated reading with both pleasure and with learning more about myself (“Would I have reacted to my younger brother like Peter did to Fudge?”). Bill Wallace and Roald Dahl were favorite authors, along with comics such as Calvin & Hobbes and Garfield.

As I progressed through the middle grades, I remained an avid reader in spite of the fact that my teachers did not read aloud to us. This is before the advent of smartphones, television-on-demand, and ubiquitous wireless. Reading was the only game in town. However, as I became more involved in high school, books started to become less important. Sports and other extracurriculars monopolized my time. I didn’t complain. It was great to be involved in the many opportunities. But my reading life suffered.

That’s why I am thankful that a high school teacher took the time to read aloud to us. He taught English and wasn’t shy about bucking the current thinking that reading aloud to secondary students was a waste of time. Read-aloud was leveraged as a tool both for instruction and for engagement. To be fair, what we participated in would be termed “shared read aloud”. We all had copies of the text and were expected to read at least some of it independently during class and at home. Here are a few snippets of what I remember from his classroom.

  • While reading aloud Lord of the Flies by William Golding, our teacher would reread dialogue out loud that gave clues to the personalities of each character.
  • While reading aloud Flower for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, the teacher asked provocative questions about the nature of science and perceived benefits.

As much as the lesson objective, I recall the very act of being read aloud to in the classroom. Getting to hear the cadence and prosody of an expert reader was an invaluable model for secondary students like myself who still hadn’t yet mastered the art of reading. The joy in literature was evident as our teacher read aloud to us. I cannot recall one peer stating that this type of activity was a waste of time or boring.

Through our community-based literacy experience mediated through read-aloud, I had rediscovered the importance of reading. I was more likely to pick up a book to read for pleasure, or even force myself to read a required text in another classroom and not defer to the Cliff Notes or the movie (if applicable). The typical life of a high schooler still held my focus. Yet my interest in reading was renewed. I once again viewed literature as a lifelong activity instead of another subject to be completed in school.

 

 

Literacy, Personalized

Lately, I have been exploring personalized learning as an approach to meeting all students’ needs. Personalized learning “places the interests and abilities of learners at the center of their education experience. In personalized learning, educators develop environments in which students and teachers together build plans for learners to achieve both interest-based and standards-based goals” (Halverson et al, 2015). What I am finding is there is no “gold standard” for this approach. Maybe the concept is too big. Maybe personalized learning is too new. Maybe I haven’t studied it enough!

IMG_1789Because I have a focus on literacy and leadership, I thought about what personalized learning might resemble in a reading and writing classroom, specifically. How is it different from what we might expect from a more traditional classroom? Below are the elements of personalized learning as outlined by Allison Zmuda, co-author of Learning Personalized: The Evolution of a Contemporary Classroom (Jossey-Bass, 2015): Time & Space; Assignments; Curriculum; Reporting; Feedback; Roles. Next are a smattering of ideas on how personalized learning might apply to the literacy block. If you have more suggestions, share them in the comments.

Time & Space

  • Ensure that enough time is provided daily for authentic literacy experiences, especially independent reading and writing on topics of students’ choice.
  • Provide more modern furniture for students to engage in reading and writing. For models, check out a local library or an independent bookstore.
  • Create natural locations in the classroom for students to share what they are reading and writing. Small tables and mounted counters with stools could work.
  • Audit the instructional day to find more time to read and write, and jettison anything that is not at the same level of effectiveness.
  • Position book shelves and writing materials so they invite students into reading and writing in authentic contexts, i.e. journaling, blogging, book reviews.

Assignments

  • Replace book reports with book reviews. Use digital tools such as Biblionasium for students to post book reviews for peers.
  • Replace book logs with personal journals. Provide open-ended notebooks for students to write about what they are reading so they can share their thinking with peers the next school day (or keep their thoughts to themselves).
  • Cancel the school’s annual subscription to Accelerated Reader. There is no independently-conducted research that shows Accelerated Reader is an effective literacy program. See the What Works Clearinghouse report for more information.
  • Reduce reading projects to the bare minimum with regard to how students are expected to respond to their reading.
  • Implement book talks to replace some of the assessments previously questioned. We can gain more information about a student’s understanding of a text through them sharing what they are reading verbally than from inauthentic assignments.

Curriculum

  • Integrate reading, writing, speaking, and listening into all other curriculum renewal activities. Performance tasks are especially good opportunities to incorporate literacy.
  • Make a list of and provide relevant authentic texts that capture the time period of a point in history.
  • Curate a list of biographies about famous scientists that students might want to research for a written report.
  • Craft big questions that lead students to pursue knowledge online, which will provide opportunities to critically read web-based resources.
  • Incorporate writing into formative assessment points, such as constructed responses and personal reflections.

Reporting

  • Develop rubrics for writing genres with students, after a lot of immersion into authentic texts of the genre to be learned.
  • Teach students how to self-assess writing at every stage of the process.
  • Facilitate monitoring of reading goals through journaling, blogging, and published book reviews.
  • Replace grades for reading and writing with frequent qualitative feedback.
  • Utilize digital assessment tools such as FreshGrade to share student learning results in literacy with family members and colleagues.

Feedback

  • Utilize online writing tools such as Google Docs to facilitate feedback between classmates.
  • Partner with other classrooms locally and/or globally to facilitate feedback between students.
  • Provide anchor papers of past work for students to reference when striving to improve their writing.
  • Meet with students regularly during independent reading and writing to affirm strengths and offer strategies for improvement.
  • Teach students to end a draft of writing with questions they have about parts they are unsure about to guide feedback from the teacher or peers.

Roles

  • Assign one student to be the class notetaker during a demonstration lesson for a reading or writing strategy.
  • Rotate the role of classroom researcher to students. When questions come up during the literacy block, this student is tasked with finding an answer.
  • Set up a website (Google Sites, Weebly) where students can publish their finished pieces of writing as authors.
  • Designate one or more students to write a weekly newsletter, highlighting the happenings in the classroom. Share this out digitally and on paper with families.
  • Put students in charge of the classroom library, after lots of modeling on how to organize the titles and display the covers.

As I completed this list, I realized that a lot of these literacy activities are what typically happens in the best classrooms for reading and writing. Is it reasonable to think that personalized learning naturally happens in an authentic literacy environment?

Homework: Helpful, Harmful, or Otherwise?

As I write this, I am out on our back patio. My kids are in the neighbor’s backyard, flying a kite with friends. They had recently recovered the kite from a tree. This time around, they are staying away from the natural hazard. I don’t know how they got the kite down previously; they had figured it out before I was called to the rescue.

Imagine, instead, if I had made my kids stay in after school to finish their homework.

Four years ago, I shared my attempt at revising our homework policy at my former school. It was more policy than practice – we briefly discussed it, then moved on to something related to literacy, I’m sure. Looking back, it was a topical change at best. My suggestions were within the paradigm that homework was still necessary. We never really delved into the idea of homework as a concept that may be outdated.

I’m torn. Some of the work students bring home can make for an interesting study. For example, my son was recently assigned a family heritage project. He had to locate an item that is a part of our family’s history and culture, learn about its significance through interviewing family members, and then communicate his new knowledge through speaking. Storytelling is a skill they have been working on for a while.

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My daughter has elected to bring home learning. She is participating in Genius Hour in her classroom. This primary class refers to these inquiry-based learning activities as “Wonder Projects”. My wife and I are often recruited to support her most current questions, whether that be taking pictures of her next to enclosed animals (“What animals most often live in a zoo and why?”) or setting up a mini-art studio in our dining room (“What are some famous artists and their artwork?”).

These examples are, by definition, homework. One was assigned, one wasn’t. Both facilitated a unique learning experience in our home. This seems to fly in the face of research, such as John Hattie’s meta-analysis that homework has a negligible effect in elementary school and a significant one at the secondary. To be fair, homework that I just described is rare. The typical fare is worksheetsreading logs, and studying spelling words for Friday’s test. One can understand with these examples why schools are starting to outright ban homework.

These absolute policies also result in absolute thinking.  My post here is not to admonish or advocate for homework. Rather, let’s bring some common sense into the conversation. An instructional coach, Dana Murphy, came up with a novel way for teachers to think before they assign homework.

In other words, if we are assigning homework, is it more important than opportunities for kids to play, read, or spend time with families? If the answer is “no”, then how can we rethink our instructional approach for the 6-8 hours that we do have students in our classrooms?

Gotta go. The kids are burying each other in landscape pebbles.

Writers Must Read – Wisconsin Writes

This post is to highlight a video series from Marci Glaus for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. The series is titled “Wisconsin Writes“. From the DPI website:

Wisconsin Writes provides a glimpse into example writing processes of Wisconsin writers from a variety of contexts. Each video story featured captures the recursive, complex, often messy process that we call writing from some of the best writers in the state.

In this video, titled “Writers Must Read”, local writers share why it is so important to be a reader if one wants to write well. I thought the video had a great message and unique insights for students and teachers.


I’m currently looking for writers myself: literacy leaders from a variety of positions willing to share their stories and expertise on this blog. If interested or would like more information about participating in this collaborative experience, fill out the form below.