This is a follow up to a previous post about our school’s collective efforts to increase student engagement in reading, especially in their dispositions around talking about and sharing their reading lives.
“Hey, I have a quote for you.” A second grader had stopped me in the hallway to let me know about his discovery. He comes from the same class in which another student gave me a new metallic marker for our schoolwide reading graffiti board. I asked him to share it with me. We weren’t sure of the source (he discovered it at home among his mother’s collection of clipped quotes), so we searched for it online.
As I mentioned in my previous post, it was the students’ turn to have the proverbial pencil in hand. I encouraged him to use second grade handwriting, but his spelling had to be perfect. He didn’t disappoint. Later during morning announcements, I recognized this student for his contribution and encouraged others to participate in this project.
I’ve read that the best place to start a story is in the middle. However, our school’s narrative has some background worth sharing. Doesn’t every school?
For the past five years, our K-5 elementary school has focused on the relationship between reading and writing. The first three years we delved into the professional development program Regie Routman in Residence: Reading-Writing Connection. Faculty received learning binders. We watched videos of Regie in action, modeling for students during one of her residencies the process of writing and how what we read influences this craft. Our students’ work, collaboratively assessed through grade level and vertical teams, has shown great gains.
After finishing the Reading-Writing Connection, faculty wanted to try a different approach to writing. Specifically, they felt that students needed more structure. One teacher had experience with The Write Tools. For two years, we received training in how to teach a variety of text features as readers and writers, such as topic sentences, supporting details, and transitions. The Common Core State Standards were a primary focus.
Structure and Style
Our students’ work followed suit. Kids as young as six years old can now write a fully formed paragraph. Other elementary buildings that visit us (we are a lab school through the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction) comment frequently on the quantity of words per page students produce. Staff members who have spouses teaching in other schools sometimes mention that the student writing produced is comparable with secondary level work. We’ve seen many benefits to this more direct approach to literacy.
But with this structure, we’ve lost some of the style. Kids could clearly write a paragraph, but was the paragraph worth reading? Voice was down while conventions increased. This became clear during our mid-year formative writing assessment check last year, especially during our debriefing about the strengths and weaknesses of our students’ work.
Even our narrative writing, which should be a strength with our younger students’ vivid imaginations and humor, was suffering from staleness and a lack of personal engagement. One of our teachers summed it up well: “I miss the kids’ stories.”
Our debriefing was a powerful wake up call. It wasn’t anything against The Write Tools. Our trainer did a wonderful job. I think it had more to do with our (see: my) approach to benchmarking our students’ writing against the Common Core State Standards. We had standardized our expectations and, subsequently, our instruction. Maybe this works for other disciplines. Reading and writing are not other disciplines. Literacy is as much an affective endeavor as a cognitive one. As Regie Routman has stated in her presentations and writings, “We have to engage our students’ hearts and minds.”
Our collaborative self-assessment led me to investigate other data points. What was discovered corroborated with what we suspected:
- Engagement in the classroom was scored lower than other areas of instruction within the Danielson Framework for Teaching, our professional evaluation tool. This was found in both teachers’ self-ratings and in my own observations.
- According to a reading profile survey administered this fall, students had less positive attitudes about talking and sharing about their reading lives in class, compared to the value they place on reading and how they view themselves as readers.
- In my regular instructional walks, group discussion and higher order questioning (which leads to authentic student conversations) was not observed as frequently as other tenets of literacy engagement, such as choice, authenticity, and feedback.
Triangulating this data with staff, it was apparent that we needed a different approach to professional development for the 2015-2016 school year. This is why we have come back to the Regie Routman in Residence program, this time focused on Writing for Audience and Purpose. We will continue to examine and own those beliefs where we find common ground.
Starting Where We Began
I often hear education described as a pendulum. We go from this end of the initiative spectrum to that one.
This metaphor isn’t working for me. My biggest concern is the connotation that schools are helpless in the face of outside factors. We blame the Common Core, the government, or accountability to the public. But schools can have more control over their destiny than maybe realized.
My preferred metaphor to describe our school’s professional learning community is a journey. We’ve embarked on a path toward a love for learning that is guided by our shared beliefs about literacy. True learning is circuitous and hard to predict where it will lead. Teams’ professional learning journeys were honored this fall, as they illustrated their own pathways toward excellence.
Our organization may venture this way and that, but as long as we keep our focus on our North Star – authentic and meaningful literacy experiences – our students will become successful readers and writers.