It’s All About Relationships

“Culture exists whether we are intentional about creating it or not, but it’s a positive culture that is essential to making the necessary changes within our school.” -Jay Billy  #TLAP

“People ask me all the time-’What’s the next big thing coming in education? This is what I tell them.  Relationships relationships relationships relationships relationships relationships relationships-those never go out of style!”  -Adam Welcome #KidsDeserveIt

“The best teachers know that it comes down to this one thing- relationships.” -Michele Hill

Recently on social media, I’ve noticed some buzz about “Relationships” in education. Even if you aren’t on social media, you’d have to live under a rock to not understand that relationships are the bedrock of any organization.  Schools included. Unfortunately, building and maintaining positive relationships is a lot easier said than done. Changes in staff, administration, and transient students make sustaining positive relationships a daunting challenge.  I know this from personal experience. Throughout my 21 years of teaching, I have seen both positive and negative shifts in the culture based on healthy vs. unhealthy relationships in the building. And it DOES affect the culture of the school. Regie states, “Trusting relationships are necessary for students and teachers to engage in serious learning and for all learners in a school to flourish.” (9)  This…   This is truth.

But rather than just “talk” about the importance of relationships, Regie offers scaffolding to create healthy and positive relationships.  She says, “When we feel personally and professionally valued, we are apt to be happier, more productive, and more likely to take risks as teachers and learners.” (10)  Do teachers actually perform better when they feel valued by their administration? My response… Absolutely-100%. It honestly makes all the difference. There isn’t a doubt in my mind.  Regie then goes on in her Take Action section to offer those scaffolding pieces:

  • Get to know students, teachers, and community members, and greet them by name.
  • Express appreciation specifically and often.
  • Remember colleagues birthdays’, special occasions, and individual accomplishments.
  • Invite all staff members to attend professional development meetings.
  • Publicly acknowledge a colleague’s achievement in a staff meeting.
  • Provide families with a welcoming school culture.
  • Treat secretaries, office staff, volunteers, and custodians as valued players in a schools success.
  • Perform acts of kindness each day.

All of the bullet points are important steps to consider when building relationships, but two stick out for me.  When I think about the first bullet point, “Get to know students, teachers, and community members and greet them by name,”  I’m reminded of a time when a new staff member was publicly introducing students at an induction ceremony. She hadn’t had the opportunity to learn each student’s last name and I remember being embarrassed for her, and also ashamed of not having had the forward thinking to have prepared her in advance on how to pronounce the names of those students.  It may seem insignificant to us, but it isn’t for the kids. They remember things like that.

When I was a child, I frequented horse shows quite a bit. Inevitably, when I was on deck to enter the arena, my name was always pronounced “Ryan”. It infuriated me, not only because I was a girl, not a boy, but because I couldn’t understand why it was so difficult for the announcer to read and pronounce my name, “Ryanne”.   Names are important, and greeting fellow staff, students, and parents by name go a long way in building relationships and letting others know we value them enough to call them by the correct name.

The other; “Treat secretaries, office staff, volunteers, and custodians as valued players in a school success,” really resonates with me.  Each and every member of the school is a contributing member, whether or not the school is a success or a failure. The playing field should be level, with everyone pulling their weight and working together for the betterment of the students we serve.  It’s difficult when even one person on the team doesn’t value this mindset. “Everything meaningful that happens in a classroom, a school, and a district depends on a bedrock foundation of mutual respect, trust, collaboration, fairness, and physical and emotional safety.” (9)  It involves ALL stakeholders in the district.

I believe we can all be leaders in the ongoing quest to instill positive, healthy relationships in our schools. It isn’t just the responsibility of the administration. Each and every stakeholder has the choice every day to choose kindness and build one another up instead of down.  Yes, some days are harder than others, and often I too miss the mark, succumbing to negativity and gossip, rather than shining the light. Becoming more consciously aware of my responses to others, and more intentional about seeking out positives, especially with fellow staff members is my inherent responsibility and one that I aim to get more resilient at.

Check out all of the posts from this book study by going to the Literacy Essentials webpage. There, you can select different articles to read and respond to and continue the conversation in the comments. In addition, consider joining our new Google+ Community to extend these discussions and connect with other literacy leaders.

Making the Connection: Reading & Writing Belong Together

One blog post is simply not enough to encompass all that the reading-writing connection entails.  I have merely segmented out a small snippet from this chapter to highlight my thinking and reflections, but there is so much more…

Reading and writing should go hand in hand. Like peanut butter and jelly, each able to stand alone, yet so much better when layered together.  Unfortunately, for many of us in the education business, the two are treated as separate entities and often each has its own curriculum. This poses a problem, not just for teachers who want to marry the two, but for our students as well.  When taught in isolation, there is very little chance of making those strong connections that bond reading and writing as soulmates.

Regie makes me even more cognizant about being proactive and intentional with my instruction based on her writing under the heading; Read Like a Writer.  “Because I write for readers, I deliberately notice what other authors do in terms of tone, voice, word choice, language play, all aspects of craft, setting, character development, how I’m affected as a reader, and so much more. So it’s been a surprise for me how little of that we share with our students. We read aloud; we may write in front of our students; we talk about books; but in my experience it’s rare for us  teachers to make the reading-writing connection visible. Our students do not automatically think, ‘I’m going to try out in my own writing what that author just did.’ We have to explicitly demonstrate that transfer for them and encourage them to take risks and try out new styles, crafts, and language.” (183)

For years I had done all those things Regie talks about; read alouds, writing in front of my students, talking about books, etc…but it wasn’t until the last couple of years when I was immersed in graduate school that I began to truly understand the reading-writing connection. The minute I started being explicit and intentional about noticing and noting things authors did in their stories, I saw similar things popping up in my students writing, and they were excited about sharing their writing with everyone!  It made them feel like “real” authors. So even though I had thought I was doing some pretty good modeling and teaching of reading and writing, I was unintentionally denying them the richer learning that comes when one understands the connection between the two. As soon as I made that connection more visible, my students were able to run with it and enhance their own writing.

Beyond just being deliberate, intentional, and making the reading-writing connection visible to students, Regie gives great suggestions and ideas in the “Take Action” sections of the chapter on Embracing the Reading-Writing Connection.  From simple things like including “Hip hop, song, rap, dance, film and other art forms that resonate with our children,”(172) to “Teaching students to read like writers” (185), we are supplied with a gamut of rich ideas to help our students make stronger connections between reading and writing.  It starts with truly knowing our students and their interests, offering choice in their reading and writing lives, and building from there.

Even though I had thought I was doing some pretty good modeling and teaching of reading and writing, I was unintentionally denying them the richer learning that comes when one understands the connection between the two. As soon as I made that connection more visible, my students were able to run with it and enhance their own writing.

Regie closes out this chapter with some profound words of advice for educators; “Unique and effective craft, style, and technique have to be inhaled and digested by an engaged reader who is immersed in one unforgettable reading experience after another.” (191)  AND “Exercises in a book on craft might help us teachers know what to look for, but only deep, pleasurable reading and noticing what writers do will provide the sustenance and specifics that lead students to read like a writer and expertly craft their writing.” (191)  

I just keep reading and rereading those two quotes, (well… basically everything in this book, but I’m focusing on those two at the moment)  trying to digest them and think of ways to shift the mindset away from teaching them separately. Regie talks about a safe place to start being the content areas of science and social studies.  And it does work nicely there. So maybe that’s where we begin, but we must do more. Teachers need to be experts at understanding the reading-writing connection so that they can impart that knowledge to their students and stop relying on scripted curriculums that teach each as a separate entity. We can do better than that.  Our students deserve better than that.

Agency in the Classroom

I’m pretty new to this whole blogging world. Honestly, I didn’t start blogging until the spring of 2017 and that was as a requirement for one of my graduate classes. I never turned on the “public” settings, so basically, only my professor and classmates had access to the words I put out there in my first attempts at blogging.  I’m both anxious and excited about blogging in a more public arena.

What exactly is agency anyway?  I found myself asking that question early on in my quest to achieve my 316 certification.  After researching and writing a piece on it, I think the best explanation I can give is that agency refers to the culture and mindset within one’s classroom. The mindset of both the teacher and the students that leads to greater ownership on the part of the students.  Ownership over portions of the learning, both physical and academic where students have a voice and a choice. The simple fact is, when students have more ownership over the how and why, engagement goes up significantly.

I chose to start with the topic of agency because it has personal meaning for me as an educator.  Not all that long ago, I felt as though I was stuffed into a teaching box. As a side effect, I felt my students being placed in boxes as well.  Only able to choose from the book bin that had books on their “level”. No books above, none below. They couldn’t even choose within a grade level band, only the bin that had their perceived “level” based on one piece of evidence.  As a teacher I felt stifled, disheartened, and angry. The experience left me thirsting for the knowledge and expertise derived from decades of research that purports the value of agency. I started reading whatever I could get my hands on that supported my thinking about student agency.  So you can imagine my joy when I opened up Regie’s book to find an entire chapter on engagement!

Engagement is a huge piece of agency.  Regie states, “How can we engage students, spark curiosity, and promote inquiry in a manner that propels a burning desire to read, write, question and learn more?”  She goes on to say, “Without a passion for learning, students don’t remember much of value or consider the time spent on a topic, an assignment, or a study worthwhile. And neither do we.” (81) I have seen this firsthand within myself and with my students. When they have no voice, no choice, in what and how they learn, behaviors increase and engagement drops significantly.

I find that there’s a caveat though…this delicate balance between offering too much agency and not enough agency.  I struggle with it. Every. Single. Year. Partly because, despite having 21 years of teaching under my belt, I seem to have this problem of releasing the students to independence too quickly in the fall.  I want them to be ready, like the students who left me the previous spring, but somehow that doesn’t usually pan out as I envision. The best scenario happens when I have looped students multiple years. Then…yes, they are ready more quickly because they have been in my room, know and understand how things run in my classroom, and can help mold the newbies into students for whom agency early in the school year is successful.  

I love how Regie includes that student engagement is largely a thinking shift. Moving from “How do we get kids to revise and edit? to “How do we engage students’ hearts and minds in a highly relevant, meaningful way?” (83) I believe this shift begins when we truly know our students and value things that are personally meaningful to them. I read a post last fall, although I can’t remember exactly who posted it….about learning ten non-academic things about each child in your class before being ready to teach them.  It’s a challenge I embraced that really made me more mindful of my students when planning reading and writing activities. When we truly know them, it makes finding that engagement piece and being able to offer agency a whole lot easier.

Agency in the classroom is something that I believe all educators, literacy leaders, principals, and parents need to advocate for.  I think Matt said it well in his post titled “How Do We Create a Community of Readers. It’s that “Shared understanding of the WHY, that creates buy-in.”  Allowing students to have some agency…an opportunity to have some ownership over not only their learning, but also the physical arrangement of the room, that creates a different kind of culture of learners.  A culture where kids truly are a part of the decision making that drives the what, where and how of their educational experience.

This post is part of a book study around Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Check out more resources associated with the text at this website, including a free curriculum for teaching an undergraduate course using Literacy Essentials.