Embedding Professional Learning

Our journey to excellence in teaching begins with a commitment to professional learning.

-Regie Routman

I am lucky enough to work in a school that believes in this so much that they allocate the money to have me on staff working with teachers in their classrooms every single day. Yes, that’s right. Every. Single. Day. Every Teacher. This beautiful hidden gem of a school only has one teacher per grade level K-4 so I get to be in their classrooms, learning side by side with the teacher and the students in every grade level every single day. My school lives what Regie calls professional learning over professional development and that is not easy to do. Imagine the teachers’ thoughts and feelings in this tiny school when they hired yet another support staff member (cue eye roll) instead of allocating the money towards their budgets or a teacher’s assistant. However, after one year, I think we have all realized now the power of having this kind of consistent learning that is specifically “connected to classroom practice and geared toward fostering collegial collaboration” (Routman, 2018).

This year we all focused on writing with an emphasis on giving kids time to write every single day with purpose and an audience in mind. We worked towards creating a common language across the grade levels along with building writing skills and expectations from grade to grade. This is exactly the kind of collegial collaboration that is talked about in Literacy Essentials as being the kind of long-term growth and sustainability that schools strive for. Teachers are crazy busy and barely have time to go to the bathroom let alone talk to a colleague about best practices. Cue me. Showing up for them and with them every single day. I could tell the first-grade teacher what was happening in kindergarten and second grade. I could make her feel like she was a part of a bigger picture when teachers sometimes feel like they are on an island. I was able to not only ask, “How is it going?” but actually see how it was going. Turns out it was going well, really well.

As educators, we could reflect every single day on what we saw and what we could do next. I brought resources they didn’t have time to track down, I found research supporting their thoughts and beliefs and I cheered them on as they went out of their comfort zones to try new things. We only met as a group when the topic affected the whole group. I didn’t have to call meetings where people felt disrespected for using their precious time for things that don’t pertain to them. Individual issues, questions, and concerns were talked about and worked through each day during their classroom practice. I was able to glean and share our set of shared beliefs around writing and help the busy teachers keep a focus on those beliefs. We made a difference in our community of writers, in their enthusiasm for sharing their words with the world, their ability to grow as writers and it reflected (thank goodness) in their test scores. Teachers are now more confident when they talk to writers and have the common language to help support them.

I know our situation is an enigma, I know that you are probably not in this same situation and can think of a thousand reasons why this wouldn’t work for you, I know how lucky we are. I ask you though to instead focus on what can be done. If you are a coach and can’t physically be in each teacher’s classroom every day, what can you do to help if just in small ways? How can you facilitate communication between the teachers and help build collaboration? If you are a classroom teacher could you use your fellow colleagues as coaches when one person can’t do it all, or share in the responsibility for your learning and reflect on your practice even if someone isn’t there to push you? These are all thoughts Mrs. Routman shares with us in Literacy Essentials.

Professional learning over professional development works. When teachers are the “Lead Learners” in the classroom not only by words but by action, they inspire their student learners each and every day. I have lived it, seen the power of it, and can’t wait to see what next year brings.

Teaching Writers

Right away I flipped to Excellence 6-Teaching Writers in Regie Routman’s fabulous new resource, Literacy Essentials. Not that I wasn’t excited all of it, but my personal professional journey focuses so much on writing that I’m always excited to see what others have to say to add to what I already believe and practice. Turns out like everything I read out there I found myself nodding with a little bit of, “Woot, woot!”, some “Right On!”, lamenting with a touch of “Whoops!”,  and finally a HUGE “Thank you!”

First, I was especially drawn to this quote by David McCullough, “To write well is to think clearly. That is why it is so hard.” Yes, yes, yes! Regie and David. Writing is hard. For all of us. When I present at conferences and ask a ballroom full of teachers how many took college classes on how to teach writing effectively there is usually one or two lone hands raised.  No lie. One or two people in a room of one hundred educators who are expected to teach some form of writing each and every day. Next question, “How many of you feel like a writer yourself?.” Crickets. So not only is writing hard, it is made harder by a lack of knowledge on how to teach it effectively by adults who don’t write themselves. What do we do with all of that? We owe it to our kids to figure it out!

This leads to my first, “Woot, woot!” in this chapter (followed by many more in the margins!). The audience is everything. If writing is already hard why would anyone, kid or adult, want to spend that precious time in their day to write to no one? And bigger than that, if we are writing to no one then what are we writing anyway? What stance or tone do we take? What voice do we use? Why would conventions matter if no one is going to see it anyway? When a student writer knows who to write for and has a purpose for the writing then he will know as Ms. Routman says, “Writing takes courage and perseverance.” That it is worth the time spent drafting, revising, drafting, revising, keep going, and finally editing. Where or when there is purpose there is engagement and a move towards excellence. Ms. Routman tells us on page 236, “When we ensure as well that the audience and the purpose are meaningful and relevant to students-and that they have some choice in the writing topic-students do willingly invest in revising their work.”

Which moves us on to my, “Right On, Regie!” Revision is a process that needs to be experienced and then taught. That is another reason why teachers need to write! They need to write personally and in front of students to feel what revision feels like and model what revision looks like. She reminds us to demonstrate our own process, provide shared revision experiences, keep the audience in mind, and give some dedicated time to immerse in the revision process. There is so much power in developing a community of writers where the teacher is seen as part of that community. This always reminds me of the old adage, Kids do what we do. Not what we say. DO the revision work, fellow educators and there is a much bigger chance your students will too. They are surrounded in a world of perfect examples, show them the messy!

But alas, there is always something to learn and challenge my thinking and that is why my Amazon cart is consistently full to the max of professional text! On to my, “Whoops!”I thought I was the best editor in the room. I even made it a thing right around publishing time, bustling around with a pencil behind my ear chiming out, “Editing time, who needs an editor?” Regie, thanks for slowing my roll with this perfect gem, “Too often what happens is that we teachers continue to do most of the work, which makes the editing process cumbersome and exhausting for us and sends students the message that editing is not really their job.” This message was sent clearly to my writers (insert monkey with head in hands emoji here). This is what I love about book studies and being part of a larger learning community. Next year, this will no longer be a whoops! Teachable moment taught, thanks to Ms. Routman.

Finally, there is just one big “Thank you” for all of the research provided in this book. Holy Moly this book is full of what to read next! Most importantly in this section was the research on handwriting which I have been searching for this year. As a literacy leader it is my job to set high standards and expectations for all and having the research to back what I know is so important helps me gain momentum with others. In a busy classroom day, handwriting may seem low on the totem pole but my gut instinct has always been, “Handwriting still matters-a lot” (248). THANK YOU for giving me the research I can now provide as I meet with teachers to focus on this important issue, especially around cursive.

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 (https://sites.stenhouse.com/literacyessentials/), including a free curriculum for teaching an undergraduate course using Literacy Essentials.

What Did You Do Today?

Every day for the past two weeks since starting my new coaching position my husband has asked me this question.  Only knowing me as a classroom teacher for the past seventeen years, I think he is trying to wrap his head around what exactly it is that I do all day.  I think I am too.  

It feels foreign to not have a group of first graders waiting for me to get there each day.  I didn’t have to prepare a classroom for Meet the Teacher Day or think through how I would spend the first few days building community.   It is the weirdest feeling to walk on campus each morning and realize that no one is waiting for me.  This is freaking me out a bit.  I have all these insecurities and questions rolling through my head.  What if the teachers think I am doing nothing while they are in the trenches with kids?  What if my administrator thinks I am doing nothing all day because I don’t have lesson plans written or a room full of children?  What do I have to show for how my time is spent at the end of each day?  I’m pretty sure that my husband keeps asking because he is worried after leaving my “safe” job that maybe if I’m not looking busy enough unemployment is just around the corner!

This is why I am now holding on to, Chapter Sixteen: Nuts and Bolts-Scheduling and Budgeting, for dear life.  This chapter answers and confirms that my insecurities might not be far off.  That if I want to be perceived as an equal member of the school community, I have to find a tangible way to reflect the intangible things that have kept me busy and exhausted each day.  That teachers ARE probably thinking, What does she do all day?  Here are the things I have started working on and thinking about to keep myself accountable and to document my time so that all of those questions mentioned can be answered quickly and easily.

First, I am creating an amazing literacy space for teachers and students that started out two weeks ago as a room filled with boxes of books and empty shelves.  The mascot of our sweet little school is the Knights.  Therefore, I decided the space where the kids and teachers will come to find books and resources needed to look and feel like a castle.  It will be called, The Knight’s Nook, and children will be summoned by a princess (the head of our lower school) to come and be dubbed the Knights of the Reading Round Table (thank goodness that is the shape of the tables that got left in the room).  The transformation of this space is something tangible everyone can see and the fact that we are surprising everyone with a big reveal builds anticipation and excitement around reading.  This will be my first gift of literacy to the school.

Second, I have made it a goal to have my schedule visible to all by the end of the second week so everyone knows where I am and what I am doing.  The first few weeks I wanted to give the teacher’s time with their students to get to know them, finish assessments and build a classroom community before I inserted myself.  In the meantime, I have been stopping in, offering teacher’s coverage for bathroom breaks or to refill their water bottles and reading aloud to the kids so I can begin to get to know them in my own way.  I have been complimenting the amazing environments teachers have set up for students, noticing how much they know their students already and empathizing over how tough the first few weeks of school really are. This has helped teachers see that although I haven’t started my “real” job yet, I am not sitting in a room by myself doing nothing while they are in the trenches.

Third, I have been collecting questions and ideas so that when I meet with my administrator we can have a specific, smart conversation about my role as the literacy coach.  We can decide bottom lines, non-negotiables and where I fit.  She will be able to see through these questions and observations how I have been spending the last few weeks-knee deep in observation and reflection to help decide next steps.

Finally, I am going to take Jennifer’s advice and start documenting my day.  Even though I will have a visible schedule, it will be important to write down all that I am accomplishing in a day when I am not in a classroom.  The conversations, the planning both short and long-term and the gathering of resources.  I want anyone who asks to see how valuable my position is to the literacy reform of the school.  To quickly see that even though my day is more flexible, it is full.

In doing all of these things as my next steps, in this new position in a new school, I am hoping that my day is transparent, people see my worth and are excited and able to trust me to help them grow as literacy leaders themselves.  I am hoping that this will calm my anxieties and the questions running through my head (and my husband’s as well).  So, what did I do today?  Sit back and get comfortable, I’ve got a lot to tell you!

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!