Quick Win: Creating a Culture of Literacy

Before the students arrived, our faculty learned how to best prepare a classroom (and school) for students. Specifically, we looked at our classroom and common areas to promote reading and writing. Each teacher stated a personal goal that they would work toward regarding classroom libraries, bulletin boards, and relationship building.

Next are some images of our first-week successes in creating a culture of literacy.

 

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Students organizing classroom library books based on topics, genre, or author.

 

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Temporary labels as the students start to put groups of books in classroom library tubs.

 

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A teacher asking students to share something they want him to know about them.

 

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A digital portfolio station, in which students can publish their best work online for families.

 

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A blank bulletin board waiting for students and teacher to post excellent work on it.

 

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Students haven’t decided yet where these books belong. They will come back to these titles.

 

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More bins of books, waiting to be organized by the students and teacher.

 

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Students share ten fun facts about themselves in writing and post on a bulletin board.

 

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I get into the act, displaying several books in my office that represent our student body.

 

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This PreK read aloud center is also a space for students’ favorite books.

 

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There are too many piles and not enough bins, so…

 

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…the class has to decide which groups of books will need to be combined and how to label them.

 

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A classroom library is finally done. The students are excited to start reading.

 

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This teacher kept the students’ handmade labels on the classroom library tubs.

I think my favorite part of this schoolwide literacy experience is when my daughter came home complaining that she was tired. “Why are you tired?” I asked her. “My feet are sore from all the walking we did while organizing our classroom library.” That’s a win for creating a culture of literacy and student ownership!

Are We Talking About the Same Tree? (the Importance of Clarity)

The following is a crosspost from my school blog. I thought it might be relevant here as well. Have an excellent Labor Day weekend!  – Matt

Two members of the maintenance team stopped me in the high school hallway.

“Are you good with us taking down the cedar tree in the front of your building?”

When asked, I was 98% sure which tree they were referring to. Steve, our building custodian, and I had discussed last year about removing the tree. It had outgrown its space. The branches had now extended above the walls at the second level. It hindered the maintenance crew’s efforts to remove the snow from that upper area.

Still, I wanted to be sure that the tree they were talking about was, in fact, the same tree.

“Let me go back to school, check out that tree, and confirm with Steve.”

Yes, it was that tree.

 

Was it necessary for me to go back and confirm this, even though I was 98% confident? What’s the worst that could have happened? They could have cut down the wrong tree, I guess.

With teaching and leading in a school, it is even more critical that we are all on the same page. Clarity is critical for trust. Without clarity, we make assumptions about people’s beliefs and actions. For example, if we had different understandings of what it means to teach “the whole child”, our school might have different expectations and approaches in our work with kids. Some of us might not value the social and emotional needs of students as much as others. That is how we end up with inequity in our schools. Student placement in classrooms becomes a lottery system in which some kids get a considerably different educational experience than others.

Our faculty is engaged in the journey of knowing which tree we are talking about. Our “tree” is literacy. Specifically, we are focused on the connection between reading and writing. We are meeting monthly during professional learning communities to watch expert instruction together via video, have professional conversations about what we saw, and then try out the instructional strategy in the classroom. Celebrations of our efforts and student learning results happen regularly. Through these activities, we are achieving clarity about promising practices for reading and writing instruction. We are on the same page which helps ensure students are receiving equally effective instruction.

This is not to say that teachers don’t have some latitude in how they facilitate learning in their classrooms. The neat thing about this work is that it can be applied to many different resources and units of instruction. I’ve heard the phrase “This is common sense!” when teachers have engaged in learning about effective literacy instruction. As Regie Routman, the developer of our professional resources, notes, “When has common sense not been acceptable in schools?” As we have found agreement about what is important for all students to experience, we have collected these beliefs as statements and made them visible throughout the school.

 

As a school, we will continue this work of not making assumptions about our teaching and learning philosophies. We will continue to examine our instruction, our students’ results, and our beliefs about literacy. Even when we might be 98% sure about our work, we will strive to be on the same page, 100%.

Principals Need to Know Literacy

When I first became a principal at an elementary school, I thought I had the requisite knowledge to be a literacy leader. My previous experiences in the classroom as a teacher of readers and writers led this misconception. So when I arrived in my new building, and one of the teachers encouraged me to attend a literacy institute, I declined. I cited the need to get the schedule, budget, and rosters ready before the students arrived.

During my first school year as a principal, I did engage in monthly professional learning with the faculty, also around literacy. We learned about the reading-writing connection through the Regie Routman in Residence program. This video-based professional learning experience gave me many new insights, most notably: I didn’t know literacy.

My misconceptions were many. Yes, I understood guided reading. But I didn’t realize that guided reading wasn’t the most effective way to teacher responsively with my former 5th and 6th graders. Instead, I should have been conferring with kids regarding what they were reading independently, as well as facilitating more book reviews and recommendations. As the year progressed, I started feeling a little guilty about some of my past instructional moves. However, I was thankful that as a faculty we were learning about promising practices together and would be better educators for our students.

When the opportunity came up a year later to attend that same literacy institute, I didn’t say no.

This article serves as a closing post for our online study group Becoming a Literacy Leader by Jen Allen. During the summer, many contributors offered their thinking and shared their experiences related to this excellent resource for literacy leaders. Our engagement in this study serves as evidence that none of us believe we have all the answers, nor will we in the future. The research and knowledge regarding literacy are constantly evolving, especially with literacy becoming literacies in light of our digital world.

As one principal to another, I need you to know literacy. Not so you can more effectively evaluate teachers. Principals need to know literacy because it is at the heart of the educational experience. Read just about any educational resource that calls on strong leadership for sustained schoolwide improvement. The authors will most likely cite reading and writing as critical to a principal’s (and students’) success.

When a principal knows literacy, they can have better conversations with their faculty during collaboration. They are speaking the same language instead of quibbling over semantics, like the definition of “guided reading”. When a principal knows literacy, they understand that one of their budget priorities is books, books, and more books. And when a community or board member questions these purchases (and it has happened to me), a principal can cite the research that supports these decisions. When a principal knows literacy, they can take a stand against a mindless adoption of a commercial literacy program. Their beliefs about reading and writing, in line with the rest of the faculty, becomes a firewall for anyone trying to standardize instruction only in the name of better test scores.

Only when a principal knows literacy and partners with teachers to become more knowledgeable together can all students truly experience success as readers and writers.

 

Study Groups for Voluntary Professional Development

In Chapter 4 of Becoming a Literacy Leader, Jennifer Allen describes how she facilitates professional learning beyond the schoolwide initiative. She refers to these opportunities as “study groups”. They are typically designed around a specific educational resource. Jennifer reflects on the importance of having voice and choice in her professional learning.

As a teacher, I often found that my needs and interests were not met within the allotted in-service days designated for professional development during the school year. I was thirsty for professional development opportunities involving new instructional practices. Instead, I found that most of our in-service days were planned months in advance to address state assessment requirements. (pg. 59)

In the past, I had tried to facilitate study groups but encountered several problems.

  • First, I was selecting the text. Teachers didn’t have voice and choice in what to read.
  • Second, I did not have regularly scheduled dates communicated ahead of time. I would ask teachers when they would want to meet, a few would get back to me, and then we tried to make it fit.
  • Third, I saw this as a way to teach instead of an opportunity to learn from the resource and with each other. As Jennifer notes in Becoming a Literacy Leader, “I participate as an equal member of each group. I think the reason study groups work is that the teachers are directing their own learning.” (pg. 65)

By learning from my experiences plus this resource, we have prepared a more responsive approach to personalize professional learning for faculty.

Research Relevant Resources to Offer

In the spring, I thought about what our school’s needs and interests were as we prepared for next year. Some of these topics would need to be beyond our schoolwide initiative of authentic literacy. For example, personalized learning and Responsive Classroom were two areas I knew teachers were interested in learning more about. I made a list of all relevant resources available, discovered through researching publisher websites, professional reading resources, and book search tools such as Amazon and Goodreads.

Select Resources as a Leadership Team

Before the school year begins, our school’s leadership team reviewed the titles collected for consideration. Teachers on the team provided their input, knowing what their colleagues might and might not be interested in.

Offer Study Group Opportunities to Faculty

I typed up a list of titles with descriptions along with dates the study groups would meet (image on left). Teachers can click on a link to a Google Form and enroll in one or more study groups (image on right).

After teachers have signed up, we will need to assign co-facilitators for the groups. One facilitator would likely be a member of the leadership team. The other facilitator would be a participating teacher. These facilitators would cover for each other in case one of them could not make it.

Jennifer also has a routine agenda for the study groups to ensure a successful study group experience (pg. 74):

  • Discussion/Sharing (10 minutes)
  • Reading Excerpt
  • Video Clip
  • Toolbox (15 minutes)
  • Putting Ideas into Practice (5 minutes)
  • Next Month

Just as important to providing teachers with voice and choice in their professional learning, I believe it is equally powerful to have teachers model lifelong, voluntary learning for our students and school community. I look forward to seeing how the concept of study groups will have a positive impact on teacher autonomy and student learning.

 

 

My Life in Seven Stories

The bridge between knowing and doing is feeling. – Unknown

Reading the acknowledgments in Becoming a Literacy Leader: Supporting Learning and Change, Jennifer Allen thanks Franki Sibberson for her initial interest in the professional learning activity “My Life in Seven Stories”. It sounds like this idea was the seed that resulted in the book we read today.

“My Life in Seven Stories” is the title of a professional learning activity. Teachers make a list of seven titles that touch on past experiences in their lives. Then, they take one title and write about this small moment. They can share with a group of teachers or decide not to, their choice. The purpose is to get teachers to write during monthly staff meetings. Through these snapshots, the literacy leader can then demonstrate a writing strategy, such as revising leads, using their personal narratives. “My Life in Seven Stories” also helps build trust by being vulnerable and integrating feelings into the literacy work.

I thought I would try this here – My Life in Seven Stories:

  • Dessert in Elmwood, Illinois
  • Thunderstorm
  • All-Star Game
  • The Missed Shot
  • Going to College
  • The Apartment
  • The Move

I purposefully avoided titles related to my kids; I could have created a list of seventeen topics to write about related to them. Instead, each title/topic is about my life.

Below is my short narrative for the title “The Move”:

I sat on the front porch of a rustic cabin. No television. It was a summer evening and I was enjoying a cold shandy. Right now, my family and I were in between residences. We had our home for sale up north while we waited for the closing date on our new home in our new town, Mineral Point. Because there was much to do to get myself ready for the new school year, I would come down during the week, rent whatever was available, while my family stayed up north. Not a lot to do in the evenings, I sometimes found myself on a cabin porch, staring across the street at the new school I would soon be leading.

It was at this point that I think our move become 100% real for me. For sixteen years, my wife and I had served as educators in another town. We had friends, were logistically close to family, and had made many connections with other educators. Why did we move? The reasons were many, yet at that point they didn’t matter because here I was, sitting on the front porch of a log cabin, staring at a school (and community) we knew little about. This was exciting and nerve-racking at the same time. “How can I take advantage of this fresh start?” and “Will our house sell before we move in?” were questions that constantly swirled in my head during this tumultuous and sometimes lonely time.

Being a literacy leader means that we sometimes need to be vulnerable with our faculty. If we expect teachers to take risks and grow with their colleagues and their students, then we have to model this. My willingness to share a personal part of who I am through writing (and I know I could improve upon this initial offering) will more likely lead to teachers doing the same with their students. If we can cause that change by opening ourselves up emotionally, even a little bit, that may lead to teachers and students discovering the larger purpose to reading and writing.

I don’t plan on sharing my other personal stories in this space. One is enough. Maybe we will use this professional development activity in the future at our school. It’s hard to be vulnerable without trust, yet without taking a personal risk, trust may never be gained.

 

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Cothren House – The cabin I stayed in

 

 

 

Online Book Study: Becoming a Literacy Leader by Jennifer Allen #litleaders

Teachers need to be leaders, and leaders need to know literacy.

– Regie Routman

One of the best moves I made as a teacher in my early years was moving grades.

I was hired to teach 5th and 6th grade in a multi-age elementary building. Due to enrollment, we needed a 3rd and 4th grade teacher for one year. Being the low man on the seniority totem pole, I felt obligated to volunteer for the move. My aspirations were to teach middle-level students, so this wasn’t a 100% agreeable move.

What I learned in my short time with younger students, what made it a great move, was that I realized I had not been teaching reading. Check that: I was teaching reading as a subject, but I had not been teaching readers. Or writers for that matter. Literacy was merely another subject in the school day. Teaching younger students helped me realize that I had to become a more responsive teacher for my students. I couldn’t break open a box of the same books for a novel study and expect them to become better readers. With these 3rd and 4th graders’ strengths and challenges more evident in the classroom, it became apparent to me that I needed to improve my practice.

I connected with a literacy specialist, who directed me to some essential resources, such as Strategies That Work by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis. When I did move back to the 5th and 6th grade level, my learning was just getting started. I discovered I Read It But I Don’t Get It by Cris Tovani, Yellow Brick Roads by Janet Allen, and Reviser’s Toolbox by Barry Lane. Through these resources, I found mentor texts and teaching ideas that helped me become a better teacher of readers and writers. Without that move, where I might be today is (thankfully) a mystery.

Becoming a Literacy Leader cover imageFifteen years later, I am now helping lead an online book study for the resource Becoming a Literacy Leader: Supporting Learning and Change by Jennifer Allen. I have not come full circle in my learning about literacy and leadership; this is just the next step in my professional journey. By bringing other literacy leaders into this blog, I believe it will become an even better site for professional reflection and idea-sharing. I know it will for me.

The publisher, Stenhouse, has been gracious in providing a copy of Allen’s book for the contributors. Each educator/writer comes with a different background and level of expertise. Some teach and some lead in the formal sense, but we all lead and learn. We will be responding to this book on this space for the next two months. Subscribers and visitors to this blog are encouraged to read the book along with us. Here is our very loose reading schedule:

June 26-July 2: Chapter 1
July 3-9: Chapter 2
July 10-16: Chapter 3
July 17-23: Chapter 4
July 24-30: Chapter 5
July 31-Aug 6: Chapter 6
Aug 7-13: Chapter 7
Aug 14-20: Chapter 8
Aug 21-27: Chapter 9
Aug 28-Sept 3: Chapter 10 + 11

The lessons I learned from my teaching days have carried through to today. As an elementary principal, I have to be the model for everyone in the building and continue to learn. Based on the recommendations of other professionals, Jennifer’s book will be an essential guide for me as I prepare for the upcoming school year. Not that I will agree 100% regarding everything stated in the text. (I am already thinking about a contrary post regarding rubrics and writing assessment.) Productive disagreement is important when considering new ideas.

Whether you are also reading this book or you will follow along with these posts through July and August, I encourage you to also participate, even disagree, through the comments of each post. We become a smarter profession through this work.

 

Recommended Reading: Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment by Maja Wilson

41wGWEmUPIL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This book is good. Really good. Actually, I’m a little sad I did not discover it until recently. If I had read during my teaching days…who knows, maybe I would have gone back to get my English degree. Instead, I found Improving Schools from Within by Roland Barth and got the administrative bug. A good outcome, and interesting how a book can change your life trajectory.

Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Instruction (Heinemann, 2006) is one of those books that can have an impact on any K-12 educator. The position Wilson takes isn’t simply to rethink rubrics but to question their very existence in the literacy classroom. Instead, teachers should be using responsive instruction, assessing as students are in the act of reading and writing, to focus on their strengths and writing as a whole.

Wilson sets the table for questioning rubrics by first examining the term “best practice”.

Just as reflective teachers must question their own performance, we must be willing to question the methods accepted as best by the field of writing methods, an idea that may strike us as sacrilege. The very words best practice are loaded; if we aren’t following best practice, aren’t we by extention following worst practice? In addition, the term drips with authority.

I’ve been on the receiving end when I have questioned curriculum acquisitions, such as literacy-programs-in-a-box. “It’s best practice,” I was informed. End of discussion. Wilson puts into prose the courage teachers and principals need to muster to resist these unfounded arguments.

In brief, Wilson points out the many inherent flaws of using rubrics in writing instruction:

  • They are reductive, breaking down writing into isolated parts, even though good writing is greater than the sum of its parts.
  • They force agreement when assessing writing, an interpretative craft.
  • They demand objectivity, even though appreciation for reading and writing is subjective.
  • They focus on product, yet writing is a process.
  • They are not authentic – professional writers don’t use rubrics to self-assess their work. They internalize criteria for good writing while maintaining their own voice.
  • They are based on a deficit model; when we use rubrics to assess student writing, we are looking for what’s wrong with their work instead of possibilities.

(It was also interesting to discover that rubrics were developed by the College Board, the same organization that came up with the Common Core State Standards. For another time…)

Rubrics aren’t the only teaching practices skewered in this well-written text. For example, grading is another challenge in the literacy classroom. Like rubrics, grades distort the final product and do not consider the process of student work. Students instead merely complete the assignment instead of truly investing in the act of reading and writing with a purpose. By replacing traditional assessment practices such as rubrics and grades with descriptive and timely feedback, as Wilson suggests, students will start to innovate in their writing and better appreciate this type of work.

If you are looking for one book to read this summer and have also questioned the use of traditional practices in literacy instruction, I recommend Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Instruction. It’s a resource that will push your thinking not only about rubrics in writing but also about assessment in general.


Next week, several contributors and I will start reading and responding to our summer book choice, Becoming a Literacy Leader by Jennifer Allen. Check in with this blog regularly for new posts. Better yet, read this book with us and share your thinking in the comments!