Thoughts on Literacy Instruction and School Leadership
Author: Matt Renwick
Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District (http://mineralpointschools.org/). Matt also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD (www.ascd.org) and Lead Literacy (www.leadliteracy.com).
The topic for this session is on how school leaders of every stripe can build a literacy culture. I took three ideas from a past post I wrote and developed a theory of action that other educators might follow to facilitate schoolwide student improvement in reading, writing, and communicating. See below.
The thing about theories is they are limited, especially when developed by one person. While I do read widely and connect with others, as well as reflect on my experiences here, my perspective is not the only point of view. Other school leaders might have found a different pathway toward success.
So what are your thoughts? I want to put this theory to the test before I present it at the WSRA convention session. That could include offering critique and feedback in the comments, or simply sharing it with a colleague who might have a response. Thank you in advance.
In a primary classroom today, I was observing the teacher reading aloud a picture book about penguins. The students were active participants, answering questions about the main character and offering their theories about what might happen next in the story. “Could anyone else share their thinking?” invited the teacher, after affirming one student’s response with an objective “Mmm-hmm”.
After writing down my observational narrative (instructional walk) of the read-aloud experience, I gave the teacher my notes while commenting publicly about the lesson in front of the student. “Wow, I could tell you all understood the story well. You made predictions about what would happen next, using details from the book.” The class then shared that tomorrow they would be reading a nonfiction text about penguins online.
By sharing what I observed with the class, I did more than recognize the teacher for her efforts in being intentional with her read aloud. I also named the strategies – making a prediction, using details for support – as a reinforcement of their thinking. Students heard the point of the lesson from two different adults. My presence was value-added; I didn’t distract from the lesson but instead became a part of the learning experience.
My formal educational background is not literacy-rich. While I enjoyed reading as a student, my college studies were more focused on mathematics and middle-level philosophy. When I became an elementary principal, I had limited background knowledge about promising reading and writing practices. Thankfully, I had literacy leaders in my prior school who kindly yet firmly encouraged me to participate in our professional development focused on literacy. My first visits to classrooms were as a learner more than a partner, but eventually I felt competent to engage in the process.
Educators enter the world of leadership from many backgrounds. Some involve reading and writing instruction; some do not. Regardless of our backgrounds, we have an obligation to know literacy through formal and informal professional learning experiences. It’s a continuous commitment as new forms of literacy are growing in the information age. Lifelong learning gives me the language to engage in literacy conversations with faculty, an essential trait for sustainable student success.
“When you don’t know what you believe, everything becomes an argument. Everything is debatable. But when you stand for something, decisions are obvious.” ― Jason Fried, Rework
There were several boxes in the hallway addressed to me. What did I order? I thought. Looking more closely, I realized the boxes contained sample commercial resources from one of the big education companies.
Shortly after I emailed our representative. “As far as I know, I don’t recall requesting these materials.” They apologized for the mix up and set up a date to pick them up.
I am not adverse to commercially-developed literacy resources. If a product aligns with our beliefs and practices about reading and writing and it would take longer to develop something ourselves, then let’s make the purchase. Our time is precious and our expertise is limited.
Yet it is interesting that I never receive sales calls from publishers and distributors of authentic texts and related resources. Maybe we will get a flyer or an email to build awareness about what they have to offer. But it is almost exclusively the case that we are reaching out to the publishers and distributors for the resources the students and staff want and need.
The decision to have the company pick up the preview materials was easy. It wasn’t even a topic of discussion during today’s leadership team meeting; our conversations were about future professional learning. We know where we stand regarding literacy resources.
Our family tradition during Christmas, an idea we borrowed from somewhere else, is to have a “want”, “need”, “wear”, and “read” gift for each child. The idea is to limit the present buying and make sure we are focused on the reason for the season. However, in the past I found ways to sneak in a few extra gifts, thinking “What’s the harm?”.
This year we really stuck to it. What’s interesting is our kids shared that this was “the best Christmas ever”. That was a pleasant surprise. Maybe because we more thoughtful about what to give due to operating within our self-administered limits? Or, could the decrease in things have allowed for more time to experience the holiday break?
Research has come out that supports this idea. In an article for The Atlantic, James Hamblin shares the results of a study in which subjects reported much higher levels of happiness, excitement, pleasantness when purchasing an experience such as a vacation vs. something material.
Experiential purchases like trips, concerts, movies, et cetera, tend to trump material purchases because the utility of buying anything really starts accruing before you buy it.
It’s the anticipation of the experience as much as the experience itself that is beneficial.
A common thread throughout this topic seems to the social aspect of experience and the opportunity to connect with others before, during, and after that seems to make the event special. This gift of time is less concrete than an item, say a smartphone or a car, yet it remains on our mind in anticipation, in the present, and in our memories.
The point…when we prepare instruction for our students, are we planning for experiences? If not, what are our students doing? My regular walks in classrooms lead me to believe that we are frequently providing our students with memorable learning opportunities. Just this week, I walked into a primary classroom where students were reading aloud their own writing in which they described their favorite part of the holiday break. “They almost always describe experiences instead of presents,” the teacher noted. In a classroom on the upper level, students were learning how to write readers responses to a self-selected book. The experience was memorable for all as the teacher first modeled a response for a book she read.
If you are still skeptical that we are at our best when we create learning experiences for students, think about a positive memory from your own school history and why you treasure it.
The new year always seems to offer a deal: if you resolve to make a change for the next twelve months, it will begin on January 1.
It’s nice to think about. A restart can be motivating and cause one to engage in some reflection, goal-setting, and a sense of renewal. “This year, I resolve to… (fill in the blank).”
But the new year is a bit of a false promise. January 1 is only tomorrow. Today is Monday. I’m not trying to dampen anyone’s mood; in fact, I encourage you to take an optimistically realistic stance about the new year. Maybe by taking a step back and appreciating the journey we’ve been on, we can develop resolutions that will keep the momentum going (instead of trying to recreate ourselves in a matter of 24 hours).
This can happen through reflection, goal-setting, and renewal. It is not without context. Last year matters. There were points for celebrations and areas for growth. Consider the following questions to respond to in your journal as you prepare for the upcoming year.
What accomplishments am I most proud of so far? Go back as far as you want. For example, I wrote out milestones in my writing career starting in 2012. Big or small, all celebrations were included.
Based on my past, where do I want to grow professionally and personally? I believe in keeping our goals limited to no more than two, aligned with the classic organizational leadership book Good to Great by Jim Collins. Professionally (as a writer), I want to self-host my sites in order to take advantage of more web tools. Personally, I want to improve my exercise/activity habits (and if I lose some weight in the process…:-).
How might I achieve these goals? The word “might” is key here; it offers many possibilities vs. one pathway toward success. So…I am trying out the Amazon Affiliate program for this blog. I don’t like monetizing the site, but I haven’t found a better method that doesn’t interfere with the readers’ experience. Regarding my personal goal, I am going to develop a schedule of activities that keep me interested and wanting to come back. Neither may work. I have permission to try new approaches in those situations.
It bears repeating: the upcoming year is not without context. Last year had lots of experiences to reflect upon and to celebrate. Next year (yes, 2020) holds more opportunities. Instead of focusing on New Year’s Day, what about today?
It can be challenging to sell some students on reading without being readers ourselves. So it is important as teachers and leaders to share our reading lives. As a school leader, I believe making my reading life more public is influential on students, staff, and even families.
With students, I am sometimes seen walking around with reading material in case of a “reading emergency”, a term coined by Donalyn Miller that describes those small moments without anything to do. Reading can fill that gap. Plus, the students and staff often notice.
With staff, I will often read aloud at staff meetings. Right now I am starting each meeting with a poem and related response from Teaching with Fire: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Teach. In my agenda, I include the entire poem from the last meeting so they can reread it and take it with them. I’ve also started sharing what I am reading in place of my weekly staff newsletter once in a great while.
With all stakeholders who communicate with me via email, they might find my Goodreads email signature at the bottom. It is a widget that showcases what book I am reading right now. I know from seeing what other people are reading who use the same widget, it sparks my interest as a possible next book to read. Also, I feel like I know that person a little better, seeing what they are reading. What we read often reveals what we value, beyond the act of reading for its own sake.
How do you share your reading life with staff, students, and families? If you currently don’t, what approaches sound intriguing to you? Please share in the comments.