Getting Curious About Change

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Photo by Bing Han on Unsplash

It’s mid-August. That means educators are starting to think about coming back for a new school year. When you read this last sentence, what feelings arise? Excitement? Anxiety? Maybe a mix depending on your situation and status. (Hopefully not dread…)

One anxiety-inducing event that a school leader is often responsible for is introducing a new initiative as part of a building goal. I don’t think I need to list all of the emotions that might arise when we prepare for any type of organizational change. Regardless of where a school faculty is heading, it’s generally expected that the destination is somewhat unknown. No SMART goal can accurately predict the outcomes of a true learning experience.

While I think it is wise to address any possible emotions with faculty, especially if they have been fatigued by many initiatives from the past, I believe the most important feeling we want to cultivate with our colleagues experiencing change is curiosity.

When we get curious about a change, we make mental room for considering what’s possible. There’s a focus on the future instead of dwelling primarily on what has come before. For example, in our school we are exploring effective reading instruction. In the past the leadership team and I have prepared PD session topics for the entire school year in the prior summer. This year we are offering teachers a variety of professional resources to explore together in self-selected groups. Our learning will be directed by the questions we ask, the discussions we facilitate, and the ideas we discover, share and try out. This independent study will comprise our entire fall professional learning.

Eventually, we will come together on specific and common studies regarding reading instruction. Yet this PD focus – our collective change – will be the product of our initial curiosity. One teacher emailed me this summer, reflecting on some of the changes for 2018-2019. “I am really looking forward to the possibilities for this school year.” She wasn’t wishing away her summer. She probably had some nervousness about the fall. But there seemed to be a healthy balance in her message, a sense of calm and confidence during a time that can often feel turbulent.

How are you feeling about the upcoming school year? How might you get curious about any expected changes? Please share in the comments.

 

 

Priorities

Last week I sent an email out to our contributors, thanking them for their continued presence and participation on this site after this summer’s book study. Like last year, I inquired about their current interest in staying involved with the blog as well as shared ideas about how to improve the learning experience here for everyone.

One thing that impresses me about this group is how willing they are to contribute their time, energy, and ideas to this site. I am also impressed when they say, in so many words, “Sorry, can’t write or participate right now.” In either case, what they are communicating is their current priorities. Family, friends and outside interests (i.e. beyond the bubble of education) are necessary to stay balanced and to live an interesting life.

Thinking about priorities, I am reminded of a passage from author David Mitchell, in his essay “Neglect Everything Else”. It comes from the anthology Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, edited by Joe Fassler. (Thanks to Brenda Power, editor at Choice Literacy, for discovering and sharing this book.)

The world is very good at distracting us. Much of the ingenuity of our remarkable species goes toward finding new ways to distract ourselves from things that really matter. The Internet – it’s lethal, isn’t it? Maintaining focus is critical, I think, in the presence of endless distraction. You’ve only time to be a halfway decent parent, plus one other thing. (117)

I bolded the last sentence in my copy of this book. I also plan on writing it out in my planner before the school year begins as a constant reminder.

When I put out an inquiry to contribute here, or maybe to ask teachers in my school to complete a task or take that next step in our journey, I have to remember that we too can be a distraction. I’d like to think that what I ask for is of more value than some of the rabbit holes that can we fall into online. But still. When we request the attention of our colleagues, I want it to be worth everyone’s time which is invaluable and irreplaceable.

There’s Strength in Being Vulnerable

One of the greatest strengths that literacy leaders can bring to their schools is a willingness and the ability to be vulnerable. We think we need to come into a culture with all of the ideas that will “fix” a situation. Maybe someone gave us this directive. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Being honest about our areas for growth can be a source of strength and can even bring teachers together to become co-leaders of a literacy initiative. This idea of vulnerability arose during a recent house project.

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For two years we have known that our backyard deck, as well built as it might be, did not have an adequate railing. The metal conduit would pop out. A few posts were loose. It got to a point, I think, where we would not spend time in our backyard for the simple fact that it always reminded us of the work that needed to be done.

What was holding us back from fixing it? One word: pride. Specifically, mine. I told myself that I could fix this railing adequately and could avoid hiring a carpenter. Yet after almost two years of no progress, I came to grips with the realization that I needed help. I asked a family friend, an accomplished carpenter, to fix our railing after I had stained some of the boards. In three days, it was done. Since then, we have spent every evening on the back porch with family to enjoy some pre-dinner snacks and drinks.

The point to be made here is, there should be no shame for school leaders in admitting that they may lack knowledge regarding what needs to be known about literacy. Honesty is a great policy. There are several reasons for this.

  • When we admit we don’t know something, we actually increase trust with our faculty. This seems counterintuitive but it is true. When we communicate a gap in our knowledge, we are perceived as more human and fallible. This increases trust. I realize there can be a thin line at times between vulnerability and incompetence, but literacy knowledge is impossible to fake. We either know it or we don’t. Let’s be honest with our faculty as well as with ourselves and start learning.
  • Being honest about our lack of knowledge allows other faculty members to become leaders. If I had been stubbornly prideful to the end, I would not have the nice deck to enjoy today. By being honest about my inexperience and reaching out to more knowledgeable individuals, I gave them a chance to shine and be successful. The same holds true in schools. Principals and other administrators are wise when they lean on their resident experts to guide faculty toward more promising literacy practices.
  • Leaders can position themselves as true learners with faculty when they are vulnerable. In my current school, we recently completed the Regie Routman in Residence: Reading-Writing Connection professional development program. Even though I had already participated in this series at my last elementary school, I was dutiful about rewatching each session with the teachers. I took notes and participated in professional conversations. My modeling of being a lifelong learner is as important as anything I might say during these sessions. Probably more so.

Principals: please don’t leave this post thinking you should air out all of our inadequacies during your first meeting with teachers this fall. That’s not with this is about. Instead, I simply suggest becoming more aware of the areas in which you lack knowledge or experience with regard to excellent literacy instruction. Be honest about this gap. Let others lead when necessary. Be a learner with teachers. After eighteen years as a classroom teacher and administrator, I still come into each September with a feeling of anticipation of what I might discover. Isn’t that the point of education?

Literacy Essentials Wrap-up: Choices, Priorities, and the Power of “What if…”

Literacy EssentialsThank you for joining us as a reader and a learner as we responded to Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). By all measures, this was a successful experience. Special thanks go to Stenhouse Publishers for providing copies of Regie’s book to our contributors. If you haven’t checked out the free curriculum, I recommend it for undergraduate coursework and for professional learning experiences around Literacy Essentials. Also, I believe I speak for all of our contributors in expressing our gratitude to Regie Routman for responding to each post during this book study.

Next are three short reflections after reading everyone’s contributions.

Choices

In her book, Regie presents these ideas as invitations. You decide whether or not to apply this approach to literacy instruction.

IMG_1130I was skeptical when I first encountered her work. Specifically, I did not fully adopt Regie’s approach to classroom walkthroughs, described as “instructional walks” in her previous resource, Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success (ASCD, 2014). In spite of her advice, I decided to add a quantitative component to my unannounced classrooms visits, tallying where instruction was at along the Optimal Learning Model, an iteration of the gradual release of responsibility. This information that I shared with teachers did not improve instruction. More often than I care to note, teachers would debate with me the timing of my visits instead of my observations.

My choice to rely more heavily on quantitative data while minimizing the qualitative notes that describe instruction in action was an ineffective approach to school leadership support. In retrospect, I appreciate Regie’s wisdom in allowing leaders to explore different approaches to literacy leadership in the classroom. If I had not been so stubborn to go my own way in regard to instructional walks, I may not have fully appreciated the wisdom I have gained in knowing that our support as principals is best invested in noticing and naming what’s going well and finding opportunities to offer constructive support only when we are more knowledgeable and teachers are ready.

Priorities

If you knew that your last day at your school was tomorrow, how would you decide to spend your time? For me, I would not be checking email or entering requisitions or signing attendance reports. Instead, you would find me in classrooms and in common areas, connecting with students, staff, and parents.

Why wait until the last day? Why not make our everyday actions reflect our true priorities as literacy leaders? I have come to believe that our schedules communicate our values as educators. That is why I spend at a minimum one hour per day in classrooms. This time does not include formal observations as mandated by our department of education. During instructional walks, I immerse myself in instruction. I see the learning experience more through the lens of a student, noting how students might respond to the guidance from the teacher and within the context of their peers.

As readers during this book study, did you discover at any moment a time when your current thinking was pushed? I hope so. My example was relying too much on numbers. Our beliefs can be a double-edged sword. While they guide our actions toward implementing promising literacy strategies, they can also leave us stuck in outdated strategies if we are not willing to re-examine our current practices. It’s a paradox; we have to hold tight to our beliefs while remaining open to new ideas. If we keep students as our priority, we are better able to separate our egos from our work.

The Power of “What if”

My past habit was to offer advice during classroom visits. Like the tallies, I think I came across at times more as an expert instead of as a partner in a teacher’s professional learning journey.

Why does professional learning take so long? I think a part of the problem is we do not give ourselves the opportunity to reflect upon and question our current practices. In his book, A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, Warren Berger offers a three-question protocol for guiding this process.

  • Why…?
  • What if…?
  • How…?

For considering new options, “what if…” is the key. The question stem encourages divergent thinking and original ways of seeing the status quo from a different perspective. As a teacher, using a protocol such as Berger’s can be a key to working with students we have yet to reach and teach to our potential. Regie, a literacy guru with over 40 years of teaching experience, offers her own struggles with making assumptions in the classroom (134-135).

I have often taken for granted that students have enough background knowledge and experience to know the basic vocabulary needed to understand a read-aloud book, a guided-reading book, or a self-selected book. Then a student will raise his hand and ask, ‘What does [that word] mean?’ Often it is a fundamental word, such as disappointment or energy.”

To close out this study, we have to accept that our work is never done. We need to “make it smart to ask questions” (135) and get consistently curious about the day-to-day work we do in schools. Literacy is an ongoing journey. The destination is today.

New at Reading by Example: Book Study Page, Google+ Community, Going into July

To help organize posts for Literacy Essentials and future book studies, as well as to promote conversation beyond what is written here, the following updates were made.

  1. New Online Book Study Page
  2. New Google+ Community
  3. Extending Book Study into July

Every time a post is written in relation to a specific book, it will also be linked to and within the corresponding page.

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The parent page “Online Book Study” offers general direction in how one might participate in the study.

Within the page for the book itself, readers can access every article written so far. They can also follow a link to the new Google+ Community for this blog.

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A widget in the sidebar of this blog will also be available to follow to this Google+ Community.

Additionally, participants in the book study can post questions and comments on the book’s page as a way to contribute and discuss.

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The list of posts may get quite long (which is a good thing) as we plan to continue the conversation around Literacy Essentials into July! New contributors are preparing articles related to Regie’s book.

We hope you have found this online book study informative and engaging. If you have additional suggestions for making this discussion better, please share in the comments.

Mindful Literacy Assessment

A teacher came up to me in the hallway, holding printed reports. Her grimace conveyed her frustration before she even spoke. “How can my students have such nice growth from fall to winter, only to see them slide back in the spring?” She was referring to our screener results, the computerized assessments we have our students take in fall, winter, and spring. They are supposed to serve us as initial indicators for which students need more support and which students need enrichment.

Unfortunately, educators too often end up in service to the assessment. For example, the teacher and I discussed the context in which the assessment took place: the middle of May, beautiful weather, and we are asking pre-adolescents to put forth their best effort on a test that has little to no meaning to them. “What should we expect at this time of the year?” I wondered aloud with the teacher. It didn’t resolve the issue, though. We left this brief conversation with more questions than answers.

When we limit ourselves to only one way of assessing student learning, we become dependent on the tools we use. An outcome is usually a number or a level. The assessments that lead to these results are often commercial products with little opportunity for local control. We can blame the tools, but what good does that do?

This lack of agency over the results of student learning could be described as “mindless assessment”. We accept the results as gospel even if they cause anxiety rather than inform our practice. To question them runs counter to the proclamation by the assessment companies that their technologies are “valid” and “reliable” to ensure fidelity within RtI. Yet when you look closely at the research to support some of these tools, many of the studies are self-funded and self-selected. The anecdotal and circumstantial evidence we collect in classrooms is, conversely, often viewed with skepticism.

So what can we move toward as a profession assessment-wise that can give back some control over the outcomes of learning to students and teachers? I don’t prescribe one approach over another. Rather, I would direct our attention to more mindful literacy assessment. The concept of mindfulness has been heavily researched with positive results. One scientist, Dr. Ellen Langer, defines mindfulness within her book of the same title as:

  • continuous creation of new categories,
  • openness to new information, and
  • aware of more than one perspective.

Mindfulness is about being more aware of the present and worrying less about the past or the future. When people are mindful, they notice what is happening right now with an objective point of view. They resist judging, although they do question sources of information from a place of curiosity. As I read Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018), I couldn’t help but notice all of the connections between mindfulness and the authentic assessment practices she describes. In the rest of this post, I categorize some of these ideas within the context of mindful literacy assessment from past, future, and present perspectives.

Forget the Past (at least for a while)

One of the best aspects of a new school year is the opportunity to begin again in our learning journey. Students have a new teacher who knows little about them other than what might be passed up through the faculty grapevine and reputation.

Instead of reviewing their assessment data from the previous years, what if we came into a new classroom with expectations that all students will be successful? Could we hold off on passing judgment about a kid until we got to know them a little better?

Regie advocates for this. In the very first section on engagement, she calls for teachers to build trusting relationships as a priority during the first days of school. It isn’t about just literacy. “We simply cannot underestimate the power of positive relationships on the health, well-being, and achievement of all school community members” (10). For students to be able to learn, their basic needs have to be met. A strong relationship between student and teacher and as a classroom community are essential.

But what about all the time we are losing by not addressing reading and writing from day one? I hear you. What is being asked – slowing down and getting to know one another – seems contrary to the norm. Yet to be open to new ways of seeing each other, ourselves, and the world (the essence of mindfulness), this time in developing trust and relationships has to be a priority. The assessments will be there waiting.

Keep the Future in Perspective

The discussion described previously between the teacher and me is one example of the larger concern about student evaluation in general. I see a pattern where the further the assessment is removed from the context of the classroom, the less accurate yet more anxiety-producing them become. This is largely due to the desire of outsiders to publicize school report cards that are dependent on standardized tests. As Regie notes in her book, what information these scores reveal is limited at best.

We knowingly ignore the wide body of research that confirms that test scores primarily reflect family income. (312)

I have studied this phenomenon myself in my state of Wisconsin and I can attest to the accuracy of Regie’s statement. She offers sage advice for educators who worry too much about ensuring that their students reach expected goals and outcomes (318):

If we focus on the process, the product will improve.

This process that Regie speaks of suggests practices that help teachers focus on the present.

Be Present

Easy to say, hard to do. I know. I am in classrooms regularly and I can confirm the challenges inherent in moving toward more mindful and authentic assessment practices. Classroom routines, room arrangement, and a strong community with a focus on student independence are a prerequisite for this level of practice.

Once these conditions are established, ongoing formative assessment can begin. Assessment for learning (vs. “of” learning) is always mindful: it resists categorization, it is open to new information, and it can guide teacher and student to consider multiple perspectives. Results are typically qualitative and anecdotal. Formative assessments don’t serve as the total answer to the assessment conundrum but rather as an important piece within an evaluation framework.

Triangulation within RtI

Conferring notes are one such example of ongoing formative assessment. Teachers can use technology, such as a stylus, an iPad, and a notetaking application such as Evernote or Notability. One of our first-grade teachers uses Notability to not only write information about each reader and writer but also to audio record the students reading aloud an independent text or their own writing. Students can listen to themselves reading and then self-assess their fluency.

Paper and pen/pencil are a tried and true technology. Another one of our teachers uses different colors of ink for every time she confers with her readers and writers. This gives her and her students a visual way of distinguishing the conferring notes.

 

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Done systematically, conferring notes and other forms of ongoing, formative assessment can serve as a counter to the sometimes anxiety-inducing interim and summative evaluations. They breathe life into what can be a stagnant process. More responsive assessment practices conducted during instruction provide a richer picture of students, helping teachers see each kid as a unique individual. In addition, formative assessment guides instruction in response to each learner needs. As Regie notes, “quality formative assessments have the potential to create equal opportunities to learn for all students” (314). I would add that it also helps everyone be more mindful of what’s most important.

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.

May Round-up: Online Book Study for Literacy Essentials #litessentials

For the second year in a row, this blog has facilitated an online book study. In 2017, we read Becoming a Literacy Leader: Supporting Learning and Change, 2nd edition by Jennifer Allen (Stenhouse, 2016). This year, we are reading Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellent, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018).

The following links go to the five most recent posts from May for the study:

The rest of this post addresses a few questions readers might have about the study.

How do I participate?

An online book study hosted on this site is not like a Twitter chat, or an in-person book club for that matter. You could almost describe this learning experience as a “slow chat”. Contributors write responses (blog posts) to the common resource. Readers write comments. The contributor may respond to the comments, in which case an actual online conversation may ensue.

Blog posts are also shared on various social media channels. Any time a contributor publishes here, I share their post on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, and Linkedin. If you like what contributors here are writing, I would encourage you to do the same. If people are not on these social media channels, they can subscribe to this blog with their email address or their WordPress credentials.

Can I contribute to this study?

When a book is selected, a post is published calling for contributors to participate directly on this site. If you have missed this opportunity, readers are encouraged to still respond to the book by posting on their own blog or website. A nice example comes from the blog “Literacy Pages”: Meaningful Professional Development. By including the designated hashtag and Twitter handles when sharing out a post, it helps ensure that I and/or the author will pick up on it and promote it.

If uncomfortable at this time in writing your own posts, then readers are encouraged to comment on what is published. The goal of these online book studies, beyond promoting an excellent resource, is to grow every educator to become a better literacy leader. The more interaction we have in the comments, the smarter we may become.

Does the author participate in their book study?

Yes! As to how frequently and deeply depends on the author’s schedule. These are unique opportunities to interact with the author as you read and respond to their text.

Authors such as Regie are also likely to promote these posts on social media such as Twitter and Facebook. There is certainly a place for these types of connections in relation to their work. That said, high-quality professional development is a slow and steady process. There are no quick fixes. Improving in our own capacities is a lifetime of work, enjoyable and rewarding as long as we view it as more than just a brief encounter.

Question: How would you like to extend these conversations beyond the blog? For example, should there be a social media group set up to facilitate more discussion about the topics from the study? If so, where? Please leave your ideas in the comments!