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!

What I’m Reading – June 2017

What I’ve Read

Evil at Heart (Archie Sheridan & Gretchen Lowell, #3) by Chelsea Cain

This psychological thriller series is hard to put down. The flawed characters, plot twists, and Portland, OR setting make for an engaging read.

Walking Trees: Portraits of Teachers and Children in the Culture of Schools by Ralph Fletcher

Very few books take an unfiltered look into the reality of schools and leaders making efforts to improve education. Fletcher’s memoir is funny, honest and, at times, tragic.

Nothing But the Truth by Avi 

Near the end of this book, as the two main characters (teacher, student) realized that no good resolution was going to come from their situation, I thought about Wayne Dyer’s precept from Wonder by R.J. Palacio:

“When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.” 

I was introduced to this book by a thoughtful middle-level English teacher. She was guiding the students to think deeply about rights vs. responsibilities in a democracy. I would have enjoyed being a student in her class! Nothing But the Truth is a strong text for facilitating smart discussions.

Bold Moves for Schools: How We Create Remarkable Learning Environments by Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Marie Hubley Alcock

This book provides an essential vision and pathway for what schools should strive to become in this century.

Not Quite Narwhal by Jessie Sima

Wow, what a perfect book for helping kids (and adults?) understand that not everyone fits into a simple category. Definitely a text that could precede a conversation on empathy, gender, and/or acceptance. 

Bob, Not Bob!: *to be read as though you have the worst cold ever by Liz Garton Scanlon, Audrey Vernick, Matthew Cordell (illustrator)

You must read this aloud as if you have a cold. It’s a picture book that begs to be shared with others. I’m sure kids will clamor to reread the text and emulate the funny dialogue that leads to a satisfying ending. 

Truck: A Love Story by Michael Perry

A great follow-up to the author’s first memoir on small town life. If Population: 485 told the story of New Auburn, WI through the eyes of Michael Perry, then Truck: A Love Story shares the story of Michael Perry through the collective lens of his northern Wisconsin township. Perry provides more humor and self-deprecation as he provides a close examination of his two parallel endeavors: fixing up an old truck that’s been sitting in his yard and finally finding his partner in life.

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield

In a funk with your creative work? Pick up Pressfield’s short guide to battling your artistic block. He personifies all of our excuses reasons for not pursuing our passion projects as “The Resistance”. How we attack this common occurrence is the topic of this practical resource. 

It’s Not About the Coffee: Leadership Principles from a Life at Starbucks by Howard Behar

This short memoir is focused on one thing: When it comes to running an organization, it’s about the people. Whether we sell coffee or any other service or product, our priority should be the people we serve and those we serve with. Behar restates this philosophy a hundred different ways, which can be either affirming or redundant for the reader. For me, I appreciated hearing from a business leader that advocates for people over product, especially in today’s world. 

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Harry Potter, #4)
by J.K. Rowling, Mary GrandPré (Illustrator)

Just finished reading this to my son. It’s my second time reading it. All I can say is: wow, what a story. J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin have nothing on J.K. Rowling. If you’ve only seen the movie, do yourself a favor and read the book. Read the whole series. Rowling gives us some of the best writing of our times.

 

What I’m Reading

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien 

From the Goodreads summary: 

They carried malaria tablets, love letters, 28-pound mine detectors, dope, illustrated bibles, each other. And if they made it home alive, they carried unrelenting images of a nightmarish war that history is only beginning to absorb. Since its first publication, The Things They Carried has become an unparalleled Vietnam testament, a classic work of American literature, and a profound study of men at war that illuminates the capacity, and the limits, of the human heart and soul.

The Things They Carried depicts the men of Alpha Company: Jimmy Cross, Henry Dobbins, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Norman Bowker, Kiowa, and the character Tim O’Brien, who has survived his tour in Vietnam to become a father and writer at the age of forty-three.

Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Instruction by Maja Wilson

From the Goodreads summary:

Though you may sense a disconnect between student-centered teaching and rubric-based assessment, you may still use rubrics for convenience or for want of better alternatives. Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment gives you the impetus to make a change, demonstrating how rubrics can hurt kids and replace professional decision making with an inauthentic pigeonholing that stamps standardization onto a notably nonstandard process. With an emphasis on thoughtful planning and teaching, Wilson shows you how to reconsider writing assessment so that it aligns more closely with high-quality instruction and avoids the potentially damaging effects of rubrics.

  

What I Plan to Read Next

Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art by Virginia Heffernan

Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein

 

Thinking About Assessment…

My son’s first swim meet was tonight. After his five events, he told me he wanted to get to practice tomorrow for two reasons: to see how he and his teammates did and to swim some more.

The best assessments create a desire to want to improve and learn more. I post my books here not to show what I know, but because it’s important for me to go back over my reading list, see what I’ve read, and make plans to read for the future. Maybe someone will comment on what I’ve read, share their response to the same text, and offer another title that relates to this book. Maybe I’ll do the same.

I think you can learn a lot about someone by looking at what they read. If I were to look at my list from the outside and not as myself, I might think: 

• This guy reads a lot.

• He either has kids or works with kids.

• If he reads a nonfiction text, he is likely to pick up fiction next.

• Learning for life is important to him.

This reading list and my responses to the books I read offer a lot of information about who I am as a reader. A teacher would not need to give me a multiple choice quiz to assess whether I comprehended the texts or not. It’s as clear as day in my brief reactions. Maybe a more important assessment point is the fact that I am currently reading and that I have books that I want to read next. Seems important to me anyway.

In one of the books I am currently reading, Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Instruction, Maja Wilson offers a convincing argument about how traditional assessment practices can impact our instruction. It’s one of the best educational resources I’ve read. There are many memorable lines, and I’ll share one here I feel is pertinent.

Encouraged by the performance levels on the rubric to rank students against an external standard, our readings of student work are based firmly in a deficit model. We look for mistakes, inconsistencies, and unclear thinking to justify which square in the matrix we will circle. (pg. 30)

Assessment in literacy should have no room for competition. There are no winners, no losers. Reading and writing should be a community experience. We celebrate our friends’ successes and help them improve in areas of growth. In a classroom that promotes connectedness and democracy, our peers’ strengths are to our benefit. My reading list is evidence of my life as a reader, as well as a member of a community of readers.

Encouraging Summer Reading with Authentic Experiences

It’s June. Many are itching to call it a year. The local swimming pool is open, and it’s much more inviting than that next page in the textbook –> for the students as well as the teachers. Three months from now, our kids will arrive back after a much-needed break, take a reading screener, and the results will tell us what we already know. Here’s the deal: Some kids leave school and read a ton, and some do not read at all.

How can we encourage the latter to engage in habitual reading over the summer? Some argue that it is the classroom teacher that must be the primary influencer in this task. This is a noble statement. Yet it can also be a tall order for a teacher trying to turn a really resistant student into a lifelong reader. He/she might need several teachers in a row to spark a love for literacy plus a purpose for engaging in text.

Cahill, Horvath, Franzen, and Allington wrote a helpful resource titled No More Summer Reading Loss (Heinemann, 2013). I have explored some of their ideas in my prior school, such as opening up the library during the summer. Yet I have not been strategic in these efforts. This year, we have made more concerted efforts to target our students who need to read the most, while encouraging everyone to read every day. Our primary approach to encourage summer reading by facilitating authentic experiences.

Providing Books for Students in Intervention

We don’t want to make a judgment in sending home books for our students who received additional support in reading. Yet we know that the typical student who struggles in reading has less access to text in the home. That is why we are sending home books in the mail to these kids over the summer. It can’t get more authentic than a book, right?

They were provided choice in what they wanted to read. Our two reading teachers gave each student a visual list of high-interest titles that they could circle with a highlighter. Then the teachers ordered the books, sorted them, and prepared each title for staggered mailing. This was a lot of work on their part, but worth it as we believe more books in the home can make the difference.

Leveraging Digital and Online Tools

I am the first to admit that technology is not the panacea that some enthusiasts might like you to believe. However, when it comes to issues of access, technology makes perfect sense. Getting a kid to the public library can be a challenge if parents are at work or it is too far away. Digital tools are ubiquitous in most homes now.

Here are a few digital and online tools our students likely have access to over the summer:

  • Overdrive: Students can check out eBooks and audiobooks using their public library card number.
  • Biblionasium: Like Goodreads for younger people, kids can rate, review, and recommend books for peers.
  • Kidblog: An online writing tool that offers students a safe space to publish reflections on what they are reading, as well as to post digital creations.

All three of these literacy experiences closely resemble how adult readers connect and interact with text.

Modeling Ourselves as Readers and Writers

We as educators don’t reveal ourselves enough as individuals who engage in authentic literacy experiences . If a teacher or principal isn’t a lifelong reader to begin with…well, that’s a bigger problem. I’ll assume the former.

For our last day activity as a school, a picture book was purchased for every teacher in the classroom. During our recognition assembly I will be encouraging teachers to read aloud their book to their students. In addition, each student will be receiving a small pocket journal. The suggestion will be to carry this around during the summer months and used it to maintain a reading list, a to-read list, or even a grocery list. Writing anything is better than not writing. If we can connect writing to reading, all the better.

I plan on sharing an entry from my own pocket journal, which coincidentally contains ideas for how students might read over the summer.

 

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Promoting lifelong reading with authentic experiences has the potential to encourage more students to become avid readers over the summer.


Becoming a Literacy Leader cover image

Interested in some summer professional reading? Contributors to this collaborative blog will be reading and responding to Becoming a Literacy Leader: Supporting Learning and Change, 2nd Edition by Jennifer Allen (Stenhouse, 2016). Jennifer’s updated text has many ideas for facilitating coaching cycles, preparing for excellent professional learning, and reflections from the field.

Update 6-3-17: The sign up for this opportunity has been closed due to high interest.

 

 

 

Examining Our Beliefs About Literacy: Small Steps, Big Wins

During our school’s last professional learning community (PLC) experience, the entire faculty came together to examine our beliefs about literacy. Beliefs about teaching and learning are formed over time, through prior education, collaboration with colleagues, and classroom experience. Through structured conversations in vertical teams and watching professionals in the classroom via video, we found three areas in which we can all agree upon as best practice in literacy:

A child’s written story can be used to teach phonics and skills.

You can assess a child’s phonemic awareness by examining his/her journal writing.

Shared writing is an excellent way to record common experiences and connect to reading.

This may not seem like a big deal, at least at first glance. For example, shared writing, an instructional strategy in which a teacher leads their class to develop a story or report together, makes sense for teaching phonics and grammar in context. Using personal writing as a text for independent reading is authentic, and it honors students as authors. Yet this might seem counter to some of the instruction that pervades schools. Many of our programs and kits silo the various parts of language arts in an effort to ensure standards are being met. 

We sometimes wrap our practices around resources, both digital and print, without first examining our beliefs. As we use these resources “with fidelity”, our beliefs are formed by our practices, which were informed by the resources. (See Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success by Regie Routman for more information.) Our identities as educators are intertwined with our work, which is made public daily in our classrooms. This is what makes it so difficult to change. It is also a reason why companies continue to produce resources that often promote antiquated practices. The bottom line is sales. We buy the resources because we know them. It helps to remember that these companies are not educational organizations; they are businesses. 

The hardest part about change is not the lack of knowing what to do. We have multiple sets of data to support the need for building our collective knowledge regarding how reading supports writing and vice-versa. No one disagrees that this is an area where our school can improve as a faculty. We are not doing poorly; we simply know we can improve. The hardest part about change is in revisiting current beliefs about literacy and adopting new ones as a faculty.

Our school will continue this work in building our collective professional knowledge about effective literacy instruction. The three beliefs we unanimously agreed upon are a big step in the right direction. We will revisit them at this time next year. It should not be understated that we were able to come together as a team and find consensus on key issues in literacy instruction. These beliefs are now expected to be evident in our teaching and learning, regardless of what a program or resource might expect. I am looking forward to observing how our new beliefs will inform our future practices. 

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