Building a Literacy Culture: Fostering Trust Through Beliefs and Commitments

In the midst of my third year in my “new” school, I feel fortunate that I can reflect on my past experiences as a building principal in one elementary while leading a literacy initiative right now in my current building.

We started at Mineral Point by delving into the foundations of literacy instruction: the reading-writing connection. We are moving forward, feeling more comfortable with our pace and expectations regarding what to try and apply in our classrooms. Some might want to move forward more quickly than others, which seems common in schools.

This is a challenge as a building principal/literacy leader:  What is the right pace in which to move an entire school toward a culture where every student is expected to become an independent reader and writer?

Answer: there is no right way. Many pathways can get you to the same destination. Yet it starts with trust, defined by Dr. Anthony Muhammad as “feeling confident in another person’s ability to follow through on a commitment.” People feel safer in these types of conditions to innovate.

To move toward a literacy culture as a whole faculty, trust has to be cultivated. Trust is founded on various elements of which many are tacit and hard to see. Two concrete ways to build trust is through examination of a school’s beliefs and an agreed-upon set of professional commitments. Beliefs and commitments are commonly-held agreements about what we think and how we act. They are the foundation on which a culture sits upon when ensuring that all students are successful readers and writers. Beliefs and commitments are rudders that guide our work toward our goals.

IMG_2750.png

I’ve written about examining literacy beliefs before; you can read about two recent experiences here and here. Regarding collective commitments, you can find this culture-building activity in Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work (Solution Tree, 2016). I also shared about our school’s collective commitments on my school blog.

School leaders need to be able to determine when a school is struggling with its culture, such as when teachers are feeling too much stress while implementing new practices. I rely on our instructional leadership team members plus other staff to help discern how faculty is feeling about our work. I am not a mind reader. We have to rely on others’ perceptions regarding professional learning. This dialogue can be improved when we have concrete statements about what we believe and how we will conduct ourselves in accordance with these beliefs. They are words we live by.

Preparing to Teach in the Middle

Photo by Tim Wright on Unsplash

When I was a 5th- and 6th-grade classroom teacher, my lesson plans primarily consisted of the following: the learning objective and how I would assess student learning. Little time was spent thinking about strategies and practices that would guide students to new understanding.

As a principal for the last twelve years, I can see now how limiting this approach to lesson preparation was. Teachers are wise to spend the majority of their time planning instruction in-between the two.

During a recent classroom visit, a teacher was focused on debate skills and how to make a persuasive argument both in writing and verbally. There was a learning target posted and an assessment planned at the end, yet the majority of the time was spent in the middle of the lesson.

  • They connected this work to how an attorney might have to take on a case in which they disagreed philosophically with the position.
  • Clear criteria for success were provided, including steps they should follow to develop their position for the upcoming debate.
  • The teacher shared the stage with another student to demonstrate how a debate might proceed. They discussed what the student did well and aligned their thinking with the goal of the lesson.
  • Students were placed in groups based on the issue they would debate, such as cell phone use in school, and partnered with someone who had their same position (for or against).
  • The majority of the lesson was spent with students working with peers to collect evidence, outline their argument, and share their ideas. The teacher walked around and conferred with groups when support was needed.
  • They finished this lesson, a part of a larger unit on persuasive writing, by practicing their debate skills in front of peers. The teacher video recorded them. She would later share the footage with each student so they could self-assess their skills and compare to the success criteria.

If I went back into the classroom, learning targets and summative assessments would not be a priority. The messier process of teaching and learning, with all of the interactions that occur in the middle, would be my focus. If we can get that part right, the results will take care of themselves.

Matt de la Peña: Writing From the Outside

If I had to choose a few books that should be in every K-12 classroom, I think one of them would be Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson. It’s an important book on many levels, conveying messages about gratitude, cultural awareness, and diversity.

So I was felt fortunate to hear Matt de la Peña speak at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention this past weekend. If I could summarize his session, in which he spoke about his journey as an author, it would be “writing from the outside”.

The author’s father is Mexican and his mother is white. He shared how growing up, he had to code-switch a lot between the two families to feel a greater sense of belonging within each. This paradox influenced de la Peña’s work. Instead of trying to simplify the topics he wants to write about, he leans into these complexities and describes what it is like to live between two worlds.

For example, in Last Stop on Market Street, the author highlights the ways people are diverse beyond the color of one’s skin. CJ learns while riding the bus that a blind man can see with his other senses. As de la Peña noted during his session:

Diversity goes beyond just race. We need to examine our thinking about this concept, such as seeing one’s class status or disability in a new way.

As the author read aloud and shared about his books, he also explained how he can write about complex issues within the small window of a picture book.

The more you can simplify, the more you can do with a book. For example, CJ sees the people in the soup kitchen and he associates the service with them.

Related, in another picture book he wrote, Love, de la Peña explained how the story and illustrations move from a familiar idea of the title’s name to a more nuanced understanding that helps the reader build perspective.

You can’t know love if you also don’t know adversity.

The author also has several acclaimed young adult novels. I’m not familiar with these titles, but after listening to Matt de la Peña speak, I am looking forward to reading some of them with my own kids as they approach adolescence.

And I believe that is an important, final point to make. The author shared an observation after having visited schools in both affluent/mostly white communities and in more diverse areas. In the former, it was rare to find many of his books in the school libraries that depicted different cultures. “We just don’t have many kids who look like that in our school,” shared one librarian. Given the frequency he sees the Harry Potter series in schools, he wondered aloud during the session if these schools have a lot of wizards.

In other words, literature should be diverse because we need to introduce our students to different perspectives, ways of being, and how the world actually is. Authors like Matt de la Peña who write from the outside and embrace life’s paradoxes serve to complicate our understanding of the world in important ways.

What books shaped you? Three for my reading autobiography #WSRA19

At the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention, Donalyn Miller invited us to write a reading autobiography. This is a list of books that shaped us as readers and as people. My group thought that this activity would be an excellent way to end the school year with students or to re-engage a group of “dormant readers”. Below is my short list.

Elementary School: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume – I was a reluctant reader until my 3rd-grade teacher read it aloud to our class. I’m told that I reread this book several times before I found my next book. I guess I had some catching up to do.

Junior High: It by Stephen King – I’m surprised my junior high teachers let me read this novel and other King books. The content was not middle level appropriate…if I remember correctly, my friend and I found these books at the public library in town. I particularly remember It because half of the story was told from the kids’ point of view. Our town wasn’t nearly as dangerous as Derry but we had just as much free reign, something not often seen in today’s hyper-vigilant world.

High School: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes – My current preference of science fiction was influenced by this book we read in high school English. The idea that science and technology might always have a cost in addition to the opportunities realized has stayed with me.

What books would be in your reading autobiography? How did these books shape you? Consider writing your own post or share in the comments here.

Assessing and Celebrating School Culture #WSRA19

Below is a short article from my staff newsletter I wrote yesterday. We are the midway point of the school year, and I wanted to highlight our successes as a school culture by documenting evidence of our work in writing. I’ll be speaking more about this topic at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention next week in Milwaukee. If you are also attending, I hope we are able to connect! -Matt

I’ve asked a few staff members for feedback about my plan for publishing To the Point every other week. My theory on this is that our communication as a staff, both formal and informal, is strong. Information shared seems to be frequent and accurate. That is a major reason for my staff newsletters which also helps with not having more than one short staff meeting a month.

This thinking became apparent as I have prepared for a session I am leading at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention next week: “How to Build a Literacy Culture”. As I go through artifacts of our success and growth to present to others, I could confirm many indicators of a healthy and thriving school culture beyond only communication (these characteristics come from Literacy Essentials by Regie Routman). 

  • Trusting – We focus on our strengths first and follow through on our tasks before facilitating feedback about areas for growth.
  • Collaborative – Our different school teams work together to guide the school toward goals; instructional coaching is common.
  • Intellectual – We have thirteen shared beliefs about the reading-writing connection and reading to understand.
  • Responsible – The goals for the school are limited, focused, student-driven and clear, i.e. “A Community of Readers”. 
  • Equitable – We have high expectations for our students and provide additional support when necessary.
  • Joyful – Celebration and appreciation are interwoven in our interactions with each other and with the community.

It’s an honor to be able to highlight our collective work for others and share our journey toward success. Sustaining a school culture is an ongoing process that is far from perfect and is sometimes challenging. Yet the results we see with our students makes all the difference.

Repositioning Educational Leadership: Leading from an Inquiry Stance

A book that piqued my interest in the principalship was Improving Schools from Within: Teachers, Parents, and Principals Can Make the Difference by Roland Barth (Jossey-Bass, 1990). During one of my first years as a teacher, I found it while browsing through our professional library. At the time I only knew I should probably go for my masters but I was unsure about any focus.

After reading Barth’s classic resource, I knew what I wanted to study. He shared his own personal journey as a principal, the ups and downs, before conveying his belief that empowered schools have all they need to continuously grow as a community of learners. Barth’s frank and authentic descriptions of the principalship are something I don’t often read about in today’s literature on school leadership.

Repositioning Educational Leadership: Practitioners Leading from an Inquiry Stance (Teachers College Press, 2018) carries Barth’s torch and follows a similar journey. The editors – James Lytle, Susan Lytle, Michael Johanek, and Kathy Rho – have collected a series of narratives from doctoral students at the University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education. They are research summaries that describe the real problems of practice for these leadership students within their context at the time.

Among the eleven memorable experiences, I want to briefly highlight one narrative that hit home for me as a principal.

“Language and Third Spaces” by Ann Dealy

A principal in Ossining, New York explores the possibilities of implementing a more culturally-relevant curriculum into her increasingly diverse elementary school. What she discovers is that when leaders try to make instructional changes, they also have to consider the school culture and community in the process.

Professional development shifted from looking for answers from outside of the school to studying our students as learners and collaborating on changes in practice to better support teaching and learning (38).

Dealy also learned through her inquiry that, by upgrading a curriculum to be more culturally responsive, other groups may inadvertently experience somewhat similar feelings of being underrepresented.

It became clear that in the effort to open up curricula, we can also inadvertently close out those whose prior dominance we may have been countering (41).

This research helped reveal for Dealy and her partners that the process of organizational change is most effective as a team effort. Not taking into consideration others’ perspectives will likely lead to limited results.

The implementation of best-researched models of equitable practice is a start – but it is not enough. My leadership learnings include the necessity for collective inquiry to affect systemic change (45).

After reading Dealy’s narrative, I reflected on my own experiences when I have not included the broader school community in decision making on behalf of our students. Almost always when I have engaged with others regarding our schools’ needs, the direction we took was positive. The narratives shared in Repositioning Educational Leadership provided necessary perspectives for me as I considered my own context. It also brought me back to the original goal of getting into the principalship: to affect change from within and with many.

Note: A copy of Repositioning Educational Leadership was provided for me at no cost to read and respond to for this post.

The Obstacles We Create

During a Twitter chat this week for #AWSAConnect (Association of Wisconsin School Administrators, @AWSALeaders1), the facilitator Jay Posick posed a challenge for educators to respond to and blog about it before the next chat: Choose one barrier to hurdle next week.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

The hurdle I choose, one I think I select every week, are the obstacles I might create for myself.

Certainly, some hurdles are beyond our influence. For example, staffing that might be cut or resources that are limited due to budget constraints are legitimate obstacles we have little control over.

But I have found that the majority of the obstacles in our path are the ones we decide to let into our professional lives.

An example I wrote about recently was the commercial resource samples that appeared in our hallway. I had not requested these items. In the past, I would have shrugged and had our custodian put them in my office to review at a later time. And every time I went to my office, there they would be, waiting for me to open them up and make a decision on whether we should adopt these resources. This year, I requested that the company come back and pick up the samples. No more obstacle.

Potential hurdles that can interfere with our important work are not just physical. We also get inundated with online requests that call for our attention. For instance, a few of our faculty members have used Teachers Pay Teachers to order resources. A representative for this site reached out and asked if I was interested in a school account. In the past, I would have hemmed and hawed about making a decision, wondering who I might upset if I said “no” or “yes”. Instead, I asked the rep for more information about how their resources are evaluated for effectiveness and for permissions. I’ll share his responses with our leadership team and make a collaborative decision. Now, this obstacle was a chance to practice shared leadership.

We can event set up professional hurdles in our personal lives. They may not even seem like an obstacle to overcome at first. Case in point: I had my eye on a writers workshop for April. I talked to my wife about this being a birthday present, an opportunity to improve my writing skills. In the meantime, while discussing possible spring activities with my family, my daughter suggested we go to a Milwaukee Brewer game for my birthday (she knows I’m a baseball fan). It was at this point that I realize the workshop was connected closely to my work; I write almost exclusively about education. Her comment helped me get some perspective and reflect on my priorities as a father, husband, and friend. In other words, we’re going to a baseball game.

And with that, I would like to add a follow-up question to Jay’s call to action: Is this barrier that you want to hurdle an obstacle you created for yourself?