Civic Responsibility

This post is a newsletter I am sending home to our elementary school families. Let me know what you think in the comments! -Matt

It is hard to believe that November is already here! It’s been a busy two months of building our learning community at school, connecting with kids, staff and families, and discussing our goals. For this school year, we are focused as a faculty on reading instruction, specifically thinking about the text. This includes thinking critically about what we read and analyzing the writer’s craft.

It can be challenging for schools to maintain a singular focus on a building-wide goal. Public education receives many requests to implement initiatives within the school day. It’s an honor to been viewed as a central tenet of a healthy community and society. Yet we cannot adopt everything deemed important. If all ideas are essential, how do we determine what is taught and learned?

One topic that has come up a lot recently is civic responsibility. Schools are being called to action to reverse the trend of Americans not participating in civic duties, for example a decline in people voting. In an article for Phi Delta Kappan, educator Michael Rebell goes as far as to state that preparing students for capable citizenship is the school’s primary responsibility.

Schools must create environments that respect and harness both pluralism and individualism while adopting instructional practices that promote civic agency, critical inquiry, and participatory experiences.

(You can access Rebell’s article at this URL: http://www.kappanonline.org/rebell-preparation-capable-citizenship-schools-primary-responsibility/)

When I first started reading this article, I felt a little defensive. How can we take on this responsibility?, I thought. No doubt we teach social studies. That said, literacy and mathematics are what we are tested on every spring. What gets measured gets done first. In addition, we do worry about discussing topics with students that are deemed controversial by some. How can we take civic understanding to a deeper level of understanding in an agreeable manner? Factor in the constraints of time and you get the picture.

As I read on in the article, my thinking started to shift. For example, are the “3 R’s” – reading, writing, ‘rithmetic – mutually exclusive from social studies? They can appear like separate entities with the hyper focus on literacy and math standards. Yet Rebell points out that for students to become more civic-minded, they need to have developed in the very areas we are focused on as a faculty: critical thinking, effective speaking and listening skills, and understanding how a writer uses text structures to convey meaning.

Many American students who have basic literacy skills have yet to master the critical-reasoning and deliberation skills needed to appraise one-side or false information, assess policy alternatives, and enter into fruitful conversation with people who have opposing views.

The author almost suggests that for someone to truly be literate, they have to be able to take a critical stance toward text, as well as consider multiple perspectives at the same time. This would seem especially pertinent in a connected world where anyone can publish their thinking without the guidance of an editor to question one’s position or sources. Here again, Rebell addresses this issue by connecting media literacy and the role of the school.

Accelerating use of new digital media presents an additional challenge. Schools need to create and adopt curricula and instructional practices that enable all students to develop media-literacy skills to identify sources of information, distinguish accurate from fake facts, and engage in deliberative online discussions.

The community can also play a role in teaching students to be more civic-minded. This is part of our strategic plan: community engagement. Classrooms have already developed instructional plans that address this area. For example, students interviewed Mineral Point city officials about the governing process. The learning that occurs through these experiences is being measured through more authentic means, such as essays and video creation.

The Rebell article was a good reminder for me about the purpose of public education: to develop responsible and contributing members of society. Literacy and mathematics are in service to the larger goals and ideas for our students and for our community. They work hand-in-hand. Are we responsible for every individual’s actions once they leave the PK-12 world? Of course not. But we are responsible for developing a curriculum that gives every student the best opportunity to successfully navigate a changing world.

Leadership as Process

It is October, which means it is school learning objective time. Principals are diligently crafting statements that are S.M.A.R.T. “By the end of the school year,…” and then we make a prediction about the future. In April, we revisit these statements and see if our crystal balls were correct.

I must admit that my goals are usually not fully met. I aim too high, at least by educator evaluation standards. These systems are set up to shoot for just above the status quo instead of for the stars. Great for reporting out. Yet I don’t want to lower my expectations.

Setting objectives and goals are a good thing. We should have something tangible to strive for and know that we have a target to hit. My challenge with this annual exercise is how heavily we focus on a product while largely ignoring the process to get there.

Left alone, schools can purchase a resource or adopt a commercial curriculum that is aligned to the standards. But are they also aligned with our specific students’ needs? Do the practices and resources we implement engage our population of kids? Maybe we are marching toward a specific destination, but are we taking the best pathway to get there?

Having a plan and implementing a plan are two different things. Like an effective classroom teacher, we have to be responsive to the climate and the culture of a school. That means we should be aware of our environment, accept our current status, and then move forward together.

For example, when I arrived at my current elementary school, there was some interest in going schoolwide with the Lucy Calkins Units of Study for reading and for writing. Professionally, I find a lot of positive qualities about the program. Also in the periphery was a desire to get a more consistent literacy curriculum. Our scores reflected a need for instructional consistency and coherence.

If we have an outcome-focused leadership style, then it makes a lot of sense to purchase a program that promises exactly what is being requested. But that means we are investing in stuff instead of investing in teachers. So we declined. The teacher-leaders and I weren’t saying no to one program or passing the buck on making a hard decision. What we wanted instead was a clear plan to become better as practitioners.

This meant first revisiting our identities as educators. What does it mean as a teacher and a professional if the lessons were scripted for us? Are we not worthy of the trust and responsibility that is essential for the many decisions we make every day? This led to examining our beliefs about the foundation of literacy, the reading-writing connection. We found unanimity on only two specific areas out of 21 statements. Instead of treating this as a failure, we saw these two areas of agreement as a starting point for success. We nurtured this beginning and started growing ourselves to become the faculty we were meant to be for our students. After two years of work, we found nine areas of agreement on these same statements.

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There are no ratings or other evaluation scores attached to these statements. I am not sure how to quantify our growth as a faculty, and I am pretty sure I wouldn’t want to if I knew how. Instead, we changed how we saw ourselves and how we viewed our students as readers, writers, and thinkers. This is not an objective or goal that is suggested by our evaluation program, but maybe it should be.

I get to this point in a post and I feel like we are bragging. We are not. While I believe our teachers are special, there are great educators in every school. The difference, I think, is that we chose to focus more on the process of becoming better and less on the outcomes that were largely out of our hands. This reduced our anxiety with regard to test scores and public perception of our school. Anyone can do this work.

Data-Driven Decision Making: Who’s the decider?

After I shared out my previous post, describing my confusion about making sense of certain types of data, the International Literacy Association (ILA) replied with a link to a recent report on this topic:

It’s a short whitepaper/brief titled “Beyond the Numbers: Using Data for Instructional Decision Making”. The principal authors, Vicki Park and Amanda Datnow, make a not-so-provocative claim that may still cause consternation in education:

Rather than data driving the decision-making, student learning goals should drive what data are collected and how they are used.

The reason this philosophy might cause unrest with educators is that data-driven decision making is still a mainstay in schools. Response to Intervention is dependent on quantitative-based progress monitoring. School leaders too often discount the anecdotal notes and other qualitative information collected by teachers. Sometimes the term “data-informed” replaces “data-driven”, but the approach largely remains aligned with the latter terminology and practice.

Our school is like many others. We get together three times a year, usually after screeners are administered. We create spreadsheets and make informed decisions on behalf of our students. Yet students nor their parents are involved in the process. Can we truly be informed if we are not also including the kids themselves in some way?

To be fair to ourselves and to other schools, making decisions regarding which students need more support or how teachers will adjust their instruction is relatively new to education. As well, our assessments are not as clean as, say, a blood test you might take at the doctor’s office. Data-driven decision making is hard enough for professional educators. There are concerns that bringing in students and their families might only contribute to the confusion through the fault of no one.

And yet there are teachers out there who are doing just this: positioning students as the lead assessors and decision-makers in their educational journey. For example, Samantha Mosher, a secondary special education teacher, guides her students to develop their own IEP goals as well as how to use various tools to monitor their own progress. The ownership for the work rests largely on the students’ shoulders. Samantha provides the modeling, support, and supervision to ensure each student’s goals and plan are appropriate.

An outcome in releasing the responsibility of making data-informed decisions to students is that Samantha has become more of a learner. As she notes in her blog post:

I was surprised that many students didn’t understand why they got specific accommodations. I expected to have to explain what was possible, but didn’t realized I would have to explain what their accommodations meant.

“Yes, but older students are able to set their own goals and monitor their own progress. My kids are not mature enough yet to manage that responsibility.” I hear you, and I am going to disagree. I can say that because I have seen younger students do this work firsthand. It’s not a completely independent process, but the data-informed decision making is at least co-led by the students.

In my first book on digital portfolios, I profiled the speech and language teacher at my last school, Genesis Cratsenberg. She used Evernote to capture her students reading aloud weekly progress notes to their parents. She would send the text of their reflections along with the audio home via email. Parents and students could hear first hand the growth they were making over time in the authentic context of a personalized student newsletter. It probably won’t surprise you that once Genesis started this practice, students on her caseload exited out of her program at a faster rate. (To read an excerpt from my book describing Genesis’s work, click here.)

I hope this post comes across as food for thought and not finger-wagging. Additionally, I don’t believe we should stop with our current approaches to data analysis. Our hands are sometimes tied when it comes to state and federal rules regarding RtI and special education qualification. At the same time, we are free to expand our understanding and our beliefs about what counts as data and who should be at the table when making these types of decisions.

Comics and Graphic Novels: Honoring All Literacies

I was only partially surprised when a librarian mentioned to me that in her school, graphic novels were not seen as quality literature by some of the teachers. This discussion was prompted by a note a former student had written to her recently.

Thank you for letting me read graphic novels. They really hooked me as a reader, and now I am a great reader. I wish more people would have believed that these are the books that I could have.

“The books that I could have.” That statement alone speaks to the empowerment that graphic novels can foster within a reader. We need to move past the misconception that graphic novels and comics are not valuable as literature for students.

My own son is a shining example. He’s read a truckload of comics and graphic novels; he also happens to test very well in literacy (if that type of thing is important to you). This genre is not the only type of text that he reads. I’ll even admit that at times we have had to gently guide him toward other genres when he is in a rut as a reader. But we all get into ruts, such as my predilection for nonfiction at the expense of fiction. Lifelong readers are able to examine their own reading habits and make adjustments.

Understanding our students as readers can help to honor all literacies in school. My son was fortunate to participate in a statewide literacy project that advocates for this type of thinking, called “Wisconsin Writes“. Marci Glaus, an educational consultant with our department of public instruction, spearheads this initiative. The goal is to “provide a glimpse into example writing processes of Wisconsin writers from a variety of contexts”. Below is an interview with my son for this initiative.

The question remains: how do graphic novels and comics lead to empowered readers and writers? There are many possibilities…Regie Routman recently shared out a project from Winnipeg Schools. After a community-wide clean-up of plastic waste, older students created comic book superhero stories for younger students. Their hero’s superpower helped address environmental problems. (Go to 4:30 mark for the comic book project.)

The purpose of reading is to understand. Our understanding is dependent not just on the reader but also on the writer’s ability to communicate. If visuals help in this process, I see little reason why educators should disregard any medium. What are your thoughts about comics and graphic novels in the classroom? Please share in the comments.

 

Teacher Observations: Are we talking about the right thing?

I’ve got it written in my planner: start the teacher evaluation cycle. Something I am definitely going to communicate with faculty this week. Okay, probably.

The formal evaluation process is one aspect of my role as a principal that I have minimized over time. It’s not that I don’t take it seriously. I dot my I’s and cross my T’s. I even see it as beneficial when addressing performance that is not up to a minimum standard of excellence. But when it comes to what matters regarding teacher supervision, I would rather focus on my daily classroom visits and instructional walks.

As I have described in the past here, instructional walks are informal observations of instruction. What I experience is communicate in writing. They are non-evaluative and focused primarily on the positive aspects of teaching and learning in the classroom. My role is active: I am interacting with kids and letting the teacher know what’s going well in the classroom. Feedback is provided only when trust is established between the teacher and me and the faculty have been provided with the professional learning to improve.

This topic is on my mind right now because of a recent article in ASCD Education Update. In it, a teacher and a principal from two different schools provide a hypothetical conversation about the accuracy and effectiveness of traditional classroom walkthroughs. The teacher felt like the principal only came in when some of his students were not cooperating. He also wanted this administrator to inquire more about why certain kids were not successful. In response, the principal empathized with the teacher, acknowledging the limits of their evaluation system with a promise to be more present.

While I appreciate these types of conversations, and I understand that different states approach teacher evaluation differently, I feel like we are not talking about the right thing.

The right thing, from my perspective, is to discuss instruction as colleagues. To have constructive and even critical discussions about teaching and learning. To engage in conversation and reflection without worry of reprieve or hurt feelings. In these situations, we almost forget about who is in what role. We are focused on the practice.

Can this happen when a principal’s time is monopolized by a system that positions them primarily as an evaluator instead of a mentor and a coach? I don’t believe so. In these situations, trust is hard to build. Collegial relationships rarely form to their potential. Teaching to standards that need to be checked off a list of look-fors can inhibit innovation and the creative process of teaching.

My only suggestion is, as I shared previously, to minimize as much as we can regarding the current evaluation system if it is not effective for engaging educators in a reflective process of constant improvement. Dot those I’s. Cross your T’s. And when the paperwork is done, get back into the classroom and start learning and leading with your teachers.

 

Why we should focus on our beliefs as well as our practices

I was at the front of the school during dismissal, holding the door open for the students leaving. One 3rd grader stopped, looked at me, and asked, “Did you go to college?” “Yes, I did,” I responded. He thought for a moment, then shared quietly, “I don’t think I will go to college.” I asked him why.

Because no one in my family has gone to college.

Right away, I reassured him that if he wanted to go to college. he would be able to. He then talked about how expensive college was, which led to a conversation about scholarships and grants for students who excel in school. (By the way, this is not a typical conversation I have with a 3rd grader. He is a very thoughtful person.)

We can have the most technically skilled teachers in our school. They can receive the best professional development available and be provided all the time they need to prepare instruction and manage other tasks. But if a teacher does not believe that every student in their classroom can be successful readers, writers, and thinkers, then no amount of qualification or ability will have the necessary impact on our students.

Fortunately, beliefs and practices are intertwined. One influences the other. For example, if we try and apply a new practice and find it successful, our beliefs can shift so that we are discontinuing the less innovative practice. Likewise, when we reconsider our current practices because students are not as successful as they could be, we can become more open to new ideas.

A personal example: when I was teaching 5th and 6th grade in a multi-age environment, I leaned on the reading anthology series during the literacy block. I recall one student who was a “word caller”: they could read any text put in front of them, but they had little to no comprehension about what they just read. Frustrated, I sought out resources. Ideas from books by Cris Tovani and Stephanie Harvey were added to my repertoire. After applying these new practices, the student still wasn’t successful. But at least I had more reliable information when sharing my concerns about a possible learning disability with the parent.

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My beliefs changed because my concern for the student outweighed any pride or insecurity I had in my own abilities. Yet teachers do not have to wait for a challenge like mine to take action. In her book Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success (ASCD, 2014), Regie Routman describes characteristics of highly effective teacher-leaders (Appendix I):

  • Articulates core beliefs about teaching, literacy, and learning.
  • Daily practices match stated beliefs.
  • Reflects on how beliefs drive practices.
  • Seeks to improve and adjust beliefs and practices in light of new information and experiences.
  • Is open to productive change.

I’d like to think that I embodied some of these characteristics with the story about my former student. Yet prior to that case, I plowed through the mandated literacy program without giving much thought to the results. I cannot feel guilty, though. I can only share my own story in the hope that others will learn from my experiences.

As we start gathering assessment results from the fall screeners, I encourage all of us to pause for a moment and ask ourselves a few questions:

  1. When it comes to my literacy instruction, why am I doing what I am doing? (What you list is your beliefs.)
  2. If I didn’t have the current resources in my classroom, what would I use for literacy instruction? (You are examining how your beliefs drive your practices.)
  3. How can I ensure that every student not only is successful but also feels successful in my classroom? (You are becoming open to change.)

We can always do better. Every year we have students who don’t believe they are capable or worthy of success. We know they are, and they don’t have to feel this way. It’s our job to model what it means to have high expectations for ourselves. Be open about our personal challenges and how we are currently addressing them. Students need to see us as learners, not just experts. An open and transparent mind can also help maintain a focus on what our students need instead of what we think we need to teach. They are, after all, the reason schools exist.

 

Principals: What Is Your Job with a Capital J?

“What is my job on the planet?” is one question we might do well to ask ourselves over and over again. Otherwise, we may wind up doing somebody else’s job and not even know it.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are, pg. 206

In a previous post, I posed the question: “If you knew that your last day at your school was tomorrow, how would you decide to spend your time?” I offered my own response (spending time in classrooms, ignoring email, etc.). Yet I didn’t address a possible follow up question, one that couches us in our daily realities: How do I find the time to spend with students and teachers in classrooms?

This is a reasonable concern. The emails in our inbox don’t magically disappear. Requisitions need to be approved and evaluations have to be completed. What helped me prioritize my limited time in school is to ask myself a follow-up question (adapted from a chapter title in Kabat-Zinn’s book): What is my job with a capital J?

To find out, I created a T-chart. Next, I looked back on my calendar and started listing all of the tasks I had completed in the past along with what I remembered doing but didn’t schedule. On the left side, I wrote down all of the tasks that should belong to me as a school principal and instructional leader. On the right side, I listed tasks that were my responsibility as a principal but didn’t necessarily need to be completed by me.

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This idea comes from the book The Together Leader by Maia Heyck-Merlin (Jossey-Bass, 2016)

Here’s the list. It’s evolving. For example, I still do some data entry for discipline. I also tend to take care of a few purchase orders because I get uptight about our school budget. But overall, this process was both freeing and empowering. Freeing because I could give myself permission to not feel like I needed to be everywhere at once. Instead I’ve learned to trust staff to be responsive to students’ needs. Empowering because I am finding that staff members who I have asked to take on certain responsibilities are doing as good if not a better job than I would. For example, some of our most popular professional learning experiences have been facilitating by our teachers. I had as much to learn as anyone.

To be clear, I don’t value my tasks over what others might accomplish with me. Everything is important. What I know is that principals cannot do it all. So we have to be selective about how we choose to prioritize our time every day. If our expertise and efforts are best served as instructional leaders, then we have to find ways to delegate some of the non-instructional tasks to other staff members in order to be most effective.

What tasks have you found to be essential or nonessential to your role as a school principal and instructional leader? How did you re-organize responsibilities? Please share in the comments.