Quality Instruction: The Most Important Classroom Variable

The instruction that you provide to your students is the most important variable regarding student achievement.  Good instruction can deliver up to two years growth for some students.  The opposite, Jennifer Allen writes, “focus on improving the quality of instruction that (you are) providing to all students…student achievement would improve if we focused more energy on supporting classroom instruction as opposed to putting all of our resources toward supporting individual students”

You are one of the most important variables in your classroom. So, what are some easy ways to improve the quality of your instruction?  One easy way to impact your instruction is to have a desire to want to get better.  Is there an area where you feel you could improve your instruction?  Set a realistic, professional goal for yourself, and write it down!  Take small steps.  For example, setting a yearly goal of implementing strategy groups for small group reading instruction is a lot more realistic than expecting yourself to implement strategy groups in one nine weeks.

If you have an instructional coach, use him or her.  I can’t think of one professional athlete, singer, or entertainer that does not have a coach.  They recognize the importance of having someone available to improve their craft.  Your coach is available to you to help you improve in any area that you wish to strengthen.  A coach’s primary goal is to bring best instructional practices to you.  I will note that they are there to push you, too. 🙂

Attending professional development is another action to improve instruction. Professional development can be provided through your school district (for free), or you can attend professional development on your own through different webinar series. Following blogs and educational leaders on social media are a quick and easy way to keep abreast on new educational topics.

Also, we can’t omit assessments from this discussion.  Your assessments drive your instruction.  Assessments are your foundation. Without them, your instruction will be fragile.  Your assessments will give you insight on where the learning process breaks down for your students.  

I have a few questions for you to consider when supporting students on the bubble.

  • Are you tracking student growth?  If you’re not tracking student growth, you don’t know if your students are moving or not moving.  
  • How many touches a week do your bubble students receive?  Remember, these students still need consistent teacher support.  So, checking in with them once a week is not enough support for these students.  Children need to practice a skill or strategy at least eight times before they begin to internalize it.
  • How often do you reflect on the effectiveness of the support provided for these students?  This is a good opportunity to ponder about what strategies are working and not working.  Be honest.  There is no need in wasting precious time on a strategy that doesn’t work.  It may be helpful to rely on a teammate or coach.  It’s always helpful to have someone to bounce ideas or get another opinion.

As teachers, we have the daunting task of finding the key that unlocks the door to reading.  This is a process.  It may take a year, or two, or three for a child to become successful in their reading.  Know that the strong foundation that you provided will lay a path for that child’s reading success

Coaching Work: Curriculum & Assessment by @danamurphy68 #litleaders

In Chapter Six of Becoming a Literacy Leader, Jennifer Allen outlines the various ways she is able to support teachers with curriculum and assessment in her role as an instructional coach. As anyone in the field of education knows, curriculum and assessment are the backbone of the school system. Curriculum drives our teaching and assessment helps us fine-tune it. I’d go as far as to say supporting curriculum and assessment is one of my top three duties as an instructional coach.

Allen dedicates pages 114 – 116 to explaining how she helps prepare assessment materials during each assessment cycle. I nodded to myself as I read, remembering how I spent an entire morning last year in the windowless copy room making copies of our running record forms for the staff. It certainly wasn’t inspiring work, but I agree with Jennifer that preparing assessment materials is important work. When teachers are freed of the tedious jobs of copying or creating spreadsheets or organizing assessment materials, they are free to concentrate on the hard work of administering and analyzing assessments. If I can remove the ‘busywork’ part of assessment administration for them, I don’t mind spending a morning in a windowless copy room. In this way I can provide the time and space for teachers to think deeply about their assessments. If I can do the busywork, they can do the work that really matters.

green-chameleon-21532.jpg

While reading Chapter Six, I thought about how I support curriculum and assessment in my school district. I do many of things Allen wrote about, but what seems most important to me is helping teachers look at student work as formative assessment. On page 110, Allen wrote:

Students should be at the heart of our conversations around curriculum and assessment, and it’s important that we don’t let them define who students are or might become. 

This quote summarizes my driving belief as an instructional coach. It is easy to fall into the trap of believing we (instructional coaches) exist to support the teachers, but the truth is we are ultimately there for the students. In order to keep students at the heart of my work as a coach, I work hard to have student work present during any coaching conversation. This holds true at the end of an assessment cycle as well. It benefits everyone to slow down and take the time to review the assessments (not the scores, the actual assessments). Teachers bring their completed writing prompts or math unit exams or running records, and we use a protocol to talk about the work. There are an abundant amount of protocols available at NSRF. I also highly recommend the Notice and Note protocol from The Practice of Authentic PLCs by Daniel R. Venables. This is my go-to protocol to look at student work with a group of teachers.

Teachers are in the classroom, doing the hard work of implementing curriculum and administering assessments. Our job as literacy leaders is to support them by giving them the time and space to reflect on their hard work.

Summer Book Buzz

As an instructional coach, one of my responsibilities is to provide voluntary opportunities for teachers to study in groups during the school year and in the summer. This is one of my favorite coaching responsibilities. The studies take on a life of their own and usually go way beyond my expectations. Because the study is usually voluntary to some extent, teachers are more passionate learners and more confident as they become experts in a new content area or practice. Having a part in how they feel about themselves as confident teachers is pure joy!

In her book, Becoming A Literacy Leader, Jennifer Allen is guided by two goals when planning study groups: purposeful alignment and peer interaction. She states that, “…resources that are selected as offerings within the school are aligned to our district goals and that our professional development has everyone focused, interacting, and making meaning together.”

I agree with her goals, and I have had the opportunity to plan book study groups based on these goals. This past summer I received a healthy budget to purchase professional books for summer book studies. I chose the books based on teacher surveys, asking what they would like to study together, as well as aligning the choices with my district’s goals and philosophy.

Once the books arrived, I created a ‘Summer Book Buzz’ for teachers to read through and make an informed decision about the study in which they would like to participate. At a staff meeting teachers signed up for their study of choice, chose a facilitator, selected dates to meet, and created norms for their time together. One of the requests I made of teachers that chose to participate was to present something  from their study during a staff meeting in the upcoming school year. The groups presented engaging strategies, activities, and student work. Because the study groups were voluntary the teachers took ownership over their time together as well as what and how they chose to present. This was evident as I listened to the presentations at staff meetings and the many conversations teachers had with me. I considered the book study groups a success.

Summer Book Buzz Screen Shot (2)

As I read chapter 4 of Allen’s book, she affirmed much of my work planning and preparing for the book study groups. I also realized there is much I could add to my planning for the next time. Although having teachers present their studies gave me a form of evaluation, I can see that implementing a study group evaluation would provide valuable information for me as a coach and facilitator.

Allen’s suggested evaluation includes…
1. What was the greatest benefit of participation in this type of professional development format?
2. What changes may you make in your instruction as a result of attending this focus group?
3. Please rate this form of professional development on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being the highest).
4. Comments:

Jennifer Allen closes this chapter by calling study groups a worthy investment. She states, “Study groups are what I am most passionate about as a literacy specialist. I believe in teachers and their ability to direct, reflect, and facilitate their own learning.” From my reading and my own experiences I would agree, and I plan to continue using book study groups in my practice while applying the valuable suggestions Allen provides in her book. Let the new school year and the study groups begin!

Bring an Author to Your School

One of the best ways to increase enthusiasm for reading and writing in your school is by bringing an author on-site. It is mutually beneficial: the author receives support and awareness for their book(s); the students get a glimpse into the mind of a professional writer. I’ve been involved in several author visits at my schools and I have never been disappointed.

Next are three ways you can facilitate an author visit.

  • Skype an author

This is the most cost-effective way to bring an author into your school. Some authors will participate in video-based conversations for free, although I think it is great if you can pay them for their time. Title I funds would certainly support this. Skype chats with authors work well for individual classrooms or grade levels who might want to chat with an author in which they did a study of their books. It might also work as an entry event into a genre study in which the author’s work would apply.

Below is a short video of a Skype chat my son’s 1st-grade class had with Johnathan Rand, author of the Freddy Fernortner: Fearless 1st Grader series.

After this Skype chat with the author, the students were excited to read Rand’s early reader series. One student who was in Reading Recovery was so motivated after this event that she was able to decode and comprehend these chapter books while reading independently.

  • Partner with another organization

If costs are an issue and your school really wants to bring an author on-site, consider partnering with another local organization to help make this happen. Public libraries would be a logical connection. If the author has publications for both adults and kids, this can help the cause.

At my last school, we partnered with our local library in bringing Michael Perry to our building. Typically known for his memoirs and humorous writing, Perry had recently published his first book for older students, The Scavengers. After his talk at the local library the previous night for a citywide read of Population: 485, we brought the author over to our school for an hour-long chat with our 4th and 5th graders about his new series.

 

img_21861.jpg
Michael Perry speaking at our public library

 

While I was able to attend his appearance at the public library, I wasn’t able to make it to his school visit. From what the teachers told me, the kids really enjoyed his presentation.

  • Invite an author to your school

This is the preferred approach, as you get full access to the author for at least a day. The author can read aloud his/her book to the students, lead workshops on the writing process, and share personal experiences that led them to want to become an author in the first place. Prior to the visit, I have found it wise to discuss with the author what the day will look for everyone and how to make the best use of everyone’s time. For example, it is smart to consider the attention spans of younger vs. older students when scheduling classroom visits. Also, it is great to have copies of the author’s text in every classroom. In addition, I like to promote these visits to neighboring schools. If another school also wants the author to visit, it might help defray the costs of lodging and travel.

 

Author programs_Lisl H. Detlefsen.jpg
Lisl visited my last school and my current school.

Our students, especially the young ones, may not truly understand where literature comes from until they meet an author in real life. The stories they tell, the experiences they share, and their simple presence in a school should be regular occurrences in every school. As a principal, I’ve personally witnessed the benefits of author visits in our students’ literacy lives.

 

 

Homework: Helpful, Harmful, or Otherwise?

As I write this, I am out on our back patio. My kids are in the neighbor’s backyard, flying a kite with friends. They had recently recovered the kite from a tree. This time around, they are staying away from the natural hazard. I don’t know how they got the kite down previously; they had figured it out before I was called to the rescue.

Imagine, instead, if I had made my kids stay in after school to finish their homework.

Four years ago, I shared my attempt at revising our homework policy at my former school. It was more policy than practice – we briefly discussed it, then moved on to something related to literacy, I’m sure. Looking back, it was a topical change at best. My suggestions were within the paradigm that homework was still necessary. We never really delved into the idea of homework as a concept that may be outdated.

I’m torn. Some of the work students bring home can make for an interesting study. For example, my son was recently assigned a family heritage project. He had to locate an item that is a part of our family’s history and culture, learn about its significance through interviewing family members, and then communicate his new knowledge through speaking. Storytelling is a skill they have been working on for a while.

Screen Shot 2017-04-12 at 6.05.38 PM.png

My daughter has elected to bring home learning. She is participating in Genius Hour in her classroom. This primary class refers to these inquiry-based learning activities as “Wonder Projects”. My wife and I are often recruited to support her most current questions, whether that be taking pictures of her next to enclosed animals (“What animals most often live in a zoo and why?”) or setting up a mini-art studio in our dining room (“What are some famous artists and their artwork?”).

These examples are, by definition, homework. One was assigned, one wasn’t. Both facilitated a unique learning experience in our home. This seems to fly in the face of research, such as John Hattie’s meta-analysis that homework has a negligible effect in elementary school and a significant one at the secondary. To be fair, homework that I just described is rare. The typical fare is worksheetsreading logs, and studying spelling words for Friday’s test. One can understand with these examples why schools are starting to outright ban homework.

These absolute policies also result in absolute thinking.  My post here is not to admonish or advocate for homework. Rather, let’s bring some common sense into the conversation. An instructional coach, Dana Murphy, came up with a novel way for teachers to think before they assign homework.

In other words, if we are assigning homework, is it more important than opportunities for kids to play, read, or spend time with families? If the answer is “no”, then how can we rethink our instructional approach for the 6-8 hours that we do have students in our classrooms?

Gotta go. The kids are burying each other in landscape pebbles.

To Raise a Reader

(I wrote this post last week for our families on my school blog.)

If parents want to raise a reader, someone who engages in reading regularly and voluntarily, they should read aloud to their children. Put away the flashcards and take down the sticker charts for number of books read. Make reading aloud every day a priority.

As a parent myself, I realize that this task can be sometimes difficult. There have been evenings when reading aloud didn’t happen in our home due to work or other obligations. However, we have made it a ritual, as regular as brushing our teeth.

The science that supports reading aloud to children, both at home and in school, is clear. Next are some of the biggest benefits, although this list is not exhaustive.

Reading aloud to children:

  • Increases vocabulary acquisition
  • Improves reading comprehension and fluency
  • Increases engagement in reading
  • Broadens their imaginations
  • Improves student writing
  • Fosters relationships between the adult and child
  • Develops listening and speaking skills
  • Facilitates meaningful conversations

Two books reference much of the research on reading aloud: In Defense of Read-Aloud by Dr. Steven L. Layne and The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. Trelease’s resource is in its 7th edition now and should be in the home of every family. Some hospitals will send The Read-Aloud Handbook home with new parents. It was a book I relied on when I taught elementary school.

BUT WHAT IF I HAVEN’T READ ALOUD TO MY CHILD UP UNTIL NOW?

This feeling is called “retroactive guilt.” Educators feel the same way when we discover a new strategy or method and then think about all of the students we had in the past who did not have access to this better practice. The best thing to do is to start reading aloud now and make it a habit. For a list of titles that will engage kids at every age level, go to Scholastic’s list of 100 Best Read-Aloud Books.

MY STUDENTS ARE NOT IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL. WILL THEY ENJOY BEING READ ALOUD TO BY ME?

Yes. Tweens and teens may not admit it, as adolescents seem hard-wired to resist any and all direction from the adults in their lives. But they will enjoy it as long as they find it interesting and they have some say in the book. The best read-aloud books are typically plot-driven. They can’t wait to see what will happen next. Consider these lists of possible titles from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Older students also enjoy pictures books; they can even read them aloud to their younger siblings. Audiobooks to listen to on smartphones and in the car is another option.

BUYING BOOKS CAN GET EXPENSIVE. HOW CAN I KEEP THE COSTS DOWN?

Two words: Public library. Mineral Point has an excellent public library with helpful and knowledgeable staff. There is an entire floor dedicated to children’s literature. Library staff offers a storytime for little ones every Monday morning at 10 A.M. If transportation is an issue, consider utilizing Overdrive, a digital library of eBooks and audiobooks. Patrons can check out titles and download them on their smartphones, tablets, and computers. Overdrive also has dedicated pages for kids and teens.

Reading aloud is an easy and enjoyable activity for any family hoping to raise a reader. At the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention, some Mineral Point Elementary School faculty heard children’s author Mem Fox speak about the importance of reading aloud. Her ten commandments for reading aloud are applicable to parents and educators.

How to Create a Twitter List of Reliable Media Sources

Twitter has been the primary medium for sharing news regarding the presidential election and transition. This social media tool can be effective for gaining multiple perspectives on a topic or cause. The challenge with Twitter is in how to use it so the information you are receiving is reliable. How do we separate the wheat from the chaff?

My suggestion: Create a Twitter list. You don’t even have to follow people or organizations to put them on a list. Here’s how:

  • Select “lists” within the menu under your Twitter profile picture.

Screen Shot 2017-01-21 at 8.31.52 PM.png

  • Scroll down and select “Create New List”.

Screen_Shot_2017-01-21_at_8_41_33_PM.jpg

  • Select a hashtag relevant to the topic of interest, such as #WomensMarch. Find people on Twitter who are reporting information and offering commentary (versus simply stating opinions on a topic).

Often journalists and news organizations will have a blue check next to their profile picture. This means they are verified Twitter accounts and have a broader audience on important topics.

Screen Shot 2017-01-27 at 8.29.34 PM.png

Once you find sources that are reliable for media coverage, select their profile and add them to a new list. You can create a new list when you start looking on Twitter. There is no need to follow them if you prefer not.

Screen Shot 2017-01-27 at 8.31.58 PM.png

Screen Shot 2017-01-27 at 8.32.23 PM.png

  • Start reading your Twitter list.

The easiest way is to select the list within your Twitter account and read the feed. When posts are retweeted within the feed by those you’ve listed, this can be an opportunity to add more reliable media sources to your list.

Screen Shot 2017-01-27 at 8.37.59 PM.png

If you read on an tablet or smartphone, I suggest downloading Flipboard to read your Reliable Media Sources list. This free application offers a more visually appealing way to read tweets. You can still access Twitter through Flipboard.

If all of this is too much, you can also simply follow my reliable media sources list. Click here to follow. One caution: Avoid reading these list feeds constantly. News reports can become all consuming, even when the sources are valid. We need to live in the real world so that we have some grounding in reality and be a part of our communities.

In an age where the credibility of the press is openly questioned, it is more important than ever to know how to navigate the information available and decide which sources are most reliable. Fake news does exist. Yet it is up to the reader to determine what sources can be counted upon for facts. A more informed public is the best way to combat misinformation.