Beyond the Standards

I was in a 1st grade classroom conducting an instructional walk. The students were quietly working on their informative writing projects. They had researched a topic of choice, using strategies to read nonfiction texts. Now they were using their notes they had taken and were applying them to a writing project.

I sat next to a couple of students. One student looked up, saw me and asked, “You know how to write books, right?” I nodded. “I am not sure where to put the end. What do you do?” Honored that he asked me for help, I asked if he would read his writing to me. I listened actively, celebrated his work, then went into a description of my own writing process, admitting that conclusions could be very difficult for any writer. He looked at me, unsure how to respond.

The teacher stopped over by us, checking in on our conversation. After a moment, she stepped in. “I think what he’s trying to ask is where he should put ‘The End’ in his book.” Literally. I laughed, then suggested putting those two words on the back of his last page.

I enjoy talking the writing process, mine and anyone else’s. Each is unique. There are some very general pathways from drafting to done (typically revision is a major part), but the specific journey for each writer is their own. Whatever it takes to get it on paper and get it published.

Reflecting on our chat, I appreciated that our conversation revolved around the writing itself and not on a rubric or a specific standard. Writing, like many crafts, is a messy experience from start to finish. Spelling out what “good” writing looks and sounds like can make the process a bore, seem more like work in its starkest sense.

I’m fine with standards as a part of the educational experience. They give us some guideposts as to where our students should be at in relation to their age and development level. Used thoughtfully, standards can help define a ladder of complexity in what students should know and be able to do.

Yet history is not kind to the standards movement. In an excellent article for Phi Delta Kappan, Gamson, Eckart, and Anderson reveal the reality behind why standards have been introduced into U.S. public education.

In virtually every period of American educational history, but especially in times of national crisis, critics have argued that American students were floundering academically due to intellectually feeble and flabby academic objectives. Time and again, Americans have retreated to the bunker of clear standards as protectors against educational fuzziness.

These “times of national crisis” include Sputnik and the National Reading Panel’s infamous report “A Nation at Risk” (the latter a document I recently discovered and then threw out while cleaning my office). The context for these concerns is competitiveness. In this type of environment, learning is no longer the focus. It is about achievement. Curiosity and mistake-making are seen as frivolous time wasters when standards need to be met.

I understand society’s desire to simplify school outcomes to try and understand the quality of education. Doing so, though, has consequences, one of the most dire being the removal of process as an essential part of the learning experience. When there is no opportunity for people to take risks and pose important questions, such as asking the principal where to put “the end”, there is little incentive to put ourselves in positions where we are vulnerable and open to new ideas. We cannot boil down these necessary experiences to a set of standards. That should tell you something.

Literacy Leaders: You can’t name it if you don’t know it

Without a synergy between literacy and leadership and a committed, joint effort by teachers and principals, fragile achievement gains do not hold.

– Regie Routman, Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success

In a primary classroom today, I was observing the teacher reading aloud a picture book about penguins. The students were active participants, answering questions about the main character and offering their theories about what might happen next in the story. “Could anyone else share their thinking?” invited the teacher, after affirming one student’s response with an objective “Mmm-hmm”.

After writing down my observational narrative (instructional walk) of the read-aloud experience, I gave the teacher my notes while commenting publicly about the lesson in front of the student. “Wow, I could tell you all understood the story well. You made predictions about what would happen next, using details from the book.” The class then shared that tomorrow they would be reading a nonfiction text about penguins online.

By sharing what I observed with the class, I did more than recognize the teacher for her efforts in being intentional with her read aloud. I also named the strategies – making a prediction, using details for support – as a reinforcement of their thinking. Students heard the point of the lesson from two different adults. My presence was value-added; I didn’t distract from the lesson but instead became a part of the learning experience.

My formal educational background is not literacy-rich. While I enjoyed reading as a student, my college studies were more focused on mathematics and middle-level philosophy. When I became an elementary principal, I had limited background knowledge about promising reading and writing practices. Thankfully, I had literacy leaders in my prior school who kindly yet firmly encouraged me to participate in our professional development focused on literacy. My first visits to classrooms were as a learner more than a partner, but eventually I felt competent to engage in the process.

Educators enter the world of leadership from many backgrounds. Some involve reading and writing instruction; some do not. Regardless of our backgrounds, we have an obligation to know literacy through formal and informal professional learning experiences. It’s a continuous commitment as new forms of literacy are growing in the information age. Lifelong learning gives me the language to engage in literacy conversations with faculty, an essential trait for sustainable student success.

Literacy Instruction: Experiences Instead of Stuff

Photo by Marius Ott on Unsplash

Our family tradition during Christmas, an idea we borrowed from somewhere else, is to have a “want”, “need”, “wear”, and “read” gift for each child. The idea is to limit the present buying and make sure we are focused on the reason for the season. However, in the past I found ways to sneak in a few extra gifts, thinking “What’s the harm?”.

This year we really stuck to it. What’s interesting is our kids shared that this was “the best Christmas ever”. That was a pleasant surprise. Maybe because we more thoughtful about what to give due to operating within our self-administered limits? Or, could the decrease in things have allowed for more time to experience the holiday break?

Research has come out that supports this idea. In an article for The Atlantic, James Hamblin shares the results of a study in which subjects reported much higher levels of happiness, excitement, pleasantness when purchasing an experience such as a vacation vs. something material.

Experiential purchases like trips, concerts, movies, et cetera, tend to trump material purchases because the utility of buying anything really starts accruing before you buy it.

It’s the anticipation of the experience as much as the experience itself that is beneficial.

A common thread throughout this topic seems to the social aspect of experience and the opportunity to connect with others before, during, and after that seems to make the event special. This gift of time is less concrete than an item, say a smartphone or a car, yet it remains on our mind in anticipation, in the present, and in our memories.

The point…when we prepare instruction for our students, are we planning for experiences? If not, what are our students doing? My regular walks in classrooms lead me to believe that we are frequently providing our students with memorable learning opportunities. Just this week, I walked into a primary classroom where students were reading aloud their own writing in which they described their favorite part of the holiday break. “They almost always describe experiences instead of presents,” the teacher noted. In a classroom on the upper level, students were learning how to write readers responses to a self-selected book. The experience was memorable for all as the teacher first modeled a response for a book she read. 

If you are still skeptical that we are at our best when we create learning experiences for students, think about a positive memory from your own school history and why you treasure it.

Express Gratitude By Blogging

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

This month I have committed to reading one blog post a day and leaving a comment. It’s my way of saying thanks to other educators and writers who take the time to share their thinking online, as well as to frequent the sites of readers of my own blog.

Maybe you don’t have a blog but have always wanted to start one. When I have asked people what’s stopping them, they usually cite one of two reasons: “I don’t have time,” and “I don’t have anything worth sharing.” I won’t argue with the first reason; people’s life circumstances can vary. But the second one is debatable because every educator I know who writes regularly online about their practice is providing a benefit to others as well as themselves.

In fact, sharing our work and our reflections in a public space is one of the best ways to express gratitude for others. Consider the following reasons.

  • Blogging reduces professional isolation. When you write about your experiences and observations in school, other educators who read what you share will often relate. They may realize they are not alone in feeling a certain way about a similar situation, for example, confusion over whether or not to purchase a commercial literacy program. I know this because I have received comments and emails in appreciation for bringing up these topics (and likewise reciprocated on others’ sites). Benefit: other educators.
  • Blogging improves your practice. Through the act of writing about our professional lives, we start a process of reflection. We put our ideas down, reread and see what we initially wrote from a more objective perspective, and then continue writing in response to our thinking. Writing is an act of creation, so it makes sense that we will come to deeper or different understandings about a topic through this process. That will make us better educators, which can impact the staff and students with whom we work. Benefit: our school.
  • Blogging puts our ideas somewhere. I know educators will bring home their challenges, unloading the days’ frustrations onto their spouse and nearest adult. Maybe we feel better, yet I don’t know if this is the best approach to living a fulfilling life. What if you altered some details, not letting “the facts get in the way of the truth”, and published a post around an area of concern? Now we have put these thoughts somewhere that won’t change the mood at home and will likely be appreciated by our colleagues online (see reason #1). If the post is too close to our current school context, leave it as a draft or trash it. The act of reflection itself can be satisfying enough. Benefit: our families/friends.
  • Blogging brings value. The opposite of those who feel like they have nothing to say or share are people who expect to be compensated for all of their writing efforts. Some see blogging as giving away their work. Others worry about their ideas getting lost in all of the tweets and posts. I remember one well-known connected educator remark about blogging: “The market is saturated.”  It’s not. Good ideas always have an audience. And no one has a better point of view about the world of education than those currently practicing within it. Maybe your writing efforts won’t bring in additional income, but it will give you more credibility and visibility, which is of immense value as you navigate your teaching or leading career. Benefit: you and everyone else.

I write this post not to put one more thing on your plate. Rather, I encourage you to rethink your plate. By adding to the collective understanding of education through blogging, we help others and ourselves become more connected, we grow as professionals, we find a healthy outlet for our ideas, and we build on our practice. Writing online about your practice is a selfless action that can benefit everyone, yourself included.

Work/Life Balance: The Un-Checklist

It seems like I need a checklist for everything: groceries, chores, managerial tasks as a principal.

These checklists feel like work, which is fine if what we are attempting to accomplish is in fact work. We can make tasks a habit and they become more automatic. But what about the tasks in life that aren’t considered work? Family, friends, hobbies…these areas should be at least as important for prioritizing in our lives. Yet I don’t want them on automatic.

So I suggest an un-checklist. Not a list of things to avoid, such as foods to refrain from (still working on that). Instead, this would be a list that you would add to once a day. Whatever you add to this list is something that brings you joy. The un-checklist should help you develop a habit around an area in which you want to improve in life.

My priority is family. Being a principal and a writer is more than a full-time job. So I have to be intentional about ensuring that I am also making time for my wife, my daughter, and my son. I use the “life to do” weekly checklist on the left side of my Commit30 planner. Instead of making a list of things I want to do with my family in order to be more present, I write down what I actually did with them.

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Image: My Un-Checklist

What we do together doesn’t have to be expensive or even cost any money. Maybe it is spending quality time talking over dinner; no phones or other distractions allowed. Another night might be reading aloud to one or both of my kids before bed. Board games are also an easy way to connect at home. I don’t count watching a television show or movie together, though that’s enjoyable too.

We spend time together and I write it down. I am creating a list instead of checking items off of one. Addition instead of subtraction. The change of an un-checklist seems small, but the joy, as a result, is noticeable.

 

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.

 

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.