School Culture: “P” is for Positivity

The more I lead as well as heed the lessons of previous years, the more I believe in the importance of a positive start to a school year. Shaping a school culture, defined by Terrence Deal and Kent Peterson as “the unwritten rules and traditions, customs, and expectations” (7), starts with celebration. Regie Routman asserts that “celebration is at the heart of all effective teaching and leading” (186). If we as school leaders are to expect our students, staff, and community to be successful, framing a positive perspective with our students and colleagues, as well as making the act of celebration a habit, is key.

Next are a few ideas to consider implementing for a positive start as the school year draws closer.

Focus on the Students

This idea seems redundant, yet history tells me it’s worth reviewing. As evidence, I remember a teacher contacting me at a previous school in which I was just hired as principal. They asked me through email if they could have specific dates off during the school year. There was no prelude to this request, such as a sharing of one’s philosophy or conveying enthusiasm for working with students; the focus was on their needs.

I didn’t call this person out; I understood the request and tried not to assume anything. But I also understood that the culture may not be “student first” yet. So we took a lot of time in my first year to develop an understanding of students’ strengths, needs, and interests at each developmental level. For example, we purchased a resource for teachers that informed us about this topic. The information helped us understand why a student might act a certain way while not accepting the behavior.

Demonstrate Gratitude

Do you use a physical planner? If so, I highly recommend the Commit30 product. Each month, you select one goal to focus on for your personal/professional development. September is an excellent month to demonstrate gratitude each and every day. This is a low-to-no cost effort that pays dividends for others and for yourself down the road. Next are a few ideas:

  • Write genuine compliments on professional stationary about faculty and staff. Leave these notes in their mailboxes. I guarantee they will treasure these mini-celebrations more so than any evaluation or walkthrough.
  • When facilitating professional development workshops, don’t skimp on the refreshments and resources. Show staff you value them by offering quality lunches and purchasing excellent learning materials, including children’s literature.
  • Take time for yourself at the end of the day to reflect on what went well. It’s easy to focus on the one negative that might have occurred. Instead, write down a positive event and why you believe it happened. Make positive thinking a habit.

Visuals and Messaging

Today was my first day back after a family acation. When I walked into the staff lounge, I immediately noticed the updated bulletin board.

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I am not sure who created it, but it is perfectly placed. The staff lounge can be perceived as a negative location if we tacitly accept gossip and complaints as the norm. Even if collective commitments have been established as a school, people find places to vent their frustrations in unhealthy ways if we are not observant. Visuals and messaging like the one shared here serve as an antidote to negativity as well as a warning sign to anyone who desires to engage in toxic behaviors.

What do you find effective for promoting positivity at the beginning of the school year? Please share in the comments.

 

Priorities

Last week I sent an email out to our contributors, thanking them for their continued presence and participation on this site after this summer’s book study. Like last year, I inquired about their current interest in staying involved with the blog as well as shared ideas about how to improve the learning experience here for everyone.

One thing that impresses me about this group is how willing they are to contribute their time, energy, and ideas to this site. I am also impressed when they say, in so many words, “Sorry, can’t write or participate right now.” In either case, what they are communicating is their current priorities. Family, friends and outside interests (i.e. beyond the bubble of education) are necessary to stay balanced and to live an interesting life.

Thinking about priorities, I am reminded of a passage from author David Mitchell, in his essay “Neglect Everything Else”. It comes from the anthology Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, edited by Joe Fassler. (Thanks to Brenda Power, editor at Choice Literacy, for discovering and sharing this book.)

The world is very good at distracting us. Much of the ingenuity of our remarkable species goes toward finding new ways to distract ourselves from things that really matter. The Internet – it’s lethal, isn’t it? Maintaining focus is critical, I think, in the presence of endless distraction. You’ve only time to be a halfway decent parent, plus one other thing. (117)

I bolded the last sentence in my copy of this book. I also plan on writing it out in my planner before the school year begins as a constant reminder.

When I put out an inquiry to contribute here, or maybe to ask teachers in my school to complete a task or take that next step in our journey, I have to remember that we too can be a distraction. I’d like to think that what I ask for is of more value than some of the rabbit holes that can we fall into online. But still. When we request the attention of our colleagues, I want it to be worth everyone’s time which is invaluable and irreplaceable.

Literacy Essentials Wrap-up: Choices, Priorities, and the Power of “What if…”

Literacy EssentialsThank you for joining us as a reader and a learner as we responded to Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). By all measures, this was a successful experience. Special thanks go to Stenhouse Publishers for providing copies of Regie’s book to our contributors. If you haven’t checked out the free curriculum, I recommend it for undergraduate coursework and for professional learning experiences around Literacy Essentials. Also, I believe I speak for all of our contributors in expressing our gratitude to Regie Routman for responding to each post during this book study.

Next are three short reflections after reading everyone’s contributions.

Choices

In her book, Regie presents these ideas as invitations. You decide whether or not to apply this approach to literacy instruction.

IMG_1130I was skeptical when I first encountered her work. Specifically, I did not fully adopt Regie’s approach to classroom walkthroughs, described as “instructional walks” in her previous resource, Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success (ASCD, 2014). In spite of her advice, I decided to add a quantitative component to my unannounced classrooms visits, tallying where instruction was at along the Optimal Learning Model, an iteration of the gradual release of responsibility. This information that I shared with teachers did not improve instruction. More often than I care to note, teachers would debate with me the timing of my visits instead of my observations.

My choice to rely more heavily on quantitative data while minimizing the qualitative notes that describe instruction in action was an ineffective approach to school leadership support. In retrospect, I appreciate Regie’s wisdom in allowing leaders to explore different approaches to literacy leadership in the classroom. If I had not been so stubborn to go my own way in regard to instructional walks, I may not have fully appreciated the wisdom I have gained in knowing that our support as principals is best invested in noticing and naming what’s going well and finding opportunities to offer constructive support only when we are more knowledgeable and teachers are ready.

Priorities

If you knew that your last day at your school was tomorrow, how would you decide to spend your time? For me, I would not be checking email or entering requisitions or signing attendance reports. Instead, you would find me in classrooms and in common areas, connecting with students, staff, and parents.

Why wait until the last day? Why not make our everyday actions reflect our true priorities as literacy leaders? I have come to believe that our schedules communicate our values as educators. That is why I spend at a minimum one hour per day in classrooms. This time does not include formal observations as mandated by our department of education. During instructional walks, I immerse myself in instruction. I see the learning experience more through the lens of a student, noting how students might respond to the guidance from the teacher and within the context of their peers.

As readers during this book study, did you discover at any moment a time when your current thinking was pushed? I hope so. My example was relying too much on numbers. Our beliefs can be a double-edged sword. While they guide our actions toward implementing promising literacy strategies, they can also leave us stuck in outdated strategies if we are not willing to re-examine our current practices. It’s a paradox; we have to hold tight to our beliefs while remaining open to new ideas. If we keep students as our priority, we are better able to separate our egos from our work.

The Power of “What if”

My past habit was to offer advice during classroom visits. Like the tallies, I think I came across at times more as an expert instead of as a partner in a teacher’s professional learning journey.

Why does professional learning take so long? I think a part of the problem is we do not give ourselves the opportunity to reflect upon and question our current practices. In his book, A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, Warren Berger offers a three-question protocol for guiding this process.

  • Why…?
  • What if…?
  • How…?

For considering new options, “what if…” is the key. The question stem encourages divergent thinking and original ways of seeing the status quo from a different perspective. As a teacher, using a protocol such as Berger’s can be a key to working with students we have yet to reach and teach to our potential. Regie, a literacy guru with over 40 years of teaching experience, offers her own struggles with making assumptions in the classroom (134-135).

I have often taken for granted that students have enough background knowledge and experience to know the basic vocabulary needed to understand a read-aloud book, a guided-reading book, or a self-selected book. Then a student will raise his hand and ask, ‘What does [that word] mean?’ Often it is a fundamental word, such as disappointment or energy.”

To close out this study, we have to accept that our work is never done. We need to “make it smart to ask questions” (135) and get consistently curious about the day-to-day work we do in schools. Literacy is an ongoing journey. The destination is today.

Summer Book Club 2018: Literacy Essentials by Regie Routman @StenhousePub #LitEssentials

Literacy EssentialsI am pleased and honored to share that we will be reading Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018) for our summer book club. I’ve already read it and can attest to its excellence as a literacy resource for all educators. From May through July, contributors will post their thinking and takeaways on this collaborative blog while reading the book.

This is the 2nd professional resource we have explored together; last summer we read and responded to Becoming a Literacy Leader: Supporting Learning and Change, 2nd edition by Jennifer Allen (Stenhouse, 2016). To read some of the posts related to Jen’s excellent resource, enter “Becoming a Literacy Leader” in the search bar of this blog.

So who is this “we”? Last year, I opened up Reading by Example to other thought leaders in the field of literacy and leadership. Their posts made this site such a stronger resource. Featured writers for last year’s book study can be found on the “Contributors” page. The following educators are able & excited to participate in this year’s study group:

  • Paige Bergin, Instructional Coach
  • Carrie Krieder, Middle School Reading Specialist
  • Jen McDonough, Literacy Specialist
  • Heather McKay, Literacy Specialist
  • Annie Palmer, Literacy Coach
  • Lee Shupe, Middle School Math Teacher

The rest of this post attempts to answer questions related to the book study.

How will I know when a contributor publishes a response to Literacy Essentials?

There are a couple of ways to follow along with this book club. You can sign up with your email to receive a message every time someone posts a response here. If you have a free WordPress account, you can follow this blog, which means that any new posts will show up in your WordPress Reader. In addition, all posts will be shared out on Twitter with the hashtag #LitEssentials and include the @StenhousePub handle. (FYI – Regie is active on Twitter too!) If you prefer Facebook, new posts will be published on this blog’s page.

How can I participate?

One of the best parts of blogging is the participatory nature of the medium. Readers can leave a comment on a post and potentially initiate a discussion with the writer. They can also share out a post on social media for colleagues and followers to read and join in on the conversation. The possibilities for learning online increases the likelihood of unexpected and impactful experiences.

If you think you would like to be a contributor to this site, possibly now and in the future, please submit your request using the form on the Contributors page.

How can I get a copy of Literacy Essentials?

Stenhouse Publishers offers copies of Regie’s book to purchase. You can get a print copy, the eBook version or both. Go to their website: https://www.stenhouse.com/literacyessentials

Didn’t get your questions answered here? Anything else worth mentioning regarding this book club? Please post in the comments!

Most Memorable Blog Posts of the Year – 2017

What does your digital portfolio show? by George Couros (The Principal of Change)

12 Things I STOPPED Doing Thanks to Breast Cancer by Kaye Hendrickson (Aimlessly Wondering)

A Guide for Resisting Edtech: The Case Against Turnitin by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stomel (Digital Pedagogy Lab)

Every Teacher a Reader. Every Teacher a Writer. by Amy Rasmussen (Three Teachers Talk)

How Much Reading to Kids in Middle School? by Tim Shanahan (Shanahan on Literacy)

DigiLitSunday: Better by Margaret Simon (Reflections on the Teche)

Coaching for Impact with Samantha Bennett by Rachel Tassler (The Reading Teacher’s Ramblings)

What Effective Admin Do by Josh Stumpenhorst (Stump the Teacher)

Counting Down to Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading: Delving into Deeper Reading by Vicki Vinton (To Make a Prairie)

Writing Partners: Authentic Purposes for Writing by Elizabeth Moore (Two Writing Teachers)

A Reading Life…Interrupted by Teri Lesesne (Nerdy Book Club)

On the Level by Donalyn Miller (Nerdy Book Club)

You’ll Never Be the Same Again by Mikey Dickerson (Medium)

Three Ways to Ensure Making Inspires Writing Time (Rather than Replace It) by Angela Stockman (Angela Stockman)

55-25 and my 40th Birthday by Julie Nariman (Classroom 325)

It’s awards season! Typically this annual post is published late of the same year. However, it is never too late to recognize the great writing on educational blogs. I saved each of the posts listed here because I found them to be important to my work as an educator. Maybe you will too.

This list is without descriptions for each linked post, unlike past lists. Time is valuable. I suggest exploring each of these posts yourself. If one strikes you as important in your work, please share your response in the comments. You don’t have to agree with the content. Each post was selected because it caused thinking on my end as a reader.

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For example, I included Tim Shanahan’s post on this list specifically because I did not agree with his position. But it did cause thinking, specifically in re-examining my own beliefs about literacy instruction. Posting his initial thinking online led to several comments with various levels of agreement/disagreement. Conversation ensued. Conversely, Digital Pedagogy Lab’s post about the negatives regarding the technology Turnitin changed my thinking about a product I had once promoted.

This gets to the heart of blogging as an educator: Every teacher and administrator has something to say and to contribute to the larger conversation of teaching and learning. Our experiences working with kids daily has just as much credibility as any letters behind our names. We build our collective intelligence when we blog about our work and engage with others willing to take a risk and share their thinking online. If you have been hesitant to start a blog, consider now as a good time to begin.

(Photo by Jess Watters on Unsplash)

Building a Literacy Culture – a @StenhousePub Blog Series #litessentials

 

When I am not blogging, it usually means I am on a tech sabbatical, on vacation (I wish!), or working on a writing project. Lately, I have been reading and enjoying Regie Routman’s new resource Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All LearnersLike Regie’s previous work, this book is a necessary text for any teacher of literacy (see: you).

As a way for me to connect with and reflect upon the ideas in Literacy Essentials, I have written three articles for Stenhouse’s blog. They describe the importance of building a literacy culture, addressing the elements of trust, communication, and relationships. You can read the first two posts by clicking here and here. Look for the third post on the Stenhouse blog in the near future.

Reading Literacy Essentials, it could almost be called “Life Essentials”. Regie mixes research and practice with personal stories as a wife, parent, grandparent, friend, and unique individual. She offers suggestions for becoming a better teacher and a more interesting person. Joy can be had in the classroom and in life; they are not mutually exclusive. This makes Regie’s new book essential reading for all educators.

Literacy Essentials

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.

 

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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.

 

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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.