Literacy Leadership: Expecting (and Embracing) Conflict

Our school is currently examining our beliefs about reading instruction. Faculty members respond with either “agree” or “disagree” to over twenty related statements. Examples include: “Leveling books in the classroom library is a good idea,” and “Students need to do lots of independent reading of self-selected texts.”  (These statements come from Regie Routman’s book Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success.)

So far, half the teachers have taken the beliefs survey. Out of the over twenty statements, we are completely in agreement on five statements. My prediction is this number will be reduced after everyone has taken the survey.

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This is not a bad thing.

I’ve come to learn professional conflict can be a source of professional learning. I’m not referring to in-fighting over petty reasons. Instead, I refer to the deeper philosophical debates that should be occurring but are often pushed aside for fear of having a hard yet necessary conversation.

Conflict in the context of our instructional beliefs is the misalignment between our current values and practices and our colleagues’s. This awareness of our current situation is a good thing. Now we have information to act upon, as long as we accept our current reality. To address this misalignment, we need to start engaging in professional conversations around these important topics in safe and productive ways

Take the topic of reading levels, depicted in the previous image. It’s a constant source of disagreement in elementary schools. You see we are pretty divided already on this issue. The first question I might ask to start a conversation around reading levels is, “Why do you think the results are the way they are?” By asking wondering questions, we open up the floor to different possibilities. I am not taking sides on levels. I am curious.

Now imagine what the responses might be.

  • From a teacher who supports levels as a way to assess student reading progress, they can point to the fact that younger readers make so much growth in a short amount of time that teachers need a reliable evaluation tool to inform instruction. Likewise, if students are not making growth at the primary level, we need to be responsive and implement a reading intervention to address any deficits.
  • From a teacher who does not support levels as a way to assess student reading progress, they might point to past experiences in which students were treated as a level, such as organizing the classroom library only within a leveling system. Or, they feel that levels for older students are not as helpful as conferring notes, student self-assessments, and performance tasks such as book trailers.

Who is right, and who is wrong? I believe both perspectives make a strong case. This leads to a potential second question that guides a discussion to consider a third option. As an example, “What if designated reading levels were only helpful at certain grade levels?”, or “Might there be a better way to phrase this statement to both recognize the benefits of this approach and point out its limits?” This line of inquiry may lead to a revision of the statement, such as:

Designated levels can be an accurate way to assess student reading progress at the primary level and inform authentic instruction.

If a faculty can agree on this revision, then we can own it. (By the way, a professional conversation like this can happen during a staff meeting or professional learning communities.) If the revision is not acceptable to all, it can be brought back to an instructional leadership team for further revision.

The benefits of embracing conflict within structured professional dialogue are many. First, we air out our issues in a safe and productive way. Second, we start to develop a common language. For example, maybe some staff members are unfamiliar with benchmark books as an assessment tool. Teachers with this knowledge can explain this concept; unhealthy conflict is often the product of lack of communication and making false assumptions. Third, when we agree upon a belief then we own it. There’s no opting out in the building. The faculty is free to call out each other when these beliefs are not translated to practice. But this doesn’t happen often because we own the belief. Teachers are more empowered to act on it and seek out support if needed. Finally, a school leader has modeled what it means to have a professional conversation that is productive and doesn’t end in hurt feelings.

What are your thoughts on the role of conflict in leading a literacy initiative and/or a school in general? Please share in the comments.

 

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.

The Data Says…What? (Or: Why we struggle to make sense of literacy assessment results)

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Photo by Art Lasovsky on Unsplash

Our instructional leadership team recently analyzed the last two years of writing assessment data. We use a commercial-based rubric to score student writing in the fall and in the spring. As I presented the team with the results, now visualized in graphs and tables, we tried to make sense of the information.

It didn’t go as well as planned.

To start, we weren’t evaluating every student’s writing; for sake of time and efficiency, we only score half of the high, medium, and low pieces. This was a schoolwide evaluation but did not give teachers specific information to use. Also, the rubric changes as the students get older. Expectations increase even though the main tenets of writing quality stayed the same. Therefore it is hard to compare apples to apples. In addition, the subjective nature of writing, especially in a reader’s response, can cause frustration.

In the end, we decided to select one area of growth we would focus on as a faculty this year, while maintaining the gains already made.

Anytime I wade into the weeds of literacy assessment, I feel like I come out messier than when I entered. I often have more questions than answers. Problems go unresolved. Yet there have to be ways to evaluate our instructional impact on student literacy learning. It’s important that we validate our work and, more importantly, ensure students are growing as readers and writers.

One assessment, tried and true, is the running record for reading comprehension. This is now a standardized assessment through products such as Fountas & Pinnell. It is time-intensive, however, and even the best teachers struggle to give up instructional time to try to manage the other students when administering these assessments. Running records are the mainstay assessment tool for Reading Recovery teachers who work one-on-one with 1st grade students.

Another method for evaluating student literacy skills at the classroom level is observation. This is not as formal as a running record. Teachers can witness a student’s interactions with a text. Do they frustrate easily? How well are they applying their knowledge of text features with a new book? The information is almost exclusively qualitative, which leads to challenges of analyzing the results.

One tool for evaluating students as readers and writers that doesn’t get enough attention (in my opinion anyway) are student surveys. How students feel about literacy and how they see themselves as readers and writers is very telling. The challenge here is there are a lot of tools but not a lot of validity or reliability behind most of them. One tool, Me and My Reading Profile, is an example of a survey that is evidence-based.

To summarize, I don’t have an answer here as much as I wanted to bring up a challenge I think a lot of schools face: how do we really measure literacy success in an educational world that needs to quantify everything? Please share your ideas and experiences in the comments.

Should students read 20 minutes a day?

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

While initially thinking about this question, I wanted to clearly state “no”. No, we shouldn’t be assigning students to read 20 minutes a day. Mandating a student to read can make this practice feel like drudgery, equated with homework and its ilk. But this issue deserves more attention; it’s not that simple.

Yes, I do know the effect that voluminous reading has on achievement and building a lifelong habit. If you Google the phrase “read 20 minutes a day”, you will get page after page of articles, posts, and videos praising this practice. Reading log templates sometimes accompany the content. One has to get to the seventeenth page of search results before they can find the first article that questions this practice.

The article I found on the seventeenth page is worth reading. Can Reading Logs Ruin Reading for Kids?, written by Erica Reischer for The Atlantic, cites two studies that demonstrate the potential negative effects of assigning reading to students and using reading logs (a common practice when assigning daily reading).

  • When rewards or mandates are used to coax kids to read, they may lose their internal motivation to read independently.
  • In comparison to students who were assigned to read daily, students who are encouraged to read voluntarily showed an increased interest in reading independently.

Still, I understand teachers’ interest in holding students accountable for reading regularly. We know that some kids will not read regularly without some level of expectations. So maybe the answer is “no”, but what can we do? Consider the following alternatives to assigning 20 minutes of reading per night.

Co-create Reader Expectations with Students

If we can build learning community norms with students, then they will likely have more ownership in what is decided. (Teachers are the same way.) Today, I happened to visit a few classrooms that were engaged in this discussion. One group decided that, instead of expecting 20 minutes a day, they would read 100 minutes a week. “Some evenings, we get really busy,” acknolwedged the teacher.

Confer with Students

Students cannot fake their understanding of a book when we ask them thoughtful questions about what they read. With conferring, students can connect with a couple students each day during independent reading time to discuss what they read, offer personalized instruction regarding skills and strategies, and craft goals for the future. The accountability piece can still be a reading log, just as long as students know they are responsibile for maintaining it for that next conference. Teachers generally keep some type of conferring notebook to organize their notes.

Bonus: Check out this Edutopia article for more information on reading conferences.

Reader Responses

High school English teacher and prolific writer Kelly Gallagher shares his solution to balancing engagement and accountability with independent reading. In his book Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About it (Stenhouse, 2009), Gallagher describes his use of “one-pagers” (pg. 82) to evaluate student comprehension. These brief written responses can reveal students’ understanding of what they read. Skills such as prediction and persuasive writing are also assessed with these one-pagers.

Gallagher understands as a practitioner that fine balance between student engagement and classroom expectations during independent reading.

If the teacher infuses the recreational reading experience with too much accountability – chapter questions, worksheets, double-entry journals – then the experience ceases to be recreational. However, if students are never held to any accountability, many of them will not start reading.

Co-creating reader expectations, conferring, and written responses to what students are reading seem like reasonable improvements to the tired practice of assigning a set amount of time for students to read daily. What works for you? What do you struggle with? Feel free to share in the comments.

Professional Learning: The Gift of Time

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Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

The week of getting ready for the first day with students has come to a close. This time of year is typically one big rush to “get things done”. Bare bulletin boards call for welcoming messages. Schedules are updated continuously, rarely due to a school’s priorities. Enrollment and ordering resources become mini-emergencies instead of part of the daily routine. ‘Tis the season.

This year our faculty was provided with the gift of time for a day. (Due to a scheduling conflict, we had to reschedule our speaker’s second day to later in the year.) Once this day opened up, my initial/habitual reaction was to cram in as much literacy and PLC content into the day, topics we had initially prepared to address in September. We resisted this impulse. Instead, we spent the morning exploring reading instruction and the afternoon attending sessions on the topics of community engagement and academic innovation. Our agenda listed ideas and relevant topics instead of stuff.

Next are some of the outcomes from slowing things down and better appreciating the gift of time.

Faculty Viewed Professional Development Positively

Certainly, the content and planning for our time together contributed to the positive feedback our leadership team received. Being intentional about what we were learning together cannot be minimized. But it needs to be pointed out that allowing for more time for conversation and for the exploration of ideas during professional development decreases the anxiety of trying to get through everything we think needs to be accomplished. We had an agenda, yes, but it was minimal and allowed for flexibility.

Idea: If we feel like we have too many tasks planned for a professional learning experience, then we probably do. Push back some content to a later date, or even completely cut it out. If it is not essential to a school’s goals, then it is expendable.

Teachers Facilitated Professional Learning Experiences

When we learned that we had a day now open for building-level professional development, my first thought was, “I cannot do it all.” Fortunately, I work in a school with many talented individuals, so I didn’t have to. I reached out for help, asking several faculty members to lead afternoon sessions on mindfulness in the classroom, personalized learning, designing local curriculum projects, and healthy habits for educators.

Idea: To better know our teachers’ interests and specific talents, get into classrooms on a daily basis. Experience classroom visits as a learner instead of only an evaluator. Have real conversations with faculty and students. We can lead side-by-side.

Frame Professional Learning Time as an Investment

If all we do is learn together without seeing the results of our work, then professional development becomes routine and starts to lack meaning. There needs to be some level of connection between our self-improvement efforts and student outcomes. If teachers don’t see our time spent together as valuable, then it is perceived as wasted. For example, I shared with the faculty that our below basic scores on our state reading test have gone down 9% in the last two years. This is likely a result of our focus on embracing authentic literacy practices and a more data-informed approach to Response to Intervention.

Idea: Create visual representations of your assessment results and share them with faculty. It saves time in analysis. Point out the positive results first, then focus on the next steps. Celebrate, then educate. For us, we need to address our more advanced students’ needs who are already successful but may not be growing as much as their peers.

How do you as a literacy leader best utilize the gift of time for professional learning? Where do you struggle? Why? Please share in the comments.

 

Digging Deeper to Better Inform Your Literacy Instruction @StenhousePub #litessentials

As a reading interventionist, I am required to administer a universal screening tool to kindergarten through second grade students three times per school year.  Screening tools are considered an important part of Response to Intervention (RTI)/Multi-Tier System of Supports (MTSS).  The idea is that when we screen all students we are able to see the impact of our instruction and identify students who are not progressing at the same rate as their on-grade level peers.

Regie Routman, in her book Literacy Essentials:  Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners, writes that information from assessments should “improve the quality of teaching and learning” (p. 312).  Most universal screening tools are not able to give specific diagnostic information that can inform our instruction.  In order to effectively plan for intervention services, we need to use other tools to help us to dig deeper to find out more specific information about the strengths and needs of our struggling readers.

The following are some of the skills frequently tested on screening tools and what I do to gather more information.

Letter Sounds

Rather than relying solely on an assessment that times students as they attempt to quickly make letter sounds, I like to administer a dictated sentence.  A dictated sentence allows me to see how the child works with sounds within a more authentic task.  A dictated sentence also allows me to see what the child understands regarding concepts about print such as writing left to right, top to bottom, putting spaces between words, etc.

Nonsense Words

I am not going to go into the many reasons why assessing students using nonsense words is utter nonsense in this post.  I will say that I want all of the interactions children have with text to be meaningful.  To take a closer look at how students are able to use their letter-sound knowledge and problem solve unknown words, I find that taking a running record while the student reads an authentic text to be very useful.

Timed Reading Passages

Timed reading passages are supposed to be a measure of fluency but let me be clear- they are not.  They measure the speed of the reading and neglect all other areas of fluency.  Some major flaws with timed reading passages are:

  • they do not value meaningful comments made by the child or productive problem-solving, multiple attempts (perseverance)
  • they send the message that reading is about speed not meaning
  • they under-value other important dimensions of fluency such as intonation, reading the punctuation marks, and reading in meaningful phrases
  • they can falsely inflate the number of students in need of support

While listening to a student read I observe and jot down anecdotal notes about how their reading sounds valuing all of the dimensions of fluency.

In regards to standardized testing Regie feels that there are two larger issues at hand:

  • Lack of trust of teachers leading to a need for “accountability”
  • Standardized tests lead to big bucks for companies

I worry that our assessing and focus on isolated skills sends students mixed messages.

“Not to be minimized, an overemphasis on isolated skills, teaching-to-the-test often crowds out teaching for understanding.” 

~ Regie Routman, p. 312

Standardized tests can lead to many problems:

  • Teaching to the test despite knowledge of best practices
  • Unfair distribution of services – services directed to those students who are closest to passing the test, rather than those who need it most
  • “Quick fix” programs that focus on skills, not meaning, to be followed with fidelity

I think that we need to ask ourselves what our priorities are for our students.

Do we want students who might be able to speed read, decode like a pro, but have no true value for reading?

or

Do we want students who love reading and always engage with text in a meaningful way?

Frequent on-going formative assessments that are based on students’ needs and interests can inform daily instruction and improve student learning.  To be effective teachers we need to be observing, questioning, and responding to students’ needs as we teach.

Please re-think practices like teaching to the test!!  I am just astounded by the amount of test prep materials available on websites like Teachers Pay Teachers.  There are actually worksheets available for early readers to practice reading nonsense words and even practice speed reading passages galore.  Our students need us to teach with a sense of urgency and not waste precious time with these purposeless tasks.  I promise you that an increased amount of authentic purposeful reading and writing (along with intentional & thoughtful teaching) will help your students to enjoy reading and writing and be career and college ready.

While universal screening tools are considered an important component of RTI/MTSS,  most commercial screening tools will not go deep enough to inform your instruction.  Our students are counting on us to dig deeper past the numbers and fancy graphs.  Take a moment to consider how you might take a closer look at your students’ reading and writing by providing them with more authentic tasks.  Daily formative assessments will allow us to teach responsively while addressing each of our student’s needs.  When thinking about assessments keep Regie’s words in mind,

“Our assessment mindset needs to be this:  instruction and assessment must go hand in hand, and they must improve the quality of teaching and learning.  Question any assessment that does not ultimately benefit the learner” (p. 312).

 

Re-envisioning Roles

It’s easy to get caught up in the quick fix of doing the task, presenting the question that gives one quick response, and providing the immediate answer when a student approaches us. After all, we are under strict time constraints, the tests are always looming, and there’s those dang mandated curriculums to cover.  Come to think of it, that’s not even factoring in the students sitting in front of us, all seeming to need our attention at the same moment. So yeah, I get it, and in the short run, doing the task, asking for one correct response, just giving the answer… all seem feasible and even manageable. However…in the long run, it’s the students who lose out.  We do the exact opposite of what we truly intend, and thus create students who play the “School game.” Students who want to know exactly what they need to do for “said” grade. Kids who are constantly looking for a reward, kids who are trained to be compliant rather than curious. Kids who seemingly give up the moment the going gets a little tough.

In my experience teaching lower elementary, especially when I was first starting out and didn’t know any better, I was guilty of exactly what Regie talks about in the section on Equity-  Unintentionally disadvantaging and disabling my students by doing all the work for them, rather then guiding them towards self sufficiency and self regulation. She says it best, “…we disadvantage and disable kids by thwarting and delaying the development of competencies that lead to growing self-confidence and self-reliance.  Students develop self-regulation and self-sufficiency only when we teach for it and expect it” (p.347). Regie goes on to say that one of the best ways to develop this characteristic of self-determining, self-evaluating learners is through student-directed, small-group work. How does one go about creating this dynamic? It starts on day one.  Coming together as a community of learners. Co-creating the norms and expectations, giving students a voice…when these things are in place, the rest also falls into place.

Many years ago, the 2 Sisters, Gail Boushey and Joan Moser started me on a better path toward creating self-directed, self-evaluating learners. Their book, The Daily 5 was instrumental in helping me renew my teaching practice. It was through them that I first learned about the “Gradual release of responsibility method”.  Reading similar sentiments about how to engage and empower students through Regie’s lens in Literacy Essentials affirms the value of honoring students through voice and choice.  It’s about establishing ground rules through a shared creation of norms with your students. Co-creating anchor charts and classroom expectations, modeling and practicing the right way, wrong way, and the right way yet again. Asking more thought-provoking questions, and putting the thinking where it needs to be- On The Student. Talking less and listening more.

Even kindergarteners are capable of having ownership of the learning and learning environment when we co-create the norms and expectations. I was astounded with how capable they actually were!  Sure, they might not always have the stamina or resilience to make good choices 100% of the time, but most of the time they were much more engaged and self-reliant through this process than when I was the one controlling everything about the learning environment. It’s the same with my first graders. And if we are brutally honest, even adults aren’t on task and making good choices 100% of the time; it’s just part of human nature. Once you make the deliberate move to shift your thinking and teaching toward practices that engage and empower your students, you won’t ever go back.  

A huge part of this shift in our thinking about how we teach involves a focus on the part of talk. When we, as the teacher, are doing most of the talking (lecturing, question asking, answer providing), then we are also consequently doing most of the work.  On p. 338, Regie talks about finding the balance and about embracing conversations in the classroom. Conversations where all voices are heard and valued and there is no threat of a hidden agenda.  Conversations that ignite and drive curiosity. Conversations that involve the teacher as an integral part of the learning, not just dispensing the learning. I love this quote from Regie, “Balancing the power in the room leads to a better power balance outside the room” (p.338).  To me this means, not just balancing the power outside the classroom, but of a balance reaching far further than school walls.

Much to the end that Regie encapsulates with the following quote, “Empowered students come to believe they have agency in their lives, that they have the ability to implement positive changes for themselves and others” (p. 338). This. Isn’t this what we hope for all students?

Check out all of the posts from this book study by going to the Literacy Essentials webpage. There, you can select different articles to read and respond to and continue the conversation in the comments. In addition, consider joining our new Google+ Community to extend these discussions and connect with other literacy leaders.