You’ve Got to Believe It to Achieve It

This week our school faculty collectively examined our beliefs about reading instruction. We now own the following beliefs as a staff.

• Choice in what students read and how much they read influences motivation and achievement.
• The easiest texts for English learners to understand are those in which the concepts and vocabulary are familiar.
• Students who do not read well orally can have strong comprehension.
• Rereading is an excellent strategy when comprehension breaks down.
• Students need to do lots of independent reading of self-selected texts.
• Easy access to books students can and want to read is crucial to readers’ success.
• Students need to be taught how to choose “just right” books.
•Kindergarten students are capable of inferring meaning from text.

(For the belief statements in which only one person was not with the group, instructional leadership team members agreed to own those beliefs too.) These eight statements are an increase from the three we agreed upon in the fall. How did this occur? What actions led us to come together and find common ground in five more principles regarding reading instruction?

If you could sum it up in one word, it might be “process”. We had time to read and respond to self-selected resources on the topic of reading instruction in different groups. We worked together in PLCs to examine student work and consider how new strategies might better serve learning. There should also be credit given to the informal, every day conversations we have about our practices in the hallways, the lounge, and beyond the school walls.

So what do these beliefs look like in practice? That is our next step, starting this fall when we begin the process of developing integrated units of study that weave effective literacy strategies and resources into social studies. If we can start to institutionalize our collective intelligence, we will have take a big step toward realizing our mission and vision as a school district.

Assessing and Celebrating School Culture #WSRA19

Below is a short article from my staff newsletter I wrote yesterday. We are the midway point of the school year, and I wanted to highlight our successes as a school culture by documenting evidence of our work in writing. I’ll be speaking more about this topic at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention next week in Milwaukee. If you are also attending, I hope we are able to connect! -Matt

I’ve asked a few staff members for feedback about my plan for publishing To the Point every other week. My theory on this is that our communication as a staff, both formal and informal, is strong. Information shared seems to be frequent and accurate. That is a major reason for my staff newsletters which also helps with not having more than one short staff meeting a month.

This thinking became apparent as I have prepared for a session I am leading at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention next week: “How to Build a Literacy Culture”. As I go through artifacts of our success and growth to present to others, I could confirm many indicators of a healthy and thriving school culture beyond only communication (these characteristics come from Literacy Essentials by Regie Routman). 

  • Trusting – We focus on our strengths first and follow through on our tasks before facilitating feedback about areas for growth.
  • Collaborative – Our different school teams work together to guide the school toward goals; instructional coaching is common.
  • Intellectual – We have thirteen shared beliefs about the reading-writing connection and reading to understand.
  • Responsible – The goals for the school are limited, focused, student-driven and clear, i.e. “A Community of Readers”. 
  • Equitable – We have high expectations for our students and provide additional support when necessary.
  • Joyful – Celebration and appreciation are interwoven in our interactions with each other and with the community.

It’s an honor to be able to highlight our collective work for others and share our journey toward success. Sustaining a school culture is an ongoing process that is far from perfect and is sometimes challenging. Yet the results we see with our students makes all the difference.

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.

This Year

The new year always seems to offer a deal: if you resolve to make a change for the next twelve months, it will begin on January 1.

It’s nice to think about. A restart can be motivating and cause one to engage in some reflection, goal-setting, and a sense of renewal. “This year, I resolve to… (fill in the blank).”

But the new year is a bit of a false promise. January 1 is only tomorrow. Today is Monday. I’m not trying to dampen anyone’s mood; in fact, I encourage you to take an optimistically realistic stance about the new year. Maybe by taking a step back and appreciating the journey we’ve been on, we can develop resolutions that will keep the momentum going (instead of trying to recreate ourselves in a matter of 24 hours).

This can happen through reflection, goal-setting, and renewal. It is not without context. Last year matters. There were points for celebrations and areas for growth. Consider the following questions to respond to in your journal as you prepare for the upcoming year.

  1. What accomplishments am I most proud of so far? Go back as far as you want. For example, I wrote out milestones in my writing career starting in 2012. Big or small, all celebrations were included.
  2. Based on my past, where do I want to grow professionally and personally? I believe in keeping our goals limited to no more than two, aligned with the classic organizational leadership book Good to Great by Jim Collins. Professionally (as a writer), I want to self-host my sites in order to take advantage of more web tools. Personally, I want to improve my exercise/activity habits (and if I lose some weight in the process…:-).
  3. How might I achieve these goals? The word “might” is key here; it offers many possibilities vs. one pathway toward success. So…I am trying out the Amazon Affiliate program for this blog. I don’t like monetizing the site, but I haven’t found a better method that doesn’t interfere with the readers’ experience. Regarding my personal goal, I am going to develop a schedule of activities that keep me interested and wanting to come back. Neither may work. I have permission to try new approaches in those situations.

It bears repeating: the upcoming year is not without context. Last year had lots of experiences to reflect upon and to celebrate. Next year (yes, 2020) holds more opportunities. Instead of focusing on New Year’s Day, what about today?

Teaching Literacy During the Holidays

It’s that time of year…the red and green butcher paper rolls are shrinking, the Grinch makes a school visit, and concerts have replaced athletics as the main evening events. The holidays offer opportunities for celebration as well as distractions. Kids get off of their routines or the classroom curriculum is not aligned with the seasonal activities and, as a result, our plans too often take a backseat to festivities or classroom challenges.

I won’t get into the religious aspect of celebrating the holidays, especially in public schools (check out Teaching Tolerance for more information on this topic). Instead, I thought I would share as well as request ideas for integrating promising literacy practices during the holiday season.

  • Service learning projects – This time of year can be stressful for some families living in poverty or just find this time of year hard. Teachers can develop extended lesson plans that involve students writing letters to individuals in assisted living centers and then hand delivering them, or creating original multimedia content to raise money for organizations in need.
  • Learning about our culture – Why do we celebrate some holidays and not others? How does where we live influence what holidays we choose to recognize as a community? These big questions can guide students to research their traditions in order to better understand their past. What they learn can be written as a report and then presented to peers and families using a digital tool of choice.
  • Exploring themes of the holidays – When we study a topic and look at multiple perspectives, trends and themes may present themselves. If holidays as a study are a staple in a school, it might be interesting to facilitate literary analysis and have students explore various texts to understand the larger ideas that are connected to the many known and unknown holidays. The idea of “text” can be expanded by incorporating podcasts, art, and other nonconventional mediums.

I realize this post comes at the tail end of the holiday season. Yet now might be a great time to reflect on our current practices and how they might better incorporate literacy for future instructional planning. How do you authentically integrate reading, writing, language, speaking, and listening with your teaching at this time of year? Please share in the comments.

Three Simple Ways to Celebrate Teachers

I was walking around school, thinking about a unique way to celebrate a recognition the staff received. Two specialists were talking in their office, so I asked them if they had any ideas. 

“Post-it notes,” said one.

“Really?” I asked.

“Yes, that would be nice,” commented the other specialist. “Teachers appreciate having those items around when a parent calls or they have to jot down a reminder.”

I thanked them and walked away while they then conversed about all the benefits of Post-it notes. I’m glad I asked because it was a good reminder for me that the act of recognizing staff members’ efforts and successes is more important than the actual item. Next are three simple ways to celebrate our teachers.

  • Personal notes – I have small stationary notepads made every year. Although my name is on them, they are not for me; I’ll write personal notes of thanks for all staff members and put it in their mailboxes. I try to keep the language specific to them and their actions. For example, I noticed a teacher recently using a students’ own writing during a guided reading lesson. Instead of writing, “Great job on that lesson!”, I wrote “I was impressed with how you connected students’ own writing to the reading lesson. Thank you for living out our beliefs in your instruction!” 
  • Recognition at the beginning of staff meetings – These monthly gatherings can feel like one more thing to do if we don’t start on a positive note. That is why a running agenda item, top of the list, is “Celebrations and Announcements”. I defer to teachers to share their own successes and encourage staff to recognize others. Recognition is both personal and professional. In this way, I am not inadvertently creating a climate of competition or positioning someone as “the principal’s pet”. Starting a staff meeting this way sets the tone for the rest of our time together.
  • Sharing out visual artifacts – I can personally recognize teachers in a more discrete way by sharing images and video depicting our staff in action. For example, I send out holiday cards to close family members with a picture of their loved ones working with kids. Also, I use Twitter to post photos I capture while walking through classrooms and in the hallways. In addition, my weekly staff newsletter depicts teachers and students learning together. Three years in my current position, teachers are great about sending me pictures via email for me to share out. 

How do you or your school leaders celebrate teachers in your building? Please share your ideas in the comments.

Mindful Literacy Assessment

A teacher came up to me in the hallway, holding printed reports. Her grimace conveyed her frustration before she even spoke. “How can my students have such nice growth from fall to winter, only to see them slide back in the spring?” She was referring to our screener results, the computerized assessments we have our students take in fall, winter, and spring. They are supposed to serve us as initial indicators for which students need more support and which students need enrichment.

Unfortunately, educators too often end up in service to the assessment. For example, the teacher and I discussed the context in which the assessment took place: the middle of May, beautiful weather, and we are asking pre-adolescents to put forth their best effort on a test that has little to no meaning to them. “What should we expect at this time of the year?” I wondered aloud with the teacher. It didn’t resolve the issue, though. We left this brief conversation with more questions than answers.

When we limit ourselves to only one way of assessing student learning, we become dependent on the tools we use. An outcome is usually a number or a level. The assessments that lead to these results are often commercial products with little opportunity for local control. We can blame the tools, but what good does that do?

This lack of agency over the results of student learning could be described as “mindless assessment”. We accept the results as gospel even if they cause anxiety rather than inform our practice. To question them runs counter to the proclamation by the assessment companies that their technologies are “valid” and “reliable” to ensure fidelity within RtI. Yet when you look closely at the research to support some of these tools, many of the studies are self-funded and self-selected. The anecdotal and circumstantial evidence we collect in classrooms is, conversely, often viewed with skepticism.

So what can we move toward as a profession assessment-wise that can give back some control over the outcomes of learning to students and teachers? I don’t prescribe one approach over another. Rather, I would direct our attention to more mindful literacy assessment. The concept of mindfulness has been heavily researched with positive results. One scientist, Dr. Ellen Langer, defines mindfulness within her book of the same title as:

  • continuous creation of new categories,
  • openness to new information, and
  • aware of more than one perspective.

Mindfulness is about being more aware of the present and worrying less about the past or the future. When people are mindful, they notice what is happening right now with an objective point of view. They resist judging, although they do question sources of information from a place of curiosity. As I read Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018), I couldn’t help but notice all of the connections between mindfulness and the authentic assessment practices she describes. In the rest of this post, I categorize some of these ideas within the context of mindful literacy assessment from past, future, and present perspectives.

Forget the Past (at least for a while)

One of the best aspects of a new school year is the opportunity to begin again in our learning journey. Students have a new teacher who knows little about them other than what might be passed up through the faculty grapevine and reputation.

Instead of reviewing their assessment data from the previous years, what if we came into a new classroom with expectations that all students will be successful? Could we hold off on passing judgment about a kid until we got to know them a little better?

Regie advocates for this. In the very first section on engagement, she calls for teachers to build trusting relationships as a priority during the first days of school. It isn’t about just literacy. “We simply cannot underestimate the power of positive relationships on the health, well-being, and achievement of all school community members” (10). For students to be able to learn, their basic needs have to be met. A strong relationship between student and teacher and as a classroom community are essential.

But what about all the time we are losing by not addressing reading and writing from day one? I hear you. What is being asked – slowing down and getting to know one another – seems contrary to the norm. Yet to be open to new ways of seeing each other, ourselves, and the world (the essence of mindfulness), this time in developing trust and relationships has to be a priority. The assessments will be there waiting.

Keep the Future in Perspective

The discussion described previously between the teacher and me is one example of the larger concern about student evaluation in general. I see a pattern where the further the assessment is removed from the context of the classroom, the less accurate yet more anxiety-producing them become. This is largely due to the desire of outsiders to publicize school report cards that are dependent on standardized tests. As Regie notes in her book, what information these scores reveal is limited at best.

We knowingly ignore the wide body of research that confirms that test scores primarily reflect family income. (312)

I have studied this phenomenon myself in my state of Wisconsin and I can attest to the accuracy of Regie’s statement. She offers sage advice for educators who worry too much about ensuring that their students reach expected goals and outcomes (318):

If we focus on the process, the product will improve.

This process that Regie speaks of suggests practices that help teachers focus on the present.

Be Present

Easy to say, hard to do. I know. I am in classrooms regularly and I can confirm the challenges inherent in moving toward more mindful and authentic assessment practices. Classroom routines, room arrangement, and a strong community with a focus on student independence are a prerequisite for this level of practice.

Once these conditions are established, ongoing formative assessment can begin. Assessment for learning (vs. “of” learning) is always mindful: it resists categorization, it is open to new information, and it can guide teacher and student to consider multiple perspectives. Results are typically qualitative and anecdotal. Formative assessments don’t serve as the total answer to the assessment conundrum but rather as an important piece within an evaluation framework.

Triangulation within RtI

Conferring notes are one such example of ongoing formative assessment. Teachers can use technology, such as a stylus, an iPad, and a notetaking application such as Evernote or Notability. One of our first-grade teachers uses Notability to not only write information about each reader and writer but also to audio record the students reading aloud an independent text or their own writing. Students can listen to themselves reading and then self-assess their fluency.

Paper and pen/pencil are a tried and true technology. Another one of our teachers uses different colors of ink for every time she confers with her readers and writers. This gives her and her students a visual way of distinguishing the conferring notes.

 

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Done systematically, conferring notes and other forms of ongoing, formative assessment can serve as a counter to the sometimes anxiety-inducing interim and summative evaluations. They breathe life into what can be a stagnant process. More responsive assessment practices conducted during instruction provide a richer picture of students, helping teachers see each kid as a unique individual. In addition, formative assessment guides instruction in response to each learner needs. As Regie notes, “quality formative assessments have the potential to create equal opportunities to learn for all students” (314). I would add that it also helps everyone be more mindful of what’s most important.

This post is part of a book study around Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Check out more resources associated with the text at this website (https://sites.stenhouse.com/literacyessentials/), including a free curriculum for teaching an undergraduate course using Literacy Essentials.