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 Learners. Like 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.
At the turn of the new year, I took a look at my reading habits. I have participated in the Goodreads Reading Challenge for the last five years. You set a goal for number of books read, and then document each book you read with a date finished, rating and maybe even a review. Here is how I have fared.
2013: 12 books read out of a goal of 40
2014: No challenge accepted
2015: 56 books read out of a goal of 50
2016: 55 books read out of a goal of 60
2017: 49 books read out of a goal of 52
I saw some interesting patterns and trends here. First, I was very unsuccessful the first time I participated in the Reading Challenge, so much so that I failed to document a goal for 2014 (I’m sure I read). Second, the only year I met my goal was in 2015. That is a success rate of 20%, if you define success as meeting an arbitrary benchmark. Third, my average number of books read for the past three years is 53, or one book per week. Knowing that the top 1% of earners read at least one book a month on average, I am looking forward to my future financial wealth.
This last point is my attempt at humor, but there is truth here as well. Habitual readers tend to find success in life, both personal and professional. They are typically more knowledgable about the world and have greater empathy for people in other cultures. The books I read vary in genre, author, length, etc., which broadens my perspective. Some books are for kids, such as the ones I read aloud to my children, but many are for me. Reading is a selfish act that also inspires selflessness and a desire to affect the greater good.
I keep track of my reading because it is important to me and the community of readers I know online and offline. I don’t set reading goals to hit a number or see how many more books I can read than others. My list of books read provides me with a literary history, a chronology of my reading life. If I don’t reach my goal, what’s the big deal? I’d rather know whether I have an imbalance of fiction and nonfiction. These are points worth stressing in our classrooms so our students don’t miss the forest for the trees.
Before the students arrived, our faculty learned how to best prepare a classroom (and school) for students. Specifically, we looked at our classroom and common areas to promote reading and writing. Each teacher stated a personal goal that they would work toward regarding classroom libraries, bulletin boards, and relationship building.
Next are some images of our first-week successes in creating a culture of literacy.
I think my favorite part of this schoolwide literacy experience is when my daughter came home complaining that she was tired. “Why are you tired?” I asked her. “My feet are sore from all the walking we did while organizing our classroom library.” That’s a win for creating a culture of literacy and student ownership!
As an instructional coach, one of my responsibilities is to provide voluntary opportunities for teachers to study in groups during the school year and in the summer. This is one of my favorite coaching responsibilities. The studies take on a life of their own and usually go way beyond my expectations. Because the study is usually voluntary to some extent, teachers are more passionate learners and more confident as they become experts in a new content area or practice. Having a part in how they feel about themselves as confident teachers is pure joy!
In her book, Becoming A Literacy Leader, Jennifer Allen is guided by two goals when planning study groups: purposeful alignment and peer interaction. She states that, “…resources that are selected as offerings within the school are aligned to our district goals and that our professional development has everyone focused, interacting, and making meaning together.”
I agree with her goals, and I have had the opportunity to plan book study groups based on these goals. This past summer I received a healthy budget to purchase professional books for summer book studies. I chose the books based on teacher surveys, asking what they would like to study together, as well as aligning the choices with my district’s goals and philosophy.
Once the books arrived, I created a ‘Summer Book Buzz’ for teachers to read through and make an informed decision about the study in which they would like to participate. At a staff meeting teachers signed up for their study of choice, chose a facilitator, selected dates to meet, and created norms for their time together. One of the requests I made of teachers that chose to participate was to present something from their study during a staff meeting in the upcoming school year. The groups presented engaging strategies, activities, and student work. Because the study groups were voluntary the teachers took ownership over their time together as well as what and how they chose to present. This was evident as I listened to the presentations at staff meetings and the many conversations teachers had with me. I considered the book study groups a success.
As I read chapter 4 of Allen’s book, she affirmed much of my work planning and preparing for the book study groups. I also realized there is much I could add to my planning for the next time. Although having teachers present their studies gave me a form of evaluation, I can see that implementing a study group evaluation would provide valuable information for me as a coach and facilitator.
Allen’s suggested evaluation includes…
1. What was the greatest benefit of participation in this type of professional development format?
2. What changes may you make in your instruction as a result of attending this focus group?
3. Please rate this form of professional development on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being the highest).
Jennifer Allen closes this chapter by calling study groups a worthy investment. She states, “Study groups are what I am most passionate about as a literacy specialist. I believe in teachers and their ability to direct, reflect, and facilitate their own learning.” From my reading and my own experiences I would agree, and I plan to continue using book study groups in my practice while applying the valuable suggestions Allen provides in her book. Let the new school year and the study groups begin!
As an educator, I have always been passionate about literacy and have continued to seek out new learning. My literacy thinking has been refined as I’ve read books by Regie Routman, Donalyn Miller, Boushey and Moser, Richard Allington, Fisher and Frey, and now Jennifer Allen. Becoming a Literacy Leader is a goldmine of a book for literacy specialists/instructional coaches, making me wish I could go back into a role to focus just on coaching literacy to apply my learning from Allen, but then I remember that I love my job as principal too! Since I wear many hats as a principal and cannot go in depth to the type of literacy support that Allen and literacy coaches provide teachers, I want to share some of the visible ways that principals can be reading principals. My ideas shared are not my own, I’ve gained these from the authors I’ve mentioned above and others in my Professional Learning Network.
1. Be a reader and share it with students! I love to share with students that I’m a reader. I get into classrooms the first week of school to read a book to kick-off the new school year and I also go back in after winter break to talk about reading resolutions.
2. Encourage teachers to share their reading lives with students. I post my reading sign in the library for students to see (what I’m reading and how many books I’ve read) and ask teachers to do something similar to model for students that they are readers too.
One year I asked all teachers to identify 10 things about themselves as a reader and we filled a bulletin board with who we are as readers for students to see.
3. Share your reading life with staff. With each new book I’m reading, I update my email signature to show it so each time I send an email, I’m also recommending a book! I have a few staff members who do this and I have gained new book ideas just from their email signatures.In addition, my staff memo blog includes a widget to show the books I have read/logged on Goodreads this year.
4. Talk about books with kids. I do this when I’m in classrooms during literacy or during the lunch room. I especially love getting kids talking at the lunch table because students need to hear their peers talk about books to be able to seek out book recommendations from others. My oldest child is a hesitant reader. He can read, but he doesn’t like to unless he gets hooked on a book, but getting the hook is the struggle. A couple of years ago, I knew he would love The False Prince and I tried to get him to read it. Then one day out of nowhere he came home with a book he was so excited about that he heard his friends raving about so he started it. Guess what book it was?
5. Learn about literacy with your staff. Dave Burgess, author of Teach Like a Pirate (2012) asks the great metaphorical question “Are you a lifeguard or swimmer?” about whether or not you are walking the talk. He explains:“Lifeguards sit above the action and supervise the pool. Although he or she is focused, there is a distinct sense of separateness both physically and mentally. In contrast, a swimmer is out participating and an integral part of the action.” I have continued to learn right along with my teachers as we implemented Daily 5/CAFE, Lucy Calkins Units of Study for Writing and now moving into Units of Study for Reading. I even taught a summer school class to apply what I learned so I could be as supportive as possible for our teachers.
6. Ensure that classroom libraries have books for students to read. Gone are the days of the traditional basal that all students read (they weren’t all reading it!) or committing Readacide by having all reading the same chapter book together. We must ensure that classroom libraries have a wide variety of books that are of interest to students. What role do principals play in this? This means letting teachers budget for ordering additional books and letting them wait until they know their students as readers to make purchases later in the year to find books their readers will want. Supporting the librarian or IMC specialist to purchase books throughout the year so that when kids hear there’s a new book coming out they don’t have to wait until the next budget approval…they are waiting at the library the day they know the book is out eagerly hoping to be the first to check it out!
7. Continue to support teachers with professional learning. Provide your teachers with the opportunities to attend conferences, workshops, online webinars, or even purchase/share professional books, articles or blog posts.
8. Build up teacher leaders. Those teachers that got so excited about what they were reading and started applying it in their classroom? They have potential to be leaders in your building. Feed that hunger they have for growing as literacy experts. Let them lead a staff book study or present at a staff meeting/PD day. Cover another teacher’s class so they can observe in their classroom and learn from each other.
9. Encourage teachers to share book recommendations with each other. I love Allen’s examples in the book of having a place in the staff lounge for a teacher book swap (for personal reading) and a bulletin board for teachers to post read-aloud ideas for one another.
10. Make reading a fun part of your school culture. Support classrooms to have great places to read (not confined to a desk…you don’t do that at home when you’re enjoying a good book!)
Do crazy things to show that reading can be fun. During a Scholastic principals challenge, I read up high all day so kids could see (and I got a lot of great reading done) to enter our school in a contest to win books. Several classes even joined me throughout the day be reading on the floor for a while so I wasn’t alone all day during class time.
Every once in a while I make a special weather announcement to inform the school that there’s a reading blizzard on the way so they have to stay prepared with a book no matter where they are during the day, because when it hits they will need to take cover with a book. Then at a random time of the day, I make the announcement that the blizzard is here and they need to stop what they’re doing to read for 10 minutes. (This also helps build the habit to always have a book with you!)
I’d love to hear what other visible ways principals lead the reading culture!
During our school’s last professional learning community (PLC) experience, the entire faculty came together to examine our beliefs about literacy. Beliefs about teaching and learning are formed over time, through prior education, collaboration with colleagues, and classroom experience. Through structured conversations in vertical teams and watching professionals in the classroom via video, we found three areas in which we can all agree upon as best practice in literacy:
A child’s written story can be used to teach phonics and skills.
You can assess a child’s phonemic awareness by examining his/her journal writing.
Shared writing is an excellent way to record common experiences and connect to reading.
This may not seem like a big deal, at least at first glance. For example, shared writing, an instructional strategy in which a teacher leads their class to develop a story or report together, makes sense for teaching phonics and grammar in context. Using personal writing as a text for independent reading is authentic, and it honors students as authors. Yet this might seem counter to some of the instruction that pervades schools. Many of our programs and kits silo the various parts of language arts in an effort to ensure standards are being met.
We sometimes wrap our practices around resources, both digital and print, without first examining our beliefs. As we use these resources “with fidelity”, our beliefs are formed by our practices, which were informed by the resources. (See Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success by Regie Routman for more information.) Our identities as educators are intertwined with our work, which is made public daily in our classrooms. This is what makes it so difficult to change. It is also a reason why companies continue to produce resources that often promote antiquated practices. The bottom line is sales. We buy the resources because we know them. It helps to remember that these companies are not educational organizations; they are businesses.
The hardest part about change is not the lack of knowing what to do. We have multiple sets of data to support the need for building our collective knowledge regarding how reading supports writing and vice-versa. No one disagrees that this is an area where our school can improve as a faculty. We are not doing poorly; we simply know we can improve. The hardest part about change is in revisiting current beliefs about literacy and adopting new ones as a faculty.
Our school will continue this work in building our collective professional knowledge about effective literacy instruction. The three beliefs we unanimously agreed upon are a big step in the right direction. We will revisit them at this time next year. It should not be understated that we were able to come together as a team and find consensus on key issues in literacy instruction. These beliefs are now expected to be evident in our teaching and learning, regardless of what a program or resource might expect. I am looking forward to observing how our new beliefs will inform our future practices.
2016 has come to a close. Like any year, there were events to celebrate along with a few experiences we may not care to reminisce over. One event that is somewhere in the middle for me is that fact that I didn’t achieve my reading goal.
For the past two years, I have set a goal for number of books to read from January to December. In 2015 I not only met my goal but surpassed it (50/53). This past year I decided to up the ante – more is better, right? – and set a goal for 60. I ended up reading 55 books this year. Not too shabby, considering my recent move and a new job.
Goodreads, the online community where I along with many other bibliophiles post said goals, seems indifferent to this fact. “Better luck in 2017!” is all the feedback Goodreads offers. I can live with that. The site focused more on all of the books I did read, covers facing out, along with number of pages read and related statistics.
I guess I could have pushed through in December and quickly devoured some titles just to meet my goal. They may not have been what I necessarily wanted to read though. Also, I could have thrown in a few more books that my wife and I listened to with our kids while driving. But to be honest, I was half listening and didn’t feel like I could count it.
I’m glad that I didn’t caught up in meeting arbitrary goals. If that had been the case, I may have passed on longer, more complex works of fiction such as All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It’s fiction, yes, but also helped me deepen my understanding of what it means to live in a nation that does not share your beliefs. If I had worried too much about meeting a reading goal, I might not have reread and reread again Last Stop on Market Street by Matthew de la Pena. It still floors me how many ideas and perspectives a reader can glean from such a short text. If I had worried too much about meeting my reading goal, I may have avoided reading reference books about writing, such as Write What Matters by Tom Romano and A Writer’s Guide to Persistence by Jordan Rosenfeld. These are not texts you plow through. Yet I come back to these resources for information and inspiration.
If I was teaching in the classroom again, I think I would adopt a Goodreads-approach to independent reading. Students would still be expected to set some type of goal based on number of books. But it would not be the function of independent reading. We would look at different data about their reading lives, including:
Variety of genres explored
Complexity of texts from fall to spring
Favorite authors, titles and series based on ratings and reviews
Classmates whose reading habits influenced their reading lives
Books on their to-read list
How they feel about reading in general
This data seems a lot more important than the number of books read. I do believe volume in reading is important. But what leads someone to read? We still get reading goals like number of books read confused with purpose. The purpose of a reading goal is to make a more concerted effort to read more and to read daily. The idea is that through habitual reading, we will discover new titles, authors and genres that we come to enjoy and find valuable in our lives. I think about how I got hooked on reading: in the 3rd grade, our teacher read aloud Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. No reading goal, amount of guided reading or immersion into a commercial program did that for me.
As teachers take stock with their students during the school year regarding reading goals, I sincerely hope they look beyond mere numbers and work with their students so they can understand them as readers. Data that only measures quantity and disregards quality tells us very little about who our students are and who they might become as readers.