Principals Need to Know Literacy

When I first became a principal at an elementary school, I thought I had the requisite knowledge to be a literacy leader. My previous experiences in the classroom as a teacher of readers and writers led this misconception. So when I arrived in my new building, and one of the teachers encouraged me to attend a literacy institute, I declined. I cited the need to get the schedule, budget, and rosters ready before the students arrived.

During my first school year as a principal, I did engage in monthly professional learning with the faculty, also around literacy. We learned about the reading-writing connection through the Regie Routman in Residence program. This video-based professional learning experience gave me many new insights, most notably: I didn’t know literacy.

My misconceptions were many. Yes, I understood guided reading. But I didn’t realize that guided reading wasn’t the most effective way to teacher responsively with my former 5th and 6th graders. Instead, I should have been conferring with kids regarding what they were reading independently, as well as facilitating more book reviews and recommendations. As the year progressed, I started feeling a little guilty about some of my past instructional moves. However, I was thankful that as a faculty we were learning about promising practices together and would be better educators for our students.

When the opportunity came up a year later to attend that same literacy institute, I didn’t say no.

This article serves as a closing post for our online study group Becoming a Literacy Leader by Jen Allen. During the summer, many contributors offered their thinking and shared their experiences related to this excellent resource for literacy leaders. Our engagement in this study serves as evidence that none of us believe we have all the answers, nor will we in the future. The research and knowledge regarding literacy are constantly evolving, especially with literacy becoming literacies in light of our digital world.

As one principal to another, I need you to know literacy. Not so you can more effectively evaluate teachers. Principals need to know literacy because it is at the heart of the educational experience. Read just about any educational resource that calls on strong leadership for sustained schoolwide improvement. The authors will most likely cite reading and writing as critical to a principal’s (and students’) success.

When a principal knows literacy, they can have better conversations with their faculty during collaboration. They are speaking the same language instead of quibbling over semantics, like the definition of “guided reading”. When a principal knows literacy, they understand that one of their budget priorities is books, books, and more books. And when a community or board member questions these purchases (and it has happened to me), a principal can cite the research that supports these decisions. When a principal knows literacy, they can take a stand against a mindless adoption of a commercial literacy program. Their beliefs about reading and writing, in line with the rest of the faculty, becomes a firewall for anyone trying to standardize instruction only in the name of better test scores.

Only when a principal knows literacy and partners with teachers to become more knowledgeable together can all students truly experience success as readers and writers.

 

Nobody Fails

footer-bookI recently attended a leadership conference where I was able to hear Laszlo Bock, the former Vice President of People Operations at Google, speak. One of the many things that he shared from his book Work Rules!, was that to make work a better place, a person should have a mission that matters. That work should have meaning. Real meaning. That this would serve a building block to real happiness and fulfillment at work and in life.

What a challenging and encouraging impetus! Who wouldn’t want to make work better and life happy!

Who could have a more clear mission than teachers? I teach high school math. My mission was crystal clear this past year: help kids learn Algebra. Simple enough. But the more Mr. Bock talked, the more I thought about what happened to me as a math teacher and to what happened in my classes. It wasn’t really about math at all.

Jennifer Allen writes about it in Chapter 7 of her book, Becoming A Literacy Leader. We have to define what success with instruction and intervention is. For her school, “Success to us is defined by more than a reading level.” In fact, she looked at the graduation rate of those kids who had been in the reading intervention classrooms at her school.

One of my math classes was a group of freshmen who had failed Algebra 1 in the first semester and were repeating it with me. It was an intervention class. And I had an army to assist me. Four classroom aides were assigned to my period. The Freshman graduation coach at our school spent a lot of time in my room too. So, you would think that we were all about math support – and we were!

But that was not the mission that drove our team. Not even remotely. From the very beginning of the second semester, when all these kids had their schedules rearranged to have a repeat class, we had a clear focus in front of us as a team charged with giving these kids round 2 of Algebra 1 semester 1: Nobody fails.

We were driven. If 15 kids didn’t pass a quiz, then we strategically retaught and rearranged lessons and plans to accommodate reteaching. They got 1 on 1 support with an assistant. They got a second dose. I retaught them. I pulled them in after school, before school, during our office hours. The graduation coach tracked them down during periods where they had some wiggle room to go over concepts again. I retested them. I tested them using different assessments sometimes… trying to match their modes of expression. We contacted parents to let them know how much we cared and asking for their support and help.

But nobody was going to fail. Nobody. All of the instructional team was on board. I retold them the mission often. I told the kids the mission. When kids were bored and distracted, I would often stop things and remind them of the behaviors that landed them there and then remind them with a smile that nobody was going to fail.

Do you remember the scramble in the movie Hidden Figures to accurately calculate the re-entry of the John Glenn’s space capsule? It generated the main tension for the movie and all hands were constantly scrapping to make sure that they were sure that they were sure that re-entry figures were accurate. They had a crystal clear mission.

That was how I felt about the kids in Algebra 1 Semester 1 Round 2.

Never in the 26 years I taught was work more difficult. I spend hours at home trying to figure out better ways to make Algebra more clear, to make it stick better, to help kids that didn’t ever have success in math have success. I researched. I planned. I tried. I collaborated.

But it wasn’t my algebra planning alone that helped kids succeed. It was the mission. Our team relentlessly held on to it. It drove us.

So, this year, as I tackle Geometry and Algebra 2 with whole new bunches of kids, you can bet that the drive behind my instruction will be that no one fails. No one. I will certainly be employing everything in my power to give kids strategies for navigating the sometimes despised, often neglected, and occasionally difficult world of math. I will still spend time finding out new things about how I’m successful at figuring out solutions and how that can transfer for them. I will look at what we know about brains and how they function. I’ll scrutinize other experts experiences with concept-specific strategies that may help kids. I’ll sell the math practices that we know help kids persevere in solving math problems.

But behind it all, the heartbeat of what I will do, the driving force, will be executing a mission that matters – nobody fails.

Jennifer sums it up well: “Our goal is ultimately to remove the intervention rooms as we reduce the number of students needing additional support.” With a little planning and collaboration, I can provide that support before we get to an intervention tier that requires something more drastic.

Nobody fails.

 

The Power of Quality Tier 1 Instruction

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A reflection of a former classroom teacher:

I wish I would have known more.  I wish I would have known more about the volume of reading. I wish I would have known more about small group instruction in tier 1.  I wish I would have known more about the five components of reading. I wish I would have known more about teaching metacognitive strategies.

I wish I would have known the importance of first focusing on tier one instruction when contemplating how to best meet the needs of  students on the “bubble.”

In chapter 7 of Jennifer Allen’s book, Becoming a Literacy Leader, she discusses the power of tier one instruction, outlining the approach her school took to address the needs of bubble kids.  As opposed to outlining the approach, I will instead focus on two powerful sentences in the chapter.

  1. My hope was that student achievement would improve if we focused more energy on supporting classroom instruction as opposed to putting all of our resources toward supporting individual students (Allen, p. 128).
  2. In their research, Allington and his colleagues demonstrate how students benefit from long, uninterrupted chunks of learning time as well as from consistent instruction from high-quality teachers. Yet our neediest kids tend to have the most segmented days, being shuffled from intervention to intervention (Allen, p 128).

I have been a part of many discussions and teams concerning Response to Intervention.  Let me first say, I commend all the teams I have worked with as they try tirelessly to help our struggling readers and writers.  There have been so many collaborative discussions about targeted instruction and tier two support.  And, all of this is valid.

However, let us be real and know that sometimes, or more aptly, most times, we skip a key component of Response to Intervention: solid, research-based instruction by the classroom teacher in tier one.

So, when considering our “bubble” kids, let us start with this: “How do we provide professional support for all of our classroom teachers.  Because the better their craft is, the fewer kids we have on the “bubble.”  The result of this: 1) Solid, research-based instruction benefits all kids of all levels. 2) Solid, research-based instruction will prevent a great number of kids from falling into tier two intervention, thereby allowing us more time to provide targeted instruction to kids who do fall in tier two instruction.

So, to new teachers, I say study your craft as much as possible.

To veteran teachers, I say guide discussions that focus on tier one instruction first, then tier two.

To coaches, send this message over and over again–we need to devote as much time and finances we can to develop the teacher.

Administrators, provide that time to build the craft of your teachers in tier 1, while also supporting tier two and three.

Literacy for ALL

Literacy for All

Sometimes a question is so beautiful it becomes part of you. One such question, posed to me last year by a grade 5 student, has stuck with me in my work as a district literacy specialist. While interviewing students as part of developing our school board’s literacy strategy, I had the opportunity to chat with a group of students attending a school that specifically supports students with complex learning disabilities. The classrooms in this school sound very similar to the literacy intervention classrooms Jennifer Allen describes in chapter 7 of her book Becoming A Literacy Leader. After sharing all of the helpful ways their teachers had prepared them to learn and reintegrate into their community school, one student leaned in and stated, “I just don’t know why the teachers at my old school couldn’t have taught me this way. I don’t know why I had to leave my school to learn”.

What a beautiful question. We know that “every student deserves a great teacher, not by chance, but by design” (Fisher, Frey, & Hattie, 2016, p. 2) and with this question in mind, I thought about what every teacher might take away from Jennifer’s description of a literacy intervention classroom. What structures and elements might make our classrooms and our teaching effective for ALL students?

There are many research-based principles and characteristics that teachers can use to design effective literacy classrooms. Jennifer specifically mentions the success of the following practices, which could easily be taken up in any classroom:

  • daily reading and writing
  • quality books to hook students
  • explicit strategy instruction
  • predictable classroom routines
  • ongoing assessment
  • chunking instruction

Identifying the “bubble-kids”

Jennifer’s description of literacy intervention classrooms specifically mentions that these classes were designed to support the ‘bubble kids’. Each school has a different name for the students who are slightly below grade level. Some people call them “bubble kids” or ‘at-risk’ students. Names matter. They carry immense power to impact student’s self-concept. While chapter 7 has nothing to do with what we name this group of students, I believe it is important to address before looking at effective structures and strategies for literacy learning.

This summer one of my colleagues introduced me to the term ‘at-promise’. I instantly loved it. We know literacy itself is a political act and the way we frame and name groups of students matter. Let’s begin thinking about students who are slightly below grade level by thinking about the promise of success they hold.

Let’s also think about how we identify the ‘at-promise’ students. Jennifer presents a rich process including student criteria, classroom observations, and conversations with classroom teachers and parents (p. 134 – 137). However, one addition I would add is to talk with students themselves. Students need to be active agents in their education and contribute to the decisions made towards their success. Our ‘at-promise’ students do need a different level of support from us and so it is important to identify them early on in the school year. As you plan for the beginning weeks of school, how will you come to know your students as literacy learners? How will you forge strong relationships with your ‘at-promise’ students?

A slow start

 Another aspect of literacy intervention classrooms Jennifer describes is using the first month as a “Literacy Boot Camp”. School start up is already a stressful time of transition for students, families, and staff. Intentionally building a learning community and “opting for simplicity and consistency, we [can slow] down the start of the year and [take] the time to teach the whole class our expectations” (Allen, 2016, p. 139). Spending time on how a classroom community will learn together and building strong relational trust will provide a solid, positive foundation for the rest of the school year.

Harvey Daniels also talks about the importance of beginning the day (not just the year) with soft starts in his book The Curious Classroom. He shares that “when we let kids find their own way into the day, we activate their curiosity and sense of self-direction, mind-sets that serve learners well in the formed inquires that follow” (Daniels, 2017, p. 59). When I transitioned from beginning my kindergarten teaching days with scripted carpet time to an open inquiry and play block, I noticed a huge change in my students and myself. We lost the rushed ‘have to’ feeling and found the joy of learning and community.

 Large blocks of uninterrupted literacy instruction

 Time is a precious commodity in schools and as teachers we must make strategic decisions and advocate on behalf of what we know our students need. We know that extended time for child-directed learning, at least an hour, results in sustained engagement (Banjeree, Alsalman, & Alqafari, 2017, p. 301). When comparing a regular classroom with a literacy intervention classroom, Jennifer points out that the transitions can be quite different. In regular classrooms, students move between teachers and supports frequently. In a literacy intervention classroom, the “teacher has the whole class for the entire day and does not have to worry about reteaching lessons” (Allen, 2016, p. 138).

This is where I challenge all teachers to critically look at the decisions you can make in your day. How can you arrange your instructional time so that transitions are minimized? What are you doing in your school day that you can let go of? What are the pieces that ‘have to’ stay or are beneficial to keep? During my last full year of teaching kindergarten my class included many students who were working on improving their social skills and behavior. Simplifying our daily schedule and creating large blocks of integrated learning time gave these students in particular, time to sink into their learning and the opportunity to develop sustained engagement.

Effective literacy classrooms, by design

While the approaches Jennifer presents are specifically framed to benefit ‘at-promise’ students, I think we all can agree these are equally important for every classroom. These are the exact components that the grade 5 student I mentioned earlier wished her community school’s teachers had offered her. After reading chapter 7, I sat with the question about what was truly different in the classrooms Jennifer described. I’m left with the feeling that while there might be differences, with a knowledgable and caring teacher, there doesn’t have to be. Each of us can pick up these practices and structures and create classrooms where all learners thrive in their literacy learning.

References

Allen, J. (2016). Becoming a Literacy Leader. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse.

Banjeree, R., Alsalman, A., & Alqafari, S. (2017). Supporting sociodramatic play in preschools to promote language and literacy skills of English language learners. Early Childhood Education, 299-305.

Daniels, H. (2017). The Curious Classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Hattie, J. (2016). Visible Learning For Literacy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

 

 

Quality Instruction: The Most Important Classroom Variable

The instruction that you provide to your students is the most important variable regarding student achievement.  Good instruction can deliver up to two years growth for some students.  The opposite, Jennifer Allen writes, “focus on improving the quality of instruction that (you are) providing to all students…student achievement would improve if we focused more energy on supporting classroom instruction as opposed to putting all of our resources toward supporting individual students”

You are one of the most important variables in your classroom. So, what are some easy ways to improve the quality of your instruction?  One easy way to impact your instruction is to have a desire to want to get better.  Is there an area where you feel you could improve your instruction?  Set a realistic, professional goal for yourself, and write it down!  Take small steps.  For example, setting a yearly goal of implementing strategy groups for small group reading instruction is a lot more realistic than expecting yourself to implement strategy groups in one nine weeks.

If you have an instructional coach, use him or her.  I can’t think of one professional athlete, singer, or entertainer that does not have a coach.  They recognize the importance of having someone available to improve their craft.  Your coach is available to you to help you improve in any area that you wish to strengthen.  A coach’s primary goal is to bring best instructional practices to you.  I will note that they are there to push you, too. 🙂

Attending professional development is another action to improve instruction. Professional development can be provided through your school district (for free), or you can attend professional development on your own through different webinar series. Following blogs and educational leaders on social media are a quick and easy way to keep abreast on new educational topics.

Also, we can’t omit assessments from this discussion.  Your assessments drive your instruction.  Assessments are your foundation. Without them, your instruction will be fragile.  Your assessments will give you insight on where the learning process breaks down for your students.  

I have a few questions for you to consider when supporting students on the bubble.

  • Are you tracking student growth?  If you’re not tracking student growth, you don’t know if your students are moving or not moving.  
  • How many touches a week do your bubble students receive?  Remember, these students still need consistent teacher support.  So, checking in with them once a week is not enough support for these students.  Children need to practice a skill or strategy at least eight times before they begin to internalize it.
  • How often do you reflect on the effectiveness of the support provided for these students?  This is a good opportunity to ponder about what strategies are working and not working.  Be honest.  There is no need in wasting precious time on a strategy that doesn’t work.  It may be helpful to rely on a teammate or coach.  It’s always helpful to have someone to bounce ideas or get another opinion.

As teachers, we have the daunting task of finding the key that unlocks the door to reading.  This is a process.  It may take a year, or two, or three for a child to become successful in their reading.  Know that the strong foundation that you provided will lay a path for that child’s reading success

Study Groups for Voluntary Professional Development

In Chapter 4 of Becoming a Literacy Leader, Jennifer Allen describes how she facilitates professional learning beyond the schoolwide initiative. She refers to these opportunities as “study groups”. They are typically designed around a specific educational resource. Jennifer reflects on the importance of having voice and choice in her professional learning.

As a teacher, I often found that my needs and interests were not met within the allotted in-service days designated for professional development during the school year. I was thirsty for professional development opportunities involving new instructional practices. Instead, I found that most of our in-service days were planned months in advance to address state assessment requirements. (pg. 59)

In the past, I had tried to facilitate study groups but encountered several problems.

  • First, I was selecting the text. Teachers didn’t have voice and choice in what to read.
  • Second, I did not have regularly scheduled dates communicated ahead of time. I would ask teachers when they would want to meet, a few would get back to me, and then we tried to make it fit.
  • Third, I saw this as a way to teach instead of an opportunity to learn from the resource and with each other. As Jennifer notes in Becoming a Literacy Leader, “I participate as an equal member of each group. I think the reason study groups work is that the teachers are directing their own learning.” (pg. 65)

By learning from my experiences plus this resource, we have prepared a more responsive approach to personalize professional learning for faculty.

Research Relevant Resources to Offer

In the spring, I thought about what our school’s needs and interests were as we prepared for next year. Some of these topics would need to be beyond our schoolwide initiative of authentic literacy. For example, personalized learning and Responsive Classroom were two areas I knew teachers were interested in learning more about. I made a list of all relevant resources available, discovered through researching publisher websites, professional reading resources, and book search tools such as Amazon and Goodreads.

Select Resources as a Leadership Team

Before the school year begins, our school’s leadership team reviewed the titles collected for consideration. Teachers on the team provided their input, knowing what their colleagues might and might not be interested in.

Offer Study Group Opportunities to Faculty

I typed up a list of titles with descriptions along with dates the study groups would meet (image on left). Teachers can click on a link to a Google Form and enroll in one or more study groups (image on right).

After teachers have signed up, we will need to assign co-facilitators for the groups. One facilitator would likely be a member of the leadership team. The other facilitator would be a participating teacher. These facilitators would cover for each other in case one of them could not make it.

Jennifer also has a routine agenda for the study groups to ensure a successful study group experience (pg. 74):

  • Discussion/Sharing (10 minutes)
  • Reading Excerpt
  • Video Clip
  • Toolbox (15 minutes)
  • Putting Ideas into Practice (5 minutes)
  • Next Month

Just as important to providing teachers with voice and choice in their professional learning, I believe it is equally powerful to have teachers model lifelong, voluntary learning for our students and school community. I look forward to seeing how the concept of study groups will have a positive impact on teacher autonomy and student learning.

 

 

Coaching Work: Curriculum & Assessment by @danamurphy68 #litleaders

In Chapter Six of Becoming a Literacy Leader, Jennifer Allen outlines the various ways she is able to support teachers with curriculum and assessment in her role as an instructional coach. As anyone in the field of education knows, curriculum and assessment are the backbone of the school system. Curriculum drives our teaching and assessment helps us fine-tune it. I’d go as far as to say supporting curriculum and assessment is one of my top three duties as an instructional coach.

Allen dedicates pages 114 – 116 to explaining how she helps prepare assessment materials during each assessment cycle. I nodded to myself as I read, remembering how I spent an entire morning last year in the windowless copy room making copies of our running record forms for the staff. It certainly wasn’t inspiring work, but I agree with Jennifer that preparing assessment materials is important work. When teachers are freed of the tedious jobs of copying or creating spreadsheets or organizing assessment materials, they are free to concentrate on the hard work of administering and analyzing assessments. If I can remove the ‘busywork’ part of assessment administration for them, I don’t mind spending a morning in a windowless copy room. In this way I can provide the time and space for teachers to think deeply about their assessments. If I can do the busywork, they can do the work that really matters.

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While reading Chapter Six, I thought about how I support curriculum and assessment in my school district. I do many of things Allen wrote about, but what seems most important to me is helping teachers look at student work as formative assessment. On page 110, Allen wrote:

Students should be at the heart of our conversations around curriculum and assessment, and it’s important that we don’t let them define who students are or might become. 

This quote summarizes my driving belief as an instructional coach. It is easy to fall into the trap of believing we (instructional coaches) exist to support the teachers, but the truth is we are ultimately there for the students. In order to keep students at the heart of my work as a coach, I work hard to have student work present during any coaching conversation. This holds true at the end of an assessment cycle as well. It benefits everyone to slow down and take the time to review the assessments (not the scores, the actual assessments). Teachers bring their completed writing prompts or math unit exams or running records, and we use a protocol to talk about the work. There are an abundant amount of protocols available at NSRF. I also highly recommend the Notice and Note protocol from The Practice of Authentic PLCs by Daniel R. Venables. This is my go-to protocol to look at student work with a group of teachers.

Teachers are in the classroom, doing the hard work of implementing curriculum and administering assessments. Our job as literacy leaders is to support them by giving them the time and space to reflect on their hard work.