Examining Our Beliefs About Literacy: Small Steps, Big Wins

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. 

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Reading Spaces by Heather McKay (@HeatherMMcKay)

The other morning my five-year-old opened his eyes and his first words of the day were, “I loved reading books with you and daddy last night mama”. His words filled my parent and teaching heart to the brim. Words fuel me in all forms – long books, short stories, poems that make me gasp or laugh, and blogs that challenge what I thought I knew.  The greatest joy in reading for me is discovering another reader, online or in person, who feels the same way.

When I’m reading I fall into a private space, but when it’s a really good read, I immediately search for a social space where I can talk with someone else about what I’m reading. As a teacher, this lived in my classroom and hallway conversations and now as a literacy specialist, it lives in my work across schools with administrators and teachers. Regie Routman challenges us, “as conscientious educators to instill a love of reading in our students and to do whatever it takes to turn them into readers” (2014, p. 117). For my first post, I wanted to talk about what we do to intentionally create a joyful reading culture.

Through talking about texts that move us, disrupt us, and transform us, we share who we are and lay our reading identities bare. We express our reading identities through what we read, where we read, when we read, and how we talk about reading (Buehl, 2011, p.1). There are friends I can share research articles with, friends who love picture books as much as I do, and friends who mirror back their love of reading with late night texts demanding, “You just HAVE to read this book!”. As I move among schools working with staff in support of literacy, I get the unbelievable opportunity to share and grow reading identities with both students and staff.

I believe administrators and teachers play an important part of a creating a larger reading landscape in students’ lives. In my work developing and supporting our K-12 literacy strategy, I’ve noticed there are some strategic ways administrators and teachers are building a school-wide reading culture. When we intentionally create reading spaces, readers are born and thrive.

The following are three ways to approach building a school-wide culture of reading that caught my attention recently:

Administrators and teachers sharing their own reading lives

It could be a bookshelf that draws your eyes in your Principal’s office, a teacher sharing a professional read or picture book at a staff meeting, or an Assistant Principal popping in for an impromptu read aloud in a classroom. When administrators make time to share their reading joy, others will follow and the joy of reading grows. 

Students inviting others into their reading lives

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It might be a single bookshelf that students adopt for a week in the learning commons or digital book talks accessed through hallway QR codes. When students have the space to talk about their personal reading, they joyfully embrace it. Offering students dedicated ways to share the texts they enjoy builds their autonomy and engagement and acknowledges the social nature of literacy itself.

Administrators, teachers, and students talking together about books

My husband’s school hosts an annual ‘Battle of the Books’ where teams of readers choose a collection to read and battle over. Many teachers in our board used the hype of March Madness to bring a themed ‘Battle of the Books’ to their classrooms. Literacy experiences such as these bring adults and children together into a shared reading space. Apprenticing students into how we read and how we talk about books provides the gradual release and feelings of joy required to become lifelong readers.

We must intentionally design spaces for students to come to know themselves and others as readers and participate in a joyful literacy community. It is not enough to teach students to read, we must open the door to all of the joys and opportunities of citizenship that reading acts as the gateway for.

What would you add? How do you build a reading culture in your life, your classroom, or in and between schools? Let’s share ideas as fellow readers and build spaces for readers to find their books, their community, and themselves.

References

Buehl, D. (2011). Developing Readers in the Academic Disciplines. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Routman, R. (2014). Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough strategies for schoolwide literacy success. Alexandria, VA: ASCD

This is the first of hopefully many posts from another contributor to this collaborative blog. If you have a passion for literacy and leadership and would like to share your thinking within our space and with our audience, click here for information. 

Some of My Fondest Memories of High School were Read-Alouds

You could hear a pin drop in my classroom when I read aloud. It is their favorite time of the day. They beg me to read aloud to them.

-What a teacher recently shared with me

 

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I still remember when I got hooked on reading. My 3rd-grade teacher started reading aloud Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. The humor and plot hit home for me, also being an older brother like Peter, the main character. After hearing that book read aloud, I became a voracious reader. I now associated reading with both pleasure and with learning more about myself (“Would I have reacted to my younger brother like Peter did to Fudge?”). Bill Wallace and Roald Dahl were favorite authors, along with comics such as Calvin & Hobbes and Garfield.

As I progressed through the middle grades, I remained an avid reader in spite of the fact that my teachers did not read aloud to us. This is before the advent of smartphones, television-on-demand, and ubiquitous wireless. Reading was the only game in town. However, as I became more involved in high school, books started to become less important. Sports and other extracurriculars monopolized my time. I didn’t complain. It was great to be involved in the many opportunities. But my reading life suffered.

That’s why I am thankful that a high school teacher took the time to read aloud to us. He taught English and wasn’t shy about bucking the current thinking that reading aloud to secondary students was a waste of time. Read-aloud was leveraged as a tool both for instruction and for engagement. To be fair, what we participated in would be termed “shared read aloud”. We all had copies of the text and were expected to read at least some of it independently during class and at home. Here are a few snippets of what I remember from his classroom.

  • While reading aloud Lord of the Flies by William Golding, our teacher would reread dialogue out loud that gave clues to the personalities of each character.
  • While reading aloud Flower for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, the teacher asked provocative questions about the nature of science and perceived benefits.

As much as the lesson objective, I recall the very act of being read aloud to in the classroom. Getting to hear the cadence and prosody of an expert reader was an invaluable model for secondary students like myself who still hadn’t yet mastered the art of reading. The joy in literature was evident as our teacher read aloud to us. I cannot recall one peer stating that this type of activity was a waste of time or boring.

Through our community-based literacy experience mediated through read-aloud, I had rediscovered the importance of reading. I was more likely to pick up a book to read for pleasure, or even force myself to read a required text in another classroom and not defer to the Cliff Notes or the movie (if applicable). The typical life of a high schooler still held my focus. Yet my interest in reading was renewed. I once again viewed literature as a lifelong activity instead of another subject to be completed in school.

 

 

Literacy, Personalized

Lately, I have been exploring personalized learning as an approach to meeting all students’ needs. Personalized learning “places the interests and abilities of learners at the center of their education experience. In personalized learning, educators develop environments in which students and teachers together build plans for learners to achieve both interest-based and standards-based goals” (Halverson et al, 2015). What I am finding is there is no “gold standard” for this approach. Maybe the concept is too big. Maybe personalized learning is too new. Maybe I haven’t studied it enough!

IMG_1789Because I have a focus on literacy and leadership, I thought about what personalized learning might resemble in a reading and writing classroom, specifically. How is it different from what we might expect from a more traditional classroom? Below are the elements of personalized learning as outlined by Allison Zmuda, co-author of Learning Personalized: The Evolution of a Contemporary Classroom (Jossey-Bass, 2015): Time & Space; Assignments; Curriculum; Reporting; Feedback; Roles. Next are a smattering of ideas on how personalized learning might apply to the literacy block. If you have more suggestions, share them in the comments.

Time & Space

  • Ensure that enough time is provided daily for authentic literacy experiences, especially independent reading and writing on topics of students’ choice.
  • Provide more modern furniture for students to engage in reading and writing. For models, check out a local library or an independent bookstore.
  • Create natural locations in the classroom for students to share what they are reading and writing. Small tables and mounted counters with stools could work.
  • Audit the instructional day to find more time to read and write, and jettison anything that is not at the same level of effectiveness.
  • Position book shelves and writing materials so they invite students into reading and writing in authentic contexts, i.e. journaling, blogging, book reviews.

Assignments

  • Replace book reports with book reviews. Use digital tools such as Biblionasium for students to post book reviews for peers.
  • Replace book logs with personal journals. Provide open-ended notebooks for students to write about what they are reading so they can share their thinking with peers the next school day (or keep their thoughts to themselves).
  • Cancel the school’s annual subscription to Accelerated Reader. There is no independently-conducted research that shows Accelerated Reader is an effective literacy program. See the What Works Clearinghouse report for more information.
  • Reduce reading projects to the bare minimum with regard to how students are expected to respond to their reading.
  • Implement book talks to replace some of the assessments previously questioned. We can gain more information about a student’s understanding of a text through them sharing what they are reading verbally than from inauthentic assignments.

Curriculum

  • Integrate reading, writing, speaking, and listening into all other curriculum renewal activities. Performance tasks are especially good opportunities to incorporate literacy.
  • Make a list of and provide relevant authentic texts that capture the time period of a point in history.
  • Curate a list of biographies about famous scientists that students might want to research for a written report.
  • Craft big questions that lead students to pursue knowledge online, which will provide opportunities to critically read web-based resources.
  • Incorporate writing into formative assessment points, such as constructed responses and personal reflections.

Reporting

  • Develop rubrics for writing genres with students, after a lot of immersion into authentic texts of the genre to be learned.
  • Teach students how to self-assess writing at every stage of the process.
  • Facilitate monitoring of reading goals through journaling, blogging, and published book reviews.
  • Replace grades for reading and writing with frequent qualitative feedback.
  • Utilize digital assessment tools such as FreshGrade to share student learning results in literacy with family members and colleagues.

Feedback

  • Utilize online writing tools such as Google Docs to facilitate feedback between classmates.
  • Partner with other classrooms locally and/or globally to facilitate feedback between students.
  • Provide anchor papers of past work for students to reference when striving to improve their writing.
  • Meet with students regularly during independent reading and writing to affirm strengths and offer strategies for improvement.
  • Teach students to end a draft of writing with questions they have about parts they are unsure about to guide feedback from the teacher or peers.

Roles

  • Assign one student to be the class notetaker during a demonstration lesson for a reading or writing strategy.
  • Rotate the role of classroom researcher to students. When questions come up during the literacy block, this student is tasked with finding an answer.
  • Set up a website (Google Sites, Weebly) where students can publish their finished pieces of writing as authors.
  • Designate one or more students to write a weekly newsletter, highlighting the happenings in the classroom. Share this out digitally and on paper with families.
  • Put students in charge of the classroom library, after lots of modeling on how to organize the titles and display the covers.

As I completed this list, I realized that a lot of these literacy activities are what typically happens in the best classrooms for reading and writing. Is it reasonable to think that personalized learning naturally happens in an authentic literacy environment?

A Triangle of Trust: A Framework for the Principal-Coach-Teacher Partnership

As a principal new to a school, trust has been a priority in my first year. Trust is defined in a number of ways. It is doing what we say we will do. Trust involves speaking the truth while having the tact to say it thoughtfully. When literacy leaders hold others accountable, as well as helping others hold themselves accountable, trust can flourish. Building trust in the schoolhouse is a prerequisite for professional learning.

Once trust is built, it needs to be sustained. I am learning that a critical part of this work is having clarity about the purpose and goals of a school. Defining the expected outcomes for student learning in a given year and how a school will get to that point is important. Equally important is having time to discuss these goals at length as a faculty. This ensures everyone is on board and questions and concerns have been addressed.

For example, our goal as a school is for at least 90% of our students to achieve proficiency in reading by the end of the year. Our professional learning plan in order to reach this goal involves professional literacy learning in a variety of forums, including an online video series, book studies, and instructional coaching.

Trust is developed, clarity is achieved: now the work can begin. In his book Unmistakable Impact, Jim Knight suggests a partnership approach to this work. “In a true partnership, one partner does not tell the other what to do; they discuss, dialogue, and then decide together” (29). What this looks like is different in every school. Yet I think we can apply any instructional coaching initiative to a broader frame. The mental model I offer here is one frame to consider when thinking about the principal-coach-teacher partnership.

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In a triangle of trust, each person is an essential part of the system. No one person is more important than another, although duties and responsibilities might look different in each role. Between each person is a specific focus that is relevant to the relationship (trust) and connected to the building goal (clarity).

  • Between the coach and the principal, the focus is on identifying opportunities for professional learning.
  • Between the principal and teacher, the focus is on setting high expectations for students achievement and growth.
  • Between the coach and teacher, the focus is on exploring possibilities for collaborative inquiry.

Next is an example in my school that describes this partnership approach to professional learning.

Between the coach and the principal

I get together with our instructional coach once a week to discuss current coaching cycles, student data and application of schoolwide literacy initiatives. We had concluded previously that some of our students were lagging in their reading fluency. The data supported this. The results were attributed to classrooms not allocating enough time for independent reading. It wasn’t necessarily the teachers’ fault; the current schedule is choppy, plus faculty had not received training in this area in the past. We discussed opportunities for professional learning while we prepared for the mid-year data meetings…

Between the principal and the teachers

Grade level teams met with the instructional coach, lead interventionist and me to look at student data and discuss placement of reading intervention at the mid-year point. During these discussions, the conversation inevitably ended up where teams were ready to consider new strategies to continue increasing reading fluency.

At this point, I would share an article on independent reading. It was accompanied with assessment tools that teachers could use when conferring with students. The expectation was clear. However, multiple pathways were offered in which teachers might better facilitate independent reading in their classrooms…

Between the teachers and the coach

While a few teachers connected with me after the meeting about more resources regarding independent reading, I realize that not every teacher is comfortable with this. Being a professional learner demands vulnerability and mistake making. This requires a safe setting. An effective instructional coach can provide this necessary environment.

One teacher reached out to our instructional coach, wanting to explore the tenets of independent reading. After a brief observation, it was decided that students need to first work on stamina and on selecting best fit books. The coach agreed to observe students while the teacher demonstrated for them these skills. Data over time, including tallies noting student engagement levels, showed that improvements were made. By directly seeing the impact that this coaching cycle had on student learning, the teacher came to see what was possible.

Frames have their limits. In this example, both the coach and the principal set the expectations for the building through the use of data and an identification of a better practice. Also, some teachers sought out the principal for guidance on independent reading. Yet within this framework, trust and clarity were a priority. These two critical elements are the foundation for professional learning in a school.

Do no Harm

When used casually, AR helps students’ reading abilities grow. When used thoughtfully and with proven techniques, it leads to tremendous gains and a lifelong love of reading. – Getting Results with Accelerated Reader, Renaissance Learning

I am currently reading aloud Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce to my 10 year old son. It is an interesting “what if” story: the main character and his older brother find a bag of money thrown off of a train in England. The problem is that England’s currency is soon transitioning from pounds to the euro. To add a wrinkle to the narrative, the main character’s mother recently passed away. To add another wrinkle, the main character can speak to deceased saints canonized within the Catholic Church. This story is nothing if not interesting and hard to predict.

Reading aloud to my son sometimes leads to conversations about other books. For instance, I asked him about a fantasy series that also seemed to stretch one’s imagination. I thought it was right up his alley. Yet he declined. Pressed to explain why, my son finally admitted that he didn’t want to read that series because he failed an Accelerated Reader quiz after reading the first book. Here is our conversation:

Me: “When did you read the book in that series?”

Son: “Back at my older school.”

Me: “Why did you take a quiz on it?”

Son: “Because we had to take at least one quiz every month.”

Me: “Did you not understand the book?”

Son: “I thought I did. It was hard, but I liked it.”

This is an educational fail. When an assessment such as Accelerated Reader causes a student to not want to read, this should be a cause for concern. To be clear, Accelerated Reader is an assessment tool designed to measure reading comprehension. Yet it is not a valid tool for driving instruction. What Works Clearinghouse, a source for existing research on educational programming, found Accelerated Reader to have “mixed effects on comprehension and no discernible effects on reading fluency for beginning readers.” In other words, if a school were to implement Accelerated Reader, they should expect to find results that were not reliable, with the possibility of no impact on student learning. Consider this as you ponder other approaches to promoting independent reading.

It should also be noted that none of the studies listed took a look at the long term effects of using Accelerated Reader on independent reading. That would make for an interesting study.

I realize that it makes simple sense to quiz a student about their comprehension after reading a book. Why not? The problem is, when a student sees the results of said quiz, they appear to attribute their success or failure to their abilities as a reader. Never mind that the text might have been boring and only selected because of points, that the test questions were poorly written, that the teacher had prescribed the text to be read and tested without any input from the student, or that the test results would be used toward an arbitrary reading goal such as points. Any one of these situations may have skewed the results. In addition, why view not passing an AR quiz as a failure? It might be an opportunity to help the student unpack their reading experience in a constructive way.

What I would say is to take a step back from independent reading, and to appreciate it as a whole. What are we trying to do with this practice? Independent reading, as the phrase conveys, means to develop a habit of and love for lifelong, successful reading. This means the appropriate skills, strategies and dispositions should be developed with and by students. Any assessment that results in a student not wanting to read more interferes with that process and causes more problems than benefits. The Hippocratic Oath in medicine states “Do no harm”. Sounds like wisdom education should heed as well.

Suggestion for further reading: My Memory of The Giver by Dylan Teut

Developing a Growth Mindset within a Culture of Compliance

Many studies have shown that when students are engaged in learning, there is little need to bribe students to complete their work. Using external motivators in the name of learning has many critics. There has been no more outspoken critic of grades and test scores than Alfie Kohn. His specific concerns around the use of praise to coax work out of students in the name of outcomes have been substantiated by a body of research, of which he often cites to support his arguments on his blog, www.alfiekohn.org.

For example, in his blog post “Criticizing (Common Criticisms of) Praise”, which was also published in his book Schooling Beyond Measure: Unorthodox Essays About Education (Heinemann, 2015), Kohn reinforces the notion that telling students they did a good job when they complete a task sets up an imbalance of power between student and teacher.

Praise is a verbal reward, often doled out in an effort to change someone’s behavior, typically someone with less power. Like other forms of reward (or punishment), it is a way of ‘doing to’, rather than ‘working with’ people (96).

In addition, when we deliver praise, we are actually taking autonomy of a student’s actions away from them and attributing their efforts to us. The result can be that students become conditioned to want the “attaboys” as a reward for their work, instead of focusing on why the work was successful in the first place.

The effect of a ‘Good job!’ is to devalue the activity itself – reading, drawing, helping – which comes to be seen as a mere means to an end, the end being to receive that expression of approval. If approval isn’t forthcoming next time, the desire to read, draw, or help is likely to diminish (97).

As educators, we too often default back to how we were taught in our classrooms and schools. I catch myself at times with words of praise instead of acknowledgement of their efforts with our students and my own children. It is a hard habit to break. However, this habit is worth changing. Our choices in language create the conditions in which students can or cannot become owners of their personal learning journeys.

Pathways Toward Student Agency

Peter Johnston, literacy education professor and author of Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives (Stenhouse, 2012), offers similar concerns regarding the use of praise in order to motivate learners. When students are rewarded for getting the right answer and completing the task just as the teacher asked, they start to associate success with what the adult deems worthy. They fail to internalize an understanding of good work within themselves.

In fact, if teachers repeatedly offer praise to students, they can reduce the impact of their instruction.

When children are fully engaged in an activity, if we praise them we can simply distract them from what they were doing and turn their attention to pleasing us (42).

So what is the counter to this culture? Johnston suggests agency, or the belief that things such as our intelligence and our life’s outcomes are changeable (27). Agency can be developed in students when teachers offer an environment for students which directs their attention to their own processes and thinking and how their efforts contributed to their success. This concept has been a focus of educational research for some time. Agency is closely related to more readily-known concepts such as “growth mindset”, a term coined by Carol Dweck. However we describe it, the idea is that the language we employ in classrooms has a direct impact on how well students take responsibility for their learning.

The assessment habits we develop as teachers can contribute to or detract from our students’ sense of success and independence. On a positive note, formative assessment strategies offer teachers specific approaches to address includes the clarity of goals and the offer of support through feedback and scaffolding that allows the teacher to eventually release the responsibility of the work to the student. These strategies are best employed in classroom environments that utilize responsive language, structures for collaboration, higher order questioning, and honest celebrations of student accomplishments. These actions can make student agency a reality.

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This is an excerpt from my new eBook The Secrets of Self-Directed Learning. It is a free resource that offers readers four steps for helping students become more independent learners. You can download this resource by clicking here.