The Best Way to Learn

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The best way to learn is to be engaged as an active participant in the process. This might seem obvious, that active learning naturally happens in classrooms. Three recent experiences have helped me reflect on why this might not always be the case.

  1. I recently got a haircut at a technical college. The students are enrolled in an 18-month program. Part of their learning experience is cutting and styling people’s hair. Makes sense. After my appointment was over, the student’s teacher came over and offered her feedback on how to improve as well as praise for what she did well. (I am somewhat follicly challenged, so my head is a good one to practice on.)
  2. After my son’s first cross-country race today, we celebrated by going to Culver’s, a local franchised restaurant. The young person taking our order had one of the managers at her side. He provided help only when needed.
  3. Tonight was also our city’s monthly Lions Club meeting. As 3rd vice-president, I had to fill in to run the meeting as the other officers were all unavailable. Now, I’ve been a Lion since 2006. I’ve sat through many meetings over the years but I had never led one. Once we started, I had the club secretary at my side to guide me through the agenda and prompting me when to call for a motion. Like I said, I’ve attended these meetings for over a decade but still needed help leading one.

These three recent events were good reminders for me that instruction is most effective when students are actively involved. Of course, there’s time to teach. But whatever time we use to model and demonstrate is time students are not engaged in trying out the skills and strategies themselves.

Dr. Richard Allington studied exemplary reading teachers in six different states, spending at least ten days each in 1st- and 4th-grade classrooms. (Click here to read his classic PDK article on this topic.) One trend he noticed in his observations was how much time these teachers provided for students to practice reading and writing with authentic texts.

These teachers routinely had children actually reading and writing for as much as half of the school day – around a 50/50 ratio of reading and writing to stuff (stuff is all the other things teachers have children do instead of reading and writing).

Less effective teachers did not have this same ratio.

In typical classrooms, it is not unusual to find that kids read and write for as little as ten percent of the day (30 minutes of reading and writing activity in a 300 minute, or five hour, school day). In many classrooms, a 90 minute “reading block” produces only 10–15 minutes of actual reading, or less than 20 percent of the allocated reading time is spent reading.

As we settle into our classroom routines, it might be wise to examine how we use our own time. Video record a lesson or have a colleague observe us. Analyze the results. Where and when can we shift the work?

Let us know how it goes!

If you haven’t already, sign up for the free Read by Example newseltter. It comes out on Saturdays, a recap of this week’s posts plus links to relevant research, articles, and resources.

First Days of School: Keep it Simple

The classroom could have been for almost any age level. The bulletin board was bare besides the butcher paper stapled up with colorful border framing each side. Book bins stood empty, waiting to be filled with reading material. One slogan, “Believe in Yourself”, was posted above the otherwise spartan door.

51Lrt8Ar8vL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgEven if the classroom walls were covered with all kinds of decorations in every color imaginable, none of the 4th graders would have noticed. They were listening and watching their teacher read aloud School’s First Day of School, written by Adam Rex and illustrated by Christian Robinson. In this story, a newly built elementary school doesn’t realize what it is until the students and teachers show up. After some deductive reasoning through some humorous situations, Frederick Douglass Elementary learns and appreciates what its purpose is.

The teacher had a nice flow to the read aloud. She didn’t pause too many times in an attempt to dissect every word and phrase to understand author’s purpose. Students were provided a few opportunities to share their questions and connections during the story. “I guess the main character – the narrator – is the school! What a creative way to tell a story. I would have never thought of that.” Everyone nodded in agreement.

It should be noted that this was the second time these 4th graders had heard School’s First Day of School. Earlier in the morning, I had read aloud the same book to the entire student body during our first-day assembly (I relied on the eBook version, a microphone, and a projector connected to my computer.) The goal was to introduce our yearlong theme, “A Community of Readers”.

Initially preparing for this assembly, I was going to put together several slides that touched on what it means to be a community and what tools we might use to share what we were reading with others. As I started a new slide deck, a feeling of unease set over me. “Is this what readers do?” I asked myself. “Do they create slide decks to encourage others to check out a book?” Only in school.

I am thankful that I pushed pause on my habit of always feeling like I need to spend a large chunk of time putting together a presentation for communicating our school goals. Sometimes its necessary, but it comes with a potential cost (besides my time): inauthenticity. Too much of what we do in education feels forced and arbitrary. We work too hard and not always on the right things. I’d rather try to be genuine and true to our collective purpose of developing readers and writers for a lifetime. Effective teachers understand this. They live out their beliefs about authentic literacy experiences that engage students in co-creating a classroom community.

Teaching is complex, one of the most challenging professions we can aspire to take on. Yet it’s premise is simple: guide students to become independent thinkers and learners. If we are doing the lion’s share of the work, how is this outcome possible?

For additional ideas on embedding more authentic literacy practices in your classroom or school, check out all of the posts from this summer’s book study. We read and responded to Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellent, and Equity for All Students by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Click on this link or find the book study page in this blog’s menu.

Reading Deeply in Digital Spaces

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Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

For too long, I have deleted all of the blog updates that come through my email. I “subscribe” to other educators and thought leaders who post frequently on their site. Yet it has become my habit to Select All when these updates show up in my inbox and promptly delete. This practice has become a habit, a ritual that in reflection seems silly.

Why do I do this? What is the reason why I am not learning from others through their blogs and newsletters like I used to?

I suspect some of it has to do with priorities. I have prioritized checking Twitter for any interesting bits of information such as news updates, journal articles, and videos. But I tend to stick a toe into these information streams and rarely dive into an in-depth article or post (exceptions include The New York Times and The Washington Post, which I subscribe to both). To reprioritize, I probably need to revisit Twitter lists with more intent to read/view what is shared in their entirety.

Maybe my reluctance is due in part to the assumption that blog posts and other more opinion-based writing may not be as reliable or accurate as the information I read from major news sources. But this assumption is false. What educators and other thought leaders share online is just as “true” as anything a professional journalist might publish. In fact, some of the best content online is often from teachers and principals who reveal the challenges and struggles they have in their professional lives. I need to get back to this frame of mind more often, that recognizes process as just as important as any product.

The world is changing at such a rapid rate that it’s turning us all into amateurs. Even for professionals, the best way to flourish is to retain an amateur’s spirit and embrace uncertainty and the unknown. – Austin Kleon, Show Your Work! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered

Coming back to this idea of reading more deeply when online, I believe the other challenge is a technical one. Most sites are cluttered with advertisements and pop-ups (a big reason why this blog remains ad-free). Even the cleanest sites are still online which gives access to a host of other social media platforms and websites that we could explore instead. There always seems to be something more interesting on the other side of the digital fence. We need to be aware of this mental pull when reading and consuming information online.

Researcher Dr. Maryanne Wolf emphasizes the concept of “bi-literacy”, in which we take different approaches to read online vs. reading in print. In her recent article for The Guardian (which ~ahem~ I read on my smartphone and discovered via Twitter), Wolf shares studies on how the reading environment itself influences how people learn to read:

We know from research that the reading circuit is not given to human beings through a genetic blueprint like vision or language; it needs an environment to develop. Further, it will adapt to that environment’s requirements – from different writing systems to the characteristics of whatever medium is used. If the dominant medium advantages processes that are fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information, like the current digital medium, so will the reading circuit.

In other words, if a person’s daily diet of text is comprised primarily of digital, then their capacity to read and think deeply will more likely be shallow and cursory. Wolf notes that this phenomenon can occur at a pretty young age, “starting around 4th or 5th grade”.

Does this mean we eschew all things digital from our instruction? Of course not. There is so much excellent content out there that students and teachers should include as part of the curriculum. In addition, specific skills can and should be taught when reading online. Coming back to the concept of “bi-literacy”, Wolf recommends embracing a comprehensive approach to reading (and writing) for today’s learner.

We need to cultivate a new kind of brain: a “bi-literate” reading brain capable of the deepest forms of thought in either digital or traditional mediums. A great deal hangs on it: the ability of citizens in a vibrant democracy to try on other perspectives and discern truth; the capacity of our children and grandchildren to appreciate and create beauty; and the ability in ourselves to go beyond our present glut of information to reach the knowledge and wisdom necessary to sustain a good society.

I’ve started doing this for myself with more intentionality. For example, one educator’s blog I subscribe to, Tom Whitby, is clean and uncluttered. Still, for me, there is a need to trim down these posts to text only. I am using a Chrome extension called EasyReader. Select the button at the top right of your Chrome browser after downloading it, select the text you want to read, and you get a text-only interface.

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Before EasyReader
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After EasyReader

Free from distractions (except for that Twitter feed I need to close down), I now have the cognitive space to read this post critically and with my fullest attention. Mind you, no one taught me these types of skills, beyond the wise and generous educators and people online who were willing to share their ideas with everyone. Also, I chose to seek this information out because of my interest in literacies (vs. literacy).

So here it is to you. And what will we do with this information? How can we implement these necessary yet generally unknown reading practices into the curriculum? When will print text no longer be viewed as the only game in town during the literacy block? I believe by sharing and reflecting on our current work, to embrace being an “amateur” again as Austin Kleon recommends, especially when practices aren’t working like it was for me. Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

What resources would you suggest for professional book studies on reading instruction?

As noted in a previous post, we (our instructional leadership team) are loosening up the reins a bit this year with professional development. Instead of a scheduled set of PD days with pre-determined agendas, we are making time for ourselves to engage in self-directed studies with a reading instruction resource of choice. We pick the resource which determines who we will collaborate with for the next three months to discuss the information and our reflections.

The question I pose here is: What resources would you recommend for these study groups? We have developed a list, yet I am confident this is not exhaustive.

If you feel there is an essential resource missing from this list, please share in the comments! In a later post, I will describe in more detail the process we are using for facilitating these professional study groups. -Matt

Getting Curious About Change

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Photo by Bing Han on Unsplash

It’s mid-August. That means educators are starting to think about coming back for a new school year. When you read this last sentence, what feelings arise? Excitement? Anxiety? Maybe a mix depending on your situation and status. (Hopefully not dread…)

One anxiety-inducing event that a school leader is often responsible for is introducing a new initiative as part of a building goal. I don’t think I need to list all of the emotions that might arise when we prepare for any type of organizational change. Regardless of where a school faculty is heading, it’s generally expected that the destination is somewhat unknown. No SMART goal can accurately predict the outcomes of a true learning experience.

While I think it is wise to address any possible emotions with faculty, especially if they have been fatigued by many initiatives from the past, I believe the most important feeling we want to cultivate with our colleagues experiencing change is curiosity.

When we get curious about a change, we make mental room for considering what’s possible. There’s a focus on the future instead of dwelling primarily on what has come before. For example, in our school we are exploring effective reading instruction. In the past the leadership team and I have prepared PD session topics for the entire school year in the prior summer. This year we are offering teachers a variety of professional resources to explore together in self-selected groups. Our learning will be directed by the questions we ask, the discussions we facilitate, and the ideas we discover, share and try out. This independent study will comprise our entire fall professional learning.

Eventually, we will come together on specific and common studies regarding reading instruction. Yet this PD focus – our collective change – will be the product of our initial curiosity. One teacher emailed me this summer, reflecting on some of the changes for 2018-2019. “I am really looking forward to the possibilities for this school year.” She wasn’t wishing away her summer. She probably had some nervousness about the fall. But there seemed to be a healthy balance in her message, a sense of calm and confidence during a time that can often feel turbulent.

How are you feeling about the upcoming school year? How might you get curious about any expected changes? Please share in the comments.

 

 

Time to Read: Making Independent Reading a Priority

Regie Routman is a great champion of reading. The kind of reading that is guided by a person’s curiosity, joy, and desire to fall deep into story. Pleasure reading. Real reading.

As a long-time educator and a self-proclaimed book nerd, like Regie, I believe that educators must support and encourage real reading. That is is our job to help our students become lifelong connoisseurs of text. It’s a big deal.  I mean, the research is in, folks who read tend to be more empathetic and as teachers we know, maybe better than anyone else, that we need more empathy in the world.  

One of the many  topics in Literacy Essentials that resonated with me was called, “Make Independant Reading a First Priority” (p. 204). Here Regie shares a tweet she once wrote, “Make daily indep[endent] reading #1 priority & work backwards from there. Use think aloud, guided read, shared read to support that end” (p. 204).

Regie believes that independent reading in schools must be more than just an ad-hoc, when-you’re-finished-with-your-work, kind of thing. Truly, she cautions, it needs to be even more than just a dedicated time slot for independent reading. Regie explains, that for maximum impact, schools must value massive quantities of free reading and students must be taught to choose just-right books ( books they can and want to read) and to self-monitor for comprehension. Further, she advises, a teacher should be teaching during free reading time, working with students one-on-one to help them learn reading skills and strategies and to help choose, discuss, and enjoy texts.

I am the principal of St. Croix Falls and Dresser Elementary Schools in rural Wisconsin. We serve a wonderful community that includes increasing number of students who live in poverty. Despite that fact, we consistently are marked as “Exceeding Expectations” on the state report card and have literacy scores that place us in the top 5% of schools in the state. Perhaps, most important, there is no gap between our students of poverty and their more affluent peers. We are all good readers and writers.

Over the last several years I’ve had many schools reach out to ask how we are so successful. I always say the same thing, “We let kids read. A lot.”  

In our schools every student enjoys a minimum of 30 minutes of free reading time each day. Most days, students have closer to an hour. Right away, beginning in kindergarten, we offer students books, books, books and time to read them. We teach students to pick books that fit their interests and that are within a level that is accessible to them (yes, we level our books, no, it doesn’t limit our readers or kill their love of reading.)  

I believe our emphasis on helping students learn to and love to read in massive quantities is why my school is one of the happiest and most successful schools I have ever had the pleasure of working in. And, that’s what I tell folks who ask “how we do it.” But, guess what? They don’t always believe me. They are often incredulous and profess they don’t have enough time in the day to offer that much independent reading time. They need that time to “teach” kids to read.

If I had a magic wand, I would wave it over the hearts and minds of educators everywhere so they could see that there is a simple way to help their students to be better readers, to love reading, and to grow and learn academically and in their social-emotional lives. All they need to do is give kids time and let them read. Anthologies, lesson sets, interventions, strategy instruction, guided groups, phonics, word study, and all of the other best laid plans of reading teachers will not work if they are not grounded in opportunities for real reading.

Let. Students. Read.

My school is successful in large part because our students read. They read a lot. But that tends to drop off as kids enter middle and high school. Of course, that’s not just in my neck of the woods, it happens in school districts all over the nation. A recent Edutopia article cited the following statistic from a study on the reading lives of school-aged children, “53 percent of 9-year-olds were daily readers, but only 17 percent of 17-year-olds were.” “Why? In large part, I think, because as our children move through the grades they have less and less dedicated reading time scheduled into their day. They read in content classes and in a literature course or two, but they do not have time for choice-based pleasure reading. That’s a problem. Again, if we want kids to read, we have to give them time to read.

In the spirit of Regies plea for schools to make“Make daily indep[endent] reading #1 priority,” I offer the tried and true suggestions below.

Suggestions:

  1. Create a vision statement or set of guiding beliefs about literacy in your school or classroom. Below is a graphic that shows the philosophies that underpin literacy instruction at my school. Note: The three mentioned documents are here (1), here (2), and here (3).

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  1. Allow students time to read in school every day and in every grade. A good friend, who is a high school English teacher recently told me that for the first time this year, she allowed students to self-select a novel to read in class. She raved about a boy who told her, “This was the first book I finished since elementary school!” Imagine if her school could find a way to adjust the schedule so that every student had 20 minutes for independent reading every day!
  2. Let go of programs and buy books. In an article I wrote for Educational Leadership, I detail the path my school took to move from good to great. One thing we didn’t do was buy a new program. Instead, we used what we had to help us build a culture that celebrated reading with a focus on time for choice reading. To support this effort, we spent time and money developing quality classroom libraries. Building classroom libraries can be done on the cheap by requesting donations (I often remind parents and others that I welcome their gently used books and placed a tote in the school lobby for donations), thrift shopping and garage sales, and inexpensive booksellers  (First Book Marketplace and Scholastic Book Clubs are good starts.)  
  3. Teach students to set and meet their own literacy goals. Helping students see themselves as capable readers who have autonomy over their own reading lives is a gift. Readers at my school set quarterly goals, read about how, here. It has been truly amazing to watch students continually raise their own bars, meet loft goals, and enjoy the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes with it.
  4. Build a school culture that supports literacy as a natural part of daily life. Strategies we’ve used include encouraging volunteers to read with students and share their own reading lives (School Library Journal: Reading Friends), helping students to “Binge Read” (EdTech Digest: Next Read), getting free books into the community (School Library Journal: Free Bookstore Turbocharges Reading), using social media to create a community of readers (CUE Blog: I Saw it On Facebook, Focusing School Communities on Literacy with Social Media), hosting author visits (Edutopia: Virtual Author Visits), and harnessing the power of social learning to help students view reading as a normal life thing, not just a school thing (Edutopia: Building a Community of Passionate Readers Outside of School.)

I read Literacy Essentials soon after it was published and wrote a rave review of it for MiddleWeb. I truly think that all educators would benefit from reading parts of Regie’s book if not the whole thing.  My own copy is already dogeared and marked up and has a special place near my desk for quick reference. It is a part of my personal reading life to be sure.

Regie’s call for a focus on independent reading in schools fuels my passion for helping my students learn to and love to read. I hope that it does that for you too.

Re-envisioning Roles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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