Literacy Leadership: Expecting (and Embracing) Conflict

Our school is currently examining our beliefs about reading instruction. Faculty members respond with either “agree” or “disagree” to over twenty related statements. Examples include: “Leveling books in the classroom library is a good idea,” and “Students need to do lots of independent reading of self-selected texts.”  (These statements come from Regie Routman’s book Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success.)

So far, half the teachers have taken the beliefs survey. Out of the over twenty statements, we are completely in agreement on five statements. My prediction is this number will be reduced after everyone has taken the survey.

Screen Shot 2018-10-17 at 7.30.49 PM.png

This is not a bad thing.

I’ve come to learn professional conflict can be a source of professional learning. I’m not referring to in-fighting over petty reasons. Instead, I refer to the deeper philosophical debates that should be occurring but are often pushed aside for fear of having a hard yet necessary conversation.

Conflict in the context of our instructional beliefs is the misalignment between our current values and practices and our colleagues’s. This awareness of our current situation is a good thing. Now we have information to act upon, as long as we accept our current reality. To address this misalignment, we need to start engaging in professional conversations around these important topics in safe and productive ways

Take the topic of reading levels, depicted in the previous image. It’s a constant source of disagreement in elementary schools. You see we are pretty divided already on this issue. The first question I might ask to start a conversation around reading levels is, “Why do you think the results are the way they are?” By asking wondering questions, we open up the floor to different possibilities. I am not taking sides on levels. I am curious.

Now imagine what the responses might be.

  • From a teacher who supports levels as a way to assess student reading progress, they can point to the fact that younger readers make so much growth in a short amount of time that teachers need a reliable evaluation tool to inform instruction. Likewise, if students are not making growth at the primary level, we need to be responsive and implement a reading intervention to address any deficits.
  • From a teacher who does not support levels as a way to assess student reading progress, they might point to past experiences in which students were treated as a level, such as organizing the classroom library only within a leveling system. Or, they feel that levels for older students are not as helpful as conferring notes, student self-assessments, and performance tasks such as book trailers.

Who is right, and who is wrong? I believe both perspectives make a strong case. This leads to a potential second question that guides a discussion to consider a third option. As an example, “What if designated reading levels were only helpful at certain grade levels?”, or “Might there be a better way to phrase this statement to both recognize the benefits of this approach and point out its limits?” This line of inquiry may lead to a revision of the statement, such as:

Designated levels can be an accurate way to assess student reading progress at the primary level and inform authentic instruction.

If a faculty can agree on this revision, then we can own it. (By the way, a professional conversation like this can happen during a staff meeting or professional learning communities.) If the revision is not acceptable to all, it can be brought back to an instructional leadership team for further revision.

The benefits of embracing conflict within structured professional dialogue are many. First, we air out our issues in a safe and productive way. Second, we start to develop a common language. For example, maybe some staff members are unfamiliar with benchmark books as an assessment tool. Teachers with this knowledge can explain this concept; unhealthy conflict is often the product of lack of communication and making false assumptions. Third, when we agree upon a belief then we own it. There’s no opting out in the building. The faculty is free to call out each other when these beliefs are not translated to practice. But this doesn’t happen often because we own the belief. Teachers are more empowered to act on it and seek out support if needed. Finally, a school leader has modeled what it means to have a professional conversation that is productive and doesn’t end in hurt feelings.

What are your thoughts on the role of conflict in leading a literacy initiative and/or a school in general? Please share in the comments.

 

Five Apps for Reducing Isolation and Increasing Connectedness

The principalship, as well as other leadership positions in schools, can be isolating. We typically don’t have a team of our own within a building. Even when part of a district, it can be hard to build a professional community with colleagues; competing for limited resources plus the busyness of our days too often keeps us at a distance.

I recommend five apps that have helped me bridge this divide and foster a sense of connectedness with other educators.

  • Google+ Communities – While I know a lot of educators use Facebook groups for connecting with colleagues, I prefer Communities. It feels less like social media and more like a chat room. You can create categories for organizing posts. Being a part of the Google ecosystem is also helpful for sharing content.
  • email – Whether Gmail, Outlook, or Apple Mail, email is still a tried and true method for connecting with others. What I am referring to here is different than work messages. I use email as an ongoing correspondence with close colleagues: timeless technology for writing back and forth with each other. So…rethink email!
  • Slack – I’ve used this communication tool during educational conferences and for technology discussion boards. I find Slack a cross between email and a discussion board. It takes some getting used to but I do like the interface and feel of it.
  • Tweetbot – This app is my preferred Twitter client. I don’t get all of the ads or suggested tweets like I do with the native application. Twitter chats, direct messages, and lists all help me stay connected with other educators. The only part of Tweetbot I find lacking is the inability for group chats in direct messages.
  • Voxer – I’m not a heavy user of Voxer but I do enjoy the back-and-forth you can have with this walkie-talkie app. Communications can be light, mostly chatting about topics that have nothing to do with school. Other times I am reaching out to a principal regarding a prospective teaching candidate or for problem-solving.

Of course, the best app for reducing isolation and increasing connectedness is the physical presence of others. It’s a big reason why I attend educational conferences and participate in monthly regional school leader meetings. But during the in-between, my personal/professional connections mediated online are the next best thing.

What app or digital tool do you prefer to stay connected with colleagues? Why do you like it? Please share in the comments.

Should students read 20 minutes a day?

sharon-mccutcheon-532782-unsplash.jpg
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

While initially thinking about this question, I wanted to clearly state “no”. No, we shouldn’t be assigning students to read 20 minutes a day. Mandating a student to read can make this practice feel like drudgery, equated with homework and its ilk. But this issue deserves more attention; it’s not that simple.

Yes, I do know the effect that voluminous reading has on achievement and building a lifelong habit. If you Google the phrase “read 20 minutes a day”, you will get page after page of articles, posts, and videos praising this practice. Reading log templates sometimes accompany the content. One has to get to the seventeenth page of search results before they can find the first article that questions this practice.

The article I found on the seventeenth page is worth reading. Can Reading Logs Ruin Reading for Kids?, written by Erica Reischer for The Atlantic, cites two studies that demonstrate the potential negative effects of assigning reading to students and using reading logs (a common practice when assigning daily reading).

  • When rewards or mandates are used to coax kids to read, they may lose their internal motivation to read independently.
  • In comparison to students who were assigned to read daily, students who are encouraged to read voluntarily showed an increased interest in reading independently.

Still, I understand teachers’ interest in holding students accountable for reading regularly. We know that some kids will not read regularly without some level of expectations. So maybe the answer is “no”, but what can we do? Consider the following alternatives to assigning 20 minutes of reading per night.

Co-create Reader Expectations with Students

If we can build learning community norms with students, then they will likely have more ownership in what is decided. (Teachers are the same way.) Today, I happened to visit a few classrooms that were engaged in this discussion. One group decided that, instead of expecting 20 minutes a day, they would read 100 minutes a week. “Some evenings, we get really busy,” acknolwedged the teacher.

Confer with Students

Students cannot fake their understanding of a book when we ask them thoughtful questions about what they read. With conferring, students can connect with a couple students each day during independent reading time to discuss what they read, offer personalized instruction regarding skills and strategies, and craft goals for the future. The accountability piece can still be a reading log, just as long as students know they are responsibile for maintaining it for that next conference. Teachers generally keep some type of conferring notebook to organize their notes.

Bonus: Check out this Edutopia article for more information on reading conferences.

Reader Responses

High school English teacher and prolific writer Kelly Gallagher shares his solution to balancing engagement and accountability with independent reading. In his book Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About it (Stenhouse, 2009), Gallagher describes his use of “one-pagers” (pg. 82) to evaluate student comprehension. These brief written responses can reveal students’ understanding of what they read. Skills such as prediction and persuasive writing are also assessed with these one-pagers.

Gallagher understands as a practitioner that fine balance between student engagement and classroom expectations during independent reading.

If the teacher infuses the recreational reading experience with too much accountability – chapter questions, worksheets, double-entry journals – then the experience ceases to be recreational. However, if students are never held to any accountability, many of them will not start reading.

Co-creating reader expectations, conferring, and written responses to what students are reading seem like reasonable improvements to the tired practice of assigning a set amount of time for students to read daily. What works for you? What do you struggle with? Feel free to share in the comments.

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.

Professional Learning: The Gift of Time

neonbrand-304490-unsplash.jpg
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

The week of getting ready for the first day with students has come to a close. This time of year is typically one big rush to “get things done”. Bare bulletin boards call for welcoming messages. Schedules are updated continuously, rarely due to a school’s priorities. Enrollment and ordering resources become mini-emergencies instead of part of the daily routine. ‘Tis the season.

This year our faculty was provided with the gift of time for a day. (Due to a scheduling conflict, we had to reschedule our speaker’s second day to later in the year.) Once this day opened up, my initial/habitual reaction was to cram in as much literacy and PLC content into the day, topics we had initially prepared to address in September. We resisted this impulse. Instead, we spent the morning exploring reading instruction and the afternoon attending sessions on the topics of community engagement and academic innovation. Our agenda listed ideas and relevant topics instead of stuff.

Next are some of the outcomes from slowing things down and better appreciating the gift of time.

Faculty Viewed Professional Development Positively

Certainly, the content and planning for our time together contributed to the positive feedback our leadership team received. Being intentional about what we were learning together cannot be minimized. But it needs to be pointed out that allowing for more time for conversation and for the exploration of ideas during professional development decreases the anxiety of trying to get through everything we think needs to be accomplished. We had an agenda, yes, but it was minimal and allowed for flexibility.

Idea: If we feel like we have too many tasks planned for a professional learning experience, then we probably do. Push back some content to a later date, or even completely cut it out. If it is not essential to a school’s goals, then it is expendable.

Teachers Facilitated Professional Learning Experiences

When we learned that we had a day now open for building-level professional development, my first thought was, “I cannot do it all.” Fortunately, I work in a school with many talented individuals, so I didn’t have to. I reached out for help, asking several faculty members to lead afternoon sessions on mindfulness in the classroom, personalized learning, designing local curriculum projects, and healthy habits for educators.

Idea: To better know our teachers’ interests and specific talents, get into classrooms on a daily basis. Experience classroom visits as a learner instead of only an evaluator. Have real conversations with faculty and students. We can lead side-by-side.

Frame Professional Learning Time as an Investment

If all we do is learn together without seeing the results of our work, then professional development becomes routine and starts to lack meaning. There needs to be some level of connection between our self-improvement efforts and student outcomes. If teachers don’t see our time spent together as valuable, then it is perceived as wasted. For example, I shared with the faculty that our below basic scores on our state reading test have gone down 9% in the last two years. This is likely a result of our focus on embracing authentic literacy practices and a more data-informed approach to Response to Intervention.

Idea: Create visual representations of your assessment results and share them with faculty. It saves time in analysis. Point out the positive results first, then focus on the next steps. Celebrate, then educate. For us, we need to address our more advanced students’ needs who are already successful but may not be growing as much as their peers.

How do you as a literacy leader best utilize the gift of time for professional learning? Where do you struggle? Why? Please share 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

School Culture: “P” is for Positivity

The more I lead as well as heed the lessons of previous years, the more I believe in the importance of a positive start to a school year. Shaping a school culture, defined by Terrence Deal and Kent Peterson as “the unwritten rules and traditions, customs, and expectations” (7), starts with celebration. Regie Routman asserts that “celebration is at the heart of all effective teaching and leading” (186). If we as school leaders are to expect our students, staff, and community to be successful, framing a positive perspective with our students and colleagues, as well as making the act of celebration a habit, is key.

Next are a few ideas to consider implementing for a positive start as the school year draws closer.

Focus on the Students

This idea seems redundant, yet history tells me it’s worth reviewing. As evidence, I remember a teacher contacting me at a previous school in which I was just hired as principal. They asked me through email if they could have specific dates off during the school year. There was no prelude to this request, such as a sharing of one’s philosophy or conveying enthusiasm for working with students; the focus was on their needs.

I didn’t call this person out; I understood the request and tried not to assume anything. But I also understood that the culture may not be “student first” yet. So we took a lot of time in my first year to develop an understanding of students’ strengths, needs, and interests at each developmental level. For example, we purchased a resource for teachers that informed us about this topic. The information helped us understand why a student might act a certain way while not accepting the behavior.

Demonstrate Gratitude

Do you use a physical planner? If so, I highly recommend the Commit30 product. Each month, you select one goal to focus on for your personal/professional development. September is an excellent month to demonstrate gratitude each and every day. This is a low-to-no cost effort that pays dividends for others and for yourself down the road. Next are a few ideas:

  • Write genuine compliments on professional stationary about faculty and staff. Leave these notes in their mailboxes. I guarantee they will treasure these mini-celebrations more so than any evaluation or walkthrough.
  • When facilitating professional development workshops, don’t skimp on the refreshments and resources. Show staff you value them by offering quality lunches and purchasing excellent learning materials, including children’s literature.
  • Take time for yourself at the end of the day to reflect on what went well. It’s easy to focus on the one negative that might have occurred. Instead, write down a positive event and why you believe it happened. Make positive thinking a habit.

Visuals and Messaging

Today was my first day back after a family acation. When I walked into the staff lounge, I immediately noticed the updated bulletin board.

IMG_0919.jpg

I am not sure who created it, but it is perfectly placed. The staff lounge can be perceived as a negative location if we tacitly accept gossip and complaints as the norm. Even if collective commitments have been established as a school, people find places to vent their frustrations in unhealthy ways if we are not observant. Visuals and messaging like the one shared here serve as an antidote to negativity as well as a warning sign to anyone who desires to engage in toxic behaviors.

What do you find effective for promoting positivity at the beginning of the school year? Please share in the comments.