Should Twitter Replace Professional Development?

I have been on Twitter for nine months and I love it. The network of colleagues I have developed has been instrumental in my success as a first year elementary principal. I hope I have done the same for others through my feed and blog posts. It is one of my go-to resources for learning.

That said, I have a few concerns about some of the comments made in this article from The Huffington Post.

-“Many times professional development is like herding cattle: We’re taking everybody in the same direction. We’re going to learn the same thing.”

Is that necessarily a bad thing? I am not referring to what professionals do differently as teams to address specific student learning. Teachers should have autonomy and freedom to make instructional decisions and use the best tools both they and evidence deem most effective. They are closest to the kids and have the vantage point. What I am looking at is the overarching teaching framework a school or district is using to guide their own development. At my school, we use the Optimal Learning Model developed by Regie Routman. All of our instruction, curriculum and assessment go back to this powerful process for teaching all students. We are moving forward as a team, but we still have room to be creative.

– “Little research exists on what types of professional development for teachers work best.”

Actually, a lot of research exists on what works best for teachers and professional development. For example, Linda Darling-Hammond summarized what the three best professional development activities are based on research, in her resource The Right to Learn: PD must center on the critical areas of teaching and learning, investigations of personal and local practice must predominate, and substantial and sustained conversations about these investigations must take place. Twitter definitely has a place in this discussion, but it is only one way to communicate and not the preferred way for some educators. I would also reference Rick DuFour and Robert Eaker’s Professional Learning Communities At Work, which bases a lot of their evidence-based practices on research by Peter Senge, Michael Fullan and Peter Drucker.

– “Twitter And Facebook Might Soon Replace Traditional Teacher Professional Development”

Going back to the prior statement, Twitter actually lacks the definitive research to make assertions like this, even though others and I find it very helpful. Education and educators (including me) are notorious for jumping on the next big thing without thinking it through first. Does anyone’s school have their house so in order that professionals having in-person conversations about their own students would be trumped by a 140 character discussion with someone with a different community, population of kids and building dynamic? Eric did end the article by stating that he values his face-to-face conversations more than his virtual ones. I appreciate his perspective as he is a leader in 21st Century learning. My kids would be fortunate to attend his school.

Education always seems to be looking for the magic bullet, when in fact it comes back to the same concepts: best instructional practices, collaboration, formative assessment and accountability, among others. I would hate to see Twitter made to be more than what it is – an excellent tool for learning.

Summarizing a Book Study with Prayer Cards

If you are Catholic, you may have recently noticed the changes in our prayers and responses. To help remember these changes, my church created double-sided laminated cards with the revised language.

In one of those rare moments when I was not totally focused on the homily, my mind began to wander back to these prayer cards, thinking, “Would something like this be useful after reading an educational resource?”. Everyone is different in how they curate the important information they glean from a worthy text. Some educators like me write in the margins while others highlight. A few people I know are so careful about leaving the book as they found it that you would not find one underline or a note in the entire volume. The difficulty I find with all of these methods is teachers have limited time to go back, look in a book and pull out what is needed for their instruction and planning.

What I believe matters most when doing a book study, either school wide or in a small group, is that we are applying what we learned as a group directly to the classroom. All staff should be making a concerted effort to improve as a whole building so that students receive consistently effective instruction year after year. As chance would have it, my school just recently finished the book Teaching Essentials by Regie Routman. Using my church's prayer card as a model, I lifted the most important/talked about/thought-provoking/necessary statements from Regie's book and put it in these cards. Much of what I took is based on the staff book discussions I observed, along with concepts we needed to keep at the forefront of our minds.

At one of our last staff gatherings, I distributed these “Prayer Cards” as a way to celebrate our learning.

I see a number of benefits to providing this document as part of our professional development book study. First, everyone has the important concepts at hand so they can be transferred from mind to action more easily. Learning lost is nothing gained. Second, staff know it is expected we apply this knowledge to the classroom. It's not enough to sign off on a plan saying we completed so many hours of professional development; we as educators need to put our plans into action. Lastly, I believe it is important that kids see these cards in the classroom. As an example, some of the teachers taped them down to their desk, while others posted them on their personal bulletin board or made bookmarks out of them for their lesson plan books. However they are visible, students seeing a product of their teacher's growth sends a strong message about how learning never stops.

 

My Students’ Favorite Read Alouds

In a previous post The Principal as a Writer, I described how I used Moleskine journals and a document camera to write book reviews with students. These reviews are based on a book I just read aloud to them. Here were their favorites from 2011-2012:

Best of the Year (five out of five stars)

Love That Dog by Sharon Creech

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Review (4th Grade): “I love that dog?? I love this book! It’s great because there were a lot of good poems to feel happy when feeling bad.”

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Meet the Dogs of Bedlam Farms by Jon Katz

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Review (2nd Grade): “This is one of the best books we have read because the different dogs had different jobs. For example, one dog makes people feel better and another dog herds the sheep.”

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Owl Moon by Jane Yolen

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Review (1st Grade): “Owl Moon is a five star book because the pictures are colored in really nicely. Also, lots of details helped us know what they mean. It was awesome!”

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Pete the Cat by Eric Litwin

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Review (Kindergarten): “We thought this was the best book ever because it was funny. Pete kept stepping in colored things like fruit.”

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A Stranger Came Ashore by Mollie Hunter

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Review (5th grade): “Really interesting, hard to put down. Edge of your seat and intriguing story. Amazing.”

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Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing by Judy Blume

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Review (3rd grade): “This book was excellent because it was funny, like when Fudge ate Peter’s turtle. These funny events remind us of silly things kids do that we know.”

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Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

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Review (4th grade): “The good, rhyming words and his voice made you want to read more.”

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Honorable Mentions (four out of five stars)

Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart by Vera B. Williams

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Review (3rd grade): “We thought it was very good because in the end, the girls’ father came back. The author gave different personalities to each person.”

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The Chocolate Touch by Patrick Skeene Catling

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Review (3rd grade): “I like how the book teaches you a lesson, of eating too much chocolate being a bad thing.”

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The 500 Hundred Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins by Dr. Seuss

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Review (3rd grade): “We thought it was really good because it had math in it. For example, it was interesting when the squire was keeping track of the hats as they fell off.”

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Hate That Cat by Sharon Creech

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Review (4th grade): “It only had Jack’s voice; wish we could have heard from someone else. We liked how he changed from hating to loving cats.”

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The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown

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Our Poem (Kindergarten): “The most important thing about a fire truck is it has a ladder. It is on wheels. It is red. But the most important thing about a fire truck is it has a ladder.”

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Lawn Boy by Gary Paulsen

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Review (5th grade): “We really liked this book because it was humorous. For instance, we laughed whenever the grandma spoke nonsense.”

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Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

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Review (4th grade): “We really like this book. The models of the buildings, the way the pictures described the story, and the way Ben’s and Rose’s story relate made this a unique and intriguing book.”

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Book Reviews as Book Marks

I was recently strolling through my local super department store when I came across these notecards.

They are book mark cards.

 

 

As you can see, they have a flap on top. It allows you to slide the card onto a book jacket or a page.

 

They come in five colors, fifteen cards in each color.

 

 

 

I think these book mark cards would be great for writing book reviews. Students could get blank cards from their school librarian or from their teacher.

Before they had a card in their hands, it would be wise to model how to write a book review. For me, I like to keep reviews short and reveal just enough to tempt the potential reader. Brevity is a virtue.

My present format for a quick book review:

  • I (liked, really liked, loved) the book (the title) because (give reason to support opinion).
  • For instance, (use evidence from the book to support your opinion).

To differentiate for students who struggle with writing, the bolded words could be provided on the cards as prompts.

Here is an example of what a book review could look like on one of these cards, using the excellent Wonder by R.J. Palacio:

 

Books with attached student reviews coud be displayed on the top of the book cases. Featured books could also have their own shelf in the library or classroom. It would be similar to how book stores designate an area for staff to attach reviews for their favorite reads.

How do you a) encourage students to recommend what they read, and b) celebrate your students' writing? Your comments are appreciated!

 

Literacy, Leadership and Walkthroughs

I recently attended the Literacy and Leadership Institute in Madison, WI. It was hosted by Regie Routman, creator of the Reading-Writing Connection professional development series (which my building uses). This may have been the best conference I have attended. Everything was connected to best practices. A lot of what the presenters at this conference shared is based on research and publications by Richard Allignton and Peter Johnston.

Summarizing all that I learned into one post would be like trying to stuff an elephant into a foot locker. Instead, I attempted to synthesize my thinking by creating a walkthrough checklist connected to best literacy practices. It is based on an article published by Richard Allington in Phi Delta Kappan in 2002, titled “What I've Learned About Effective Reading Instruction From a Decade of Studying Exemplary Elementary Classroom Teachers” (a straightforward if not catchy title). I condensed his findings about what exemplary teachers do into twelve statements.

 

Time

  • Students are actually reading and writing around 50% of the time.
  • Students are reading independently, meeting with the teacher for guided reading, and/or reading and writing in the content areas.

Texts

  • Students are reading texts that allow for high levels of accuracy, fluency and comprehension.
  • Classroom texts reflect a broad range of interests, diversity and levels.

Teaching

  • Teacher gives direct, explicit demonstrations of thinking strategies that good readers and writers use when they read and write.
  • Teacher assigns work that is responsive to students' needs and fosters a transition of thinking strategies to independent use.

Talk

  • Teacher facilitates lots of purposeful dialogue – both teacher/student and student/student.
  • Classroom talk is more conversational than interrogational.

Tasks

  • Teacher assigns activities that are substantial, challenging and complex.
  • Students are allowed some choice and autonomy in work to promote ownership and engagement.

Testing

  • Teacher evaluates student work based on effort and growth rather than just achievement.
  • Students take responsibility for their scores with the help of clear and visible academic expectations.

Using this checklist as a Google Form on my iPad, I could walk through classrooms and document how often best practices are occurring. Teachers are already used to me being in the classroom to read aloud or just observe. Is this a logical next step? It was suggested that if a checklist is used to document frequency of best practices, it needs to be sandwiched with positive feedback, probably in the form of a written note and verbal praise before leaving the classroom. I will defintiely need to reference Choice Words and Opening Minds by Peter Johnston often as I begin providing feedback. A hybrid of both a checklist and a written narrative may work best for my staff and me.

If I was the teacher, would this checklist along with a short observational narrative have the potential to help me improve my own practices? Would I feel defensive and nervous, or wonder what my principal's motivation is?

As the principal, will this type of walkthrough give me a reliable set of data to help determine where we are growing and where we need to grow? Could I eventually expect the teachers to use this process and observe each other, using a peer coaching format?

 

I need to sit on this draft of an idea and come back to it later. I would welcome any feedback!

I Read (and Wrote) to the Principal

When I moved into my new office last August, I found approximately 800 green pencils with “I Read to the Principal” printed on them, left for me by my predecessor.

Save that thought.

In my last blog post The Principal as a Writer, I wrote about how I modeled writing for my students and staff using Moleskine notebooks and a document camera. The modeling component of instruction is essential, but so is giving students the opportunity to practice their skills. As I have learned, student work should be authentic and relevant to their own lives.

I hoped that the students would be as motivated as I was to write about books I enjoyed. With that, I purchased one Moleskine journal for each classroom in which I regularly read aloud. Once they had seen me write a review, I handed off their classroom journal, with the following expectations:

1. They only put books in the journal that they truly enjoyed (four out of five stars or better).
2. They had to write to an audience, namely their classmates, their teacher and me.
3. They had to include their name as the reviewer. The idea behind this is classmates would presumably read the book review journal looking for their next great read. When they found a book that interested them, they could talk to the reviewer to get more information.
4. When students completed a review, they were encouraged to read their review to me in my office. Their purpose was to convince me to read the book they liked, as I had limited time to sort through all the literature out there.

Moleskine journals were now available in an opportune place in the classroom. Student book reviews commenced! Some classrooms used them more often than others. When I had not recently received a visit from a room, I again modeled a book review for that class in my own Moleskine journal, then encouraged the students to do the same.

Here is a third grader reading aloud his book review to me back in April.

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This is the book that he was trying to convince me to read through his review.

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He had me at “gruesome”.

After sharing, I gave each student one of the “I Read to the Principal ” pencils. What was nice was that they read to me their own writing. This practice corresponds with a number of my building’s beliefs we unanimously agreed upon as a staff, including:

Young children do not need to know all their letters and sounds before they can write stories and read back their own writing.

Shared writing text involving common experiences are often the easiest text to read.

A Couple of Reflections

– Writing for an authentic purpose is so critical. I couldn’t imagine writing this very post if I didn’t think I had an audience to read it or an opportunity for some constructive feedback. I imagine students feel the same way.
– Book reviews are a form of persuasive writing, an essential skill for students and for informed citizens.
– The reading-writing connection is a concept stressed by Regie Routman and other literacy experts. Reading makes better writers, and writing makes better readers.
– As a principal, this is another opportunity for me to visit with students in a positive context.

“Making meaning is good. Doing meaningful things is better.”- Peter Johnston, Opening Minds

Dial 811: It’s a Poetry Emergency!

Have you noticed that the call number for poetry books is 811? And that it is similar to the more familiar number 911? Neither did I, until I became principal at Howe Elementary School this year.

One of the many cool things that occur in my school is the concept of a “Poetry Emergency”. Developed by Liz Ottery, reading resource specialist, and other Howe staff five years ago, the school spends April recognizing National Poetry Month. Before the month begins, Liz asks staff members not teaching in the regular classroom to “adopt” a grade or class. I snapped up 5th grade, which happens to be the former grade level I taught before I entered the principalship.

During this month, we were expected to spontaneously pop into our classrooms and read aloud poetry. Liz gives us a sign in red; on one side it has the numbers “811”, and the other side reads “Poetry Emergency”. Before reading aloud, we hold up the sign and announce “Dial 811: It’s a Poetry Emergency!”. We then share our favorite poems with the students. In my case, I chose to read aloud Judith Viorst’s If I Were in Charge of the World and Other Worries to my 5th graders. These poems speak well to this audience, hitting on topics such as peer pressure and making friends.

During this time of the year, the classroom teachers also teach a variety of poems to their students. They can range from diamanté in 2nd grade to free verse in 4th. What I enjoy as I walk in the hallways is reading all of the students’ poems hanging on the walls. Taking time to celebrate our students’ efforts is so critical in building the idea that everyone can be a writer.

At the end of the month, Liz sets up Poetry Cafe in the cafeteria. This is an opportunity for students to read aloud their favorite poems to their classmates, teachers and families. As you can see, Liz creates a great environment for this parent involvement activity.

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Once classrooms are signed up to present, family members are invited to school to listen to their children read aloud poems they either discovered or wrote themselves. In this photo, a second grade teacher kicks off the cafe.

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This idea for promoting poetry writing in school is just too good not to share.