Why Don’t Schools Focus on Literacy?

Our top hiring criteria — in addition to having the skills to do the job — is, are you a great writer? You have to be a great writer to work here, in every single position, because the majority of our communication is written, primarily because a lot of us work remotely but also because writing is quieter. And we like long-form writing where people really think through an idea and present it.

– Jason Fried of Basecamp, a web-based project management tool (NY Times)

As an elementary principal the last seven years, the schools I have had the honor to lead have hosted site visits. Other schools have come to observe the inner workings of our organization. These visits usually revolve around our literacy initiatives. We share how our continuous focus on reading, writing, speaking, and listening has resulted in increased achievement and engagement for our students. This isn’t something we brag about; it is how we have done business.

Out of the 15 or so schools that have come to visit, can you guess how many have walked away and started their building-wide focus on literacy? To my knowledge: zero. There is not one school that comes to mind when I think about who has walked through our doors and then started addressing a faculty’s capacity for teaching reading and writing. Why is this? What could be the reason for not focusing on literacy on a consistent basis for their professional learning efforts? Next are a couple of possibilities.

1. Schools are focused on something else.

I have been making a list of all the initiatives school leaders cite as the reason they cannot focus on literacy, at least at this time.

– Trauma-based learning
– Mindfulness
– PBL
– STEM/STEAM
– Personalized learning
– PBIS
– Responsive Classroom
– Poverty
– Equity
– Engagement
– Standards-based grading
– Blended learning or a 1:1 technology initiative

To be fair, many of these professional learning initiatives are promising. For example, our school has invested in Responsive Classroom training for staff and we have found it effective. But it’s not our focus. We employ Responsive Classroom strategies to better teach our students to read and write.

That’s the point we have made to a few school leaders. “You can still do __________ (fill in the initiative) while you are focused on literacy as a school.” They typically balk at this. Why? That might be the next reason…

2. Focusing on literacy doesn’t seem exciting.

Becoming better teachers of readers and writers may not sound as intriguing as a STEM/STEAM initiative or going 1:1 with technology. It might not make for good print or spark intrigue when proposing this focus to district leaders or a school board.

But what does that tell us? To me, I see a schoolwide focus on literacy as a safe way to innovate as a faculty. There are many routes you can go if one doesn’t want to start with the foundations of literacy. For example, a leadership team can begin by integrating effective reading and writing strategies with a STEM/STEAM initiative. A faculty could also delve into the new literacies while going 1:1. Media literacy, global literacy, and digital literacy are all relevant and important skills for students to acquire.

3. Schools don’t know where to start.

Building teachers’ capacity to teach reading and writing is a challenge. It can create some anxiety with school leaders not knowing how to get started with this initiative, nor how to keep the focus for several years (I’ve learned and read that changing teacher practice typically takes around five years).

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The nice thing is there are a number of professional learning programs out there that can provide the direction and resources for a schoolwide literacy initiative. For example, the Regie Routman in Residence online professional development program offers videos, articles, and learning experiences for a multi-year approach to building teacher capacity to teach reading and writing. I have also heard good things about Linda Dorn’s Comprehensive Literacy Model. What both offer is a framework for teaching literacy, instead of a scripted or commercial program. Teachers have some autonomy and ownership in how promising literacy practices are implemented in the classroom. These types of programs also position teachers as leaders of the learning instead of merely recipients of knowledge and skills. I have seen with my own eyes how a faculty can come to embrace effective reading and writing instruction as a sustainable part of their school culture.

Considering these three reasons, I would add one more thought, a common thread for why literacy is not a focus: it’s not easy. School leaders might not have the desire or will to change teacher practice. Layering a less effective initiative over current instruction is an easier approach that looks good to the public. But if the initiative is not connected to literacy in some way, and a school cannot show that their students are successful readers and writers, then these efforts are a disservice to the families and community they serve.

(Image: Booksource)

Struggling Mathers

This past year was my 26th in this business. I spent 11 of those as a middle school language arts and social studies teacher. I spent 5 years as an instructional coach. I taught alternative ed and GED for 2.5 years. All of my working life I’d been concerned with the input side of literacy – reading.  This year, I am teaching high school math.

I am a complete newbie at teaching high school Algebra. And I feel like it. I spend long hours poring over content trying to understand the most sensible route to making this abstract subject comprehensible and engaging for my freshmen. They were placed with me at the beginning of the second semester this past year to repeat semester 1 because they had failed it. I am certainly no expert and lean on my new peers in the math department for help.

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This is one reason why I am thankful to be reading Jennifer Allen’s book, Becoming A Literacy Leader. Specifically, she opens with her call to creating a climate where “creating ongoing opportunities for shared experiences and conversations among staff” is the way forward in navigating the myriad demands we face as teachers.

One of the most striking parts of my experience has been a fresh set of unbiased eyes on a traditional subject. All my years of literacy instruction have given me a different perspective on this whole math thing. I watch students “get it” when I sit with them one-on-one and we read a word problem out loud together. They start to make sense when I ask them a few good questions to help them reflect and verbalize what they know from the problem. As much as I leaned on my team, I believe I brought perspective to our conversations. 

It’s like “good” readers vs. struggling readers. You know. All those things we know those good readers are doing in their heads, like, predicting, connecting the text to things they know, making a movie of the action in their mind, reading for a specific purpose, scanning, skimming, re-reading… the list could go on. I am finding that struggling mathers are not doing the things that “good” mathers are doing.

That the difference between them often lies not in some innate ability, but a collection of habits that they don’t have yet and are not employing to help themselves. I find myself often modeling my thinking out loud for them. They apply few of the Standards For Mathematical Practice (which I am only just getting to now, as you can imagine).

This is only one example of how I am “seeing” and wrestling with literacy in math.

Just as Ms. Allen notes in chapter 2, as “learning to read should be a joyful experience,” so should learning to math. My attempt this summer while reading Jennifer’s book is to find parallels to help foster and lead in literacy in the math world. I know I have tons of math resources available to me – I’ve spent a lot of time reading them these past few months – but I want to specifically think about my context, my assignment, my kids and how I can help them navigate math help and instructional resources. I think Ms. Allen’s book is the perfect platform for developing the questions I want to ask in order to explore this further.

 

Writers Must Read – Wisconsin Writes

This post is to highlight a video series from Marci Glaus for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. The series is titled “Wisconsin Writes“. From the DPI website:

Wisconsin Writes provides a glimpse into example writing processes of Wisconsin writers from a variety of contexts. Each video story featured captures the recursive, complex, often messy process that we call writing from some of the best writers in the state.

In this video, titled “Writers Must Read”, local writers share why it is so important to be a reader if one wants to write well. I thought the video had a great message and unique insights for students and teachers.


I’m currently looking for writers myself: literacy leaders from a variety of positions willing to share their stories and expertise on this blog. If interested or would like more information about participating in this collaborative experience, fill out the form below.

Makerspaces and Opportunities for Learning Literacy

In 2011, a faculty member wanted to bring in a summer school program for some of our gifted and talented students. Called “Camp Invention”, students spent a week taking apart computers and creating new worlds with peers. I had never seen students more engaged in learning than during this experience.

Afterward, something nagged at me: the program was not intentional about incorporating reading and writing into the curriculum. I could understand the rationale. Educators are always trying to stuff literacy into anything students are doing. Yet are these two areas – innovation and literacy – mutually exclusive?

Halverson and Sheridan tease out the complex nature of the maker movement in education (2014). They define it through three lenses: “making as a set of activities, makerspaces as communities of practice, and makers as identities of participation” (501). In literacy, students are (or at least should be) constantly making. For example, consider the verbs we use to describe writing. We craft an essay, develop a narrative, and build an argument. These actions cross the line between the tinkering, creating and iterating that happens in makerspaces and the drafting, revising and publishing that is synonymous with language arts. Halverson and Sheridan also see the possibilities.

“Learning through making reaches across the divide between formal and informal learning, pushing us to think more expansively about where and how learning happens. In this way we can talk about the who, what, and how of learning without getting hung up on the rules and constraints that govern different settings” (498).

A question that frequently comes up in education circles is, “How do we get started with makerspaces?” Teachers usually follow this up with concerns about time, resources and administrative support. Now in my second district, and having visited several more, I can say that makerspaces are unique from school to school. Some buildings house makerspaces in their libraries, while others have a separate, dedicated space. When it is not a building initiative, makerspaces find space in teacher’s classrooms under the guise of “Genius Hour”.

What they all have in common is they are personalized to the needs of the students. The kids direct the learning. In response, the adults often adjust their roles to that of a coach and guide on the side. The observed result is higher levels of student engagement in school, which tends to spill over into the core academic areas. Gershenfeld has found increased engagement to be true, noting how personalization is “a market of one person”. In makerspaces, students might start creating something of their own interest, but a lack of purpose and audience might propel them to start thinking about how they can make an impact in the broader world.

For instance, 6th grade teacher Chris Craft has led his students in South Carolina to print more than 150 prosthetic human hands for people in need using a 3-D printer (Herold, 2016). This work includes video production and online sharing, all critical literacy skills for the 21st century. This example and others similar show how schools can “decentralize enthusiasm” (Gershenfeld, 57) in the goal of creating engagement in learning through doing real work while applying core competencies. Literacy appears to lend itself way to many of these opportunities.

References

Gershenfeld, N. (2012). How to make almost anything: The digital fabrication revolution. Foreign Aff., 91, 43.

Halverson, E. R., & Sheridan, K. (2014). The maker movement in education. Harvard Educational Review, 84(4), 495-504.

Herold, B. (2016). What It Takes to Move From ‘Passive’ to ‘Active’ Tech Use in K-12 Schools. Education Week: Technology Counts, 82(2), 33.

Ripe for Change: Digital Media as a Tool for Innovation in Disciplinary Literacy

I was winding down at the end of a school day when I saw my son at the table in my office.

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He found my iPad, opened up Minecraft, and started working on his world. To aid in his creations, he would reference a Minecraft guide book from time to time. I didn’t have to offer any help in setting up his world or in guiding his reading. He was motivated to understand the text because it meant he could be more successful in creating new things in Minecraft.

Seeing these examples of learning in the absence of a teacher, it is both humbling and promising. Educators have responsibilities to ensure students meet expected levels of achievement. Report cards and test scores made public can determine the level of support we receive from our communities. Unfortunately, these assessments do not communicate how well students can teach themselves or how motivated they are to learn. The mindset that we should always be teaching may undermine students’ opportunities for self-directed learning.

Where do we find opportunities for kids to explore their passions and interests? I believe the content areas, especially in science and social studies, offer the best possibilities for rethinking how schools might improve the educational experience for students and teachers. Next are a couple of ideas for how a teacher might explore what’s possible.

Digital media literacy and civic engagement

In the current political races, more and more campaign dollars are being spent toward online advertising and constituent engagement. Right now in the fall of 2016, it is hard to avoid a political message when logged in on Facebook or Twitter. These communications are not limited to the candidates. Political commentators, journalists, and bloggers all weigh in on the current races for political positions.

Teachers can tap into the power of social media and design a series of lessons that help students develop a deeper understanding of the democratic process, recognize bias, and evaluate the validity of online content. For example, students could explore how the use of hashtags can have different levels of meaning depending on who is using them and why. The concept of hashtags for understanding social media moves beyond advertising and into the realms of networking and community-building.

This is important. Engaging students in developing a better understanding of digital media literacy has shown to increase students’ participation in civic activities, including creating original content online, and in developing more diverse perspectives of politics and important societal issues (Kahne, Feezell & Lee, 2010).

Gaming and scientific inquiry

Games such as Minecraft encourage both participation and collaboration. Students such as my son can build worlds virtually from scratch and invite others to join them via an Internet-enabled device. They construct these worlds through collectively agreed upon norms and goals. Chat rooms and in-person dialogue accompany their work.

As students become more fluent in these participatory technologies, teachers can leverage these tools to support content areas such as science. As an example, circuit building is an option for Minecraft participants. They have to mine the proper elements (i.e. Redstone) and place them in strategic locations to create a line (i.e. Redstone Dust) that can transmit energy. Now that students have their Minecraft creations powered up, then can operate doors and turn on lights.

These discoveries can serve as entry points for future explorations into scientific concepts such as electricity and renewable vs. nonrenewable resources. Games such as Mincraft can make abstract concepts more concrete. Just as important, students become active learners instead of passive recipients in school. “We know that people learn best, and enjoy most, when they are working on personally meaningful projects” (Resnick, 2012).

Teaching students through leveraging digital media tools to support their important projects will introduce them to information and concepts in more relevant and usable ways.

References

Kane, J., Feezell, J. T., Lee, N. (2010). Digital Media Literacy Education and Online Civic and Political Participation. Working paper: Youth & Participatory Politics. Available: http://dmlcentral.net/wp-content/uploads/files/LiteracyEducationandOnlineParticipation.WORKINGPAPER.pdf

Resnick, M. (2012). Reviving Papert’s Dream. Educational Technology. 52(5), pgs. 41-46.


This is a sponsored post. Rocket Island is a Kickstarter project. The creator, Timothy Young, is focused on creating an immersive and enjoyable 3D game with an educational purpose.

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Players explore a digital world to collect resources and information in order to launch a rocket into space. Young wants this game available to students from all around the world to learn about environmental science. If you can, please support this project

Redesigning Learning Spaces for Creativity and Innovation

Today I attended a one day workshop hosted by Innovative Educator Consulting on how to redesign learning spaces in schools. The purpose of this type of work is to give students more opportunities to be creative and take their personal ideas from start to finish. We are developing a makerspace in our school, so I was looking for ideas to share with our staff.

We started off the day by responding to four different questions related to spaces for learning, displayed on poster board. The participants added their thinking to the board via Post-it notes. This was followed up with brief introductions and a learning walk with other educators. Many images of different modern learning spaces were displayed on poster board. Our task was to have a conversation about what we liked and didn’t like for our learning spaces in our different schools. If we reached consensus on a certain idea, we placed a smiley or frowny face on the image.

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A variety of content was also shared with participants to explore. One of my favorite resources was the 7 Learning Zones “that every classroom must have” from Edutopia. Students, teachers and school leaders can design these zones as they create their makerspaces. The consultants suggested using small standing frames from Ikea to label each zone for learners.

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After lunch, we engaged in another discussion protocol. Called hexagonical thinking, participants used the principles of design thinking to respond to the question, “What one idea or concept best describes the goal you have for redesigning learning spaces?” As a group of educators, we wrote our ideas and explanations on a blank paper hexagon. Then we put our ideas together one at a time, physically connecting similar ideas and explained why (my offering was “personalized” – far right).

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We wrapped up our day by exploring the different online resources available for educators. This activity was called “Rotation Stations of Discovery” and were categorized around different tenets of redesigned learning spaces:

  • Virtual Learning Spaces
  • Color Theory
  • Research on Best Practices of Learning Spaces
  • Data Collection
  • Video Tour Playlist
  • Classroom Furniture

I thought this video overview from Australia, using concepts from the resource The Third Teacher, was helpful.

My overall experience was positive. I discovered some valuable ideas about redesigning learning spaces and creating the conditions for students to be innovators. Below are my visual notes from the day.

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Excellent iPad Apps for Demonstrating Learning for Students

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Reflector is software our school purchased a couple years ago for every teacher’s work station. Reflector allows the user to mirror the iPad screen to a computer, which can then be projected onto the smartboard. Anything happening on the iPad, including animation and sound, is played on the computer screen as well. Now untethered from the computer, the teacher is free to place himself or herself strategically in the classroom.

Here are three recommended apps that would work well for using the iPad for modeling and shared demonstration:

1. Math Board ($5): Teach students how to work problems for the four basic operations.

From the App Store description:

“More than just standard drills, MathBoard encourages students to actually solve problems, and not just guess at answers. This is done by providing multiple answer styles, as well as a scratchboard area where problems can be worked out by hand. Students can also turn to MathBoard’s Problem Solver for further help. This powerful teaching feature walks students through the steps required to solve addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division equations.”

There is also Math Board Fractions and Math Board Challenge, a head-to-head game where two students compete to see who can complete the problems faster.

2. Notability ($6): This handwriting and drawing tool is considered an “Essential” by Apple. Using a stylus, a teacher can model how to closely read text on a PDF or screenshot, demonstrate with students a genre of writing, and show students how to organize data for a science activity. Pictures and audio recording of your explanations can be embedded into the document. Hand off the iPad to another students when they are ready to share their own work.

3. Popplet ($5): This app allows you to create idea webs, especially helpful when brainstorming ideas for writing or for pre-assessing background knowledge on a topic.

From the App Store Description:

“Popplet is the simplest tool to capture and organize your ideas. With Popplet you can quick jot down your ideas and sort them visually. Popplet is great for school and for learning in the classroom and at home. Students use Popplet to think and learn visually. By capturing facts, thoughts, and images, students learn to create relationships between them and generate new ideas. ”

Which app(s) do you find useful for modeling and demonstrating with students on the iPad? Please share in the comments.