Before the students arrived, our faculty learned how to best prepare a classroom (and school) for students. Specifically, we looked at our classroom and common areas to promote reading and writing. Each teacher stated a personal goal that they would work toward regarding classroom libraries, bulletin boards, and relationship building.
Next are some images of our first-week successes in creating a culture of literacy.
I think my favorite part of this schoolwide literacy experience is when my daughter came home complaining that she was tired. “Why are you tired?” I asked her. “My feet are sore from all the walking we did while organizing our classroom library.” That’s a win for creating a culture of literacy and student ownership!
In Chapter 4 of Becoming a Literacy Leader, Jennifer Allen describes how she facilitates professional learning beyond the schoolwide initiative. She refers to these opportunities as “study groups”. They are typically designed around a specific educational resource. Jennifer reflects on the importance of having voice and choice in her professional learning.
As a teacher, I often found that my needs and interests were not met within the allotted in-service days designated for professional development during the school year. I was thirsty for professional development opportunities involving new instructional practices. Instead, I found that most of our in-service days were planned months in advance to address state assessment requirements. (pg. 59)
In the past, I had tried to facilitate study groups but encountered several problems.
First, I was selecting the text. Teachers didn’t have voice and choice in what to read.
Second, I did not have regularly scheduled dates communicated ahead of time. I would ask teachers when they would want to meet, a few would get back to me, and then we tried to make it fit.
Third, I saw this as a way to teach instead of an opportunity to learn from the resource and with each other. As Jennifer notes in Becoming a Literacy Leader, “I participate as an equal member of each group. I think the reason study groups work is that the teachers are directing their own learning.” (pg. 65)
By learning from my experiences plus this resource, we have prepared a more responsive approach to personalize professional learning for faculty.
Research Relevant Resources to Offer
In the spring, I thought about what our school’s needs and interests were as we prepared for next year. Some of these topics would need to be beyond our schoolwide initiative of authentic literacy. For example, personalized learning and Responsive Classroom were two areas I knew teachers were interested in learning more about. I made a list of all relevant resources available, discovered through researching publisher websites, professional reading resources, and book search tools such as Amazon and Goodreads.
Select Resources as a Leadership Team
Before the school year begins, our school’s leadership team reviewed the titles collected for consideration. Teachers on the team provided their input, knowing what their colleagues might and might not be interested in.
Offer Study Group Opportunities to Faculty
I typed up a list of titles with descriptions along with dates the study groups would meet (image on left). Teachers can click on a link to a Google Form and enroll in one or more study groups (image on right).
After teachers have signed up, we will need to assign co-facilitators for the groups. One facilitator would likely be a member of the leadership team. The other facilitator would be a participating teacher. These facilitators would cover for each other in case one of them could not make it.
Jennifer also has a routine agenda for the study groups to ensure a successful study group experience (pg. 74):
Discussion/Sharing (10 minutes)
Toolbox (15 minutes)
Putting Ideas into Practice (5 minutes)
Just as important to providing teachers with voice and choice in their professional learning, I believe it is equally powerful to have teachers model lifelong, voluntary learning for our students and school community. I look forward to seeing how the concept of study groups will have a positive impact on teacher autonomy and student learning.
As an instructional coach, one of my responsibilities is to provide voluntary opportunities for teachers to study in groups during the school year and in the summer. This is one of my favorite coaching responsibilities. The studies take on a life of their own and usually go way beyond my expectations. Because the study is usually voluntary to some extent, teachers are more passionate learners and more confident as they become experts in a new content area or practice. Having a part in how they feel about themselves as confident teachers is pure joy!
In her book, Becoming A Literacy Leader, Jennifer Allen is guided by two goals when planning study groups: purposeful alignment and peer interaction. She states that, “…resources that are selected as offerings within the school are aligned to our district goals and that our professional development has everyone focused, interacting, and making meaning together.”
I agree with her goals, and I have had the opportunity to plan book study groups based on these goals. This past summer I received a healthy budget to purchase professional books for summer book studies. I chose the books based on teacher surveys, asking what they would like to study together, as well as aligning the choices with my district’s goals and philosophy.
Once the books arrived, I created a ‘Summer Book Buzz’ for teachers to read through and make an informed decision about the study in which they would like to participate. At a staff meeting teachers signed up for their study of choice, chose a facilitator, selected dates to meet, and created norms for their time together. One of the requests I made of teachers that chose to participate was to present something from their study during a staff meeting in the upcoming school year. The groups presented engaging strategies, activities, and student work. Because the study groups were voluntary the teachers took ownership over their time together as well as what and how they chose to present. This was evident as I listened to the presentations at staff meetings and the many conversations teachers had with me. I considered the book study groups a success.
As I read chapter 4 of Allen’s book, she affirmed much of my work planning and preparing for the book study groups. I also realized there is much I could add to my planning for the next time. Although having teachers present their studies gave me a form of evaluation, I can see that implementing a study group evaluation would provide valuable information for me as a coach and facilitator.
Allen’s suggested evaluation includes…
1. What was the greatest benefit of participation in this type of professional development format?
2. What changes may you make in your instruction as a result of attending this focus group?
3. Please rate this form of professional development on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being the highest).
Jennifer Allen closes this chapter by calling study groups a worthy investment. She states, “Study groups are what I am most passionate about as a literacy specialist. I believe in teachers and their ability to direct, reflect, and facilitate their own learning.” From my reading and my own experiences I would agree, and I plan to continue using book study groups in my practice while applying the valuable suggestions Allen provides in her book. Let the new school year and the study groups begin!
As an educator, I have always been passionate about literacy and have continued to seek out new learning. My literacy thinking has been refined as I’ve read books by Regie Routman, Donalyn Miller, Boushey and Moser, Richard Allington, Fisher and Frey, and now Jennifer Allen. Becoming a Literacy Leader is a goldmine of a book for literacy specialists/instructional coaches, making me wish I could go back into a role to focus just on coaching literacy to apply my learning from Allen, but then I remember that I love my job as principal too! Since I wear many hats as a principal and cannot go in depth to the type of literacy support that Allen and literacy coaches provide teachers, I want to share some of the visible ways that principals can be reading principals. My ideas shared are not my own, I’ve gained these from the authors I’ve mentioned above and others in my Professional Learning Network.
1. Be a reader and share it with students! I love to share with students that I’m a reader. I get into classrooms the first week of school to read a book to kick-off the new school year and I also go back in after winter break to talk about reading resolutions.
2. Encourage teachers to share their reading lives with students. I post my reading sign in the library for students to see (what I’m reading and how many books I’ve read) and ask teachers to do something similar to model for students that they are readers too.
One year I asked all teachers to identify 10 things about themselves as a reader and we filled a bulletin board with who we are as readers for students to see.
3. Share your reading life with staff. With each new book I’m reading, I update my email signature to show it so each time I send an email, I’m also recommending a book! I have a few staff members who do this and I have gained new book ideas just from their email signatures.In addition, my staff memo blog includes a widget to show the books I have read/logged on Goodreads this year.
4. Talk about books with kids. I do this when I’m in classrooms during literacy or during the lunch room. I especially love getting kids talking at the lunch table because students need to hear their peers talk about books to be able to seek out book recommendations from others. My oldest child is a hesitant reader. He can read, but he doesn’t like to unless he gets hooked on a book, but getting the hook is the struggle. A couple of years ago, I knew he would love The False Prince and I tried to get him to read it. Then one day out of nowhere he came home with a book he was so excited about that he heard his friends raving about so he started it. Guess what book it was?
5. Learn about literacy with your staff. Dave Burgess, author of Teach Like a Pirate (2012) asks the great metaphorical question “Are you a lifeguard or swimmer?” about whether or not you are walking the talk. He explains:“Lifeguards sit above the action and supervise the pool. Although he or she is focused, there is a distinct sense of separateness both physically and mentally. In contrast, a swimmer is out participating and an integral part of the action.” I have continued to learn right along with my teachers as we implemented Daily 5/CAFE, Lucy Calkins Units of Study for Writing and now moving into Units of Study for Reading. I even taught a summer school class to apply what I learned so I could be as supportive as possible for our teachers.
6. Ensure that classroom libraries have books for students to read. Gone are the days of the traditional basal that all students read (they weren’t all reading it!) or committing Readacide by having all reading the same chapter book together. We must ensure that classroom libraries have a wide variety of books that are of interest to students. What role do principals play in this? This means letting teachers budget for ordering additional books and letting them wait until they know their students as readers to make purchases later in the year to find books their readers will want. Supporting the librarian or IMC specialist to purchase books throughout the year so that when kids hear there’s a new book coming out they don’t have to wait until the next budget approval…they are waiting at the library the day they know the book is out eagerly hoping to be the first to check it out!
7. Continue to support teachers with professional learning. Provide your teachers with the opportunities to attend conferences, workshops, online webinars, or even purchase/share professional books, articles or blog posts.
8. Build up teacher leaders. Those teachers that got so excited about what they were reading and started applying it in their classroom? They have potential to be leaders in your building. Feed that hunger they have for growing as literacy experts. Let them lead a staff book study or present at a staff meeting/PD day. Cover another teacher’s class so they can observe in their classroom and learn from each other.
9. Encourage teachers to share book recommendations with each other. I love Allen’s examples in the book of having a place in the staff lounge for a teacher book swap (for personal reading) and a bulletin board for teachers to post read-aloud ideas for one another.
10. Make reading a fun part of your school culture. Support classrooms to have great places to read (not confined to a desk…you don’t do that at home when you’re enjoying a good book!)
Do crazy things to show that reading can be fun. During a Scholastic principals challenge, I read up high all day so kids could see (and I got a lot of great reading done) to enter our school in a contest to win books. Several classes even joined me throughout the day be reading on the floor for a while so I wasn’t alone all day during class time.
Every once in a while I make a special weather announcement to inform the school that there’s a reading blizzard on the way so they have to stay prepared with a book no matter where they are during the day, because when it hits they will need to take cover with a book. Then at a random time of the day, I make the announcement that the blizzard is here and they need to stop what they’re doing to read for 10 minutes. (This also helps build the habit to always have a book with you!)
I’d love to hear what other visible ways principals lead the reading culture!
“Thank you, Dana,” the fifth grade teacher said to me on the last day of our lunchtime study-group. “This has been really, really helpful.”
We had just finished our six-week long study-group centered around Christopher Lehman’s book Energize Research Reading and Writing. We had read, learned, talked and laughed our way through the book. The teachers were eagerly using the things we had read about in their classrooms already. By all accounts, our study-group was a success.
In Chapter 4 of the new edition of Becoming a Literacy Leader, Jennifer Allen explains how she uses study-groups to meet the professional learning needs of the teachers in her school district. Leading study groups has become one of my favorite parts of my job as an instructional coach since I get to be “hostess and party planner” (page 65) and participant.
Find a Core Resource
Of course, you will need a core resource to study. I usually choose a professional book that aligns with our district vision and curriculum, but you could also use videos or a collection of blog posts on a given topic as your core resource. On page 67 of her book, Jennifer Allen provides a sample of the study-group options she offered one school year. I really like the idea of offering a menu of possibilities for teachers at the beginning of the year. This would provide a lot of choice in topics and timing, so hopefully there would be something for everyone.
Determine a Predictable Structure
To me, this is the golden nugget in all of Jennifer Allen’s wisdom about facilitating study-groups for teachers. Find a predictable structure and stick with it. Just like the structure of a reading or writing workshop helps students learn, a predictable structure for your study-groups will help teachers learn. A predictable structure provides teachers the comfort of knowing what to expect each week, and it eases the planning process for you as well! The structure we used for our study-groups was:
Discuss the real-life application of the day’s topic.
Try it out!
This format worked really well for Energize Research Reading and Writing. For example, the day we studied Chapter Three on note-taking, our agenda looked like this:
Discuss real-life application. (5 minutes) Are you a note-taker when you read? Why do we take notes?
Discuss text. (15 minutes) The author presents four possible lessons for teaching your students to take notes. What were your reactions to these lessons?
Try it out! (20 minutes) Try lesson titled, “Even Kindergarteners Are Taught, ‘Find the Main Idea'”.
This format allowed us to both discuss the text and give it a go ourselves each week. This format also provided an easy planning template for me. I would formulate two questions or prompts to guide our discussions, and then prepare the materials for the “Try It Out!” portion. Planning for a fifty-minute study group usually took me about twenty minutes.
In Chapter 4 of her book, Jennifer Allen describes the predictable structure she uses:
Putting Ideas into Practice
Follow-Up Between Sessions
I appreciate that she provides a bit of time for teachers to dig into the reading a bit during the study-group. We always did all of our reading outside of school, and I did my best to send reminders ahead of time. Decide on a structure that fits you and your teachers, and use it consistently.
Facilitating study-groups is one of my favorite parts of my job as an instructional coach. The feedback I receive each time is overwhelmingly positive, and there is never a shortage of teachers signed up to attend. I recommend finding time in your schedule for at least one each quarter/trimester. Like Jennifer Allen wrote, study-groups are a “worthy investment.”
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.
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.
As teachers, we have all had times when we have been asked to participate in mandated professional learning. Before you read on, think about the last time you found yourself in this situation. How did you feel about being there? What elements worked for you and what rubbed you the wrong way?
For me, this type of learning reminds me of what our students must feel each day. I admit that I myself have not always been a huge fan of mandated professional development. It is ironic that planning and delivering this type of learning is now a regular part of my current position. Knowing that the feelings around this type of PD are not always talked about in a positive light, I was intrigued to read Chapter 3: “A Model for Required Professional Development” in Jennifer Allen’s book Becoming a Literacy Leader. I was genuinely curious to find out what might Jennifer offer to help me become a better facilitator for required learning sessions.
Right away I loved Jennifer’s honesty as she shared her moments of success and frustration. Anyone who has organized and led professional learning has had those moments where you clearly know you have failed. Jennifer begins with sharing some very challenging years that were not working for her. Paying attention to our mistakes and learning from them is important for all of us, regardless of our teaching context.
I began to think about my biggest fails from this past year. What did I learn? Probably the most important lesson I learned this year was to invest the time to learn the culture of the group. Not all groups work the same way and not all leaders want you to work with their staff in the same way. Asking questions and ensuring expectations are clear, helps things go more smoothly. Many times I am asked to introduce ideas and information that may challenge entrenched ways of thinking and working within schools. Another lesson I learned is to name this dissonance right at the beginning and open up space to disagree, in agreeable ways. My biggest learning continues to come from reflecting about the bumps in the road and what I could do differently next time.
In Chapter 3, Jennifer introduces us to three key ingredients she believes are essential when designing an agenda for mandatory professional development:
making meaning of content together
individualizing the learning
bridging theory and practice.
I loved her example of “My Life in Seven Stories”, but equally was a fan that she left room for me to contextualize these ideas and make them my own. When I thought about the three ingredients for professional development, I was able to immediately connect my own personal experiences with her framing.
Thinking about how groups can make meaning of new content together, I realized how important good questions are for learning. Thinking in questions helps organize the main ideas and guide professional development but also leaves room for the learners to influence the direction and thus the learning. Framing professional learning through a series of questions signals to the participants that they will be actively making meaning together. Knowledge Building Circles are a great way to dig deep into important questions and make meaning of content together.
The second ingredient Jennifer suggests is to design professional learning so people can individualize the learning. This can be tough with very large groups but by providing choice within the session, we can increase autonomy and engagement. Choice can be as simple as offering a collection of articles to choose from, a variety of tools to use, or even providing the opportunity for groups to make micro-decisions about how to structure a block of time. Jennifer’s suggestion to take what you learn and apply it yourself (p.54), reminded me that we want our learners to be actively engaged in doing the learning and not just hearing about the learning. If your session is about reading, ask your participants to read. Taking off the teacher hat and putting on the learner cap is important for internalizing and personalizing learning.
The third ingredient was a recent epiphany for me. I used to wonder why we even needed theory. Just tell me what to do! Now I understand that theory helps us understand the ‘why’ behind our choices. Jennifer suggests that the bridge between theory and practice can happen by giving teachers time to play with the strategies in the classroom (p. 54). I think an important part of this ingredient is also to scaffold teachers to be able to name and understand what theory might look like in their classrooms before they leave the professional development session. Embedded planning time to bridge theory and practice during professional development has become a regular fixture in my planning. A handy protocol for this is ‘Connect. Extend. Try’. At the end of PD sessions, I ask participants to think about how the new learning connects with what they already know, what extends or challenges their thinking, and what is one new thing they will commit to trying.
Having only finished Chapter 3 of this book, I am excited to continue reading to discover more practical and inspirational ideas about leading literacy. I know I will for sure be stealing Jennifer’s “My Life in Seven Stories” to use at some point with teacher writing groups this year!
Please consider adding your ideas about key ingredients or some ‘tried and true’ ideas for professional learning in the comments. I’d also like to invite you to join our reading community as we read and discuss Becoming a Literacy Leader together.