Professional Learning: Engagement Before Anything Else

I believe that when you teach a work of fiction, you should not bring all the baggage that comes with it. You should not fill the minds of the students with the background material. Let the students first connect to the book. Even if that connection is negative, even if they hate it – that reaction belongs to them.

Azar Nafisi, “Enough About Me”, Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process

Our school’s theme this year is “A Community of Readers”. We believe that creating an environment of authentic inquiry and student-directed discussion will lead to an increase in reading engagement. The expected outcome is growth in comprehending text. We have also come to agree that this outcome is largely a product of lots of time to read and respond to high-interest texts with the support of a knowledgeable teacher.

We are becoming more knowledgeable as a faculty by developing our own community of readers. Teachers have selected one of a variety of faculty-suggested professional resources. Their book choice has determined what groups they are in within the school. Although many of the groups were already formed prior to our book study, i.e. grade level or department, there has been some crossover. The art teacher is meeting with the 4K teachers. 2nd grade and kindergarten are discussing What Are the Rest of My Kids Doing? by Lindsey Moses and Merideth Odgen (Stenhouse, 2017).

Another example: I purchased several copies of each selected text, a few more than requested. As it became known which teachers had what books, some staff members would request a copy of this or that text because they’ve “heard good things” about it. For instance, Conferring with Readers by Jennifer Serravallo and Gravity Goldberg (Heinemann, 2007) is now located in three different grade levels/departments (and counting). I have a running Amazon cart of professional titles. I’m almost afraid to purchase too soon in case one more request comes in.

As I have ordered and handed out these books to teachers, I have been wondering: Would this level of engagement be happening if I had been more directive in this professional book study? The question is rhetorical; the answer is “no”. I recall a schoolwide book study in a previous school in which I was principal. During one all staff book discussion, a teacher remarked that she hadn’t read the assigned chapters…and I was in her discussion group!

I am not advocating for laissez-faire literacy leadership. We need to be working with teacher-leaders to guide the direction of the faculty’s professional learning focus. But the more we try to steer toward a specific outcome, the greater the likelihood that we will disengage our faculty in building our collective knowledge. In fact, our expected outcome might change – what does “growth in comprehending text” really mean? This is the paradox that I have struggled to deal with in the past because we should simply “deal with”. Instead, appreciate the journey we are taking as professionals. Be more curious than constraining. There is more than one pathway toward schoolwide literacy success.

 

 

Comics and Graphic Novels: Honoring All Literacies

I was only partially surprised when a librarian mentioned to me that in her school, graphic novels were not seen as quality literature by some of the teachers. This discussion was prompted by a note a former student had written to her recently.

Thank you for letting me read graphic novels. They really hooked me as a reader, and now I am a great reader. I wish more people would have believed that these are the books that I could have.

“The books that I could have.” That statement alone speaks to the empowerment that graphic novels can foster within a reader. We need to move past the misconception that graphic novels and comics are not valuable as literature for students.

My own son is a shining example. He’s read a truckload of comics and graphic novels; he also happens to test very well in literacy (if that type of thing is important to you). This genre is not the only type of text that he reads. I’ll even admit that at times we have had to gently guide him toward other genres when he is in a rut as a reader. But we all get into ruts, such as my predilection for nonfiction at the expense of fiction. Lifelong readers are able to examine their own reading habits and make adjustments.

Understanding our students as readers can help to honor all literacies in school. My son was fortunate to participate in a statewide literacy project that advocates for this type of thinking, called “Wisconsin Writes“. Marci Glaus, an educational consultant with our department of public instruction, spearheads this initiative. The goal is to “provide a glimpse into example writing processes of Wisconsin writers from a variety of contexts”. Below is an interview with my son for this initiative.

The question remains: how do graphic novels and comics lead to empowered readers and writers? There are many possibilities…Regie Routman recently shared out a project from Winnipeg Schools. After a community-wide clean-up of plastic waste, older students created comic book superhero stories for younger students. Their hero’s superpower helped address environmental problems. (Go to 4:30 mark for the comic book project.)

The purpose of reading is to understand. Our understanding is dependent not just on the reader but also on the writer’s ability to communicate. If visuals help in this process, I see little reason why educators should disregard any medium. What are your thoughts about comics and graphic novels in the classroom? Please share in the comments.

 

Educated

91DFQa-KgQLI read for almost two hours last night finishing Educated by Tara Westover. Wow, what a powerful memoir. The author describes her life growing up at the foothills of the Idaho mountains. Her parents are survivalists: trying to live away from society out of fear of “the government”. Mental illness and religion play a role in Westover’s story, but through her writing she was able to mine down to a deeper understanding of her upbringing isolated from the world.

Throughout her childhood and as a young adult, Westover kept journals that documented her both tragic and inspiring experiences. Her written reflections served as artifacts of her life which she came back to while writing this memoir. The author concedes that her version of the truth could only be a close proximation of what actually happened, even though she witnessed first hand much of what she described.

We are all more complicated than the roles we are assigned in stories. Nothing has revealed that truth to me more than writing this memoir – trying to pin down the people I love on paper, to capture the whole meaning of them in a few words, which is of course impossible. This is the best I can do: to tell that other story next to the one I remember.

I am sure that Westover only used a fraction of her written reflections as she crafted her memoir. She culled what was essential to tell her story. When we have our students write in school, how much of it is personal in nature? Should we teach students how to journal, as well as how to take these seemingly disparate pieces to find trends and patterns in our writing and ideas? How might we use journaling as a way to examine our own lives? There are lessons presented graciously here by Westover that we could all consider.

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

Why Professional Development is Essential

As professional educators, we are called to embark on a journey of continual self-improvement and lifelong learning. But, what the journey looks like isn’t a one size fits all approach. This should sound similar, right? I mean we don’t approach the students in our classroom as though everyone learns in the same way, so why would we approach our own professional learning as though we need exactly what our teaching partner down the hall needs? Professional learning must be a part of our schoolwide culture, and this is evident in the “Take Action” portion of Embedding Professional Learning – Make Professional Learning a Priority. What a wonderful call to action outlined here:

  • Seek to make professional conversations integral to school life – this includes thoughtful, probing conversations that propel forward.
  • Stay focused on the literacy emphasis – targeted study of fewer, more powerful practices over a longer period of time in order to sustain change and improve results.
  • Establish teams that work well together – forge connections of open communication and clear goals across all grade levels.
  • Take responsibility for your own professional learning – join professional organizations, social media, book studies, conferences and become a part of your school’s professional learning leadership team.
  • Collaborate with colleagues – coach each other, build in time for collaborative conversations where you can push each other to solidify your thinking.
  • Participate in coaching experiences – having a trusting culture allows for a coaching experience to exist and creates the potential to greatly improve teaching through collaborating, planning, and co-teaching.
  • Evaluate the role and influence of any adopted program – figure out how to adapt, modify, or work around the program, as programs serve as resources and frameworks, not total curriculums.
  • Keep a reflection notebook – keep a notebook handy to keep a record of your thinking, insights, and questions.

These steps provide such a wonderful guide to get us thinking about how professional development can serve us. As an instructional coach, my primary role is to facilitate professional learning FOR teachers. I emphasize the FOR because I never want professional learning to be “done to” teachers. Professional learning, when done well, uses a teacher’s strengths and their curiosity to propel student learning forward.

I am a self-proclaimed nerd. I love to read professionally, attend conferences, and join professional organizations. You can find me “relaxing” by reading from one of the stacks of books that I have selected to become extremely excited about. I would consider myself to be a lifelong student, and I truly enjoy what I do. I enjoy being around children students as I do adult students. I love the way this chapter was written because once again, Regie Routman nails it on the head in so many ways with so many wonderful nuggets of learning in this chapter that I may have underlined nearly the whole chapter.

Again and again, I saw the importance of personal reflection in this chapter. The heart of professional learning should be about reflection – reflection of student learning, student and personal needs, philosophy, shared leadership, professional readings, and research. Teachers are powerful human beings by nature and seeking each other out to learn from one another’s expertise should also be a noted valuable tool that is mentioned repeatedly in this chapter. Your professional learning journey will no doubt shape not only your teaching, but it will challenge you to find, mentors that inspire growth and change within yourself. Who knows, you could quite possibly become one of those mentors that we read about someday.

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

Making the Connection: Reading & Writing Belong Together

One blog post is simply not enough to encompass all that the reading-writing connection entails.  I have merely segmented out a small snippet from this chapter to highlight my thinking and reflections, but there is so much more…

Reading and writing should go hand in hand. Like peanut butter and jelly, each able to stand alone, yet so much better when layered together.  Unfortunately, for many of us in the education business, the two are treated as separate entities and often each has its own curriculum. This poses a problem, not just for teachers who want to marry the two, but for our students as well.  When taught in isolation, there is very little chance of making those strong connections that bond reading and writing as soulmates.

Regie makes me even more cognizant about being proactive and intentional with my instruction based on her writing under the heading; Read Like a Writer.  “Because I write for readers, I deliberately notice what other authors do in terms of tone, voice, word choice, language play, all aspects of craft, setting, character development, how I’m affected as a reader, and so much more. So it’s been a surprise for me how little of that we share with our students. We read aloud; we may write in front of our students; we talk about books; but in my experience it’s rare for us  teachers to make the reading-writing connection visible. Our students do not automatically think, ‘I’m going to try out in my own writing what that author just did.’ We have to explicitly demonstrate that transfer for them and encourage them to take risks and try out new styles, crafts, and language.” (183)

For years I had done all those things Regie talks about; read alouds, writing in front of my students, talking about books, etc…but it wasn’t until the last couple of years when I was immersed in graduate school that I began to truly understand the reading-writing connection. The minute I started being explicit and intentional about noticing and noting things authors did in their stories, I saw similar things popping up in my students writing, and they were excited about sharing their writing with everyone!  It made them feel like “real” authors. So even though I had thought I was doing some pretty good modeling and teaching of reading and writing, I was unintentionally denying them the richer learning that comes when one understands the connection between the two. As soon as I made that connection more visible, my students were able to run with it and enhance their own writing.

Beyond just being deliberate, intentional, and making the reading-writing connection visible to students, Regie gives great suggestions and ideas in the “Take Action” sections of the chapter on Embracing the Reading-Writing Connection.  From simple things like including “Hip hop, song, rap, dance, film and other art forms that resonate with our children,”(172) to “Teaching students to read like writers” (185), we are supplied with a gamut of rich ideas to help our students make stronger connections between reading and writing.  It starts with truly knowing our students and their interests, offering choice in their reading and writing lives, and building from there.

Even though I had thought I was doing some pretty good modeling and teaching of reading and writing, I was unintentionally denying them the richer learning that comes when one understands the connection between the two. As soon as I made that connection more visible, my students were able to run with it and enhance their own writing.

Regie closes out this chapter with some profound words of advice for educators; “Unique and effective craft, style, and technique have to be inhaled and digested by an engaged reader who is immersed in one unforgettable reading experience after another.” (191)  AND “Exercises in a book on craft might help us teachers know what to look for, but only deep, pleasurable reading and noticing what writers do will provide the sustenance and specifics that lead students to read like a writer and expertly craft their writing.” (191)  

I just keep reading and rereading those two quotes, (well… basically everything in this book, but I’m focusing on those two at the moment)  trying to digest them and think of ways to shift the mindset away from teaching them separately. Regie talks about a safe place to start being the content areas of science and social studies.  And it does work nicely there. So maybe that’s where we begin, but we must do more. Teachers need to be experts at understanding the reading-writing connection so that they can impart that knowledge to their students and stop relying on scripted curriculums that teach each as a separate entity. We can do better than that.  Our students deserve better than that.

Agency in the Classroom

I’m pretty new to this whole blogging world. Honestly, I didn’t start blogging until the spring of 2017 and that was as a requirement for one of my graduate classes. I never turned on the “public” settings, so basically, only my professor and classmates had access to the words I put out there in my first attempts at blogging.  I’m both anxious and excited about blogging in a more public arena.

What exactly is agency anyway?  I found myself asking that question early on in my quest to achieve my 316 certification.  After researching and writing a piece on it, I think the best explanation I can give is that agency refers to the culture and mindset within one’s classroom. The mindset of both the teacher and the students that leads to greater ownership on the part of the students.  Ownership over portions of the learning, both physical and academic where students have a voice and a choice. The simple fact is, when students have more ownership over the how and why, engagement goes up significantly.

I chose to start with the topic of agency because it has personal meaning for me as an educator.  Not all that long ago, I felt as though I was stuffed into a teaching box. As a side effect, I felt my students being placed in boxes as well.  Only able to choose from the book bin that had books on their “level”. No books above, none below. They couldn’t even choose within a grade level band, only the bin that had their perceived “level” based on one piece of evidence.  As a teacher I felt stifled, disheartened, and angry. The experience left me thirsting for the knowledge and expertise derived from decades of research that purports the value of agency. I started reading whatever I could get my hands on that supported my thinking about student agency.  So you can imagine my joy when I opened up Regie’s book to find an entire chapter on engagement!

Engagement is a huge piece of agency.  Regie states, “How can we engage students, spark curiosity, and promote inquiry in a manner that propels a burning desire to read, write, question and learn more?”  She goes on to say, “Without a passion for learning, students don’t remember much of value or consider the time spent on a topic, an assignment, or a study worthwhile. And neither do we.” (81) I have seen this firsthand within myself and with my students. When they have no voice, no choice, in what and how they learn, behaviors increase and engagement drops significantly.

I find that there’s a caveat though…this delicate balance between offering too much agency and not enough agency.  I struggle with it. Every. Single. Year. Partly because, despite having 21 years of teaching under my belt, I seem to have this problem of releasing the students to independence too quickly in the fall.  I want them to be ready, like the students who left me the previous spring, but somehow that doesn’t usually pan out as I envision. The best scenario happens when I have looped students multiple years. Then…yes, they are ready more quickly because they have been in my room, know and understand how things run in my classroom, and can help mold the newbies into students for whom agency early in the school year is successful.  

I love how Regie includes that student engagement is largely a thinking shift. Moving from “How do we get kids to revise and edit? to “How do we engage students’ hearts and minds in a highly relevant, meaningful way?” (83) I believe this shift begins when we truly know our students and value things that are personally meaningful to them. I read a post last fall, although I can’t remember exactly who posted it….about learning ten non-academic things about each child in your class before being ready to teach them.  It’s a challenge I embraced that really made me more mindful of my students when planning reading and writing activities. When we truly know them, it makes finding that engagement piece and being able to offer agency a whole lot easier.

Agency in the classroom is something that I believe all educators, literacy leaders, principals, and parents need to advocate for.  I think Matt said it well in his post titled “How Do We Create a Community of Readers. It’s that “Shared understanding of the WHY, that creates buy-in.”  Allowing students to have some agency…an opportunity to have some ownership over not only their learning, but also the physical arrangement of the room, that creates a different kind of culture of learners.  A culture where kids truly are a part of the decision making that drives the what, where and how of their educational experience.

This post is part of a book study around Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Check out more resources associated with the text at this website, including a free curriculum for teaching an undergraduate course using Literacy Essentials.