Building a Literacy Culture: Fostering Trust Through Beliefs and Commitments

In the midst of my third year in my “new” school, I feel fortunate that I can reflect on my past experiences as a building principal in one elementary while leading a literacy initiative right now in my current building.

We started at Mineral Point by delving into the foundations of literacy instruction: the reading-writing connection. We are moving forward, feeling more comfortable with our pace and expectations regarding what to try and apply in our classrooms. Some might want to move forward more quickly than others, which seems common in schools.

This is a challenge as a building principal/literacy leader:  What is the right pace in which to move an entire school toward a culture where every student is expected to become an independent reader and writer?

Answer: there is no right way. Many pathways can get you to the same destination. Yet it starts with trust, defined by Dr. Anthony Muhammad as “feeling confident in another person’s ability to follow through on a commitment.” People feel safer in these types of conditions to innovate.

To move toward a literacy culture as a whole faculty, trust has to be cultivated. Trust is founded on various elements of which many are tacit and hard to see. Two concrete ways to build trust is through examination of a school’s beliefs and an agreed-upon set of professional commitments. Beliefs and commitments are commonly-held agreements about what we think and how we act. They are the foundation on which a culture sits upon when ensuring that all students are successful readers and writers. Beliefs and commitments are rudders that guide our work toward our goals.

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I’ve written about examining literacy beliefs before; you can read about two recent experiences here and here. Regarding collective commitments, you can find this culture-building activity in Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work (Solution Tree, 2016). I also shared about our school’s collective commitments on my school blog.

School leaders need to be able to determine when a school is struggling with its culture, such as when teachers are feeling too much stress while implementing new practices. I rely on our instructional leadership team members plus other staff to help discern how faculty is feeling about our work. I am not a mind reader. We have to rely on others’ perceptions regarding professional learning. This dialogue can be improved when we have concrete statements about what we believe and how we will conduct ourselves in accordance with these beliefs. They are words we live by.

Assessing and Celebrating School Culture #WSRA19

Below is a short article from my staff newsletter I wrote yesterday. We are the midway point of the school year, and I wanted to highlight our successes as a school culture by documenting evidence of our work in writing. I’ll be speaking more about this topic at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention next week in Milwaukee. If you are also attending, I hope we are able to connect! -Matt

I’ve asked a few staff members for feedback about my plan for publishing To the Point every other week. My theory on this is that our communication as a staff, both formal and informal, is strong. Information shared seems to be frequent and accurate. That is a major reason for my staff newsletters which also helps with not having more than one short staff meeting a month.

This thinking became apparent as I have prepared for a session I am leading at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention next week: “How to Build a Literacy Culture”. As I go through artifacts of our success and growth to present to others, I could confirm many indicators of a healthy and thriving school culture beyond only communication (these characteristics come from Literacy Essentials by Regie Routman). 

  • Trusting – We focus on our strengths first and follow through on our tasks before facilitating feedback about areas for growth.
  • Collaborative – Our different school teams work together to guide the school toward goals; instructional coaching is common.
  • Intellectual – We have thirteen shared beliefs about the reading-writing connection and reading to understand.
  • Responsible – The goals for the school are limited, focused, student-driven and clear, i.e. “A Community of Readers”. 
  • Equitable – We have high expectations for our students and provide additional support when necessary.
  • Joyful – Celebration and appreciation are interwoven in our interactions with each other and with the community.

It’s an honor to be able to highlight our collective work for others and share our journey toward success. Sustaining a school culture is an ongoing process that is far from perfect and is sometimes challenging. Yet the results we see with our students makes all the difference.

The Obstacles We Create

During a Twitter chat this week for #AWSAConnect (Association of Wisconsin School Administrators, @AWSALeaders1), the facilitator Jay Posick posed a challenge for educators to respond to and blog about it before the next chat: Choose one barrier to hurdle next week.

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The hurdle I choose, one I think I select every week, are the obstacles I might create for myself.

Certainly, some hurdles are beyond our influence. For example, staffing that might be cut or resources that are limited due to budget constraints are legitimate obstacles we have little control over.

But I have found that the majority of the obstacles in our path are the ones we decide to let into our professional lives.

An example I wrote about recently was the commercial resource samples that appeared in our hallway. I had not requested these items. In the past, I would have shrugged and had our custodian put them in my office to review at a later time. And every time I went to my office, there they would be, waiting for me to open them up and make a decision on whether we should adopt these resources. This year, I requested that the company come back and pick up the samples. No more obstacle.

Potential hurdles that can interfere with our important work are not just physical. We also get inundated with online requests that call for our attention. For instance, a few of our faculty members have used Teachers Pay Teachers to order resources. A representative for this site reached out and asked if I was interested in a school account. In the past, I would have hemmed and hawed about making a decision, wondering who I might upset if I said “no” or “yes”. Instead, I asked the rep for more information about how their resources are evaluated for effectiveness and for permissions. I’ll share his responses with our leadership team and make a collaborative decision. Now, this obstacle was a chance to practice shared leadership.

We can event set up professional hurdles in our personal lives. They may not even seem like an obstacle to overcome at first. Case in point: I had my eye on a writers workshop for April. I talked to my wife about this being a birthday present, an opportunity to improve my writing skills. In the meantime, while discussing possible spring activities with my family, my daughter suggested we go to a Milwaukee Brewer game for my birthday (she knows I’m a baseball fan). It was at this point that I realize the workshop was connected closely to my work; I write almost exclusively about education. Her comment helped me get some perspective and reflect on my priorities as a father, husband, and friend. In other words, we’re going to a baseball game.

And with that, I would like to add a follow-up question to Jay’s call to action: Is this barrier that you want to hurdle an obstacle you created for yourself?

How to Build a Literacy Culture: A Theory of Practice

Today was a snow day for our school, so I had some time to tinker with my session for the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention on February 7.

The topic for this session is on how school leaders of every stripe can build a literacy culture. I took three ideas from a past post I wrote and developed a theory of action that other educators might follow to facilitate schoolwide student improvement in reading, writing, and communicating. See below.

The thing about theories is they are limited, especially when developed by one person. While I do read widely and connect with others, as well as reflect on my experiences here, my perspective is not the only point of view. Other school leaders might have found a different pathway toward success.

So what are your thoughts? I want to put this theory to the test before I present it at the WSRA convention session. That could include offering critique and feedback in the comments, or simply sharing it with a colleague who might have a response. Thank you in advance.

Literacy Leaders: You can’t name it if you don’t know it

Without a synergy between literacy and leadership and a committed, joint effort by teachers and principals, fragile achievement gains do not hold.

– Regie Routman, Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success

In a primary classroom today, I was observing the teacher reading aloud a picture book about penguins. The students were active participants, answering questions about the main character and offering their theories about what might happen next in the story. “Could anyone else share their thinking?” invited the teacher, after affirming one student’s response with an objective “Mmm-hmm”.

After writing down my observational narrative (instructional walk) of the read-aloud experience, I gave the teacher my notes while commenting publicly about the lesson in front of the student. “Wow, I could tell you all understood the story well. You made predictions about what would happen next, using details from the book.” The class then shared that tomorrow they would be reading a nonfiction text about penguins online.

By sharing what I observed with the class, I did more than recognize the teacher for her efforts in being intentional with her read aloud. I also named the strategies – making a prediction, using details for support – as a reinforcement of their thinking. Students heard the point of the lesson from two different adults. My presence was value-added; I didn’t distract from the lesson but instead became a part of the learning experience.

My formal educational background is not literacy-rich. While I enjoyed reading as a student, my college studies were more focused on mathematics and middle-level philosophy. When I became an elementary principal, I had limited background knowledge about promising reading and writing practices. Thankfully, I had literacy leaders in my prior school who kindly yet firmly encouraged me to participate in our professional development focused on literacy. My first visits to classrooms were as a learner more than a partner, but eventually I felt competent to engage in the process.

Educators enter the world of leadership from many backgrounds. Some involve reading and writing instruction; some do not. Regardless of our backgrounds, we have an obligation to know literacy through formal and informal professional learning experiences. It’s a continuous commitment as new forms of literacy are growing in the information age. Lifelong learning gives me the language to engage in literacy conversations with faculty, an essential trait for sustainable student success.

Excellent literacy resources sell themselves

“When you don’t know what you believe, everything becomes an argument. Everything is debatable. But when you stand for something, decisions are obvious.” 
― Jason Fried, Rework

There were several boxes in the hallway addressed to me. What did I order? I thought. Looking more closely, I realized the boxes contained sample commercial resources from one of the big education companies.

Shortly after I emailed our representative. “As far as I know, I don’t recall requesting these materials.” They apologized for the mix up and set up a date to pick them up.

I am not adverse to commercially-developed literacy resources. If a product aligns with our beliefs and practices about reading and writing and it would take longer to develop something ourselves, then let’s make the purchase. Our time is precious and our expertise is limited.

Yet it is interesting that I never receive sales calls from publishers and distributors of authentic texts and related resources. Maybe we will get a flyer or an email to build awareness about what they have to offer. But it is almost exclusively the case that we are reaching out to the publishers and distributors for the resources the students and staff want and need.

The decision to have the company pick up the preview materials was easy. It wasn’t even a topic of discussion during today’s leadership team meeting; our conversations were about future professional learning. We know where we stand regarding literacy resources.

Three Simple Ways to Celebrate Teachers

I was walking around school, thinking about a unique way to celebrate a recognition the staff received. Two specialists were talking in their office, so I asked them if they had any ideas. 

“Post-it notes,” said one.

“Really?” I asked.

“Yes, that would be nice,” commented the other specialist. “Teachers appreciate having those items around when a parent calls or they have to jot down a reminder.”

I thanked them and walked away while they then conversed about all the benefits of Post-it notes. I’m glad I asked because it was a good reminder for me that the act of recognizing staff members’ efforts and successes is more important than the actual item. Next are three simple ways to celebrate our teachers.

  • Personal notes – I have small stationary notepads made every year. Although my name is on them, they are not for me; I’ll write personal notes of thanks for all staff members and put it in their mailboxes. I try to keep the language specific to them and their actions. For example, I noticed a teacher recently using a students’ own writing during a guided reading lesson. Instead of writing, “Great job on that lesson!”, I wrote “I was impressed with how you connected students’ own writing to the reading lesson. Thank you for living out our beliefs in your instruction!” 
  • Recognition at the beginning of staff meetings – These monthly gatherings can feel like one more thing to do if we don’t start on a positive note. That is why a running agenda item, top of the list, is “Celebrations and Announcements”. I defer to teachers to share their own successes and encourage staff to recognize others. Recognition is both personal and professional. In this way, I am not inadvertently creating a climate of competition or positioning someone as “the principal’s pet”. Starting a staff meeting this way sets the tone for the rest of our time together.
  • Sharing out visual artifacts – I can personally recognize teachers in a more discrete way by sharing images and video depicting our staff in action. For example, I send out holiday cards to close family members with a picture of their loved ones working with kids. Also, I use Twitter to post photos I capture while walking through classrooms and in the hallways. In addition, my weekly staff newsletter depicts teachers and students learning together. Three years in my current position, teachers are great about sending me pictures via email for me to share out. 

How do you or your school leaders celebrate teachers in your building? Please share your ideas in the comments.