Start with Your Strengths

I wrote this short piece for my weekly staff newsletter. Thought it might work here too. Have a great weekend, -Matt

I thought I was a pretty good basketball player in my middle school days. That is, until I attended my first summer basketball camp. It became apparent that I had been a big fish in a little pond. Several players were taller, faster, or simply better than me.

So I had to rely on one of the few things I could do well: hustle. I raced up and down the court, trying to beat whoever was guarding me, and getting into positions that would allow for easy buckets. Maybe I could not dribble past or outshoot many of my opponents, but I wasn’t going to be out-hustled. Focusing on a strength gave me the  confidence to eventually improve in other areas.

As we continue to explore new ways of teaching literacy, maybe you are feeling the same way at times. My humble advice: do what you do well that is also effective for students while trying one thing at a time. Time, commitment, and an open mind are our strengths.

Building a Literacy Culture – a @StenhousePub Blog Series #litessentials

 

When I am not blogging, it usually means I am on a tech sabbatical, on vacation (I wish!), or working on a writing project. Lately, I have been reading and enjoying Regie Routman’s new resource Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All LearnersLike Regie’s previous work, this book is a necessary text for any teacher of literacy (see: you).

As a way for me to connect with and reflect upon the ideas in Literacy Essentials, I have written three articles for Stenhouse’s blog. They describe the importance of building a literacy culture, addressing the elements of trust, communication, and relationships. You can read the first two posts by clicking here and here. Look for the third post on the Stenhouse blog in the near future.

Reading Literacy Essentials, it could almost be called “Life Essentials”. Regie mixes research and practice with personal stories as a wife, parent, grandparent, friend, and unique individual. She offers suggestions for becoming a better teacher and a more interesting person. Joy can be had in the classroom and in life; they are not mutually exclusive. This makes Regie’s new book essential reading for all educators.

Literacy Essentials

The Point of Reading Goals

At the turn of the new year, I took a look at my reading habits. I have participated in the  Goodreads Reading Challenge for the last five years. You set a goal for number of books read, and then document each book you read with a date finished, rating and maybe even a review. Here is how I have fared.

  • 2013: 12 books read out of a goal of 40
  • 2014: No challenge accepted
  • 2015: 56 books read out of a goal of 50
  • 2016: 55 books read out of a goal of 60
  • 2017: 49 books read out of a goal of 52

I saw some interesting patterns and trends here. First, I was very unsuccessful the first time I participated in the Reading Challenge, so much so that I failed to document a goal for 2014 (I’m sure I read). Second, the only year I met my goal was in 2015. That is a success rate of 20%, if you define success as meeting an arbitrary benchmark. Third, my average number of books read for the past three years is 53, or one book per week. Knowing that the top 1% of earners read at least one book a month on average, I am looking forward to my future financial wealth.

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Photo by Breather on Unsplash

This last point is my attempt at humor, but there is truth here as well. Habitual readers tend to find success in life, both personal and professional. They are typically more knowledgable about the world and have greater empathy for people in other cultures. The books I read vary in genre, author, length, etc., which broadens my perspective. Some books are for kids, such as the ones I read aloud to my children, but many are for me. Reading is a selfish act that also inspires selflessness and a desire to affect the greater good.

I keep track of my reading because it is important to me and the community of readers I know online and offline. I don’t set reading goals to hit a number or see how many more books I can read than others. My list of books read provides me with a literary history, a chronology of my reading life. If I don’t reach my goal, what’s the big deal? I’d rather know whether I have an imbalance of fiction and nonfiction. These are points worth stressing in our classrooms so our students don’t miss the forest for the trees.

 

 

What if we are heading in the wrong direction? #litleaders

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

– J.K. Rowling

This question recently cropped up from one of our faculty members. We are deep into exploring the connection between reading and writing, building a foundation for literacy instruction schoolwide. My response was off-the-cuff, sharing some general ideas, but maybe a little too vague and lacking coherence. The source of their concern was likely our high marks on our school report card. Here is what I wanted to say in my preferred mode of communication (writing).

When a school decides to pursue a literacy initiative as a whole faculty, they are already heading in the right direction. Anytime we can get everyone on the same page around reading and writing instruction, we build a common language and understanding for what will occur regularly in each classroom. Actually, the only wrong direction is by making no decision. By allowing everyone to have 100% autonomy in how reading and writing instruction will be delivered in classrooms, we create the conditions for student inequity.

A quality schoolwide literacy initiative should allow for some flexibility with teachers to personalize their approach. There should be enough room for teachers to have voice and choice in how instruction will be delivered. It’s the same thing we want for our students, right? We need to model this belief at every level.

For literacy initiatives that start to feel more closed in the level of autonomy for teachers as time progresses, be sure to check student assessment results. In my previous school, we felt like two years of writing training was possibly too scripted and squeezed some of the voice out of our students’ work. We facilitated a mid-year writing check. Sure enough: lots of structure but little style in students’ writing. As one teacher noted when we debriefed after the assessment, “Our kids will be able to nail a college essay, but do they love writing?” This information guided our decision to come back to a more holistic approach to teaching writing in the classroom.

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Photo by Jamie Templeton on Unsplash

This decision to pursue a more structured writing approach was not wrong; our intentions were good and were based on what we believed our students needed. The only wrong approach would have been to forge ahead with our current efforts, ignoring what our students’ writing was telling us. This is different than what a lot of schools do: jumping from one initiative to the next, year after year. We knew that our students needed consistently strong literacy instruction year after year. Hopping from rock to rock along a stream of new ideas wasn’t going to help our kids become literate individuals, as tempting as it might be.

That’s why decisions for pursuing a schoolwide literacy initiative should be a part of a long-term plan. Three years is probably a minimum. A long-term plan reduces the desire for rock hopping. It’s easier to say “no” to a new and exciting professional learning opportunity when you have a pathway already laid out. Part of this long-term plan should include multiple points of celebration. These opportunities to highlight school success have to be tangible and genuine. In our school, we re-examine our beliefs about literacy, owning new beliefs after a year of schoolwide professional development work. We also set aside the beginning of staff meetings for staff celebrations. Teachers can share quick wins and victories. I also make a point of taking pictures of teachers innovating in their classrooms as they try and apply new strategies. These images are shared and celebrated before we begin learning about a new literacy strategy. All of our celebrations build on where we have been and inspire us to learn more.

That might be the biggest point in a response to this question about heading in the wrong direction: If our intentions are based on students’ needs and teachers’ informed beliefs, and we were are willing to adjust course in light of the evidence, then we cannot make a poor decision. The constant pursuit of becoming better in our practice is always the right choice.

 

 

A Strong Bond

The following post is what I wrote for my weekly newsletter/blog for our school. I thought it might work here as well. -Matt

If you are in the market for a good movie you might have never seen, check out The Straight Story. I recently rewatched this favorite film of mine. The main character is a senior citizen (Alvin Straight) who decides to travel from Iowa to Wisconsin to visit his estranged brother. Because of his ailments, he cannot drive a car, so he decides to take his John Deere rider lawnmower for this trip.

Along the way, he meets several people with different stories of their own. The wisdom he departs along his trip changes the lives of those he encounters. In one scene, he meets a teenage girl who has run away from home. While enjoying a quiet campfire, Alvin shares a story he told his kids and grandkids. “You can break one stick very easily. But tie several sticks together, and you have an unbreakable bond. That’s family.” Before the girl traveled back home, she left Alvin a bundle of sticks tied together.

I share this as a metaphor for how we as a faculty at Mineral Point Elementary have started to forge a strong bond. In the fall of 2016 (my first year here), we developed seven collective commitments as a faculty. Everyone had input and came to consensus on these statements about how we would work together on behalf of our students, families, and community. If we do not meet these commitments, we do our best to hold each other and ourselves responsible.

As a faculty, we have also examined our beliefs about literacy. Last spring, three beliefs were agreed upon unanimously. We can now expect these instructional practices to be employed in the classroom. In the spring of 2018, we will re-examine our beliefs in the hope of adding more to our list.

Our commitments and beliefs are listed below. They serve as a lens when making decisions in our school. They guide us in which teaching resources to use in the classroom. They guide us in our hiring process. They guide us in determining what students should know and be able to do. These value statements create a strong bond to help ensure our organization strives to meet our district’s mission and vision.

Our Mission

Grounded by our history, as one of the oldest publicly supported schools in Wisconsin, MPSD is the heart of a small community that educates and inspires our students for a bright future in a big world.

Our Vision

• The Mineral Point School District will be a recognized leader in education.

• Students will attain higher levels of academic achievement, resulting in greater lifetime opportunities.  

• Individualized learning will be embraced through innovation and technology.

• The district will provide a collaborative and professional environment for teachers to learn and develop innovative instructional strategies.

• Student learning will be enriched by cultivating family, community, and business partnerships.

Our Collective Commitments

1. I will be open to and ready for learning from others as professionals and colleagues.

2. I will hear others’ ideas in various learning communities and be willing to try a variety of practices.

3. I will assume best intentions in our colleagues and help create a sense of belonging.

4. I will honor the whole child by treating them with respect and care, and attend to their social and emotional needs.

5. I will listen to the concerns of our students’ families, address their needs to the best extent possible, and make them feel welcome in the school.

6. I will utilize better practices to deliver a coherent and relevant curriculum across all grade levels.

7. I will hold all students to high academic and behavioral expectations regardless of background, label, or past experiences.

Our Literacy Beliefs

• A child’s written story can be used to teach phonics and skills.  

• You can assess a child’s phonemic awareness by examining his/her journal writing.

• Shared writing is an excellent way to record common experiences and connect to reading.

How we stopped using Accelerated Reader

This post describes how our school stopped using Accelerated Reader. This was not something planned; it seemed to happen naturally through our change process, like an animal shedding its skin. The purpose of this post is not to decry Accelerated Reader, although I do know this reading assessment/incentive program is not viewed favorably in some education circles. We ceased using a few other technologies as well, each for different reasons. The following timeline provides a basic outline of our process that led to this outcome.

  1. We developed collective commitments.

The idea of collective commitments comes from the Professional Learning Community literature, specifically Learning by Doing, 3rd edition. Collective commitments are similar to norms you might find on a team. The difference is collective commitments are focused on student learning. We commit to certain statements about our work on behalf of kids. They serve as concrete guidelines, manifested from our school’s mission and vision, as well as from current thinking we find effective for education.

We first started by reading one of four articles relevant to our work. The staff could choose which one to read. After discussing the contents of the articles in small group and then in whole group, we started crafting the statements. This was a smaller team of self-selected faculty. Staff who did not participate knew they may have to live with the outcomes of this work. Through lots of conversation and wordsmithing, we landed on seven statements that we all felt were important to our future work.

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At the next staff meeting, we shared these commitments, answered any questions about their meaning and intent, and then held an anonymous vote via Google Forms. We weren’t looking for unanimity but consensus. In other words, what does the will of the group say? Although there were a few faculty members that could not find a statement or two to be agreeable, the vast majority of teachers were on board. I shared the results while explaining that these statements were what we all will commit to, regardless of how we might feel about them.

  1. We identified a schoolwide literacy focus.

Using multiple assessments in the fall (STAR, Fountas & Pinnell), we found that our students needed more support in reading, specifically fluency. This meant that students needed to be reading and writing a lot more than they were, and to do so independently. Our instructional leadership team, which is a decision-making body and whose members were selected based on in-house interviews, started making plans to provide professional development for all faculty around the reading-writing connection. (For more information on instructional leadership teams and the reading-writing connection, see Regie Routman’s book Read, Write, Lead).

  1. We investigated the effectiveness of our current programming.

Now that we had collective commitments along with a focus on literacy, I think our lens changed a bit. Maybe I can only speak for myself, but we started to take a more critical look at our current work. What was working and what wasn’t?

Around that time, I discovered a summary report from the What Works Clearinghouse, a part of the Institute of Educational Sciences within the Department of Education. This report described all of the different studies on Accelerated Reader. Using only the research that met their criteria for reliability and validity, they found mixed to low results for schools that used Accelerated Reader.

I shared this summary report with our leadership team. We had a thoughtful conversation about the information, looking at both the pros and cons of this technology tool. However, we didn’t make any decisions to stop using it as a school. I also shared the report with Renaissance Learning, the maker of Accelerated Reader. As you might imagine, they had a more slanted view of this information, in spite of the rigorous approach to evaluating their product.

While we didn’t make a decision at that time based on the research, I think the fact that this report was shared with the faculty and discussed planted the seed for future conversations about the use of this product in our classrooms.

  1. We examined our beliefs about literacy.

The professional development program we selected to address our literacy needs, Regie Routman in Residence: The Reading-Writing Connection, asks educators to examine their beliefs regarding reading and writing instruction. Unlike our collective commitments, we all had to be in agreement regarding a literacy statement to own it and expect everyone to apply that practice in classrooms. We agreed upon three.

Beliefs Poster

This happened toward the end of the school year. It was a nice celebration of our initial efforts in improving literacy instruction. We will examine these beliefs again at the end of this school year, with the hope of agreeing upon a few more after completing this PD program. These beliefs served to align our collective philosophy about what our students truly need to become successful readers and writers. Momentum for change was on our side, which didn’t bode well for outdated practices.

  1. We started budgeting for next year.

It came as a surprise, at least to me, that money would be a primary factor in deciding not to continue using Accelerated Reader in our school.

With a finite budget and an infinite number of teacher resources in which we could utilize in the classroom, I started investigating the use of different technologies currently in the building. I found for Accelerated Reader that a small minority of teachers were actually using the product. This usage was broken down by class. We discovered that we were paying around $20 a year per student.

Given our limited school budget, I asked teachers both on our leadership team and the teachers who used it if they felt this was worth the cost. No one thought it was. (To be clear, the teachers who were using Accelerated Reader are good teachers. Just because they had their students taking AR quizzes does not suggest they were ineffective; quite the opposite. I think it is worth pointing this out as I have seen some shaming of teachers who use AR as a way to persuade them to stop using the tool. It’s not effective.)

With this information, we as a leadership team decided to end our subscription to Accelerated Reader. We made this decision within the context of our collective commitments and our literacy beliefs.

Next Steps

This story does not end with our school ceasing to using Accelerated Reader. For example, we realize we now have an assessment gap for our students and their independent reading. Lately, we have been talking about different digital tools such as Kidblog and Biblionasium as platforms for students to write book reviews and share their reading lives with others. We have also discussed different approaches for teachers to assess their readers more authentically, such as through conferring.

While there is a feeling of uncomfortableness right now, I feel a sense of possibility that maybe wasn’t there when Accelerated Reader was present in our building. As Peter Johnston notes from his book Opening Minds, ““Uncertainty is the foundation for inquiry and research.” I look forward to where this new turn in instruction might lead us.

 

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)