Examining Our Beliefs About Literacy: Small Steps, Big Wins

During our school’s last professional learning community (PLC) experience, the entire faculty came together to examine our beliefs about literacy. Beliefs about teaching and learning are formed over time, through prior education, collaboration with colleagues, and classroom experience. Through structured conversations in vertical teams and watching professionals in the classroom via video, we found three areas in which we can all agree upon as best practice in literacy:

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.

This may not seem like a big deal, at least at first glance. For example, shared writing, an instructional strategy in which a teacher leads their class to develop a story or report together, makes sense for teaching phonics and grammar in context. Using personal writing as a text for independent reading is authentic, and it honors students as authors. Yet this might seem counter to some of the instruction that pervades schools. Many of our programs and kits silo the various parts of language arts in an effort to ensure standards are being met. 

We sometimes wrap our practices around resources, both digital and print, without first examining our beliefs. As we use these resources “with fidelity”, our beliefs are formed by our practices, which were informed by the resources. (See Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success by Regie Routman for more information.) Our identities as educators are intertwined with our work, which is made public daily in our classrooms. This is what makes it so difficult to change. It is also a reason why companies continue to produce resources that often promote antiquated practices. The bottom line is sales. We buy the resources because we know them. It helps to remember that these companies are not educational organizations; they are businesses. 

The hardest part about change is not the lack of knowing what to do. We have multiple sets of data to support the need for building our collective knowledge regarding how reading supports writing and vice-versa. No one disagrees that this is an area where our school can improve as a faculty. We are not doing poorly; we simply know we can improve. The hardest part about change is in revisiting current beliefs about literacy and adopting new ones as a faculty.

Our school will continue this work in building our collective professional knowledge about effective literacy instruction. The three beliefs we unanimously agreed upon are a big step in the right direction. We will revisit them at this time next year. It should not be understated that we were able to come together as a team and find consensus on key issues in literacy instruction. These beliefs are now expected to be evident in our teaching and learning, regardless of what a program or resource might expect. I am looking forward to observing how our new beliefs will inform our future practices. 

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Literacy, Personalized

Lately, I have been exploring personalized learning as an approach to meeting all students’ needs. Personalized learning “places the interests and abilities of learners at the center of their education experience. In personalized learning, educators develop environments in which students and teachers together build plans for learners to achieve both interest-based and standards-based goals” (Halverson et al, 2015). What I am finding is there is no “gold standard” for this approach. Maybe the concept is too big. Maybe personalized learning is too new. Maybe I haven’t studied it enough!

IMG_1789Because I have a focus on literacy and leadership, I thought about what personalized learning might resemble in a reading and writing classroom, specifically. How is it different from what we might expect from a more traditional classroom? Below are the elements of personalized learning as outlined by Allison Zmuda, co-author of Learning Personalized: The Evolution of a Contemporary Classroom (Jossey-Bass, 2015): Time & Space; Assignments; Curriculum; Reporting; Feedback; Roles. Next are a smattering of ideas on how personalized learning might apply to the literacy block. If you have more suggestions, share them in the comments.

Time & Space

  • Ensure that enough time is provided daily for authentic literacy experiences, especially independent reading and writing on topics of students’ choice.
  • Provide more modern furniture for students to engage in reading and writing. For models, check out a local library or an independent bookstore.
  • Create natural locations in the classroom for students to share what they are reading and writing. Small tables and mounted counters with stools could work.
  • Audit the instructional day to find more time to read and write, and jettison anything that is not at the same level of effectiveness.
  • Position book shelves and writing materials so they invite students into reading and writing in authentic contexts, i.e. journaling, blogging, book reviews.

Assignments

  • Replace book reports with book reviews. Use digital tools such as Biblionasium for students to post book reviews for peers.
  • Replace book logs with personal journals. Provide open-ended notebooks for students to write about what they are reading so they can share their thinking with peers the next school day (or keep their thoughts to themselves).
  • Cancel the school’s annual subscription to Accelerated Reader. There is no independently-conducted research that shows Accelerated Reader is an effective literacy program. See the What Works Clearinghouse report for more information.
  • Reduce reading projects to the bare minimum with regard to how students are expected to respond to their reading.
  • Implement book talks to replace some of the assessments previously questioned. We can gain more information about a student’s understanding of a text through them sharing what they are reading verbally than from inauthentic assignments.

Curriculum

  • Integrate reading, writing, speaking, and listening into all other curriculum renewal activities. Performance tasks are especially good opportunities to incorporate literacy.
  • Make a list of and provide relevant authentic texts that capture the time period of a point in history.
  • Curate a list of biographies about famous scientists that students might want to research for a written report.
  • Craft big questions that lead students to pursue knowledge online, which will provide opportunities to critically read web-based resources.
  • Incorporate writing into formative assessment points, such as constructed responses and personal reflections.

Reporting

  • Develop rubrics for writing genres with students, after a lot of immersion into authentic texts of the genre to be learned.
  • Teach students how to self-assess writing at every stage of the process.
  • Facilitate monitoring of reading goals through journaling, blogging, and published book reviews.
  • Replace grades for reading and writing with frequent qualitative feedback.
  • Utilize digital assessment tools such as FreshGrade to share student learning results in literacy with family members and colleagues.

Feedback

  • Utilize online writing tools such as Google Docs to facilitate feedback between classmates.
  • Partner with other classrooms locally and/or globally to facilitate feedback between students.
  • Provide anchor papers of past work for students to reference when striving to improve their writing.
  • Meet with students regularly during independent reading and writing to affirm strengths and offer strategies for improvement.
  • Teach students to end a draft of writing with questions they have about parts they are unsure about to guide feedback from the teacher or peers.

Roles

  • Assign one student to be the class notetaker during a demonstration lesson for a reading or writing strategy.
  • Rotate the role of classroom researcher to students. When questions come up during the literacy block, this student is tasked with finding an answer.
  • Set up a website (Google Sites, Weebly) where students can publish their finished pieces of writing as authors.
  • Designate one or more students to write a weekly newsletter, highlighting the happenings in the classroom. Share this out digitally and on paper with families.
  • Put students in charge of the classroom library, after lots of modeling on how to organize the titles and display the covers.

As I completed this list, I realized that a lot of these literacy activities are what typically happens in the best classrooms for reading and writing. Is it reasonable to think that personalized learning naturally happens in an authentic literacy environment?

Homework: Helpful, Harmful, or Otherwise?

As I write this, I am out on our back patio. My kids are in the neighbor’s backyard, flying a kite with friends. They had recently recovered the kite from a tree. This time around, they are staying away from the natural hazard. I don’t know how they got the kite down previously; they had figured it out before I was called to the rescue.

Imagine, instead, if I had made my kids stay in after school to finish their homework.

Four years ago, I shared my attempt at revising our homework policy at my former school. It was more policy than practice – we briefly discussed it, then moved on to something related to literacy, I’m sure. Looking back, it was a topical change at best. My suggestions were within the paradigm that homework was still necessary. We never really delved into the idea of homework as a concept that may be outdated.

I’m torn. Some of the work students bring home can make for an interesting study. For example, my son was recently assigned a family heritage project. He had to locate an item that is a part of our family’s history and culture, learn about its significance through interviewing family members, and then communicate his new knowledge through speaking. Storytelling is a skill they have been working on for a while.

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My daughter has elected to bring home learning. She is participating in Genius Hour in her classroom. This primary class refers to these inquiry-based learning activities as “Wonder Projects”. My wife and I are often recruited to support her most current questions, whether that be taking pictures of her next to enclosed animals (“What animals most often live in a zoo and why?”) or setting up a mini-art studio in our dining room (“What are some famous artists and their artwork?”).

These examples are, by definition, homework. One was assigned, one wasn’t. Both facilitated a unique learning experience in our home. This seems to fly in the face of research, such as John Hattie’s meta-analysis that homework has a negligible effect in elementary school and a significant one at the secondary. To be fair, homework that I just described is rare. The typical fare is worksheetsreading logs, and studying spelling words for Friday’s test. One can understand with these examples why schools are starting to outright ban homework.

These absolute policies also result in absolute thinking.  My post here is not to admonish or advocate for homework. Rather, let’s bring some common sense into the conversation. An instructional coach, Dana Murphy, came up with a novel way for teachers to think before they assign homework.

In other words, if we are assigning homework, is it more important than opportunities for kids to play, read, or spend time with families? If the answer is “no”, then how can we rethink our instructional approach for the 6-8 hours that we do have students in our classrooms?

Gotta go. The kids are burying each other in landscape pebbles.

Tailings (Or: Why This Blog Might Become a Collaborative Space)

In our town, the city department used to lay down a mix of sand and gravel to make the roads safe during winter travel. The material was called “tailings”. It came from the mining shafts, dug up and dispersed once the lead ore had been excavated from deep below. With the closing of the mines, tailings have been replaced with road salt.

This seems like an appropriate metaphor for my current situation with blogging. Right now I am feeling like I am doing more reposting of events from my website (mattrenwick.com) than actual writing. What I don’t want to see happen is for Reading by Example to become the repository for my own writing tailings – the rejected articles and ideas from my other writing outlets. My situation is not a bad one; I’ve found opportunities to write for multiple audiences and get compensated for my time and efforts. I am thankful. Yet this means less time to write in this space. I’ve connected with multiple people who have shared their appreciation for what is posted here.

That’s why now seems like as good a time as ever to open up this blog to other writers who are also literacy leaders – teacher leaders, lead teachers, instructional coaches, prospective administrators, assistant principals and head principals, curriculum directors, superintendents, university faculty, consultants, thought leaders – anyone who has knowledge to share and a story to tell. This could be an opportunity for educators who have not blogged before, who are new to writing online or might like to drive more traffic to their own blog. I realize I am making a large assumption that people would want to write in this space at all. Having over 800 subscribers does help hedge this bet.

I’m not interested in being an editor, but there are some questions I would like prospective contributors to respond to before we agree that this is right for both of us. See form below for more information. Related, the goal of this blog will be revisited. To start, it will no longer be merely my perspective, but one of many. Having a public forum and continuous dialogue about literacy and leadership is critical for schools and their respective students to be successful. I hope that by opening up this digital space for more voices on the topic, we might find it to be a much better resource for all. That’s the plan, anyway. Your comments and questions are, as always, very much appreciated.

To Raise a Reader

(I wrote this post last week for our families on my school blog.)

If parents want to raise a reader, someone who engages in reading regularly and voluntarily, they should read aloud to their children. Put away the flashcards and take down the sticker charts for number of books read. Make reading aloud every day a priority.

As a parent myself, I realize that this task can be sometimes difficult. There have been evenings when reading aloud didn’t happen in our home due to work or other obligations. However, we have made it a ritual, as regular as brushing our teeth.

The science that supports reading aloud to children, both at home and in school, is clear. Next are some of the biggest benefits, although this list is not exhaustive.

Reading aloud to children:

  • Increases vocabulary acquisition
  • Improves reading comprehension and fluency
  • Increases engagement in reading
  • Broadens their imaginations
  • Improves student writing
  • Fosters relationships between the adult and child
  • Develops listening and speaking skills
  • Facilitates meaningful conversations

Two books reference much of the research on reading aloud: In Defense of Read-Aloud by Dr. Steven L. Layne and The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. Trelease’s resource is in its 7th edition now and should be in the home of every family. Some hospitals will send The Read-Aloud Handbook home with new parents. It was a book I relied on when I taught elementary school.

BUT WHAT IF I HAVEN’T READ ALOUD TO MY CHILD UP UNTIL NOW?

This feeling is called “retroactive guilt.” Educators feel the same way when we discover a new strategy or method and then think about all of the students we had in the past who did not have access to this better practice. The best thing to do is to start reading aloud now and make it a habit. For a list of titles that will engage kids at every age level, go to Scholastic’s list of 100 Best Read-Aloud Books.

MY STUDENTS ARE NOT IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL. WILL THEY ENJOY BEING READ ALOUD TO BY ME?

Yes. Tweens and teens may not admit it, as adolescents seem hard-wired to resist any and all direction from the adults in their lives. But they will enjoy it as long as they find it interesting and they have some say in the book. The best read-aloud books are typically plot-driven. They can’t wait to see what will happen next. Consider these lists of possible titles from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Older students also enjoy pictures books; they can even read them aloud to their younger siblings. Audiobooks to listen to on smartphones and in the car is another option.

BUYING BOOKS CAN GET EXPENSIVE. HOW CAN I KEEP THE COSTS DOWN?

Two words: Public library. Mineral Point has an excellent public library with helpful and knowledgeable staff. There is an entire floor dedicated to children’s literature. Library staff offers a storytime for little ones every Monday morning at 10 A.M. If transportation is an issue, consider utilizing Overdrive, a digital library of eBooks and audiobooks. Patrons can check out titles and download them on their smartphones, tablets, and computers. Overdrive also has dedicated pages for kids and teens.

Reading aloud is an easy and enjoyable activity for any family hoping to raise a reader. At the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention, some Mineral Point Elementary School faculty heard children’s author Mem Fox speak about the importance of reading aloud. Her ten commandments for reading aloud are applicable to parents and educators.

A Triangle of Trust: A Framework for the Principal-Coach-Teacher Partnership

As a principal new to a school, trust has been a priority in my first year. Trust is defined in a number of ways. It is doing what we say we will do. Trust involves speaking the truth while having the tact to say it thoughtfully. When literacy leaders hold others accountable, as well as helping others hold themselves accountable, trust can flourish. Building trust in the schoolhouse is a prerequisite for professional learning.

Once trust is built, it needs to be sustained. I am learning that a critical part of this work is having clarity about the purpose and goals of a school. Defining the expected outcomes for student learning in a given year and how a school will get to that point is important. Equally important is having time to discuss these goals at length as a faculty. This ensures everyone is on board and questions and concerns have been addressed.

For example, our goal as a school is for at least 90% of our students to achieve proficiency in reading by the end of the year. Our professional learning plan in order to reach this goal involves professional literacy learning in a variety of forums, including an online video series, book studies, and instructional coaching.

Trust is developed, clarity is achieved: now the work can begin. In his book Unmistakable Impact, Jim Knight suggests a partnership approach to this work. “In a true partnership, one partner does not tell the other what to do; they discuss, dialogue, and then decide together” (29). What this looks like is different in every school. Yet I think we can apply any instructional coaching initiative to a broader frame. The mental model I offer here is one frame to consider when thinking about the principal-coach-teacher partnership.

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In a triangle of trust, each person is an essential part of the system. No one person is more important than another, although duties and responsibilities might look different in each role. Between each person is a specific focus that is relevant to the relationship (trust) and connected to the building goal (clarity).

  • Between the coach and the principal, the focus is on identifying opportunities for professional learning.
  • Between the principal and teacher, the focus is on setting high expectations for students achievement and growth.
  • Between the coach and teacher, the focus is on exploring possibilities for collaborative inquiry.

Next is an example in my school that describes this partnership approach to professional learning.

Between the coach and the principal

I get together with our instructional coach once a week to discuss current coaching cycles, student data and application of schoolwide literacy initiatives. We had concluded previously that some of our students were lagging in their reading fluency. The data supported this. The results were attributed to classrooms not allocating enough time for independent reading. It wasn’t necessarily the teachers’ fault; the current schedule is choppy, plus faculty had not received training in this area in the past. We discussed opportunities for professional learning while we prepared for the mid-year data meetings…

Between the principal and the teachers

Grade level teams met with the instructional coach, lead interventionist and me to look at student data and discuss placement of reading intervention at the mid-year point. During these discussions, the conversation inevitably ended up where teams were ready to consider new strategies to continue increasing reading fluency.

At this point, I would share an article on independent reading. It was accompanied with assessment tools that teachers could use when conferring with students. The expectation was clear. However, multiple pathways were offered in which teachers might better facilitate independent reading in their classrooms…

Between the teachers and the coach

While a few teachers connected with me after the meeting about more resources regarding independent reading, I realize that not every teacher is comfortable with this. Being a professional learner demands vulnerability and mistake making. This requires a safe setting. An effective instructional coach can provide this necessary environment.

One teacher reached out to our instructional coach, wanting to explore the tenets of independent reading. After a brief observation, it was decided that students need to first work on stamina and on selecting best fit books. The coach agreed to observe students while the teacher demonstrated for them these skills. Data over time, including tallies noting student engagement levels, showed that improvements were made. By directly seeing the impact that this coaching cycle had on student learning, the teacher came to see what was possible.

Frames have their limits. In this example, both the coach and the principal set the expectations for the building through the use of data and an identification of a better practice. Also, some teachers sought out the principal for guidance on independent reading. Yet within this framework, trust and clarity were a priority. These two critical elements are the foundation for professional learning in a school.

The Plot Against America (A Book Review)

Plot_against_usa.jpgFor some time I have wanted to read The Plot Against America by Phillip Roth (Vintage, 2004). It taps into my interest in “What if” scenarios and historical fiction.

I have avoided purchasing it until recently. This past summer, I was walking in the used book section of the Barnes & Noble in Middleton, WI when I spotted it. For $1 I couldn’t go wrong.

Did I find the book or did the book find me? The premise of the novel is Charles Lindbergh is elected president, denying Franklin D. Roosevelt a third term. The famous aviator arrives at the White House on a singular promise: to avoid going to war with Germany. His isolationist platform is in contrast to FDR’s growing concerns regarding anti-semitism spreading across Europe. Lindbergh’s affinity for the Nazi party comes to light more and more as the story progresses. This piece of fiction is based on the events of this time, told through the author’s perspective as a Jewish child growing up in New Jersey. It almost reads like a memoir with all of the details.

The Plot Against America sat on my bedside or in my bookshelf for quite a while. The Trump campaign for president raised my concerns as the summer wore one. His accomplishments corresponded with my interest. Trump takes the lead in the Republican primary race – I read the first chapter. He wins the nomination – I read the next chapter. The more we learned about Trump’s affiliation with Russia, the more I was starting to see parallels as I became engrossed in the novel.

Consider:

  • In the book: Lindbergh is a celebrity with no experience in political office. In real life: Trump is a celebrity with no experience in political office.
  • In the book: Lindbergh seeks a peace agreement with the Nazi party. In real life: Trump suggests lifting sanctions on Russia and praising their leadership.
  • In the book: Lindbergh surrounds himself with cabinet members sympathetic to the Nazi cause, including industry titan Henry Ford. In real life: Trump surrounds himself with potential cabinet members sympathetic to Putin’s Russia, including oil magnate Rex Tillerson.
  • In the book: Lindbergh creates a program in which Jews are encouraged to relocate to another part of the country in hopes of breaking up Jewish communities. In real life: Trump advocates for a Muslim registry and to ban people of this religion from coming to America.

I won’t go on to avoid spoilers. What I can say is there are even more disturbing parallels between Roth’s work and what is currently happening later in the novel. I think if I would have read this book even a year ago, it would not have had the same impact on me as it does now. Context matters. After finishing the book, I continue to think about the first line in an excellent New Yorker article by Evan Osnos, who made similar comparisons between Trump’s rise and a biography set in Communist China.

What is the precise moment, in the life of a country, when tyranny takes hold? It rarely happens in an instant; it arrives like twilight, and, at first, the eyes adjust.

This may be what is happening right now. New ways of acting are becoming normal. That’s why The Plot Against America is one of the most frightening books I have ever read, and this is coming from a connoisseur of Stephen King.

The prophetic qualities of this book are disturbing. My biggest worry: Characters in the story started to accept their current situation as reality, even rationalizing behaviors to avoid dealing with the facts that were right in front of their noses.

So why did I read this book? Obviously I didn’t want to merely escape – maybe to understand? George Will, former staunch Republican who recently disavowed his party in lieu of Trump’s rise, made an insightful comment in a speech, which I do my best to recall.

If I were in charge of the world, every college student would major in history.

George knows his history, as does Phillip Roth. Fiction is not fact, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Being widely read and knowledgeable is a good thing, maybe the best thing, in today’s world of fake news and partisanship. In light of tomorrow’s inauguration, I hope everyone picks up a book they’ve been meaning to read and become better for it.