Leading as a Reading Principal

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.

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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. 

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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.3.pngIn addition, my staff memo blog includes a widget to show the books I have read/logged on Goodreads this year.

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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?

55. 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! 6.png

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.

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Found on p. 13 of Becoming a Literacy Leader.

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!) 8

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.

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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!

Mistakes are Part of the Journey

I am excited and simply terrified at the same time.  After seventeen years as a K/1 teacher, I am making the leap to full-time Literacy Specialist at a new school in the fall.  It is everything I could dream of in a job. After a brief stint as a part-time reading and writing coach in my previous school, I know how important it is to say and do the right things when working with other adults.  One wrong move seems to embed itself in everything you do from that point forward.

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This is why I dove into Becoming a Literacy Leader as quickly as I could get my hands on it.  I am determined NOT to make the same mistakes.  I have a fresh start, with a dream job and only one chance to make a great first impression.

One of the things I remember feeling most successful in my previous stint was pouring over a professional text with colleagues.  The idea of a common topic, sharing ideas and struggles and the feeling that we were circling our wagons to help each other was a positive force in our teaching lives.  We came together.  That is why I was so excited to dive into Chapter Four where Jen Allen takes on study groups. I feel so lucky in this second edition to not only get her guidance but her MOST updated guidance after years of growing the idea – we ALL know the benefits of trial and error.

Jen shares how important study groups can be in bridging theory and practice and how important it is to give teachers the time to think through something deeply.  As one teacher in the book was quoted as saying, “It saves students from the ‘learn as we go’ approach” (60).

When I look at the points that she makes in this chapter, I can’t help but reflect on my past experience and ways in which I will avoid what I know now as predictable problems.  Once again, the benefits of trial and error.

Ask the teachers what topics THEY want to explore.  Old me would have jumped in and picked the newest and greatest professional text I was excited about and sent an email saying, “Who’s in?”  New me will build relationships with my teachers first by finding out who they are as people first, then as educators, finally finding out what topics most interest them.  Only then will I help them find a professional text that fits.

Study groups should lift the quality of existing instruction.  Old me would have just jumped in and offered up the book getting the most buzz at the time.  New me is going to make sure that I am not asking teachers to take on “one more thing” but find a text to circle around that will enhance the goals we already have in place.

Be the party planner, not the honored guest. When a party is planned, you think of the guests. Old me would have made sure there were fun snacks, the book provided and maybe even a fun take away (which was also my instinct without realizing how important it was for community) which I will still do, but old me would have also become very uncomfortable in silence or lulls in conversation and took over with my own thoughts and ideas.  New me will not make the study group all about me.  I will give teachers “think time” and provide enough to keep the conversation but not take over.  I will be okay with silence.

Create a predictable structure.  Old me would have jumped in with my own set of questions and hoped for the best.  New me is going to hold onto the great structure that Jen provided in her book like a life raft in class V river rapids for a bit until I can figure out my own community of learners and figure out what works best for us.  It is called survival!  P.S. I loved having the video clips to watch the structure in action.  I WILL be subscribing to Lead Literacy this year!

I am determined that I will not look back on past mistakes as failures but as part of the journey that has led me to this new job opportunity.  I am excited for the year to come and all of the ways I will learn and grow.  Bring on study groups, I am ready!

To Know Your Writers, Be a Writer

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What does it mean to be a writer?

It means the words that come flowing out of your pen are driven by your heart.

It means that you have a message, a story that matters.

It means that you value communication and though it may be seemingly a one-way street when you publish, you yearn for that communication as a result of your writing.

You value ideas, because isn’t all writing about ideas?

You struggle.

You think.

You pause.

You write.

You question.

You revise.

You push that publish button and your heart beats a little faster as you’ve given a little of your heart to the world.

You hope that they understand and value your message, your story.

How do I know this?  Because I write.

In chapter three of Jennifer Allen’s book, Becoming a Literacy Leader, she talks about that moment that all literacy leaders worry they will find themselves in…the moment when you are standing in front of your colleagues, wanting to lead them to all that they are capable of, but your presentation is met with silence, lack of engagement, and withdrawal.  I know this feeling.  I’ve been there.

I love the rawness of this confession by Jennifer and I love her push to not give up after months of trying to move writing instruction forward in her building.  She did not give up.  She discovered the secret.

You become a better writing teacher by writing. She had not been asking her teachers to write.

After months of seemingly failed attempts at changing writing instruction, Jennifer began to ask her staff to write, write stories that meant something to them.  They then used the stories to practice revision practices.  It was after that moment that the staff began to talk about writing in the hallways. They began to share their stories. The staff began to implement those revision strategies in the classroom.  It was after that, that student writing began to change.

To be a teacher of writing and really know it, you have to write.  

You have to know the heart that goes into it, the struggle, the thinking, the questioning, the courage that it takes to communicate a message that matters.  This is what we ask our kids to do.  It goes way beyond teaching an engaging introduction or having effective transitions.  Those are the standards, not the writer. Not the heart of the writer.  Not the courage of the writer.

To be an effective teacher of writing, you have to know the writer.  Be the writer.

Encouraging Summer Reading with Authentic Experiences

It’s June. Many are itching to call it a year. The local swimming pool is open, and it’s much more inviting than that next page in the textbook –> for the students as well as the teachers. Three months from now, our kids will arrive back after a much-needed break, take a reading screener, and the results will tell us what we already know. Here’s the deal: Some kids leave school and read a ton, and some do not read at all.

How can we encourage the latter to engage in habitual reading over the summer? Some argue that it is the classroom teacher that must be the primary influencer in this task. This is a noble statement. Yet it can also be a tall order for a teacher trying to turn a really resistant student into a lifelong reader. He/she might need several teachers in a row to spark a love for literacy plus a purpose for engaging in text.

Cahill, Horvath, Franzen, and Allington wrote a helpful resource titled No More Summer Reading Loss (Heinemann, 2013). I have explored some of their ideas in my prior school, such as opening up the library during the summer. Yet I have not been strategic in these efforts. This year, we have made more concerted efforts to target our students who need to read the most, while encouraging everyone to read every day. Our primary approach to encourage summer reading by facilitating authentic experiences.

Providing Books for Students in Intervention

We don’t want to make a judgment in sending home books for our students who received additional support in reading. Yet we know that the typical student who struggles in reading has less access to text in the home. That is why we are sending home books in the mail to these kids over the summer. It can’t get more authentic than a book, right?

They were provided choice in what they wanted to read. Our two reading teachers gave each student a visual list of high-interest titles that they could circle with a highlighter. Then the teachers ordered the books, sorted them, and prepared each title for staggered mailing. This was a lot of work on their part, but worth it as we believe more books in the home can make the difference.

Leveraging Digital and Online Tools

I am the first to admit that technology is not the panacea that some enthusiasts might like you to believe. However, when it comes to issues of access, technology makes perfect sense. Getting a kid to the public library can be a challenge if parents are at work or it is too far away. Digital tools are ubiquitous in most homes now.

Here are a few digital and online tools our students likely have access to over the summer:

  • Overdrive: Students can check out eBooks and audiobooks using their public library card number.
  • Biblionasium: Like Goodreads for younger people, kids can rate, review, and recommend books for peers.
  • Kidblog: An online writing tool that offers students a safe space to publish reflections on what they are reading, as well as to post digital creations.

All three of these literacy experiences closely resemble how adult readers connect and interact with text.

Modeling Ourselves as Readers and Writers

We as educators don’t reveal ourselves enough as individuals who engage in authentic literacy experiences . If a teacher or principal isn’t a lifelong reader to begin with…well, that’s a bigger problem. I’ll assume the former.

For our last day activity as a school, a picture book was purchased for every teacher in the classroom. During our recognition assembly I will be encouraging teachers to read aloud their book to their students. In addition, each student will be receiving a small pocket journal. The suggestion will be to carry this around during the summer months and used it to maintain a reading list, a to-read list, or even a grocery list. Writing anything is better than not writing. If we can connect writing to reading, all the better.

I plan on sharing an entry from my own pocket journal, which coincidentally contains ideas for how students might read over the summer.

 

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Promoting lifelong reading with authentic experiences has the potential to encourage more students to become avid readers over the summer.


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Interested in some summer professional reading? Contributors to this collaborative blog will be reading and responding to Becoming a Literacy Leader: Supporting Learning and Change, 2nd Edition by Jennifer Allen (Stenhouse, 2016). Jennifer’s updated text has many ideas for facilitating coaching cycles, preparing for excellent professional learning, and reflections from the field.

Update 6-3-17: The sign up for this opportunity has been closed due to high interest.

 

 

 

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.