You’ve Got to Believe It to Achieve It

This week our school faculty collectively examined our beliefs about reading instruction. We now own the following beliefs as a staff.

• Choice in what students read and how much they read influences motivation and achievement.
• The easiest texts for English learners to understand are those in which the concepts and vocabulary are familiar.
• Students who do not read well orally can have strong comprehension.
• Rereading is an excellent strategy when comprehension breaks down.
• Students need to do lots of independent reading of self-selected texts.
• Easy access to books students can and want to read is crucial to readers’ success.
• Students need to be taught how to choose “just right” books.
•Kindergarten students are capable of inferring meaning from text.

(For the belief statements in which only one person was not with the group, instructional leadership team members agreed to own those beliefs too.) These eight statements are an increase from the three we agreed upon in the fall. How did this occur? What actions led us to come together and find common ground in five more principles regarding reading instruction?

If you could sum it up in one word, it might be “process”. We had time to read and respond to self-selected resources on the topic of reading instruction in different groups. We worked together in PLCs to examine student work and consider how new strategies might better serve learning. There should also be credit given to the informal, every day conversations we have about our practices in the hallways, the lounge, and beyond the school walls.

So what do these beliefs look like in practice? That is our next step, starting this fall when we begin the process of developing integrated units of study that weave effective literacy strategies and resources into social studies. If we can start to institutionalize our collective intelligence, we will have take a big step toward realizing our mission and vision as a school district.

What I’m Reading: March 2019

Black and Blue Magic by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (children’s literature)

I read this aloud to my son. It was hard for him (us) to put it down. Think of it as an original superhero story only told with all of the challenges and small details that come with a changed identity. This book would definitely work as a read aloud for upper elementary and invite students to explore more books by Snyder.

Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka (young adult graphic novel)

A graphic memoir (?) that is in the same vein as Sunny Side Up and Ghosts but for older readers. The story is memorable and well suited for the visual nature of the text. Definitely a book to have in the secondary classroom library to build diversity and cultural relevance.

Liminal Thinking by Dave Gray (nonfiction)

A succinct and readable summary of how beliefs drive our actions and how people can change them. There is a lot more to this topic than what is covered here, yet the accessibility of Gray’s text is well-suited for anyone to take the ideas and apply them immediately.

Love and Carmela Full of Wishes by Matt de la Peña (picture books)

I had the opportunity to listen to the author read aloud some of his books at a reading convention. He stopped at several points during the reading to explain a sentence or illustration and how it brought meaning to the text. Both books are excellent are for conveying the human experience from a unique perspective.

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence by Michael Pollan (nonfiction)

This is an important book and maybe Pollan’s best yet. Through his both personal and historical investigation into psychedelics, the author removes much of the stigma from this hot button issue by revealing the potential it has for mental health.

On Life After Death by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (nonfiction)

A staff member recommended this title to me not long ago. It is a provocative and hopeful book about what may happen when we die. The paradox of a scientist describing the afterlife, citing studies to add credibility to her position, made for interesting reading.

The Naming of the Dead by Ian Rankin (fiction)

My introduction to this series, which apparently continues to this day. My guess is Rebus, the detective and main character, is always close to retirement which must give him license to ignore authority at any possible opportunity. The dry humor and colorful characters makes this police procedural a good series to get acquainted with.

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend (children’s literature)

Using the template that made Harry Potter a household name, Townsend offers a new story of unique characters trying to make sense of the world. The question “Who am I?” seems to be a central theme in this book. I look forward to reading the next one with my daughter.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl (memoir)

I think to fully appreciate this book is to understand the influence that it has had on so many other areas. For example, I am taking an instructional coaching course, and the teachers often reference Frankl’s memoir as an example of self-actualization. The past is clearly described in this short book. I believe it should be read so we can better understand our present and future.

Write Smart, Write Happy: How to Become a More Productive, Resilient and Successful Writer by Cheryl St. John (writing reference)

If you are struggling to get started with a writing project, or you need strategies to keep going with one, I recommend this resource. St. John’s voice is reassuring and confident, a successful author in her own right. Each chapter is brief and gives you concrete ideas for a successful writing life.

Reflecting on My Reading: Identity, Beliefs, and Change

I find it beneficial to list out some of your books you have been reading for the past three to six months or so and see if you can find any trends or patterns. (I am assuming reading is a habit for you.)

Looking at my list, one theme that seems to surface is personal change.

This certainly relates to school. As a principal, one of my primary roles is to facilitate growth with teachers. This interest has been sparked by the cognitive coaching course I am enrolled in this year. How does one influence change in another without projecting their own beliefs too much in the process? How does a person’s identity factor into one’s capacity for self-improvement?

“Real leadership challenges the leader before it challenges others.”

Eric Glover

Subsequently, I have started to examine my own beliefs and my capacity for change. You study something long enough and you start to see it everywhere, you know? Deep learning reveals new insights. Different points of view can serve as mirrors to my own identity and provide me with critical space to determine if I am satisfied with the current status.

This is what I enjoy most about reading: Being able to visit new places that are different than my own. Fiction or nonfiction, I put myself in someone else’s shoes while reading. The result is often a broader perspective of the world, with the hopeful benefit of becoming a little bit better as a person.

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.