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?

Cajun Dancing

“Would you like to go Cajun dancing? It’s for my friend’s birthday.” I have to admit: at the time that I heard this request from my wife, I might not have been attentively listening. If I had, I imagine I would have asked a series of questions.

“What is ‘Cajun’ dancing?”

“How much does it cost?”

“About how long do we have to stay?”

My inquiries would have been more about my desire to avoid this activity than any interest in dancing. Alas, the day came and I had committed. At the very least, we could connect with friends and have a night out.

We got to the dance hall and checked in. The instructor called us to the middle of the floor for the lesson before the dance. After a brief introduction of the style of music, we got started. “Okay, we are going to start with the basics. Three steps to the left, lift foot and dip, and then three steps to the right, lift foot and dip.” She modeled this with a partner plucked out of the circle at random. Then we tried it.

My wife and I only got to briefly dance together during the lesson. The men were moved one partner to the right after each bit of new instruction. I could tell which partners were as new to this as me by the mutual sweat in our palms. Those more veteran to Cajun dancing were unfiltered in their feedback. “Be sure to put your hand on the blade of my shoulder, not the side.”

Having adequately introduced ourselves to just about everyone in the hall, the instructor transitioned our music from a CD to an actual Cajun band. They needed to do a soundcheck before the official dance began. Feeling good about our progress, our instructor announced, “Okay, don’t worry about being perfect. The most important part about Cajun dancing is to…have fun!” The band started playing and we danced.

The beginning was rough. We bumped into other couples. I lost my step count more than once, even though I was counting under my breath. “Are you leading me, or am I leading you?” my wife quipped with a smile. Yet for all my initial fumbles, I finally found my rhythm, more or less. Counting steps gave way to spins and turns.

This new learning experience revealed missing elements in too many classrooms. When was the last time we as educators kept reading and writing instruction to the bare minimum? What would happen if we positioned our students as teachers and learners for each other more often than not? How would our student respond to the announcement, “Don’t worry about being perfect; just go have fun!” after a brief writing demonstration? Yes, some students would flounder. But not for long.

In an educational world where accountability as left no lesson untouched, the victim of standardization is engagement. We have lost faith in our students’ natural abilities to learn. Our fear of mistake-making has squeezed out some of the joy that should be a by-product of this process.

Let’s get our kids out on the dance floor as soon as possible. Yes, we should teach strategies, offer feedback, and provide assistance when needed.  But is achievement without engagement an education worth having? 


I am currently scheduling one- and two-day workshops for this summer. Topic: How to use classroom technology for developing self-directed learners.

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Educators participating in this workshop will become more confident and fluent in using digital tools in the classrooms. The goal is to identify practices and technologies that can nurture self-directed learners. This professional learning experience will be student-centered, engaging, and relevant for all educators, K-12.

Click here to request more information.

Professional Reading: When do we find the time?

For the first time in a while, I had an open schedule at school. Daily classroom visits were completed. An instructional walk was conducted. Absences and requisitions were approved. When these opportunities occur, I try to read professionally at school.

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When I first started reading professionally at school, I felt guilty. Would others think I was wasting time, believing I should be in classrooms and in the hallways whenever possible? I would close my door to avoid any judgment.

I’ve come to realize that reading professionally should be a top priority for literacy leaders. In order to be seen as credible in the eyes of our faculty, we have to be knowledgeable about teaching and learning. Reading professionally helps ensure that we are aware of new educational research that could positively impact students. Taking the time to learn from others through text models for everyone in the school how we should all spend our time.

Reading professionally doesn’t happen without forethought, communication, and intent. Here are some steps I have taken to make this part of my day a priority.

  • Subscribe to professional journals and magazines.

I use school funds to purchase subscriptions to Educational Leadership and Educational Update (ASCD), The Reading Teacher and Reading Research Quarterly (International Literacy Association), Literacy TodayLanguage Arts and Voices from the Middle (National Council of Teachers of English), Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center), and Principal (National Association of Elementary School Principals).

  • Schedule time for professional reading.

I’ve started putting this time on my calendar when I think of it. If it is written down, I am more likely to do it. That said, scheduling time for professional reading is less about making sure I am reading professionally, and more about communicating to my superintendent and my staff that this is a priority for me.

  • Set a goal and share what was learned.

Regie Routman at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention suggested that school leaders read one article a week and share a brief summary with staff. This can be communicated through a weekly newsletter or even email, with the article attached. By the end of the month, four articles have been shared out. This information can be a way to start a staff meeting, by asking teachers to share their insights from one of the articles.

  • Read professional books related to your goals.

I try to select texts that will have an immediate impact on my current professional goals and objectives. This is in contrast to picking up a book because it just came out and everyone is talking about it. I find that, in my limited time, I have to be selective about longer texts I choose to read. For example, I am halfway through The Together Leader by Maia Heyck-Merlin; my professional goal is to become more organized and efficient.

But how do I find the time?

I’ve been in situations where there is barely any time to go to the bathroom or have lunch, let alone scheduling the time to read professionally.

Not knowing anyone’s context, I have a few general suggestions. First, revisit your daily tasks. What should you be doing and what should you not? For the latter, find ways to reassign those tasks, find more efficient methods, or jettison altogether. Second, set no more than two priorities. I have two priorities this year: build trust and increase literacy knowledge. Anything else that comes my way I do my best to delegate, defer or dismiss. Finally, communicate with your supervisor about taking school time to professionally read. This gives you peace of mind when you open up that journal or book at school.

So what are you reading professionally? How do you find the time? Please share in the comments.

 

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.

Developing a Growth Mindset within a Culture of Compliance

Many studies have shown that when students are engaged in learning, there is little need to bribe students to complete their work. Using external motivators in the name of learning has many critics. There has been no more outspoken critic of grades and test scores than Alfie Kohn. His specific concerns around the use of praise to coax work out of students in the name of outcomes have been substantiated by a body of research, of which he often cites to support his arguments on his blog, www.alfiekohn.org.

For example, in his blog post “Criticizing (Common Criticisms of) Praise”, which was also published in his book Schooling Beyond Measure: Unorthodox Essays About Education (Heinemann, 2015), Kohn reinforces the notion that telling students they did a good job when they complete a task sets up an imbalance of power between student and teacher.

Praise is a verbal reward, often doled out in an effort to change someone’s behavior, typically someone with less power. Like other forms of reward (or punishment), it is a way of ‘doing to’, rather than ‘working with’ people (96).

In addition, when we deliver praise, we are actually taking autonomy of a student’s actions away from them and attributing their efforts to us. The result can be that students become conditioned to want the “attaboys” as a reward for their work, instead of focusing on why the work was successful in the first place.

The effect of a ‘Good job!’ is to devalue the activity itself – reading, drawing, helping – which comes to be seen as a mere means to an end, the end being to receive that expression of approval. If approval isn’t forthcoming next time, the desire to read, draw, or help is likely to diminish (97).

As educators, we too often default back to how we were taught in our classrooms and schools. I catch myself at times with words of praise instead of acknowledgement of their efforts with our students and my own children. It is a hard habit to break. However, this habit is worth changing. Our choices in language create the conditions in which students can or cannot become owners of their personal learning journeys.

Pathways Toward Student Agency

Peter Johnston, literacy education professor and author of Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives (Stenhouse, 2012), offers similar concerns regarding the use of praise in order to motivate learners. When students are rewarded for getting the right answer and completing the task just as the teacher asked, they start to associate success with what the adult deems worthy. They fail to internalize an understanding of good work within themselves.

In fact, if teachers repeatedly offer praise to students, they can reduce the impact of their instruction.

When children are fully engaged in an activity, if we praise them we can simply distract them from what they were doing and turn their attention to pleasing us (42).

So what is the counter to this culture? Johnston suggests agency, or the belief that things such as our intelligence and our life’s outcomes are changeable (27). Agency can be developed in students when teachers offer an environment for students which directs their attention to their own processes and thinking and how their efforts contributed to their success. This concept has been a focus of educational research for some time. Agency is closely related to more readily-known concepts such as “growth mindset”, a term coined by Carol Dweck. However we describe it, the idea is that the language we employ in classrooms has a direct impact on how well students take responsibility for their learning.

The assessment habits we develop as teachers can contribute to or detract from our students’ sense of success and independence. On a positive note, formative assessment strategies offer teachers specific approaches to address includes the clarity of goals and the offer of support through feedback and scaffolding that allows the teacher to eventually release the responsibility of the work to the student. These strategies are best employed in classroom environments that utilize responsive language, structures for collaboration, higher order questioning, and honest celebrations of student accomplishments. These actions can make student agency a reality.

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This is an excerpt from my new eBook The Secrets of Self-Directed Learning. It is a free resource that offers readers four steps for helping students become more independent learners. You can download this resource by clicking here.

Learning Management Systems: Who are they for?

A learning management system, or “LMS” is defined as “a digital learning system” that “manages all of the aspects of the learning process” (Amit K, 2015). A teacher can use an LMS for a variety of classroom functions, including communicating the learning objectives, organizing the learning timelines, telling the learners exactly what they need to learn and when, delivering the content straight to the learners, streamlining communications between instructor(s) and learners, and providing ongoing resources.

An LMS can also help the learner track their own progress, identifying what they have learned already and what they need to learn (Amit K). There are many options for learners to share their representations of their understandings within an LMS, including video, audio, images and text. In addition, discussion boards and assessment tools are available for teachers and students in most systems.

This definition and description of your typical LMS leads to an important question: Who is the learning management system for?

If an LMS is for the teacher, then I think they will find the previously listed features to be of great benefit to their practice. As an example, no longer do they have to collect papers, lug them home and grade them by hand. Now, students can submit their work electronically through the LMS. The teacher can assess learning online. The excuse “My dog ate my homework” ceases to exist. Google Classroom, Schoology and Edmodo fall into this category.

Also, teachers can use the LMS tools to create quizzes that could serve as a formative assessment of the lesson presented that day. Data is immediately available regarding who understands the content and who needs further support. This quick turnaround can help a teacher be more responsive to student’s academic needs. There are obvious benefits for a teacher who elects to use an LMS for these reasons.

If, on the other hand, an LMS is for the students, then we have a bit more work to do. With a teacher-centric LMS, not much really changes regarding how a classroom operates. The teacher assigns content and activities, the students complete it, and the teacher assesses. The adage “old wine in new bottles” might apply here.

With students in mind when integrating an LMS in school, the whole idea of instruction has to shift. We are now exploring concepts such as personalized learning, which “puts students in charge of selecting their projects and setting their pace” (Singer, 2016), and connected learning, which ties together students’ interests, peer networks and school accomplishments (Ito et al, 2013). In this scenario, it is not the students who need to make a shift but the teachers. Examples of more student-centered LMSs include Epiphany Learning and Project Foundry.

The role that teachers have traditionally filled looks very different than what a more student-centered, digitally-enhanced learning environment might resemble. I don’t believe either focus – the teacher or the student – is an ineffective approach for using a learning management system. The benefits in each scenario are promising. Yet we know that the more students can have ownership over the learning experience, there is an increased likelihood of greater achievement gains and higher engagement in school.

References

Amit K, S. (2016). Choosing the Right Learning Management System: Factors and Elements. eLearning Industry. Available: https://elearningindustry.com/choosing-right- learning-management- system-factors-elements

Ito, M., Gutiérrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., Schor, J., Sefton-Green, J., Watkins, S.C. (2013). Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design. Media and Learning Research Hub. Whitepaper, available: http://dmlhub.net/publications/connected-learning- agenda-for- research-and-design/

Singer, N., Isaac, M. (2016). Facebook Helps Develop Software That Puts Students in Charge of Their Lesson Plans. The New York Times. Available: http://nyti.ms/2b3LNzv

Makerspaces and Opportunities for Learning Literacy

In 2011, a faculty member wanted to bring in a summer school program for some of our gifted and talented students. Called “Camp Invention”, students spent a week taking apart computers and creating new worlds with peers. I had never seen students more engaged in learning than during this experience.

Afterward, something nagged at me: the program was not intentional about incorporating reading and writing into the curriculum. I could understand the rationale. Educators are always trying to stuff literacy into anything students are doing. Yet are these two areas – innovation and literacy – mutually exclusive?

Halverson and Sheridan tease out the complex nature of the maker movement in education (2014). They define it through three lenses: “making as a set of activities, makerspaces as communities of practice, and makers as identities of participation” (501). In literacy, students are (or at least should be) constantly making. For example, consider the verbs we use to describe writing. We craft an essay, develop a narrative, and build an argument. These actions cross the line between the tinkering, creating and iterating that happens in makerspaces and the drafting, revising and publishing that is synonymous with language arts. Halverson and Sheridan also see the possibilities.

“Learning through making reaches across the divide between formal and informal learning, pushing us to think more expansively about where and how learning happens. In this way we can talk about the who, what, and how of learning without getting hung up on the rules and constraints that govern different settings” (498).

A question that frequently comes up in education circles is, “How do we get started with makerspaces?” Teachers usually follow this up with concerns about time, resources and administrative support. Now in my second district, and having visited several more, I can say that makerspaces are unique from school to school. Some buildings house makerspaces in their libraries, while others have a separate, dedicated space. When it is not a building initiative, makerspaces find space in teacher’s classrooms under the guise of “Genius Hour”.

What they all have in common is they are personalized to the needs of the students. The kids direct the learning. In response, the adults often adjust their roles to that of a coach and guide on the side. The observed result is higher levels of student engagement in school, which tends to spill over into the core academic areas. Gershenfeld has found increased engagement to be true, noting how personalization is “a market of one person”. In makerspaces, students might start creating something of their own interest, but a lack of purpose and audience might propel them to start thinking about how they can make an impact in the broader world.

For instance, 6th grade teacher Chris Craft has led his students in South Carolina to print more than 150 prosthetic human hands for people in need using a 3-D printer (Herold, 2016). This work includes video production and online sharing, all critical literacy skills for the 21st century. This example and others similar show how schools can “decentralize enthusiasm” (Gershenfeld, 57) in the goal of creating engagement in learning through doing real work while applying core competencies. Literacy appears to lend itself way to many of these opportunities.

References

Gershenfeld, N. (2012). How to make almost anything: The digital fabrication revolution. Foreign Aff., 91, 43.

Halverson, E. R., & Sheridan, K. (2014). The maker movement in education. Harvard Educational Review, 84(4), 495-504.

Herold, B. (2016). What It Takes to Move From ‘Passive’ to ‘Active’ Tech Use in K-12 Schools. Education Week: Technology Counts, 82(2), 33.