Principals Need to Know Literacy

When I first became a principal at an elementary school, I thought I had the requisite knowledge to be a literacy leader. My previous experiences in the classroom as a teacher of readers and writers led this misconception. So when I arrived in my new building, and one of the teachers encouraged me to attend a literacy institute, I declined. I cited the need to get the schedule, budget, and rosters ready before the students arrived.

During my first school year as a principal, I did engage in monthly professional learning with the faculty, also around literacy. We learned about the reading-writing connection through the Regie Routman in Residence program. This video-based professional learning experience gave me many new insights, most notably: I didn’t know literacy.

My misconceptions were many. Yes, I understood guided reading. But I didn’t realize that guided reading wasn’t the most effective way to teacher responsively with my former 5th and 6th graders. Instead, I should have been conferring with kids regarding what they were reading independently, as well as facilitating more book reviews and recommendations. As the year progressed, I started feeling a little guilty about some of my past instructional moves. However, I was thankful that as a faculty we were learning about promising practices together and would be better educators for our students.

When the opportunity came up a year later to attend that same literacy institute, I didn’t say no.

This article serves as a closing post for our online study group Becoming a Literacy Leader by Jen Allen. During the summer, many contributors offered their thinking and shared their experiences related to this excellent resource for literacy leaders. Our engagement in this study serves as evidence that none of us believe we have all the answers, nor will we in the future. The research and knowledge regarding literacy are constantly evolving, especially with literacy becoming literacies in light of our digital world.

As one principal to another, I need you to know literacy. Not so you can more effectively evaluate teachers. Principals need to know literacy because it is at the heart of the educational experience. Read just about any educational resource that calls on strong leadership for sustained schoolwide improvement. The authors will most likely cite reading and writing as critical to a principal’s (and students’) success.

When a principal knows literacy, they can have better conversations with their faculty during collaboration. They are speaking the same language instead of quibbling over semantics, like the definition of “guided reading”. When a principal knows literacy, they understand that one of their budget priorities is books, books, and more books. And when a community or board member questions these purchases (and it has happened to me), a principal can cite the research that supports these decisions. When a principal knows literacy, they can take a stand against a mindless adoption of a commercial literacy program. Their beliefs about reading and writing, in line with the rest of the faculty, becomes a firewall for anyone trying to standardize instruction only in the name of better test scores.

Only when a principal knows literacy and partners with teachers to become more knowledgeable together can all students truly experience success as readers and writers.

 

What Did You Do Today?

Every day for the past two weeks since starting my new coaching position my husband has asked me this question.  Only knowing me as a classroom teacher for the past seventeen years, I think he is trying to wrap his head around what exactly it is that I do all day.  I think I am too.  

It feels foreign to not have a group of first graders waiting for me to get there each day.  I didn’t have to prepare a classroom for Meet the Teacher Day or think through how I would spend the first few days building community.   It is the weirdest feeling to walk on campus each morning and realize that no one is waiting for me.  This is freaking me out a bit.  I have all these insecurities and questions rolling through my head.  What if the teachers think I am doing nothing while they are in the trenches with kids?  What if my administrator thinks I am doing nothing all day because I don’t have lesson plans written or a room full of children?  What do I have to show for how my time is spent at the end of each day?  I’m pretty sure that my husband keeps asking because he is worried after leaving my “safe” job that maybe if I’m not looking busy enough unemployment is just around the corner!

This is why I am now holding on to, Chapter Sixteen: Nuts and Bolts-Scheduling and Budgeting, for dear life.  This chapter answers and confirms that my insecurities might not be far off.  That if I want to be perceived as an equal member of the school community, I have to find a tangible way to reflect the intangible things that have kept me busy and exhausted each day.  That teachers ARE probably thinking, What does she do all day?  Here are the things I have started working on and thinking about to keep myself accountable and to document my time so that all of those questions mentioned can be answered quickly and easily.

First, I am creating an amazing literacy space for teachers and students that started out two weeks ago as a room filled with boxes of books and empty shelves.  The mascot of our sweet little school is the Knights.  Therefore, I decided the space where the kids and teachers will come to find books and resources needed to look and feel like a castle.  It will be called, The Knight’s Nook, and children will be summoned by a princess (the head of our lower school) to come and be dubbed the Knights of the Reading Round Table (thank goodness that is the shape of the tables that got left in the room).  The transformation of this space is something tangible everyone can see and the fact that we are surprising everyone with a big reveal builds anticipation and excitement around reading.  This will be my first gift of literacy to the school.

Second, I have made it a goal to have my schedule visible to all by the end of the second week so everyone knows where I am and what I am doing.  The first few weeks I wanted to give the teacher’s time with their students to get to know them, finish assessments and build a classroom community before I inserted myself.  In the meantime, I have been stopping in, offering teacher’s coverage for bathroom breaks or to refill their water bottles and reading aloud to the kids so I can begin to get to know them in my own way.  I have been complimenting the amazing environments teachers have set up for students, noticing how much they know their students already and empathizing over how tough the first few weeks of school really are. This has helped teachers see that although I haven’t started my “real” job yet, I am not sitting in a room by myself doing nothing while they are in the trenches.

Third, I have been collecting questions and ideas so that when I meet with my administrator we can have a specific, smart conversation about my role as the literacy coach.  We can decide bottom lines, non-negotiables and where I fit.  She will be able to see through these questions and observations how I have been spending the last few weeks-knee deep in observation and reflection to help decide next steps.

Finally, I am going to take Jennifer’s advice and start documenting my day.  Even though I will have a visible schedule, it will be important to write down all that I am accomplishing in a day when I am not in a classroom.  The conversations, the planning both short and long-term and the gathering of resources.  I want anyone who asks to see how valuable my position is to the literacy reform of the school.  To quickly see that even though my day is more flexible, it is full.

In doing all of these things as my next steps, in this new position in a new school, I am hoping that my day is transparent, people see my worth and are excited and able to trust me to help them grow as literacy leaders themselves.  I am hoping that this will calm my anxieties and the questions running through my head (and my husband’s as well).  So, what did I do today?  Sit back and get comfortable, I’ve got a lot to tell you!

The Power of Quality Tier 1 Instruction

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A reflection of a former classroom teacher:

I wish I would have known more.  I wish I would have known more about the volume of reading. I wish I would have known more about small group instruction in tier 1.  I wish I would have known more about the five components of reading. I wish I would have known more about teaching metacognitive strategies.

I wish I would have known the importance of first focusing on tier one instruction when contemplating how to best meet the needs of  students on the “bubble.”

In chapter 7 of Jennifer Allen’s book, Becoming a Literacy Leader, she discusses the power of tier one instruction, outlining the approach her school took to address the needs of bubble kids.  As opposed to outlining the approach, I will instead focus on two powerful sentences in the chapter.

  1. My hope was that student achievement would improve if we focused more energy on supporting classroom instruction as opposed to putting all of our resources toward supporting individual students (Allen, p. 128).
  2. In their research, Allington and his colleagues demonstrate how students benefit from long, uninterrupted chunks of learning time as well as from consistent instruction from high-quality teachers. Yet our neediest kids tend to have the most segmented days, being shuffled from intervention to intervention (Allen, p 128).

I have been a part of many discussions and teams concerning Response to Intervention.  Let me first say, I commend all the teams I have worked with as they try tirelessly to help our struggling readers and writers.  There have been so many collaborative discussions about targeted instruction and tier two support.  And, all of this is valid.

However, let us be real and know that sometimes, or more aptly, most times, we skip a key component of Response to Intervention: solid, research-based instruction by the classroom teacher in tier one.

So, when considering our “bubble” kids, let us start with this: “How do we provide professional support for all of our classroom teachers.  Because the better their craft is, the fewer kids we have on the “bubble.”  The result of this: 1) Solid, research-based instruction benefits all kids of all levels. 2) Solid, research-based instruction will prevent a great number of kids from falling into tier two intervention, thereby allowing us more time to provide targeted instruction to kids who do fall in tier two instruction.

So, to new teachers, I say study your craft as much as possible.

To veteran teachers, I say guide discussions that focus on tier one instruction first, then tier two.

To coaches, send this message over and over again–we need to devote as much time and finances we can to develop the teacher.

Administrators, provide that time to build the craft of your teachers in tier 1, while also supporting tier two and three.

Literacy for ALL

Literacy for All

Sometimes a question is so beautiful it becomes part of you. One such question, posed to me last year by a grade 5 student, has stuck with me in my work as a district literacy specialist. While interviewing students as part of developing our school board’s literacy strategy, I had the opportunity to chat with a group of students attending a school that specifically supports students with complex learning disabilities. The classrooms in this school sound very similar to the literacy intervention classrooms Jennifer Allen describes in chapter 7 of her book Becoming A Literacy Leader. After sharing all of the helpful ways their teachers had prepared them to learn and reintegrate into their community school, one student leaned in and stated, “I just don’t know why the teachers at my old school couldn’t have taught me this way. I don’t know why I had to leave my school to learn”.

What a beautiful question. We know that “every student deserves a great teacher, not by chance, but by design” (Fisher, Frey, & Hattie, 2016, p. 2) and with this question in mind, I thought about what every teacher might take away from Jennifer’s description of a literacy intervention classroom. What structures and elements might make our classrooms and our teaching effective for ALL students?

There are many research-based principles and characteristics that teachers can use to design effective literacy classrooms. Jennifer specifically mentions the success of the following practices, which could easily be taken up in any classroom:

  • daily reading and writing
  • quality books to hook students
  • explicit strategy instruction
  • predictable classroom routines
  • ongoing assessment
  • chunking instruction

Identifying the “bubble-kids”

Jennifer’s description of literacy intervention classrooms specifically mentions that these classes were designed to support the ‘bubble kids’. Each school has a different name for the students who are slightly below grade level. Some people call them “bubble kids” or ‘at-risk’ students. Names matter. They carry immense power to impact student’s self-concept. While chapter 7 has nothing to do with what we name this group of students, I believe it is important to address before looking at effective structures and strategies for literacy learning.

This summer one of my colleagues introduced me to the term ‘at-promise’. I instantly loved it. We know literacy itself is a political act and the way we frame and name groups of students matter. Let’s begin thinking about students who are slightly below grade level by thinking about the promise of success they hold.

Let’s also think about how we identify the ‘at-promise’ students. Jennifer presents a rich process including student criteria, classroom observations, and conversations with classroom teachers and parents (p. 134 – 137). However, one addition I would add is to talk with students themselves. Students need to be active agents in their education and contribute to the decisions made towards their success. Our ‘at-promise’ students do need a different level of support from us and so it is important to identify them early on in the school year. As you plan for the beginning weeks of school, how will you come to know your students as literacy learners? How will you forge strong relationships with your ‘at-promise’ students?

A slow start

 Another aspect of literacy intervention classrooms Jennifer describes is using the first month as a “Literacy Boot Camp”. School start up is already a stressful time of transition for students, families, and staff. Intentionally building a learning community and “opting for simplicity and consistency, we [can slow] down the start of the year and [take] the time to teach the whole class our expectations” (Allen, 2016, p. 139). Spending time on how a classroom community will learn together and building strong relational trust will provide a solid, positive foundation for the rest of the school year.

Harvey Daniels also talks about the importance of beginning the day (not just the year) with soft starts in his book The Curious Classroom. He shares that “when we let kids find their own way into the day, we activate their curiosity and sense of self-direction, mind-sets that serve learners well in the formed inquires that follow” (Daniels, 2017, p. 59). When I transitioned from beginning my kindergarten teaching days with scripted carpet time to an open inquiry and play block, I noticed a huge change in my students and myself. We lost the rushed ‘have to’ feeling and found the joy of learning and community.

 Large blocks of uninterrupted literacy instruction

 Time is a precious commodity in schools and as teachers we must make strategic decisions and advocate on behalf of what we know our students need. We know that extended time for child-directed learning, at least an hour, results in sustained engagement (Banjeree, Alsalman, & Alqafari, 2017, p. 301). When comparing a regular classroom with a literacy intervention classroom, Jennifer points out that the transitions can be quite different. In regular classrooms, students move between teachers and supports frequently. In a literacy intervention classroom, the “teacher has the whole class for the entire day and does not have to worry about reteaching lessons” (Allen, 2016, p. 138).

This is where I challenge all teachers to critically look at the decisions you can make in your day. How can you arrange your instructional time so that transitions are minimized? What are you doing in your school day that you can let go of? What are the pieces that ‘have to’ stay or are beneficial to keep? During my last full year of teaching kindergarten my class included many students who were working on improving their social skills and behavior. Simplifying our daily schedule and creating large blocks of integrated learning time gave these students in particular, time to sink into their learning and the opportunity to develop sustained engagement.

Effective literacy classrooms, by design

While the approaches Jennifer presents are specifically framed to benefit ‘at-promise’ students, I think we all can agree these are equally important for every classroom. These are the exact components that the grade 5 student I mentioned earlier wished her community school’s teachers had offered her. After reading chapter 7, I sat with the question about what was truly different in the classrooms Jennifer described. I’m left with the feeling that while there might be differences, with a knowledgable and caring teacher, there doesn’t have to be. Each of us can pick up these practices and structures and create classrooms where all learners thrive in their literacy learning.

References

Allen, J. (2016). Becoming a Literacy Leader. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse.

Banjeree, R., Alsalman, A., & Alqafari, S. (2017). Supporting sociodramatic play in preschools to promote language and literacy skills of English language learners. Early Childhood Education, 299-305.

Daniels, H. (2017). The Curious Classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Hattie, J. (2016). Visible Learning For Literacy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

 

 

Study Groups for Voluntary Professional Development

In Chapter 4 of Becoming a Literacy Leader, Jennifer Allen describes how she facilitates professional learning beyond the schoolwide initiative. She refers to these opportunities as “study groups”. They are typically designed around a specific educational resource. Jennifer reflects on the importance of having voice and choice in her professional learning.

As a teacher, I often found that my needs and interests were not met within the allotted in-service days designated for professional development during the school year. I was thirsty for professional development opportunities involving new instructional practices. Instead, I found that most of our in-service days were planned months in advance to address state assessment requirements. (pg. 59)

In the past, I had tried to facilitate study groups but encountered several problems.

  • First, I was selecting the text. Teachers didn’t have voice and choice in what to read.
  • Second, I did not have regularly scheduled dates communicated ahead of time. I would ask teachers when they would want to meet, a few would get back to me, and then we tried to make it fit.
  • Third, I saw this as a way to teach instead of an opportunity to learn from the resource and with each other. As Jennifer notes in Becoming a Literacy Leader, “I participate as an equal member of each group. I think the reason study groups work is that the teachers are directing their own learning.” (pg. 65)

By learning from my experiences plus this resource, we have prepared a more responsive approach to personalize professional learning for faculty.

Research Relevant Resources to Offer

In the spring, I thought about what our school’s needs and interests were as we prepared for next year. Some of these topics would need to be beyond our schoolwide initiative of authentic literacy. For example, personalized learning and Responsive Classroom were two areas I knew teachers were interested in learning more about. I made a list of all relevant resources available, discovered through researching publisher websites, professional reading resources, and book search tools such as Amazon and Goodreads.

Select Resources as a Leadership Team

Before the school year begins, our school’s leadership team reviewed the titles collected for consideration. Teachers on the team provided their input, knowing what their colleagues might and might not be interested in.

Offer Study Group Opportunities to Faculty

I typed up a list of titles with descriptions along with dates the study groups would meet (image on left). Teachers can click on a link to a Google Form and enroll in one or more study groups (image on right).

After teachers have signed up, we will need to assign co-facilitators for the groups. One facilitator would likely be a member of the leadership team. The other facilitator would be a participating teacher. These facilitators would cover for each other in case one of them could not make it.

Jennifer also has a routine agenda for the study groups to ensure a successful study group experience (pg. 74):

  • Discussion/Sharing (10 minutes)
  • Reading Excerpt
  • Video Clip
  • Toolbox (15 minutes)
  • Putting Ideas into Practice (5 minutes)
  • Next Month

Just as important to providing teachers with voice and choice in their professional learning, I believe it is equally powerful to have teachers model lifelong, voluntary learning for our students and school community. I look forward to seeing how the concept of study groups will have a positive impact on teacher autonomy and student learning.

 

 

My Life in Seven Stories

The bridge between knowing and doing is feeling. – Unknown

Reading the acknowledgments in Becoming a Literacy Leader: Supporting Learning and Change, Jennifer Allen thanks Franki Sibberson for her initial interest in the professional learning activity “My Life in Seven Stories”. It sounds like this idea was the seed that resulted in the book we read today.

“My Life in Seven Stories” is the title of a professional learning activity. Teachers make a list of seven titles that touch on past experiences in their lives. Then, they take one title and write about this small moment. They can share with a group of teachers or decide not to, their choice. The purpose is to get teachers to write during monthly staff meetings. Through these snapshots, the literacy leader can then demonstrate a writing strategy, such as revising leads, using their personal narratives. “My Life in Seven Stories” also helps build trust by being vulnerable and integrating feelings into the literacy work.

I thought I would try this here – My Life in Seven Stories:

  • Dessert in Elmwood, Illinois
  • Thunderstorm
  • All-Star Game
  • The Missed Shot
  • Going to College
  • The Apartment
  • The Move

I purposefully avoided titles related to my kids; I could have created a list of seventeen topics to write about related to them. Instead, each title/topic is about my life.

Below is my short narrative for the title “The Move”:

I sat on the front porch of a rustic cabin. No television. It was a summer evening and I was enjoying a cold shandy. Right now, my family and I were in between residences. We had our home for sale up north while we waited for the closing date on our new home in our new town, Mineral Point. Because there was much to do to get myself ready for the new school year, I would come down during the week, rent whatever was available, while my family stayed up north. Not a lot to do in the evenings, I sometimes found myself on a cabin porch, staring across the street at the new school I would soon be leading.

It was at this point that I think our move become 100% real for me. For sixteen years, my wife and I had served as educators in another town. We had friends, were logistically close to family, and had made many connections with other educators. Why did we move? The reasons were many, yet at that point they didn’t matter because here I was, sitting on the front porch of a log cabin, staring at a school (and community) we knew little about. This was exciting and nerve-racking at the same time. “How can I take advantage of this fresh start?” and “Will our house sell before we move in?” were questions that constantly swirled in my head during this tumultuous and sometimes lonely time.

Being a literacy leader means that we sometimes need to be vulnerable with our faculty. If we expect teachers to take risks and grow with their colleagues and their students, then we have to model this. My willingness to share a personal part of who I am through writing (and I know I could improve upon this initial offering) will more likely lead to teachers doing the same with their students. If we can cause that change by opening ourselves up emotionally, even a little bit, that may lead to teachers and students discovering the larger purpose to reading and writing.

I don’t plan on sharing my other personal stories in this space. One is enough. Maybe we will use this professional development activity in the future at our school. It’s hard to be vulnerable without trust, yet without taking a personal risk, trust may never be gained.

 

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Cothren House – The cabin I stayed in

 

 

 

Coaching Work: Curriculum & Assessment by @danamurphy68 #litleaders

In Chapter Six of Becoming a Literacy Leader, Jennifer Allen outlines the various ways she is able to support teachers with curriculum and assessment in her role as an instructional coach. As anyone in the field of education knows, curriculum and assessment are the backbone of the school system. Curriculum drives our teaching and assessment helps us fine-tune it. I’d go as far as to say supporting curriculum and assessment is one of my top three duties as an instructional coach.

Allen dedicates pages 114 – 116 to explaining how she helps prepare assessment materials during each assessment cycle. I nodded to myself as I read, remembering how I spent an entire morning last year in the windowless copy room making copies of our running record forms for the staff. It certainly wasn’t inspiring work, but I agree with Jennifer that preparing assessment materials is important work. When teachers are freed of the tedious jobs of copying or creating spreadsheets or organizing assessment materials, they are free to concentrate on the hard work of administering and analyzing assessments. If I can remove the ‘busywork’ part of assessment administration for them, I don’t mind spending a morning in a windowless copy room. In this way I can provide the time and space for teachers to think deeply about their assessments. If I can do the busywork, they can do the work that really matters.

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While reading Chapter Six, I thought about how I support curriculum and assessment in my school district. I do many of things Allen wrote about, but what seems most important to me is helping teachers look at student work as formative assessment. On page 110, Allen wrote:

Students should be at the heart of our conversations around curriculum and assessment, and it’s important that we don’t let them define who students are or might become. 

This quote summarizes my driving belief as an instructional coach. It is easy to fall into the trap of believing we (instructional coaches) exist to support the teachers, but the truth is we are ultimately there for the students. In order to keep students at the heart of my work as a coach, I work hard to have student work present during any coaching conversation. This holds true at the end of an assessment cycle as well. It benefits everyone to slow down and take the time to review the assessments (not the scores, the actual assessments). Teachers bring their completed writing prompts or math unit exams or running records, and we use a protocol to talk about the work. There are an abundant amount of protocols available at NSRF. I also highly recommend the Notice and Note protocol from The Practice of Authentic PLCs by Daniel R. Venables. This is my go-to protocol to look at student work with a group of teachers.

Teachers are in the classroom, doing the hard work of implementing curriculum and administering assessments. Our job as literacy leaders is to support them by giving them the time and space to reflect on their hard work.