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.

 

cothren_house_006.jpg
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.

green-chameleon-21532.jpg

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.

Individualized Coaching

I am going into my third year as an instructional coach and  what a journey it has been!  I must confess that I was completely comfortable with being a classroom teacher.  I knew how to be an effective teacher; I knew and understood my district’s and state’s standards and expectations; I could teach the curriculum;  I could manage my students (and their parents);  and I worked with a great team.  I had this teaching thing figured out, life was good!

Soon, an instructional coaching position became available.  To make the situation more lucrative, the position was available at my current school.  So, I applied.  Then, after a few rounds of interviews, I was offered the position.

I soon found myself in the world of coaching, and it was a different world for me.  Here is why coaching was different for me..the teachers.  I was faced with motivating, encouraging, and helping/coaching teachers.  How in the world does an instructional coach do that???  See, I didn’t have any previous experience with working with adults.  Most of my teaching was to six or seven-year olds.  I was now faced with communicating with adults.

Out of all my fears and uncertainties, I was certain of one thing, I wanted teachers to grow.  From my perspective, the most important aspect of my job is to provide opportunities for teachers to grow.  

Well, there could be a wide range of teacher’s abilities within one school.  There can be novice teachers and there can be veteran teachers.  It is essential for each group of teachers to be equipped with skills and strategies that can be readily used within their classroom.

There are so many ways to coach teachers.  You can coach by grade level, by content, and through book studies.   The question then becomes,which method is the best method.  One practical way to coach teachers is with individualized coaching..  

Individualized Coaching is a great tool to use to offer differentiated support.  This will allow you to support your veteran teachers and your novice teachers.  Let’s take a look at how individualized coaching will look for novice teachers first.

Novice teachers need guidance.  They need to understand the state’s standards and the district’s expectations regarding their respective grade level.  They also need to understand what they are expected to teach children.  

Jennifer Allen explained one way her district helps their novice and new-to-the-district teachers.  She states that within her district teachers new to the district are apart of  a “monthly release day with other teachers who are new to the profession or new to our district…it is intended as a gift of time to support them and help keep their heads above water in the craziness of starting the school year and entering our fast-paced profession”.  Don’t you remember your very first year of teaching?? Did you feel like a fish out of water?  I know I did.  Giving new teachers an opportunity to collaborate together builds camaraderie, it also allows you, as an instructional coach, to give specific, directed direction towards their needs. If you are not able to support a monthly release day, it is still beneficial to meet with those new teachers.  I am sure any help with planning would be greatly appreciated.

Beginning of the year assessments is another area of need. Allen mentioned that she works with her teachers three times a week.  My heart smiled when reading this because I often worry about being in a teacher’s way if I am in their room too much.  Here she provides heavy support for teachers with assessments in the beginning of year.  

Here are a few other areas to think about when working with your new teachers:    Is there a school wide discipline program?  What are the instructional expectations for teachers?  How will they (the teachers) be evaluated?  These are all questions that will help your teachers become acclimated with your school’s culture.

Working with master teachers looks a bit different.  It is a collaborative effort.  For example, a master teacher may come to you and want help with using mentor sentences to help with teaching grammar.  Instead of you researching and reading and modeling, this step is done together.  You and the teacher work together towards the same goal.  

When modeling in the classroom, it may look more like co-teaching.  You may begin teaching the lesson to students and then the roles may switch.  This requires trust!  Teachers will need to view you as a partner in learning and understanding, a facilitator.

Both groups of teachers will need your support.  It will just look a little different.  

What is your ultimate goal in coaching teachers? My goal, as stated above, is growth.  It may be growth in the implementation of small groups, or assessments, or classroom management, or the workshop model.  I strive to help teachers grow….which means they need to be pushed out of their comfort zone.  

The greatest growth I have achieved as an educator has been working as an instructional coach.  It’s not because of the title, it’s because this position has pushed me outside my comfort zone…..way outside my comfort zone.  I wasn’t comfortable; I was uncomfortable, and this caused me to learn…to grow.

So, take a deep breath and use your coaching time as opportunities to push yourself to do something new…take a risk…do the same for your teachers and your students…and watch yourself, your teachers, and your students FLY!

The most important feature of an educator is to provide the conditions under which people’s learning curves go off the chart.  Sometimes it is the other people’s learning curves:  those of students, teachers, parents, administrators.  But at all times it is our learning curve.

– Roland Barth from Becoming A Literacy Leader

What has PD done for you lately?

medium_3795554949

As I come to the end of my third year as an Instructional Coach, I realize each and every day that there is so much to learn not only about the content of professional development but how to “hook” teachers into attending professional development.

Face it, we have all been there when we have attended professional development that we feel like is being done TO us instead of FOR us. Time and resources are precious, so as literacy leaders in your building or district, you are charged with the task of creating and delivering relevant professional learning opportunities.

What I loved about Jennifer Allen’s chapter titled “Study Groups: Developing Voluntary Professional Development” is that she spoke candidly about how teachers often are “thirsty” for professional development, and what they receive isn’t quenching their thirst with the perfect drink. Providing professional development should be about meeting the needs of your audience – whether it is a school faculty, a grade level team, or an individual. Professional development should be about learning, which takes instruction to the next level and leads to gains in student achievement.

However, professional development has to be more than this. It is the literacy leader’s job to create an environment where support is given, communication is open and honest, and teachers feel safe to try new practices. Teachers have plenty to “do” already. Professional development shouldn’t be just one more item on the “To Do” list to be checked off and move on; it should spur us on to be better at what we do! I have loved this entire book and have written so many notes in the margins that I have an additional notebook titled “Ideas for 2017-18”.

This book has challenged me to become a better instructional coach and literacy leader for the teachers I serve. Chapter 4 hit a chord with me, especially when Jen said:

Our goal is not to ‘become’ the teachers who we are exploring but to gain insights from their best practices in literacy.

She hits the nail on the head. This is the drink to quench us all, and it’s the opportunity to individualize the learning for all involved. She outlines perfectly what our role as literacy leaders is in study groups, how to pinpoint a focus our resources, planning, and scheduling, and establish a predictable routine. Jen outlines a possible agenda for professional development offerings:

• Discussion/Sharing
• Video Clip
• Reading Excerpt
• Toolbox
• Putting Ideas into Practice
• Follow-Up Between Sessions

Perhaps my favorite portion of the chapter was the section titled “What’s Not On a Study-Group Agenda”. Jen addresses the essential but unwritten components of environment and appreciation. Carving out time to create both a personal and professional side to the study group will allow teachers to feel appreciated and valued. Most people would be willing to work much harder for a group, team, or organization if they know that they are cared for as a person and a professional.

We can never underestimate the importance of providing some great snacks too! “It is collegiality, collaboration, and safe learning environment that make study groups work as a viable form of in-house professional development”. This book has challenged me to take my coaching to the next level, to take what this book has taught me and lift my skills to become a more effective literacy leader and for that, I will forever be grateful of this study.

Summer Book Buzz

As an instructional coach, one of my responsibilities is to provide voluntary opportunities for teachers to study in groups during the school year and in the summer. This is one of my favorite coaching responsibilities. The studies take on a life of their own and usually go way beyond my expectations. Because the study is usually voluntary to some extent, teachers are more passionate learners and more confident as they become experts in a new content area or practice. Having a part in how they feel about themselves as confident teachers is pure joy!

In her book, Becoming A Literacy Leader, Jennifer Allen is guided by two goals when planning study groups: purposeful alignment and peer interaction. She states that, “…resources that are selected as offerings within the school are aligned to our district goals and that our professional development has everyone focused, interacting, and making meaning together.”

I agree with her goals, and I have had the opportunity to plan book study groups based on these goals. This past summer I received a healthy budget to purchase professional books for summer book studies. I chose the books based on teacher surveys, asking what they would like to study together, as well as aligning the choices with my district’s goals and philosophy.

Once the books arrived, I created a ‘Summer Book Buzz’ for teachers to read through and make an informed decision about the study in which they would like to participate. At a staff meeting teachers signed up for their study of choice, chose a facilitator, selected dates to meet, and created norms for their time together. One of the requests I made of teachers that chose to participate was to present something  from their study during a staff meeting in the upcoming school year. The groups presented engaging strategies, activities, and student work. Because the study groups were voluntary the teachers took ownership over their time together as well as what and how they chose to present. This was evident as I listened to the presentations at staff meetings and the many conversations teachers had with me. I considered the book study groups a success.

Summer Book Buzz Screen Shot (2)

As I read chapter 4 of Allen’s book, she affirmed much of my work planning and preparing for the book study groups. I also realized there is much I could add to my planning for the next time. Although having teachers present their studies gave me a form of evaluation, I can see that implementing a study group evaluation would provide valuable information for me as a coach and facilitator.

Allen’s suggested evaluation includes…
1. What was the greatest benefit of participation in this type of professional development format?
2. What changes may you make in your instruction as a result of attending this focus group?
3. Please rate this form of professional development on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being the highest).
4. Comments:

Jennifer Allen closes this chapter by calling study groups a worthy investment. She states, “Study groups are what I am most passionate about as a literacy specialist. I believe in teachers and their ability to direct, reflect, and facilitate their own learning.” From my reading and my own experiences I would agree, and I plan to continue using book study groups in my practice while applying the valuable suggestions Allen provides in her book. Let the new school year and the study groups begin!