School Principal: Lead Learner? Lead Reader?

In a blog post for Nerdy Book Club, I quietly posed this question. I hear and see the title “Lead Learner” thrown out as a better way to describe the principalship. I appreciate the idea, as it seems to have good intentions, that we should all be about learning. A nice article in one of last year’s ASCD Education Update describes how two principals live out this title in their current roles.

Of course, there is critique in any level of change that has become an institution. For example, in that same article, Pernille Ripp questions why there needs to be a revision.

As adults, we get so caught up in titles, [but] kids are much more focused on what you’re doing rather than what they call you.

Baruti Kafele offers a similar sentiment regarding principals adopting this idea.

Why the title? I just want us to be a community of learners, but I don’t necessarily have to be the lead learner.

Like Pernille, Baruti emphasizes the importance of modeling what we want to see in our school. He offers examples in this video interview for ASCD.

For me, my title will remain “principal”. It is true that our position is defined in our actions rather than merely our words. I think about all the efforts made to promote authentic literacy in our school, from the morning announcements in which I share a book recommendation or a quote, to my staff newsletters in which I share my reading life, to the read alouds I do in classrooms. Yet despite all of these actions, I would not qualify myself as a “lead reader” anymore than a “lead learner”.

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Reading aloud Thank you, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco to 5th graders this year. 

What I will say about reading and the principalship is that there are few habits more important than being a wide and avid reader. I read newspapers, magazines, fiction, nonfiction, educational resources, blogs, tweets and posts, research articles, children’s literature…the list is almost endless. Having a diverse and deep knowledge base has been essential in my success as a school leader. The level of respect I might have as an instructional leader is dependent on this quality. It’s so important that I now schedule time to read professionally during the school day.

Any title we give ourselves is only as credible as how live out these words in our actions.

Recent Books I’ve Read and Recommend

Being in between positions, I am finding more time to read books and write about them. I usually post my ratings and reviews on Goodreads. This social media tool provides an HTML code of your post to publish on your blog. So…here you go! Look for more reviews over the summer. If you have titles you have read recently and would recommend, please post in the comments.

The Action Research Guidebook: A Four-Stage Process for Educators and School TeamsThe Action Research Guidebook: A Four-Stage Process for Educators and School Teams by Richard D. Sagor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A comprehensive guide for educators to conduct action research in schools. The author provides lots of templates as well as examples from both the teacher and principal perspective. I used this text to conduct my own action research. The four stage process was explained well. It might be too much information for educators just getting familiar with the action research process.

Beastly Bones (Jackaby, #2)Beastly Bones by William Ritter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An entertaining follow up to the first Jackaby book. The author provides enough red herrings to keep you guessing about the perpetrator and its origins. A nice blend of mystery, paranormal, and humor.

Solving 25 Problems in Unit Design: how do I refine my units to enhance student learning? (ASCD Arias)Solving 25 Problems in Unit Design: how do I refine my units to enhance student learning? by Jay McTighe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A nice companion to the other UbD resources by the authors. I could see teams of teachers using it when doing a curriculum audit.

Better: A Surgeon's Notes on PerformanceBetter: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are few books I elect to own in multiple formats. Better is one of them. I listened to it as an audiobook, and plan to purchase a physical copy soon. There are so many ideas in Better that I want to come back to: Innovation, systems thinking, improving performance, and doing the right thing that any person can relate to. It’s a book about medicine, yes, but so much more.

Digital Reading: What's Essential in Grades 3-8Digital Reading: What’s Essential in Grades 3-8 by William L. Bass II, Franki Sibberson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the rare #edtech books that prioritizes pedagogy over technology. The authors take a deep dive into the benefits and costs of reading on a screen. I especially enjoyed the chapters on connectedness and home-school communication.

Mistakes Were Made (Timmy Failure, #1)Mistakes Were Made by Stephan Pastis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A nice departure from Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Timmy may be the worst detective in history, mostly because he doesn’t listen to others or make basic observations. His ignorance leads him into a lot of trouble that is more funny than serious. The author keeps things grounded when he touches on Timmy’s home life, a realistic portrait of a single parent situation (minus the polar bear).

Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get DiscoveredShow Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered by Austin Kleon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A brief text filled with many ideas for sharing your work and process with others. Felt it was too short. The author could have expanded on some of the topics a bit more. Still, well worth my time reading it.

View all my reviews

Initial Findings After Implementing Digital Student Portfolios in Elementary Classrooms

On Saturday, I shared why I was not at ISTE 2016. That post included our school’s limited progress in embedding technology into instruction that made an impact on student learning. In this post, I share how digital student portfolios did make a possible difference.

I attempted a schoolwide action research project this past year around literacy and engagement. We used three strategies to assess growth from fall to spring: Instructional walk trends, student engagement surveys, and digital student portfolios. Each data point related to one major componenent of literacy:

  • Instructional walks: Speaking and listening within daily instruction, including questioning and student discussion
  • Engagement surveys: Reading, specifically self-concept as a reader, the importance of reading, and sharing our reading lives
  • Digital portfolios: Writing, with a focus on guiding students to reflect on their work, offer feedback, and set goals for the future

The instructional walks, brief classroom visits in which I would write my observations down and share them as feedback with the teacher, did show an increase in the frequency of student discussion during instruction but not in higher level questioning. My conclusion was there needs to be specific and sustained professional development around questioning in the classroom in order to see positive growth.

The reading engagement survey results were messy. While primary students showed significant growth from fall to spring about how they feel about reading. intermediate student results were stagnant. Some older students regressed. It is worth noting that at the younger ages, there was also significant growth in their reading achievement as measured by interim assessments (running records). I didn’t have really any conclusions. The survey itself might not have been intermediate student-friendly. At the younger ages, our assessment system is built so that students are seeing steady progress with benchmark books.

Okay, now for the reason for this post. Before I share any data about student writing and digital portfolios, I want to be clear about a few things:

  • A few teachers forgot to record their spring writing data. I did not include their students in the data set.
  • The results from my first year at the school (2011-2012) used a rubric based on the 6 traits of writing. Last year we used a more condensed rubric, although both rubrics for assessing student writing were a) used by all staff to help ensure interrater reliability and b) highly correlated with the 6 traits of writing.
  • The results from my first year at the school, in which no portfolio process was used beyond a spring showcase, came from a district-initiatied assessment team that score every paper in teams of two. This year’s data was scored by the teachers within our own school exclusively.

With all of this in mind, here are the results of student growth in writing over time from my first year as a principal (no portfolio process in place) and last year (a comprehensive portfolio process in place):

2011-2012: 10% growth from fall to spring

2015-2016: 19% growth from fall to spring

I have the documentation to verify these results. The previously shared points are some of the reasons why I hold these results a bit in question. At the same time, here are some interesting details about this year’s process.

  • All teachers were expected to document student writing at least six times a year in a digital portfolio tool. In addition, each student was expected to reflect on their work by highlighting what they did well, identifying areas of growth, and making goals for the next time they were asked to upload a piece of writing into their digital portfolio.
  • The digital portfolio tool we used, FreshGrade, was well received by families. Survey results with these families revealed an overwhelmingly positive response to the use of this tool for sharing student learning regularly over the course of the school year. In fact, we didn’t share enough, as multiple parents asked for more postings.
  • The comments left by family members on the students’ work via digital portfolios seemed to motivate the teachers to share more of the students’ work. Staff requested additional trainings for conducting portfolio assessment. They could select the dates to meet and offer the agenda items that we would focus on.

If you have read any of the research on feedback and formative assessment, you will know that many studies have shown that educators will double their effectiveness as teachers when they focus on formative assessment and providing feedback for students as they learn. It should be noted that our 19% growth is almost double what we achieved in 2011-2012.

One might say, “Your teachers are better writing instructors now than five years ago.” Maybe, in fact probably. But what we measured was growth from fall to spring and compared the results, not longitudinal growth over many years. The teachers can own the impact that their instruction made on our students this school year.

There was not formalized training for improve teachers’ abilities to increase speaking and listening in the classroom. Reading engagement strategies were measured but not addressed during professional development. Only the writing portfolio process along with the incorporation of digital portfolios to document and share this process was a focus in our faculty trainings.

Although these results are promising, I am not going to make any big conclusions at this time. First, only I did the data crunching of these results. Also, we didn’t follow a more formal research process to ensure validity of our findings. However, I am interested in pursuing partnerships with higher education to ensure that any results and conclusions found in the future meet specific thresholds for reliability.

One final thing to note before I close: Technology was important in this process, but my hypothesis is the digital piece was secondary to the portfolio process itself. Asking the students to become more self-aware of their own learning and more involved in goal-setting through teacher questioning and feedback most likely made the difference. The technology brought in an essential audience, yes, but the work had to be worth sharing.

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For more on this topic, explore my digital book Digital Student Portfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment. It is available for Kindle, Nook, and iBooks. You can join our Google+ Community to discuss the topic of digital portfolios for students with other educators.

If you liked my first book, check out my newest book 5 Myths About Classroom Technology: How do we integrate digital tools to truly enhance learning? (ASCD Arias). 

 

Action Research: Professional Learning from Within

By becoming question-askers and problem-solvers, students and teachers work together to construct curriculum from their context and lived experiences.

– Nancy Fitchman Dana

13266113_10209362500521785_3561560696307026816_nOver 20 teachers recently celebrated their learning as part of their work with an action research course. They presented their findings to over 50 colleagues, friends, and family members at a local convention center. I was really impressed with how teachers saw data as a critical part of their research. Organizing and analyzing student assessment results was viewed as a necessary part of their practice, instead of simply a district expectation.

Equally impressive was how some of the teachers shared data that suggested their interventions did not have an impact on student learning. One teacher, who explored student-driven learning in her middle school, shared survey results that revealed little growth in her students’ dispositions toward school. What the teacher found out was she had not provided her students the necessary amount of ownership during class.

Another teacher did find some positive results from her research on the benefits of reflection during readers workshop. Students wrote in response journals and engaged in authentic literature circles to unpack their thinking about their books they were reading. At the end of the school year, the teacher was starting to observe her students leading their own literature conversations with enthusiasm. This teacher is excited about having some of these same students in 2016-2017, as she is looping up. “I am really looking forward to seeing how these kids grow within the next year.”

A third teacher shared her findings regarding how teaching students how to speak and listen will increase their comprehension of reading and their love for literacy. One of her data points – student surveys – was not favorable toward this intervention. Yet her other two pieces of data (anecdotal evidence, volume of reading) showed positive gains. Therefore, she made a professional judgment that her students did grow as readers and thinkers. This teacher is also reflecting on the usefulness of this survey for next year.


In these three examples, I couldn’t help but notice some unique outcomes of this action research course:

  • Teachers were proudly sharing their failures.

With the first teacher who focused on student-driven learning, she developed a greater understanding about her practice than probably possible in a more traditional professional learning experience. She learned what not to do. This teacher is stripping away less effective methods in favor of something better. And the reason she is able to do this is because she had a true professional learning community that allowed her to take risks and celebrate her discoveries.

  • Teachers didn’t want the learning to end.

This goes beyond the teacher who expressed her excitement in looping with her current students next year. Several participants in this action research course have asked if they could take it again. The main reason: They felt like they just found the question they really wanted to explore. It took them most of the school year to find it.

  • Teachers became more assessment literate.

The term “triangulation” was never referenced with the teacher who focused on conversations to building reading comprehension and engagement. Yet that is what she did, when she felt one set of data was not corroborating with the other results and her own professional judgment. Almost all of the staff who participated in action research had 3-5 data points to help make an informed conclusion about the impact of their instruction.

I also learned a few things about myself as an administrator:

  • It is not the professional development I offer for staff that makes the biggest difference – it is the conditions I create that allow teachers to explore their interests and take risks as innovative practitioners.
  • My role often is to the side of the professionals instead of in front of them, even learning with them when possible. For example, we brought in two professors from UW-Madison to lead this course. The best decision I made was recognizing that I was not the expert, and I needed to seek out those who were.
  • Principals have to be so careful about providing feedback, as we often haven’t built up enough trust, we can make false assumptions about what we are observing, and/or we do not allow teachers to discover better practices on their own terms.

In a world of standards and SMART goals, it is frowned upon when teachers don’t meet the mark regarding student outcomes. The assumption in these situations is that the teacher failed to provide effective instruction. However, the fault in this logic is that learning is not always a linear process. We work with people, dynamic and unpredictable beings who need a more personalized approach for real learning. Facilitating and engaging in action research has helped me realize this.

Revision Assistant: Provide Better Feedback for Student Writing

When I was in high school, I was asked to write an essay regarding a satirical poem. I diverged from the expected product and wrote a satirical piece in response. Not familiar with this genre, I did not receive a high mark from my English teacher for my work.

What would have happened had I received feedback about my essay as I was writing it? I imagine my final draft would have been a much better product. However, my teacher probably had close to 125 students in all of her classes. A tall order for even the most dedicated educator…

That is why I am recommending Revision Assistant by Turnitin for secondary English teachers. I’ll briefly describe what it is, how it works, and why you should try it out.

What is Revision Assistant?

raRevision Assistant is a new product that was acquired by Turnitin, an experienced technology company that originally helped teachers catch plagiarism. This tool is a platform for teachers to provide and facilitate feedback for students’ writing. It is aligned with the Common Core State Standards and serves as a supplement to a teacher’s curriculum and instruction.

Students and teachers can access Revision Assistant from the web or through some learning management systems, such as Schoology and Canvas. Where as Turnitin gives the teacher the ability to leave feedback on a student’s final draft using voice or text, Revision Assistant offers praise and pointers for the student during the writing process.

How does Revision Assistant Work?

A student logs into the online software and locates the assigned prompt. He or she starts by prewriting in designated text boxes. When finished, the student submits it into the program. Revision Assistant compiles his or her writing into one piece.

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This application uses an algorithm based on 300-500 previously assessed papers at that grade level to provide specific feedback about a student’s writing. Revision Assistant notices what is working with the student’s writing and what needs more work to balance the type of feedback. The student is expected to make the suggested revisions.

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Criteria for assessing students’ work is always available for a student to review. A visible rubric describes high and low quality writing in four different areas based on the genre. In this case of informative writing, the criteria were: Clarity & Focus, Use of Evidence, Organization & Development, and Language & Style.

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When students receive feedback on their initial drafts, a level of proficiency for each area of writing is also displayed. Instead of using a “4-3-2-1” scale commonly found on rubrics, Revision Assistant offers wireless bars to visibly display how a student is doing. The more bars on the signal, the better the writing is according to the software.

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Once a student is satisfied with the revisions made, he or she submits their final draft to the teacher for more feedback. The teacher receives it, looks over the suggestions offered and how the student improved their writing, and then sits down with that student for a conference. This conversation would revolve around the process of writing and how the student could continue to improve their piece before it is ready to publish. With this tool, teacher and student can track progress over time within all genres of writing.

Why should I use Revision Assistant?

I think back to the English teachers I had in junior high and high school, having to grade ~125 papers on a regular basis. When I taught writing at the 5th and 6th grade level, students’ work tended to blend together by that 9th or 10th paper. There were consistencies regarding the areas they needed to improve. This reflected my instruction and (in)ability to offer feedback in a timely manner – during the writing process.

Revision Assistant can be that tool that transfers more of the ownership of learning onto the student. They are the ones who decide what to revise and how. This is where technology may have an advantage in education versus a person: Digital tools are objective. They have no feelings and therefore are not subject to bias or subjectivity. When I tried out Revision Assistant, I did not get defensive about the feedback offered to me.

The question that came up as I explored the tool is a common one: Does this technology replace the teacher? Unequivocally, no. In fact, it should make a teacher even better. With Revision Assistant, a teacher does not have to take the time to repeat the same feedback to each student like a broken record. This means more time is available to spend with students to talk about the art and style of writing, as well as to develop better relationships with them.

If you are finding yourself always on the front end of a continuous pile of papers, Revision Assistant has the potential to help any English teacher maximize their instructional time with students. I believe writing has been the discipline most impacted by the influx of technology. With this tool, the impact seems to be positive.

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Note: This is a sponsored post. It did not influence the content of this review. The post is also located on my new site, where teachers can search for recommended technologies. If you are affiliated with a technology company focused on enhancing the educational experience for students and teachers, please contact me for more information about what I can offer.

Encouraging Nonfiction Reading During the Summer

Every year we purchase reading tote bags for all of our students. On one of the last days of the school year, we allow students to check out up to ten (10) books to take home and read. We reopen our library once a month during the summer, which allows students and families up to three times to check in old books and check out new ones.

The biggest expense in this initiative is not the books or the minimal staffing to run the program. It’s purchasing the tote bags which run around $1 a piece. They are necessary as we have found a number of students have nowhere to store their books once they bring them home. It’s an effort in being more culturally responsive, as we work in a Title I school.

This year we receive a donation from an energy distribution company. The funds have to be used toward science and mathematics education. This led to developing a slightly different approach to encouraging reading during the summer months. We will now ask all of our students to select at least five (5) nonfiction books out of the ten books they would pick for the summer months. Below is a screenshot of that letter.

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By taking this approach, we are utilizing available funds in a smart way as well as encouraging students to read more widely during their summer vacation. Time will tell what if any impact this change might have on student reading engagement and achievement.

What does your school do to promote summer reading? Please share your ideas in the comments.

Connecting Instructional Walks with Teacher Frameworks

For the last five years as an elementary school principal, I have explored the best approach to providing feedback and supervision for our faculty. I had initially created an instructional walkthrough form that allowed me to provide a narrative-based observation about instruction as well as being able to monitor where instruction was at with regard to the gradual release of responsibility. Click here for that post that describes this process.

I have discovered a better approach to staff supervision and feedback: Instructional Walks, highlighted in Regie Routman’s book Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success. Actually, this approach has been sitting in front of me for four years now. Regie and her team promoted this more authentic practice for principals back in 2012 at her Literacy and Leadership Institute in Madison, WI.

Better late than never! I don’t know why educators like me have to always “make it their own”. Maybe just part of being a professional. I have discovered several advantages to taking a completely narrative-based approach to faculty supervision:

  • The visits are completely unannounced and can happen at any time. I don’t have to ask permission. However, this system was developed with my teachers, with the understanding that I lead like a coach, offering praise and feedback and treating each visit as one small observation among many throughout the school year. Trust and relationships were developed before this process started.
  • The lens in which I view instruction is connected directly to our school’s goals. This year, we are focused on increasing literacy engagement. We developed tenets of engagement by doing an article study early in the year. These attributes become the key words in which I “tag” each walk within a teacher’s digital portfolio via Evernote. They also receive a paper copy of my notes, which I write by hand.
  • For the first time as a principal, I have been able to experience instruction instead of monitoring and scoring it. I feel like I have a much better understanding of each teacher’s instructional approach and how our students are progressing as learners. From what I can gather, teachers also appreciate this different approach. As one teacher told me in the lounge, “I get more out of your one page of observational notes than from our old evaluation system.”

All affirming feedback for this process. However, the one challenge I have found in using instructional walks as the primary form for teacher supervision and evaluation is aligning my observations with the Danielson Framework for Teaching. Using software such as Teachscape allows the principal to tag each artifact by the appropriate component and score it based on the framework with ease. Instructional walks are, like good teaching, a complex activity. This makes the assessment part of teacher supervision complex as well.

To help our faculty categorize my observations and evidence from my instructional walks notes, I created a short screencast that describes how teachers can tag each artifact. I thought you might also find it helpful, especially if you are taking a more authentic and respectful approach to teacher supervision.