The Driver’s Seat

This is cross-posted from my school blog. It was also sent out as a monthly print newsletter for families. I thought you might enjoy reading it here too. -Matt

With a year under my belt and feeling more comfortable each day in my position as principal here, I am starting to find more time to engage in fun activities. One thing I enjoy is producing digital media of my family’s life captured on camera. Right now I am putting together images and video in order to create a multimedia presentation of our two kids’ experiences in Wisconsin Rapids, our former home.

In one series of videos, we documented our daughter learning to ride her bike. I held the camera while my wife jogged alongside her, holding the bike to provide that extra support while our daughter attempted to find her balance. My wife was giving constant feedback, telling her to “pedal faster” or “straighten out the handlebars” when appropriate. Eventually, as every kid does, our daughter was able to ride her bike independently.

Throughout this process, our daughter was the one pedaling and steering. We didn’t do a lot of modeling of how to ride or explain this skill in words. Our daughter got on a bike with training wheels at first, then removed them when we all felt she was ready. She was in the driver’s seat at all times.

This personal story relates to the professional practice we are striving for in classrooms. Instead of the teacher doing the majority of the work, we are shifting the reading, the writing, and the thinking to the student. Just like riding a bike, students cannot learn something new unless they are actively involved in the process. The driver’s seat in school is a pencil or a book in one’s hands.

This might seem obvious. Yet education has been traditionally delivered with the teacher expected to do the heavy lifting. We know now that our role as educators in today’s world is to be that guide on the side, supporting our students as they attempt time and again to improve in their abilities and become successful learners for life.

How we stopped using Accelerated Reader

This post describes how our school stopped using Accelerated Reader. This was not something planned; it seemed to happen naturally through our change process, like an animal shedding its skin. The purpose of this post is not to decry Accelerated Reader, although I do know this reading assessment/incentive program is not viewed favorably in some education circles. We ceased using a few other technologies as well, each for different reasons. The following timeline provides a basic outline of our process that led to this outcome.

  1. We developed collective commitments.

The idea of collective commitments comes from the Professional Learning Community literature, specifically Learning by Doing, 3rd edition. Collective commitments are similar to norms you might find on a team. The difference is collective commitments are focused on student learning. We commit to certain statements about our work on behalf of kids. They serve as concrete guidelines, manifested from our school’s mission and vision, as well as from current thinking we find effective for education.

We first started by reading one of four articles relevant to our work. The staff could choose which one to read. After discussing the contents of the articles in small group and then in whole group, we started crafting the statements. This was a smaller team of self-selected faculty. Staff who did not participate knew they may have to live with the outcomes of this work. Through lots of conversation and wordsmithing, we landed on seven statements that we all felt were important to our future work.

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At the next staff meeting, we shared these commitments, answered any questions about their meaning and intent, and then held an anonymous vote via Google Forms. We weren’t looking for unanimity but consensus. In other words, what does the will of the group say? Although there were a few faculty members that could not find a statement or two to be agreeable, the vast majority of teachers were on board. I shared the results while explaining that these statements were what we all will commit to, regardless of how we might feel about them.

  1. We identified a schoolwide literacy focus.

Using multiple assessments in the fall (STAR, Fountas & Pinnell), we found that our students needed more support in reading, specifically fluency. This meant that students needed to be reading and writing a lot more than they were, and to do so independently. Our instructional leadership team, which is a decision-making body and whose members were selected based on in-house interviews, started making plans to provide professional development for all faculty around the reading-writing connection. (For more information on instructional leadership teams and the reading-writing connection, see Regie Routman’s book Read, Write, Lead).

  1. We investigated the effectiveness of our current programming.

Now that we had collective commitments along with a focus on literacy, I think our lens changed a bit. Maybe I can only speak for myself, but we started to take a more critical look at our current work. What was working and what wasn’t?

Around that time, I discovered a summary report from the What Works Clearinghouse, a part of the Institute of Educational Sciences within the Department of Education. This report described all of the different studies on Accelerated Reader. Using only the research that met their criteria for reliability and validity, they found mixed to low results for schools that used Accelerated Reader.

I shared this summary report with our leadership team. We had a thoughtful conversation about the information, looking at both the pros and cons of this technology tool. However, we didn’t make any decisions to stop using it as a school. I also shared the report with Renaissance Learning, the maker of Accelerated Reader. As you might imagine, they had a more slanted view of this information, in spite of the rigorous approach to evaluating their product.

While we didn’t make a decision at that time based on the research, I think the fact that this report was shared with the faculty and discussed planted the seed for future conversations about the use of this product in our classrooms.

  1. We examined our beliefs about literacy.

The professional development program we selected to address our literacy needs, Regie Routman in Residence: The Reading-Writing Connection, asks educators to examine their beliefs regarding reading and writing instruction. Unlike our collective commitments, we all had to be in agreement regarding a literacy statement to own it and expect everyone to apply that practice in classrooms. We agreed upon three.

Beliefs Poster

This happened toward the end of the school year. It was a nice celebration of our initial efforts in improving literacy instruction. We will examine these beliefs again at the end of this school year, with the hope of agreeing upon a few more after completing this PD program. These beliefs served to align our collective philosophy about what our students truly need to become successful readers and writers. Momentum for change was on our side, which didn’t bode well for outdated practices.

  1. We started budgeting for next year.

It came as a surprise, at least to me, that money would be a primary factor in deciding not to continue using Accelerated Reader in our school.

With a finite budget and an infinite number of teacher resources in which we could utilize in the classroom, I started investigating the use of different technologies currently in the building. I found for Accelerated Reader that a small minority of teachers were actually using the product. This usage was broken down by class. We discovered that we were paying around $20 a year per student.

Given our limited school budget, I asked teachers both on our leadership team and the teachers who used it if they felt this was worth the cost. No one thought it was. (To be clear, the teachers who were using Accelerated Reader are good teachers. Just because they had their students taking AR quizzes does not suggest they were ineffective; quite the opposite. I think it is worth pointing this out as I have seen some shaming of teachers who use AR as a way to persuade them to stop using the tool. It’s not effective.)

With this information, we as a leadership team decided to end our subscription to Accelerated Reader. We made this decision within the context of our collective commitments and our literacy beliefs.

Next Steps

This story does not end with our school ceasing to using Accelerated Reader. For example, we realize we now have an assessment gap for our students and their independent reading. Lately, we have been talking about different digital tools such as Kidblog and Biblionasium as platforms for students to write book reviews and share their reading lives with others. We have also discussed different approaches for teachers to assess their readers more authentically, such as through conferring.

While there is a feeling of uncomfortableness right now, I feel a sense of possibility that maybe wasn’t there when Accelerated Reader was present in our building. As Peter Johnston notes from his book Opening Minds, ““Uncertainty is the foundation for inquiry and research.” I look forward to where this new turn in instruction might lead us.

 

What Educators Can Learn from Uber

I wrote this yesterday as part of my staff newsletter. My experience at #IPDX16 was excellent, and it wasn’t only the conference. The city of Portland offered lots of experiences. Here is one of them.
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While I was very busy presenting and learning during the day, I did have some time to explore the city of Portland with colleagues and on my own. One of the most interesting experiences was using Uber to get around. It is a self-organized taxi service. You use the Uber app to connect with a driver. Anyone can be a driver as long as you have a reliable car. Once the driver sees your request, they come over within a couple of minutes. Payment is handled through the Uber platform, similar to PayPal.

Uber: Riding in Cars with Strangers

As I used this new service, here were a few observations I noted during the time.

  • It can be both scary and fun to try something new.

When a colleague told me to try Uber, I initially resisted. “Who’s the driver? How do you know they are safe?” They reasoned that you didn’t really know the taxi driver either, and that Uber has improved safety and reliability. So I took a chance, and it was positive. My first driver was welcoming, his car was clean, and he drove me to my destination quickly. In fact, all four Uber experiences were consistently good.

  • Competition can increase quality.

Prior to Uber coming into town, I was told that the Portland taxi service was not something to brag about. They weren’t timely about picking you up and were not always the most pleasant people to be around. Now that the traditional taxi service is not the only game in town with Uber, they have had to step up and improve their service.

  • Technology has it’s limits.

Using the Uber app to call a “cab” is a remarkable idea via a digital tool. It is also imperfect. For example, when I was trying to connect with a ride to go from downtown to my hotel, the driver could not pick up my GPS signal. I was in the middle of the city – with lots of smartphones. Of course, it was the one time it was raining in Portland that I couldn’t find a ride…

  • Never assume.

During my extended wait, one car that seemed to match the description of a driver pulled up to the curb. As I reached for the door, another person started getting into the front and asked, “Umm, what are you doing?” At first dumbfounded, I quickly realized that I was attempting to get into a stranger’s car! My eventual driver explained that this happens often, and to look for the “U” symbol in the window to confirm they work for Uber.

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So What Might Educators Learn from Uber?

Here are some possible connections between Uber and education.

  • It can be both scary and fun to try something new. Thinking about change, such as our upcoming peer coaching/observations, I imagine we might be feeling the same way. There is risk involved, but also the potential for reward. Having spoke with other schools that have engaged in peer observations, it sounds like the risk is worth it.
  • Competition can increase quality. If you know me at all, you know that I am a strong advocate for public education. I do not agree with the approach taken by supporters of school choice and the voucher program. That said, public education is feeling this pressure to increase our effectiveness, which has led to more awareness and effort. We have to keep innovating in order to provide the best education possible.
  • Technology has it’s limits. We’ve all experienced the lack of a wireless signal, a slow Internet, and login problems. I am glad that we don’t rely too heavily on digital tools to drive our instruction. Pedagogy usually comes first at our school.
  • Never assume. Observing student actions through an outsider’s perspective can help us avoid making snap judgments about the issue at hand. We can become aware of our own biases by asking some simple questions to develop a better understanding of the situation. I do this sometimes in my instructional walks.

Also check out John Spencer’s smart post, offering a comparison between education and the city’s food truck industry.

The Art of Visual Notetaking

At my first National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) convention, I found myself surrounded by celebrities – at least in the world of literacy. Franki Sibberson and Troy Hicks were presenting on the topics of technology-enhanced reading. Paul Hankins was seated behind me. Lee Ann Spillane was sitting next to me.

As Franki and Troy presented, I was impressed with my neighbors’ listening skills, considering how connected they are online. Paul was a great conversationalist when we had the chance to talk with a neighbor. Lee Ann had a blank sketchbook out, synthesizing the information through writing and drawing. 

Following her lead, I put my laptop down, shut off Twitter on my tablet, grabbed my stylus and opened up Penultimate on my iPad Air. My first tries were more text than visuals and pretty concrete (click here and here to see my initial attempts). I thought back to how Lee Ann visualized the metaphors evoked in the presentations. My final visual notes better captured my thinking, this time during Steven Layne’s presentation on reading aloud. For example, I drew a road around the phrase “Know where the text is going”.

 

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My visual notes of this topic made it more understandable and memorable for me. Limiting myself to primary colors helped to keep things simple. Visual notetaking allowed me be less of a Twitter transcriptionist and more of a learner – all thanks to where I sat.

Going Schoolwide with Reading Engagement: How We Got to Now

This is a follow up to a previous post about our school’s collective efforts to increase student engagement in reading, especially in their dispositions around talking about and sharing their reading lives.

“Hey, I have a quote for you.” A second grader had stopped me in the hallway to let me know about his discovery. He comes from the same class in which another student gave me a new metallic marker for our schoolwide reading graffiti board. I asked him to share it with me. We weren’t sure of the source (he discovered it at home among his mother’s collection of clipped quotes), so we searched for it online.

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Oscar Wilde!

As I mentioned in my previous post, it was the students’ turn to have the proverbial pencil in hand. I encouraged him to use second grade handwriting, but his spelling had to be perfect. He didn’t disappoint. Later during morning announcements, I recognized this student for his contribution and encouraged others to participate in this project.

Some Background

I’ve read that the best place to start a story is in the middle. However, our school’s narrative has some background worth sharing. Doesn’t every school?

For the past five years, our K-5 elementary school has focused on the relationship between reading and writing. The first three years we delved into the professional development program Regie Routman in Residence: Reading-Writing Connection. Faculty received learning binders. We watched videos of Regie in action, modeling for students during one of her residencies the process of writing and how what we read influences this craft. Our students’ work, collaboratively assessed through grade level and vertical teams, has shown great gains.

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After finishing the Reading-Writing Connection, faculty wanted to try a different approach to writing. Specifically, they felt that students needed more structure. One teacher had experience with The Write Tools. For two years, we received training in how to teach a variety of text features as readers and writers, such as topic sentences, supporting details, and transitions. The Common Core State Standards were a primary focus.

Structure and Style

Our students’ work followed suit. Kids as young as six years old can now write a fully formed paragraph. Other elementary buildings that visit us (we are a lab school through the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction) comment frequently on the quantity of words per page students produce. Staff members who have spouses teaching in other schools sometimes mention that the student writing produced is comparable with secondary level work. We’ve seen many benefits to this more direct approach to literacy.

But with this structure, we’ve lost some of the style. Kids could clearly write a paragraph, but was the paragraph worth reading? Voice was down while conventions increased. This became clear during our mid-year formative writing assessment check last year, especially during our debriefing about the strengths and weaknesses of our students’ work.

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Even our narrative writing, which should be a strength with our younger students’ vivid imaginations and humor, was suffering from staleness and a lack of personal engagement. One of our teachers summed it up well: “I miss the kids’ stories.”

Multiple Measures

Our debriefing was a powerful wake up call. It wasn’t anything against The Write Tools. Our trainer did a wonderful job. I think it had more to do with our (see: my) approach to benchmarking our students’ writing against the Common Core State Standards. We had standardized our expectations and, subsequently, our instruction. Maybe this works for other disciplines. Reading and writing are not other disciplines. Literacy is as much an affective endeavor as a cognitive one. As Regie Routman has stated in her presentations and writings, “We have to engage our students’ hearts and minds.”

Our collaborative self-assessment led me to investigate other data points. What was discovered corroborated with what we suspected:

  • Engagement in the classroom was scored lower than other areas of instruction within the Danielson Framework for Teaching, our professional evaluation tool. This was found in both teachers’ self-ratings and in my own observations.
  • According to a reading profile survey administered this fall, students had less positive attitudes about talking and sharing about their reading lives in class, compared to the value they place on reading and how they view themselves as readers.
  • In my regular instructional walks, group discussion and higher order questioning (which leads to authentic student conversations) was not observed as frequently as other tenets of literacy engagement, such as choice, authenticity, and feedback.

Triangulating this data with staff, it was apparent that we needed a different approach to professional development for the 2015-2016 school year. This is why we have come back to the Regie Routman in Residence program, this time focused on Writing for Audience and Purpose. We will continue to examine and own those beliefs where we find common ground.

Starting Where We Began

I often hear education described as a pendulum. We go from this end of the initiative spectrum to that one.

This metaphor isn’t working for me. My biggest concern is the connotation that schools are helpless in the face of outside factors. We blame the Common Core, the government, or accountability to the public. But schools can have more control over their destiny than maybe realized.

My preferred metaphor to describe our school’s professional learning community is a journey. We’ve embarked on a path toward a love for learning that is guided by our shared beliefs about literacy. True learning is circuitous and hard to predict where it will lead. Teams’ professional learning journeys were honored this fall, as they illustrated their own pathways toward excellence.

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Our Interventionists’ Journey Toward Excellence

Our organization may venture this way and that, but as long as we keep our focus on our North Star –  authentic and meaningful literacy experiences – our students will become successful readers and writers.

Cover Crop

When fall arrives, we remove what’s left of the vegetable plants from the raised beds and plant a cover crop.

Photo Credit: Susy Morris
Photo Credit: Susy Morris

In our case, winter rye works the best. Other gardeners use clover, but I prefer rye.

A cover crop is what gardeners and farmers sometimes plant in the soil when they are not growing vegetables to harvest. Cover crop prevents erosion, inhibits weeds, and, maybe most importantly, adds nutrients to the soil.

As the rye grows to maturity, we can till it back into the soil. The winter rye becomes green manure, adding to the health of the soil as it decomposes. By doing this, along with a dressing of compost in the spring, we don’t have to add fertilizers or anything unnatural to the soil before planting next year’s vegetables.

Some people prefer to do a fall season of vegetables, and squeeze more harvest out of the soil. But I find replenishing the soil more beneficial in the long run. The rewards are delayed, but greater.