Beyond the Standards

I was in a 1st grade classroom conducting an instructional walk. The students were quietly working on their informative writing projects. They had researched a topic of choice, using strategies to read nonfiction texts. Now they were using their notes they had taken and were applying them to a writing project.

I sat next to a couple of students. One student looked up, saw me and asked, “You know how to write books, right?” I nodded. “I am not sure where to put the end. What do you do?” Honored that he asked me for help, I asked if he would read his writing to me. I listened actively, celebrated his work, then went into a description of my own writing process, admitting that conclusions could be very difficult for any writer. He looked at me, unsure how to respond.

The teacher stopped over by us, checking in on our conversation. After a moment, she stepped in. “I think what he’s trying to ask is where he should put ‘The End’ in his book.” Literally. I laughed, then suggested putting those two words on the back of his last page.

I enjoy talking the writing process, mine and anyone else’s. Each is unique. There are some very general pathways from drafting to done (typically revision is a major part), but the specific journey for each writer is their own. Whatever it takes to get it on paper and get it published.

Reflecting on our chat, I appreciated that our conversation revolved around the writing itself and not on a rubric or a specific standard. Writing, like many crafts, is a messy experience from start to finish. Spelling out what “good” writing looks and sounds like can make the process a bore, seem more like work in its starkest sense.

I’m fine with standards as a part of the educational experience. They give us some guideposts as to where our students should be at in relation to their age and development level. Used thoughtfully, standards can help define a ladder of complexity in what students should know and be able to do.

Yet history is not kind to the standards movement. In an excellent article for Phi Delta Kappan, Gamson, Eckart, and Anderson reveal the reality behind why standards have been introduced into U.S. public education.

In virtually every period of American educational history, but especially in times of national crisis, critics have argued that American students were floundering academically due to intellectually feeble and flabby academic objectives. Time and again, Americans have retreated to the bunker of clear standards as protectors against educational fuzziness.

These “times of national crisis” include Sputnik and the National Reading Panel’s infamous report “A Nation at Risk” (the latter a document I recently discovered and then threw out while cleaning my office). The context for these concerns is competitiveness. In this type of environment, learning is no longer the focus. It is about achievement. Curiosity and mistake-making are seen as frivolous time wasters when standards need to be met.

I understand society’s desire to simplify school outcomes to try and understand the quality of education. Doing so, though, has consequences, one of the most dire being the removal of process as an essential part of the learning experience. When there is no opportunity for people to take risks and pose important questions, such as asking the principal where to put “the end”, there is little incentive to put ourselves in positions where we are vulnerable and open to new ideas. We cannot boil down these necessary experiences to a set of standards. That should tell you something.

Civic Responsibility

This post is a newsletter I am sending home to our elementary school families. Let me know what you think in the comments! -Matt

It is hard to believe that November is already here! It’s been a busy two months of building our learning community at school, connecting with kids, staff and families, and discussing our goals. For this school year, we are focused as a faculty on reading instruction, specifically thinking about the text. This includes thinking critically about what we read and analyzing the writer’s craft.

It can be challenging for schools to maintain a singular focus on a building-wide goal. Public education receives many requests to implement initiatives within the school day. It’s an honor to been viewed as a central tenet of a healthy community and society. Yet we cannot adopt everything deemed important. If all ideas are essential, how do we determine what is taught and learned?

One topic that has come up a lot recently is civic responsibility. Schools are being called to action to reverse the trend of Americans not participating in civic duties, for example a decline in people voting. In an article for Phi Delta Kappan, educator Michael Rebell goes as far as to state that preparing students for capable citizenship is the school’s primary responsibility.

Schools must create environments that respect and harness both pluralism and individualism while adopting instructional practices that promote civic agency, critical inquiry, and participatory experiences.

(You can access Rebell’s article at this URL: http://www.kappanonline.org/rebell-preparation-capable-citizenship-schools-primary-responsibility/)

When I first started reading this article, I felt a little defensive. How can we take on this responsibility?, I thought. No doubt we teach social studies. That said, literacy and mathematics are what we are tested on every spring. What gets measured gets done first. In addition, we do worry about discussing topics with students that are deemed controversial by some. How can we take civic understanding to a deeper level of understanding in an agreeable manner? Factor in the constraints of time and you get the picture.

As I read on in the article, my thinking started to shift. For example, are the “3 R’s” – reading, writing, ‘rithmetic – mutually exclusive from social studies? They can appear like separate entities with the hyper focus on literacy and math standards. Yet Rebell points out that for students to become more civic-minded, they need to have developed in the very areas we are focused on as a faculty: critical thinking, effective speaking and listening skills, and understanding how a writer uses text structures to convey meaning.

Many American students who have basic literacy skills have yet to master the critical-reasoning and deliberation skills needed to appraise one-side or false information, assess policy alternatives, and enter into fruitful conversation with people who have opposing views.

The author almost suggests that for someone to truly be literate, they have to be able to take a critical stance toward text, as well as consider multiple perspectives at the same time. This would seem especially pertinent in a connected world where anyone can publish their thinking without the guidance of an editor to question one’s position or sources. Here again, Rebell addresses this issue by connecting media literacy and the role of the school.

Accelerating use of new digital media presents an additional challenge. Schools need to create and adopt curricula and instructional practices that enable all students to develop media-literacy skills to identify sources of information, distinguish accurate from fake facts, and engage in deliberative online discussions.

The community can also play a role in teaching students to be more civic-minded. This is part of our strategic plan: community engagement. Classrooms have already developed instructional plans that address this area. For example, students interviewed Mineral Point city officials about the governing process. The learning that occurs through these experiences is being measured through more authentic means, such as essays and video creation.

The Rebell article was a good reminder for me about the purpose of public education: to develop responsible and contributing members of society. Literacy and mathematics are in service to the larger goals and ideas for our students and for our community. They work hand-in-hand. Are we responsible for every individual’s actions once they leave the PK-12 world? Of course not. But we are responsible for developing a curriculum that gives every student the best opportunity to successfully navigate a changing world.

High Expectations

Have you heard the following statement made in the past?

That teacher has really high expectations.

I have. Several times. From experience I have found that this statement, typically coming from an educational leader, means one of two things:

  • The teacher has high expectations and believes all students can learn to their potential. The administrator is stating this because they are proud of him/her.
  • The teacher has high expectations and that is why some students struggle in his/her class. The administrator is stating this because they won’t address the situation.

If the situation is the former, then their beliefs and practices are student-centered. He or she is able to balance grade level and standards-based benchmarks with the immediate needs of the students. They use a variety of strategies and approaches to ensure that each student has access to an excellent educational experience. If a student fails to make sufficient progress, they usually blame themselves and seek out more support and ideas.

If the situation is the latter, then their beliefs and practices are the status quo. He or she is only able to see academic performance as a response to their initial instruction; student needs are secondary to teacher directives. They are limited in or resistant to new strategies and approaches to ensure that each student has access to an excellent educational experience. If a student fails to make sufficient progress, they usually blame others such as interventionists or parents and expect them to provide more support.

I realize that this is a more black-and-white perspective than I usually post on this site. I also realize that a similar dichotomy could also be applied to administrators. In any case, it is only when we understand the true meaning behind our statements that we can truly start to make change schoolwide.

Why we should focus on our beliefs as well as our practices

I was at the front of the school during dismissal, holding the door open for the students leaving. One 3rd grader stopped, looked at me, and asked, “Did you go to college?” “Yes, I did,” I responded. He thought for a moment, then shared quietly, “I don’t think I will go to college.” I asked him why.

Because no one in my family has gone to college.

Right away, I reassured him that if he wanted to go to college. he would be able to. He then talked about how expensive college was, which led to a conversation about scholarships and grants for students who excel in school. (By the way, this is not a typical conversation I have with a 3rd grader. He is a very thoughtful person.)

We can have the most technically skilled teachers in our school. They can receive the best professional development available and be provided all the time they need to prepare instruction and manage other tasks. But if a teacher does not believe that every student in their classroom can be successful readers, writers, and thinkers, then no amount of qualification or ability will have the necessary impact on our students.

Fortunately, beliefs and practices are intertwined. One influences the other. For example, if we try and apply a new practice and find it successful, our beliefs can shift so that we are discontinuing the less innovative practice. Likewise, when we reconsider our current practices because students are not as successful as they could be, we can become more open to new ideas.

A personal example: when I was teaching 5th and 6th grade in a multi-age environment, I leaned on the reading anthology series during the literacy block. I recall one student who was a “word caller”: they could read any text put in front of them, but they had little to no comprehension about what they just read. Frustrated, I sought out resources. Ideas from books by Cris Tovani and Stephanie Harvey were added to my repertoire. After applying these new practices, the student still wasn’t successful. But at least I had more reliable information when sharing my concerns about a possible learning disability with the parent.

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My beliefs changed because my concern for the student outweighed any pride or insecurity I had in my own abilities. Yet teachers do not have to wait for a challenge like mine to take action. In her book Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success (ASCD, 2014), Regie Routman describes characteristics of highly effective teacher-leaders (Appendix I):

  • Articulates core beliefs about teaching, literacy, and learning.
  • Daily practices match stated beliefs.
  • Reflects on how beliefs drive practices.
  • Seeks to improve and adjust beliefs and practices in light of new information and experiences.
  • Is open to productive change.

I’d like to think that I embodied some of these characteristics with the story about my former student. Yet prior to that case, I plowed through the mandated literacy program without giving much thought to the results. I cannot feel guilty, though. I can only share my own story in the hope that others will learn from my experiences.

As we start gathering assessment results from the fall screeners, I encourage all of us to pause for a moment and ask ourselves a few questions:

  1. When it comes to my literacy instruction, why am I doing what I am doing? (What you list is your beliefs.)
  2. If I didn’t have the current resources in my classroom, what would I use for literacy instruction? (You are examining how your beliefs drive your practices.)
  3. How can I ensure that every student not only is successful but also feels successful in my classroom? (You are becoming open to change.)

We can always do better. Every year we have students who don’t believe they are capable or worthy of success. We know they are, and they don’t have to feel this way. It’s our job to model what it means to have high expectations for ourselves. Be open about our personal challenges and how we are currently addressing them. Students need to see us as learners, not just experts. An open and transparent mind can also help maintain a focus on what our students need instead of what we think we need to teach. They are, after all, the reason schools exist.

 

Principals: What Is Your Job with a Capital J?

“What is my job on the planet?” is one question we might do well to ask ourselves over and over again. Otherwise, we may wind up doing somebody else’s job and not even know it.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are, pg. 206

In a previous post, I posed the question: “If you knew that your last day at your school was tomorrow, how would you decide to spend your time?” I offered my own response (spending time in classrooms, ignoring email, etc.). Yet I didn’t address a possible follow up question, one that couches us in our daily realities: How do I find the time to spend with students and teachers in classrooms?

This is a reasonable concern. The emails in our inbox don’t magically disappear. Requisitions need to be approved and evaluations have to be completed. What helped me prioritize my limited time in school is to ask myself a follow-up question (adapted from a chapter title in Kabat-Zinn’s book): What is my job with a capital J?

To find out, I created a T-chart. Next, I looked back on my calendar and started listing all of the tasks I had completed in the past along with what I remembered doing but didn’t schedule. On the left side, I wrote down all of the tasks that should belong to me as a school principal and instructional leader. On the right side, I listed tasks that were my responsibility as a principal but didn’t necessarily need to be completed by me.

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This idea comes from the book The Together Leader by Maia Heyck-Merlin (Jossey-Bass, 2016)

Here’s the list. It’s evolving. For example, I still do some data entry for discipline. I also tend to take care of a few purchase orders because I get uptight about our school budget. But overall, this process was both freeing and empowering. Freeing because I could give myself permission to not feel like I needed to be everywhere at once. Instead I’ve learned to trust staff to be responsive to students’ needs. Empowering because I am finding that staff members who I have asked to take on certain responsibilities are doing as good if not a better job than I would. For example, some of our most popular professional learning experiences have been facilitating by our teachers. I had as much to learn as anyone.

To be clear, I don’t value my tasks over what others might accomplish with me. Everything is important. What I know is that principals cannot do it all. So we have to be selective about how we choose to prioritize our time every day. If our expertise and efforts are best served as instructional leaders, then we have to find ways to delegate some of the non-instructional tasks to other staff members in order to be most effective.

What tasks have you found to be essential or nonessential to your role as a school principal and instructional leader? How did you re-organize responsibilities? Please share in the comments.

The Point of Reading Goals

At the turn of the new year, I took a look at my reading habits. I have participated in the  Goodreads Reading Challenge for the last five years. You set a goal for number of books read, and then document each book you read with a date finished, rating and maybe even a review. Here is how I have fared.

  • 2013: 12 books read out of a goal of 40
  • 2014: No challenge accepted
  • 2015: 56 books read out of a goal of 50
  • 2016: 55 books read out of a goal of 60
  • 2017: 49 books read out of a goal of 52

I saw some interesting patterns and trends here. First, I was very unsuccessful the first time I participated in the Reading Challenge, so much so that I failed to document a goal for 2014 (I’m sure I read). Second, the only year I met my goal was in 2015. That is a success rate of 20%, if you define success as meeting an arbitrary benchmark. Third, my average number of books read for the past three years is 53, or one book per week. Knowing that the top 1% of earners read at least one book a month on average, I am looking forward to my future financial wealth.

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Photo by Breather on Unsplash

This last point is my attempt at humor, but there is truth here as well. Habitual readers tend to find success in life, both personal and professional. They are typically more knowledgable about the world and have greater empathy for people in other cultures. The books I read vary in genre, author, length, etc., which broadens my perspective. Some books are for kids, such as the ones I read aloud to my children, but many are for me. Reading is a selfish act that also inspires selflessness and a desire to affect the greater good.

I keep track of my reading because it is important to me and the community of readers I know online and offline. I don’t set reading goals to hit a number or see how many more books I can read than others. My list of books read provides me with a literary history, a chronology of my reading life. If I don’t reach my goal, what’s the big deal? I’d rather know whether I have an imbalance of fiction and nonfiction. These are points worth stressing in our classrooms so our students don’t miss the forest for the trees.

 

 

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.