Why Don’t Schools Focus on Literacy?

Our top hiring criteria — in addition to having the skills to do the job — is, are you a great writer? You have to be a great writer to work here, in every single position, because the majority of our communication is written, primarily because a lot of us work remotely but also because writing is quieter. And we like long-form writing where people really think through an idea and present it.

– Jason Fried of Basecamp, a web-based project management tool (NY Times)

As an elementary principal the last seven years, the schools I have had the honor to lead have hosted site visits. Other schools have come to observe the inner workings of our organization. These visits usually revolve around our literacy initiatives. We share how our continuous focus on reading, writing, speaking, and listening has resulted in increased achievement and engagement for our students. This isn’t something we brag about; it is how we have done business.

Out of the 15 or so schools that have come to visit, can you guess how many have walked away and started their building-wide focus on literacy? To my knowledge: zero. There is not one school that comes to mind when I think about who has walked through our doors and then started addressing a faculty’s capacity for teaching reading and writing. Why is this? What could be the reason for not focusing on literacy on a consistent basis for their professional learning efforts? Next are a couple of possibilities.

1. Schools are focused on something else.

I have been making a list of all the initiatives school leaders cite as the reason they cannot focus on literacy, at least at this time.

– Trauma-based learning
– Mindfulness
– PBL
– STEM/STEAM
– Personalized learning
– PBIS
– Responsive Classroom
– Poverty
– Equity
– Engagement
– Standards-based grading
– Blended learning or a 1:1 technology initiative

To be fair, many of these professional learning initiatives are promising. For example, our school has invested in Responsive Classroom training for staff and we have found it effective. But it’s not our focus. We employ Responsive Classroom strategies to better teach our students to read and write.

That’s the point we have made to a few school leaders. “You can still do __________ (fill in the initiative) while you are focused on literacy as a school.” They typically balk at this. Why? That might be the next reason…

2. Focusing on literacy doesn’t seem exciting.

Becoming better teachers of readers and writers may not sound as intriguing as a STEM/STEAM initiative or going 1:1 with technology. It might not make for good print or spark intrigue when proposing this focus to district leaders or a school board.

But what does that tell us? To me, I see a schoolwide focus on literacy as a safe way to innovate as a faculty. There are many routes you can go if one doesn’t want to start with the foundations of literacy. For example, a leadership team can begin by integrating effective reading and writing strategies with a STEM/STEAM initiative. A faculty could also delve into the new literacies while going 1:1. Media literacy, global literacy, and digital literacy are all relevant and important skills for students to acquire.

3. Schools don’t know where to start.

Building teachers’ capacity to teach reading and writing is a challenge. It can create some anxiety with school leaders not knowing how to get started with this initiative, nor how to keep the focus for several years (I’ve learned and read that changing teacher practice typically takes around five years).

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The nice thing is there are a number of professional learning programs out there that can provide the direction and resources for a schoolwide literacy initiative. For example, the Regie Routman in Residence online professional development program offers videos, articles, and learning experiences for a multi-year approach to building teacher capacity to teach reading and writing. I have also heard good things about Linda Dorn’s Comprehensive Literacy Model. What both offer is a framework for teaching literacy, instead of a scripted or commercial program. Teachers have some autonomy and ownership in how promising literacy practices are implemented in the classroom. These types of programs also position teachers as leaders of the learning instead of merely recipients of knowledge and skills. I have seen with my own eyes how a faculty can come to embrace effective reading and writing instruction as a sustainable part of their school culture.

Considering these three reasons, I would add one more thought, a common thread for why literacy is not a focus: it’s not easy. School leaders might not have the desire or will to change teacher practice. Layering a less effective initiative over current instruction is an easier approach that looks good to the public. But if the initiative is not connected to literacy in some way, and a school cannot show that their students are successful readers and writers, then these efforts are a disservice to the families and community they serve.

(Image: Booksource)

The Power of Quality Tier 1 Instruction

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A reflection of a former classroom teacher:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leading as a Reading Principal

As an educator, I have always been passionate about literacy and have continued to seek out new learning.  My literacy thinking has been refined as I’ve read books by Regie Routman, Donalyn Miller, Boushey and Moser, Richard Allington, Fisher and Frey, and now Jennifer Allen. Becoming a Literacy Leader is a goldmine of a book for literacy specialists/instructional coaches, making me wish I could go back into a role to focus just on coaching literacy to apply my learning from Allen, but then I remember that I love my job as principal too!  Since I wear many hats as a principal and cannot go in depth to the type of literacy support that Allen and literacy coaches provide teachers, I want to share some of the visible ways that principals can be reading principals. My ideas shared are not my own, I’ve gained these from the authors I’ve mentioned above and others in my Professional Learning Network.

1. Be a reader and share it with students!  I love to share with students that I’m a reader. I get into classrooms the first week of school to read a book to kick-off the new school year and I also go back in after winter break to talk about reading resolutions.

2. Encourage teachers to share their reading lives with students. I post my reading sign in the library for students to see (what I’m reading and how many books I’ve read) and ask teachers to do something similar to model for students that they are readers too.

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One year I asked all teachers to identify 10 things about themselves as a reader and we filled a bulletin board with who we are as readers for students to see. 

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3. Share your reading life with staff. With each new book I’m reading, I update my email signature to show it so each time I send an email, I’m also recommending a book! I have a few staff members who do this and I have gained new book ideas just from their email signatures.3.pngIn addition, my staff memo blog includes a widget to show the books I have read/logged on Goodreads this year.

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4. Talk about books with kids. I do this when I’m in classrooms during literacy or during the lunch room. I especially love getting kids talking at the lunch table because students need to hear their peers talk about books to be able to seek out book recommendations from others.  My oldest child is a hesitant reader. He can read, but he doesn’t like to unless he gets hooked on a book, but getting the hook is the struggle. A couple of years ago, I knew he would love The False Prince and I tried to get him to read it. Then one day out of nowhere he came home with a book he was so excited about that he heard his friends raving about so he started it. Guess what book it was?

55. Learn about literacy with your staff. Dave Burgess, author of Teach Like a Pirate (2012) asks the great metaphorical question “Are you a lifeguard or swimmer?” about whether or not you are walking the talk. He explains:“Lifeguards sit above the action and supervise the pool. Although he or she is focused, there is a distinct sense of separateness both physically and mentally. In contrast, a swimmer is out participating and an integral part of the action.” I have continued to learn right along with my teachers as we implemented Daily 5/CAFE, Lucy Calkins Units of Study for Writing and now moving into Units of Study for Reading. I even taught a summer school class to apply what I learned so I could be as supportive as possible for our teachers.

6. Ensure that classroom libraries have books for students to read. Gone are the days of the traditional basal that all students read (they weren’t all reading it!) or committing Readacide by having all reading the same chapter book together. We must ensure that classroom libraries have a wide variety of books that are of interest to students. What role do principals play in this? This means letting teachers budget for ordering additional books and letting them wait until they know their students as readers to make purchases later in the year to find books their readers will want. Supporting the librarian or IMC specialist to purchase books throughout the year so that when kids hear there’s a new book coming out they don’t have to wait until the next budget approval…they are waiting at the library the day they know the book is out eagerly hoping to be the first to check it out! 6.png

7. Continue to support teachers with professional learning. Provide your teachers with the opportunities to attend conferences, workshops, online webinars, or even purchase/share professional books, articles or blog posts.

8. Build up teacher leaders. Those teachers that got so excited about what they were reading and started applying it in their classroom? They have potential to be leaders in your building. Feed that hunger they have for growing as literacy experts. Let them lead a staff book study or present at a staff meeting/PD day. Cover another teacher’s class so they can observe in their classroom and learn from each other.

9. Encourage teachers to share book recommendations with each other. I love Allen’s examples in the book of having a place in the staff lounge for a teacher book swap (for personal reading) and a bulletin board for teachers to post read-aloud ideas for one another.

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Found on p. 13 of Becoming a Literacy Leader.

10. Make reading a fun part of your school culture. Support classrooms to have great places to read (not confined to a desk…you don’t do that at home when you’re enjoying a good book!) 8

Do crazy things to show that reading can be fun. During a Scholastic principals challenge, I read up high all day so kids could see (and I got a lot of great reading done) to enter our school in a contest to win books. Several classes even joined me throughout the day be reading on the floor for a while so I wasn’t alone all day during class time.

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Every once in a while I make a special weather announcement to inform the school that there’s a reading blizzard on the way so they have to stay prepared with a book no matter where they are during the day, because when it hits they will need to take cover with a book.  Then at a random time of the day, I make the announcement that the blizzard is here and they need to stop what they’re doing to read for 10 minutes. (This also helps build the habit to always have a book with you!)

I’d love to hear what other visible ways principals lead the reading culture!

Homework: Helpful, Harmful, or Otherwise?

As I write this, I am out on our back patio. My kids are in the neighbor’s backyard, flying a kite with friends. They had recently recovered the kite from a tree. This time around, they are staying away from the natural hazard. I don’t know how they got the kite down previously; they had figured it out before I was called to the rescue.

Imagine, instead, if I had made my kids stay in after school to finish their homework.

Four years ago, I shared my attempt at revising our homework policy at my former school. It was more policy than practice – we briefly discussed it, then moved on to something related to literacy, I’m sure. Looking back, it was a topical change at best. My suggestions were within the paradigm that homework was still necessary. We never really delved into the idea of homework as a concept that may be outdated.

I’m torn. Some of the work students bring home can make for an interesting study. For example, my son was recently assigned a family heritage project. He had to locate an item that is a part of our family’s history and culture, learn about its significance through interviewing family members, and then communicate his new knowledge through speaking. Storytelling is a skill they have been working on for a while.

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My daughter has elected to bring home learning. She is participating in Genius Hour in her classroom. This primary class refers to these inquiry-based learning activities as “Wonder Projects”. My wife and I are often recruited to support her most current questions, whether that be taking pictures of her next to enclosed animals (“What animals most often live in a zoo and why?”) or setting up a mini-art studio in our dining room (“What are some famous artists and their artwork?”).

These examples are, by definition, homework. One was assigned, one wasn’t. Both facilitated a unique learning experience in our home. This seems to fly in the face of research, such as John Hattie’s meta-analysis that homework has a negligible effect in elementary school and a significant one at the secondary. To be fair, homework that I just described is rare. The typical fare is worksheetsreading logs, and studying spelling words for Friday’s test. One can understand with these examples why schools are starting to outright ban homework.

These absolute policies also result in absolute thinking.  My post here is not to admonish or advocate for homework. Rather, let’s bring some common sense into the conversation. An instructional coach, Dana Murphy, came up with a novel way for teachers to think before they assign homework.

In other words, if we are assigning homework, is it more important than opportunities for kids to play, read, or spend time with families? If the answer is “no”, then how can we rethink our instructional approach for the 6-8 hours that we do have students in our classrooms?

Gotta go. The kids are burying each other in landscape pebbles.

The Plot Against America (A Book Review)

Plot_against_usa.jpgFor some time I have wanted to read The Plot Against America by Phillip Roth (Vintage, 2004). It taps into my interest in “What if” scenarios and historical fiction.

I have avoided purchasing it until recently. This past summer, I was walking in the used book section of the Barnes & Noble in Middleton, WI when I spotted it. For $1 I couldn’t go wrong.

Did I find the book or did the book find me? The premise of the novel is Charles Lindbergh is elected president, denying Franklin D. Roosevelt a third term. The famous aviator arrives at the White House on a singular promise: to avoid going to war with Germany. His isolationist platform is in contrast to FDR’s growing concerns regarding anti-semitism spreading across Europe. Lindbergh’s affinity for the Nazi party comes to light more and more as the story progresses. This piece of fiction is based on the events of this time, told through the author’s perspective as a Jewish child growing up in New Jersey. It almost reads like a memoir with all of the details.

The Plot Against America sat on my bedside or in my bookshelf for quite a while. The Trump campaign for president raised my concerns as the summer wore one. His accomplishments corresponded with my interest. Trump takes the lead in the Republican primary race – I read the first chapter. He wins the nomination – I read the next chapter. The more we learned about Trump’s affiliation with Russia, the more I was starting to see parallels as I became engrossed in the novel.

Consider:

  • In the book: Lindbergh is a celebrity with no experience in political office. In real life: Trump is a celebrity with no experience in political office.
  • In the book: Lindbergh seeks a peace agreement with the Nazi party. In real life: Trump suggests lifting sanctions on Russia and praising their leadership.
  • In the book: Lindbergh surrounds himself with cabinet members sympathetic to the Nazi cause, including industry titan Henry Ford. In real life: Trump surrounds himself with potential cabinet members sympathetic to Putin’s Russia, including oil magnate Rex Tillerson.
  • In the book: Lindbergh creates a program in which Jews are encouraged to relocate to another part of the country in hopes of breaking up Jewish communities. In real life: Trump advocates for a Muslim registry and to ban people of this religion from coming to America.

I won’t go on to avoid spoilers. What I can say is there are even more disturbing parallels between Roth’s work and what is currently happening later in the novel. I think if I would have read this book even a year ago, it would not have had the same impact on me as it does now. Context matters. After finishing the book, I continue to think about the first line in an excellent New Yorker article by Evan Osnos, who made similar comparisons between Trump’s rise and a biography set in Communist China.

What is the precise moment, in the life of a country, when tyranny takes hold? It rarely happens in an instant; it arrives like twilight, and, at first, the eyes adjust.

This may be what is happening right now. New ways of acting are becoming normal. That’s why The Plot Against America is one of the most frightening books I have ever read, and this is coming from a connoisseur of Stephen King.

The prophetic qualities of this book are disturbing. My biggest worry: Characters in the story started to accept their current situation as reality, even rationalizing behaviors to avoid dealing with the facts that were right in front of their noses.

So why did I read this book? Obviously I didn’t want to merely escape – maybe to understand? George Will, former staunch Republican who recently disavowed his party in lieu of Trump’s rise, made an insightful comment in a speech, which I do my best to recall.

If I were in charge of the world, every college student would major in history.

George knows his history, as does Phillip Roth. Fiction is not fact, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Being widely read and knowledgeable is a good thing, maybe the best thing, in today’s world of fake news and partisanship. In light of tomorrow’s inauguration, I hope everyone picks up a book they’ve been meaning to read and become better for it.

What should you do when students have already read or heard the book?

This seems to be a constant in just about every school: You have that favorite read aloud you have been waiting to share with your students. When you announce the read aloud, students say, “We already read that book.” or “Our teacher read it to us last year.”

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What do you do? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Read it aloud anyway.

Readers reread books if they were a favorite and/or had something profound to learn. Explaining this to students should help with any disgruntled listeners. A main point of the read aloud is for students to hear the written word spoken. If it is an excellent title, there should hopefully be few complaints. It might be wise to ask first before forging ahead, such as offering a choice between the book they know and other acceptable titles.

  • Read aloud parts of the book.

Selecting some passages to share with students who have already heard the book offers multiple benefits. First, it is a nice compromise with the kids. We can show that we are listening to them and value their opinion. Second, reading aloud selected passages is an opportunity to notice author’s craft. Teachers can point out what made the author’s writing so good and worth reading again. Finally, it is an opportunity to…

  • Select a new title to read aloud.

Excellent titles that would make for great read alouds are published every year. By being open minded about what books to share with students, we discover new books together.

If you would like a book that is similar to the title you had planned but the kids already heard, check out Amazon. Put in the title into the search bar, and Amazon will share other books readers have purchased in addition to the one you listed. For example, when I looked up Charlotte’s Web, Amazon suggested Stuart Little (also by E.B. White), Pippi Longstockings, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Mr. Popper’s Penguins. These are all classics for a reason.

(Note: Whenever possible, avoid Amazon and buy local. Click here for reasons why.)

You can also connect with your school’s library media specialist (and what a crime if you do not have one). Going with the Charlotte’s Web example, he or she would likely steer you to titles of the same genre and topic, such as Babe: The Gallant Pig and Owls in the Family. Your library media specialist may also suggest newer titles such as Flora and Ulysses and The Cheshire Cat: A Dickens of a Tale.

If you do not have library media specialist (again, a crime), check out the E.B. White award winners for best read alouds from each year. You can also purchase a copy of The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. It was my go-to guide when I taught 5th and 6th grade. I have the last four editions, as Trelease would update the treasury of book lists. He also offers suggestions on his website.

An essential element in reading aloud is what you choose to read.

-Jim Trelease

Whatever approach you take when kids have already heard the story, the more important point is reading aloud to your students every day.

Acceptable Risk

During some of my classroom-school visits last week, I noticed the following:

  • A teacher was reading aloud an everybody book to her students, specifically a biography about a key historical figure from the Civil Rights era. This was happening at the end of the day, usually a pack-up-and-get-ready-to-go time.
  • 1st graders visited a local wildlife refuge. They experienced the habitats that they had been talking and reading about for the past couple of weeks.
  • The entire school engaged in a “read out”, where families joined their kids to read together in many common areas on school grounds. The local public library was also on hand, encouraging everyone to sign up for their summer reading challenge.

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Families read with their children in the hallway during our school’s read out.
What do all three activities have in common? That no one beyond our school walls was aware of these learning experiences until someone shared some form of media about them online.

Blogging, social media, and other forms of digital communications are becoming a necessary part of an educator’s life. It is pretty easy to do nowadays: Take a picture with a smartphone, add a caption, and post away. My goal is to get one share out a day, although lately I have been able to post only once a week.

Yes, there is risk. Risk in having strangers peer inside your school. Risk in being visible online which might allow someone to post a hurtful comment. Risk in posting content that comes across not as intended to the audience. 

But isn’t there also risk in allowing noneducators to make assumptions about the daily life in schools? The television shows currently out there that portray teachers, principals and students are usually not flattering, mostly archetypes to get a laugh. Pundits criticize schools as failing, knowing that the educators in those schools will most likely not respond. And if all our families have as artifacts of their child’s learning consists of a few conference nights and what’s in their backpacks, are we to blame society’s sometimes negative views about public education?

Having a presence as a classroom and school on social media is an acceptable risk. The benefits outweigh any negatives. So what’s stopping us? In my four years of sharing our school’s experiences on social media, I have found any negatives to be minimal, almost nonexistent. There is risk in whatever we choose.

As you make plans for the next school year, put “digital presence” on the top of your list of goals. The minimal risk will lead to many rewards, including improved family communication, teaching students digital citizenship, and having a bevy of artifacts to support our own instruction and leadership. It’s worth it.