Professional Reading: When do we find the time?

For the first time in a while, I had an open schedule at school. Daily classroom visits were completed. An instructional walk was conducted. Absences and requisitions were approved. When these opportunities occur, I try to read professionally at school.

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When I first started reading professionally at school, I felt guilty. Would others think I was wasting time, believing I should be in classrooms and in the hallways whenever possible? I would close my door to avoid any judgment.

I’ve come to realize that reading professionally should be a top priority for literacy leaders. In order to be seen as credible in the eyes of our faculty, we have to be knowledgeable about teaching and learning. Reading professionally helps ensure that we are aware of new educational research that could positively impact students. Taking the time to learn from others through text models for everyone in the school how we should all spend our time.

Reading professionally doesn’t happen without forethought, communication, and intent. Here are some steps I have taken to make this part of my day a priority.

  • Subscribe to professional journals and magazines.

I use school funds to purchase subscriptions to Educational Leadership and Educational Update (ASCD), The Reading Teacher and Reading Research Quarterly (International Literacy Association), Literacy TodayLanguage Arts and Voices from the Middle (National Council of Teachers of English), Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center), and Principal (National Association of Elementary School Principals).

  • Schedule time for professional reading.

I’ve started putting this time on my calendar when I think of it. If it is written down, I am more likely to do it. That said, scheduling time for professional reading is less about making sure I am reading professionally, and more about communicating to my superintendent and my staff that this is a priority for me.

  • Set a goal and share what was learned.

Regie Routman at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention suggested that school leaders read one article a week and share a brief summary with staff. This can be communicated through a weekly newsletter or even email, with the article attached. By the end of the month, four articles have been shared out. This information can be a way to start a staff meeting, by asking teachers to share their insights from one of the articles.

  • Read professional books related to your goals.

I try to select texts that will have an immediate impact on my current professional goals and objectives. This is in contrast to picking up a book because it just came out and everyone is talking about it. I find that, in my limited time, I have to be selective about longer texts I choose to read. For example, I am halfway through The Together Leader by Maia Heyck-Merlin; my professional goal is to become more organized and efficient.

But how do I find the time?

I’ve been in situations where there is barely any time to go to the bathroom or have lunch, let alone scheduling the time to read professionally.

Not knowing anyone’s context, I have a few general suggestions. First, revisit your daily tasks. What should you be doing and what should you not? For the latter, find ways to reassign those tasks, find more efficient methods, or jettison altogether. Second, set no more than two priorities. I have two priorities this year: build trust and increase literacy knowledge. Anything else that comes my way I do my best to delegate, defer or dismiss. Finally, communicate with your supervisor about taking school time to professionally read. This gives you peace of mind when you open up that journal or book at school.

So what are you reading professionally? How do you find the time? Please share in the comments.

 

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.

Ten Ways to Not Make Mistakes as a School Principal

  • Always try to find a happy medium when working with staff and families regarding complex problems.
  • Announce all of your classroom visits and observations. That way teachers will have a heads up when you are coming and will be better prepared for instruction.
  • In your newsletters to families, avoid writing about topics beyond appopriate clothing for the seasons, upcoming school events, and generic forms of praise.
  • Don’t ever veer from the student handbook regarding attendance and student discipline, regardless of the circumstances or context.
  • Allow faculty issues to fester until it comes to head, and then swoop in to solve it for them.
  • Avoid the staff lounge for fear of catching unpleasant remarks about you or your performance as a principal.
  • Make no moves forward right away with an initiative to allow all staff members to feel more comfortable with the possibility of change.
  • Attend every teacher/team meeting and take copious notes. This will ensure that there are no surprises and conversations run smoothly.
  • Expect that teachers stick closely to the prescribed programs and collect weekly lesson plans. This way, the curriculum will be delivered with fidelity.
  • Have an open door policy so you can drop everything you are doing when someone stops in and asks if you’ve got a minute.

(This post is satirical, of course. Avoidance and black-and-white thinking may be less demanding cognitively, but the results are often worse than if we had acted. We were hired to be leaders and learners. So – lead and learn!)

Mistakes Will Be Made

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I recently read aloud the first book in the Timmy Failure series to my son. The author, Stephan Pastis is the creator of the comic strip Pearls Before Swine. The first volume in this series, Mistakes Were Made, aptly summarizes Timmy’s struggles. He is a young, clueless detective who could not find his way out of a paper bag. Timmy’s ineffectiveness as an investigator is due to his overconfidence and his unwillingness to listen to others, even when they are right and are trying to help. My son has thoroughly enjoyed this series. He listened to the second book in the series on CD. We purchased copies of the first two volumes for him so he can reread them. He is now asking me to read aloud the third installment. I am only too happy to oblige.

I thankfully do not have a lot in common with Timmy. While I am a part of a new school district, it will be with a position I am familiar with (elementary principal). My experience as an educator spans sixteen years. I would like to think of myself as a good listener and leader. As prepared as I feel, however, I know that mistakes will be made.

I bring this up because more than once someone has told me how much they are looking forward to what I will bring to Mineral Point Elementary School. A humbling news article was printed in the local paper almost immediately after I was hired. The expectations are clear: The school will only improve with my addition. While I appreciate the vote of confidence, I know the sheen of my hire will eventually dull. I’ll make decisions in which not everyone will agree with. Circumstances will put me in no-win situations. Plus, I am a person. As they say, “To err is human”. It’s the nature of everyone, not just the principalship.

So what can one do in these circumstances? First, it is imperative that trust is built and relationships are developed. There has to be an investment in people, that social capital in which I can draw upon down the road when I make hard decisions. Staff need to know that I am there for them and will get to know them as a person. With trust built and relationships developed, they will be more likely to see me in that same light.

The toughest thing about the power of trust is that it’s very difficult to build and very easy to destroy. The essence of trust building is to emphasize the similarities between you and the customer.

― Thomas J. Watson

Also, having systems in place to allow for trust to build and relationships to develop is necessary. Mineral Point Unified School District has invested in this professional infrastructure. For example, there is a full time library media/technology integration specialist at the elementary building. Time has been allocated each week on Wednesday afternoons to discuss curriculum, instruction, and assessment. A current elementary staff member has been repositioned as an instructional coach. Providing time, resources and support for professionals to have important conversations about our practice will only deepen trust and relationships.

Finally, it is critical to keep the focus on the reason why we work in education: Student learning. It is not about the curriculum or the tools. It’s about the kids. It seems quite simple. Yet as anyone who works in education knows, it is much more complex than that. So many expectations and tasks, helpful and otherwise, are thrown at us throughout the year. It can be easy to get bogged down in the details. My job is to help staff stay above the fray by protecting time to collaborate and offering strategies for being more effective in our work.

As I said, mistakes will be made. This is one of the few things I can count on as I prepare for the school year. By building trust and developing relationships, providing structure for our professional conversations and focusing on what’s most important, any mistakes I make will be mitigated with these positive and intentional efforts.

I will be taking some time off in August from my blog to complete some writing projects. I may post my progress on my website (mattrenwick.com) in the meantime.

The Three P’s of Learning and Living

This is a transcript of my speech I gave for our 5th graders’ Moving On Up ceremony. It is also my last address I will give at Howe Elementary School, as I have taken a leadership position with the Mineral Point Area School District, also in Wisconsin.

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So how many days are left? (smattering of responses)  Uh, teachers, I was addressing the students…;-)

That’s okay! Having a clean end to a school year can be rewarding for all of us, educators included. It allows us to take a step back and reflect on the school year as a whole. A little bit of disengagement with the current pace of life is not a bad thing.

During these transitions, it is also good to take stock in our current situation. This means acknowledging where we came from, where we are at, and where we anticipate going. As I took some time to do this recently in preparation for this speech, I discovered that my life as an educator has followed three basic principles up to this point. They are not steps to be taken. Rather, these principles served as guideposts. I share and describe these with you today, as I believe they might also apply to your own personal learning and living journeys.

The first principle is passion. When I was your age, I was passionate about pretty much one thing: Sports. It didn’t matter if it was Little League, our school’s basketball team, the wrestling club, or a pickup football game in a friend’s backyard. If an athletic contest was taking place, I was sure to be involved.

Okay adults, you may want to cover your ears…One thing I did not have a passion for was school. It wasn’t that I was a bad student. I just didn’t work as hard as I could have. Part of that is my own fault – I could have made more of a commitment to my education, and getting my grades up to where they belong with a little more effort. But I didn’t. Also a part of this lack of engagement was that I often didn’t see the relevance in the learning experiences I was asked to pursue. Unlike sports, where our practices were always in preparation for an opportunity to showcase our talents and abilities, school lacked that same opportunity for me. I did what I needed to do in school in order to participate in my passion.

As I progressed through school and entered college, I started coaching the very same teams that I used to participate in as a younger student. This is when I realized that my passion for athletics could also be merged with a career, specifically working with kids in school. This led to the second principle I discovered of living and learning: Persistence.

We hear a lot about “grit” and teaching kids to persevere through challenges. It is my personal opinion that you cannot teach this skill. As educators and parents, we can only create the conditions in which learners will want to pursue a level of mastery and expertise in an area of interest.  That is what happened with me. Once I knew what I believed I wanted to do as a profession, I worked harder in my academics. I rose from a so-so student in high school to being named to the Dean’s List in college several times. A little bit of passion can go a long way.

The thing about passion creating the conditions for persistence is, when someone wants to become very good at something, we start to identify gaps in our skills and abilities. For me, this happened in my 2nd year of teaching. Previously, I had taught 5th and 6th graders in all subject areas, including reading and writing. I thought I was flying along in my first year, offering kids great literature and opportunities to write about what they read. When I moved to a 3rd and 4th grade position the next year, I realized that while I had been teaching reading and writing, I was not teaching readers and writers. It became evident to me with these younger students that I could not merely expose them to resources.

So I read everything I could about effective literacy instruction. I pored over current resources, attended conferences about differentiation and assessment, and observed veteran teachers in their classrooms. Once I persisted in improving myself, I gradually became the teacher I wanted to be for my students.

When I felt I had become proficient in instruction, I found this need to share it with other educators and make a difference in their professional lives. This led to me getting my administrative license ten years ago, which leads me to my current position at Howe. When I accepted the position five years ago, I felt like this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. This was my purpose in life, the third principle.

What I didn’t anticipate was how my purpose might change between then and today. My passion for education and my persistence in learning everything about my profession evolved into writing about my experiences and the knowledge I had gained to support our work. Writing online in the form of social media and blogging has led to published articles and books on the topics of technology in education and school leadership. This was not in the plans five years ago, yet here I was, trying to balance a full time principal position while writing and share about my work and finding balance with my family and personal life. It was becoming an impossible task.

This year, I realized that purpose in education has changed a bit. I am no longer content with leading a school as my sole pursuit, as admirable as this vocation is. The saddest part about this discovery is that my passions and pursuits are not conducive with being the principal at Howe Elementary School. Something had to give, and it wasn’t going to be my family, nor my writing and everything that comes with that.

Enough about me. (By the way, have you noticed that principals like to hear themselves talk?) This is about your special day. You have achieved a major milestone in your educational career and I congratulate you. You should celebrate. Once the confetti settles, consider some humble advice as you take that next step in your life:

  • Your passions may not align with your current responsibilities. That’s okay. Keep working hard. The habits you build now will transfer when you find what excites you in the future.
  • Don’t let what you believe you are good at right now necessarily determine what you will become later in life. While I loved sports, as many of you do, I did not have the necessary talent to “make it”. I became open to combining what I loved to do with what I could provide for others that would bring satisfaction and stability in my life.
  • Persistence is largely dependent on how relevant one finds their current learning and living experiences. Try not to rely on every person in your life to connect your situations with your personal pursuits. Instead, figure out where the connections are between what you love and what is possible.
  • Allow your circumstances to reveal what your true purpose in life might be. If you look closely enough, you might see that what you are striving for may not be what you originally anticipated. This is also okay. It’s a natural part of the change process.
  • Write out or draw a visual of your dream job. I did this at the recommendation of a close colleague. It was excellent advice. When I started applying for positions this spring, I approached each interview as an opportunity for the district to partner with me on our mutual goals (instead of trying to sell myself as a “good fit” for the district). If I was going to move forward, it had to be on my terms with regard to my dream job.
  • Resist allowing others to frame what you are seeking. This is important. They mean well, but they don’t know you or what you are truly after. For example, a few districts did not hire me for the position I sought, but thought I would be excellent for __________. I politely declined. Although it was scary, especially for my wife as I had already resigned my position at Howe, I am glad I kept after what I really wanted.
  • At the same time, consider the advice of others, especially those you respect and admire. They have most likely gone through similar experiences and can offer suggestions that will be helpful. Having good mentors in your life is essential. Still, keep your focus on what you are really after. When ready to move forward with what you really want, don’t settle. You may regret it.

To close, the principles of passion, persistence, and purpose lead me to think about an important phrase you most likely learned about during your social studies instruction. It is at the beginning of our country’s Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Notice that it is not “Life, Liberty and Happiness”? “the pursuit of” is critical language. Our founding fathers understood that while it is our right to live our lives as free people, it is up to us to find our true happiness. It is not an entitlement, but an opportunity if you so choose to pursue it. I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors. I will be thinking about you as I pursue my renewed purpose in life. Have a great summer.

Moving Forward

The following is a letter to Howe Elementary School families regarding my decision to take a new position in Mineral Point, Wisconsin

On Monday, May 23, I was hired as elementary principal in the Mineral Point Area School District. This position will allow for some curriculum duties as well as more opportunities to write, consult, and facilitate professional learning for other educators. I have enjoyed my time as the building leader at Howe and as an educator with Wisconsin Rapids Public Schools for the past seventeen years.

Change is a natural part of life. We see it in the seasons, in our kids growing up, and as technologies and globalization create a smaller planet. One of the few constants in our lives is change.

What is not a constant is how we respond during these seasons of change. Situations arise that cause a disruption in our lives, and we can view them in one of two ways: As obstacles to be overcome, or as opportunities to embrace. Our perspectives about these types of situations are guided by our beliefs about learning and life, which informs our judgment. As a father, I want to model for my own kids how to discern between the two and be open to the possibilities.

When I became principal at Howe Elementary School five years ago, I believed that this is where I would remain as an educator. Then I became connected. Resources and ideas were available everywhere via Twitter, Google+, and professional blogs. I learned from others outside my own immediate circle and my knowledge expanded. Pretty soon I was blogging and tweeting myself, which led to publishing articles and books about educational leadership and classroom technology. It’s been harder to balance this position and my writing efforts.

My journey has taken an unexpected path that has diverged from my current position. This is not a move for the better or for the worse. It is simply the next step moving forward which had to be taken elsewhere. I wish everyone the best here at Howe and in the Wisconsin Rapids area. I am very proud of our accomplishments as a learning community.

Best,

Mr. Renwick

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.