Getting Curious About Change

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Photo by Bing Han on Unsplash

It’s mid-August. That means educators are starting to think about coming back for a new school year. When you read this last sentence, what feelings arise? Excitement? Anxiety? Maybe a mix depending on your situation and status. (Hopefully not dread…)

One anxiety-inducing event that a school leader is often responsible for is introducing a new initiative as part of a building goal. I don’t think I need to list all of the emotions that might arise when we prepare for any type of organizational change. Regardless of where a school faculty is heading, it’s generally expected that the destination is somewhat unknown. No SMART goal can accurately predict the outcomes of a true learning experience.

While I think it is wise to address any possible emotions with faculty, especially if they have been fatigued by many initiatives from the past, I believe the most important feeling we want to cultivate with our colleagues experiencing change is curiosity.

When we get curious about a change, we make mental room for considering what’s possible. There’s a focus on the future instead of dwelling primarily on what has come before. For example, in our school we are exploring effective reading instruction. In the past the leadership team and I have prepared PD session topics for the entire school year in the prior summer. This year we are offering teachers a variety of professional resources to explore together in self-selected groups. Our learning will be directed by the questions we ask, the discussions we facilitate, and the ideas we discover, share and try out. This independent study will comprise our entire fall professional learning.

Eventually, we will come together on specific and common studies regarding reading instruction. Yet this PD focus – our collective change – will be the product of our initial curiosity. One teacher emailed me this summer, reflecting on some of the changes for 2018-2019. “I am really looking forward to the possibilities for this school year.” She wasn’t wishing away her summer. She probably had some nervousness about the fall. But there seemed to be a healthy balance in her message, a sense of calm and confidence during a time that can often feel turbulent.

How are you feeling about the upcoming school year? How might you get curious about any expected changes? Please share in the comments.

 

 

Priorities

Last week I sent an email out to our contributors, thanking them for their continued presence and participation on this site after this summer’s book study. Like last year, I inquired about their current interest in staying involved with the blog as well as shared ideas about how to improve the learning experience here for everyone.

One thing that impresses me about this group is how willing they are to contribute their time, energy, and ideas to this site. I am also impressed when they say, in so many words, “Sorry, can’t write or participate right now.” In either case, what they are communicating is their current priorities. Family, friends and outside interests (i.e. beyond the bubble of education) are necessary to stay balanced and to live an interesting life.

Thinking about priorities, I am reminded of a passage from author David Mitchell, in his essay “Neglect Everything Else”. It comes from the anthology Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, edited by Joe Fassler. (Thanks to Brenda Power, editor at Choice Literacy, for discovering and sharing this book.)

The world is very good at distracting us. Much of the ingenuity of our remarkable species goes toward finding new ways to distract ourselves from things that really matter. The Internet – it’s lethal, isn’t it? Maintaining focus is critical, I think, in the presence of endless distraction. You’ve only time to be a halfway decent parent, plus one other thing. (117)

I bolded the last sentence in my copy of this book. I also plan on writing it out in my planner before the school year begins as a constant reminder.

When I put out an inquiry to contribute here, or maybe to ask teachers in my school to complete a task or take that next step in our journey, I have to remember that we too can be a distraction. I’d like to think that what I ask for is of more value than some of the rabbit holes that can we fall into online. But still. When we request the attention of our colleagues, I want it to be worth everyone’s time which is invaluable and irreplaceable.

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)

Are We Talking About the Same Tree? (the Importance of Clarity)

The following is a crosspost from my school blog. I thought it might be relevant here as well. Have an excellent Labor Day weekend!  – Matt

Two members of the maintenance team stopped me in the high school hallway.

“Are you good with us taking down the cedar tree in the front of your building?”

When asked, I was 98% sure which tree they were referring to. Steve, our building custodian, and I had discussed last year about removing the tree. It had outgrown its space. The branches had now extended above the walls at the second level. It hindered the maintenance crew’s efforts to remove the snow from that upper area.

Still, I wanted to be sure that the tree they were talking about was, in fact, the same tree.

“Let me go back to school, check out that tree, and confirm with Steve.”

Yes, it was that tree.

 

Was it necessary for me to go back and confirm this, even though I was 98% confident? What’s the worst that could have happened? They could have cut down the wrong tree, I guess.

With teaching and leading in a school, it is even more critical that we are all on the same page. Clarity is critical for trust. Without clarity, we make assumptions about people’s beliefs and actions. For example, if we had different understandings of what it means to teach “the whole child”, our school might have different expectations and approaches in our work with kids. Some of us might not value the social and emotional needs of students as much as others. That is how we end up with inequity in our schools. Student placement in classrooms becomes a lottery system in which some kids get a considerably different educational experience than others.

Our faculty is engaged in the journey of knowing which tree we are talking about. Our “tree” is literacy. Specifically, we are focused on the connection between reading and writing. We are meeting monthly during professional learning communities to watch expert instruction together via video, have professional conversations about what we saw, and then try out the instructional strategy in the classroom. Celebrations of our efforts and student learning results happen regularly. Through these activities, we are achieving clarity about promising practices for reading and writing instruction. We are on the same page which helps ensure students are receiving equally effective instruction.

This is not to say that teachers don’t have some latitude in how they facilitate learning in their classrooms. The neat thing about this work is that it can be applied to many different resources and units of instruction. I’ve heard the phrase “This is common sense!” when teachers have engaged in learning about effective literacy instruction. As Regie Routman, the developer of our professional resources, notes, “When has common sense not been acceptable in schools?” As we have found agreement about what is important for all students to experience, we have collected these beliefs as statements and made them visible throughout the school.

 

As a school, we will continue this work of not making assumptions about our teaching and learning philosophies. We will continue to examine our instruction, our students’ results, and our beliefs about literacy. Even when we might be 98% sure about our work, we will strive to be on the same page, 100%.

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!)