Literacy Leaders: You can’t name it if you don’t know it

Without a synergy between literacy and leadership and a committed, joint effort by teachers and principals, fragile achievement gains do not hold.

– Regie Routman, Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success

In a primary classroom today, I was observing the teacher reading aloud a picture book about penguins. The students were active participants, answering questions about the main character and offering their theories about what might happen next in the story. “Could anyone else share their thinking?” invited the teacher, after affirming one student’s response with an objective “Mmm-hmm”.

After writing down my observational narrative (instructional walk) of the read-aloud experience, I gave the teacher my notes while commenting publicly about the lesson in front of the student. “Wow, I could tell you all understood the story well. You made predictions about what would happen next, using details from the book.” The class then shared that tomorrow they would be reading a nonfiction text about penguins online.

By sharing what I observed with the class, I did more than recognize the teacher for her efforts in being intentional with her read aloud. I also named the strategies – making a prediction, using details for support – as a reinforcement of their thinking. Students heard the point of the lesson from two different adults. My presence was value-added; I didn’t distract from the lesson but instead became a part of the learning experience.

My formal educational background is not literacy-rich. While I enjoyed reading as a student, my college studies were more focused on mathematics and middle-level philosophy. When I became an elementary principal, I had limited background knowledge about promising reading and writing practices. Thankfully, I had literacy leaders in my prior school who kindly yet firmly encouraged me to participate in our professional development focused on literacy. My first visits to classrooms were as a learner more than a partner, but eventually I felt competent to engage in the process.

Educators enter the world of leadership from many backgrounds. Some involve reading and writing instruction; some do not. Regardless of our backgrounds, we have an obligation to know literacy through formal and informal professional learning experiences. It’s a continuous commitment as new forms of literacy are growing in the information age. Lifelong learning gives me the language to engage in literacy conversations with faculty, an essential trait for sustainable student success.

Excellent literacy resources sell themselves

“When you don’t know what you believe, everything becomes an argument. Everything is debatable. But when you stand for something, decisions are obvious.” 
― Jason Fried, Rework

There were several boxes in the hallway addressed to me. What did I order? I thought. Looking more closely, I realized the boxes contained sample commercial resources from one of the big education companies.

Shortly after I emailed our representative. “As far as I know, I don’t recall requesting these materials.” They apologized for the mix up and set up a date to pick them up.

I am not adverse to commercially-developed literacy resources. If a product aligns with our beliefs and practices about reading and writing and it would take longer to develop something ourselves, then let’s make the purchase. Our time is precious and our expertise is limited.

Yet it is interesting that I never receive sales calls from publishers and distributors of authentic texts and related resources. Maybe we will get a flyer or an email to build awareness about what they have to offer. But it is almost exclusively the case that we are reaching out to the publishers and distributors for the resources the students and staff want and need.

The decision to have the company pick up the preview materials was easy. It wasn’t even a topic of discussion during today’s leadership team meeting; our conversations were about future professional learning. We know where we stand regarding literacy resources.

Beliefs and Practices: Embracing Failure and Supporting Each Other

It’s one thing to have a belief in an approach for teaching or leading. It’s another thing to apply those beliefs to our practices. The distance between beliefs and practices is a group’s willingness to embrace failure as an opportunity for collective learning. 

Today, I facilitated a professional learning session with teachers about reading comprehension. We started by celebrating our growth as a faculty. Important to stress was how our positive school report card was a product of our shared beliefs about literacy. We are on the same page.

But being on the same page philosophically does not necessarily translate to practice. Teachers are at various stages of expertise, often varied in different areas with each teacher. To relate, I shared a story about how I was recently reading aloud to 1st graders, and it didn’t dawn on me to stop and take a moment to explain challenging vocabulary until one student asked, “How can you sow (sew) seeds?”

My personal example of failure led to a short exercise. Teachers were provided a matrix. On the left side were our literacy beliefs we currently shared as a faculty, translated into teaching practices they represented. At the top were four columns. Each heading described a level of progression along a learning continuum. I won’t spend time or words trying to describe it: you can click here to download it or view it below.

Teachers were provided time to reflect on where they were on the learning progression spectrum with regard to each literacy belief in action. (Our beliefs derive from Regie Routman in Residence.) Then they shared with a trusted colleague which practices they felt effective with and with practices they believe they needed more support.

“Do you want to collect these?” asked a teacher. “No, I want you to keep this reflection tool for future use. Maybe you might want to explore a practice more deeply through instructional coaching or peer observation.” Next, I asked if any teachers were willing to share their reflections with the whole group. No one spoke up. To follow, I asked those who rated themselves as unconsciously effective (become second nature) in every practice to raise their hands. No one did, although I noticed many smiles on teachers’ faces.

Later in the professional learning session, teachers were having conversations within self-directed study groups about their selected professional resources. I sat in on one group. As teachers went around discussing their work, one teacher announced, “I have a failure to share.” She pulled up her phone and displayed a picture of a student’s novel filled with sticky notes. “He has a Post-it note for every page!” shared the teacher, which led to laughter and more honest conversations about their own challenges, along with ideas for how this teacher could use the Post-it note information to guide future instruction. 

If schools are ever going to grow collectively, we have to start being honest with ourselves about our practices. Teaching and leading in schools is incredibly complex work. People outside education rarely understand this so we cannot expect them to adequately address the issue. By being open and vulnerable about where we struggle, it gives others permission to divulge their own failures and challenges. These confessions are the seeds for true growth as professionals. It starts with leaders – not just principals – speaking the truth about our challenging, rewarding work.

Lead Like a Coach: A Consistent Presence

When school leaders make instructional walks a daily habit, we start to discover patterns and trends. Some of them are particular to a teacher and some are schoolwide. Regardless, gaining a clearer understanding of the instructional pulse of the school or a classroom only happens when we are a consistent presence and enter each learning environment with an open mind. This consistency in nonevaluative classroom visits, noticing strengths and naming practices, often leads to more trust between administration and faculty members which is more conducive to professional growth.

Example: During a later visit with the same 4th graders reading Little House in the Big Woods, the students were ready to start practicing their book club roles with the text. “Today we are going to focus on the role of the discussion director. Look back on your sheet and review the questions you have prepared after reading the chapter.” Students pulled out their book club folders, the quiet chatter of excitement filling the room in anticipation of being able to talk with peers.

Having the context from the previous instructional walk, I felt in a better position to observe what was happening and document the learning. I sat with four students. Two of the four students started discussing a topic unrelated to their reading. They stopped when a peer reminded them of their task.

Next, one student posed their question. “If you lived back in the time of Laura Ingalls Wilder, would you have been happy or sad about not having the Internet?” The group responded with clear positions, either way, talking around their own lives. There was very little follow up on each other’s questions, such as “Why do you say that?” or “Tell me more”. Three of the students were more interested in getting their own ideas out there. One was quiet and, evident by their body language, disengaged in the conversation.

In a typical classroom visit or an announced observation that did not have the context or history of the literacy block, I might have developed and followed an inaccurate narrative that this teacher had not effectively taught students how to facilitate meaningful book discussions. Thankfully I was a consistent presence in the classroom, even for brief pop-ins during my daily visits. Subsequently, I knew the students were just trying out book clubs for size. My prediction for a future lesson would likely be a teacher-led reflective conversation around what went well and what needed work. Knowing the teacher’s thoughtful attention to planning, I could feel more confident in where instruction was heading.

Back in the book club…

The students continued to talk in the group but not with each other. One of the group members tried to insert his ideas whenever there was a rare moment of silence, and sometimes even when there was not. The quieter student continued to remain quietly frustrated, hands folded across their chest and seeming to ride out this experience.

The teacher in me couldn’t resist and I stopped the conversation. “I couldn’t help but notice that your statements are in your response to your questions. What you are saying is also not really about the book, or even related to what each of you is saying.” Heads turned with faces of mild confusion. “You know, the purpose of a book club is not just to learn more about the book.” The students now looked at me like I had a third eye. “Really. What you are trying to learn is not just how to talk to each other about books but how to talk to other people in general. The art of conversation can be really tough. Would you like to learn a strategy that might help improve your conversations and make it more fun?”

The uncertainty of their response was the permission I needed. I explained how great conversationalists are genuinely interested in what the other person has to say. “They state things like ‘That’s interesting’, ‘Tell me more’, or ‘Why do you say that?’. Great conversationalists also stick to the subject of the discussion, which in this case is the book and not necessarily our own personal experiences. Want to try this strategy out?” Similar uncertainty in response, but the students did reset their discussion by going to the next question. “What if….” Students took turns responding to this question with less interruption. Not yet a deep conversation, but a move in the right direction.

Once each of the three students responded, I asked the discussion director which response they thought was the most connected to the question she asked. When they selected one of their classmates, I asked why. “Because he shared parts from the book and how the story could change if what I had suggested might have actually happened.” I agreed and thanked this student.

At the end of my classroom visit, I handed my instructional walk notes to the teacher while stating, “You are having your students attempt to engage in complex conversations around a book. Not an easy task for any teacher.” She smiled and thanked me for visiting. Then I asked if I could address the class. She agreed without hesitation. “Students,” I announced, “do you know that your teacher has you learning many essential skills in your classroom?” I proceeded with an explanation similar to the one I just shared with my small group. “You are lucky to have this opportunity for building these life skills and strategies.” 

If this were a typical classroom visit, in which I popped in for an unannounced observation or an evaluative classroom walkthrough, it would have been from a supervisory perspective. Likely I would have some checklist or rubric to go off of as I watched for best practices in action. But I would be lacking so much, such as the context of the unit progression and the opportunity to partner with the teacher in the instruction.

In comparison, after this instructional walk, I had a desire to get back into this classroom soon, to see where this unit of study would go. Based on her openness to sharing her work with me and responding to the feedback, I believe the teacher was interested as well. I don’t believe most school leaders would have a similar feeling after a formal teacher evaluation. When our jobs are to judge and to score, there is little incentive to focus on what’s going well or to become part of a schoolwide professional learning process.

The Changing Roles of Educators

 

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My son did not want to practice his trumpet. He was finding anything else to do to avoid this daily task. To be honest, I felt the same way when I was in 6th grade and the novelty of playing the trumpet had worn off after about two weeks.

Knowing his affinity for pop music, I asked him to search online for the trumpet sheet music for “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars (his favorite song). He was excited to find someone had uploaded a video tutorial, a step-by-step visual demonstration for learning to play the melody for this song.

While he was keeping up with the tutorial, I elected to videotape his performance. This was just me being a dad, documenting him playing to share out later with family and friends. He saw me recording his practice and then asked me, “Could I see how I did?” Sure, I said, and we watched him doing his best to play the song. His nose wrinkled up as he commented on how his attempt was less than what he had expected. “I’m going to try it another time. Record me again?”

With the access people have to learn almost anything at any time from anywhere, how does the role of the educator change?I see two distinct shifts: what we teach and how we teach. This is curriculum and instruction, respectively. Regarding what we teach, the access provided by the Internet to almost any content seems limitless. No one textbook or resource can possibly serve as a primary source of information anymore. Teachers need to be more adventurous and at the same time increasingly discerning. For every excellent Uptown Funk video tutorial, there are many poor examples of similar content.

With how to teach, the Internet comes into play again. People can teach themselves what they want to learn (consider how many times one searches YouTube to repair some appliance). So our role as educators needs to shift from the person delivering the content to a coach or a mentor, providing feedback and offering suggestions when necessary. I didn’t have to say much when my son watched himself playing. He understood the criteria for success (the what) and could compare that with his own visible performance (the how).

These shifts take time. We need to give ourselves some grace and remember that we are doing the best we know how today. Tomorrow will be better provided we are open to change.

Professional Learning: Engagement Before Anything Else

I believe that when you teach a work of fiction, you should not bring all the baggage that comes with it. You should not fill the minds of the students with the background material. Let the students first connect to the book. Even if that connection is negative, even if they hate it – that reaction belongs to them.

Azar Nafisi, “Enough About Me”, Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process

Our school’s theme this year is “A Community of Readers”. We believe that creating an environment of authentic inquiry and student-directed discussion will lead to an increase in reading engagement. The expected outcome is growth in comprehending text. We have also come to agree that this outcome is largely a product of lots of time to read and respond to high-interest texts with the support of a knowledgeable teacher.

We are becoming more knowledgeable as a faculty by developing our own community of readers. Teachers have selected one of a variety of faculty-suggested professional resources. Their book choice has determined what groups they are in within the school. Although many of the groups were already formed prior to our book study, i.e. grade level or department, there has been some crossover. The art teacher is meeting with the 4K teachers. 2nd grade and kindergarten are discussing What Are the Rest of My Kids Doing? by Lindsey Moses and Merideth Odgen (Stenhouse, 2017).

Another example: I purchased several copies of each selected text, a few more than requested. As it became known which teachers had what books, some staff members would request a copy of this or that text because they’ve “heard good things” about it. For instance, Conferring with Readers by Jennifer Serravallo and Gravity Goldberg (Heinemann, 2007) is now located in three different grade levels/departments (and counting). I have a running Amazon cart of professional titles. I’m almost afraid to purchase too soon in case one more request comes in.

As I have ordered and handed out these books to teachers, I have been wondering: Would this level of engagement be happening if I had been more directive in this professional book study? The question is rhetorical; the answer is “no”. I recall a schoolwide book study in a previous school in which I was principal. During one all staff book discussion, a teacher remarked that she hadn’t read the assigned chapters…and I was in her discussion group!

I am not advocating for laissez-faire literacy leadership. We need to be working with teacher-leaders to guide the direction of the faculty’s professional learning focus. But the more we try to steer toward a specific outcome, the greater the likelihood that we will disengage our faculty in building our collective knowledge. In fact, our expected outcome might change – what does “growth in comprehending text” really mean? This is the paradox that I have struggled to deal with in the past because we should simply “deal with”. Instead, appreciate the journey we are taking as professionals. Be more curious than constraining. There is more than one pathway toward schoolwide literacy success.

 

 

Innovation in Education

I walked into a classroom that was modeling the story structure process. The teacher had provided one-word sentence starters as a guide. The students were using this structure to organize a personal narrative in their writing journals.

There is little doubt the world has changed with the advent of technology and globalization. It is hard to imagine some of the jobs people have today existing even twenty years ago. Schools are, like any large enterprise, challenged to keep up.

But does that mean we are “behind the times”? What if some of the practices we have utilized in the past are, in fact, timeless? Consider the story structure I saw in the classroom. It is very similar to what Pixar Animation uses when they plan out a movie:

Once upon a time there was ___.

Every day, ___.

One day ___.

Because of that, ___.

Because of that, ___.

Until finally ___.

Pretty innovative, right? Pixar uses a tried and true structure to create some of the most technologically advanced media today. This company has one toe in the 21st century and the other in an abiding idea. Pixar knows it works due to their success both financially and in the awards and the accolades they have received.

Of course, some ideas in education do need to be relegated to the past. That goes for every complex profession. You wouldn’t go to a doctor that continued to use mercury to treat health issues. So we do have an obligation to be critical consumers of instructional approaches, both tried and new. That’s why reflecting on our beliefs and discussing the impact of our practice on student learning with colleagues is important.