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. 

Literacy Leadership: Expecting (and Embracing) Conflict

Our school is currently examining our beliefs about reading instruction. Faculty members respond with either “agree” or “disagree” to over twenty related statements. Examples include: “Leveling books in the classroom library is a good idea,” and “Students need to do lots of independent reading of self-selected texts.”  (These statements come from Regie Routman’s book Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success.)

So far, half the teachers have taken the beliefs survey. Out of the over twenty statements, we are completely in agreement on five statements. My prediction is this number will be reduced after everyone has taken the survey.

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This is not a bad thing.

I’ve come to learn professional conflict can be a source of professional learning. I’m not referring to in-fighting over petty reasons. Instead, I refer to the deeper philosophical debates that should be occurring but are often pushed aside for fear of having a hard yet necessary conversation.

Conflict in the context of our instructional beliefs is the misalignment between our current values and practices and our colleagues. This awareness of our current situation is a good thing. Now we have information to act upon, as long as we accept our current reality. To address this misalignment, we need to start engaging in professional conversations around these important topics in safe and productive ways

Take the topic of reading levels, depicted in the previous image. It’s a constant source of disagreement in elementary schools. You see we are pretty divided already on this issue. The first question I might ask to start a conversation around reading levels is, “Why do you think the results are the way they are?” By asking wondering questions, we open up the floor to different possibilities. I am not taking sides on levels. I am curious.

Now imagine what the responses might be.

  • From a teacher who supports levels as a way to assess student reading progress, they can point to the fact that younger readers make so much growth in a short amount of time that teachers need a reliable evaluation tool to inform instruction. Likewise, if students are not making growth at the primary level, we need to be responsive and implement a reading intervention to address any deficits.
  • From a teacher who does not support levels as a way to assess student reading progress, they might point to past experiences in which students were treated as a level, such as organizing the classroom library only within a leveling system. Or, they feel that levels for older students are not as helpful as conferring notes, student self-assessments, and performance tasks such as book trailers.

Who is right, and who is wrong? I believe both perspectives make a strong case. This leads to a potential second question that guides a discussion to consider a third option. As an example, “What if designated reading levels were only helpful at certain grade levels?”, or “Might there be a better way to phrase this statement to both recognize the benefits of this approach and point out its limits?” This line of inquiry may lead to a revision of the statement, such as:

Designated levels can be an accurate way to assess student reading progress at the primary level and inform authentic instruction.

If a faculty can agree on this revision, then we can own it. (By the way, a professional conversation like this can happen during a staff meeting or professional learning communities.) If the revision is not acceptable to all, it can be brought back to an instructional leadership team for further revision.

The benefits of embracing conflict within structured professional dialogue are many. First, we air out our issues in a safe and productive way. Second, we start to develop a common language. For example, maybe some staff members are unfamiliar with benchmark books as an assessment tool. Teachers with this knowledge can explain this concept; unhealthy conflict is often the product of lack of communication and making false assumptions. Third, when we agree upon a belief then we own it. There’s no opting out in the building. The faculty is free to call out each other when these beliefs are not translated to practice. But this doesn’t happen often because we own the belief. Teachers are more empowered to act on it and seek out support if needed. Finally, a school leader has modeled what it means to have a professional conversation that is productive and doesn’t end in hurt feelings.

What are your thoughts on the role of conflict in leading a literacy initiative and/or a school in general? Please share in the comments.

Leadership as Process

It is October, which means it is school learning objective time. Principals are diligently crafting statements that are S.M.A.R.T. “By the end of the school year,…” and then we make a prediction about the future. In April, we revisit these statements and see if our crystal balls were correct.

I must admit that my goals are usually not fully met. I aim too high, at least by educator evaluation standards. These systems are set up to shoot for just above the status quo instead of for the stars. Great for reporting out. Yet I don’t want to lower my expectations.

Setting objectives and goals are a good thing. We should have something tangible to strive for and know that we have a target to hit. My challenge with this annual exercise is how heavily we focus on a product while largely ignoring the process to get there.

Left alone, schools can purchase a resource or adopt a commercial curriculum that is aligned to the standards. But are they also aligned with our specific students’ needs? Do the practices and resources we implement engage our population of kids? Maybe we are marching toward a specific destination, but are we taking the best pathway to get there?

Having a plan and implementing a plan are two different things. Like an effective classroom teacher, we have to be responsive to the climate and the culture of a school. That means we should be aware of our environment, accept our current status, and then move forward together.

For example, when I arrived at my current elementary school, there was some interest in going schoolwide with the Lucy Calkins Units of Study for reading and for writing. Professionally, I find a lot of positive qualities about the program. Also in the periphery was a desire to get a more consistent literacy curriculum. Our scores reflected a need for instructional consistency and coherence.

If we have an outcome-focused leadership style, then it makes a lot of sense to purchase a program that promises exactly what is being requested. But that means we are investing in stuff instead of investing in teachers. So we declined. The teacher-leaders and I weren’t saying no to one program or passing the buck on making a hard decision. What we wanted instead was a clear plan to become better as practitioners.

This meant first revisiting our identities as educators. What does it mean as a teacher and a professional if the lessons were scripted for us? Are we not worthy of the trust and responsibility that is essential for the many decisions we make every day? This led to examining our beliefs about the foundation of literacy, the reading-writing connection. We found unanimity on only two specific areas out of 21 statements. Instead of treating this as a failure, we saw these two areas of agreement as a starting point for success. We nurtured this beginning and started growing ourselves to become the faculty we were meant to be for our students. After two years of work, we found nine areas of agreement on these same statements.

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There are no ratings or other evaluation scores attached to these statements. I am not sure how to quantify our growth as a faculty, and I am pretty sure I wouldn’t want to if I knew how. Instead, we changed how we saw ourselves and how we viewed our students as readers, writers, and thinkers. This is not an objective or goal that is suggested by our evaluation program, but maybe it should be.

I get to this point in a post and I feel like we are bragging. We are not. While I believe our teachers are special, there are great educators in every school. The difference, I think, is that we chose to focus more on the process of becoming better and less on the outcomes that were largely out of our hands. This reduced our anxiety with regard to test scores and public perception of our school. Anyone can do this work.

Read by Example Newsletter, 9-22-18: Professional Growth

This blog now has a newsletter! I’ll be reposting the first couple of lists here to build awareness for it. You can subscribe here for free. Thanks for reading, -Matt

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This week I found personal growth to be a common thread in the posts and related resources.

  1. When we lead like a coach, we are more likely to see growth in our teachers. Check out my post on this topic.
  2. An excellent resource for leading like a coach is Coaching Conversations: Transforming Your School One Conversation at a Time by Linda M. Gross Cheliotes and Marceta F. Reilly.
  3. Can principals even be coaches? I wrote about this in a post from five years ago. I am not sure I currently agree with my thinking at that time.
  4. I questioned whether we are talking about what really matters when try to grow professionally in this post.
  5. The previous post references a recent ASCD Education Update article. The subject involves a teacher and a principal facilitate a mock conversation about the challenges with traditional teacher evaluation systems.
  6. Last summer, I wrote a post on how literacy leaders might release some of the responsibility of professional development to teachers via study groups.
  7. The previous post is in response to Jennifer Allen’s excellent resource Becoming a Literacy Leader. We (contributors and I) responded to this book in our own online study group; click here to check out all of our posts.
  8. I wrote a short response to the memoir I just read, Educated by Tara Westover.
  9. My wife and I plan to attend an author Skype visit with Tara Westover at a local library (we both read the book). Check out the author’s website for her schedule.
  10. Journaling is how Westover documented her upbringing. Related, I enjoyed this article by Benjamin Hardy for developing a habit and process regarding reflective journaling for professional and/or personal growth.

What’s going on in your world? Any themes you are noticing? Please share in the comments.

Professional Learning: The Gift of Time

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Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

The week of getting ready for the first day with students has come to a close. This time of year is typically one big rush to “get things done”. Bare bulletin boards call for welcoming messages. Schedules are updated continuously, rarely due to a school’s priorities. Enrollment and ordering resources become mini-emergencies instead of part of the daily routine. ‘Tis the season.

This year our faculty was provided with the gift of time for a day. (Due to a scheduling conflict, we had to reschedule our speaker’s second day to later in the year.) Once this day opened up, my initial/habitual reaction was to cram in as much literacy and PLC content into the day, topics we had initially prepared to address in September. We resisted this impulse. Instead, we spent the morning exploring reading instruction and the afternoon attending sessions on the topics of community engagement and academic innovation. Our agenda listed ideas and relevant topics instead of stuff.

Next are some of the outcomes from slowing things down and better appreciating the gift of time.

Faculty Viewed Professional Development Positively

Certainly, the content and planning for our time together contributed to the positive feedback our leadership team received. Being intentional about what we were learning together cannot be minimized. But it needs to be pointed out that allowing for more time for conversation and for the exploration of ideas during professional development decreases the anxiety of trying to get through everything we think needs to be accomplished. We had an agenda, yes, but it was minimal and allowed for flexibility.

Idea: If we feel like we have too many tasks planned for a professional learning experience, then we probably do. Push back some content to a later date, or even completely cut it out. If it is not essential to a school’s goals, then it is expendable.

Teachers Facilitated Professional Learning Experiences

When we learned that we had a day now open for building-level professional development, my first thought was, “I cannot do it all.” Fortunately, I work in a school with many talented individuals, so I didn’t have to. I reached out for help, asking several faculty members to lead afternoon sessions on mindfulness in the classroom, personalized learning, designing local curriculum projects, and healthy habits for educators.

Idea: To better know our teachers’ interests and specific talents, get into classrooms on a daily basis. Experience classroom visits as a learner instead of only an evaluator. Have real conversations with faculty and students. We can lead side-by-side.

Frame Professional Learning Time as an Investment

If all we do is learn together without seeing the results of our work, then professional development becomes routine and starts to lack meaning. There needs to be some level of connection between our self-improvement efforts and student outcomes. If teachers don’t see our time spent together as valuable, then it is perceived as wasted. For example, I shared with the faculty that our below basic scores on our state reading test have gone down 9% in the last two years. This is likely a result of our focus on embracing authentic literacy practices and a more data-informed approach to Response to Intervention.

Idea: Create visual representations of your assessment results and share them with faculty. It saves time in analysis. Point out the positive results first, then focus on the next steps. Celebrate, then educate. For us, we need to address our more advanced students’ needs who are already successful but may not be growing as much as their peers.

How do you as a literacy leader best utilize the gift of time for professional learning? Where do you struggle? Why? Please share in the comments.

 

What resources would you suggest for professional book studies on reading instruction?

As noted in a previous post, we (our instructional leadership team) are loosening up the reins a bit this year with professional development. Instead of a scheduled set of PD days with pre-determined agendas, we are making time for ourselves to engage in self-directed studies with a reading instruction resource of choice. We pick the resource which determines who we will collaborate with for the next three months to discuss the information and our reflections.

The question I pose here is: What resources would you recommend for these study groups? We have developed a list, yet I am confident this is not exhaustive.

If you feel there is an essential resource missing from this list, please share in the comments! In a later post, I will describe in more detail the process we are using for facilitating these professional study groups. -Matt