Reducing the Need for Intervention

Today is my last day of my first full year as a Reading Specialist. It’s been a year full of learning experiences and figuring out what works and what doesn’t work. I’ve been working hard to see what my students need, as well as trying to figure out how my school can best serve all of the students. This section, “Reducing the Need for Intervention”, called to me as soon as I read the heading!

According to ASCD, the percentage of students receiving RTII Tier 3 interventions should ideally be 1-5%. Currently, my school has 7% of its students receiving pull-out services, with more students being referred. A phrase I like is “if everyone needs intervention, nobody needs intervention.” To me, this means that it’s important to look at data and trends to see in which  areas students need most support. If I’m being honest, a lot of what I did in my small groups this past year were not really Tier 3 interventions. They weren’t really even Tier 2 interventions – I taught students reading strategies, how to read text features, and provided graphic organizers.

So despite the number of students I had that made significant growth in my small groups this year, something bothered me a little bit. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but after I read this section in Regie’s book, I figured out what it was. In the book there is a section titled “Intervention Matters: Self-Evaluate” that presents some questions to ask ourselves. The second question in particular interested me – “Are we making full-out efforts to be responsive (differentiating instruction) to the needs and interests of every student?” Based on the kinds of interventions I was providing in my small groups, I’m not so sure that we were. Graphic organizers should be a part of good classroom instruction, and reading strategies should be embedded across the curriculum.

I realize this is all really easy for me to say – after all, my job title suggests that I have specialized knowledge of reading strategies. Without the dedicated time to share this knowledge with my colleagues, it really only benefits the students I have in my small groups. There wasn’t a lot of time this year for me to run professional learning groups around literacy, but I did meet with a few colleagues before and after school to talk about reading strategies. The students in those teachers’ classes made fantastic progress. It seemed like the students appreciated having consistent reading strategies across multiple classes – they were getting consistent instruction and were able to practice using those strategies in all subjects.

A number of those students exited RTII after having made over a year’s worth of growth over the past year. It (informally) showed me that with good instruction in all areas, students can make significant growth! I wondered if they wouldn’t have had to be in RTII at all had they been getting the consistent instruction from the start…?

So this section called to me because I can see a connection between good classroom instruction and a reduction in the need for intervention. And just like Regie writes about in this section, I truly believe that we need to be asking ourselves if all our students are being given the opportunities, they can succeed without intervention.

This post is part of a book study around Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Check out more resources associated with the text at this website (https://sites.stenhouse.com/literacyessentials/), including a free curriculum for teaching an undergraduate course using Literacy Essentials.

What Does it Mean to Create Readers?

“When I think of reading I think of pleasure, favorite authors, beloved books, libraries, bookstores, stories, and relaxation.  I think of finding solace, of being suspended within the unique world a talented author has created.  I think of language beautifully crafted and books so mesmerizing that afterward, I want to tell other readers, “You’ve got to read this book.”  I do not think of levels, programs, groupings, or tests.  Those are school things that ultimately do not determine who becomes a reader.” ~ Regie Routman, Literacy Essentials

As I read Regie’s words, I was invigorated and passionately agreed with what it means to be a reader.  It’s the type of reader I want my son to be and all kids to be.

However, as I read through Regie’s tips on how to create readers (see below), I began reflecting on myself as a K-12 literacy coach.  I wondered, despite my beliefs being aligned with Regie’s in how to create life-long readers, do I, as a literacy coach, not balance my discussions with standards, strategies, and the workshop structure with other things such as teachers sharing their reading lives, daily read alouds, and getting kids engaged in text?

My initial thought was, “The questions I get from teachers typically are centered around the steps of the mini-lesson, how to group kids or wanting clarity on a standard and less about how to engage students in life-long reading.”  While these questions are important, one thing I could do is be the one who brings up the discussions around engaged-life long readers more than what I do.   I need to balance teacher needs/questions with pushing their thinking about what Regie says the end goal of teaching reading is: students who choose to read for pleasure and information and to expand our worldview. Based on the tips proposed in the section Regie entitled “Excellence 5: Teaching Readers,” below are some questions literacy leaders can use to guide teachers in creating readers.

  1.  How do you share your reading life with your students?
  2. Who can you invite into your classroom to share their reading life with your kids?
  3. Reflect on yourself as a reader? Are you a non-reader and do you believe it’s too late for you? (Research says it’s not too late).
  4. Is a daily read aloud a ritual in your classroom?
  5. Do you stop too much to model thinking in your read aloud (to the point where enjoyment in the text is lost)?
  6. Do you utilize engaging picture books (yes, even for middle school and high school teachers)?
  7. Do you encourage your students to study the craft of the author in their independent reading books?
  8. Is independent reading a non-negotiable in your classroom every day?
  9. Do students have access to a wide range of interesting and readable text in your classroom?
  10. Do you tap into the knowledge of experts in creating life-long readers (Donalyn Miller, Teri Lesesne, Franki Sibberson, Nancie Atwell, Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Laura Robb, Cris Tovani and Pernille Ripp)?
  11. Do you know what books your students prefer?
  12. Do you limit extrinsic rewards?
  13. Do you balance fiction and non-fiction?
  14. Do you have a personal preference for fiction and does that lead you to not using as much non-fiction?
  15. Do you confer with students on appropriately pushing their text complexity?
  16. Do you over-emphasize the teaching of standards at the expense of teaching the reader?

And, finally, here are some questions for literacy leaders who want to balance “school things” with the ultimate goal of creating life-long readers. (Note, these are questions I came up with to check and challenge myself on the topic).

  1. Do I balance my discussions topics with teachers (addressing school topics and life-long reading topics?)
  2. As a K-12 system, do we agree on the ultimate goal of teaching reading?
  3. How do I embed some of the 16 questions above in formal professional development settings?
  4. Is it reasonable to commit to bringing up at least one of these discussions with a teacher or group of teachers on a weekly basis?
  5. What challenges exist in our K-12 system that may hinder our end goal of creating life-long readers?
  6. Do my movers and shakers (teacher leaders) buy into and promote creating life-long readers?

For me, this all comes down to my belief about reading: Reading changes lives, makes us better people, and allows us to navigate life more effectively.  I want this for our kids, not just during their school years, but beyond their time in a K-12 system.  We have to think about what our kids need beyond our tests, our programs, our benchmarks and our interventions. All of that matters, but if we have not made a concerted effort to create life-long readers when they leave our system, perhaps we have failed in our ultimate goal.

This post is part of a book study around Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Check out more resources associated with the text at this website (https://sites.stenhouse.com/literacyessentials/), including a free curriculum for teaching an undergraduate course using Literacy Essentials.

Making the Connection: Reading & Writing Belong Together

One blog post is simply not enough to encompass all that the reading-writing connection entails.  I have merely segmented out a small snippet from this chapter to highlight my thinking and reflections, but there is so much more…

Reading and writing should go hand in hand. Like peanut butter and jelly, each able to stand alone, yet so much better when layered together.  Unfortunately, for many of us in the education business, the two are treated as separate entities and often each has its own curriculum. This poses a problem, not just for teachers who want to marry the two, but for our students as well.  When taught in isolation, there is very little chance of making those strong connections that bond reading and writing as soulmates.

Regie makes me even more cognizant about being proactive and intentional with my instruction based on her writing under the heading; Read Like a Writer.  “Because I write for readers, I deliberately notice what other authors do in terms of tone, voice, word choice, language play, all aspects of craft, setting, character development, how I’m affected as a reader, and so much more. So it’s been a surprise for me how little of that we share with our students. We read aloud; we may write in front of our students; we talk about books; but in my experience it’s rare for us  teachers to make the reading-writing connection visible. Our students do not automatically think, ‘I’m going to try out in my own writing what that author just did.’ We have to explicitly demonstrate that transfer for them and encourage them to take risks and try out new styles, crafts, and language.” (183)

For years I had done all those things Regie talks about; read alouds, writing in front of my students, talking about books, etc…but it wasn’t until the last couple of years when I was immersed in graduate school that I began to truly understand the reading-writing connection. The minute I started being explicit and intentional about noticing and noting things authors did in their stories, I saw similar things popping up in my students writing, and they were excited about sharing their writing with everyone!  It made them feel like “real” authors. So even though I had thought I was doing some pretty good modeling and teaching of reading and writing, I was unintentionally denying them the richer learning that comes when one understands the connection between the two. As soon as I made that connection more visible, my students were able to run with it and enhance their own writing.

Beyond just being deliberate, intentional, and making the reading-writing connection visible to students, Regie gives great suggestions and ideas in the “Take Action” sections of the chapter on Embracing the Reading-Writing Connection.  From simple things like including “Hip hop, song, rap, dance, film and other art forms that resonate with our children,”(172) to “Teaching students to read like writers” (185), we are supplied with a gamut of rich ideas to help our students make stronger connections between reading and writing.  It starts with truly knowing our students and their interests, offering choice in their reading and writing lives, and building from there.

Even though I had thought I was doing some pretty good modeling and teaching of reading and writing, I was unintentionally denying them the richer learning that comes when one understands the connection between the two. As soon as I made that connection more visible, my students were able to run with it and enhance their own writing.

Regie closes out this chapter with some profound words of advice for educators; “Unique and effective craft, style, and technique have to be inhaled and digested by an engaged reader who is immersed in one unforgettable reading experience after another.” (191)  AND “Exercises in a book on craft might help us teachers know what to look for, but only deep, pleasurable reading and noticing what writers do will provide the sustenance and specifics that lead students to read like a writer and expertly craft their writing.” (191)  

I just keep reading and rereading those two quotes, (well… basically everything in this book, but I’m focusing on those two at the moment)  trying to digest them and think of ways to shift the mindset away from teaching them separately. Regie talks about a safe place to start being the content areas of science and social studies.  And it does work nicely there. So maybe that’s where we begin, but we must do more. Teachers need to be experts at understanding the reading-writing connection so that they can impart that knowledge to their students and stop relying on scripted curriculums that teach each as a separate entity. We can do better than that.  Our students deserve better than that.

How Can Reading Conferences Work in Math?

I don’t even know if one-on-one math conferences are a thing. I’m “new” to the math instruction field – having taught high school Algebra 2 and Geometry for this current year and only exposed to this world for the second semester of last year. I’m not new to the profession. I taught middle school language arts for several years.

But I have spent last year and this trying to blend the worlds of “literacy” and math instruction. I know a preponderance of information is out there about math instruction. I’ve got a lot of info to tackle moving forward. But last year when I took over an Algebra 1 and Algebra 2 classroom mid-year, the immediate need, one of the most pressing and apparent needs of my students was how to access information about what they were learning.

I joined Matt’s book study group last year (studying the book Becoming a Literacy Leader by Jennifer Allen) with the idea that I would be examining what kind insights and connections I could find and make about literacy, in my case then, the math textbook, in light of what I saw in my new math classrooms: Kids could not access text to help them learn math.

My conviction after another year of math instruction has not changed. Kids are still having difficulty making sense of a difficult text. Enter this year’s book study on Literacy Essentials by Regie Routman. I was and am still convinced that I need to help kids broker that deal – that reading about complex math tasks is difficult, requires explicit instruction and practice, and is essential in moving kids to be independent consumers of math ideas and applications.

Somehow, I have been convinced that my training in writing and reading instruction is part of the equation. The two worlds should talk more! My participation here with Matt and his excellent team of knowledgeable practitioners is not a conclusive study. It’s not even a study. It’s an idea, really.

Just the other day, one of my students in Geometry had a breakthrough. “I am getting this! This makes sense!” I’d helped her individually many times during our work sessions. You know, those independent practice moments after direct instruction and lots of guided practice. But that day she got it. I realized that I needed more one-on-one time with some students to give them personal guidance. Asking her questions about where meaning broke down, where she didn’t “get it” helped to pinpoint exactly how to help her. Showing her that space was crucial. Trig ratios step into the world of fractions and students have a lot of walls up when you mention fractions. She did.

Ms. Routman says it this way about struggling readers in section 5 of Excellence: “Here is the crucial point: deliberate practice without effective teaching and coaching doesn’t guarantee growth” (222). I believe she is talking about one-on-one reading conferences. Ms. Routman shares the story of Maria who had a three-year discrepancy in her reading ability and her grade. She says that after just one reading conference, Maria started improving quickly. That is what has happened with my student. She finished the practice we did that day easily and successfully and left the room with a smile that told the whole story.

She’s been like a new person since then in math. Unafraid to tackle whatever faces her, she is now convinced that she can learn it. That is the kind experience I want to bring to all of my “math-ers.”

I’ve been trying to find a way to have math conferences with more of my struggling students. It is all informal with no model or structure at this point. But similar to my realization last year that I would have to help kids learn how to read math text, I am realizing at the end of this school year that next year is going to have to have math conferences. One-on-one time to assess needs and coach kids specifically.

Building Trust

As I began reading Literacy Essentials by Regie Routman, I felt as though she were sitting in the room with me. Beginning the book with an entire chapter discussing trust and building relationships, I wondered how she knew what I needed to read at that moment. For me, this school year has been unlike any other. I began my eighteenth year of teaching as a reading specialist who couldn’t wait to begin co-teaching writing in first and fourth grade. And the students did not disappoint! Those two chunks of time in my day were by far my favorite parts.

Fast forward to the middle of December…I had my second hip surgery of the year in December and just like that, my job as a reading specialist and my excitement about writing was diminished. I began the long road to recovery and put my job on hold for almost five months! I returned to work in May and found just how much I had taken trusting relationships for granted. I walked back into a building that had not stopped while I was gone. Instead, things changed, people changed, and I had changed. It has not been an easy road to begin rebuilding relationships with staff and students.

I think that something I have learned through my experiences this year is that while trust can be destroyed in the blink of an eye, it takes much, much longer to build a trusting relationship. Regie states, “When we feel personally and professionally valued, we are apt to be happier, more productive, and more likely to take risks as teachers and learners” (p. 10). How true! Coming back into a culture where I had not been for so long made it feel like I was invisible to the staff for a while.

I love that Regie give some simple suggestions on ways to build relationships with all involved in the school community. And one of the biggest suggestions that stood out to me was kindness. Seem simple, right? I find myself saying, “Be kind!” in all aspects of my life but sometimes I think it is hard to take our own advice. Reading this first chapter made me rethink how I approached each day, and I truly tried to focus on the kindness that I could spread to others. From the simple hellos when seeing someone to asking about his or her day to giving a hug when it was needed!

I think one of my favorite ideas from this chapter has to do with passion. Find your passion and run with it. Help students find their passions and use that passion to guide them on the road to learning. One final thought…as I walked down the hall taking two students to my classroom, a third student chased me down the hall to ask if she could come with me today. Umm…of course! She actually wanted to come spend time reading and writing with me. What a wonderful reminder of the trusting relationship I have created with this student.

This post is part of a book study around Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Check out more resources associated with the text at this website (https://sites.stenhouse.com/literacyessentials/), including a free curriculum for teaching an undergraduate course using Literacy Essentials.

Frontloading: The Great Equalizer

For years, one of my favorite subjects to read and study about has been the effect of background knowledge on reading comprehension and student achievement. In one of my graduate level ed psych classes, I did a presentation titled “School is So Boring” about how students come to school with different schema and that, depending on what they know, it does not always line up with the expected or assumed background knowledge they would have to have in order to be successful in school.

I’m now a reading specialist for grades 4-6 in Northeast Philadelphia, where my students and I bring varied background knowledge to the table. I’ve actually been thinking about background knowledge and frontloading a lot lately as I recently administered the last F&P Benchmark Assessments of the year. (My school uses these benchmarks to determine which students receive intervention services, and the levels also go on the report cards, but that’s a blog post for another day).

As I read through the section “Excellence 2 – Expert Teaching Through Frontloading”, I highlighted three phrases that stood out to me.

Make no assumptions

You know the saying “you know what happens when you assume…” and I think that this saying holds true in the classroom. Just through observation, it seems to me as if teachers (including myself) make assumptions about what our students know. “They are in ____ grade, so they should know _____.” When we find out they actually don’t know _____, we wonder “well why don’t they know this, they should??!?” But the truth is, it doesn’t really matter what we think our students should know; rather, it matters what they actually *do* know.

In the book, Regie writes that “make no assumptions” applies to our instruction as well. I agree with her thoughts that we should be constantly assessing our teaching to make sure that our students are getting the most out of our instruction. Just because something worked before with another group of students doesn’t mean that it will work with another group of students, or even with the same group of students on a different day!

Make it smart to ask questions

Through informal talks with my students, I have discovered that many of them are hesitant to ask questions in a large group setting for fear of being embarrassed, or because they feel as if they “should” know certain things that they don’t, for whatever reason (which is irrelevant, in my opinion, because our responsibility is to meet students where they are, not where we think they should be).

Asking questions is so smart! I mean, what do adults do when we don’t know something? We get on our devices and Google it! From correct pronunciation of a word to knowing when to use “i.e. vs e.g.”, information is incredibly easy to access. So why should it be different for students? Why create a stigma around asking questions? Asking relevant questions shows that our students are engaged in the material – they want to know more about what they’re reading. That hunger for learning should be encouraged.

Check to be sure students understand the purpose

Like the previous point, I considered this phrase from an adult perspective. If I am being asked to read something or do a task, I like to know why I’m doing it. Bonus points if the reason benefits me. I think it’s the same for our students. If students can see the value in why they’re doing something (Regie writes “‘…Then I want you to do the same kind of thinking when you read ______, so you can become an expert reader.’”) they take ownership of the task and are seem more likely to put effort into the task. My students love when I call them “good readers”! They know that reading is the key to so many things, so they have that buy-in when I ask them to do a task like read through the whole word or use sticky notes to jot down facts and information from a non-fiction text.

I know that I can be cynical about posting SWBAT, IOT on my board, but since I’ve started rephrasing it for the students (rather than administration), I feel much more focused on actually letting my students know why we are doing something.

So back to frontloading, and why I am so interested in it. The benchmark assessments are limited, in my opinion, because they ask for very specific background knowledge in order to be scored as proficient. There is one passage in particular, about hawks in the city, that my students seem to bomb every benchmarking season, regardless of their reading level. It took a while, but I finally came to the conclusion that my students were bombing it because the entire comprehension section was based on the assumption that students knew hawks typically lived in the country. My urban students have never seen a hawk in their lives, so they don’t know this. When I told them “hawks typically don’t live in the city,” it changed almost their ENTIRE response to the comprehension questions and understanding of the passage.

Interesting.

By simply providing students with this little piece of information, their understanding of the text improved so much! And this took less than one minute to do this simple frontloading. Imagine if I would have spent even more time frontloading! Until textbooks and educational materials become more diverse and representative of all our students, frontloading will be one of the most important ways that we can prepare all of our student for success, regardless of their background or experience.

This post is part of a book study around Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Check out more resources associated with the text at this website (https://sites.stenhouse.com/literacyessentials/), including a free curriculum for teaching an undergraduate course using Literacy Essentials.

How do we create a community of readers? @StenhousePub #litessentials

I long ago lost count the number of mistakes I have made as a school principal and literacy leader. My errors are often the product of not practicing what I preach as it relates to effective literacy instruction for students.

For example, I created a vision board in our staff lounge and invited faculty to join me in adding to it.

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Can you guess how many contributions staff have made to it? If you said “zero”, you are wiser than I was in the beginning. I even added the title “Vision Board” to the top to be clear about what it was. Similarly, I attempted to host a staff book club using Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s memoir, encouraging teachers to respond in writing to a part of the text. A few teachers wrote pieces at first, but the project faded over the course of the year.

Initially, I felt guilty about the time and resources spent in developing these activities. At one point, I even experienced resentment that the faculty did not respond more positively. When a teacher expressed concern on behalf of colleagues that they didn’t have the time, I was tempted to counter with “Then how can we be okay with expecting our students to read 20 minutes a night, or demanding that students’ parents sign off on their reading logs each evening?”

Of course, if I had expressed these feelings, it would not have ended well. Even if I were right, it wouldn’t have been the right response. Teachers likely would have become upset by my reaction. Negative feelings could have been created around a literacy activity, which was counterintuitive to my purpose of building a community of readers.

What is the goal?

Mistakes can be reframed as opportunities for learning, instead of stewing on them or feeling guilty about initially unsuccessful actions. In the case of the two activities I described here, I learned through reflection that I didn’t involve faculty in the development of them. I was creating something for the staff instead of co-creating the experience with them. This omission resulted in a lack of engagement and ownership in the work, which led to little to no empowerment of faculty to help lead and guide this community-building experience.

So where does this leave us? How can we co-create a community of readers as a faculty with the larger goal of modeling for our students what we want to see in their lives as literate individuals? When I don’t have the answers, I turn to people wiser than me. In this case, Regie Routman offers an entire section of her new book Literacy Essentials on engagement.

Regie defines engagement as “the attention, commitment, and eagerness learners show in inquiring, creating, and responding to a question or a learning opportunity” (6). This understanding is different than how one might initial describe engagement. It’s good to clarify that engagement is not just focusing our mind on the task at hand; it is becoming emotionally and cognitively involved in the process of the learning experience. When I asked our teacher to participate in the community activities, there was no opportunity for them to commit. Additionally, they had little involvement in the creation of the vision board or the book club.

Spring is an opportune time to rethink our upcoming professional learning experiences. Our instructional leadership team and I are discussing next year’s focus on deepening our understanding of effective reading instruction and applying these practices to the classroom. With these teacher leaders, we decided to spend the first three months of the coming fall to do a deep dive into self-selected resources on the topic. We generated a list of books, online resources, and even possible site visits to other schools as options for teachers to take advantage of in the fall. In addition, all faculty will have the option to add resource options to this list. Voice and choice would be paramount in our work.

To emulate a true learning community, we have plans to facilitate a book club-like atmosphere once a month during our weekly PLC time. Time would be provided to read/explore the resources, discuss the information in self-selected groups, and report back to the whole faculty about what was learned. My anticipated role will be to document our increased understanding visibly, such as through a KWL. At the end of this experience, teachers could also be invited (not expected) to provide reviews for the resources they explored and encourage colleagues to continue learning once this deep dive had ended.

The Paradox of School Leadership

As administrators, we feel the pressure to have our students perform at high levels of success. This expectation can lead to principals chasing excellence without first engaging the faculty and students in this collaborative journey. It is the wrong pathway. The paradox of school leadership is that in order to achieve schoolwide student success, we have to give up some level of control over the process. Yet the best results we can hope to attain in our schools is a product of a shared vision and plan we can all celebrate.