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.

 

 

Time to Read: Making Independent Reading a Priority

Regie Routman is a great champion of reading. The kind of reading that is guided by a person’s curiosity, joy, and desire to fall deep into story. Pleasure reading. Real reading.

As a long-time educator and a self-proclaimed book nerd, like Regie, I believe that educators must support and encourage real reading. That is is our job to help our students become lifelong connoisseurs of text. It’s a big deal.  I mean, the research is in, folks who read tend to be more empathetic and as teachers we know, maybe better than anyone else, that we need more empathy in the world.  

One of the many  topics in Literacy Essentials that resonated with me was called, “Make Independant Reading a First Priority” (p. 204). Here Regie shares a tweet she once wrote, “Make daily indep[endent] reading #1 priority & work backwards from there. Use think aloud, guided read, shared read to support that end” (p. 204).

Regie believes that independent reading in schools must be more than just an ad-hoc, when-you’re-finished-with-your-work, kind of thing. Truly, she cautions, it needs to be even more than just a dedicated time slot for independent reading. Regie explains, that for maximum impact, schools must value massive quantities of free reading and students must be taught to choose just-right books ( books they can and want to read) and to self-monitor for comprehension. Further, she advises, a teacher should be teaching during free reading time, working with students one-on-one to help them learn reading skills and strategies and to help choose, discuss, and enjoy texts.

I am the principal of St. Croix Falls and Dresser Elementary Schools in rural Wisconsin. We serve a wonderful community that includes increasing number of students who live in poverty. Despite that fact, we consistently are marked as “Exceeding Expectations” on the state report card and have literacy scores that place us in the top 5% of schools in the state. Perhaps, most important, there is no gap between our students of poverty and their more affluent peers. We are all good readers and writers.

Over the last several years I’ve had many schools reach out to ask how we are so successful. I always say the same thing, “We let kids read. A lot.”  

In our schools every student enjoys a minimum of 30 minutes of free reading time each day. Most days, students have closer to an hour. Right away, beginning in kindergarten, we offer students books, books, books and time to read them. We teach students to pick books that fit their interests and that are within a level that is accessible to them (yes, we level our books, no, it doesn’t limit our readers or kill their love of reading.)  

I believe our emphasis on helping students learn to and love to read in massive quantities is why my school is one of the happiest and most successful schools I have ever had the pleasure of working in. And, that’s what I tell folks who ask “how we do it.” But, guess what? They don’t always believe me. They are often incredulous and profess they don’t have enough time in the day to offer that much independent reading time. They need that time to “teach” kids to read.

If I had a magic wand, I would wave it over the hearts and minds of educators everywhere so they could see that there is a simple way to help their students to be better readers, to love reading, and to grow and learn academically and in their social-emotional lives. All they need to do is give kids time and let them read. Anthologies, lesson sets, interventions, strategy instruction, guided groups, phonics, word study, and all of the other best laid plans of reading teachers will not work if they are not grounded in opportunities for real reading.

Let. Students. Read.

My school is successful in large part because our students read. They read a lot. But that tends to drop off as kids enter middle and high school. Of course, that’s not just in my neck of the woods, it happens in school districts all over the nation. A recent Edutopia article cited the following statistic from a study on the reading lives of school-aged children, “53 percent of 9-year-olds were daily readers, but only 17 percent of 17-year-olds were.” “Why? In large part, I think, because as our children move through the grades they have less and less dedicated reading time scheduled into their day. They read in content classes and in a literature course or two, but they do not have time for choice-based pleasure reading. That’s a problem. Again, if we want kids to read, we have to give them time to read.

In the spirit of Regies plea for schools to make“Make daily indep[endent] reading #1 priority,” I offer the tried and true suggestions below.

Suggestions:

  1. Create a vision statement or set of guiding beliefs about literacy in your school or classroom. Below is a graphic that shows the philosophies that underpin literacy instruction at my school. Note: The three mentioned documents are here (1), here (2), and here (3).

Capture

  1. Allow students time to read in school every day and in every grade. A good friend, who is a high school English teacher recently told me that for the first time this year, she allowed students to self-select a novel to read in class. She raved about a boy who told her, “This was the first book I finished since elementary school!” Imagine if her school could find a way to adjust the schedule so that every student had 20 minutes for independent reading every day!
  2. Let go of programs and buy books. In an article I wrote for Educational Leadership, I detail the path my school took to move from good to great. One thing we didn’t do was buy a new program. Instead, we used what we had to help us build a culture that celebrated reading with a focus on time for choice reading. To support this effort, we spent time and money developing quality classroom libraries. Building classroom libraries can be done on the cheap by requesting donations (I often remind parents and others that I welcome their gently used books and placed a tote in the school lobby for donations), thrift shopping and garage sales, and inexpensive booksellers  (First Book Marketplace and Scholastic Book Clubs are good starts.)  
  3. Teach students to set and meet their own literacy goals. Helping students see themselves as capable readers who have autonomy over their own reading lives is a gift. Readers at my school set quarterly goals, read about how, here. It has been truly amazing to watch students continually raise their own bars, meet loft goals, and enjoy the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes with it.
  4. Build a school culture that supports literacy as a natural part of daily life. Strategies we’ve used include encouraging volunteers to read with students and share their own reading lives (School Library Journal: Reading Friends), helping students to “Binge Read” (EdTech Digest: Next Read), getting free books into the community (School Library Journal: Free Bookstore Turbocharges Reading), using social media to create a community of readers (CUE Blog: I Saw it On Facebook, Focusing School Communities on Literacy with Social Media), hosting author visits (Edutopia: Virtual Author Visits), and harnessing the power of social learning to help students view reading as a normal life thing, not just a school thing (Edutopia: Building a Community of Passionate Readers Outside of School.)

I read Literacy Essentials soon after it was published and wrote a rave review of it for MiddleWeb. I truly think that all educators would benefit from reading parts of Regie’s book if not the whole thing.  My own copy is already dogeared and marked up and has a special place near my desk for quick reference. It is a part of my personal reading life to be sure.

Regie’s call for a focus on independent reading in schools fuels my passion for helping my students learn to and love to read. I hope that it does that for you too.

Why Professional Development is Essential

As professional educators, we are called to embark on a journey of continual self-improvement and lifelong learning. But, what the journey looks like isn’t a one size fits all approach. This should sound similar, right? I mean we don’t approach the students in our classroom as though everyone learns in the same way, so why would we approach our own professional learning as though we need exactly what our teaching partner down the hall needs? Professional learning must be a part of our schoolwide culture, and this is evident in the “Take Action” portion of Embedding Professional Learning – Make Professional Learning a Priority. What a wonderful call to action outlined here:

  • Seek to make professional conversations integral to school life – this includes thoughtful, probing conversations that propel forward.
  • Stay focused on the literacy emphasis – targeted study of fewer, more powerful practices over a longer period of time in order to sustain change and improve results.
  • Establish teams that work well together – forge connections of open communication and clear goals across all grade levels.
  • Take responsibility for your own professional learning – join professional organizations, social media, book studies, conferences and become a part of your school’s professional learning leadership team.
  • Collaborate with colleagues – coach each other, build in time for collaborative conversations where you can push each other to solidify your thinking.
  • Participate in coaching experiences – having a trusting culture allows for a coaching experience to exist and creates the potential to greatly improve teaching through collaborating, planning, and co-teaching.
  • Evaluate the role and influence of any adopted program – figure out how to adapt, modify, or work around the program, as programs serve as resources and frameworks, not total curriculums.
  • Keep a reflection notebook – keep a notebook handy to keep a record of your thinking, insights, and questions.

These steps provide such a wonderful guide to get us thinking about how professional development can serve us. As an instructional coach, my primary role is to facilitate professional learning FOR teachers. I emphasize the FOR because I never want professional learning to be “done to” teachers. Professional learning, when done well, uses a teacher’s strengths and their curiosity to propel student learning forward.

I am a self-proclaimed nerd. I love to read professionally, attend conferences, and join professional organizations. You can find me “relaxing” by reading from one of the stacks of books that I have selected to become extremely excited about. I would consider myself to be a lifelong student, and I truly enjoy what I do. I enjoy being around children students as I do adult students. I love the way this chapter was written because once again, Regie Routman nails it on the head in so many ways with so many wonderful nuggets of learning in this chapter that I may have underlined nearly the whole chapter.

Again and again, I saw the importance of personal reflection in this chapter. The heart of professional learning should be about reflection – reflection of student learning, student and personal needs, philosophy, shared leadership, professional readings, and research. Teachers are powerful human beings by nature and seeking each other out to learn from one another’s expertise should also be a noted valuable tool that is mentioned repeatedly in this chapter. Your professional learning journey will no doubt shape not only your teaching, but it will challenge you to find, mentors that inspire growth and change within yourself. Who knows, you could quite possibly become one of those mentors that we read about someday.

Check out all of the posts from this book study by going to the Literacy Essentials webpage. There, you can select different articles to read and respond to and continue the conversation in the comments. In addition, consider joining our new Google+ Community to extend these discussions and connect with other literacy leaders.

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.