You’ve Got to Believe It to Achieve It

This week our school faculty collectively examined our beliefs about reading instruction. We now own the following beliefs as a staff.

• Choice in what students read and how much they read influences motivation and achievement.
• The easiest texts for English learners to understand are those in which the concepts and vocabulary are familiar.
• Students who do not read well orally can have strong comprehension.
• Rereading is an excellent strategy when comprehension breaks down.
• Students need to do lots of independent reading of self-selected texts.
• Easy access to books students can and want to read is crucial to readers’ success.
• Students need to be taught how to choose “just right” books.
•Kindergarten students are capable of inferring meaning from text.

(For the belief statements in which only one person was not with the group, instructional leadership team members agreed to own those beliefs too.) These eight statements are an increase from the three we agreed upon in the fall. How did this occur? What actions led us to come together and find common ground in five more principles regarding reading instruction?

If you could sum it up in one word, it might be “process”. We had time to read and respond to self-selected resources on the topic of reading instruction in different groups. We worked together in PLCs to examine student work and consider how new strategies might better serve learning. There should also be credit given to the informal, every day conversations we have about our practices in the hallways, the lounge, and beyond the school walls.

So what do these beliefs look like in practice? That is our next step, starting this fall when we begin the process of developing integrated units of study that weave effective literacy strategies and resources into social studies. If we can start to institutionalize our collective intelligence, we will have take a big step toward realizing our mission and vision as a school district.

Competition and Education

Photo Source: Unsplash

My wife and I attended our first track meet of the year last night. The rain and overall cruddy weather did not sway the student athletes and coaches from completing the events. Our son participated in a team relay, high jump, and shot put. Tomorrow, our daughter will be playing soccer. Another sports season has begun!

I was also an athlete during my school days. I find many benefits with these types of extracurriculars. Speaking for myself, I learned how to be a part of a team, the importance of practice, and how to lose honorably and to win gracefully.

The thrill of competition can be a motivating factor for self-improvement. But it can also come with a cost. Namely, that there is at least one “loser” in every event. We can give out all the participation trophies and ribbons we want, but it does not hide the fact that at least for one day, one person or team was deemed better than another.

As teachers and leaders, we strive to ensure that all students are successful in their learning journeys. There should not be any losers. This belief is spelled out (literally) at every level in education, from the “Every Student Succeeds Act” to a district’s mission and vision to a classroom compact.

And yet our beliefs are not always realized in our actions in schools. For example, academic awards and student recognitions explicitly highlight those who were successful while also tacitly listing those who were not.

I understand there is room for debate on these issues. But I don’t think sports and academics are equivalent experiences. Kids choose to play soccer and track. Education is compulsory. Students and families don’t have a lot of choice in these matters.

So is it possible to harness the motivation of competition and redirect it positively in the world of learning? I say yes: when the student is in competition with himself or herself. They see the purpose and relevance of their learning; they have clear criteria for success; they receive actionable feedback that can help them improve; they are provided opportunities to apply what they’ve learned in an authentic performance task for a real audience. The outcome is someone who not only knows how to learn but also wants to learn more in the future.

Three Simple Ways to Celebrate Teachers

I was walking around school, thinking about a unique way to celebrate a recognition the staff received. Two specialists were talking in their office, so I asked them if they had any ideas. 

“Post-it notes,” said one.

“Really?” I asked.

“Yes, that would be nice,” commented the other specialist. “Teachers appreciate having those items around when a parent calls or they have to jot down a reminder.”

I thanked them and walked away while they then conversed about all the benefits of Post-it notes. I’m glad I asked because it was a good reminder for me that the act of recognizing staff members’ efforts and successes is more important than the actual item. Next are three simple ways to celebrate our teachers.

  • Personal notes – I have small stationary notepads made every year. Although my name is on them, they are not for me; I’ll write personal notes of thanks for all staff members and put it in their mailboxes. I try to keep the language specific to them and their actions. For example, I noticed a teacher recently using a students’ own writing during a guided reading lesson. Instead of writing, “Great job on that lesson!”, I wrote “I was impressed with how you connected students’ own writing to the reading lesson. Thank you for living out our beliefs in your instruction!” 
  • Recognition at the beginning of staff meetings – These monthly gatherings can feel like one more thing to do if we don’t start on a positive note. That is why a running agenda item, top of the list, is “Celebrations and Announcements”. I defer to teachers to share their own successes and encourage staff to recognize others. Recognition is both personal and professional. In this way, I am not inadvertently creating a climate of competition or positioning someone as “the principal’s pet”. Starting a staff meeting this way sets the tone for the rest of our time together.
  • Sharing out visual artifacts – I can personally recognize teachers in a more discrete way by sharing images and video depicting our staff in action. For example, I send out holiday cards to close family members with a picture of their loved ones working with kids. Also, I use Twitter to post photos I capture while walking through classrooms and in the hallways. In addition, my weekly staff newsletter depicts teachers and students learning together. Three years in my current position, teachers are great about sending me pictures via email for me to share out. 

How do you or your school leaders celebrate teachers in your building? Please share your ideas in the comments.

School Culture: “P” is for Positivity

The more I lead as well as heed the lessons of previous years, the more I believe in the importance of a positive start to a school year. Shaping a school culture, defined by Terrence Deal and Kent Peterson as “the unwritten rules and traditions, customs, and expectations” (7), starts with celebration. Regie Routman asserts that “celebration is at the heart of all effective teaching and leading” (186). If we as school leaders are to expect our students, staff, and community to be successful, framing a positive perspective with our students and colleagues, as well as making the act of celebration a habit, is key.

Next are a few ideas to consider implementing for a positive start as the school year draws closer.

Focus on the Students

This idea seems redundant, yet history tells me it’s worth reviewing. As evidence, I remember a teacher contacting me at a previous school in which I was just hired as principal. They asked me through email if they could have specific dates off during the school year. There was no prelude to this request, such as a sharing of one’s philosophy or conveying enthusiasm for working with students; the focus was on their needs.

I didn’t call this person out; I understood the request and tried not to assume anything. But I also understood that the culture may not be “student first” yet. So we took a lot of time in my first year to develop an understanding of students’ strengths, needs, and interests at each developmental level. For example, we purchased a resource for teachers that informed us about this topic. The information helped us understand why a student might act a certain way while not accepting the behavior.

Demonstrate Gratitude

Do you use a physical planner? If so, I highly recommend the Commit30 product. Each month, you select one goal to focus on for your personal/professional development. September is an excellent month to demonstrate gratitude each and every day. This is a low-to-no cost effort that pays dividends for others and for yourself down the road. Next are a few ideas:

  • Write genuine compliments on professional stationary about faculty and staff. Leave these notes in their mailboxes. I guarantee they will treasure these mini-celebrations more so than any evaluation or walkthrough.
  • When facilitating professional development workshops, don’t skimp on the refreshments and resources. Show staff you value them by offering quality lunches and purchasing excellent learning materials, including children’s literature.
  • Take time for yourself at the end of the day to reflect on what went well. It’s easy to focus on the one negative that might have occurred. Instead, write down a positive event and why you believe it happened. Make positive thinking a habit.

Visuals and Messaging

Today was my first day back after a family acation. When I walked into the staff lounge, I immediately noticed the updated bulletin board.

IMG_0919.jpg

I am not sure who created it, but it is perfectly placed. The staff lounge can be perceived as a negative location if we tacitly accept gossip and complaints as the norm. Even if collective commitments have been established as a school, people find places to vent their frustrations in unhealthy ways if we are not observant. Visuals and messaging like the one shared here serve as an antidote to negativity as well as a warning sign to anyone who desires to engage in toxic behaviors.

What do you find effective for promoting positivity at the beginning of the school year? Please share in the comments.

 

Priorities

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most Memorable Blog Posts of the Year – 2017

What does your digital portfolio show? by George Couros (The Principal of Change)

12 Things I STOPPED Doing Thanks to Breast Cancer by Kaye Hendrickson (Aimlessly Wondering)

A Guide for Resisting Edtech: The Case Against Turnitin by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stomel (Digital Pedagogy Lab)

Every Teacher a Reader. Every Teacher a Writer. by Amy Rasmussen (Three Teachers Talk)

How Much Reading to Kids in Middle School? by Tim Shanahan (Shanahan on Literacy)

DigiLitSunday: Better by Margaret Simon (Reflections on the Teche)

Coaching for Impact with Samantha Bennett by Rachel Tassler (The Reading Teacher’s Ramblings)

What Effective Admin Do by Josh Stumpenhorst (Stump the Teacher)

Counting Down to Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading: Delving into Deeper Reading by Vicki Vinton (To Make a Prairie)

Writing Partners: Authentic Purposes for Writing by Elizabeth Moore (Two Writing Teachers)

A Reading Life…Interrupted by Teri Lesesne (Nerdy Book Club)

On the Level by Donalyn Miller (Nerdy Book Club)

You’ll Never Be the Same Again by Mikey Dickerson (Medium)

Three Ways to Ensure Making Inspires Writing Time (Rather than Replace It) by Angela Stockman (Angela Stockman)

55-25 and my 40th Birthday by Julie Nariman (Classroom 325)

It’s awards season! Typically this annual post is published late of the same year. However, it is never too late to recognize the great writing on educational blogs. I saved each of the posts listed here because I found them to be important to my work as an educator. Maybe you will too.

This list is without descriptions for each linked post, unlike past lists. Time is valuable. I suggest exploring each of these posts yourself. If one strikes you as important in your work, please share your response in the comments. You don’t have to agree with the content. Each post was selected because it caused thinking on my end as a reader.

jess-watters-483668

For example, I included Tim Shanahan’s post on this list specifically because I did not agree with his position. But it did cause thinking, specifically in re-examining my own beliefs about literacy instruction. Posting his initial thinking online led to several comments with various levels of agreement/disagreement. Conversation ensued. Conversely, Digital Pedagogy Lab’s post about the negatives regarding the technology Turnitin changed my thinking about a product I had once promoted.

This gets to the heart of blogging as an educator: Every teacher and administrator has something to say and to contribute to the larger conversation of teaching and learning. Our experiences working with kids daily has just as much credibility as any letters behind our names. We build our collective intelligence when we blog about our work and engage with others willing to take a risk and share their thinking online. If you have been hesitant to start a blog, consider now as a good time to begin.

(Photo by Jess Watters on Unsplash)

Building a Literacy Culture – a @StenhousePub Blog Series #litessentials

 

When I am not blogging, it usually means I am on a tech sabbatical, on vacation (I wish!), or working on a writing project. Lately, I have been reading and enjoying Regie Routman’s new resource Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All LearnersLike Regie’s previous work, this book is a necessary text for any teacher of literacy (see: you).

As a way for me to connect with and reflect upon the ideas in Literacy Essentials, I have written three articles for Stenhouse’s blog. They describe the importance of building a literacy culture, addressing the elements of trust, communication, and relationships. You can read the first two posts by clicking here and here. Look for the third post on the Stenhouse blog in the near future.

Reading Literacy Essentials, it could almost be called “Life Essentials”. Regie mixes research and practice with personal stories as a wife, parent, grandparent, friend, and unique individual. She offers suggestions for becoming a better teacher and a more interesting person. Joy can be had in the classroom and in life; they are not mutually exclusive. This makes Regie’s new book essential reading for all educators.

Literacy Essentials