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.

Re-envisioning Roles

It’s easy to get caught up in the quick fix of doing the task, presenting the question that gives one quick response, and providing the immediate answer when a student approaches us. After all, we are under strict time constraints, the tests are always looming, and there’s those dang mandated curriculums to cover.  Come to think of it, that’s not even factoring in the students sitting in front of us, all seeming to need our attention at the same moment. So yeah, I get it, and in the short run, doing the task, asking for one correct response, just giving the answer… all seem feasible and even manageable. However…in the long run, it’s the students who lose out.  We do the exact opposite of what we truly intend, and thus create students who play the “School game.” Students who want to know exactly what they need to do for “said” grade. Kids who are constantly looking for a reward, kids who are trained to be compliant rather than curious. Kids who seemingly give up the moment the going gets a little tough.

In my experience teaching lower elementary, especially when I was first starting out and didn’t know any better, I was guilty of exactly what Regie talks about in the section on Equity-  Unintentionally disadvantaging and disabling my students by doing all the work for them, rather then guiding them towards self sufficiency and self regulation. She says it best, “…we disadvantage and disable kids by thwarting and delaying the development of competencies that lead to growing self-confidence and self-reliance.  Students develop self-regulation and self-sufficiency only when we teach for it and expect it” (p.347). Regie goes on to say that one of the best ways to develop this characteristic of self-determining, self-evaluating learners is through student-directed, small-group work. How does one go about creating this dynamic? It starts on day one.  Coming together as a community of learners. Co-creating the norms and expectations, giving students a voice…when these things are in place, the rest also falls into place.

Many years ago, the 2 Sisters, Gail Boushey and Joan Moser started me on a better path toward creating self-directed, self-evaluating learners. Their book, The Daily 5 was instrumental in helping me renew my teaching practice. It was through them that I first learned about the “Gradual release of responsibility method”.  Reading similar sentiments about how to engage and empower students through Regie’s lens in Literacy Essentials affirms the value of honoring students through voice and choice.  It’s about establishing ground rules through a shared creation of norms with your students. Co-creating anchor charts and classroom expectations, modeling and practicing the right way, wrong way, and the right way yet again. Asking more thought-provoking questions, and putting the thinking where it needs to be- On The Student. Talking less and listening more.

Even kindergarteners are capable of having ownership of the learning and learning environment when we co-create the norms and expectations. I was astounded with how capable they actually were!  Sure, they might not always have the stamina or resilience to make good choices 100% of the time, but most of the time they were much more engaged and self-reliant through this process than when I was the one controlling everything about the learning environment. It’s the same with my first graders. And if we are brutally honest, even adults aren’t on task and making good choices 100% of the time; it’s just part of human nature. Once you make the deliberate move to shift your thinking and teaching toward practices that engage and empower your students, you won’t ever go back.  

A huge part of this shift in our thinking about how we teach involves a focus on the part of talk. When we, as the teacher, are doing most of the talking (lecturing, question asking, answer providing), then we are also consequently doing most of the work.  On p. 338, Regie talks about finding the balance and about embracing conversations in the classroom. Conversations where all voices are heard and valued and there is no threat of a hidden agenda.  Conversations that ignite and drive curiosity. Conversations that involve the teacher as an integral part of the learning, not just dispensing the learning. I love this quote from Regie, “Balancing the power in the room leads to a better power balance outside the room” (p.338).  To me this means, not just balancing the power outside the classroom, but of a balance reaching far further than school walls.

Much to the end that Regie encapsulates with the following quote, “Empowered students come to believe they have agency in their lives, that they have the ability to implement positive changes for themselves and others” (p. 338). This. Isn’t this what we hope for all students?

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.

How Do We Graduate Self-Determining Adults?

As I read through my highlights in the section entitled “Developing Self-determining Learners” in Regie Routman’s book, Literacy Essentials, I couldn’t help but have my literacy coach hat on as well as my parent hat.  

As I read the highlighted words below, I found myself saying “That’s what I want for my kids!  That’s what I want for every kid–to be able to graduate from our K-12 system with these qualities so that they would be better apt to lead a successful life.”

Not only is it what I want, it is what our kids need to thrive in the world in which they’ll live when they graduate, a world much different than when we were kids.

Some of the highlighted words were “self-direct, self-reflect, self-taught, deep inner questioning, set their own worthwhile goals, curiosity and knowing how to learn.”  

If my kids graduated with these qualities, I would be confident they would be able to navigate their life more effectively.

If our kids graduated from high school and they possessed these qualities, we would have succeeded in our endeavors.

As I contemplated these concepts with my literacy coach hat on, I began reflecting on two things: 1) John Hattie’s work and his list of top instructional practices 2) My most effective coaching cycles over the last four years.

Much of what Routman encourages in this section are several of those practices from John Hattie’s work: learning targets/goals, success criteria, feedback, and monitoring learning to name a few.  As I think of my most effective coaching cycles, it is those cycles where the teacher chose to work on some of these top instructional practices. The engagement that I saw in students skyrocketed. The ownership of learning did as well.  And each time, the teacher would get so much enjoyment and satisfaction as she watched her students progress in their learning–as they became self-determining learners.

But, here’s where my own questioning came in and this is a question I’ve contemplated as I’ve become very familiar with these things that both Routman and Hattie are suggesting impacts kids.  When we discuss how we engage kids, how we teach them in a way that prepares them for the world in which they will live and how we improve student achievement, why are things such as learning targets, success criteria and feedback not received with the same level of excitement as other topics or initiatives? I’m going to refrain from naming those other topics, because I don’t want to come across as not seeing the value in those.  But I wonder that sometimes Hattie’s work (much of what Routman is suggesting) is not as sexy or fun to learn about (or at least seemingly) as other initiatives and we miss the boat when it comes to impacting kids with them.

To take my wondering deeper, I contemplated some possibilities as to why they are not as sexy. I wonder if it is because we think learning targets, success criteria and feedback are for the adults. When, in reality, we want students taking ownership of those things. They facilitate student-directed learning.  If they are not used for that purpose, perhaps I could see why one would think learning targets aren’t something to get excited about–if we just write it on the board as a lesson’s learning objective, of course that’s not engaging to learn about.

You see, in those most successful student-centered learning cycles I’ve had the pleasure to be a part of, it is when students have taken ownership of the learning because of the learning targets, success criteria and feedback. Not because teacher went through the motions and utilized them in instruction.

It excites me to no end to think of a district putting several years of focus on those things Routman is suggesting we do to create self-determining learners. Just think if a K-12 system focused on this, what our students would be capable of as they enter the workforce.  I have no doubt engagement and student achievement would skyrocket. And, our kids would be better prepared for life.

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.

The Art of the Blog

I was searching my own blog, something I wrote that I could simply repost here which would convey strategies and ideas for blogging as an educator. This repost would have served as a quick guide of sorts for contributors for our upcoming book study that starts May 14. Here is what I have found so far:

The Writing Principal: Tips for Administrators Considering Blogging (October 2012)

If I post my blog and no one reads it, did I really write it? (April 2013)

Why Should Educators Blog? (July 2014)

Blogging is Writing and So Much More (July 2016)

These posts are just the ones I could find. This blog is over six years old, with almost 500 posts to search within. None of them fit the bill, hence the post you are about to read.

As I read through each piece listed above, I could see how I have grown as a writer. My writing has not followed some type of straight trajectory in terms of improvement. Rather, it has been a gradual process, with some successes and many more failures. For example, coming across as an expert has been a challenge that I have become more aware of in my writing.

But it is with the failures that I have learned the most. Specifically, through constant blogging about my practice as a literacy leader, I have come closer to understanding not only my profession but also the general principles of a blog post that is well received and remembered. I thought I would share a few ideas here, not as an expert but instead as a constant learner.

  • Be passionate about your topic.

I address this first principle for a wide audience. Whatever we decide to blog about, it has to be something that we care deeply about and want to create more visibility around. For me, I did not see a lot of content out there around literacy leadership. That lead me to start chronicling my new experiences in leading a reading-writing initiative in an elementary school. My passion came from the realizations of learning with my faculty and seeing these understandings applied within the classrooms of our school.

Blogging tip: When starting a blog, give it a title that encompasses what subject(s) you are writing about. It can be direct (see Mark Levine’s blog Mindful Literacy) or more general (check out Vicki Vinton’s blog To Make a Prairie). If direction changes, you can always change the title later.

  • Write from a place of curiosity.

When I first started this blog, I was a new elementary principal with limited knowledge about excellent literacy instruction. My ignorance as a classroom teacher was quickly revealed to me through our collective study of the reading-writing connection via the Regie Routman in Residence online professional development program. Through this experience, I was able to dig into my own learning from the perspective of a principal trying to lead this type of initiative through modeling, support, and consistent feedback.

Blogging Tip: Post titles that pose a question often see more views.

  • Allow yourself to be vulnerable.

Being vulnerable makes you relatable as a writer for your audience. They likely recognize your own struggles within themselves. This is especially important for literacy leaders such as school principals and instructional coaches. We often don’t have readily available colleagues to bounce ideas off of or share concerns with at the moment. A blog, written from a place of humility, can be the inspiration needed for other literacy leaders who share similar struggles and are searching for better ways to be effective.

Blogging Tip: If you are unsure about how a post might be received online, ask someone to review it first. You can assign a reviewer within WordPress.

  • Worry less about visuals.

I used to get caught up in finding that perfect picture to embed with my text. While a visual can catch the eye of a reader via Pinterest and Facebook, we have to remember that readers come for the writing. One impact of blogging is the staying power of the post. It exists on the Internet for time unseen. I have pieces on this site written years ago that still garner many views. Many of the most memorable blog posts I have curated from other writers have zero visuals. That said, I highly recommend Unsplash for images that are copyright free. Consider citing the photographer as a thank you. Also, Canva is a fun graphic design tool for promoting events, such as our book club starting next week.

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Blogging tip: When writing online, use lots of white space and try to keep paragraphs limited to eight lines or less (which I fail at constantly – see this post).

  • Make writing a habit.

Imagine climbing a mountain. With the many dips and rises, a writer is gradually heading upwards and onward. Persistence is critical. Jordan Rosenfeld, author of A Writer’s Guide to Persistence: How to Create a Lasting and Productive Writing Practice (Writers Digest Books, 2015), expands on this concept. “Persistence is the key factor, the dividing line, between writers who succeed and writers who merely wish to. It comes not from mental acuity or superstrength but from finding the deep meaning and joy at the root of your writing practice and calling on this joy to get you through the challenges. (1)” I am rereading Jordan’s guide and highly recommend it for all writers.

Blogging tip: Post at the minimum once a month, and preferably at least once a week.

What suggestions do you have for future and current bloggers? Please share in the comments.

 

How I Read as a Literacy Leader

cesar-viteri-426877-unsplashSchoool leaders cannot know literacy without being a reader. Therefore we have to read. Here, I share five suggestions for becoming a more intentional reader.

  • Read widely.

This means reading across a variety of genres and modes. Both online and offline. The main benefit is that we don’t get pinned within one type of prose. Otherwise, we might get into a reading rut. Like well-worn tire tracks in the woods, we can get stuck within these constraints and not realize the variety that literature has so much to offer. We should also read newspapers, magazines, blog posts, tweets…anything worth our attention.

Consider: When’s the last time you read fiction? As a school leader, I can relate to our busy lives. Reading fiction may seem superfluous. But at what cost? Research shows many benefits to reading fiction, including building a broader perspective and developing empathy. Nonfiction is also enjoyable; however, the best nonfiction has a narrative arc. This is not a post about reading fiction as much as it is to stress the importance of reading widely and becoming a well-rounded individual.

  • Read regularly.

Habits take time and intention. We repeat what we enjoy. So it is important that we construct our environments for optimal times for reading and accessing text. For example, I always have a to-read pile on my bedside table. I’ll even organize this stack based on which book I plan to read next… #nerdalert

During the school day, I sometimes carry a book or article with me on the off-chance of downtime, what Donalyn Miller refers to as a “reading emergency”. My two children have emulated my practice. Imagine what your students might do if you tried the same thing. If life is too busy for even that, consider audiobooks. Audible offers a monthly membership where you can download any book to listen to in the car to and from school. Whatever life throws at you, just read.

  • Read publicly.

Reading in public view is one of the best ways to encourage everyone to be a reader. We make it visibly acceptable to be a reader wherever we may be. I think there is this cultural aspect that has formed, where it is now okay to check in with our smartphones constantly, while reading a book becomes less of a norm. And to write in public…aghast! You will get weird looks at worst, apathy at best.

Digitally speaking, I post my book covers in my email signature from Goodreads. When I update my book I am reading, the cover changes. I am a part of a community of readers through Goodreads, which gives me access to others’ reviews of books I have read plus ideas for future reading. This is something you as a leader can share with students, who can emulate this practice through Biblionaisum. If online is not to your taste, maybe have a book board where you print off covers of titles you are reading by your door, like our school librarian.

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  • Read critically.

It’s good to remember that every text is the author’s take on the truth. That means I read with a critical lens. I’ll have a pen in hand and write in the margins. It’s a transactional process, where I am interpreting what I am reading through my current and limited thinking (why I need a reading community, see prior). As an example, I will sometimes highlight a few words in the text and accompany this annotation with a question or a comment. The author and I are (almost) having a conversation in this sense.

Sometimes, I will even select a text that runs counter to my current beliefs. At the very least, I will understand multiple sides of an issue. It’s also possible that my thinking will change on a topic. For example, I have picked up The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. This text, critical of reading online, will pair well with Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art by Virginia Heffernan. I can read both with a critical stance, knowing the two authors are coming at this similar topic from different perspectives, which could expand my own point of view regarding new literacies.

  • Read selectively.

For some professional resources, I have moved away from feeling I have to read the whole book. Some of the content is more relevant than other parts. My time is limited. Furthermore, I don’t have time for bad writing. The official reviews on Amazon, from legitimate sites and sources, are often reliable. We have to remember that we have permission to say “no” with regard to our precious time.

Same goes for recreational reading. For example, if someone recommends a book to me, and upon preview it is not of interest, I feel okay about declining. That said, I have been more careful about my own book recommendations to others. With others, I might say “You might find this book interesting. If you want, check it out. If you are not interested, feel free to throw it my mailbox.”

How do you read as a leader? What strategies or books have helped you know literacy? Please share in the comments.

 

Fits and Starts

A personal goal of mine is to learn how to use Adobe InDesign. It is a digital publishing program that allows you to draft visual documents such as flyers and eBooks.

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Photo by Mikaela Shannon on Unsplash

I’ve opened it up several times, played with the tools, will often end up frustrated, and eventually shut it down. Yet every time I open up InDesign, I learn something new. This learning might be small, such as how to find a preferred template online or how to zoom in on a document. Eventually, I will get the hang of this software, as long as I keep trying.

These types of fits and starts are the necessary beginnings for learning anything. If we introduce something new into our lives and it doesn’t change how we think or work, then we likely didn’t grow. The journey toward a worthy goal is paved with trials and mistakes and restarts.

Suggested Reading:

Writing for an Audience by Andi Sanchez (The Reading Teacher, $)

Affinity Spaces: How young people live and learn online and out of school by James Paul Gee (Phi Delta Kappan, free)

We are on spring break, which means a tech sabbatical for me for about a week. No Twitter, no problem! See you in April. -Matt

Start with Your Strengths

I wrote this short piece for my weekly staff newsletter. Thought it might work here too. Have a great weekend, -Matt

I thought I was a pretty good basketball player in my middle school days. That is, until I attended my first summer basketball camp. It became apparent that I had been a big fish in a little pond. Several players were taller, faster, or simply better than me.

So I had to rely on one of the few things I could do well: hustle. I raced up and down the court, trying to beat whoever was guarding me, and getting into positions that would allow for easy buckets. Maybe I could not dribble past or outshoot many of my opponents, but I wasn’t going to be out-hustled. Focusing on a strength gave me the  confidence to eventually improve in other areas.

As we continue to explore new ways of teaching literacy, maybe you are feeling the same way at times. My humble advice: do what you do well that is also effective for students while trying one thing at a time. Time, commitment, and an open mind are our strengths.