How to Build a Literacy Culture: A Theory of Practice

Today was a snow day for our school, so I had some time to tinker with my session for the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention on February 7.

The topic for this session is on how school leaders of every stripe can build a literacy culture. I took three ideas from a past post I wrote and developed a theory of action that other educators might follow to facilitate schoolwide student improvement in reading, writing, and communicating. See below.

The thing about theories is they are limited, especially when developed by one person. While I do read widely and connect with others, as well as reflect on my experiences here, my perspective is not the only point of view. Other school leaders might have found a different pathway toward success.

So what are your thoughts? I want to put this theory to the test before I present it at the WSRA convention session. That could include offering critique and feedback in the comments, or simply sharing it with a colleague who might have a response. Thank you in advance.

This Year

The new year always seems to offer a deal: if you resolve to make a change for the next twelve months, it will begin on January 1.

It’s nice to think about. A restart can be motivating and cause one to engage in some reflection, goal-setting, and a sense of renewal. “This year, I resolve to… (fill in the blank).”

But the new year is a bit of a false promise. January 1 is only tomorrow. Today is Monday. I’m not trying to dampen anyone’s mood; in fact, I encourage you to take an optimistically realistic stance about the new year. Maybe by taking a step back and appreciating the journey we’ve been on, we can develop resolutions that will keep the momentum going (instead of trying to recreate ourselves in a matter of 24 hours).

This can happen through reflection, goal-setting, and renewal. It is not without context. Last year matters. There were points for celebrations and areas for growth. Consider the following questions to respond to in your journal as you prepare for the upcoming year.

  1. What accomplishments am I most proud of so far? Go back as far as you want. For example, I wrote out milestones in my writing career starting in 2012. Big or small, all celebrations were included.
  2. Based on my past, where do I want to grow professionally and personally? I believe in keeping our goals limited to no more than two, aligned with the classic organizational leadership book Good to Great by Jim Collins. Professionally (as a writer), I want to self-host my sites in order to take advantage of more web tools. Personally, I want to improve my exercise/activity habits (and if I lose some weight in the process…:-).
  3. How might I achieve these goals? The word “might” is key here; it offers many possibilities vs. one pathway toward success. So…I am trying out the Amazon Affiliate program for this blog. I don’t like monetizing the site, but I haven’t found a better method that doesn’t interfere with the readers’ experience. Regarding my personal goal, I am going to develop a schedule of activities that keep me interested and wanting to come back. Neither may work. I have permission to try new approaches in those situations.

It bears repeating: the upcoming year is not without context. Last year had lots of experiences to reflect upon and to celebrate. Next year (yes, 2020) holds more opportunities. Instead of focusing on New Year’s Day, what about today?

Beliefs and Practices: Embracing Failure and Supporting Each Other

It’s one thing to have a belief in an approach for teaching or leading. It’s another thing to apply those beliefs to our practices. The distance between beliefs and practices is a group’s willingness to embrace failure as an opportunity for collective learning. 

Today, I facilitated a professional learning session with teachers about reading comprehension. We started by celebrating our growth as a faculty. Important to stress was how our positive school report card was a product of our shared beliefs about literacy. We are on the same page.

But being on the same page philosophically does not necessarily translate to practice. Teachers are at various stages of expertise, often varied in different areas with each teacher. To relate, I shared a story about how I was recently reading aloud to 1st graders, and it didn’t dawn on me to stop and take a moment to explain challenging vocabulary until one student asked, “How can you sow (sew) seeds?”

My personal example of failure led to a short exercise. Teachers were provided a matrix. On the left side were our literacy beliefs we currently shared as a faculty, translated into teaching practices they represented. At the top were four columns. Each heading described a level of progression along a learning continuum. I won’t spend time or words trying to describe it: you can click here to download it or view it below.

Teachers were provided time to reflect on where they were on the learning progression spectrum with regard to each literacy belief in action. (Our beliefs derive from Regie Routman in Residence.) Then they shared with a trusted colleague which practices they felt effective with and with practices they believe they needed more support.

“Do you want to collect these?” asked a teacher. “No, I want you to keep this reflection tool for future use. Maybe you might want to explore a practice more deeply through instructional coaching or peer observation.” Next, I asked if any teachers were willing to share their reflections with the whole group. No one spoke up. To follow, I asked those who rated themselves as unconsciously effective (become second nature) in every practice to raise their hands. No one did, although I noticed many smiles on teachers’ faces.

Later in the professional learning session, teachers were having conversations within self-directed study groups about their selected professional resources. I sat in on one group. As teachers went around discussing their work, one teacher announced, “I have a failure to share.” She pulled up her phone and displayed a picture of a student’s novel filled with sticky notes. “He has a Post-it note for every page!” shared the teacher, which led to laughter and more honest conversations about their own challenges, along with ideas for how this teacher could use the Post-it note information to guide future instruction. 

If schools are ever going to grow collectively, we have to start being honest with ourselves about our practices. Teaching and leading in schools is incredibly complex work. People outside education rarely understand this so we cannot expect them to adequately address the issue. By being open and vulnerable about where we struggle, it gives others permission to divulge their own failures and challenges. These confessions are the seeds for true growth as professionals. It starts with leaders – not just principals – speaking the truth about our challenging, rewarding work.

Express Gratitude By Blogging

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

This month I have committed to reading one blog post a day and leaving a comment. It’s my way of saying thanks to other educators and writers who take the time to share their thinking online, as well as to frequent the sites of readers of my own blog.

Maybe you don’t have a blog but have always wanted to start one. When I have asked people what’s stopping them, they usually cite one of two reasons: “I don’t have time,” and “I don’t have anything worth sharing.” I won’t argue with the first reason; people’s life circumstances can vary. But the second one is debatable because every educator I know who writes regularly online about their practice is providing a benefit to others as well as themselves.

In fact, sharing our work and our reflections in a public space is one of the best ways to express gratitude for others. Consider the following reasons.

  • Blogging reduces professional isolation. When you write about your experiences and observations in school, other educators who read what you share will often relate. They may realize they are not alone in feeling a certain way about a similar situation, for example, confusion over whether or not to purchase a commercial literacy program. I know this because I have received comments and emails in appreciation for bringing up these topics (and likewise reciprocated on others’ sites). Benefit: other educators.
  • Blogging improves your practice. Through the act of writing about our professional lives, we start a process of reflection. We put our ideas down, reread and see what we initially wrote from a more objective perspective, and then continue writing in response to our thinking. Writing is an act of creation, so it makes sense that we will come to deeper or different understandings about a topic through this process. That will make us better educators, which can impact the staff and students with whom we work. Benefit: our school.
  • Blogging puts our ideas somewhere. I know educators will bring home their challenges, unloading the days’ frustrations onto their spouse and nearest adult. Maybe we feel better, yet I don’t know if this is the best approach to living a fulfilling life. What if you altered some details, not letting “the facts get in the way of the truth”, and published a post around an area of concern? Now we have put these thoughts somewhere that won’t change the mood at home and will likely be appreciated by our colleagues online (see reason #1). If the post is too close to our current school context, leave it as a draft or trash it. The act of reflection itself can be satisfying enough. Benefit: our families/friends.
  • Blogging brings value. The opposite of those who feel like they have nothing to say or share are people who expect to be compensated for all of their writing efforts. Some see blogging as giving away their work. Others worry about their ideas getting lost in all of the tweets and posts. I remember one well-known connected educator remark about blogging: “The market is saturated.”  It’s not. Good ideas always have an audience. And no one has a better point of view about the world of education than those currently practicing within it. Maybe your writing efforts won’t bring in additional income, but it will give you more credibility and visibility, which is of immense value as you navigate your teaching or leading career. Benefit: you and everyone else.

I write this post not to put one more thing on your plate. Rather, I encourage you to rethink your plate. By adding to the collective understanding of education through blogging, we help others and ourselves become more connected, we grow as professionals, we find a healthy outlet for our ideas, and we build on our practice. Writing online about your practice is a selfless action that can benefit everyone, yourself included.

Time to Think

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Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

My wife and I are still at the stage in our lives where, if one of our kids is sick, one of us is staying home. Today was my turn. I planned to be back at school tomorrow, assuming my son only had a virus and not strep throat.

There always seems to be a twinge of guilt educators feel in these circumstances. It’s not like the work goes away. The students show up regardless of our situation. Will the guest teacher deliver the lessons like we prefer? or Who will step in if a student is struggling behaviorally? are typical questions that arise.

Once we get over this guilt, I start to see these occasions not as time off but more as time away. A change when time allows to reflect on my experiences and to let the mind wander a bit. Maybe an opportunity to read and learn from others online. More so, being at home or away from school gives me the mental space to look at my practice from a distance and be a little more objective about it (in between medical visits and meeting my child’s needs, of course).

When I come back to school after a short break, I often feel a sense of renewal. Sure, there are the tasks left on my desk or in my email that only I could take care of. But the larger projects are ongoing, progressing day-by-day in the classrooms.

Margaret Wheatley, writer and leadership consultant, offers answers to why our perspective and appreciation for our work improves after time away. In a 2001 article titled “Can We Reclaim Time to Think?“, she describes the current professional situation as it is today for many leaders.

In this turbo speed culture, we’ve begun to equate productivity with speed. If it can be done faster, we assume it’s more productive.

This calls to mind current discussions about assessments we might decide to administer for literacy. Conversations are often focused on attributes such as “time”, “reliability”, and “proficiency”. These attributes translate to alternative terms: speed, consistency, and being right. Now when you read these terms, does this call to mind engaging and effective literacy instruction?

Not for me. As I read Wheatley’s article today, I recalled a few memorable reading and writing experiences from my K-12 educational career.

  • Our elementary school librarian reading aloud George’s Marvelous Medicine by Roald Dahl, and the anticipation that built as George dumped one toxic ingredient after another into a mixture that would eventually be administered to his abusive grandmother.
  • A high school English teacher engaging us in a shared read aloud of Lord of the Flies by William Golding, rereading a passage of dialogue while explaining how what the main characters were saying revealed their personalities and potential future actions.

What these examples reveal is two teachers’ willingness to take the time to expose their students to authentic literature, not with the intent of scoring well on a test but to become immersed in the story itself. We read and “take up residence” in these stories, as far-fetched as some might be. To be able to empathize with a character and their situation requires the time to think about the story, sometimes after we have read a passage or even the entire book.

Wheatley offers a rationale for building in these opportunities to think about our experiences, fictional and real.

Thinking is the place where intelligent actions begin. We pause long enough to look more carefully at a situation, to see more of its character, to think about why it’s happening, to notice how it’s affecting us and others.

Reading what Wheatley shares, how does this philosophy comport with the current world of teaching and learning? For many of us: poorly. We are driven to meet standards and make sure students are “college and career” ready. Time spent thinking and reflecting does not involve any type of visible action, and therefore leads people to assume that learning is not happening. Our respective missions and visions describe the ideal, and yet our practices more likely than not represent our reality.

Too often, the largest obstacles in our way are the professionals we consider colleagues. The more traditional mindset tries to pull down our ambitions of academic innovation and student independence. Moving toward more promising practices calls attention not only to our growth but also to the lagging skills in which our more satisfied colleagues might be so desperate to hide.

Again, Wheatley recognizes the challenge of carving out time for ourselves to reflect and renew in a larger educational culture that has a default of busy.

Don’t expect anybody to give you this time. You will have to claim it for yourself. No one will give it to you because thinking is always dangerous to the status quo. Those benefiting from the present system have no interest in your new ideas. In fact, your thinking is a threat to them. The moment you start thinking, you’ll want to change something.


My son’s strep test came back: negative. “Do I have to go back to school?” The physician smiled, silently deferring to me. My first thought was: Is he trying to avoid school? And then I paused and asked myself, Is he looking for time to think? Maybe, maybe not. But I can empathize with him, trying to navigate his own educational world that rarely offers the opportunity to step back and appreciate our experiences.

The Changing Roles of Educators

 

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My son did not want to practice his trumpet. He was finding anything else to do to avoid this daily task. To be honest, I felt the same way when I was in 6th grade and the novelty of playing the trumpet had worn off after about two weeks.

Knowing his affinity for pop music, I asked him to search online for the trumpet sheet music for “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars (his favorite song). He was excited to find someone had uploaded a video tutorial, a step-by-step visual demonstration for learning to play the melody for this song.

While he was keeping up with the tutorial, I elected to videotape his performance. This was just me being a dad, documenting him playing to share out later with family and friends. He saw me recording his practice and then asked me, “Could I see how I did?” Sure, I said, and we watched him doing his best to play the song. His nose wrinkled up as he commented on how his attempt was less than what he had expected. “I’m going to try it another time. Record me again?”

With the access people have to learn almost anything at any time from anywhere, how does the role of the educator change?I see two distinct shifts: what we teach and how we teach. This is curriculum and instruction, respectively. Regarding what we teach, the access provided by the Internet to almost any content seems limitless. No one textbook or resource can possibly serve as a primary source of information anymore. Teachers need to be more adventurous and at the same time increasingly discerning. For every excellent Uptown Funk video tutorial, there are many poor examples of similar content.

With how to teach, the Internet comes into play again. People can teach themselves what they want to learn (consider how many times one searches YouTube to repair some appliance). So our role as educators needs to shift from the person delivering the content to a coach or a mentor, providing feedback and offering suggestions when necessary. I didn’t have to say much when my son watched himself playing. He understood the criteria for success (the what) and could compare that with his own visible performance (the how).

These shifts take time. We need to give ourselves some grace and remember that we are doing the best we know how today. Tomorrow will be better provided we are open to change.

The Ups and Downs of a Reading Life

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Photo by Florencia Viadana on Unsplash

When is the last time you led a conversation with students about reading habits and you shared, “You know, I just haven’t had time to read lately.”?

I know; some of us might have to get rid of our perpetual “read 20 minutes a day” assignment for our students. Or, add –ish after “20” or “day”. We may have to update that “What Real Readers Do” anchor chart with statements like “Sometimes have other things to do” or “Binge-watch the Netflix series based on the book you just read”.

Because that is what real readers do, right? Who reads 20 minutes a day? Last night I read the last 150 pages of A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. Today I might search for online articles, blog posts, and reviews that analyze this novel. Tomorrow I might not find that next book to read. This morning I’ve thought about Tremblay’s story, asking myself questions about certain events and character actions. If reading is thinking, then does this time to reflect on the book count? Or is it “fake reading”?

Let’s get to the point: if we are going to model and share what real readers do, then we need to be transparent and a little more honest about our own reading lives. That means divulging our personal challenges as well as the positive actions that have solidified reading as a lifelong habit for us. By painting a more accurate picture of our own relationship with books and other forms of text, students can start to build their own identities as readers. Reading is not simply a science as some might want to suggest; there are social and emotional underpinnings that need to be considered.

So what might this look like in the classroom? Maybe it comes back to the tasks, rituals, and expectations of the reading classroom. Here are some initial ideas.

  • Have students keep a log of their reading habits for one week. Document how long they read and what they read. Then have the students share their findings as a class. Using this information, come up with an agreed-upon guideline for daily reading, for example, “Read around 25 minutes a day”.
  • Offer a variety of authentic ways for students to respond to their reading. Examples include but are not limited to documenting books read in reader journal, preparing a book talk, write a review on Biblionasium, and write an essay about a book or article that made an impact. Offer prompts and protocols only as needed.
  • Revisit your classroom’s or school’s current homework policy. Ask important questions such as “Are the assignments being asked of us critical to our education?” or “Is homework getting in the way of our reading lives?”. This doesn’t have to be a debate about the idea of homework as much as a needed discussion around the school’s authority in deciding how students should spend their free/family time.
  • Give students more say in what books are selected for the classroom library. (And if you do not have a classroom library, today is a great day to start!) One of the teachers in my school has her students write requested titles on sticky notes and post them on the side of a bookshelf. She uses Scholastic book club points, her classroom budget, and her agreeable principal to get these books ordered and in kids’ hands. This process becomes an opportunity to teach students about genre, cultural representation in literature, and strategies for self-selecting texts.
  • Prepare personal stories about times in your life in which reading was not a daily habit. Maybe a loved one became ill. Or, a book stayed with us long after the last page was finished and we needed time to process through the experience. These stories can be shared orally during readers workshop or as a personal essay written in front of the students as a shared demonstration.

The idea that’s revealed itself here is that for students to build their identities as readers, they need to see and experience authentic reading lives. That means negotiation, that means ownership, and that means making it, yes, okay to not read at times. Real readers are real people, full of contradiction and complexity. If students can see that in ourselves, I believe they are more likely to emulate it in their own lives.