Read by Example Newsletter, 9-22-18: Professional Growth

This blog now has a newsletter! I’ll be reposting the first couple of lists here to build awareness for it. You can subscribe here for free. Thanks for reading, -Matt

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This week I found personal growth to be a common thread in the posts and related resources.

  1. When we lead like a coach, we are more likely to see growth in our teachers. Check out my post on this topic.
  2. An excellent resource for leading like a coach is Coaching Conversations: Transforming Your School One Conversation at a Time by Linda M. Gross Cheliotes and Marceta F. Reilly.
  3. Can principals even be coaches? I wrote about this in a post from five years ago. I am not sure I currently agree with my thinking at that time.
  4. I questioned whether we are talking about what really matters when try to grow professionally in this post.
  5. The previous post references a recent ASCD Education Update article. The subject involves a teacher and a principal facilitate a mock conversation about the challenges with traditional teacher evaluation systems.
  6. Last summer, I wrote a post on how literacy leaders might release some of the responsibility of professional development to teachers via study groups.
  7. The previous post is in response to Jennifer Allen’s excellent resource Becoming a Literacy Leader. We (contributors and I) responded to this book in our own online study group; click here to check out all of our posts.
  8. I wrote a short response to the memoir I just read, Educated by Tara Westover.
  9. My wife and I plan to attend an author Skype visit with Tara Westover at a local library (we both read the book). Check out the author’s website for her schedule.
  10. Journaling is how Westover documented her upbringing. Related, I enjoyed this article by Benjamin Hardy for developing a habit and process regarding reflective journaling for professional and/or personal growth.

What’s going on in your world? Any themes you are noticing? Please share in the comments.

Educated

91DFQa-KgQLI read for almost two hours last night finishing Educated by Tara Westover. Wow, what a powerful memoir. The author describes her life growing up at the foothills of the Idaho mountains. Her parents are survivalists: trying to live away from society out of fear of “the government”. Mental illness and religion play a role in Westover’s story, but through her writing she was able to mine down to a deeper understanding of her upbringing isolated from the world.

Throughout her childhood and as a young adult, Westover kept journals that documented her both tragic and inspiring experiences. Her written reflections served as artifacts of her life which she came back to while writing this memoir. The author concedes that her version of the truth could only be a close proximation of what actually happened, even though she witnessed first hand much of what she described.

We are all more complicated than the roles we are assigned in stories. Nothing has revealed that truth to me more than writing this memoir – trying to pin down the people I love on paper, to capture the whole meaning of them in a few words, which is of course impossible. This is the best I can do: to tell that other story next to the one I remember.

I am sure that Westover only used a fraction of her written reflections as she crafted her memoir. She culled what was essential to tell her story. When we have our students write in school, how much of it is personal in nature? Should we teach students how to journal, as well as how to take these seemingly disparate pieces to find trends and patterns in our writing and ideas? How might we use journaling as a way to examine our own lives? There are lessons presented graciously here by Westover that we could all consider.

First Days of School: Keep it Simple

The classroom could have been for almost any age level. The bulletin board was bare besides the butcher paper stapled up with colorful border framing each side. Book bins stood empty, waiting to be filled with reading material. One slogan, “Believe in Yourself”, was posted above the otherwise spartan door.

51Lrt8Ar8vL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgEven if the classroom walls were covered with all kinds of decorations in every color imaginable, none of the 4th graders would have noticed. They were listening and watching their teacher read aloud School’s First Day of School, written by Adam Rex and illustrated by Christian Robinson. In this story, a newly built elementary school doesn’t realize what it is until the students and teachers show up. After some deductive reasoning through some humorous situations, Frederick Douglass Elementary learns and appreciates what its purpose is.

The teacher had a nice flow to the read aloud. She didn’t pause too many times in an attempt to dissect every word and phrase to understand author’s purpose. Students were provided a few opportunities to share their questions and connections during the story. “I guess the main character – the narrator – is the school! What a creative way to tell a story. I would have never thought of that.” Everyone nodded in agreement.

It should be noted that this was the second time these 4th graders had heard School’s First Day of School. Earlier in the morning, I had read aloud the same book to the entire student body during our first-day assembly (I relied on the eBook version, a microphone, and a projector connected to my computer.) The goal was to introduce our yearlong theme, “A Community of Readers”.

Initially preparing for this assembly, I was going to put together several slides that touched on what it means to be a community and what tools we might use to share what we were reading with others. As I started a new slide deck, a feeling of unease set over me. “Is this what readers do?” I asked myself. “Do they create slide decks to encourage others to check out a book?” Only in school.

I am thankful that I pushed pause on my habit of always feeling like I need to spend a large chunk of time putting together a presentation for communicating our school goals. Sometimes its necessary, but it comes with a potential cost (besides my time): inauthenticity. Too much of what we do in education feels forced and arbitrary. We work too hard and not always on the right things. I’d rather try to be genuine and true to our collective purpose of developing readers and writers for a lifetime. Effective teachers understand this. They live out their beliefs about authentic literacy experiences that engage students in co-creating a classroom community.

Teaching is complex, one of the most challenging professions we can aspire to take on. Yet it’s premise is simple: guide students to become independent thinkers and learners. If we are doing the lion’s share of the work, how is this outcome possible?

For additional ideas on embedding more authentic literacy practices in your classroom or school, check out all of the posts from this summer’s book study. We read and responded to Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellent, and Equity for All Students by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Click on this link or find the book study page in this blog’s menu.

Reading Deeply in Digital Spaces

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Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

For too long, I have deleted all of the blog updates that come through my email. I “subscribe” to other educators and thought leaders who post frequently on their site. Yet it has become my habit to Select All when these updates show up in my inbox and promptly delete. This practice has become a habit, a ritual that in reflection seems silly.

Why do I do this? What is the reason why I am not learning from others through their blogs and newsletters like I used to?

I suspect some of it has to do with priorities. I have prioritized checking Twitter for any interesting bits of information such as news updates, journal articles, and videos. But I tend to stick a toe into these information streams and rarely dive into an in-depth article or post (exceptions include The New York Times and The Washington Post, which I subscribe to both). To reprioritize, I probably need to revisit Twitter lists with more intent to read/view what is shared in their entirety.

Maybe my reluctance is due in part to the assumption that blog posts and other more opinion-based writing may not be as reliable or accurate as the information I read from major news sources. But this assumption is false. What educators and other thought leaders share online is just as “true” as anything a professional journalist might publish. In fact, some of the best content online is often from teachers and principals who reveal the challenges and struggles they have in their professional lives. I need to get back to this frame of mind more often, that recognizes process as just as important as any product.

The world is changing at such a rapid rate that it’s turning us all into amateurs. Even for professionals, the best way to flourish is to retain an amateur’s spirit and embrace uncertainty and the unknown. – Austin Kleon, Show Your Work! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered

Coming back to this idea of reading more deeply when online, I believe the other challenge is a technical one. Most sites are cluttered with advertisements and pop-ups (a big reason why this blog remains ad-free). Even the cleanest sites are still online which gives access to a host of other social media platforms and websites that we could explore instead. There always seems to be something more interesting on the other side of the digital fence. We need to be aware of this mental pull when reading and consuming information online.

Researcher Dr. Maryanne Wolf emphasizes the concept of “bi-literacy”, in which we take different approaches to read online vs. reading in print. In her recent article for The Guardian (which ~ahem~ I read on my smartphone and discovered via Twitter), Wolf shares studies on how the reading environment itself influences how people learn to read:

We know from research that the reading circuit is not given to human beings through a genetic blueprint like vision or language; it needs an environment to develop. Further, it will adapt to that environment’s requirements – from different writing systems to the characteristics of whatever medium is used. If the dominant medium advantages processes that are fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information, like the current digital medium, so will the reading circuit.

In other words, if a person’s daily diet of text is comprised primarily of digital, then their capacity to read and think deeply will more likely be shallow and cursory. Wolf notes that this phenomenon can occur at a pretty young age, “starting around 4th or 5th grade”.

Does this mean we eschew all things digital from our instruction? Of course not. There is so much excellent content out there that students and teachers should include as part of the curriculum. In addition, specific skills can and should be taught when reading online. Coming back to the concept of “bi-literacy”, Wolf recommends embracing a comprehensive approach to reading (and writing) for today’s learner.

We need to cultivate a new kind of brain: a “bi-literate” reading brain capable of the deepest forms of thought in either digital or traditional mediums. A great deal hangs on it: the ability of citizens in a vibrant democracy to try on other perspectives and discern truth; the capacity of our children and grandchildren to appreciate and create beauty; and the ability in ourselves to go beyond our present glut of information to reach the knowledge and wisdom necessary to sustain a good society.

I’ve started doing this for myself with more intentionality. For example, one educator’s blog I subscribe to, Tom Whitby, is clean and uncluttered. Still, for me, there is a need to trim down these posts to text only. I am using a Chrome extension called EasyReader. Select the button at the top right of your Chrome browser after downloading it, select the text you want to read, and you get a text-only interface.

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Before EasyReader
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After EasyReader

Free from distractions (except for that Twitter feed I need to close down), I now have the cognitive space to read this post critically and with my fullest attention. Mind you, no one taught me these types of skills, beyond the wise and generous educators and people online who were willing to share their ideas with everyone. Also, I chose to seek this information out because of my interest in literacies (vs. literacy).

So here it is to you. And what will we do with this information? How can we implement these necessary yet generally unknown reading practices into the curriculum? When will print text no longer be viewed as the only game in town during the literacy block? I believe by sharing and reflecting on our current work, to embrace being an “amateur” again as Austin Kleon recommends, especially when practices aren’t working like it was for me. Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

How Our Choices Reflect our Beliefs and Values

Every day we make decisions. It’s unavoidable as school leaders. Should we purchase another digital subscription to an online literacy tool, or should we reexamine our current products first? Which read aloud will we use to kick off the first professional development day of the school year? How will I start the day – checking email or quietly reflecting on yesterday through journaling?

These choices we make reflect our beliefs (what we know right now to be true) and our values (our beliefs in action). Often, and I include myself in this description, we make mindless decisions without really thinking about the “why” behind our choices or even the effects of our decision-making, both short-term and long-term.

To combat this mindlessness in my role as a school principal/literacy leader, I have started to more closely examine some of the decisions we make. First, I look at the decision itself. Let’s start with something relevant at this time of the year: school schedules and choosing when the literacy block will be placed at each grade level. Often the literacy block is scheduled in the morning because several faculty members express concern that kids are tired in the afternoon (not the case in my current school).

Now let’s break this decision down by examining possible beliefs, values, and results.

School Decision: Literacy blocks scheduled only in the morning
Possible Beliefs: Students learn better in the morning; Afternoons offer less opportunities for meaningful instruction
Apparent Values: Literacy is a priority; Other areas of study are less of a priority
Potential Results: Interventionists cannot work with students in the morning due to RtI rules; Other content areas and encore that are relegated to afternoons may be perceived as less valuable; Faculty may fail to see opportunities for integration between literacy and other content areas.

These beliefs and values are neither good or bad; they simply are what they are. We can assign meaning to them or not. However our understanding might be different than someone else affected by the decision of literacy blocks only in the morning. The potential results are where we can be more objective about choices. Are we happy with these results? If not, what could we do differently that might lead to different outcomes?

By following a process like this, where we more clearly see the results of our decision-making, we can also better understand our current perspective. It is only when we start taking a closer look at our decision-making that we can begin to re-examine our beliefs and values. Maybe there is room to grow in this area so that future decision-making is more beneficial for our students.

 

Principals: What Is Your Job with a Capital J?

“What is my job on the planet?” is one question we might do well to ask ourselves over and over again. Otherwise, we may wind up doing somebody else’s job and not even know it.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are, pg. 206

In a previous post, I posed the question: “If you knew that your last day at your school was tomorrow, how would you decide to spend your time?” I offered my own response (spending time in classrooms, ignoring email, etc.). Yet I didn’t address a possible follow up question, one that couches us in our daily realities: How do I find the time to spend with students and teachers in classrooms?

This is a reasonable concern. The emails in our inbox don’t magically disappear. Requisitions need to be approved and evaluations have to be completed. What helped me prioritize my limited time in school is to ask myself a follow-up question (adapted from a chapter title in Kabat-Zinn’s book): What is my job with a capital J?

To find out, I created a T-chart. Next, I looked back on my calendar and started listing all of the tasks I had completed in the past along with what I remembered doing but didn’t schedule. On the left side, I wrote down all of the tasks that should belong to me as a school principal and instructional leader. On the right side, I listed tasks that were my responsibility as a principal but didn’t necessarily need to be completed by me.

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This idea comes from the book The Together Leader by Maia Heyck-Merlin (Jossey-Bass, 2016)

Here’s the list. It’s evolving. For example, I still do some data entry for discipline. I also tend to take care of a few purchase orders because I get uptight about our school budget. But overall, this process was both freeing and empowering. Freeing because I could give myself permission to not feel like I needed to be everywhere at once. Instead I’ve learned to trust staff to be responsive to students’ needs. Empowering because I am finding that staff members who I have asked to take on certain responsibilities are doing as good if not a better job than I would. For example, some of our most popular professional learning experiences have been facilitating by our teachers. I had as much to learn as anyone.

To be clear, I don’t value my tasks over what others might accomplish with me. Everything is important. What I know is that principals cannot do it all. So we have to be selective about how we choose to prioritize our time every day. If our expertise and efforts are best served as instructional leaders, then we have to find ways to delegate some of the non-instructional tasks to other staff members in order to be most effective.

What tasks have you found to be essential or nonessential to your role as a school principal and instructional leader? How did you re-organize responsibilities? Please share 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.

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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.