A Thousand Stories

Children need to hear a thousand stories before they can begin to learn to read. – Mem Fox

This is just one of many quotes from Mem Fox’s webpage titled Ten Read-Aloud Commandments. She is the author of several children’s books as well as Reading Magic, a guide for teachers and parents about reading aloud to kids. Mem Fox has several great resources on her website, include audio clips of some of her stories as well as resources for both parents and teachers. It is definitely worth a visit.

This quote also reminds me of when my son came into this world six years ago. Still teaching at the time, I was very aware of how important it was to read aloud to kids, regardless of age. I immediately planned to apply this same philosophy with my new family.

One of the first books I purchased for my son was Your Favorite Seuss: A Baker’s Dozen By The One and Only Dr. Seuss. Once we got home from the hospital, I spent a lot of my time reading and rereading these stories to him. I know he didn’t understand the words, but I think just hearing my voice started to create a bond between the two of us. I also enjoyed reading aloud poems from Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein. Both of these anthologies are still in his book collection in his room.

Once my son got older and started to respond to what I was reading to him, we discovered lots of board books that he enjoyed. Some of his favorites included If You Were My Bunny by Kate McMullan, Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney and Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. I still laugh when I remember how my son used to try and “pinch” the mouse with his fingers in Goodnight Moon, thinking the illustration was real. Once my wife went back to her classroom, I took some time as well to be home with our new addition. We read Mama’s Home by Paul Vos Benkowski every day while we waited for my wife to pull into the driveway.

Two years later, my daughter joined our family. Nothing changed in our routine of reading aloud every day to our kids. Many of the same stories my son enjoyed as a toddler my daughter enjoyed too.

When the books at home became memorized from the repeated readings, we started making more frequent visits to our public library. The kids observed how we went about the collections and selected books. Pretty soon they were following our lead. Now they are the ones that lead the way through the library.

I come from a privileged background. I grew up around books. I have received lots of information about teaching and reading, in both my post-secondary education and in my later trainings. As a principal, I feel it is my obligation to share this knowledge with everyone I come across. A thousand stories – have I read this many to my children yet? I think so, but I had a head start. It is never too late to start sharing great literature with your kids. What are you waiting for? They are only young once.

Time to Breathe

Yesterday I wrote about a writing activity I have used with staff called List, Jot, Write Long. It helped us think about our beliefs about instruction, and move toward developing individual and team goals. This morning, I actually presented this information to my teachers during our all staff gathering. Here was the agenda:

I felt like I was as prepared as I could be. Or so I thought. I shared visual samples of what the Individual Professional Development Plan could look like. An example of a SMART goal was distributed as well as presented on the whiteboard. We confirmed the due date for these goals to be submitted to me (within a month).

As one might guess, the problem I ran into was changing too much at one time. I threw two new things at them today: 1) Connect your individual goals to a team goal, and 2) Do it in the context of a professional learning community. Expecting staff to make two shifts at one time is not realistic, especially when we have state assessments and other initiatives breathing down our backs.

If I think back to my days as a teacher, I knew not to differentiate more than one piece of my instruction. Otherwise I would potentially lose my students due to too many choices and lack of focus (Content + Process = Product). For example, I could differentiate the process I used to present the content through visual, auditory and kinesthetic means, but that meant my content and product needed to stay the same.

So why didn’t I follow what I knew to be best instruction? Maybe I am also feeling the pressure of getting information delivered without a lot of time and resources. Nevertheless, as I came back from our staff gathering I reflected on how it could have been better. I touched base with a few teachers and asked, “What are your thoughts after today?” The general consensus was that it was good information and they understood what is expected of them. It was just a matter of finding time to look over all the materials.

I appreciate that my staff is so honest with me. It shows that we have a good level of trust, that they know I am looking out for their best interests and vice versa. Around the same time, the former principal at my school stopped by to drop off some documents. Always willing to lend an ear, he listened to my concerns about all this information being delivered to staff without enough time to truly integrate it with integrity. His response: Give them more time.

Brilliant! And why didn’t I think of that? Maybe because I was too mired in the conflict itself and needed another perspective. At any rate, I developed a plan that extended the due dates as well as bring in subs to give grade level teams substantial time to collaborate. When I sent out the new plan, staff responded immediately with “Thank you!” and “I appreciate you understanding”.  The fact that my teachers didn’t say much until I asked them speaks volumes about their character and their willingness to follow their principal into new territory despite their uncertainties.

I think any public educator can make the claim that we are being inundated with initiatives like we have never seen before. I don’t believe this to be hyberbole; has their ever been a time before the present when standards (CCSS), teacher evaluations (value-added) and instruction (RtI) are all being overhauled at the same time? We as leaders need to recognize this, for our staff and ourselves, before leading change. All of these initiatives are truly secondary to the energy and well-being of the educators who work with our students every day. In spite of whatever comes our way, we need to build in time to breathe so we don’t become overwhelmed or forget why we entered this profession in the first place.

List, Jot, Write Long

We expect students to write every day at school. As teachers we scaffold this process, by helping them come up with ideas, get those ideas down right away, organize their thoughts in a way that makes sense to them and others, and then start to compose a piece of writing that effectively communicates these ideas to an authentic audience.

As a staff, we have an expectation that we write every day, too. Our intended audience is our students. Our purpose is to develop writers in our classroom by modeling this process, then gradually releasing the writing responsibility over to our students.  At the same time, I have encouraged my staff to write for themselves. They could blog and share their great teaching ideas and connect with other educators, or just journal after a day of instruction to reflect on what went well and what to work on for next time. The audience for this type of writing are colleagues and/or themselves.

With the new Educator Effectiveness Initiative in Wisconsin, also known as Act 166, all educators will be expected to write a little bit more. The audience? Their immediate supervisor.

Starting in 2014, teachers and principals will no longer be evaluated once every three years. Superintendents and principals will now be observing schools and classrooms several times annually. What is replacing the long narrative evaluation tool are several pieces of evidence over a three year period. These artifacts can include walkthrough forms, checklists, video observations, peer coaching sessions, and documented informal conversations.  Although this is another thing coming at public educators in the midst of Common Core, Response to Intervention and Smarter Balanced Assessments, the concept of making several observations over a multi-year period of time instead of the one time dog and pony show should be a welcomed change. The writing part for staff comes when they are asked to curate and reflect on their pieces of evidence that has helped them meet their professional goals.

I am all for giving my staff information ahead of time. Not too much that they are overwhelmed; just enough periodically so they have an awareness of what is coming. The process we are using this year to start becoming more reflective practitioners by 2014 is a tool Regie Routman encourages for goal setting: List, Jot, Write Long. It is adapted from an activity developed by Jennifer Allen in her educational resource Becoming a Literacy Leader.  Always trying to model the teaching process in my own communications with staff, I have taken part in this activity myself.

List

The first of three steps is to list five ideas important to you. I chose to highlight three of our school’s shared beliefs about literacy, along with two recommendations from Richard Allington. I circled one of these ideas (#4) to write more about later.

Jot

After listing my initial thoughts, I jotted two more ideas from each main idea. I think the concept is to help flesh out my initial thinking and develop details for the last step.

Write Long

This is the end product, the culmination of a prewriting activity to help develop individual and team goals. As you can see, it is very reflective: I probably ask more questions than answer. That is okay, because this process is designed to help me discover what I want to focus on as a learner for the school year.

The Next Step

With my beliefs and aspirations made visible, I feel like I am in a better position to set some goals for the school year, for my students and for myself. Using building objectives and district initiatives, I wrote my own goals as a staff member in my building. One goal is student-specific; the other encompasses the entire school, from more of the principal perspective.

This process of starting with a simple writing activity and slowly progressing toward a final product has been helpful. Going from an initial idea (“Students should be reading and writing 50% of the school day.”) to a comprehensive objective along with strategies and assessments was made much easier because I started with our beliefs of practice and worked up.

If you think this activity is the type of learning that could work for your building, I highly recommend Jennifer Allen’s resource and Regie Routman’s professional development series. Have you done something similar in your building? How could an activity like this be used with the students in your school? Please share in the comments.

Reflections After Introducing Writing ePortfolios to Staff

(This is a communication I sent to my faculty this afternoon. Last night they were all trained on how to use iPads to develop writing ePortfolios.)

Staff,

Thanks again for your willingness to take a step forward in integrating the iPad and Dropbox technology into your instruction and assessment. Just like the students, we need to extend ourselves sometimes and feel some “uncomfortableness” to become better at our profession.

Vertical teams for writing start tomorrow. Please communicate with your team where you will be meeting at 8 A.M before tomorrow arrives. If you can communicate these locations I will post them. The team assignments can be found on our Howe Teacher Site: https://sites.google.com/a/wrps.net/howe-elementary-bulldogs/pd/contact

What will you do tomorrow and at future vertical team collaborations? Our goal for all of our collaboration time is to improve student learning. Here are some possibilities:

– Develop norms, like you did as grade level teams.
– Discuss best practices in writing instruction.
– Use the ePortfolios, take one sample from each grade level, and compare across the building K-5 to analyze levels of academic expectations.
– Support each other in learning these new technologies.
– Celebrate your successes.
– Watch Regie videos and discuss samples/examples of exemplary student writing found at http://www.regieroutman.com.
– Use the writing rubric resource books and develop common assessments to share with the rest of building.

I am very proud of everyone for continuing to open your doors to your colleagues. Revealing our needs and identifying where we could improve our instruction collectively is the best way to increasing student achievement and learning. Remember: “Good schools are collections of good classrooms” (Richard Allington). This definitely describes us. We all do excellent things in our classrooms. You are the greatest learning resource for your colleagues.

-Matt

The Writing Principal: Tips for Administrators Considering Blogging

Before You Start Blogging…

  • Read other administrators’ posts. Go to badgeradmins.wikispaces.com for a comprehensive list of recommended blogs. Emulate their style and structure when developing your own voice.
  • Determine your purpose for blogging. Do you want to communicate with families? Reflect on your own practices? Connect with colleagues? All of the above?
  • Think about what you want to say and/or jot down your ideas on paper first. Doing this prior to writing a post helps organize your thinking.
  • Connect with educators on Twitter to build your professional learning network. You will want feedback on your posts. This social media tool is a great way to share your writing with others.
  • Write, type, then blog. At least initially, write your post on a word processor and copy/paste your writing into your blog.
  • Choose your tool. Determine which blog service you want to use. I prefer WordPress. Google Blogger is also popular.

When You Start Blogging….

  • Focus on being a writer first, the writing second. This is a great tip from Regie Routman. What it means to me is, without being engaging, thoughtful and to the point, it doesn’t matter what I am saying because no one will want read it. The messenger is just as important as the message.
  • Get your ideas down. Worry about conventions later.
  • Save it before you publish. I reread and revise my posts many times before publishing. Barry Lane’s five steps for the writing process are revision, revision, revision, revision and revision.
  • Share your post with someone you trust before sharing it with the world.
  • You can be critical, but always be kind.
  • Add lots of tags. These are the breadcrumbs that allow others online to find your great ideas.
  • When you have ideas, get them down. Save your thoughts as a draft and come back to it later when ready. I have a draft I have been sitting on since August. It won’t be ready to publish until May.
  • Put yourself in your writing. People respond to humor, questions you have and anecdotes.
  • Share your posts out on Twitter and other social media tools.

After You Have Started Blogging…

  • Thank those who retweet and recommend your posts to others. Reciprocate by reading and sharing their posts.
  • Check out your statistics and allow comments. This is precious feedback to help you get better at writing.
  • Don’t change older posts. I have come around on this. I used to think that as my thoughts changed after unlearning and relearning, I should also change what I have written. However, unless there are glaring grammatical errors or a poor choice of words, it is important to leave your previous thinking as is. Add a comment to your post to clear up confusion or address questions. There is nothing wrong with saying, “This is what I thought then, and now I think…”.
  • Share your posts with your staff, colleagues and boss. Can you think of a better way of modeling writing and sharing yourself as a learner?
  • Write posts in front of students. It can be as simple as writing a review after sharing a favorite book with them. Kelly Gallagher (@KellyGtoGo) said it best: “You are the best writer in your classroom.”
  • Have fun. I hope I have not made blogging sound like you are writing a term paper. As Alan Levine states in his terrific post The Question Should Be: Why Are You NOT Blogging: “Blogging should be conversational. It is your own personal thinking, shared out loud”. Thank you to Jessica Johnson (@PrincipalJ) for sharing this.

I would go into the rationale for why you should blog, except that Superintendent Christopher Smeaton already did this so well in his post Why Blog?. I know there are many more ideas and tips out there. Please share in the comments.

Getting Started with ePortfolios

In a recent post, I laid out my school’s long-term plan for implementing ePortfolios.

Portfolios in my district have been more of a chore for teachers, instead of a powerful tool for reflection and to show growth over time. Even when I was teaching, it seemed like a hoop we had to jump through. There are a variety of reasons for this: Lack of professional development for staff, no easy way to periodically share student work with parents, and (seemingly) never enough time during the school day. Our hope is that technology and time to collaborate will help change this for the better.

The screenshot below is a draft of my agenda for my staff’s first technology training night. What is not listed in the agenda is the research, rationale and process to support student portfolios; it will be covered prior to using the technology.

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It is important that I allocate enough time during the training for staff to practice using the technology with colleagues. The goal is that they leave our session with not only the what and the how but also the why we use ePortfolios. We will continue learning together during future technology nights this school year.

Have I covered everything? Are my instructions clear enough that all staff will be successful? If you have any suggestions or feedback for us, please share with a comment.

Flipped PD

I recently flipped my staff professional development. This change was born out of necessity more than anything.

The concept of flipping instruction has been used a lot in education, for both students and staff. My elementary school decided to try it because we didn’t have enough time during the day to truly learn with one another. In the past, we spend the majority of our limited time together watching a video or reading an article with little time to discuss what we saw or read. At the same time, it was recommended at a summer leadership institute that teachers spend 20-100 hours per year reflecting on their own practices, collaborating with colleagues and discovering better ways to help students learn. Something had to give.

Here is how it worked for us.

Before Our Professional Development Day

In late August, I asked my teachers to view online videos about teaching poetry from the Reading-Writing Connection. I also handed out the ASCD article Every Child, Every Day by Richard Allington. The expectation was they would complete these activities by our October 12 PD day.

As the date drew closer, I shared a Google Doc to help guide teachers’ thinking as they watched the videos. Creating a two-column document, I wrote higher level thinking questions on the left side related to the videos, such as, “What does the concept ‘Whole-Part-Whole’ mean to you as a teacher?” On the right side staff wrote their responses to these questions.

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We also took stock of where our beliefs were as a staff. Instead of sitting down, filling out the surveys together and then tabulating them by hand, we used Google Forms and submitted our beliefs before we ever got together.

During Our Professional Development Day

Because much of the sitting and getting was done when it was convenient for each teacher, the majority of our time was spent talking with colleagues and sharing best practices. Not to say there wasn’t structure; there was. For example, we used the Last Word Protocol instructional strategy to facilitate discussion about Allington’s article. It gave myself and the other teacher facilitators an opportunity to model some effective instructional practices, an area that tends to take a backseat when curriculum and assessment directives are handed down to buildings.

Each session was connected to our building goals, which are connected to our district and state initiatives. To keep things fresh, we made sure that no session lasted longer than 45 minutes. I wouldn’t expect kids to sit through an hour and a half presentation, and I can’t imagine my teachers would want to do the same.

After Our Professional Development Day

With the help of technology, our learning from today has not ended. Many of the documents, resources and learning summaries were uploaded to our faculty Google Site for later perusal. This web tool has quickly become a hub for all of our important information.

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Our professional development day transitioned from these activities to self-directed, focused collaboration. I spent my afternoon working with teacher teams and addressing technology questions.

When I tweeted out that I flipped my school’s PD, I got multiple replies asking how it went. Thinking back to one teacher’s comment (“I had so much fun today!”), I think things went very well.