Preparing to Teach in the Middle

Photo by Tim Wright on Unsplash

When I was a 5th- and 6th-grade classroom teacher, my lesson plans primarily consisted of the following: the learning objective and how I would assess student learning. Little time was spent thinking about strategies and practices that would guide students to new understanding.

As a principal for the last twelve years, I can see now how limiting this approach to lesson preparation was. Teachers are wise to spend the majority of their time planning instruction in-between the two.

During a recent classroom visit, a teacher was focused on debate skills and how to make a persuasive argument both in writing and verbally. There was a learning target posted and an assessment planned at the end, yet the majority of the time was spent in the middle of the lesson.

  • They connected this work to how an attorney might have to take on a case in which they disagreed philosophically with the position.
  • Clear criteria for success were provided, including steps they should follow to develop their position for the upcoming debate.
  • The teacher shared the stage with another student to demonstrate how a debate might proceed. They discussed what the student did well and aligned their thinking with the goal of the lesson.
  • Students were placed in groups based on the issue they would debate, such as cell phone use in school, and partnered with someone who had their same position (for or against).
  • The majority of the lesson was spent with students working with peers to collect evidence, outline their argument, and share their ideas. The teacher walked around and conferred with groups when support was needed.
  • They finished this lesson, a part of a larger unit on persuasive writing, by practicing their debate skills in front of peers. The teacher video recorded them. She would later share the footage with each student so they could self-assess their skills and compare to the success criteria.

If I went back into the classroom, learning targets and summative assessments would not be a priority. The messier process of teaching and learning, with all of the interactions that occur in the middle, would be my focus. If we can get that part right, the results will take care of themselves.

Literacy Leaders: You can’t name it if you don’t know it

Without a synergy between literacy and leadership and a committed, joint effort by teachers and principals, fragile achievement gains do not hold.

– Regie Routman, Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success

In a primary classroom today, I was observing the teacher reading aloud a picture book about penguins. The students were active participants, answering questions about the main character and offering their theories about what might happen next in the story. “Could anyone else share their thinking?” invited the teacher, after affirming one student’s response with an objective “Mmm-hmm”.

After writing down my observational narrative (instructional walk) of the read-aloud experience, I gave the teacher my notes while commenting publicly about the lesson in front of the student. “Wow, I could tell you all understood the story well. You made predictions about what would happen next, using details from the book.” The class then shared that tomorrow they would be reading a nonfiction text about penguins online.

By sharing what I observed with the class, I did more than recognize the teacher for her efforts in being intentional with her read aloud. I also named the strategies – making a prediction, using details for support – as a reinforcement of their thinking. Students heard the point of the lesson from two different adults. My presence was value-added; I didn’t distract from the lesson but instead became a part of the learning experience.

My formal educational background is not literacy-rich. While I enjoyed reading as a student, my college studies were more focused on mathematics and middle-level philosophy. When I became an elementary principal, I had limited background knowledge about promising reading and writing practices. Thankfully, I had literacy leaders in my prior school who kindly yet firmly encouraged me to participate in our professional development focused on literacy. My first visits to classrooms were as a learner more than a partner, but eventually I felt competent to engage in the process.

Educators enter the world of leadership from many backgrounds. Some involve reading and writing instruction; some do not. Regardless of our backgrounds, we have an obligation to know literacy through formal and informal professional learning experiences. It’s a continuous commitment as new forms of literacy are growing in the information age. Lifelong learning gives me the language to engage in literacy conversations with faculty, an essential trait for sustainable student success.

Literacy Instruction: Experiences Instead of Stuff

Photo by Marius Ott on Unsplash

Our family tradition during Christmas, an idea we borrowed from somewhere else, is to have a “want”, “need”, “wear”, and “read” gift for each child. The idea is to limit the present buying and make sure we are focused on the reason for the season. However, in the past I found ways to sneak in a few extra gifts, thinking “What’s the harm?”.

This year we really stuck to it. What’s interesting is our kids shared that this was “the best Christmas ever”. That was a pleasant surprise. Maybe because we more thoughtful about what to give due to operating within our self-administered limits? Or, could the decrease in things have allowed for more time to experience the holiday break?

Research has come out that supports this idea. In an article for The Atlantic, James Hamblin shares the results of a study in which subjects reported much higher levels of happiness, excitement, pleasantness when purchasing an experience such as a vacation vs. something material.

Experiential purchases like trips, concerts, movies, et cetera, tend to trump material purchases because the utility of buying anything really starts accruing before you buy it.

It’s the anticipation of the experience as much as the experience itself that is beneficial.

A common thread throughout this topic seems to the social aspect of experience and the opportunity to connect with others before, during, and after that seems to make the event special. This gift of time is less concrete than an item, say a smartphone or a car, yet it remains on our mind in anticipation, in the present, and in our memories.

The point…when we prepare instruction for our students, are we planning for experiences? If not, what are our students doing? My regular walks in classrooms lead me to believe that we are frequently providing our students with memorable learning opportunities. Just this week, I walked into a primary classroom where students were reading aloud their own writing in which they described their favorite part of the holiday break. “They almost always describe experiences instead of presents,” the teacher noted. In a classroom on the upper level, students were learning how to write readers responses to a self-selected book. The experience was memorable for all as the teacher first modeled a response for a book she read. 

If you are still skeptical that we are at our best when we create learning experiences for students, think about a positive memory from your own school history and why you treasure it.

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.

Lead Like a Coach: A Consistent Presence

When school leaders make instructional walks a daily habit, we start to discover patterns and trends. Some of them are particular to a teacher and some are schoolwide. Regardless, gaining a clearer understanding of the instructional pulse of the school or a classroom only happens when we are a consistent presence and enter each learning environment with an open mind. This consistency in nonevaluative classroom visits, noticing strengths and naming practices, often leads to more trust between administration and faculty members which is more conducive to professional growth.

Example: During a later visit with the same 4th graders reading Little House in the Big Woods, the students were ready to start practicing their book club roles with the text. “Today we are going to focus on the role of the discussion director. Look back on your sheet and review the questions you have prepared after reading the chapter.” Students pulled out their book club folders, the quiet chatter of excitement filling the room in anticipation of being able to talk with peers.

Having the context from the previous instructional walk, I felt in a better position to observe what was happening and document the learning. I sat with four students. Two of the four students started discussing a topic unrelated to their reading. They stopped when a peer reminded them of their task.

Next, one student posed their question. “If you lived back in the time of Laura Ingalls Wilder, would you have been happy or sad about not having the Internet?” The group responded with clear positions, either way, talking around their own lives. There was very little follow up on each other’s questions, such as “Why do you say that?” or “Tell me more”. Three of the students were more interested in getting their own ideas out there. One was quiet and, evident by their body language, disengaged in the conversation.

In a typical classroom visit or an announced observation that did not have the context or history of the literacy block, I might have developed and followed an inaccurate narrative that this teacher had not effectively taught students how to facilitate meaningful book discussions. Thankfully I was a consistent presence in the classroom, even for brief pop-ins during my daily visits. Subsequently, I knew the students were just trying out book clubs for size. My prediction for a future lesson would likely be a teacher-led reflective conversation around what went well and what needed work. Knowing the teacher’s thoughtful attention to planning, I could feel more confident in where instruction was heading.

Back in the book club…

The students continued to talk in the group but not with each other. One of the group members tried to insert his ideas whenever there was a rare moment of silence, and sometimes even when there was not. The quieter student continued to remain quietly frustrated, hands folded across their chest and seeming to ride out this experience.

The teacher in me couldn’t resist and I stopped the conversation. “I couldn’t help but notice that your statements are in your response to your questions. What you are saying is also not really about the book, or even related to what each of you is saying.” Heads turned with faces of mild confusion. “You know, the purpose of a book club is not just to learn more about the book.” The students now looked at me like I had a third eye. “Really. What you are trying to learn is not just how to talk to each other about books but how to talk to other people in general. The art of conversation can be really tough. Would you like to learn a strategy that might help improve your conversations and make it more fun?”

The uncertainty of their response was the permission I needed. I explained how great conversationalists are genuinely interested in what the other person has to say. “They state things like ‘That’s interesting’, ‘Tell me more’, or ‘Why do you say that?’. Great conversationalists also stick to the subject of the discussion, which in this case is the book and not necessarily our own personal experiences. Want to try this strategy out?” Similar uncertainty in response, but the students did reset their discussion by going to the next question. “What if….” Students took turns responding to this question with less interruption. Not yet a deep conversation, but a move in the right direction.

Once each of the three students responded, I asked the discussion director which response they thought was the most connected to the question she asked. When they selected one of their classmates, I asked why. “Because he shared parts from the book and how the story could change if what I had suggested might have actually happened.” I agreed and thanked this student.

At the end of my classroom visit, I handed my instructional walk notes to the teacher while stating, “You are having your students attempt to engage in complex conversations around a book. Not an easy task for any teacher.” She smiled and thanked me for visiting. Then I asked if I could address the class. She agreed without hesitation. “Students,” I announced, “do you know that your teacher has you learning many essential skills in your classroom?” I proceeded with an explanation similar to the one I just shared with my small group. “You are lucky to have this opportunity for building these life skills and strategies.” 

If this were a typical classroom visit, in which I popped in for an unannounced observation or an evaluative classroom walkthrough, it would have been from a supervisory perspective. Likely I would have some checklist or rubric to go off of as I watched for best practices in action. But I would be lacking so much, such as the context of the unit progression and the opportunity to partner with the teacher in the instruction.

In comparison, after this instructional walk, I had a desire to get back into this classroom soon, to see where this unit of study would go. Based on her openness to sharing her work with me and responding to the feedback, I believe the teacher was interested as well. I don’t believe most school leaders would have a similar feeling after a formal teacher evaluation. When our jobs are to judge and to score, there is little incentive to focus on what’s going well or to become part of a schoolwide professional learning process.

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.

Literacy Leadership: Expecting (and Embracing) Conflict

Our school is currently examining our beliefs about reading instruction. Faculty members respond with either “agree” or “disagree” to over twenty related statements. Examples include: “Leveling books in the classroom library is a good idea,” and “Students need to do lots of independent reading of self-selected texts.”  (These statements come from Regie Routman’s book Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success.)

So far, half the teachers have taken the beliefs survey. Out of the over twenty statements, we are completely in agreement on five statements. My prediction is this number will be reduced after everyone has taken the survey.

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This is not a bad thing.

I’ve come to learn professional conflict can be a source of professional learning. I’m not referring to in-fighting over petty reasons. Instead, I refer to the deeper philosophical debates that should be occurring but are often pushed aside for fear of having a hard yet necessary conversation.

Conflict in the context of our instructional beliefs is the misalignment between our current values and practices and our colleagues. This awareness of our current situation is a good thing. Now we have information to act upon, as long as we accept our current reality. To address this misalignment, we need to start engaging in professional conversations around these important topics in safe and productive ways

Take the topic of reading levels, depicted in the previous image. It’s a constant source of disagreement in elementary schools. You see we are pretty divided already on this issue. The first question I might ask to start a conversation around reading levels is, “Why do you think the results are the way they are?” By asking wondering questions, we open up the floor to different possibilities. I am not taking sides on levels. I am curious.

Now imagine what the responses might be.

  • From a teacher who supports levels as a way to assess student reading progress, they can point to the fact that younger readers make so much growth in a short amount of time that teachers need a reliable evaluation tool to inform instruction. Likewise, if students are not making growth at the primary level, we need to be responsive and implement a reading intervention to address any deficits.
  • From a teacher who does not support levels as a way to assess student reading progress, they might point to past experiences in which students were treated as a level, such as organizing the classroom library only within a leveling system. Or, they feel that levels for older students are not as helpful as conferring notes, student self-assessments, and performance tasks such as book trailers.

Who is right, and who is wrong? I believe both perspectives make a strong case. This leads to a potential second question that guides a discussion to consider a third option. As an example, “What if designated reading levels were only helpful at certain grade levels?”, or “Might there be a better way to phrase this statement to both recognize the benefits of this approach and point out its limits?” This line of inquiry may lead to a revision of the statement, such as:

Designated levels can be an accurate way to assess student reading progress at the primary level and inform authentic instruction.

If a faculty can agree on this revision, then we can own it. (By the way, a professional conversation like this can happen during a staff meeting or professional learning communities.) If the revision is not acceptable to all, it can be brought back to an instructional leadership team for further revision.

The benefits of embracing conflict within structured professional dialogue are many. First, we air out our issues in a safe and productive way. Second, we start to develop a common language. For example, maybe some staff members are unfamiliar with benchmark books as an assessment tool. Teachers with this knowledge can explain this concept; unhealthy conflict is often the product of lack of communication and making false assumptions. Third, when we agree upon a belief then we own it. There’s no opting out in the building. The faculty is free to call out each other when these beliefs are not translated to practice. But this doesn’t happen often because we own the belief. Teachers are more empowered to act on it and seek out support if needed. Finally, a school leader has modeled what it means to have a professional conversation that is productive and doesn’t end in hurt feelings.

What are your thoughts on the role of conflict in leading a literacy initiative and/or a school in general? Please share in the comments.