Data – not just another 4 letter word

I have to admit, I haven’t always been so keen on data. In my earlier years of teaching, “data” was just another 4-letter word, simply results of standardized tests. Our students are more than a test score, right? Now that I’ve been through a few districts, a couple graduate programs, and a number of administrators, I can say that my view of data has changed. What I came to realize is that I was using data all along; the data just weren’t the test scores that I came to associate with the word.

Now that I’m in the position of being able to guide teachers to looking closely at data, I don’t want to think of it as just another 4-letter word. Data is actually pretty awesome! I could get lost in miscue analyses – where is the student missing words? What is going on with them that their comprehension varies so much between fiction and non-fiction? What is their background? Could they be more successful with a different text? What strategies would work best with their strengths?

So being smart about data is not only about knowing *what* to focus on, but also keeping in mind that behind the data is a living, breathing human.

New Responsibilities

I am pretty excited about how my job will look this year. Four days a week I will be focusing on small group instruction with students receiving Tier 3 intervention. On our half-days (Friday afternoons are reserved for PD) I will have time to do progress monitoring and meet with teachers about students, do some coaching/strategy sharing, and take a close look at data to plan instruction. Jennifer shared a story at the end of this chapter that I anticipate will stay with me throughout my career. Reading about her listening to a colleague after being asked to advise on LLI procedures was very powerful. I believe that this kind of data collection is so important! Jennifer affirmed, for me, the value in listening to colleagues and observing behaviors to drive instruction.

I appreciate my school’s commitment to professional development and the recognition of the importance of data analyzation to drive instruction. The time that I’ll have will allow me to keep in mind that the student is the most important part of the equation, and be able to plan instruction based on what they need most.

I call that smart!

The Power of Quality Tier 1 Instruction

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A reflection of a former classroom teacher:

I wish I would have known more.  I wish I would have known more about the volume of reading. I wish I would have known more about small group instruction in tier 1.  I wish I would have known more about the five components of reading. I wish I would have known more about teaching metacognitive strategies.

I wish I would have known the importance of first focusing on tier one instruction when contemplating how to best meet the needs of  students on the “bubble.”

In chapter 7 of Jennifer Allen’s book, Becoming a Literacy Leader, she discusses the power of tier one instruction, outlining the approach her school took to address the needs of bubble kids.  As opposed to outlining the approach, I will instead focus on two powerful sentences in the chapter.

  1. My hope was that student achievement would improve if we focused more energy on supporting classroom instruction as opposed to putting all of our resources toward supporting individual students (Allen, p. 128).
  2. In their research, Allington and his colleagues demonstrate how students benefit from long, uninterrupted chunks of learning time as well as from consistent instruction from high-quality teachers. Yet our neediest kids tend to have the most segmented days, being shuffled from intervention to intervention (Allen, p 128).

I have been a part of many discussions and teams concerning Response to Intervention.  Let me first say, I commend all the teams I have worked with as they try tirelessly to help our struggling readers and writers.  There have been so many collaborative discussions about targeted instruction and tier two support.  And, all of this is valid.

However, let us be real and know that sometimes, or more aptly, most times, we skip a key component of Response to Intervention: solid, research-based instruction by the classroom teacher in tier one.

So, when considering our “bubble” kids, let us start with this: “How do we provide professional support for all of our classroom teachers.  Because the better their craft is, the fewer kids we have on the “bubble.”  The result of this: 1) Solid, research-based instruction benefits all kids of all levels. 2) Solid, research-based instruction will prevent a great number of kids from falling into tier two intervention, thereby allowing us more time to provide targeted instruction to kids who do fall in tier two instruction.

So, to new teachers, I say study your craft as much as possible.

To veteran teachers, I say guide discussions that focus on tier one instruction first, then tier two.

To coaches, send this message over and over again–we need to devote as much time and finances we can to develop the teacher.

Administrators, provide that time to build the craft of your teachers in tier 1, while also supporting tier two and three.

Literacy for ALL

Literacy for All

Sometimes a question is so beautiful it becomes part of you. One such question, posed to me last year by a grade 5 student, has stuck with me in my work as a district literacy specialist. While interviewing students as part of developing our school board’s literacy strategy, I had the opportunity to chat with a group of students attending a school that specifically supports students with complex learning disabilities. The classrooms in this school sound very similar to the literacy intervention classrooms Jennifer Allen describes in chapter 7 of her book Becoming A Literacy Leader. After sharing all of the helpful ways their teachers had prepared them to learn and reintegrate into their community school, one student leaned in and stated, “I just don’t know why the teachers at my old school couldn’t have taught me this way. I don’t know why I had to leave my school to learn”.

What a beautiful question. We know that “every student deserves a great teacher, not by chance, but by design” (Fisher, Frey, & Hattie, 2016, p. 2) and with this question in mind, I thought about what every teacher might take away from Jennifer’s description of a literacy intervention classroom. What structures and elements might make our classrooms and our teaching effective for ALL students?

There are many research-based principles and characteristics that teachers can use to design effective literacy classrooms. Jennifer specifically mentions the success of the following practices, which could easily be taken up in any classroom:

  • daily reading and writing
  • quality books to hook students
  • explicit strategy instruction
  • predictable classroom routines
  • ongoing assessment
  • chunking instruction

Identifying the “bubble-kids”

Jennifer’s description of literacy intervention classrooms specifically mentions that these classes were designed to support the ‘bubble kids’. Each school has a different name for the students who are slightly below grade level. Some people call them “bubble kids” or ‘at-risk’ students. Names matter. They carry immense power to impact student’s self-concept. While chapter 7 has nothing to do with what we name this group of students, I believe it is important to address before looking at effective structures and strategies for literacy learning.

This summer one of my colleagues introduced me to the term ‘at-promise’. I instantly loved it. We know literacy itself is a political act and the way we frame and name groups of students matter. Let’s begin thinking about students who are slightly below grade level by thinking about the promise of success they hold.

Let’s also think about how we identify the ‘at-promise’ students. Jennifer presents a rich process including student criteria, classroom observations, and conversations with classroom teachers and parents (p. 134 – 137). However, one addition I would add is to talk with students themselves. Students need to be active agents in their education and contribute to the decisions made towards their success. Our ‘at-promise’ students do need a different level of support from us and so it is important to identify them early on in the school year. As you plan for the beginning weeks of school, how will you come to know your students as literacy learners? How will you forge strong relationships with your ‘at-promise’ students?

A slow start

 Another aspect of literacy intervention classrooms Jennifer describes is using the first month as a “Literacy Boot Camp”. School start up is already a stressful time of transition for students, families, and staff. Intentionally building a learning community and “opting for simplicity and consistency, we [can slow] down the start of the year and [take] the time to teach the whole class our expectations” (Allen, 2016, p. 139). Spending time on how a classroom community will learn together and building strong relational trust will provide a solid, positive foundation for the rest of the school year.

Harvey Daniels also talks about the importance of beginning the day (not just the year) with soft starts in his book The Curious Classroom. He shares that “when we let kids find their own way into the day, we activate their curiosity and sense of self-direction, mind-sets that serve learners well in the formed inquires that follow” (Daniels, 2017, p. 59). When I transitioned from beginning my kindergarten teaching days with scripted carpet time to an open inquiry and play block, I noticed a huge change in my students and myself. We lost the rushed ‘have to’ feeling and found the joy of learning and community.

 Large blocks of uninterrupted literacy instruction

 Time is a precious commodity in schools and as teachers we must make strategic decisions and advocate on behalf of what we know our students need. We know that extended time for child-directed learning, at least an hour, results in sustained engagement (Banjeree, Alsalman, & Alqafari, 2017, p. 301). When comparing a regular classroom with a literacy intervention classroom, Jennifer points out that the transitions can be quite different. In regular classrooms, students move between teachers and supports frequently. In a literacy intervention classroom, the “teacher has the whole class for the entire day and does not have to worry about reteaching lessons” (Allen, 2016, p. 138).

This is where I challenge all teachers to critically look at the decisions you can make in your day. How can you arrange your instructional time so that transitions are minimized? What are you doing in your school day that you can let go of? What are the pieces that ‘have to’ stay or are beneficial to keep? During my last full year of teaching kindergarten my class included many students who were working on improving their social skills and behavior. Simplifying our daily schedule and creating large blocks of integrated learning time gave these students in particular, time to sink into their learning and the opportunity to develop sustained engagement.

Effective literacy classrooms, by design

While the approaches Jennifer presents are specifically framed to benefit ‘at-promise’ students, I think we all can agree these are equally important for every classroom. These are the exact components that the grade 5 student I mentioned earlier wished her community school’s teachers had offered her. After reading chapter 7, I sat with the question about what was truly different in the classrooms Jennifer described. I’m left with the feeling that while there might be differences, with a knowledgable and caring teacher, there doesn’t have to be. Each of us can pick up these practices and structures and create classrooms where all learners thrive in their literacy learning.

References

Allen, J. (2016). Becoming a Literacy Leader. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse.

Banjeree, R., Alsalman, A., & Alqafari, S. (2017). Supporting sociodramatic play in preschools to promote language and literacy skills of English language learners. Early Childhood Education, 299-305.

Daniels, H. (2017). The Curious Classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Hattie, J. (2016). Visible Learning For Literacy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

 

 

Assessments and Curriculum: Be Responsive to Your Teachers by @danapiercy #litleaders

Teachers have a lot to juggle: state standards, district expectations,  literacy assessments, reading and writing workshop, STEM, social studies, RTI, and  math.  I haven’t included the unwritten titles of counselor, manager, and child advocate. Who said teaching was easy??

I offer my support in helping teachers make sense of all things curriculum and assessments.  I am always working with teachers to make sense of our state standards.  Last year, my teachers experienced a lot of changes with our curriculum.  We had new state standards, a new STEM curriculum, new word study curriculum, and new reading curriculum. Lots of changes and unknowns which can make for uncertainty.  

My support for assessments looks different.  It depends on the teacher’s needs.  With novice teachers, I provide heavy support.  I will assess a few of the students while the teacher watches.  Then, we review and analyze the data together.  If we are looking at a reading benchmark or BEAR assessment, we will analyze the miscues and commonalities.  Then, we identify a student’s strengths and next steps.  A student’s goals are then determined.

When I work with veteran teachers, my assessment support is usually geared towards lending an extra pair of eyes.  Most of the times veteran teachers have assessed a student and they have a particular question regarding the data.  So, we will muddle through the data and work together to make meaning of the data together.

The goal is for teachers to understand that assessments drive our instruction.  Hopefully, you work in a school and district where you are encouraged to adjust your instruction based on your assessment data.  Our teachers are encouraged to use their data to push their students forward or to re-teach a skill.

Last year our state adopted new academic standards, it was very important for teachers to become familiar with our new state standards first. The grade-level teams and I met one day during the summer to compare our old standards PASS (Priority Academic Student Skills), to our new standards, OAS (Oklahoma Academic Standards). Our primary goal was to compare and contrast the standards for each subject.  We looked for gaps between the two set of standards.  It was important for teachers to see which standards would need extra support for their students.  One discussion that we had was that some gaps may take two to three years before they would be able to see students acquire those standards (or skills).

Curriculum support is constant.  Our goal is to understand the curriculum together.  I provide opportunities for grade levels to come together and find commonality in what the standards mean and what the curriculum is asking teachers to teach so students can learn.  We meet once before each unit (this is for each subject).  I provide the guiding questions and then I allow for the teachers to plan together.  I try not to get in the way too much while the teachers plan their units.  I act as a facilitator and provide my support when needed.  

Recently, I met with our grade level teams and reviewed our sequence of units for reading and writing.  We also worked on a sequence of units for our STEM curriculum and our social studies curriculum.  I wanted our teachers to see the big picture first, then move towards the more specific units.  We will revisit our calendar around the end of the first nine weeks to make sure we are being responsive to our students and their needs.

My greatest advice for any person who assists teachers with assessments and curriculum is to be responsive to your teachers. Jennifer Allen reminds us:

 

Take the time to work with them so that they can discover the power of assessments and instruction.  We can provide them with opportunities to look through the data and talk about their insights with colleagues and support them as they work to glean new knowledge…support and listen to their thinking and help them hone their skills by modeling and sharing our own insights throughout the process.

 

I don’t see myself better than a teacher.  I am apart of this of journey with our teachers.  So, I am a learner too.  I am sure you feel the same way as well.  Take the time to find meaning together.  Enjoy the process!

Recommended Reading: Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment by Maja Wilson

41wGWEmUPIL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This book is good. Really good. Actually, I’m a little sad I did not discover it until recently. If I had read during my teaching days…who knows, maybe I would have gone back to get my English degree. Instead, I found Improving Schools from Within by Roland Barth and got the administrative bug. A good outcome, and interesting how a book can change your life trajectory.

Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Instruction (Heinemann, 2006) is one of those books that can have an impact on any K-12 educator. The position Wilson takes isn’t simply to rethink rubrics but to question their very existence in the literacy classroom. Instead, teachers should be using responsive instruction, assessing as students are in the act of reading and writing, to focus on their strengths and writing as a whole.

Wilson sets the table for questioning rubrics by first examining the term “best practice”.

Just as reflective teachers must question their own performance, we must be willing to question the methods accepted as best by the field of writing methods, an idea that may strike us as sacrilege. The very words best practice are loaded; if we aren’t following best practice, aren’t we by extention following worst practice? In addition, the term drips with authority.

I’ve been on the receiving end when I have questioned curriculum acquisitions, such as literacy-programs-in-a-box. “It’s best practice,” I was informed. End of discussion. Wilson puts into prose the courage teachers and principals need to muster to resist these unfounded arguments.

In brief, Wilson points out the many inherent flaws of using rubrics in writing instruction:

  • They are reductive, breaking down writing into isolated parts, even though good writing is greater than the sum of its parts.
  • They force agreement when assessing writing, an interpretative craft.
  • They demand objectivity, even though appreciation for reading and writing is subjective.
  • They focus on product, yet writing is a process.
  • They are not authentic – professional writers don’t use rubrics to self-assess their work. They internalize criteria for good writing while maintaining their own voice.
  • They are based on a deficit model; when we use rubrics to assess student writing, we are looking for what’s wrong with their work instead of possibilities.

(It was also interesting to discover that rubrics were developed by the College Board, the same organization that came up with the Common Core State Standards. For another time…)

Rubrics aren’t the only teaching practices skewered in this well-written text. For example, grading is another challenge in the literacy classroom. Like rubrics, grades distort the final product and do not consider the process of student work. Students instead merely complete the assignment instead of truly investing in the act of reading and writing with a purpose. By replacing traditional assessment practices such as rubrics and grades with descriptive and timely feedback, as Wilson suggests, students will start to innovate in their writing and better appreciate this type of work.

If you are looking for one book to read this summer and have also questioned the use of traditional practices in literacy instruction, I recommend Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Instruction. It’s a resource that will push your thinking not only about rubrics in writing but also about assessment in general.


Next week, several contributors and I will start reading and responding to our summer book choice, Becoming a Literacy Leader by Jennifer Allen. Check in with this blog regularly for new posts. Better yet, read this book with us and share your thinking in the comments!

Join me at the @ASCD Annual Convention in Anaheim this Sunday! #digiportfolios #EMPOWER17

Matt Renwick

In a couple of days, I will be flying out to Anaheim, California for my first visit to the Golden State. Purpose: I am facilitating a session on digital student portfolios on Sunday, 3/26 at 3 P.M. Click here for location details.

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This session will be an opportunity to share new resources and ideas from my upcoming ASCD book (August) on authentic assessment and technology. The confirmed title is Digital Student Portfolios in the Classroom: Celebrating and Assessing Student Learning.

If California is a bit of trek, consider attending one of my upcoming summer workshops in the Midwest (click here for schedule). I may also be available to facilitate one- and/or two-day workshops in your neck of the woods; reach out for more information.

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Exploring Classroom Innovations at the AWSA/WASDA Summit for Data-Informed Leadership in Green Bay

Matt Renwick

Data is a four letter word, literally and sometimes metaphorically in education. Educators need data to drive instruction and making informed decisions about student learning. When students have information about their own learning progress, they know themselves better as learners. Yet when data does not serve an important purpose, it can also monopolize our time that is better spent teaching and learning.

I was grateful for the opportunity to speak about the challenges and promises of this topic at the Wisconsin Summit for Data-Informed Leadership this week in Green Bay. This event, co-facilitate by WASDA and AWSA, gave administrators and teachers the opportunity to develop a better understanding of data in the context of schools today.

Beyond the Gold Star: Strategies for Nurturing Self-Directed Learners

This first session guided participants to explore innovative classroom approaches that gave students more autonomy in their learning. Data in this context wasn’t necessarily a…

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