Examining Our Beliefs About Literacy: Small Steps, Big Wins

During our school’s last professional learning community (PLC) experience, the entire faculty came together to examine our beliefs about literacy. Beliefs about teaching and learning are formed over time, through prior education, collaboration with colleagues, and classroom experience. Through structured conversations in vertical teams and watching professionals in the classroom via video, we found three areas in which we can all agree upon as best practice in literacy:

A child’s written story can be used to teach phonics and skills.

You can assess a child’s phonemic awareness by examining his/her journal writing.

Shared writing is an excellent way to record common experiences and connect to reading.

This may not seem like a big deal, at least at first glance. For example, shared writing, an instructional strategy in which a teacher leads their class to develop a story or report together, makes sense for teaching phonics and grammar in context. Using personal writing as a text for independent reading is authentic, and it honors students as authors. Yet this might seem counter to some of the instruction that pervades schools. Many of our programs and kits silo the various parts of language arts in an effort to ensure standards are being met. 

We sometimes wrap our practices around resources, both digital and print, without first examining our beliefs. As we use these resources “with fidelity”, our beliefs are formed by our practices, which were informed by the resources. (See Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success by Regie Routman for more information.) Our identities as educators are intertwined with our work, which is made public daily in our classrooms. This is what makes it so difficult to change. It is also a reason why companies continue to produce resources that often promote antiquated practices. The bottom line is sales. We buy the resources because we know them. It helps to remember that these companies are not educational organizations; they are businesses. 

The hardest part about change is not the lack of knowing what to do. We have multiple sets of data to support the need for building our collective knowledge regarding how reading supports writing and vice-versa. No one disagrees that this is an area where our school can improve as a faculty. We are not doing poorly; we simply know we can improve. The hardest part about change is in revisiting current beliefs about literacy and adopting new ones as a faculty.

Our school will continue this work in building our collective professional knowledge about effective literacy instruction. The three beliefs we unanimously agreed upon are a big step in the right direction. We will revisit them at this time next year. It should not be understated that we were able to come together as a team and find consensus on key issues in literacy instruction. These beliefs are now expected to be evident in our teaching and learning, regardless of what a program or resource might expect. I am looking forward to observing how our new beliefs will inform our future practices. 

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Bring an Author to Your School

One of the best ways to increase enthusiasm for reading and writing in your school is by bringing an author on-site. It is mutually beneficial: the author receives support and awareness for their book(s); the students get a glimpse into the mind of a professional writer. I’ve been involved in several author visits at my schools and I have never been disappointed.

Next are three ways you can facilitate an author visit.

  • Skype an author

This is the most cost-effective way to bring an author into your school. Some authors will participate in video-based conversations for free, although I think it is great if you can pay them for their time. Title I funds would certainly support this. Skype chats with authors work well for individual classrooms or grade levels who might want to chat with an author in which they did a study of their books. It might also work as an entry event into a genre study in which the author’s work would apply.

Below is a short video of a Skype chat my son’s 1st-grade class had with Johnathan Rand, author of the Freddy Fernortner: Fearless 1st Grader series.

After this Skype chat with the author, the students were excited to read Rand’s early reader series. One student who was in Reading Recovery was so motivated after this event that she was able to decode and comprehend these chapter books while reading independently.

  • Partner with another organization

If costs are an issue and your school really wants to bring an author on-site, consider partnering with another local organization to help make this happen. Public libraries would be a logical connection. If the author has publications for both adults and kids, this can help the cause.

At my last school, we partnered with our local library in bringing Michael Perry to our building. Typically known for his memoirs and humorous writing, Perry had recently published his first book for older students, The Scavengers. After his talk at the local library the previous night for a citywide read of Population: 485, we brought the author over to our school for an hour-long chat with our 4th and 5th graders about his new series.

 

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Michael Perry speaking at our public library

 

While I was able to attend his appearance at the public library, I wasn’t able to make it to his school visit. From what the teachers told me, the kids really enjoyed his presentation.

  • Invite an author to your school

This is the preferred approach, as you get full access to the author for at least a day. The author can read aloud his/her book to the students, lead workshops on the writing process, and share personal experiences that led them to want to become an author in the first place. Prior to the visit, I have found it wise to discuss with the author what the day will look for everyone and how to make the best use of everyone’s time. For example, it is smart to consider the attention spans of younger vs. older students when scheduling classroom visits. Also, it is great to have copies of the author’s text in every classroom. In addition, I like to promote these visits to neighboring schools. If another school also wants the author to visit, it might help defray the costs of lodging and travel.

 

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Lisl visited my last school and my current school.

Our students, especially the young ones, may not truly understand where literature comes from until they meet an author in real life. The stories they tell, the experiences they share, and their simple presence in a school should be regular occurrences in every school. As a principal, I’ve personally witnessed the benefits of author visits in our students’ literacy lives.

 

 

Literacy, Personalized

Lately, I have been exploring personalized learning as an approach to meeting all students’ needs. Personalized learning “places the interests and abilities of learners at the center of their education experience. In personalized learning, educators develop environments in which students and teachers together build plans for learners to achieve both interest-based and standards-based goals” (Halverson et al, 2015). What I am finding is there is no “gold standard” for this approach. Maybe the concept is too big. Maybe personalized learning is too new. Maybe I haven’t studied it enough!

IMG_1789Because I have a focus on literacy and leadership, I thought about what personalized learning might resemble in a reading and writing classroom, specifically. How is it different from what we might expect from a more traditional classroom? Below are the elements of personalized learning as outlined by Allison Zmuda, co-author of Learning Personalized: The Evolution of a Contemporary Classroom (Jossey-Bass, 2015): Time & Space; Assignments; Curriculum; Reporting; Feedback; Roles. Next are a smattering of ideas on how personalized learning might apply to the literacy block. If you have more suggestions, share them in the comments.

Time & Space

  • Ensure that enough time is provided daily for authentic literacy experiences, especially independent reading and writing on topics of students’ choice.
  • Provide more modern furniture for students to engage in reading and writing. For models, check out a local library or an independent bookstore.
  • Create natural locations in the classroom for students to share what they are reading and writing. Small tables and mounted counters with stools could work.
  • Audit the instructional day to find more time to read and write, and jettison anything that is not at the same level of effectiveness.
  • Position book shelves and writing materials so they invite students into reading and writing in authentic contexts, i.e. journaling, blogging, book reviews.

Assignments

  • Replace book reports with book reviews. Use digital tools such as Biblionasium for students to post book reviews for peers.
  • Replace book logs with personal journals. Provide open-ended notebooks for students to write about what they are reading so they can share their thinking with peers the next school day (or keep their thoughts to themselves).
  • Cancel the school’s annual subscription to Accelerated Reader. There is no independently-conducted research that shows Accelerated Reader is an effective literacy program. See the What Works Clearinghouse report for more information.
  • Reduce reading projects to the bare minimum with regard to how students are expected to respond to their reading.
  • Implement book talks to replace some of the assessments previously questioned. We can gain more information about a student’s understanding of a text through them sharing what they are reading verbally than from inauthentic assignments.

Curriculum

  • Integrate reading, writing, speaking, and listening into all other curriculum renewal activities. Performance tasks are especially good opportunities to incorporate literacy.
  • Make a list of and provide relevant authentic texts that capture the time period of a point in history.
  • Curate a list of biographies about famous scientists that students might want to research for a written report.
  • Craft big questions that lead students to pursue knowledge online, which will provide opportunities to critically read web-based resources.
  • Incorporate writing into formative assessment points, such as constructed responses and personal reflections.

Reporting

  • Develop rubrics for writing genres with students, after a lot of immersion into authentic texts of the genre to be learned.
  • Teach students how to self-assess writing at every stage of the process.
  • Facilitate monitoring of reading goals through journaling, blogging, and published book reviews.
  • Replace grades for reading and writing with frequent qualitative feedback.
  • Utilize digital assessment tools such as FreshGrade to share student learning results in literacy with family members and colleagues.

Feedback

  • Utilize online writing tools such as Google Docs to facilitate feedback between classmates.
  • Partner with other classrooms locally and/or globally to facilitate feedback between students.
  • Provide anchor papers of past work for students to reference when striving to improve their writing.
  • Meet with students regularly during independent reading and writing to affirm strengths and offer strategies for improvement.
  • Teach students to end a draft of writing with questions they have about parts they are unsure about to guide feedback from the teacher or peers.

Roles

  • Assign one student to be the class notetaker during a demonstration lesson for a reading or writing strategy.
  • Rotate the role of classroom researcher to students. When questions come up during the literacy block, this student is tasked with finding an answer.
  • Set up a website (Google Sites, Weebly) where students can publish their finished pieces of writing as authors.
  • Designate one or more students to write a weekly newsletter, highlighting the happenings in the classroom. Share this out digitally and on paper with families.
  • Put students in charge of the classroom library, after lots of modeling on how to organize the titles and display the covers.

As I completed this list, I realized that a lot of these literacy activities are what typically happens in the best classrooms for reading and writing. Is it reasonable to think that personalized learning naturally happens in an authentic literacy environment?

Writers Must Read – Wisconsin Writes

This post is to highlight a video series from Marci Glaus for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. The series is titled “Wisconsin Writes“. From the DPI website:

Wisconsin Writes provides a glimpse into example writing processes of Wisconsin writers from a variety of contexts. Each video story featured captures the recursive, complex, often messy process that we call writing from some of the best writers in the state.

In this video, titled “Writers Must Read”, local writers share why it is so important to be a reader if one wants to write well. I thought the video had a great message and unique insights for students and teachers.


I’m currently looking for writers myself: literacy leaders from a variety of positions willing to share their stories and expertise on this blog. If interested or would like more information about participating in this collaborative experience, fill out the form below.

Tailings (Or: Why This Blog Might Become a Collaborative Space)

In our town, the city department used to lay down a mix of sand and gravel to make the roads safe during winter travel. The material was called “tailings”. It came from the mining shafts, dug up and dispersed once the lead ore had been excavated from deep below. With the closing of the mines, tailings have been replaced with road salt.

This seems like an appropriate metaphor for my current situation with blogging. Right now I am feeling like I am doing more reposting of events from my website (mattrenwick.com) than actual writing. What I don’t want to see happen is for Reading by Example to become the repository for my own writing tailings – the rejected articles and ideas from my other writing outlets. My situation is not a bad one; I’ve found opportunities to write for multiple audiences and get compensated for my time and efforts. I am thankful. Yet this means less time to write in this space. I’ve connected with multiple people who have shared their appreciation for what is posted here.

That’s why now seems like as good a time as ever to open up this blog to other writers who are also literacy leaders – teacher leaders, lead teachers, instructional coaches, prospective administrators, assistant principals and head principals, curriculum directors, superintendents, university faculty, consultants, thought leaders – anyone who has knowledge to share and a story to tell. This could be an opportunity for educators who have not blogged before, who are new to writing online or might like to drive more traffic to their own blog. I realize I am making a large assumption that people would want to write in this space at all. Having over 800 subscribers does help hedge this bet.

I’m not interested in being an editor, but there are some questions I would like prospective contributors to respond to before we agree that this is right for both of us. See form below for more information. Related, the goal of this blog will be revisited. To start, it will no longer be merely my perspective, but one of many. Having a public forum and continuous dialogue about literacy and leadership is critical for schools and their respective students to be successful. I hope that by opening up this digital space for more voices on the topic, we might find it to be a much better resource for all. That’s the plan, anyway. Your comments and questions are, as always, very much appreciated.

What I’m Reading: March 2017

Professional Resources

Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and Schooling in America by Allan Collins and Richard Halverson (Teachers College, 2009)

An essential resource for thinking about and discussing technology in education. The authors provide a thorough history of what has come regarding schooling and how it is not a good fit with our knowledge society. This book is not outdated; the concepts and critiques are just as relevant today.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire (Bloomsbury, 1970, 2000)

I took on this classic in order to better understand critical literacy and its foundations. I will be honest: this was a tough, slow read. However, it might also be an essential text for any educator looking to understand the importance of being literate in a changing world. I’m glad I finished it.

 Personal Reading

The Plot Against America by Phillip Roth (Vintage, 2005)

The premise of the novel is Charles Lindbergh is elected president, denying Franklin D. Roosevelt a third term. The famous aviator arrives at the White House on a singular promise: to avoid going to war with Germany. His isolationist platform is in contrast to FDR’s growing concerns regarding anti-Semitism spreading across Europe. Lindbergh’s affinity for the Nazi party comes to light more and more as the story progresses. This piece of fiction is based on the events of this time, told through the author’s perspective as a Jewish child growing up in New Jersey. It almost reads like a memoir with all of the details.

The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin (Ballantine, 2016)

An excellent way to close out this sci-fi/literature trilogy. Epic in its scope yet manages to find a balance with small moments. For me, The City of Mirrors stands alongside The Stand by Stephen King and American Gods by Neil Gaiman. My only regret is that I read each of the three books when they came out. The amount of time between books made it a challenge to remember all of the details from previous stories.

Children’s Literature

The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires (Kids Can, 2014)

A thoughtful and humorous picture book about the design process. The story’s message of kids needing opportunities to be challenged with personal inquiries is well heeded. A perfect read aloud for teachers getting started in Genius Hour or Makerspaces.

Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce (HarperCollins, 2005)

The unique idea behind this story (boy finds a quarter million pounds before England changes to the Euro) makes for an excellent study on values and our choices. The author does not try to preach about the ills that money can bring to our lives. Instead, he lets the well-drawn characters reveal themselves in the situation presented. The ending is satisfying even though the author does not wrap things up in a nice tidy bow. Highly recommended read aloud for intermediate/middle-level classes.

We Found a Hat by Jon Klassen (Candlewick, 2016)

It had to have been hard for Klassen to follow up on his first two pictures books, I Want My Hat Back and This is Not My Hat. Yet the author succeeds. Two turtles find one hat. They both agree that it is a nice hat. So how do they reconcile this situation? The illustrations tell as much of the story as the text.

The Connection Between Reading and Writing

Not that long ago, I was struggling to write, digital or print. To be fair, my time was committed to formal projects. Reading also took a back seat. Was there more to it? I have heard of this reluctance to write as “the resistance”. This invisible force throws up mental roadblocks whenever we see a blank piece of paper or an untitled document. It can happen for all learners. A strategy I learned for this type of situation was suggested by Regie Routman at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention.

If a student is having a hard time getting started with their writing, ask them what they would like to read.

This advice was excellent. It felt unexpected at first but now makes so much sense. By always “doing” – working, talking, traveling – but not taking the time to read and reflect, we struggle to write. We know that reading and writing are connected. So why do we still silo these two disciplines in our instruction and in our lives? Reading is the foundation for much of what we write. Writing is how we make visible all that we have read, experienced, and reflected upon. One does not exist without the other.

Tomorrow I fly out from the ASCD convention in Anaheim to home in Wisconsin. I could certainly get a lot of work done during layovers. But I kind of hope the wireless will be spotty. The opportunities for some quiet time to read in a connected, constantly in motion world are hard to come by.

 

 

Cajun Dancing

“Would you like to go Cajun dancing? It’s for my friend’s birthday.” I have to admit: at the time that I heard this request from my wife, I might not have been attentively listening. If I had, I imagine I would have asked a series of questions.

“What is ‘Cajun’ dancing?”

“How much does it cost?”

“About how long do we have to stay?”

My inquiries would have been more about my desire to avoid this activity than any interest in dancing. Alas, the day came and I had committed. At the very least, we could connect with friends and have a night out.

We got to the dance hall and checked in. The instructor called us to the middle of the floor for the lesson before the dance. After a brief introduction of the style of music, we got started. “Okay, we are going to start with the basics. Three steps to the left, lift foot and dip, and then three steps to the right, lift foot and dip.” She modeled this with a partner plucked out of the circle at random. Then we tried it.

My wife and I only got to briefly dance together during the lesson. The men were moved one partner to the right after each bit of new instruction. I could tell which partners were as new to this as me by the mutual sweat in our palms. Those more veteran to Cajun dancing were unfiltered in their feedback. “Be sure to put your hand on the blade of my shoulder, not the side.”

Having adequately introduced ourselves to just about everyone in the hall, the instructor transitioned our music from a CD to an actual Cajun band. They needed to do a soundcheck before the official dance began. Feeling good about our progress, our instructor announced, “Okay, don’t worry about being perfect. The most important part about Cajun dancing is to…have fun!” The band started playing and we danced.

The beginning was rough. We bumped into other couples. I lost my step count more than once, even though I was counting under my breath. “Are you leading me, or am I leading you?” my wife quipped with a smile. Yet for all my initial fumbles, I finally found my rhythm, more or less. Counting steps gave way to spins and turns.

This new learning experience revealed missing elements in too many classrooms. When was the last time we as educators kept reading and writing instruction to the bare minimum? What would happen if we positioned our students as teachers and learners for each other more often than not? How would our student respond to the announcement, “Don’t worry about being perfect; just go have fun!” after a brief writing demonstration? Yes, some students would flounder. But not for long.

In an educational world where accountability as left no lesson untouched, the victim of standardization is engagement. We have lost faith in our students’ natural abilities to learn. Our fear of mistake-making has squeezed out some of the joy that should be a by-product of this process.

Let’s get our kids out on the dance floor as soon as possible. Yes, we should teach strategies, offer feedback, and provide assistance when needed.  But is achievement without engagement an education worth having? 


I am currently scheduling one- and two-day workshops for this summer. Topic: How to use classroom technology for developing self-directed learners.

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Educators participating in this workshop will become more confident and fluent in using digital tools in the classrooms. The goal is to identify practices and technologies that can nurture self-directed learners. This professional learning experience will be student-centered, engaging, and relevant for all educators, K-12.

Click here to request more information.