To Know Your Writers, Be a Writer

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What does it mean to be a writer?

It means the words that come flowing out of your pen are driven by your heart.

It means that you have a message, a story that matters.

It means that you value communication and though it may be seemingly a one-way street when you publish, you yearn for that communication as a result of your writing.

You value ideas, because isn’t all writing about ideas?

You struggle.

You think.

You pause.

You write.

You question.

You revise.

You push that publish button and your heart beats a little faster as you’ve given a little of your heart to the world.

You hope that they understand and value your message, your story.

How do I know this?  Because I write.

In chapter three of Jennifer Allen’s book, Becoming a Literacy Leader, she talks about that moment that all literacy leaders worry they will find themselves in…the moment when you are standing in front of your colleagues, wanting to lead them to all that they are capable of, but your presentation is met with silence, lack of engagement, and withdrawal.  I know this feeling.  I’ve been there.

I love the rawness of this confession by Jennifer and I love her push to not give up after months of trying to move writing instruction forward in her building.  She did not give up.  She discovered the secret.

You become a better writing teacher by writing. She had not been asking her teachers to write.

After months of seemingly failed attempts at changing writing instruction, Jennifer began to ask her staff to write, write stories that meant something to them.  They then used the stories to practice revision practices.  It was after that moment that the staff began to talk about writing in the hallways. They began to share their stories. The staff began to implement those revision strategies in the classroom.  It was after that, that student writing began to change.

To be a teacher of writing and really know it, you have to write.  

You have to know the heart that goes into it, the struggle, the thinking, the questioning, the courage that it takes to communicate a message that matters.  This is what we ask our kids to do.  It goes way beyond teaching an engaging introduction or having effective transitions.  Those are the standards, not the writer. Not the heart of the writer.  Not the courage of the writer.

To be an effective teacher of writing, you have to know the writer.  Be the writer.

Online Book Study: Becoming a Literacy Leader by Jennifer Allen #litleaders

Teachers need to be leaders, and leaders need to know literacy.

– Regie Routman

One of the best moves I made as a teacher in my early years was moving grades.

I was hired to teach 5th and 6th grade in a multi-age elementary building. Due to enrollment, we needed a 3rd and 4th grade teacher for one year. Being the low man on the seniority totem pole, I felt obligated to volunteer for the move. My aspirations were to teach middle-level students, so this wasn’t a 100% agreeable move.

What I learned in my short time with younger students, what made it a great move, was that I realized I had not been teaching reading. Check that: I was teaching reading as a subject, but I had not been teaching readers. Or writers for that matter. Literacy was merely another subject in the school day. Teaching younger students helped me realize that I had to become a more responsive teacher for my students. I couldn’t break open a box of the same books for a novel study and expect them to become better readers. With these 3rd and 4th graders’ strengths and challenges more evident in the classroom, it became apparent to me that I needed to improve my practice.

I connected with a literacy specialist, who directed me to some essential resources, such as Strategies That Work by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis. When I did move back to the 5th and 6th grade level, my learning was just getting started. I discovered I Read It But I Don’t Get It by Cris Tovani, Yellow Brick Roads by Janet Allen, and Reviser’s Toolbox by Barry Lane. Through these resources, I found mentor texts and teaching ideas that helped me become a better teacher of readers and writers. Without that move, where I might be today is (thankfully) a mystery.

Becoming a Literacy Leader cover imageFifteen years later, I am now helping lead an online book study for the resource Becoming a Literacy Leader: Supporting Learning and Change by Jennifer Allen. I have not come full circle in my learning about literacy and leadership; this is just the next step in my professional journey. By bringing other literacy leaders into this blog, I believe it will become an even better site for professional reflection and idea-sharing. I know it will for me.

The publisher, Stenhouse, has been gracious in providing a copy of Allen’s book for the contributors. Each educator/writer comes with a different background and level of expertise. Some teach and some lead in the formal sense, but we all lead and learn. We will be responding to this book on this space for the next two months. Subscribers and visitors to this blog are encouraged to read the book along with us. Here is our very loose reading schedule:

June 26-July 2: Chapter 1
July 3-9: Chapter 2
July 10-16: Chapter 3
July 17-23: Chapter 4
July 24-30: Chapter 5
July 31-Aug 6: Chapter 6
Aug 7-13: Chapter 7
Aug 14-20: Chapter 8
Aug 21-27: Chapter 9
Aug 28-Sept 3: Chapter 10 + 11

The lessons I learned from my teaching days have carried through to today. As an elementary principal, I have to be the model for everyone in the building and continue to learn. Based on the recommendations of other professionals, Jennifer’s book will be an essential guide for me as I prepare for the upcoming school year. Not that I will agree 100% regarding everything stated in the text. (I am already thinking about a contrary post regarding rubrics and writing assessment.) Productive disagreement is important when considering new ideas.

Whether you are also reading this book or you will follow along with these posts through July and August, I encourage you to also participate, even disagree, through the comments of each post. We become a smarter profession through this work.

 

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.