Why Don’t Schools Focus on Literacy?

Our top hiring criteria — in addition to having the skills to do the job — is, are you a great writer? You have to be a great writer to work here, in every single position, because the majority of our communication is written, primarily because a lot of us work remotely but also because writing is quieter. And we like long-form writing where people really think through an idea and present it.

– Jason Fried of Basecamp, a web-based project management tool (NY Times)

As an elementary principal the last seven years, the schools I have had the honor to lead have hosted site visits. Other schools have come to observe the inner workings of our organization. These visits usually revolve around our literacy initiatives. We share how our continuous focus on reading, writing, speaking, and listening has resulted in increased achievement and engagement for our students. This isn’t something we brag about; it is how we have done business.

Out of the 15 or so schools that have come to visit, can you guess how many have walked away and started their building-wide focus on literacy? To my knowledge: zero. There is not one school that comes to mind when I think about who has walked through our doors and then started addressing a faculty’s capacity for teaching reading and writing. Why is this? What could be the reason for not focusing on literacy on a consistent basis for their professional learning efforts? Next are a couple of possibilities.

1. Schools are focused on something else.

I have been making a list of all the initiatives school leaders cite as the reason they cannot focus on literacy, at least at this time.

– Trauma-based learning
– Mindfulness
– PBL
– STEM/STEAM
– Personalized learning
– PBIS
– Responsive Classroom
– Poverty
– Equity
– Engagement
– Standards-based grading
– Blended learning or a 1:1 technology initiative

To be fair, many of these professional learning initiatives are promising. For example, our school has invested in Responsive Classroom training for staff and we have found it effective. But it’s not our focus. We employ Responsive Classroom strategies to better teach our students to read and write.

That’s the point we have made to a few school leaders. “You can still do __________ (fill in the initiative) while you are focused on literacy as a school.” They typically balk at this. Why? That might be the next reason…

2. Focusing on literacy doesn’t seem exciting.

Becoming better teachers of readers and writers may not sound as intriguing as a STEM/STEAM initiative or going 1:1 with technology. It might not make for good print or spark intrigue when proposing this focus to district leaders or a school board.

But what does that tell us? To me, I see a schoolwide focus on literacy as a safe way to innovate as a faculty. There are many routes you can go if one doesn’t want to start with the foundations of literacy. For example, a leadership team can begin by integrating effective reading and writing strategies with a STEM/STEAM initiative. A faculty could also delve into the new literacies while going 1:1. Media literacy, global literacy, and digital literacy are all relevant and important skills for students to acquire.

3. Schools don’t know where to start.

Building teachers’ capacity to teach reading and writing is a challenge. It can create some anxiety with school leaders not knowing how to get started with this initiative, nor how to keep the focus for several years (I’ve learned and read that changing teacher practice typically takes around five years).

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The nice thing is there are a number of professional learning programs out there that can provide the direction and resources for a schoolwide literacy initiative. For example, the Regie Routman in Residence online professional development program offers videos, articles, and learning experiences for a multi-year approach to building teacher capacity to teach reading and writing. I have also heard good things about Linda Dorn’s Comprehensive Literacy Model. What both offer is a framework for teaching literacy, instead of a scripted or commercial program. Teachers have some autonomy and ownership in how promising literacy practices are implemented in the classroom. These types of programs also position teachers as leaders of the learning instead of merely recipients of knowledge and skills. I have seen with my own eyes how a faculty can come to embrace effective reading and writing instruction as a sustainable part of their school culture.

Considering these three reasons, I would add one more thought, a common thread for why literacy is not a focus: it’s not easy. School leaders might not have the desire or will to change teacher practice. Layering a less effective initiative over current instruction is an easier approach that looks good to the public. But if the initiative is not connected to literacy in some way, and a school cannot show that their students are successful readers and writers, then these efforts are a disservice to the families and community they serve.

(Image: Booksource)

What Did You Do Today?

Every day for the past two weeks since starting my new coaching position my husband has asked me this question.  Only knowing me as a classroom teacher for the past seventeen years, I think he is trying to wrap his head around what exactly it is that I do all day.  I think I am too.  

It feels foreign to not have a group of first graders waiting for me to get there each day.  I didn’t have to prepare a classroom for Meet the Teacher Day or think through how I would spend the first few days building community.   It is the weirdest feeling to walk on campus each morning and realize that no one is waiting for me.  This is freaking me out a bit.  I have all these insecurities and questions rolling through my head.  What if the teachers think I am doing nothing while they are in the trenches with kids?  What if my administrator thinks I am doing nothing all day because I don’t have lesson plans written or a room full of children?  What do I have to show for how my time is spent at the end of each day?  I’m pretty sure that my husband keeps asking because he is worried after leaving my “safe” job that maybe if I’m not looking busy enough unemployment is just around the corner!

This is why I am now holding on to, Chapter Sixteen: Nuts and Bolts-Scheduling and Budgeting, for dear life.  This chapter answers and confirms that my insecurities might not be far off.  That if I want to be perceived as an equal member of the school community, I have to find a tangible way to reflect the intangible things that have kept me busy and exhausted each day.  That teachers ARE probably thinking, What does she do all day?  Here are the things I have started working on and thinking about to keep myself accountable and to document my time so that all of those questions mentioned can be answered quickly and easily.

First, I am creating an amazing literacy space for teachers and students that started out two weeks ago as a room filled with boxes of books and empty shelves.  The mascot of our sweet little school is the Knights.  Therefore, I decided the space where the kids and teachers will come to find books and resources needed to look and feel like a castle.  It will be called, The Knight’s Nook, and children will be summoned by a princess (the head of our lower school) to come and be dubbed the Knights of the Reading Round Table (thank goodness that is the shape of the tables that got left in the room).  The transformation of this space is something tangible everyone can see and the fact that we are surprising everyone with a big reveal builds anticipation and excitement around reading.  This will be my first gift of literacy to the school.

Second, I have made it a goal to have my schedule visible to all by the end of the second week so everyone knows where I am and what I am doing.  The first few weeks I wanted to give the teacher’s time with their students to get to know them, finish assessments and build a classroom community before I inserted myself.  In the meantime, I have been stopping in, offering teacher’s coverage for bathroom breaks or to refill their water bottles and reading aloud to the kids so I can begin to get to know them in my own way.  I have been complimenting the amazing environments teachers have set up for students, noticing how much they know their students already and empathizing over how tough the first few weeks of school really are. This has helped teachers see that although I haven’t started my “real” job yet, I am not sitting in a room by myself doing nothing while they are in the trenches.

Third, I have been collecting questions and ideas so that when I meet with my administrator we can have a specific, smart conversation about my role as the literacy coach.  We can decide bottom lines, non-negotiables and where I fit.  She will be able to see through these questions and observations how I have been spending the last few weeks-knee deep in observation and reflection to help decide next steps.

Finally, I am going to take Jennifer’s advice and start documenting my day.  Even though I will have a visible schedule, it will be important to write down all that I am accomplishing in a day when I am not in a classroom.  The conversations, the planning both short and long-term and the gathering of resources.  I want anyone who asks to see how valuable my position is to the literacy reform of the school.  To quickly see that even though my day is more flexible, it is full.

In doing all of these things as my next steps, in this new position in a new school, I am hoping that my day is transparent, people see my worth and are excited and able to trust me to help them grow as literacy leaders themselves.  I am hoping that this will calm my anxieties and the questions running through my head (and my husband’s as well).  So, what did I do today?  Sit back and get comfortable, I’ve got a lot to tell you!

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.

Quality Instruction: The Most Important Classroom Variable

The instruction that you provide to your students is the most important variable regarding student achievement.  Good instruction can deliver up to two years growth for some students.  The opposite, Jennifer Allen writes, “focus on improving the quality of instruction that (you are) providing to all students…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”

You are one of the most important variables in your classroom. So, what are some easy ways to improve the quality of your instruction?  One easy way to impact your instruction is to have a desire to want to get better.  Is there an area where you feel you could improve your instruction?  Set a realistic, professional goal for yourself, and write it down!  Take small steps.  For example, setting a yearly goal of implementing strategy groups for small group reading instruction is a lot more realistic than expecting yourself to implement strategy groups in one nine weeks.

If you have an instructional coach, use him or her.  I can’t think of one professional athlete, singer, or entertainer that does not have a coach.  They recognize the importance of having someone available to improve their craft.  Your coach is available to you to help you improve in any area that you wish to strengthen.  A coach’s primary goal is to bring best instructional practices to you.  I will note that they are there to push you, too. 🙂

Attending professional development is another action to improve instruction. Professional development can be provided through your school district (for free), or you can attend professional development on your own through different webinar series. Following blogs and educational leaders on social media are a quick and easy way to keep abreast on new educational topics.

Also, we can’t omit assessments from this discussion.  Your assessments drive your instruction.  Assessments are your foundation. Without them, your instruction will be fragile.  Your assessments will give you insight on where the learning process breaks down for your students.  

I have a few questions for you to consider when supporting students on the bubble.

  • Are you tracking student growth?  If you’re not tracking student growth, you don’t know if your students are moving or not moving.  
  • How many touches a week do your bubble students receive?  Remember, these students still need consistent teacher support.  So, checking in with them once a week is not enough support for these students.  Children need to practice a skill or strategy at least eight times before they begin to internalize it.
  • How often do you reflect on the effectiveness of the support provided for these students?  This is a good opportunity to ponder about what strategies are working and not working.  Be honest.  There is no need in wasting precious time on a strategy that doesn’t work.  It may be helpful to rely on a teammate or coach.  It’s always helpful to have someone to bounce ideas or get another opinion.

As teachers, we have the daunting task of finding the key that unlocks the door to reading.  This is a process.  It may take a year, or two, or three for a child to become successful in their reading.  Know that the strong foundation that you provided will lay a path for that child’s reading success

My Life in Seven Stories

The bridge between knowing and doing is feeling. – Unknown

Reading the acknowledgments in Becoming a Literacy Leader: Supporting Learning and Change, Jennifer Allen thanks Franki Sibberson for her initial interest in the professional learning activity “My Life in Seven Stories”. It sounds like this idea was the seed that resulted in the book we read today.

“My Life in Seven Stories” is the title of a professional learning activity. Teachers make a list of seven titles that touch on past experiences in their lives. Then, they take one title and write about this small moment. They can share with a group of teachers or decide not to, their choice. The purpose is to get teachers to write during monthly staff meetings. Through these snapshots, the literacy leader can then demonstrate a writing strategy, such as revising leads, using their personal narratives. “My Life in Seven Stories” also helps build trust by being vulnerable and integrating feelings into the literacy work.

I thought I would try this here – My Life in Seven Stories:

  • Dessert in Elmwood, Illinois
  • Thunderstorm
  • All-Star Game
  • The Missed Shot
  • Going to College
  • The Apartment
  • The Move

I purposefully avoided titles related to my kids; I could have created a list of seventeen topics to write about related to them. Instead, each title/topic is about my life.

Below is my short narrative for the title “The Move”:

I sat on the front porch of a rustic cabin. No television. It was a summer evening and I was enjoying a cold shandy. Right now, my family and I were in between residences. We had our home for sale up north while we waited for the closing date on our new home in our new town, Mineral Point. Because there was much to do to get myself ready for the new school year, I would come down during the week, rent whatever was available, while my family stayed up north. Not a lot to do in the evenings, I sometimes found myself on a cabin porch, staring across the street at the new school I would soon be leading.

It was at this point that I think our move become 100% real for me. For sixteen years, my wife and I had served as educators in another town. We had friends, were logistically close to family, and had made many connections with other educators. Why did we move? The reasons were many, yet at that point they didn’t matter because here I was, sitting on the front porch of a log cabin, staring at a school (and community) we knew little about. This was exciting and nerve-racking at the same time. “How can I take advantage of this fresh start?” and “Will our house sell before we move in?” were questions that constantly swirled in my head during this tumultuous and sometimes lonely time.

Being a literacy leader means that we sometimes need to be vulnerable with our faculty. If we expect teachers to take risks and grow with their colleagues and their students, then we have to model this. My willingness to share a personal part of who I am through writing (and I know I could improve upon this initial offering) will more likely lead to teachers doing the same with their students. If we can cause that change by opening ourselves up emotionally, even a little bit, that may lead to teachers and students discovering the larger purpose to reading and writing.

I don’t plan on sharing my other personal stories in this space. One is enough. Maybe we will use this professional development activity in the future at our school. It’s hard to be vulnerable without trust, yet without taking a personal risk, trust may never be gained.

 

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Cothren House – The cabin I stayed in

 

 

 

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.