Teaching Literacy During the Holidays

It’s that time of year…the red and green butcher paper rolls are shrinking, the Grinch makes a school visit, and concerts have replaced athletics as the main evening events. The holidays offer opportunities for celebration as well as distractions. Kids get off of their routines or the classroom curriculum is not aligned with the seasonal activities and, as a result, our plans too often take a backseat to festivities or classroom challenges.

I won’t get into the religious aspect of celebrating the holidays, especially in public schools (check out Teaching Tolerance for more information on this topic). Instead, I thought I would share as well as request ideas for integrating promising literacy practices during the holiday season.

  • Service learning projects – This time of year can be stressful for some families living in poverty or just find this time of year hard. Teachers can develop extended lesson plans that involve students writing letters to individuals in assisted living centers and then hand delivering them, or creating original multimedia content to raise money for organizations in need.
  • Learning about our culture – Why do we celebrate some holidays and not others? How does where we live influence what holidays we choose to recognize as a community? These big questions can guide students to research their traditions in order to better understand their past. What they learn can be written as a report and then presented to peers and families using a digital tool of choice.
  • Exploring themes of the holidays – When we study a topic and look at multiple perspectives, trends and themes may present themselves. If holidays as a study are a staple in a school, it might be interesting to facilitate literary analysis and have students explore various texts to understand the larger ideas that are connected to the many known and unknown holidays. The idea of “text” can be expanded by incorporating podcasts, art, and other nonconventional mediums.

I realize this post comes at the tail end of the holiday season. Yet now might be a great time to reflect on our current practices and how they might better incorporate literacy for future instructional planning. How do you authentically integrate reading, writing, language, speaking, and listening with your teaching at this time of year? Please share in the comments.

Notice and Name

This post is from my weekly staff newsletter. Maybe you will find it useful as well! -Matt

“The 3rd graders noticed you were reading a book while walking down the hallway.” The teacher had stepped out to let me know this. I had been walking upstairs with my nose in a professional resource, on my way to help supervise recess. I could see the 3rd graders smiling at me through the open door.

My first reaction was guilt. Maybe I should have been paying more attention in the hallway and not modeling the potentially unsafe behavior of reading while walking. The teacher continued, “We thought it was neat to see the principal also as a reader.” This led to me stepping into the classroom briefly, sharing what I was reading (a series of essays by Alfie Kohn) and letting them know that I thought the books they were holding in their hands looked more interesting.

I’ve always been a “sneak reader”, using downtime to pull out a book or article. While in school, this led to some mild redirection from my teachers, they themselves probably not sure how to manage the dilemma of attending to their instruction while not wanting to dissuade me from reading independently. Maybe that is where my initial feeling of guilt arose from when the 3rd graders noticed me in the hallway.

As we continue to shift our instruction toward more authentic literacy practices, there might be some similar issues we experience. For example, allowing students to read independently while we confer with an individual may feel odd at first. We should be teaching and similar thoughts may arise. But teaching is not exclusive to standing up in front of a group of students and modeling a skill. Bringing students in as part of instruction, providing just enough scaffolding for guided support, and releasing the students to practice independently are just as important to the process of learning.

When I visit classrooms daily and provide feedback about our work, I learn more and more that today’s lesson started before I arrived and will continue after I leave. I want to point out what is happening in the classroom so that you feel affirmed in your efforts to try something new. Also, I like to notice and name tried and true practices that you might be taking for granted. I had forgotten that reading a book in front of others can be a positive model for students. Reading aloud in the classroom may have become routine in a classroom, yet the students notice. When we are in the midst of instruction, it can be hard to take a step back and appreciate our work. We should!

Read by Example Newsletter, 9-22-18: Professional Growth

This blog now has a newsletter! I’ll be reposting the first couple of lists here to build awareness for it. You can subscribe here for free. Thanks for reading, -Matt

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This week I found personal growth to be a common thread in the posts and related resources.

  1. When we lead like a coach, we are more likely to see growth in our teachers. Check out my post on this topic.
  2. An excellent resource for leading like a coach is Coaching Conversations: Transforming Your School One Conversation at a Time by Linda M. Gross Cheliotes and Marceta F. Reilly.
  3. Can principals even be coaches? I wrote about this in a post from five years ago. I am not sure I currently agree with my thinking at that time.
  4. I questioned whether we are talking about what really matters when try to grow professionally in this post.
  5. The previous post references a recent ASCD Education Update article. The subject involves a teacher and a principal facilitate a mock conversation about the challenges with traditional teacher evaluation systems.
  6. Last summer, I wrote a post on how literacy leaders might release some of the responsibility of professional development to teachers via study groups.
  7. The previous post is in response to Jennifer Allen’s excellent resource Becoming a Literacy Leader. We (contributors and I) responded to this book in our own online study group; click here to check out all of our posts.
  8. I wrote a short response to the memoir I just read, Educated by Tara Westover.
  9. My wife and I plan to attend an author Skype visit with Tara Westover at a local library (we both read the book). Check out the author’s website for her schedule.
  10. Journaling is how Westover documented her upbringing. Related, I enjoyed this article by Benjamin Hardy for developing a habit and process regarding reflective journaling for professional and/or personal growth.

What’s going on in your world? Any themes you are noticing? Please share in the comments.

Educated

91DFQa-KgQLI read for almost two hours last night finishing Educated by Tara Westover. Wow, what a powerful memoir. The author describes her life growing up at the foothills of the Idaho mountains. Her parents are survivalists: trying to live away from society out of fear of “the government”. Mental illness and religion play a role in Westover’s story, but through her writing she was able to mine down to a deeper understanding of her upbringing isolated from the world.

Throughout her childhood and as a young adult, Westover kept journals that documented her both tragic and inspiring experiences. Her written reflections served as artifacts of her life which she came back to while writing this memoir. The author concedes that her version of the truth could only be a close proximation of what actually happened, even though she witnessed first hand much of what she described.

We are all more complicated than the roles we are assigned in stories. Nothing has revealed that truth to me more than writing this memoir – trying to pin down the people I love on paper, to capture the whole meaning of them in a few words, which is of course impossible. This is the best I can do: to tell that other story next to the one I remember.

I am sure that Westover only used a fraction of her written reflections as she crafted her memoir. She culled what was essential to tell her story. When we have our students write in school, how much of it is personal in nature? Should we teach students how to journal, as well as how to take these seemingly disparate pieces to find trends and patterns in our writing and ideas? How might we use journaling as a way to examine our own lives? There are lessons presented graciously here by Westover that we could all consider.

Why we should focus on our beliefs as well as our practices

I was at the front of the school during dismissal, holding the door open for the students leaving. One 3rd grader stopped, looked at me, and asked, “Did you go to college?” “Yes, I did,” I responded. He thought for a moment, then shared quietly, “I don’t think I will go to college.” I asked him why.

Because no one in my family has gone to college.

Right away, I reassured him that if he wanted to go to college. he would be able to. He then talked about how expensive college was, which led to a conversation about scholarships and grants for students who excel in school. (By the way, this is not a typical conversation I have with a 3rd grader. He is a very thoughtful person.)

We can have the most technically skilled teachers in our school. They can receive the best professional development available and be provided all the time they need to prepare instruction and manage other tasks. But if a teacher does not believe that every student in their classroom can be successful readers, writers, and thinkers, then no amount of qualification or ability will have the necessary impact on our students.

Fortunately, beliefs and practices are intertwined. One influences the other. For example, if we try and apply a new practice and find it successful, our beliefs can shift so that we are discontinuing the less innovative practice. Likewise, when we reconsider our current practices because students are not as successful as they could be, we can become more open to new ideas.

A personal example: when I was teaching 5th and 6th grade in a multi-age environment, I leaned on the reading anthology series during the literacy block. I recall one student who was a “word caller”: they could read any text put in front of them, but they had little to no comprehension about what they just read. Frustrated, I sought out resources. Ideas from books by Cris Tovani and Stephanie Harvey were added to my repertoire. After applying these new practices, the student still wasn’t successful. But at least I had more reliable information when sharing my concerns about a possible learning disability with the parent.

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My beliefs changed because my concern for the student outweighed any pride or insecurity I had in my own abilities. Yet teachers do not have to wait for a challenge like mine to take action. In her book Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success (ASCD, 2014), Regie Routman describes characteristics of highly effective teacher-leaders (Appendix I):

  • Articulates core beliefs about teaching, literacy, and learning.
  • Daily practices match stated beliefs.
  • Reflects on how beliefs drive practices.
  • Seeks to improve and adjust beliefs and practices in light of new information and experiences.
  • Is open to productive change.

I’d like to think that I embodied some of these characteristics with the story about my former student. Yet prior to that case, I plowed through the mandated literacy program without giving much thought to the results. I cannot feel guilty, though. I can only share my own story in the hope that others will learn from my experiences.

As we start gathering assessment results from the fall screeners, I encourage all of us to pause for a moment and ask ourselves a few questions:

  1. When it comes to my literacy instruction, why am I doing what I am doing? (What you list is your beliefs.)
  2. If I didn’t have the current resources in my classroom, what would I use for literacy instruction? (You are examining how your beliefs drive your practices.)
  3. How can I ensure that every student not only is successful but also feels successful in my classroom? (You are becoming open to change.)

We can always do better. Every year we have students who don’t believe they are capable or worthy of success. We know they are, and they don’t have to feel this way. It’s our job to model what it means to have high expectations for ourselves. Be open about our personal challenges and how we are currently addressing them. Students need to see us as learners, not just experts. An open and transparent mind can also help maintain a focus on what our students need instead of what we think we need to teach. They are, after all, the reason schools exist.

 

Why Professional Development is Essential

As professional educators, we are called to embark on a journey of continual self-improvement and lifelong learning. But, what the journey looks like isn’t a one size fits all approach. This should sound similar, right? I mean we don’t approach the students in our classroom as though everyone learns in the same way, so why would we approach our own professional learning as though we need exactly what our teaching partner down the hall needs? Professional learning must be a part of our schoolwide culture, and this is evident in the “Take Action” portion of Embedding Professional Learning – Make Professional Learning a Priority. What a wonderful call to action outlined here:

  • Seek to make professional conversations integral to school life – this includes thoughtful, probing conversations that propel forward.
  • Stay focused on the literacy emphasis – targeted study of fewer, more powerful practices over a longer period of time in order to sustain change and improve results.
  • Establish teams that work well together – forge connections of open communication and clear goals across all grade levels.
  • Take responsibility for your own professional learning – join professional organizations, social media, book studies, conferences and become a part of your school’s professional learning leadership team.
  • Collaborate with colleagues – coach each other, build in time for collaborative conversations where you can push each other to solidify your thinking.
  • Participate in coaching experiences – having a trusting culture allows for a coaching experience to exist and creates the potential to greatly improve teaching through collaborating, planning, and co-teaching.
  • Evaluate the role and influence of any adopted program – figure out how to adapt, modify, or work around the program, as programs serve as resources and frameworks, not total curriculums.
  • Keep a reflection notebook – keep a notebook handy to keep a record of your thinking, insights, and questions.

These steps provide such a wonderful guide to get us thinking about how professional development can serve us. As an instructional coach, my primary role is to facilitate professional learning FOR teachers. I emphasize the FOR because I never want professional learning to be “done to” teachers. Professional learning, when done well, uses a teacher’s strengths and their curiosity to propel student learning forward.

I am a self-proclaimed nerd. I love to read professionally, attend conferences, and join professional organizations. You can find me “relaxing” by reading from one of the stacks of books that I have selected to become extremely excited about. I would consider myself to be a lifelong student, and I truly enjoy what I do. I enjoy being around children students as I do adult students. I love the way this chapter was written because once again, Regie Routman nails it on the head in so many ways with so many wonderful nuggets of learning in this chapter that I may have underlined nearly the whole chapter.

Again and again, I saw the importance of personal reflection in this chapter. The heart of professional learning should be about reflection – reflection of student learning, student and personal needs, philosophy, shared leadership, professional readings, and research. Teachers are powerful human beings by nature and seeking each other out to learn from one another’s expertise should also be a noted valuable tool that is mentioned repeatedly in this chapter. Your professional learning journey will no doubt shape not only your teaching, but it will challenge you to find, mentors that inspire growth and change within yourself. Who knows, you could quite possibly become one of those mentors that we read about someday.

Check out all of the posts from this book study by going to the Literacy Essentials webpage. There, you can select different articles to read and respond to and continue the conversation in the comments. In addition, consider joining our new Google+ Community to extend these discussions and connect with other literacy leaders.

Teaching Writers

Right away I flipped to Excellence 6-Teaching Writers in Regie Routman’s fabulous new resource, Literacy Essentials. Not that I wasn’t excited all of it, but my personal professional journey focuses so much on writing that I’m always excited to see what others have to say to add to what I already believe and practice. Turns out like everything I read out there I found myself nodding with a little bit of, “Woot, woot!”, some “Right On!”, lamenting with a touch of “Whoops!”,  and finally a HUGE “Thank you!”

First, I was especially drawn to this quote by David McCullough, “To write well is to think clearly. That is why it is so hard.” Yes, yes, yes! Regie and David. Writing is hard. For all of us. When I present at conferences and ask a ballroom full of teachers how many took college classes on how to teach writing effectively there is usually one or two lone hands raised.  No lie. One or two people in a room of one hundred educators who are expected to teach some form of writing each and every day. Next question, “How many of you feel like a writer yourself?.” Crickets. So not only is writing hard, it is made harder by a lack of knowledge on how to teach it effectively by adults who don’t write themselves. What do we do with all of that? We owe it to our kids to figure it out!

This leads to my first, “Woot, woot!” in this chapter (followed by many more in the margins!). The audience is everything. If writing is already hard why would anyone, kid or adult, want to spend that precious time in their day to write to no one? And bigger than that, if we are writing to no one then what are we writing anyway? What stance or tone do we take? What voice do we use? Why would conventions matter if no one is going to see it anyway? When a student writer knows who to write for and has a purpose for the writing then he will know as Ms. Routman says, “Writing takes courage and perseverance.” That it is worth the time spent drafting, revising, drafting, revising, keep going, and finally editing. Where or when there is purpose there is engagement and a move towards excellence. Ms. Routman tells us on page 236, “When we ensure as well that the audience and the purpose are meaningful and relevant to students-and that they have some choice in the writing topic-students do willingly invest in revising their work.”

Which moves us on to my, “Right On, Regie!” Revision is a process that needs to be experienced and then taught. That is another reason why teachers need to write! They need to write personally and in front of students to feel what revision feels like and model what revision looks like. She reminds us to demonstrate our own process, provide shared revision experiences, keep the audience in mind, and give some dedicated time to immerse in the revision process. There is so much power in developing a community of writers where the teacher is seen as part of that community. This always reminds me of the old adage, Kids do what we do. Not what we say. DO the revision work, fellow educators and there is a much bigger chance your students will too. They are surrounded in a world of perfect examples, show them the messy!

But alas, there is always something to learn and challenge my thinking and that is why my Amazon cart is consistently full to the max of professional text! On to my, “Whoops!”I thought I was the best editor in the room. I even made it a thing right around publishing time, bustling around with a pencil behind my ear chiming out, “Editing time, who needs an editor?” Regie, thanks for slowing my roll with this perfect gem, “Too often what happens is that we teachers continue to do most of the work, which makes the editing process cumbersome and exhausting for us and sends students the message that editing is not really their job.” This message was sent clearly to my writers (insert monkey with head in hands emoji here). This is what I love about book studies and being part of a larger learning community. Next year, this will no longer be a whoops! Teachable moment taught, thanks to Ms. Routman.

Finally, there is just one big “Thank you” for all of the research provided in this book. Holy Moly this book is full of what to read next! Most importantly in this section was the research on handwriting which I have been searching for this year. As a literacy leader it is my job to set high standards and expectations for all and having the research to back what I know is so important helps me gain momentum with others. In a busy classroom day, handwriting may seem low on the totem pole but my gut instinct has always been, “Handwriting still matters-a lot” (248). THANK YOU for giving me the research I can now provide as I meet with teachers to focus on this important issue, especially around cursive.

This post is part of a book study around Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Check out more resources associated with the text at this website (https://sites.stenhouse.com/literacyessentials/), including a free curriculum for teaching an undergraduate course using Literacy Essentials.