Building a Literacy Culture – a @StenhousePub Blog Series #litessentials


When I am not blogging, it usually means I am on a tech sabbatical, on vacation (I wish!), or working on a writing project. Lately, I have been reading and enjoying Regie Routman’s new resource Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All LearnersLike Regie’s previous work, this book is a necessary text for any teacher of literacy (see: you).

As a way for me to connect with and reflect upon the ideas in Literacy Essentials, I have written three articles for Stenhouse’s blog. They describe the importance of building a literacy culture, addressing the elements of trust, communication, and relationships. You can read the first two posts by clicking here and here. Look for the third post on the Stenhouse blog in the near future.

Reading Literacy Essentials, it could almost be called “Life Essentials”. Regie mixes research and practice with personal stories as a wife, parent, grandparent, friend, and unique individual. She offers suggestions for becoming a better teacher and a more interesting person. Joy can be had in the classroom and in life; they are not mutually exclusive. This makes Regie’s new book essential reading for all educators.

Literacy Essentials

What if we are heading in the wrong direction? #litleaders

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

– J.K. Rowling

This question recently cropped up from one of our faculty members. We are deep into exploring the connection between reading and writing, building a foundation for literacy instruction schoolwide. My response was off-the-cuff, sharing some general ideas, but maybe a little too vague and lacking coherence. The source of their concern was likely our high marks on our school report card. Here is what I wanted to say in my preferred mode of communication (writing).

When a school decides to pursue a literacy initiative as a whole faculty, they are already heading in the right direction. Anytime we can get everyone on the same page around reading and writing instruction, we build a common language and understanding for what will occur regularly in each classroom. Actually, the only wrong direction is by making no decision. By allowing everyone to have 100% autonomy in how reading and writing instruction will be delivered in classrooms, we create the conditions for student inequity.

A quality schoolwide literacy initiative should allow for some flexibility with teachers to personalize their approach. There should be enough room for teachers to have voice and choice in how instruction will be delivered. It’s the same thing we want for our students, right? We need to model this belief at every level.

For literacy initiatives that start to feel more closed in the level of autonomy for teachers as time progresses, be sure to check student assessment results. In my previous school, we felt like two years of writing training was possibly too scripted and squeezed some of the voice out of our students’ work. We facilitated a mid-year writing check. Sure enough: lots of structure but little style in students’ writing. As one teacher noted when we debriefed after the assessment, “Our kids will be able to nail a college essay, but do they love writing?” This information guided our decision to come back to a more holistic approach to teaching writing in the classroom.

Photo by Jamie Templeton on Unsplash

This decision to pursue a more structured writing approach was not wrong; our intentions were good and were based on what we believed our students needed. The only wrong approach would have been to forge ahead with our current efforts, ignoring what our students’ writing was telling us. This is different than what a lot of schools do: jumping from one initiative to the next, year after year. We knew that our students needed consistently strong literacy instruction year after year. Hopping from rock to rock along a stream of new ideas wasn’t going to help our kids become literate individuals, as tempting as it might be.

That’s why decisions for pursuing a schoolwide literacy initiative should be a part of a long-term plan. Three years is probably a minimum. A long-term plan reduces the desire for rock hopping. It’s easier to say “no” to a new and exciting professional learning opportunity when you have a pathway already laid out. Part of this long-term plan should include multiple points of celebration. These opportunities to highlight school success have to be tangible and genuine. In our school, we re-examine our beliefs about literacy, owning new beliefs after a year of schoolwide professional development work. We also set aside the beginning of staff meetings for staff celebrations. Teachers can share quick wins and victories. I also make a point of taking pictures of teachers innovating in their classrooms as they try and apply new strategies. These images are shared and celebrated before we begin learning about a new literacy strategy. All of our celebrations build on where we have been and inspire us to learn more.

That might be the biggest point in a response to this question about heading in the wrong direction: If our intentions are based on students’ needs and teachers’ informed beliefs, and we were are willing to adjust course in light of the evidence, then we cannot make a poor decision. The constant pursuit of becoming better in our practice is always the right choice.



4th Grade Classroom Talk: Using Notebooks as a Writer

IMG_2616Today, I had the opportunity to share my writing process with 4th graders. Their teacher invited me to speak for a half hour on how I use notebooks. The students were just getting started in this practice as they delved into their next workshop cycle.

I started by asking them how they might use their notebooks. “Jot writing ideas down.” “Keep track of information.” “Write out a first draft of a small moment.” Every student had a unique response. This was a nice segue to the point I wanted to make for my visit: a writer’s notebook is what the writer wants it to be. The teacher can and should provide strategies and structures for how to use them. But the writer has to own them. The more a notebook belongs to the writer, the more they are willing to take risks in their work which leads to better writing.

Below are my notes that I spoke to with the class, which were also in handout form for the students’ writing folders. Click Using Notebooks as a Writer for a printable copy of what I shared. Also, please share your notebook ideas as a writer in the comments – I’ll be sure to share them with the 4th graders!

Using Notebooks as a Writer

Ideas from Mr. Renwick

  • About the writing process
    • Revision is about making changes to the writing and about subtraction. My writing gets smaller, clearer, and better when I reread my writing and revise.
    • When I write in a certain genre, I read a lot of books and articles within that genre. It helps me get a sense of the way authors write for that type of audience and purpose.
      • I still read fiction! I have one nonfiction, one fiction going at any one time.
    • I write what I am curious about and interested in. Through my writing and research I learn a lot about the topic. If the project is not interesting and meaningful, I get bored.
  • About using notebooks as a writer
    • Capture ideas with a pocket notebook.
    • Mess around, doodle and try out new writing ideas in any notebook. Bad ideas are how I get to the good ideas.
    • Research and interviews are documented in my notebooks to be a better listener.
    • Collect quotes in the notebooks for later drafts; collect quotes on the cover for epitaphs (quotes that might begin a chapter).
    • Organize bigger projects by chapters and sections, but may not use every page.
    • Outline sections I want to write to help me get the big picture of what I want to say.
      • Reverse outline to clean up a messy draft.
    • Write out first drafts if I am feeling the flow (which I rarely do).
    • Manage deadlines in my notebooks – I have editors to help keep me accountable.
      • Who keeps you accountable with your writing?
    • Manage related projects to the writing – workshops, courses, articles to publicize.
    • Personal tasks go in notebooks too, such as grocery lists, thank you’s, gifts.

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
– Personalized learning
– 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).


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


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