Making the Connection: Reading & Writing Belong Together

One blog post is simply not enough to encompass all that the reading-writing connection entails.  I have merely segmented out a small snippet from this chapter to highlight my thinking and reflections, but there is so much more…

Reading and writing should go hand in hand. Like peanut butter and jelly, each able to stand alone, yet so much better when layered together.  Unfortunately, for many of us in the education business, the two are treated as separate entities and often each has its own curriculum. This poses a problem, not just for teachers who want to marry the two, but for our students as well.  When taught in isolation, there is very little chance of making those strong connections that bond reading and writing as soulmates.

Regie makes me even more cognizant about being proactive and intentional with my instruction based on her writing under the heading; Read Like a Writer.  “Because I write for readers, I deliberately notice what other authors do in terms of tone, voice, word choice, language play, all aspects of craft, setting, character development, how I’m affected as a reader, and so much more. So it’s been a surprise for me how little of that we share with our students. We read aloud; we may write in front of our students; we talk about books; but in my experience it’s rare for us  teachers to make the reading-writing connection visible. Our students do not automatically think, ‘I’m going to try out in my own writing what that author just did.’ We have to explicitly demonstrate that transfer for them and encourage them to take risks and try out new styles, crafts, and language.” (183)

For years I had done all those things Regie talks about; read alouds, writing in front of my students, talking about books, etc…but it wasn’t until the last couple of years when I was immersed in graduate school that I began to truly understand the reading-writing connection. The minute I started being explicit and intentional about noticing and noting things authors did in their stories, I saw similar things popping up in my students writing, and they were excited about sharing their writing with everyone!  It made them feel like “real” authors. So even though I had thought I was doing some pretty good modeling and teaching of reading and writing, I was unintentionally denying them the richer learning that comes when one understands the connection between the two. As soon as I made that connection more visible, my students were able to run with it and enhance their own writing.

Beyond just being deliberate, intentional, and making the reading-writing connection visible to students, Regie gives great suggestions and ideas in the “Take Action” sections of the chapter on Embracing the Reading-Writing Connection.  From simple things like including “Hip hop, song, rap, dance, film and other art forms that resonate with our children,”(172) to “Teaching students to read like writers” (185), we are supplied with a gamut of rich ideas to help our students make stronger connections between reading and writing.  It starts with truly knowing our students and their interests, offering choice in their reading and writing lives, and building from there.

Even though I had thought I was doing some pretty good modeling and teaching of reading and writing, I was unintentionally denying them the richer learning that comes when one understands the connection between the two. As soon as I made that connection more visible, my students were able to run with it and enhance their own writing.

Regie closes out this chapter with some profound words of advice for educators; “Unique and effective craft, style, and technique have to be inhaled and digested by an engaged reader who is immersed in one unforgettable reading experience after another.” (191)  AND “Exercises in a book on craft might help us teachers know what to look for, but only deep, pleasurable reading and noticing what writers do will provide the sustenance and specifics that lead students to read like a writer and expertly craft their writing.” (191)  

I just keep reading and rereading those two quotes, (well… basically everything in this book, but I’m focusing on those two at the moment)  trying to digest them and think of ways to shift the mindset away from teaching them separately. Regie talks about a safe place to start being the content areas of science and social studies.  And it does work nicely there. So maybe that’s where we begin, but we must do more. Teachers need to be experts at understanding the reading-writing connection so that they can impart that knowledge to their students and stop relying on scripted curriculums that teach each as a separate entity. We can do better than that.  Our students deserve better than that.

Building Trust

As I began reading Literacy Essentials by Regie Routman, I felt as though she were sitting in the room with me. Beginning the book with an entire chapter discussing trust and building relationships, I wondered how she knew what I needed to read at that moment. For me, this school year has been unlike any other. I began my eighteenth year of teaching as a reading specialist who couldn’t wait to begin co-teaching writing in first and fourth grade. And the students did not disappoint! Those two chunks of time in my day were by far my favorite parts.

Fast forward to the middle of December…I had my second hip surgery of the year in December and just like that, my job as a reading specialist and my excitement about writing was diminished. I began the long road to recovery and put my job on hold for almost five months! I returned to work in May and found just how much I had taken trusting relationships for granted. I walked back into a building that had not stopped while I was gone. Instead, things changed, people changed, and I had changed. It has not been an easy road to begin rebuilding relationships with staff and students.

I think that something I have learned through my experiences this year is that while trust can be destroyed in the blink of an eye, it takes much, much longer to build a trusting relationship. Regie states, “When we feel personally and professionally valued, we are apt to be happier, more productive, and more likely to take risks as teachers and learners” (p. 10). How true! Coming back into a culture where I had not been for so long made it feel like I was invisible to the staff for a while.

I love that Regie give some simple suggestions on ways to build relationships with all involved in the school community. And one of the biggest suggestions that stood out to me was kindness. Seem simple, right? I find myself saying, “Be kind!” in all aspects of my life but sometimes I think it is hard to take our own advice. Reading this first chapter made me rethink how I approached each day, and I truly tried to focus on the kindness that I could spread to others. From the simple hellos when seeing someone to asking about his or her day to giving a hug when it was needed!

I think one of my favorite ideas from this chapter has to do with passion. Find your passion and run with it. Help students find their passions and use that passion to guide them on the road to learning. One final thought…as I walked down the hall taking two students to my classroom, a third student chased me down the hall to ask if she could come with me today. Umm…of course! She actually wanted to come spend time reading and writing with me. What a wonderful reminder of the trusting relationship I have created with this student.

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.

The Art of the Blog

I was searching my own blog, something I wrote that I could simply repost here which would convey strategies and ideas for blogging as an educator. This repost would have served as a quick guide of sorts for contributors for our upcoming book study that starts May 14. Here is what I have found so far:

The Writing Principal: Tips for Administrators Considering Blogging (October 2012)

If I post my blog and no one reads it, did I really write it? (April 2013)

Why Should Educators Blog? (July 2014)

Blogging is Writing and So Much More (July 2016)

These posts are just the ones I could find. This blog is over six years old, with almost 500 posts to search within. None of them fit the bill, hence the post you are about to read.

As I read through each piece listed above, I could see how I have grown as a writer. My writing has not followed some type of straight trajectory in terms of improvement. Rather, it has been a gradual process, with some successes and many more failures. For example, coming across as an expert has been a challenge that I have become more aware of in my writing.

But it is with the failures that I have learned the most. Specifically, through constant blogging about my practice as a literacy leader, I have come closer to understanding not only my profession but also the general principles of a blog post that is well received and remembered. I thought I would share a few ideas here, not as an expert but instead as a constant learner.

  • Be passionate about your topic.

I address this first principle for a wide audience. Whatever we decide to blog about, it has to be something that we care deeply about and want to create more visibility around. For me, I did not see a lot of content out there around literacy leadership. That lead me to start chronicling my new experiences in leading a reading-writing initiative in an elementary school. My passion came from the realizations of learning with my faculty and seeing these understandings applied within the classrooms of our school.

Blogging tip: When starting a blog, give it a title that encompasses what subject(s) you are writing about. It can be direct (see Mark Levine’s blog Mindful Literacy) or more general (check out Vicki Vinton’s blog To Make a Prairie). If direction changes, you can always change the title later.

  • Write from a place of curiosity.

When I first started this blog, I was a new elementary principal with limited knowledge about excellent literacy instruction. My ignorance as a classroom teacher was quickly revealed to me through our collective study of the reading-writing connection via the Regie Routman in Residence online professional development program. Through this experience, I was able to dig into my own learning from the perspective of a principal trying to lead this type of initiative through modeling, support, and consistent feedback.

Blogging Tip: Post titles that pose a question often see more views.

  • Allow yourself to be vulnerable.

Being vulnerable makes you relatable as a writer for your audience. They likely recognize your own struggles within themselves. This is especially important for literacy leaders such as school principals and instructional coaches. We often don’t have readily available colleagues to bounce ideas off of or share concerns with at the moment. A blog, written from a place of humility, can be the inspiration needed for other literacy leaders who share similar struggles and are searching for better ways to be effective.

Blogging Tip: If you are unsure about how a post might be received online, ask someone to review it first. You can assign a reviewer within WordPress.

  • Worry less about visuals.

I used to get caught up in finding that perfect picture to embed with my text. While a visual can catch the eye of a reader via Pinterest and Facebook, we have to remember that readers come for the writing. One impact of blogging is the staying power of the post. It exists on the Internet for time unseen. I have pieces on this site written years ago that still garner many views. Many of the most memorable blog posts I have curated from other writers have zero visuals. That said, I highly recommend Unsplash for images that are copyright free. Consider citing the photographer as a thank you. Also, Canva is a fun graphic design tool for promoting events, such as our book club starting next week.

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Blogging tip: When writing online, use lots of white space and try to keep paragraphs limited to eight lines or less (which I fail at constantly – see this post).

  • Make writing a habit.

Imagine climbing a mountain. With the many dips and rises, a writer is gradually heading upwards and onward. Persistence is critical. Jordan Rosenfeld, author of A Writer’s Guide to Persistence: How to Create a Lasting and Productive Writing Practice (Writers Digest Books, 2015), expands on this concept. “Persistence is the key factor, the dividing line, between writers who succeed and writers who merely wish to. It comes not from mental acuity or superstrength but from finding the deep meaning and joy at the root of your writing practice and calling on this joy to get you through the challenges. (1)” I am rereading Jordan’s guide and highly recommend it for all writers.

Blogging tip: Post at the minimum once a month, and preferably at least once a week.

What suggestions do you have for future and current bloggers? Please share in the comments.

 

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.

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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
– 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)