To Know Your Writers, Be a Writer

To Know Your Writers, Be a Writer.png

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.

When professional learning isn’t your choice…

As teachers, we have all had times when we have been asked to participate in mandated professional learning. Before you read on, think about the last time you found yourself in this situation. How did you feel about being there? What elements worked for you and what rubbed you the wrong way?

For me, this type of learning reminds me of what our students must feel each day. I admit that I myself have not always been a huge fan of mandated professional development. It is ironic that planning and delivering this type of learning is now a regular part of my current position. Knowing that the feelings around this type of PD are not always talked about in a positive light, I was intrigued to read Chapter 3: “A Model for Required Professional Development” in Jennifer Allen’s book Becoming a Literacy Leader. I was genuinely curious to find out what might Jennifer offer to help me become a better facilitator for required learning sessions.

Right away I loved Jennifer’s honesty as she shared her moments of success and frustration. Anyone who has organized and led professional learning has had those moments where you clearly know you have failed. Jennifer begins with sharing some very challenging years that were not working for her. Paying attention to our mistakes and learning from them is important for all of us, regardless of our teaching context.

I began to think about my biggest fails from this past year. What did I learn? Probably the most important lesson I learned this year was to invest the time to learn the culture of the group. Not all groups work the same way and not all leaders want you to work with their staff in the same way. Asking questions and ensuring expectations are clear, helps things go more smoothly. Many times I am asked to introduce ideas and information that may challenge entrenched ways of thinking and working within schools. Another lesson I learned is to name this dissonance right at the beginning and open up space to disagree, in agreeable ways. My biggest learning continues to come from reflecting about the bumps in the road and what I could do differently next time.

In Chapter 3, Jennifer introduces us to three key ingredients she believes are essential when designing an agenda for mandatory professional development:

  • making meaning of content together
  • individualizing the learning
  • bridging theory and practice.

I loved her example of “My Life in Seven Stories”, but equally was a fan that she left room for me to contextualize these ideas and make them my own. When I thought about the three ingredients for professional development, I was able to immediately connect my own personal experiences with her framing.

Thinking about how groups can make meaning of new content together, I  realized how important good questions are for learning. Thinking in questions helps organize the main ideas and guide professional development but also leaves room for the learners to influence the direction and thus the learning. Framing professional learning through a series of questions signals to the participants that they will be actively making meaning together. Knowledge Building Circles are a great way to dig deep into important questions and make meaning of content together.

The second ingredient Jennifer suggests is to design professional learning so people can individualize the learning. This can be tough with very large groups but by providing choice within the session, we can increase autonomy and engagement. Choice can be as simple as offering a collection of articles to choose from, a variety of tools to use, or even providing the opportunity for groups to make micro-decisions about how to structure a block of time. Jennifer’s suggestion to take what you learn and apply it yourself (p.54), reminded me that we want our learners to be actively engaged in doing the learning and not just hearing about the learning. If your session is about reading, ask your participants to read. Taking off the teacher hat and putting on the learner cap is important for internalizing and personalizing learning.

The third ingredient was a recent epiphany for me. I used to wonder why we even needed theory. Just tell me what to do! Now I understand that theory helps us understand the ‘why’ behind our choices. Jennifer suggests that the bridge between theory and practice can happen by giving teachers time to play with the strategies in the classroom (p. 54). I think an important part of this ingredient is also to scaffold teachers to be able to name and understand what theory might look like in their classrooms before they leave the professional development session. Embedded planning time to bridge theory and practice during professional development has become a regular fixture in my planning. A handy protocol for this is ‘Connect. Extend. Try’. At the end of PD sessions, I ask participants to think about how the new learning connects with what they already know, what extends or challenges their thinking, and what is one new thing they will commit to trying.

Having only finished Chapter 3 of this book, I am excited to continue reading to discover more practical and inspirational ideas about leading literacy. I know I will for sure be stealing Jennifer’s “My Life in Seven Stories” to use at some point with teacher writing groups this year!

Allenchapter3quote.jpg

Please consider adding your ideas about key ingredients or some ‘tried and true’ ideas for professional learning in the comments. I’d also like to invite you to join our reading community as we read and discuss Becoming a Literacy Leader together.

Thanks for reading,

Heather

Designing Intentional Spaces

I’m a new reading specialist coming from a background in music education. I taught K-8 music for nine years before I chose to make the transition to literacy. I jumped on the chance to read Becoming a Literacy Leader, to learn from Jennifer Allen’s journey. The program I went through was fantastic, but there’s nothing like experience and learning from others’ experiences to really teach the nitty gritty stuff.

My current position was vacant for just shy of a year before I started. Students weren’t receiving reading intervention services, and classroom teachers weren’t getting literacy support. If I look at the silver lining of the situation, I have a lot of autonomy in what I do. Since nobody was in the position, it wasn’t all that established what it should look like. I kind of get to write my own job description! That said, I am looking forward to utilizing my classroom space and the time in my schedule in a smart way to support students and teachers.

One of my favorite parts of being a teacher is getting my space ready for the new school year. New storage! Coordinated supplies! How many times have I succumbed to the dollar bins at Target and came home with 5 or 6 cute little buckets, or a seasonally-themed storage container having no idea what would become of it once I got it into my classroom?

So, despite having studied interior design for two years, reflecting on Chapter 2 was kind of like a lightbulb moment for me. Of course, I should think about the room’s purpose first. Isn’t that what all my beloved design books and websites tell me, too?

I love the reading room as a resource for classroom teachers – somewhere they can come to get ideas or to chat about literacy stuff while also being an inviting space for students to receive intervention services. One of my core beliefs in education is that for anyone to learn, there has to be a sense of comfort and trust. The physical space reflects that – do children and adults feel comfortable coming into the room? It is inviting and warm? I think of how I feel when I walk into an unfamiliar place – if the space is inviting, I can relax and better take in what I need to, whether it’s in a doctor’s office or a gym. My room is small, but I think with some ingenuity and strategic planning, I’ll be able to make it work.

What are the best parts of your classroom? What designs have worked well for you? I look forward to getting some great ideas!

patrick-tomasso-88317.jpg

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.

 

Recommended Reading: Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment by Maja Wilson

41wGWEmUPIL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This book is good. Really good. Actually, I’m a little sad I did not discover it until recently. If I had read during my teaching days…who knows, maybe I would have gone back to get my English degree. Instead, I found Improving Schools from Within by Roland Barth and got the administrative bug. A good outcome, and interesting how a book can change your life trajectory.

Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Instruction (Heinemann, 2006) is one of those books that can have an impact on any K-12 educator. The position Wilson takes isn’t simply to rethink rubrics but to question their very existence in the literacy classroom. Instead, teachers should be using responsive instruction, assessing as students are in the act of reading and writing, to focus on their strengths and writing as a whole.

Wilson sets the table for questioning rubrics by first examining the term “best practice”.

Just as reflective teachers must question their own performance, we must be willing to question the methods accepted as best by the field of writing methods, an idea that may strike us as sacrilege. The very words best practice are loaded; if we aren’t following best practice, aren’t we by extention following worst practice? In addition, the term drips with authority.

I’ve been on the receiving end when I have questioned curriculum acquisitions, such as literacy-programs-in-a-box. “It’s best practice,” I was informed. End of discussion. Wilson puts into prose the courage teachers and principals need to muster to resist these unfounded arguments.

In brief, Wilson points out the many inherent flaws of using rubrics in writing instruction:

  • They are reductive, breaking down writing into isolated parts, even though good writing is greater than the sum of its parts.
  • They force agreement when assessing writing, an interpretative craft.
  • They demand objectivity, even though appreciation for reading and writing is subjective.
  • They focus on product, yet writing is a process.
  • They are not authentic – professional writers don’t use rubrics to self-assess their work. They internalize criteria for good writing while maintaining their own voice.
  • They are based on a deficit model; when we use rubrics to assess student writing, we are looking for what’s wrong with their work instead of possibilities.

(It was also interesting to discover that rubrics were developed by the College Board, the same organization that came up with the Common Core State Standards. For another time…)

Rubrics aren’t the only teaching practices skewered in this well-written text. For example, grading is another challenge in the literacy classroom. Like rubrics, grades distort the final product and do not consider the process of student work. Students instead merely complete the assignment instead of truly investing in the act of reading and writing with a purpose. By replacing traditional assessment practices such as rubrics and grades with descriptive and timely feedback, as Wilson suggests, students will start to innovate in their writing and better appreciate this type of work.

If you are looking for one book to read this summer and have also questioned the use of traditional practices in literacy instruction, I recommend Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Instruction. It’s a resource that will push your thinking not only about rubrics in writing but also about assessment in general.


Next week, several contributors and I will start reading and responding to our summer book choice, Becoming a Literacy Leader by Jennifer Allen. Check in with this blog regularly for new posts. Better yet, read this book with us and share your thinking in the comments!

What I’m Reading – June 2017

What I’ve Read

Evil at Heart (Archie Sheridan & Gretchen Lowell, #3) by Chelsea Cain

This psychological thriller series is hard to put down. The flawed characters, plot twists, and Portland, OR setting make for an engaging read.

Walking Trees: Portraits of Teachers and Children in the Culture of Schools by Ralph Fletcher

Very few books take an unfiltered look into the reality of schools and leaders making efforts to improve education. Fletcher’s memoir is funny, honest and, at times, tragic.

Nothing But the Truth by Avi 

Near the end of this book, as the two main characters (teacher, student) realized that no good resolution was going to come from their situation, I thought about Wayne Dyer’s precept from Wonder by R.J. Palacio:

“When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.” 

I was introduced to this book by a thoughtful middle-level English teacher. She was guiding the students to think deeply about rights vs. responsibilities in a democracy. I would have enjoyed being a student in her class! Nothing But the Truth is a strong text for facilitating smart discussions.

Bold Moves for Schools: How We Create Remarkable Learning Environments by Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Marie Hubley Alcock

This book provides an essential vision and pathway for what schools should strive to become in this century.

Not Quite Narwhal by Jessie Sima

Wow, what a perfect book for helping kids (and adults?) understand that not everyone fits into a simple category. Definitely a text that could precede a conversation on empathy, gender, and/or acceptance. 

Bob, Not Bob!: *to be read as though you have the worst cold ever by Liz Garton Scanlon, Audrey Vernick, Matthew Cordell (illustrator)

You must read this aloud as if you have a cold. It’s a picture book that begs to be shared with others. I’m sure kids will clamor to reread the text and emulate the funny dialogue that leads to a satisfying ending. 

Truck: A Love Story by Michael Perry

A great follow-up to the author’s first memoir on small town life. If Population: 485 told the story of New Auburn, WI through the eyes of Michael Perry, then Truck: A Love Story shares the story of Michael Perry through the collective lens of his northern Wisconsin township. Perry provides more humor and self-deprecation as he provides a close examination of his two parallel endeavors: fixing up an old truck that’s been sitting in his yard and finally finding his partner in life.

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield

In a funk with your creative work? Pick up Pressfield’s short guide to battling your artistic block. He personifies all of our excuses reasons for not pursuing our passion projects as “The Resistance”. How we attack this common occurrence is the topic of this practical resource. 

It’s Not About the Coffee: Leadership Principles from a Life at Starbucks by Howard Behar

This short memoir is focused on one thing: When it comes to running an organization, it’s about the people. Whether we sell coffee or any other service or product, our priority should be the people we serve and those we serve with. Behar restates this philosophy a hundred different ways, which can be either affirming or redundant for the reader. For me, I appreciated hearing from a business leader that advocates for people over product, especially in today’s world. 

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Harry Potter, #4)
by J.K. Rowling, Mary GrandPré (Illustrator)

Just finished reading this to my son. It’s my second time reading it. All I can say is: wow, what a story. J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin have nothing on J.K. Rowling. If you’ve only seen the movie, do yourself a favor and read the book. Read the whole series. Rowling gives us some of the best writing of our times.

 

What I’m Reading

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien 

From the Goodreads summary: 

They carried malaria tablets, love letters, 28-pound mine detectors, dope, illustrated bibles, each other. And if they made it home alive, they carried unrelenting images of a nightmarish war that history is only beginning to absorb. Since its first publication, The Things They Carried has become an unparalleled Vietnam testament, a classic work of American literature, and a profound study of men at war that illuminates the capacity, and the limits, of the human heart and soul.

The Things They Carried depicts the men of Alpha Company: Jimmy Cross, Henry Dobbins, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Norman Bowker, Kiowa, and the character Tim O’Brien, who has survived his tour in Vietnam to become a father and writer at the age of forty-three.

Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Instruction by Maja Wilson

From the Goodreads summary:

Though you may sense a disconnect between student-centered teaching and rubric-based assessment, you may still use rubrics for convenience or for want of better alternatives. Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment gives you the impetus to make a change, demonstrating how rubrics can hurt kids and replace professional decision making with an inauthentic pigeonholing that stamps standardization onto a notably nonstandard process. With an emphasis on thoughtful planning and teaching, Wilson shows you how to reconsider writing assessment so that it aligns more closely with high-quality instruction and avoids the potentially damaging effects of rubrics.

  

What I Plan to Read Next

Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art by Virginia Heffernan

Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein

 

Thinking About Assessment…

My son’s first swim meet was tonight. After his five events, he told me he wanted to get to practice tomorrow for two reasons: to see how he and his teammates did and to swim some more.

The best assessments create a desire to want to improve and learn more. I post my books here not to show what I know, but because it’s important for me to go back over my reading list, see what I’ve read, and make plans to read for the future. Maybe someone will comment on what I’ve read, share their response to the same text, and offer another title that relates to this book. Maybe I’ll do the same.

I think you can learn a lot about someone by looking at what they read. If I were to look at my list from the outside and not as myself, I might think: 

• This guy reads a lot.

• He either has kids or works with kids.

• If he reads a nonfiction text, he is likely to pick up fiction next.

• Learning for life is important to him.

This reading list and my responses to the books I read offer a lot of information about who I am as a reader. A teacher would not need to give me a multiple choice quiz to assess whether I comprehended the texts or not. It’s as clear as day in my brief reactions. Maybe a more important assessment point is the fact that I am currently reading and that I have books that I want to read next. Seems important to me anyway.

In one of the books I am currently reading, Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Instruction, Maja Wilson offers a convincing argument about how traditional assessment practices can impact our instruction. It’s one of the best educational resources I’ve read. There are many memorable lines, and I’ll share one here I feel is pertinent.

Encouraged by the performance levels on the rubric to rank students against an external standard, our readings of student work are based firmly in a deficit model. We look for mistakes, inconsistencies, and unclear thinking to justify which square in the matrix we will circle. (pg. 30)

Assessment in literacy should have no room for competition. There are no winners, no losers. Reading and writing should be a community experience. We celebrate our friends’ successes and help them improve in areas of growth. In a classroom that promotes connectedness and democracy, our peers’ strengths are to our benefit. My reading list is evidence of my life as a reader, as well as a member of a community of readers.

Beyond the Book: Summer Literacy Adventures

jorge-mallo-111525.jpg

We are in the final month of school in Calgary and it is busy! It is so busy we feel it in our breath, our movements, and every thought. At times like this, it is easy to fall prey to the busy. But when we focus on what is most important, we are reminded that busy is not why we are here. Our students deserve all that we can give, especially in the busy of these final weeks.

With this in mind, I decided to follow Matt Renwick’s example and frame this post as a bridge between school and summer. Matt’s last blog post offered some fantastic suggestions around facilitating summer reading through authentic experiences. After reading I wondered, what else might we do to support our students over summer?

Knowing oral language is the foundation of literacy, my mind wandered there. In their book Literacy: Reading the word and the world, Freire and Macedo remind us “reading does not consist merely of decoding the written word or language; rather it is preceded by and intertwined with knowledge of the world (1987, p. 29). Following their advice, I looked to the world to see what might be reflected back to me.

Below are some suggestions that might open up how students and their families approach literacy over the summer months.

  1. Make time for talk.

Remember that feeling of busy I began this post with? The great thing about summer is family and friends generally have more time to spend together. Car rides, family outings, dinner conversations, and campfire evenings are great opportunities to connect and build literacies outside of classroom walls. Dr. Catherine Snow and Diane Beals offer some useful suggestions (2006) about mealtime talk that supports literacy development. They suggest the conversations that happen at the dinner table can provide opportunities to talk about topics in greater depth (extended discourse). The common narrative or explanatory structures typically used at mealtimes expose children to relatively sophisticated vocabulary. Summer is a great time to remind your students and their families that their dinner table conversations are important. Of course, the dinner table can really be any place depending on the weather!

  1. Explore your place.

As educators, we understand that literacy does not live in one place. It occurs within and between contexts. Students can learn what words mean in the world in order to better understand and use them in print. Many places offer free summer opportunities for families to wander, experience, and talk. Sharing some examples with parents (such as this http://www.todocanada.ca/free-family-activities-every-day-summer-calgary/) can help families step into rich literacy experiences. These opportunities help build students’ knowledge, which in turn helps them with reading and writing. Lots of these hot spots also offer maps or guides when you visit, so make sure to remind parents that books are not the only sources of print in our lives.

Offering parents simple conversation structures such as ‘Strive for 5’ (Weitzman & Greenberg, 2010, p. 11) can also help deepen potential conversations to get kids talking and learning during family outings. Letting children lead the conversation, asking open-ended questions, and aiming for at least 5 turns back and forth increase the likelihood of extended conversation and extended learning. As adults, we often forget that to our children our world is new and exciting. Taking time to listen, question, and talk together will remind everyone we truly do live in a WONDERful place.

  1. Leverage what they love.

Anyone who is a parent knows that summer is not all a ball of sunshine. Some days are rainy and some days everyone just needs a break from each other. We also know how much kids love technology. Some well-chosen websites can save even the rainiest of summer days. Camp Wonderopolis offers many rich literacy provocations and the multimodal structure that draws kids in. Alternatively, playing audio books or podcasts on car rides or during ‘quiet time’ opens up more chances to listen, talk, and build knowledge together. Jennifer Gonzalez offers a parent-friendly explanation and some of her favourite podcasts here that could be a great blog post to share with parents heading into summer.

While I know that summertime literacy is not as easy as this list suggests, I also know there are some intentional things we can do over the summer months to keep kids learning and growing. If we can support parents to see the everyday literacy opportunities in their world, it opens up new ways to connect and support their children.

What suggestions would you add to this list? What opportunities can you find when you look at the world as our literacy classroom? Please share your ideas in the comments.

With thanks,

Heather

References

Freire, P., & Macedo, D.P. (1987). Literacy: Reading the word and the world. South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey.

Snow, C. E., & Beals, D. E. (2006). Mealtime talk that supports literacy development. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development,2006(111), 51-66. doi:10.1002/cd.155

Weitzman, E., & Greenberg, J. (2010). ABC and beyond: building emergent literacy in early childhood settings. Toronto: The Hanen Centre.