Literacy Instruction: Experiences Instead of Stuff

Photo by Marius Ott on Unsplash

Our family tradition during Christmas, an idea we borrowed from somewhere else, is to have a “want”, “need”, “wear”, and “read” gift for each child. The idea is to limit the present buying and make sure we are focused on the reason for the season. However, in the past I found ways to sneak in a few extra gifts, thinking “What’s the harm?”.

This year we really stuck to it. What’s interesting is our kids shared that this was “the best Christmas ever”. That was a pleasant surprise. Maybe because we more thoughtful about what to give due to operating within our self-administered limits? Or, could the decrease in things have allowed for more time to experience the holiday break?

Research has come out that supports this idea. In an article for The Atlantic, James Hamblin shares the results of a study in which subjects reported much higher levels of happiness, excitement, pleasantness when purchasing an experience such as a vacation vs. something material.

Experiential purchases like trips, concerts, movies, et cetera, tend to trump material purchases because the utility of buying anything really starts accruing before you buy it.

It’s the anticipation of the experience as much as the experience itself that is beneficial.

A common thread throughout this topic seems to the social aspect of experience and the opportunity to connect with others before, during, and after that seems to make the event special. This gift of time is less concrete than an item, say a smartphone or a car, yet it remains on our mind in anticipation, in the present, and in our memories.

The point…when we prepare instruction for our students, are we planning for experiences? If not, what are our students doing? My regular walks in classrooms lead me to believe that we are frequently providing our students with memorable learning opportunities. Just this week, I walked into a primary classroom where students were reading aloud their own writing in which they described their favorite part of the holiday break. “They almost always describe experiences instead of presents,” the teacher noted. In a classroom on the upper level, students were learning how to write readers responses to a self-selected book. The experience was memorable for all as the teacher first modeled a response for a book she read. 

If you are still skeptical that we are at our best when we create learning experiences for students, think about a positive memory from your own school history and why you treasure it.

This Year

The new year always seems to offer a deal: if you resolve to make a change for the next twelve months, it will begin on January 1.

It’s nice to think about. A restart can be motivating and cause one to engage in some reflection, goal-setting, and a sense of renewal. “This year, I resolve to… (fill in the blank).”

But the new year is a bit of a false promise. January 1 is only tomorrow. Today is Monday. I’m not trying to dampen anyone’s mood; in fact, I encourage you to take an optimistically realistic stance about the new year. Maybe by taking a step back and appreciating the journey we’ve been on, we can develop resolutions that will keep the momentum going (instead of trying to recreate ourselves in a matter of 24 hours).

This can happen through reflection, goal-setting, and renewal. It is not without context. Last year matters. There were points for celebrations and areas for growth. Consider the following questions to respond to in your journal as you prepare for the upcoming year.

  1. What accomplishments am I most proud of so far? Go back as far as you want. For example, I wrote out milestones in my writing career starting in 2012. Big or small, all celebrations were included.
  2. Based on my past, where do I want to grow professionally and personally? I believe in keeping our goals limited to no more than two, aligned with the classic organizational leadership book Good to Great by Jim Collins. Professionally (as a writer), I want to self-host my sites in order to take advantage of more web tools. Personally, I want to improve my exercise/activity habits (and if I lose some weight in the process…:-).
  3. How might I achieve these goals? The word “might” is key here; it offers many possibilities vs. one pathway toward success. So…I am trying out the Amazon Affiliate program for this blog. I don’t like monetizing the site, but I haven’t found a better method that doesn’t interfere with the readers’ experience. Regarding my personal goal, I am going to develop a schedule of activities that keep me interested and wanting to come back. Neither may work. I have permission to try new approaches in those situations.

It bears repeating: the upcoming year is not without context. Last year had lots of experiences to reflect upon and to celebrate. Next year (yes, 2020) holds more opportunities. Instead of focusing on New Year’s Day, what about today?

Sharing Our Reading Lives

It can be challenging to sell some students on reading without being readers ourselves. So it is important as teachers and leaders to share our reading lives. As a school leader, I believe making my reading life more public is influential on students, staff, and even families.

With students, I am sometimes seen walking around with reading material in case of a “reading emergency”, a term coined by Donalyn Miller that describes those small moments without anything to do. Reading can fill that gap. Plus, the students and staff often notice.

With staff, I will often read aloud at staff meetings. Right now I am starting each meeting with a poem and related response from Teaching with Fire: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Teach. In my agenda, I include the entire poem from the last meeting so they can reread it and take it with them. I’ve also started sharing what I am reading in place of my weekly staff newsletter once in a great while.

For the list of books I shared with my staff today, sign up for my free newsletter. You will receive it tomorrow.

With all stakeholders who communicate with me via email, they might find my Goodreads email signature at the bottom. It is a widget that showcases what book I am reading right now. I know from seeing what other people are reading who use the same widget, it sparks my interest as a possible next book to read. Also, I feel like I know that person a little better, seeing what they are reading. What we read often reveals what we value, beyond the act of reading for its own sake.

How do you share your reading life with staff, students, and families? If you currently don’t, what approaches sound intriguing to you? Please share in the comments.

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.

Three Simple Ways to Celebrate Teachers

I was walking around school, thinking about a unique way to celebrate a recognition the staff received. Two specialists were talking in their office, so I asked them if they had any ideas. 

“Post-it notes,” said one.

“Really?” I asked.

“Yes, that would be nice,” commented the other specialist. “Teachers appreciate having those items around when a parent calls or they have to jot down a reminder.”

I thanked them and walked away while they then conversed about all the benefits of Post-it notes. I’m glad I asked because it was a good reminder for me that the act of recognizing staff members’ efforts and successes is more important than the actual item. Next are three simple ways to celebrate our teachers.

  • Personal notes – I have small stationary notepads made every year. Although my name is on them, they are not for me; I’ll write personal notes of thanks for all staff members and put it in their mailboxes. I try to keep the language specific to them and their actions. For example, I noticed a teacher recently using a students’ own writing during a guided reading lesson. Instead of writing, “Great job on that lesson!”, I wrote “I was impressed with how you connected students’ own writing to the reading lesson. Thank you for living out our beliefs in your instruction!” 
  • Recognition at the beginning of staff meetings – These monthly gatherings can feel like one more thing to do if we don’t start on a positive note. That is why a running agenda item, top of the list, is “Celebrations and Announcements”. I defer to teachers to share their own successes and encourage staff to recognize others. Recognition is both personal and professional. In this way, I am not inadvertently creating a climate of competition or positioning someone as “the principal’s pet”. Starting a staff meeting this way sets the tone for the rest of our time together.
  • Sharing out visual artifacts – I can personally recognize teachers in a more discrete way by sharing images and video depicting our staff in action. For example, I send out holiday cards to close family members with a picture of their loved ones working with kids. Also, I use Twitter to post photos I capture while walking through classrooms and in the hallways. In addition, my weekly staff newsletter depicts teachers and students learning together. Three years in my current position, teachers are great about sending me pictures via email for me to share out. 

How do you or your school leaders celebrate teachers in your building? Please share your ideas in the comments.

Beliefs and Practices: Embracing Failure and Supporting Each Other

It’s one thing to have a belief in an approach for teaching or leading. It’s another thing to apply those beliefs to our practices. The distance between beliefs and practices is a group’s willingness to embrace failure as an opportunity for collective learning. 

Today, I facilitated a professional learning session with teachers about reading comprehension. We started by celebrating our growth as a faculty. Important to stress was how our positive school report card was a product of our shared beliefs about literacy. We are on the same page.

But being on the same page philosophically does not necessarily translate to practice. Teachers are at various stages of expertise, often varied in different areas with each teacher. To relate, I shared a story about how I was recently reading aloud to 1st graders, and it didn’t dawn on me to stop and take a moment to explain challenging vocabulary until one student asked, “How can you sow (sew) seeds?”

My personal example of failure led to a short exercise. Teachers were provided a matrix. On the left side were our literacy beliefs we currently shared as a faculty, translated into teaching practices they represented. At the top were four columns. Each heading described a level of progression along a learning continuum. I won’t spend time or words trying to describe it: you can click here to download it or view it below.

Teachers were provided time to reflect on where they were on the learning progression spectrum with regard to each literacy belief in action. (Our beliefs derive from Regie Routman in Residence.) Then they shared with a trusted colleague which practices they felt effective with and with practices they believe they needed more support.

“Do you want to collect these?” asked a teacher. “No, I want you to keep this reflection tool for future use. Maybe you might want to explore a practice more deeply through instructional coaching or peer observation.” Next, I asked if any teachers were willing to share their reflections with the whole group. No one spoke up. To follow, I asked those who rated themselves as unconsciously effective (become second nature) in every practice to raise their hands. No one did, although I noticed many smiles on teachers’ faces.

Later in the professional learning session, teachers were having conversations within self-directed study groups about their selected professional resources. I sat in on one group. As teachers went around discussing their work, one teacher announced, “I have a failure to share.” She pulled up her phone and displayed a picture of a student’s novel filled with sticky notes. “He has a Post-it note for every page!” shared the teacher, which led to laughter and more honest conversations about their own challenges, along with ideas for how this teacher could use the Post-it note information to guide future instruction. 

If schools are ever going to grow collectively, we have to start being honest with ourselves about our practices. Teaching and leading in schools is incredibly complex work. People outside education rarely understand this so we cannot expect them to adequately address the issue. By being open and vulnerable about where we struggle, it gives others permission to divulge their own failures and challenges. These confessions are the seeds for true growth as professionals. It starts with leaders – not just principals – speaking the truth about our challenging, rewarding work.