The Writing Principal: Tips for Administrators Considering Blogging

Before You Start Blogging…

  • Read other administrators’ posts. Go to badgeradmins.wikispaces.com for a comprehensive list of recommended blogs. Emulate their style and structure when developing your own voice.
  • Determine your purpose for blogging. Do you want to communicate with families? Reflect on your own practices? Connect with colleagues? All of the above?
  • Think about what you want to say and/or jot down your ideas on paper first. Doing this prior to writing a post helps organize your thinking.
  • Connect with educators on Twitter to build your professional learning network. You will want feedback on your posts. This social media tool is a great way to share your writing with others.
  • Write, type, then blog. At least initially, write your post on a word processor and copy/paste your writing into your blog.
  • Choose your tool. Determine which blog service you want to use. I prefer WordPress. Google Blogger is also popular.

When You Start Blogging….

  • Focus on being a writer first, the writing second. This is a great tip from Regie Routman. What it means to me is, without being engaging, thoughtful and to the point, it doesn’t matter what I am saying because no one will want read it. The messenger is just as important as the message.
  • Get your ideas down. Worry about conventions later.
  • Save it before you publish. I reread and revise my posts many times before publishing. Barry Lane’s five steps for the writing process are revision, revision, revision, revision and revision.
  • Share your post with someone you trust before sharing it with the world.
  • You can be critical, but always be kind.
  • Add lots of tags. These are the breadcrumbs that allow others online to find your great ideas.
  • When you have ideas, get them down. Save your thoughts as a draft and come back to it later when ready. I have a draft I have been sitting on since August. It won’t be ready to publish until May.
  • Put yourself in your writing. People respond to humor, questions you have and anecdotes.
  • Share your posts out on Twitter and other social media tools.

After You Have Started Blogging…

  • Thank those who retweet and recommend your posts to others. Reciprocate by reading and sharing their posts.
  • Check out your statistics and allow comments. This is precious feedback to help you get better at writing.
  • Don’t change older posts. I have come around on this. I used to think that as my thoughts changed after unlearning and relearning, I should also change what I have written. However, unless there are glaring grammatical errors or a poor choice of words, it is important to leave your previous thinking as is. Add a comment to your post to clear up confusion or address questions. There is nothing wrong with saying, “This is what I thought then, and now I think…”.
  • Share your posts with your staff, colleagues and boss. Can you think of a better way of modeling writing and sharing yourself as a learner?
  • Write posts in front of students. It can be as simple as writing a review after sharing a favorite book with them. Kelly Gallagher (@KellyGtoGo) said it best: “You are the best writer in your classroom.”
  • Have fun. I hope I have not made blogging sound like you are writing a term paper. As Alan Levine states in his terrific post The Question Should Be: Why Are You NOT Blogging: “Blogging should be conversational. It is your own personal thinking, shared out loud”. Thank you to Jessica Johnson (@PrincipalJ) for sharing this.

I would go into the rationale for why you should blog, except that Superintendent Christopher Smeaton already did this so well in his post Why Blog?. I know there are many more ideas and tips out there. Please share in the comments.

Getting Started with ePortfolios

In a recent post, I laid out my school’s long-term plan for implementing ePortfolios.

Portfolios in my district have been more of a chore for teachers, instead of a powerful tool for reflection and to show growth over time. Even when I was teaching, it seemed like a hoop we had to jump through. There are a variety of reasons for this: Lack of professional development for staff, no easy way to periodically share student work with parents, and (seemingly) never enough time during the school day. Our hope is that technology and time to collaborate will help change this for the better.

The screenshot below is a draft of my agenda for my staff’s first technology training night. What is not listed in the agenda is the research, rationale and process to support student portfolios; it will be covered prior to using the technology.

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It is important that I allocate enough time during the training for staff to practice using the technology with colleagues. The goal is that they leave our session with not only the what and the how but also the why we use ePortfolios. We will continue learning together during future technology nights this school year.

Have I covered everything? Are my instructions clear enough that all staff will be successful? If you have any suggestions or feedback for us, please share with a comment.

Flipped PD

I recently flipped my staff professional development. This change was born out of necessity more than anything.

The concept of flipping instruction has been used a lot in education, for both students and staff. My elementary school decided to try it because we didn’t have enough time during the day to truly learn with one another. In the past, we spend the majority of our limited time together watching a video or reading an article with little time to discuss what we saw or read. At the same time, it was recommended at a summer leadership institute that teachers spend 20-100 hours per year reflecting on their own practices, collaborating with colleagues and discovering better ways to help students learn. Something had to give.

Here is how it worked for us.

Before Our Professional Development Day

In late August, I asked my teachers to view online videos about teaching poetry from the Reading-Writing Connection. I also handed out the ASCD article Every Child, Every Day by Richard Allington. The expectation was they would complete these activities by our October 12 PD day.

As the date drew closer, I shared a Google Doc to help guide teachers’ thinking as they watched the videos. Creating a two-column document, I wrote higher level thinking questions on the left side related to the videos, such as, “What does the concept ‘Whole-Part-Whole’ mean to you as a teacher?” On the right side staff wrote their responses to these questions.

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We also took stock of where our beliefs were as a staff. Instead of sitting down, filling out the surveys together and then tabulating them by hand, we used Google Forms and submitted our beliefs before we ever got together.

During Our Professional Development Day

Because much of the sitting and getting was done when it was convenient for each teacher, the majority of our time was spent talking with colleagues and sharing best practices. Not to say there wasn’t structure; there was. For example, we used the Last Word Protocol instructional strategy to facilitate discussion about Allington’s article. It gave myself and the other teacher facilitators an opportunity to model some effective instructional practices, an area that tends to take a backseat when curriculum and assessment directives are handed down to buildings.

Each session was connected to our building goals, which are connected to our district and state initiatives. To keep things fresh, we made sure that no session lasted longer than 45 minutes. I wouldn’t expect kids to sit through an hour and a half presentation, and I can’t imagine my teachers would want to do the same.

After Our Professional Development Day

With the help of technology, our learning from today has not ended. Many of the documents, resources and learning summaries were uploaded to our faculty Google Site for later perusal. This web tool has quickly become a hub for all of our important information.

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Our professional development day transitioned from these activities to self-directed, focused collaboration. I spent my afternoon working with teacher teams and addressing technology questions.

When I tweeted out that I flipped my school’s PD, I got multiple replies asking how it went. Thinking back to one teacher’s comment (“I had so much fun today!”), I think things went very well.

Using iOS Apps to Develop and Sustain ePortfolios

“First, look at your current literacy initiatives and set goals for how to improve them.”
– From Pathways to the Common Core by Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth and Christopher Lehman

I am fortunate to have inherited an elementary school last year that had a reading-writing initiative already started. This year we are taking the next step and setting new goals connected with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). To help us in this process, we have started using professional learning communities. One of our collaborative groups that meet once a month are vertical teams focused on writing. A teacher from each grade level (K-5) plus specialists will come together, bringing student writing samples and rubrics aligned with CCSS. They will use this information to assess our learners, analyze data and make instructional decisions. Additionally, staff are using iPads to create two-way communication with parents, by housing student writing in Dropbox as an ePortfolio.

How it will (hopefully) work: Each student will have their own file in Dropbox. This file can be shared with his or her parent(s) and other teachers by using their email addresses. Families and staff can then view the contents of that student’s file, make comments and even add more samples of that student’s writing. As the year progresses, teachers will periodically visit each student’s writing ePortfolio, both individually and with the student. As a team, they will decide what writing pieces best displays their learning as well as the student’s areas for more growth. When the school year is done, next year’s teacher can move their new students’ writing to their Dropbox files from the previous year’s teacher’s files.

It is both exciting and scary when I think about the shift we are making to improve this part of our assessment system. Although portfolios have never been this accessible by parents and multiple staff members, the concept itself is nothing new. Richard Allington devotes a whole section of his book Schools That Work to this tool for measuring student learning. He describes multiple types of portfolios to use for different purposes. The type we are using are called progress portfolios. They show growth over time by housing pre- and post-assessments, periodic student surveys, interviews and reflections on goals, quick writes, several drafts of the same writing project, running records and retells.

At this point you may be thinking, “Get to the apps already.” But without a framework for using these technology tools, we would most likely end up with a fractured, inconsistent system for collecting and assessing student work. One process I like, also promoted by Allington, is by Allan DeFina in his resource Portfolio Assessment: Getting Started. Here are the steps he recommends for implementing portfolios in schools, followed by my school’s actions in parenthesis:

1. Explain and educate (both teachers and parents).

2. Decide how to and when (with mobile technology, collect one piece of writing per student per month).

3. Demonstrate and decide (model using ePortfolios at staff meetings and parent nights; decide as a staff what standard(s) and genres we will focus on).

4. Establish the role of portfolios in grading (student information is being stored in a third party application, so grades will not be assigned).

5. Rethink the classroom environment (in the cloud; accessible from any Internet-enabled device).

6. Organize (block out time during the school day for students to conference with their teacher on their portfolio’s content).

I can remember teaching not that long ago. Portfolio conferences would be coming up and, later than we should have, the students and I would throw together some semblance of a collection of their work. I generally refer to this dance as the “portfolio shuffle”. By conference time, the portfolios looked great, but they were just for show. Very little reflection and subsequent learning occured during the process. I know, I know, I should have been better about taking time during the year to have students reflect on their writing periodically. But I got busy. And I wasn’t working in a professional learning community, which would have helped me stay more on top of this assessment process.

With that, the goal of this initiative, with regular collaboration, is to develop and sustain online student portfolios in order to see growth in student learning over time while it is happening. Today’s parents want to be more involved in their child’s development at school. It is well explained in Why Social Media Matters by Kitty Porterfield and Meg Carnes. Parents now have multiple devices in which they can access this information. The authors also point to research that shows prior education, background and income level of parents are not as prohibitive for families to connect online as one might assume. All the proof you need can be found in the parent waiting area in your school, just before dismissal. This change to ePortfolios is timely with emerging technologies.

The apps pictured below are the tools we believe will help us achieve our goal.

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The Hub
[huhb] a center around which other things revolve or from which they radiate

Dropbox

You may already be familiar with Dropbox, so I’ll save the description. But why Dropbox and not Evernote or Google Drive to house student writing? Several reasons, specific to our building:

1. Dropbox is the easiest application for both teachers and parents to use. The files in Dropbox more resemble what the teachers see in their shared drive through a district server. The leap from their computer files to Dropbox is a shorter one.
2. Dropbox can accept all types of files without altering their original format. Evernote and Google Drive can also do this, but there is some maneuvering involved to be sure they stay the same.
3. All three allow the teacher to share files with parents. Unfortunately Google doesn’t play well with Apple. Evernote is much better, but requires a lot more training to understand what a “tag”, “notebook” or “stack” is.
4. Both Google and Evernote have a “for Dummies” book written for it. Universal truth: If you have one of these books written about your product, it is not ridiculously easy to use. Dropbox is. The initial goal here is to better communicate student learning, not necessarily to learn a new technology.
5. Each student can have a file assigned to them in Dropbox, along with several files within it for the different months, again to show growth over time.

Easy Portfolio

Developed by physical education teacher Jarrod Robinson, this app provides an easy-to-use interface to document student work. This is not limited to photos or documents only. Links to blog posts, audio of a student retell and video of a group presentation can all be recorded and uploaded to Dropbox. There is a companion app by the same company called Easy Assessment. It allows the user to create rubrics and score students on their work. Because we are just starting ePortfolios, we won’t be using that tool at this time.

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Essential Apps
[uh-sen-shuhl] absolutely necessary; indispensable

Camera and Photos

These native apps are used to snap a picture or take a video of anything and save it on the device. Dropbox connects with your camera roll in Photos and can upload this information. That means a teacher can take a picture of every student’s writing and then save it in Dropbox for later reading. No more heavy bags filled with stacks of papers to take home. As well, students can now either take their writing home if completed right away, or post it on a community bulletin board. The teacher no longer has to run a copy of each piece so he or she can grade one and post the other.

Snapseed and Skitch

Whenever a teacher has a few minutes to score some papers, these apps allow the user to adjust the pictures (Snapseed) and write feedback plus a time stamp right on the photo of the student’s work (Skitch). Save it back to the camera roll and upload it again to Dropbox.

Pages

Now that iOS 6 has arrived, Pages allows the user to upload documents to Dropbox. This update sealed the deal for me. Pages is so versatile in creating documents such as reports and newsletters. So how would a teacher use this to document student writing? At the primary level, the teacher could do some shared writing and save it in each student’s file. It can then serve as a strong example of what that type of writing should look like. For older students, they could email a Word document to their teacher, who can then open it in Pages and subsequently upload it to Dropbox.

iMovie

Speaking and listening are also a part of the CCSS. Even though Easy Portfolio has the capacity to take video of student conversations, iMovie has a lot more functionality to develop presentations. Both photos and video can be combined with text and audio to create movies that can be shared not only in Dropbox but also through YouTube and Vimeo. This may be the only app needed to assess students in their presentation skills.

Other Valuable Apps

Dragon

This dictation tool uses speech-to-text technology that allows students to say what they want to write and literally put it into words. Then a student can copy and paste their now written words into a word processing app such as Pages for revision and storage. Especially helpful for younger kids and students with disabilities.

iCardSort

You can put students’ names and notes on separate cards and sort them based on specific academic skills you are working on with them. Guided reading and math groups can easily be organized and monitored. Although a set cannot be uploaded to Dropbox, a teacher could easily take a snapshot of the current group make-up (home + power) and save that photo in a separate file.

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Evernote, Penultimate and Notability

Evernote is widely used by other schools and districts for student ePortfolios. It seems to be utilized more often at the secondary level, although I know many elementary reading teachers use it successfully to take notes when conferring with a student. Penultimate is the handwriting app that works in concert with Evernote. Notability is another excellent tool for recording and documenting important student information. It is an app that talks with Dropbox. I recently wrote a post about all three applications for assessment.

Book Creator and iBooks

Book Creator allows students to do just as it states: Create their own books. Pictures, text and narration can all be incorporated to write original eBooks. It can be saved into iBooks with the sound still a part of the book, and stored in Dropbox as a PDF. Even if your classroom has only one device, a teacher could write a shared story or nonfiction text to show students the writing process.

Keynote and GoodReader

The CCSS asks students to analyze and respond to multiple texts from different sources and genre. Teachers can model this with Keynote and GoodReader. With Keynote, a teacher could create a slideshow displaying multiple examples of original student work on a singular topic. He or she could then think aloud the process of comparing and contrasting the writings and generating common themes and understandings found. This could be a very effective strategy at the primary level. For older students, GoodReader could serve the same purpose. Original documents related to the content areas such as history can be marked up, highlighted and annotated. GoodReader can also connect with Dropbox for uploading purposes.

Skype (or Google+)

With the video conferencing capabilities of these applications, authors, scientists and other professionals can visit classrooms at a fraction of the cost of an in-person visit, many times free. If the chat is displayed on the interactive whiteboard (IWB) using mirroring technology such as Reflection, the discussion could be recorded and saved for later viewing and research.

Calendar and Reminders

I throw these tools in because it is important to schedule assessment during the instructional day. Calendar can be synced with your online schedule, and Reminders serves as a “to-do” list with built-in alerts.

Final, and Initial Thoughts

In Leading School Change, Todd Whitaker wisely states, “I have spoken about leading change. However, I hope your efforts really involve leading improvement.” As the principal, I will continuously point out that we are learning together throughout the process. We have built in time to showcase our successes and celebrate small victories along the way. As well, we are not changing just because we want to present ourselves as 21st century educators. The concept of ePortfolios has the potential to allow us to better connect with our families, to more closely align our instruction and assessments, and to develop highly collaborative teams to improve student learning. The possibilities that this technology provides makes it an exciting time to be an educator.

References

Allington, Richard and Patricia Cunningham. 2002. Schools That Work: Where All Children Read and Write. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Calkins, Lucy, Mary Ehrenworth, and Christopher Lehman. 2012. Pathways to the Common Core. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

DeFina, Allan. 1992. Portfolio Assessment: Getting Started. New York: Scholastic.

Porterfield, Kitty and Meg Carnes. 2012. Why Social Media Matters. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Whitaker, Todd. 2010. Leading School Change. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.

The Power of a PLN

If anyone you know out there questions the usefulness of Twitter, or may not appreciate how powerful it is to have a Professional Learning Network (PLN), please share this post with them.

Since I joined Twitter last October, I have found my learning to grow exponentially. I credit Curt Rees (@WiscPrincipal), Jessica Johnson (@PrincipalJ) and Todd Whitaker (@ToddWhitaker) for getting me started when they spoke at my state’s administrator conference. With each new person I follow, I have another source of fresh ideas to use in my school and with my staff. And with each new follower, my network of support has increased at least ten fold. Literally. If they retweet a post I have written or a question I have to their followers, my group of potential colleagues has increased beyond what I can measure. Exponential, right?

Case in point: This morning I wrote a rough schedule for a course I would like to teach this school year for district staff, titled “The Connected Educator”. Wanting some feedback on my progress, I sent out this tweet and attached screenshot:

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Here is a sampling of the response I received, my replies back not included:

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Is there any other tool or group out there that can provide this kind of quick and reliable learning support? If so, I haven’t found it yet.

Now that I have consulted members of my PLN, I have drastically changed how I am going to facilitate this course. For example, instead of teaching a list of technology tools, I am going to share with participants how and why I use these tools to create a better learning environment for students. In addition, Kathy Cassidy (@kathycassidy) astutely pointed out that the title of my proposed course is also the title of a book written by Sheryl NussbaumBeach (@snbeach). I now have a possible text to reference in my instruction and learning.

For the person that still wonders what all the fuss is about regarding Twitter and PLNs, this example should serve as a notice, that every day they neglect to use these powerful tools for learning is a day they may have failed to grow as much as they could.

Top Ten Tips for Reading Aloud

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1. Schedule It

Reading aloud shouldn’t be left to that few minutes before lunch. Richard Allington, in his ASCD article Every Child, Every Day, states that students should listen to a fluent adult read aloud every day; it is an essential element of reading instruction in classrooms. As a principal, I try to model this practice. My teachers schedule me in to read aloud in their classrooms for half hour time slots, anywhere from twice a week to once every two weeks.

2. Be Intentional

Classroom time is important, so my visits should be connected to learning. What helps are the learning targets posted on the board. As I visit classrooms, I can see the concepts being taught. This information gives me ideas for books that would work well with what students are studying. For example, poetry is a focus at 4th grade, which led me to read aloud Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein.

3. Start Small

The first book I share usually rhymes, has a beat, is a captivating story and/or is short. These are the “can’t miss” stories, books that are guaranteed to capture the students’ attention. Titles that come to mind include Pete the Cat by Eric Litwin and Neville by Norman Juster at the primary level, and Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco and The Wretched Stone by Chris Van Allsburg for intermediate grades.

4. Assess Your Listeners

Teachers know that every class they inherit is different from year to year. To get a read on my new listeners, I pay attention to how the students respond as I read aloud to them. I use formative assessments to alter my instruction for learning. A great resource about formative assessment is Checking for Understanding by Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey. Strategies they recommend include noticing nonverbal cues like puzzled looks and boredom, as well as having student “Think-Pair-Share” during the story.

5. Plan Ahead

Classroom success comes to those prepared. For me, I don’t read aloud a book to a classroom until I have read it myself. This is the best way to determine if it will make a good read aloud. Did I have a hard time putting the book down? Would I recommend it to others after I finished it? Was it character or story driven? If I don’t have time to do this, I often refer to The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. It has great recommendations for read alouds as well as research and tips for supporting this practice. I have also nixed books I had high hopes for, but realized it is more of a read alone story upon review.

6. Build Stamina

Unfortunately, some kids enter school without a lot of stories read aloud to them. This is evident when we assess our five year olds and too many cannot even recognize sounds and letters. To expect kindergarteners to sit through twenty minutes of James and the Giant Peach on the first day of school may be unrealistic. Once I have Started Small (#3), I recognize their growing abilities to listen to stories with specific comments such as, “Wow, you sat for ten whole minutes while I read you A Day’s Work by Eve Bunting!”. For more on building reading stamina, check out The Daily Five by Gail Boushey and Joan Moser.

7. Pick the Right Text

Just because a book is an award winner doesn’t mean it will make a good read aloud. In fact, many of my favorites don’t have this recognition. I get recommendations from colleagues, local bookstores and on Goodreads. These experts help me find stories that have short chapters, limited dialogue, interesting plots, and characters kids can relate to. I also read aloud nonfiction and informational text. Two of my favorites are Meet the Dogs of Bedlam Farm by Jon Katz and Animals Nobody Loves by Seymour Simon.

8. Set Up the Story

In Strategies That Work, Stephanie Harvey describes the process of introducing the think-aloud (a guided version of reading aloud). The idea is to get students thinking during the story, not just at the end. Reading a book cold doesn’t activate students prior knowledge, which is necessary for getting the most out of it. I start a story by first reading the title and the author’s name. Next, I might ask an open ended question related to the book or do a picture walk and make predictions. This modeling creates a bridge to developing independent readers.

9. End as You Began

As I read, I give opportunities for students to predict what may happen next, ponder a question, or make an interesting observation. Once completed, we go back to how we started. For example, when I have read aloud The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles, the students and I first discussed what “courage” means. I collected their responses and started the story. As I read, I asked students to identify examples of courage and marked that text with a Post-it note. At the end, we took our notes and revised our previous definition as a whole group. Other fun ways to wrap things up are writing a book review and doing book talks on stories in the same genre or by the same author.

10. Stick With It

No doubt there are days when I feel like I don’t have time to get into classrooms and read. That is why scheduling it in my calendar is so critical. I also remind myself of all the benefits: Kids are introduced to authors and stories that might not otherwise have been exposed to, both students and teachers see how much I value literature, I am able to stay current on what kids are reading, and I connect with students in a positive and fun way. I cannot think of many things I do as a principal that are more important than sharing myself as a reader in school.

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Engagement as a Reading Intervention

What would happen if, rather than focusing on teaching reading strategies, we focused instead on getting students engaged?

Peter Johnston provides this lead to one of the best blog posts I have read. Titled Reducing Instruction, Increasing Engagement, he describes a group of 8th graders who were given edgy fiction to read and discuss with peers during school. It seemed more like a book club instead of 7th Hour English. At the end of the year, assessments revealed that these students, with only one to three copies of each text, scored very well on achievement tests. At least as important, student behaviors decreased, trust among peers increased, and they reported being more happy.

Shortly after discovering this post on Stenhouse’s blog, I found out that my school could not host our computer-based after school reading intervention program for 4th and 5th grade students this year. Instead of canceling it all together, we are attempting to simulate the same set up that Peter describes. We are going to purchase limited copies of age-appropriate, high interest books. The only expectation we have for students is they show up, they read, and they share what they are reading with their peers in a way they prefer most. No tests. No book reports. Just lots of reading and enjoyment.

The adults must also think this looks like fun, as several staff members have already signed up to facilitate this reading intervention/book club. My reading resource teacher and ELL aide are waiting patiently for their purchase order to arrive so they can go to our favorite book store, Book Look in Plover, WI, to pick out the reading materials.

My question to you is, what books would you recommend for 4th and 5th grade reluctant readers?

Please share your suggestions in the comments. My interventionists look forward to your recommendations!