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!

Does Intervention Have to be a Pull-Out?

During a very informative Twitter chat on Professional Learning Communities (#atplc) led by John Wink (@johnwink90), I tweeted the following:

“Common misconception: Intervention is a pull out. Research shows interventions are just as successful in classroom (R Allington). #atplc”

I got a few questions after sharing, such as “Can the regular classroom teacher also administer an intervention?” and “What specific research actually supports this?”.

I discovered this information in the excellent resource Schools That Work: Where All Children Read and Write by Richard Allington and Patricia Cunningham. The authors provide a lot of practical ideas for improving student learning. A common thread throughout this book is schools don’t necessarily need more staffing and funding to get better. Rather, they should relook at what they already have and do things a little differently. (I just became aware that there is a third edition of this resource.)

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Take intervention blocks. Many schools are now required to insert 30-45 minute periods at each grade level for intervention. This concept is proposed by Dr. Michael Rettig among others. With the daily school schedule already broken up for specials, lunch, recess and more, this model may serve to further fracture an already disconnected school day. As another option, Allington and Cunningham suggest a more flexible approach: Have special program teachers provide all their instructional support in the regular classroom rather than in a location down the hall (74).

The research to support this method has been around for almost twenty years (Gelzheiser et al., 1992; Sharpe et al., 1994). The two authors summarize these studies by stating that in-class instructional support, whether remediation or special education, produces achievement gains at least as large (my emphasis) as the gains from pull-out instruction without having a negative impact on the achievement of other students in the room (75).

It is not suggested that all intervention should be a push-in model; teachers have to understand their students’ needs. What works best for each individual may be different, including location. For example, a student might be easily distracted in the regular classroom, or they may be embarrassed to be observed by peers reading easier books. In both situations a pull-out model probably works best. However, a positive of intervening in the regular education classroom is the potential for more and better academic collaboration between the specialist and the classroom teacher. The specialist sees the learning targets students are working toward in the classroom and can better connect the intervention to what their student is learning during regular instruction.

Here are more reasons for using this approach to intervention:

– The stigmatism of being pulled out for a “special class” is removed.
– Transitions can be emotionally difficult for some students.
– Each teacher can observe the other teacher instruct, which can lead to some informal yet powerful peer coaching opportunities, encouraged by many educators such as Regie Routman (2012).
– Less instructional time is wasted going back and forth to and from the intervention room. Allington and Cunningham estimate that, at a minimum, 10 minutes are wasted each day for a student during transitions (124), including getting work put away and back out in the regular classroom. This equates to about one hour per week, or almost four instructional days for an entire school year. What teacher wouldn’t want four more days of instruction to work with their students without having to extend the school year?

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Is the Change Worth the Messiness?

As with any significant change, doing things differently to try to increase student achievement usually involves altering the way we teach. It is uncomfortable, messy and is usually met with resistance. The way I may plan to approach this in my school is finding one or even two people who are willing to try this out, even on a very small basis. If positive results are observed, word will spread and more staff will be interested in giving it a shot. At the same, I am keeping an open mind by remembering that no one process works for all schools, including my own.

References

Allington, R.L., & Cunningham, P.M. (2002). Schools That Work: Where All Children Read and Write (2 ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Gelzheiser, L. M., Meyers, J., & Pruzek, R.M. (1992). Effects of pull-in and pull-out approaches to reading instruction for special education and remedial reading students. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 3, 133-149.

Routman, R. (2012). Mapping a pathway to schoolwide highly effective teaching. Phi Delta Kappan, 93, 5, 56-61.

Sharpe, M.N., York, J.L., & Knight, J. (1994). Effects of inclusion on the academic performance of classrooms without disabilities: A preliminary study. Remedial and Special Education, 15, 281-287.

Intervention in the Regular Education Classroom

During a very informative Twitter chat on Professional Learning Communities (#atplc) led by John Wink (@johnwink90), I tweeted the following:

“Common misconception: Intervention is a pull out. Research shows interventions are just as successful in classroom (R Allington). #atplc”

I got a few questions after sharing, such as “Can the regular classroom teacher also administer an intervention?” and “What specific research actually supports this?”.

Fair questions. I discovered this information in the excellent resource Schools That Work: Where All Children Read and Write by Richard Allington and Patricia Cunningham. The authors provide a lot of practical for improving student learning. A common thread throughout this book is schools don’t necessarily need more staffing and funding to get better. Rather, they should relook at what they already have and do things a little differently.

20120901-134911.jpg

Take intervention blocks. Many schools are now required to insert 30-45 minute periods at each grade level for intervention. This concept is proposed by Dr. Michael Rettig and other scheduling experts. Unfortunately, with the daily school schedule is already broken out for specials, lunch, recess and more, this model may serve to further fracture an already disconnected school day. Instead, Allington and Cunningham suggest a more flexible approach: Have special program teachers provide all their instructional support in the regular classroom rather than in a location down the hall (74).

The research to support this method has been around for almost twenty years (Gelzheiser et al., 1992; Sharpe et al., 1994). The two authors summarize these studies by stating that in-class instructional support, whether remediation or special education, produces achievement gains at least as large (my emphasis) as the gains from pull-out instruction without having a negative impact on the achievement of other students in the room (75).

It is not suggested that all intervention should be a push-in model; teachers have to understand their students’s needs. What works best for each individual may be different, including location. For example, a student might be easily distractible in the regular classroom, or they may be embarrassed to be seen reading much easier books than others. In both situations a pull-out model probably works best. However, a positive of intervening in the regular education classroom is the potential for more and better academic collaboration between the specialist and the classroom teacher. The specialist sees the learning targets students are working toward in the classroom and can better connect the intervention to what their student is learning during regular instruction.

Here are some reasons for using this approach to intervention:

– The stigmatism of being pulled out for a “special class” is removed.
– Transitions can be emotionally difficult for some students.
– Each teacher can observe the other teacher instruct, which can lead to some informal yet powerful peer coaching opportunities.
– Less instructional time is wasted going back and forth to and from the intervention room. Allington and Cunningham estimate that, at a minimum, 10 minutes are wasted each day during transitions (124), including getting work put away and back out in the regular classroom. This equates to about one hour per week, or almost four instructional days for an entire school year. What teacher wouldn’t want four more days of instruction to work with their students without having to extend the school year?

20120901-135047.jpg

Is the Change Worth the Messiness?

As with any significant change, doing things differently to try to increase student achievement usually involves altering the way we teach. It is uncomfortable, messy and is usually met with resistance. The way I may plan to approach this in my school is finding one or even two people who are willing to try this out, even on a very small basis. If positive results are observed, word will spread and more staff will be interested in giving it a shot. At the same, I am keeping an open mind by remembering that no one process works for all schools, including my own.

References

Allington, R.L., & Cunningham, P.M. (2002). Schools That Work: Where All Children Read and Write (2 ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Gelzheiser, L. M., Meyers, J., & Pruzek, R.M. (1992). Effects of pull-in and pull-out approaches to reading instruction for special education and remedial reading students. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 3, 133-149.

Sharpe, M.N., York, J.L., & Knight, J. (1994). Effects of inclusion on the academic performance of classrooms without disabilities: A preliminary study. Remedial and Special Education, 15, 281-287.

My Teachers’ Checklist for the Beginning of the Year

I am sharing this checklist with my staff on Wednesday, six days before students arrive.

Within First Day

Give students a tour of the school
Know all their names and get to know each other
Explain school expectations and start to build classroom rules
Provide a classroom environment conducive for learning and success
– Physical (light, temperature, space, noise)
– Adequate Planning
– Structure
– Scheduling

By Friday of First Week

Build a community of learners (RC, Tribes, other team builders)
Teach Cool Tools, fire and tornado drill, Code Red and Yellow
Ensure success for all students on first academic activity
Set academic goals with students and/or families
Identify students’ strengths, interests, needs (Maslow)
Start content area instruction with pre-assessments

Before End of First Month

Post learning targets as a grade level
Structure classroom so kids are reading and writing 50% of the time
Differentiate instruction as needed so all students can be successful
Observe and practice collaboration skills (whole staff)
Communicate positively, two-way with your families
Plan to meet regularly on building teams (grade level and vertical)
Start developing classroom look-fors for literacy and numeracy
Build relationships with students, knowing their motivations and triggers
Develop a Plan B when students don’t respond to regular instruction
Read “Six Elements for Every Child” by Richard Allington

Questions I Have

What is missing?

What have I left out that should be missing?

Are my expectations too high?

Are my expectations not high enough?

What should be added?

What should be subtracted?

The Garden as a Classroom

This summer was the first time I involved my two kids in one of my favorite pastimes: gardening. Knowing how their personalities and interests vary, I decided to help my son raise a vegetable garden and my daughter to arrange a pot of annuals.

My son really wanted to grow a pizza garden. After we cleared up some misconceptions about where crust and pepperoni came from, we decided that our pizza garden would have peppers, three different types of tomatoes, some lettuce and onions (the last vegetable being my addition against his better judgment). To ensure everything grew well, we used a unique container and placed it by the front door.

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My daughter did not need as much of her dad’s guidance as she planned her arrangement. She took what she needed from the flats of flowers I had laying around and went right to work. In no time, a very nice combination of dusty miller, impatiens and cosmos was created. Where did she learn how to do that? My guess is she had watched me use the same steps planting other beds, and either followed my lead or learned what not to do. My daughter also was integral in keeping the other backyard plantings watered during a very dry July.

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I also found some time this summer to garden for myself. The best results I got were from my flower bed in the front of the house. The nasturtium (orange flowers, circular leaves) self-sowed from last year, coming back this spring to climb the wall once more. When deciding what to plant with it, a local expert at a greenhouse informed me that nasturtium do not like to grow in healthy soil. In fact, the poorer the better. She directed me to some companion plants such as verbena and marigolds, which prefer similar conditions. This saved me a lot of work in tilling the bed and adding fertilizers.

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Having over an acre to work with where I live, there is always room for new ideas and innovation. Opportunity knocked when my wife decided that the old raspberry patch had to go. After we cleared out the plot, I decided to prepare the soil for next year (vegetables are going there and would require better soil). To remediate the barren earth, I planted clover seed. This ground cover would serve as “green manure”, by putting nitrogen back into the soil as it grew. In the spring, I’ll till the clover into the bed.

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The Garden as a Classroom

The way we approach our favorite hobby and share it with others seems similar to how effective teachers help their students learn. For example, we understand that students come with different backgrounds, interests and abilities. Just as I tailored the gardening activity for my kids, teachers also find different ways for everyone to be successful. The goal we had didn’t change (to plant and care for a garden, and to find joy in the activity). The same is true for the students in our classrooms. The learning target is visible and attainable, and we differentiate our instruction so everyone can attain mastery. However, we don’t alter our instruction so much that we lose sight of what we set out to accomplish. And like a hobby, learning should be an engaging experience, something our students will enjoy so much that they will pursue it independently.

As the growing season starts to wind down, my family and I are enjoying our harvest of fresh veggies and blooms. My kids know they were successful by the literal fruits of their labor. Teachers also consider more authentic ways to check for understanding beyond the paper and pencil test. This concept applies to formative assessment as well as summative assessment. During the summer, if the plants would wilt, we would water them. I didn’t probe the soil to measure the water content to determine how much moisture is needed. We could tell we needed to water because we saw the immediate symptoms of something wrong. Teachers also know when their students need support, and they respond strategically even if a diagnostic assessment isn’t readily available or timely.

Summers are like mini-sabbaticals for me, getting out of school to take time for myself, to be with family and friends, to think, to recharge. Time spent on other interests also helps me gain perspective and make connections between the classroom and other endeavors. A good example is my flower bed. I could have said, “The soil is poor, so I need to fix it and grow the plants I want”. However, this was the path of most resistance. Instead, I took what nature gave me and found success with the hand I was dealt. I connect this concept to some of the kids who come to our schools, those whose soil is also poor (i.e. lack of background knowledge, basic needs not met, etc.). We shouldn’t try to “fix them”, and then throw in the towel with sympathy and excuses when they don’t respond to our mismatched instruction. Teachers take them from where they are at and constantly try to move them forward, doing whatever it takes to ensure learning success.

Educators continuously reflect on current practices and search for better ways to teach to keep their skills sharp. Just as I am trying out green manure, I consider new ideas learned from others that might replace my present day strategies for teaching. One example that has been around for a while is integrated units of study. Taking different subject areas and creating concept-based curriculum units that ties it all together is more authentic and puts the learning in a real-world context. Plus, it seems like a more efficient way to address the Common Core State Standards.

Back in the spring I encouraged my staff to read a few books, take time for themselves and think about ways to better their instruction. As a leader, I need to follow my own advice and lead by example.