Left To Their Own Devices

(To note: When I initially came up with the title for this post, I thought I was pretty clever. Then I did a Google search and found out that several other people had already used it to headline their own posts and articles. Original or not, I’m keeping it.)

A year ago I wrote and received a grant to purchase two iPad 2s. I wanted to test this technology in school and find out if they would help affect student achievement. My hypothesis: Handing iPads to students would increase engagement and improve learning.

Round 1 – Fall 2011

I was right on one of the two predicted outcomes. The two students I initially worked with in the fall were enamored with this new technology. However, the device alone did necessarily increase their achievement. Even though I preinstalled engaging academic apps such as WordWit, Solar Walk and Rocket Math on the devices, they regularly bypassed these in favor of searching for funny videos on YouTube and playing Angry Birds.

I tried not to jump in and direct their learning initially. These kids are digital natives, I thought. Who am I to interfere with their natural ability to create digital content independently? Pretty soon they will be teaching me how to use these technology tools.

But that didn’t happen. They just wanted to keep playing Angry Birds (After a while I deleted this app from the iPads). I am not against these games, but I failed to see the relevance to school. To try and guide their learning a little bit more, I found out what they were interested in and then developed some potentially engaging reading and writing projects. When I introduced the activities, I could almost see the excitement draining from their faces. Not to say they weren’t good about doing what I asked of them, which included writing a comparative essay about a topic of their choice and recording a book talk to share with the peers. At the same time, we all knew who was in charge of their learning, and it wasn’t them.

Round 2 – Spring 2012

I submitted my mid-year report to the grant providers with some thoughtful reflections and a renewed sense of purpose. I now believed that technology alone would not necessarily lead to high levels of learning itself without some form of framework in which to learn. I decided to recruit two new students, both 5th graders again, with the purpose of using Web 2.0 tools on the iPad to increase reading engagement. I was now allowing the curriculum and student interests to drive the learning instead of the technology.

I observed that when I initially kept the students limited to a few apps in the beginning, they tended to dig a little deeper into the components of each tool. For example, they used Edmodo to post interesting comments about what they were reading, respond to an interesting part of their story, ask each other questions, or just say “Hi!”. It helped that I participated with them, sharing my own thoughts about books I enjoyed. From there the students took off. Other apps were discovered and explored responsibly. They posted a profile picture on their own with little instruction.  Both were able to submit assignments with only the briefest of explanation. They even participated from home. Progress!

Round 3 – The Next Steps

Today I had a conversation with two administrative colleagues about implementing iPads into every classroom, possibly as soon as February. Teachers have received similar training in using these devices. We are being strategic about phasing this technology into our instruction. Our purpose is still to enhance learning and increase student engagement, but within the context of effective pedagogy.

We arrived at this point by trial and error. There isn’t a lot out there in terms of research and evidence to support using these tools, other than our own experiences and professional judgments. I am happy that we aren’t just throwing technology at students without lots of consideration about why we are implementing it in the first place. The only mistake I think we could make now is not continuing to pursue these innovative and exciting methods for learning. Will my thinking change even more as I continue to work with teachers and students on leveraging this technology? I hope so. I still have a lot to learn.


Beliefs vs. Values

My school is at a point of transition. We are nearing the completion of a three year professional development plan involving the Reading-Writing Connection, developed by Regie Routman. We have seen evidence that the instructional framework we have incorporated into our classrooms, the Optimal Learning Model, has helped increase student achievement. Our core literacy beliefs grew from only two the first year to eight this year. The staff participated in many different professional development activities over the three year period to arrive at this point.

So where do we go from here? Are beliefs alone enough? These were a few thoughts that have recently come to mind.  As a leader, I think it is okay to sometimes have more questions than answers. To seek more information and consider the next steps, I started learning more about professional learning communities. Over the summer, I read Professional Learning Communities at Work by Rick DuFour and Robert Eaker. This is a great place to start the journey toward developing collaborative teams with a singular focus of student learning.

However, one section of the resource touched on beliefs in a way that was different than what I had previously understood. The authors stated that beliefs alone were not enough. You needed to have values. The authors define values as core statements that clarify how a shared vision, or a list of beliefs, becomes a reality. It was made clear that as leaders, we need to focus on behaviors, not beliefs.

Okay, this is a problem, I initially thought. How can two highly respected educators such as Regie Routman and Rick DuFour be on opposite ends of the spectrum on this issue? Confused, I went back into the resources my school team received at a literacy and leadership institute.

I found my answer. Judy Wallis, a literacy consultant, explained that beliefs and values (also called “practices”) are part of a continuum for a school in change. She explained that schools can develop their shared beliefs first. These are the principles that, as Judy put it, you would be willing to fall on your sword for. An example she shared was, “We believe students should have wide access to books they can and want to read.” Would any educator worth their salt disagree with this belief?

Once beliefs are established, schools can then consider their practices, or values. Judy defined these practices as beliefs in action. Reading the previous paragraph, a value for the example belief could be, “A sufficient amount of time will be allocated for independent reading every day”.  This makes sense to me now. You cannot have one without the other. A common language is required if we are expected to implement common practices. This is especially needed in today’s educational world where the initiative du jour can cause a school to lose their focus on best practices and student learning.

Does your school have a set of common beliefs and practices that you all adhere to? How did you get to this point? Please share in the comments, as my school is very much still on the pathway toward becoming a community of learners. If your building has not started discussing your shared beliefs and you are not sure where to begin, I highly recommend Richard Allington’s Educational Leadership article Every Child, Every Day. My staff read it and discussed it briefly, but we only touched on a few aspects. I believe a school could take this one article and spend an entire year discussing the six elements and how they fit with current literacy practices.

A Thousand Stories

Children need to hear a thousand stories before they can begin to learn to read. – Mem Fox

This is just one of many quotes from Mem Fox’s webpage titled Ten Read-Aloud Commandments. She is the author of several children’s books as well as Reading Magic, a guide for teachers and parents about reading aloud to kids. Mem Fox has several great resources on her website, include audio clips of some of her stories as well as resources for both parents and teachers. It is definitely worth a visit.

This quote also reminds me of when my son came into this world six years ago. Still teaching at the time, I was very aware of how important it was to read aloud to kids, regardless of age. I immediately planned to apply this same philosophy with my new family.

One of the first books I purchased for my son was Your Favorite Seuss: A Baker’s Dozen By The One and Only Dr. Seuss. Once we got home from the hospital, I spent a lot of my time reading and rereading these stories to him. I know he didn’t understand the words, but I think just hearing my voice started to create a bond between the two of us. I also enjoyed reading aloud poems from Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein. Both of these anthologies are still in his book collection in his room.

Once my son got older and started to respond to what I was reading to him, we discovered lots of board books that he enjoyed. Some of his favorites included If You Were My Bunny by Kate McMullan, Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney and Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. I still laugh when I remember how my son used to try and “pinch” the mouse with his fingers in Goodnight Moon, thinking the illustration was real. Once my wife went back to her classroom, I took some time as well to be home with our new addition. We read Mama’s Home by Paul Vos Benkowski every day while we waited for my wife to pull into the driveway.

Two years later, my daughter joined our family. Nothing changed in our routine of reading aloud every day to our kids. Many of the same stories my son enjoyed as a toddler my daughter enjoyed too.

When the books at home became memorized from the repeated readings, we started making more frequent visits to our public library. The kids observed how we went about the collections and selected books. Pretty soon they were following our lead. Now they are the ones that lead the way through the library.

I come from a privileged background. I grew up around books. I have received lots of information about teaching and reading, in both my post-secondary education and in my later trainings. As a principal, I feel it is my obligation to share this knowledge with everyone I come across. A thousand stories – have I read this many to my children yet? I think so, but I had a head start. It is never too late to start sharing great literature with your kids. What are you waiting for? They are only young once.

Teaching Content with Read Alouds

In my last post Why I Hate Abridged Audiobooks, I expressed my frustration in listening to an abridged version of The Great Deluge by Douglas Brinkley. The author, a New Orleans native, astutely described the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Although a few of the details are for adults’ eyes and ears only due to their graphic nature, this event in our history should be a topic for discussion in our classrooms, especially with what just occurred on the East Coast.

With such a big focus on literacy and mathematics today, how do teachers keep science and social studies a part of the instructional day? I hear stories about content being taken out of the classroom because there just isn’t enough time anymore. While I can understand and appreciate all that is being asked of us as public educators, I don’t think these different subject areas should be mutually exclusive. In fact, I have long felt that they all can be taught in an integrated framework in order for each to be more relevant and to help students see the connections.


I have tried to apply this concept when I visited classrooms in the past to read aloud. Spurred by Brinkley’s writing, I found some age appropriate books that would help me convey the concepts of weather and change (I have shared or plan to share the following texts with second graders).

Hurricanes by Seymour Simon

With topics such as this weather event, I feel it is important to front load students’ knowledge base. This book, like many of Seymour Simon’s other nonfiction titles, combines easy-to-read text with real photos of hurricanes. There are many other books about the same subject, but few have this level of authenticity in their visuals. I may not read aloud the whole book, but I will share many of the sections in order to prepare the students for the next story.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by William Joyce

Upon first reading this book, I thought it was only a story about a person’s love for reading. However, if you read the back flap of this book, you will discover that the author was in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck. He spent his time after the hurricane distributing books to kids while they waited for their schools to reopen. With this knowledge plus the information from the previous book, students developed a better understanding of the story. When viewing the illustrations of Morris being blown around by a storm, plus the despair he felt afterward, we discussed why the author wrote this book and how it came to be through Mr. Joyce’s experiences. As a bonus, I showed the class the eBook version of this story on the iPad (I point out that this was a movie first, then an eBook before it finally took paper form). I also like the eBook because of the great audio and video affects that depict what the storm might have been like.

A Storm Called Katrina by Myron Uhlberg

This is a realistic fiction everybody book. It is about one family that did not evacuate before Hurricane Katrina hit and then follows their journey out of the devastation. When I compare this fictional story to the real accounts described in The Great Deluge, it appeared the author did his homework before writing this book for kids. What is also nice is the list of resources he referenced on the last page. It is a great example for kids to see how fiction and nonfiction can support each other.

Throughout all the titles I shared, I targeted key points to stop and reflect on. Sometimes I would share my own thinking out loud. Other times I would ask an open-ended question and have students turn and talk about it. If a student had a question, we spent time responding to it and asking follow up questions. Were we reading directly from a social studies textbook, I don’t believe that our conversations would have been nearly as engaging and thought-provoking.

I don’t believe kids should be only hearing great language from the books I share. A lot more of their instructional time should be spent reading and writing about topics of their own interest. This type of thematic study could occur within a Daily Five literacy framework. The mini lessons could be the opportunity to share these read alouds as mentor texts, with the intent of pointing out both content information and important literary elements from the text. Students could take that knowledge to their Read to Self, Read with a Partner, Work on Writing, Listen to Reading and Word Work areas, where they would find leveled fiction and nonfiction reading materials related to hurricanes and other weather events. The teacher could take things even further and turn the Work Work station into a science activity, such as making Tornados In a Bottle while labeling the parts of this weather event on a separate sheet.

To wrap things up, I plan to do a shared expository writing activity summarizing what we learned about hurricanes, within the overarching concept of weather and change. The hardest about this is, as a principal, I am not able to stay in the classroom and see these activities connect with everything else during the school day. How do you connect reading aloud and content instruction within your literacy block? Please share in the comments.

Why I Hate Abridged Audiobooks

I recently took my wife and kids to see my side of the family in Illinois. My aunt was hosting a “barner” during the Halloween season, which I found out is just a gathering inside a barn (a very nice, furnished barn). Anticipating a five hour ride, I wanted to be adequately prepared as I was doing all the driving. Radio stations set? Check. Snacks? Check. GPS on my phone? Check.

My family also had their necessary supplies, including loads of books and other reading materials. I saw this as a perfect opportunity to try out audible.com, a subscription-based audiobook service for mobile devices. I was halfway through a hardcover copy of The Great Deluge by Douglas Brinkley, an historical account of the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina (timely, right?). Although the topic is pretty depressing, the author’s writing brought so many of the details and people to life. Brinkley’s voice was very strong as he held both Democrats and Republicans to task for collectively failing to respond as they should have. I also felt a moral obligation to learn more about this dark period in our country’s history.

With this audiobook downloaded to my wife’s iPod, we set out for Illinois. Once everyone had settled in, I turned on the second half of The Great Deluge as we traveled south on I-39. Within a half hour, I knew something wasn’t right. The specific details, the emotional response from the author, the personal stories about the victims and heroes of Hurricane Katrina – they were absent from the narration.

Taking advantage of our next stop, I pulled the hardcopy of this book from my trunk and quickly skimmed and scanned the text. Sure enough. Whole sections of the book were taken out in the audio version. This was confirmed when I read through the details of my audible.com purchase.

Beyond the disappointment that I felt because I couldn’t enjoy this book in it’s original form, I was also upset that Douglas Brinkley allowed this abridgment to occur. Why would any author agree to removing text from their book? If it wasn’t important enough to be included in the abridged version, why put it in their at all? The only case I could see where abridging a book would be appropriate is when modifying an inaccessible text for emerging readers, such as classic literature.

Maybe the publisher’s argument is that people just don’t have enough time anymore to listen to a whole book, especially if they are ordering the audio version of it. I would disagree. For some kids, this is the only way they can access a book they have an interest in. For all kids, listening to stories read aloud is a great way to build vocabulary and increase listening stamina. My reason is much more simple: I want to take advantage of my free time by reading and hearing great literature. A half a day in a car sounds much more palatable when I have a good story to look forward to.

I had considered contacting audible.com to express my disappointment. I decided against it when around the same time I received an email from them, letting customers know how their employees were affected by Hurricane Sandy.

Startled by the coincidence and saddened for those displaced, I resigned myself to just make sure I read the fine print before downloading my next audiobook.

Time to Breathe

Yesterday I wrote about a writing activity I have used with staff called List, Jot, Write Long. It helped us think about our beliefs about instruction, and move toward developing individual and team goals. This morning, I actually presented this information to my teachers during our all staff gathering. Here was the agenda:

I felt like I was as prepared as I could be. Or so I thought. I shared visual samples of what the Individual Professional Development Plan could look like. An example of a SMART goal was distributed as well as presented on the whiteboard. We confirmed the due date for these goals to be submitted to me (within a month).

As one might guess, the problem I ran into was changing too much at one time. I threw two new things at them today: 1) Connect your individual goals to a team goal, and 2) Do it in the context of a professional learning community. Expecting staff to make two shifts at one time is not realistic, especially when we have state assessments and other initiatives breathing down our backs.

If I think back to my days as a teacher, I knew not to differentiate more than one piece of my instruction. Otherwise I would potentially lose my students due to too many choices and lack of focus (Content + Process = Product). For example, I could differentiate the process I used to present the content through visual, auditory and kinesthetic means, but that meant my content and product needed to stay the same.

So why didn’t I follow what I knew to be best instruction? Maybe I am also feeling the pressure of getting information delivered without a lot of time and resources. Nevertheless, as I came back from our staff gathering I reflected on how it could have been better. I touched base with a few teachers and asked, “What are your thoughts after today?” The general consensus was that it was good information and they understood what is expected of them. It was just a matter of finding time to look over all the materials.

I appreciate that my staff is so honest with me. It shows that we have a good level of trust, that they know I am looking out for their best interests and vice versa. Around the same time, the former principal at my school stopped by to drop off some documents. Always willing to lend an ear, he listened to my concerns about all this information being delivered to staff without enough time to truly integrate it with integrity. His response: Give them more time.

Brilliant! And why didn’t I think of that? Maybe because I was too mired in the conflict itself and needed another perspective. At any rate, I developed a plan that extended the due dates as well as bring in subs to give grade level teams substantial time to collaborate. When I sent out the new plan, staff responded immediately with “Thank you!” and “I appreciate you understanding”.  The fact that my teachers didn’t say much until I asked them speaks volumes about their character and their willingness to follow their principal into new territory despite their uncertainties.

I think any public educator can make the claim that we are being inundated with initiatives like we have never seen before. I don’t believe this to be hyberbole; has their ever been a time before the present when standards (CCSS), teacher evaluations (value-added) and instruction (RtI) are all being overhauled at the same time? We as leaders need to recognize this, for our staff and ourselves, before leading change. All of these initiatives are truly secondary to the energy and well-being of the educators who work with our students every day. In spite of whatever comes our way, we need to build in time to breathe so we don’t become overwhelmed or forget why we entered this profession in the first place.

What I (Think) I Know About the Educator Effectiveness Initiative

What is the Educator Effectiveness Initiative?
It is the new way we are going to be assessed as public educators. Instead of the once every three year dog-and-pony show, there will be several shorter observations every year. These snapshots of teaching will be collected as artifacts over time. Every three years, you and your supervisor will come to a rating based on the many pieces of evidence collected. A rubric with four ratings (Highly Effective, Effective, Minimally Effective, Ineffective) will be used to make a final determination. It is based on the Charlotte Danielson model for instruction.

Where did this initiative come from?
A little while back, the federal government was offering states Race to the Top funds. States applied for these funds to receive waivers from Adequate Yearly Progress and No Child Left Behind. Wisconsin applied twice and was denied both times. It may not be a bad thing, however. States that were initially accepted for RTTT are now expected to follow through on their commitment on using student outcomes in addition to supervisor ratings for evaluation purposes. There have been some problems with this, especially in states like California. We are being told that Wisconsin is looking at how the other states are progressing when developing our plan.

Will our ratings be public, like principals’ evaluations are now?
No. It was stressed by several organizations representing educators that public educators’ evaluations not be for public consumption. That means newspapers and citizens will no longer be allowed to request this information. Act 166 is the legislation that contains this language.

What will these “more frequent observations” look like?
They can take many forms. A few that were encouraged by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction include walkthroughs and look-fors, narrative feedback, minutes from staff collaborations, student products, video documentation of lessons, peer observations, surveys and more.  Also, the teacher and the principal will work together to develop goals for each year. Observations curated in an educator’s portfolio will be a collaborative effort, although the supervisor will make the final rating.

Say what? We have to create portfolios now?
Not in the traditional sense, but my understanding is yes. There has to be a way to curate and store all of these observations to go back to later. I think technology will play a big part in this. Currently the DPI is still exploring tools for this purpose and is open to suggestions. My thoughts? I think Google Sites could be a great way to house all of this information in a secure way, but I am also open to whatever works for us.

Is this going away?  No, and that could be a good thing