Top Ten Practices for Principals to Promote Literacy in their Schools

This is also posted at  Thanks to @colbysharp for allowing others to share on his blog!

Read, Read and Read

Principals should not only be reading current research and resources about best practices in education, they should be reading children’s books as well as reading for pleasure.  With children’s literature, I read the latest releases plus recommended books.  My latest favorites are A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper.  Books are an excellent way to relate with students.  For example, I meet with a student periodically to give him some positive interaction.  Yesterday, we browsed through the library and determined which Ricky Ricotto book will be his next read.  Did you know there is a method to flipping the pages in order to make the robot move correctly?

With reading for pleasure, it may be the best practice we do.  Consider your students.  Do they read for other people, or for school alone?  No, they read because they enjoy it.  We should too.  Your enthusiasm for reading will only build and exude from you as you share great literature when you…

2.         Read aloud to students

I could write a top ten list on this topic alone (I’ll save that for another Nerdy Book Club post;).  Without listing all the benefits, let me just say there are few things more important I do as a principal than sharing great literature with my students.  I get to know students’ names and personalities, facilitate deep thinking through conversations, share my thinking as I read, host book talks after a novel is finished:  All of my favorite parts of being in the classroom when I was a teacher!  My goal is to present reading as an engaging and social experience that is too rewarding to not take part in.

3.         Write, Write and Write

I bring a Moleskine book journal with me to classrooms when I have finished a longer read aloud.  We write a review on the document camera as a class for that book.  Then I hand out a classroom book journal.  Students can write their own reviews in the journal and then share them with me in my office.  After they are done reading their book reviews, I give them a pencil that states, “I Read to the Principal”.  I also keep a personal journal and I blog.

4.        Ask Teachers What They Are Reading

According to Todd Whitaker in Leading School Change, your first impression as a principal will set the tone for the rest of the year.  For me, I started my first staff meeting in August by having teachers write down all the books they recently read in a book log.  No magazines, newspapers or blogs.  Just books.  I then shared my list of books with them that I had read over the summer.  The objective was to make clear that if we expect our students to be regular readers, we better be too.

5.        Encourage Social Networking and Blogging with Staff

Social networks such as Twitter are excellent ways to network with other educators.  They are great motivators for people to write.  Brevity is a requirement when posting online, so the skill of summarizing is regularly practiced.  Those online also have a URL in their profile that connects followers to their reflections about their experiences.  This usually takes the form of a blog.  Blogging is one of the best ways for principals to reflect on their current practices and make improvements.  Writing truly has a purpose in this forum because there is an authentic audience.  By writing online, it is very easy for the principal to encourage teachers and even students to blog, because they are practicing what they preach.

6.        Display Books in Your Office

My read alouds are shelved in my office with front covers facing out.  Anyone coming into my office can see them and how I value reading.  When a student does come down to take a break from the classroom, I now have age-appropriate reading materials for them to peruse at the ready.  Students may be removed from class, but they will always be expected to read and learn.

7.        Spend Money on Books for Classrooms

Studies point out the positive correlation between the amount of text in a home and how students score on achievement tests.  Classrooms should be no different.  If the guided reading books that come with the district-prescribed literacy program aren’t engaging students, supplement them with high-quality and high-interest literature.  Also a good investment are mentor texts, stories read aloud by teachers to students that are a good model for a specific reading or writing skill.  These lessons lead into shared and guided writing lessons that are relevant and authentic.  This year alone, we spent over $2000 on mentor texts.

8.        Use Data Only to Inform Instruction

As the saying goes, “You don’t fatten the cattle by weighing it”.  The same holds true when analyzing student assessment data.  This information should only be a springboard for collaborative discussions, namely about best practices for students’ needs.  Taking a look at literacy standards gives teachers a common goal of what is expected of students.  With knowing current reality and having an end in mind, teachers can get down to the business of planning instruction and assessment.

9.        Provide Quality Professional Development for Staff

Teachers, as with other professionals, need constant professional development to keep their skills and knowledge current.  In my school, we bring in a reading consultant to work with our staff on certain areas of need.  Our most recent session was on word work.  It is helpful for me because I don’t have the  background and expertise in this area.  If I attempted to lead these PD sessions it just wouldn’t hold as much weight as when she presents.

10.      Read Aloud to Students

I know I mentioned this already.  I am saying it again.  It’s that important.

Word Work vs. Spelling Packets

(I was asked by another building administrator my opinion regarding using word work in classrooms rather than tedious spelling packets. Not having an extensive reading background, other than I taught reading at the elementary level for seven years, I try to tread lightly when giving my opinion in this area.)

Tedious spelling packets are just that, tedious. In Chapter 4 of Teaching Essentials (Focus on Meaning First), Regie Routman stresses making curriculum and standards relevant and authentic. I cannot think of anything more irrelevant or inauthentic than a packet of worksheets. Word work such as word sorts are the opposite. They are visible everywhere, in the Jumble puzzle in the daily paper to board games such as Scrabble. Today, they are fun apps to play on mobile devices such as Moxie and Words with Friends, all using the framework of sorting letters to make words. People pay money and spend hours doing word work (including me). Would anyone buy an app or a board game that asked them to complete worksheets?

The thinking required to complete worksheets is pretty low level. Read the question, find the correct word on the list, write the word in the appropriate space, repeat. Word work, on the other hand, encourages students to compare/contrast, categorize and make new connections with word patterns, all on the upper level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Word work may not be limited to the 10-20 words given to the student in a spelling packet, none of which are chosen by the student. As well, word work promotes independent learners, another focus of Regie’s, because they depend on the student to create the words, not the worksheet. Students working on spelling packets are compliant but probably aren’t as engaged.

I could go on, but it would be me just venting because I used spelling packets almost exclusively for seven years as a teacher. I think I knew better at some level, but I never took the time to reflect on my own practices and ask, “Why I am doing this?”.

The caveat is, if the district expects teachers to use spelling packets because it is part of the board-approved language arts program, then spelling packets should be used in classrooms. They are not terrible, and probably do help students at least remember and maybe apply the word pattern of focus. That said, could they be taken home for parents to do with their child? Done together on the document camera? A workaround like this could allow the teacher to use better practices such as The Daily Five during the literacy block.

Speaking of which, there a number of good resources out there to help teachers develop more effective practices when teaching students spelling and vocabulary. Besides The Sisters’ resource The Daily Five, I recommend having a copy of Teaching Kids to Spell by Gentry and Gillet on your shelf. Although it is almost twenty years old, it contains some creative ideas for differentiated spelling activities to use with students. Janet Allen talks about work banks for older students in her book Yellow Brick Roads. Debbie Diller’s resource Literacy Work Stations has an appendix thicker than some novels filled with reproducibles for word work stations. What is a favorite word work resource of yours? Please share.

Getting Started with Student-Centered Coaching

Diane Sweeney (@SweeneyDiane), author of Student-Centered Coaching, is working with reading staff and administrators in my district on how to coach teachers to improve instructional practices. It is not that anyone is necessarily deficient in an area; my understanding is this process is a different way to improve our own practices. Although we were asked to take things slow because we had only been trained for one day, we decided to try an activity out.

First, she recommends that whenever you work with staff members with the purpose of improving instruction, you look at current practices. The grade level that the reading staff and I regularly collaborate with had previously constructed a nice rubric to assess their students’ writing. We took that rubric and cross checked it with the Common Core State Standards to see if they aligned. They did! It was a good way to start the discussion, to show everyone that their current practices are effective. Between this meeting and the next, teachers are expected to take this rubric and pre-assess each student in a common genre of writing. In February, the classroom teachers will bring back these writing samples to prompt discussion about current reality with their students’ writing skills.

Next, we brought up the idea from our coaching training of breaking down a writing standard into bite-sized tasks. For example, within the narrative standard students are expected to have a beginning, use details when describing a scene, and close out the story. These tasks or skills are should be put into kid language and listed on a checklist. Teachers can then teach each skill through the use of mentor texts, shared writing and writer’s workshop. Using the checklist of tasks/skills, teachers can note whenever a student has shown proficiency in a skill area during writing conferences. Once the teacher feels her class is ready based on the formative assessments noted in her checklist, she can give the post-assessment for the same genre of writing. They would use the same rubric to assess their students’ writing and compare the pre and post assessments to check for growth.

After today’s initial collaboration with staff, I realized this coaching process is going to take some time. As I headed back to my office, I thought about how we would break down the narrative standard and who would be involved. By luck, my ESL teacher stopped in at the same time and volunteered to start this process with help from a classroom teacher. Later on, one of my Reading Recovery teachers emailed me, requesting to work on another genre of writing and develop a skills checklist. These actions tell me that our first experience in student-centered coaching was a good one.

Just looking at the list of standards for 1st grade in writing is daunting. I can see why Diane cautioned us to to take things slowly and focus on one thing at a time. Speaking with staff, their first impressions were generally positive with regard to this method of collaborating with colleagues to talk about students and instruction. I am looking forward to seeing how our next gatherings will go, especially after working with Diane again. Even more, it is exciting to know where our students are heading because now we have an end in mind. Seeing learning made evident is one of the most rewarding parts of my job.


Christmas Cards for Teachers’ Parents

My first reaction to hearing Todd Whitaker (@toddwhitaker) propose that principals should send photos of staff working with kids to the staff members’ parents was, “Who has time for that?” After actually sending out these photos and reflecting on the feedback I received, I now think, “That time was well spent.”

After attending the administrator conference where I heard this idea, I started using Twitter to collaborate with colleagues (thanks go to @PrincipalJ and @WiscPrincipal for presenting about this useful tool). I asked other principals online if they had done this, or what they thought about the idea. Many had not tried it, but most thought it was worthy of my time.

With help taking candid pictures of staff members in action, uploading them to an online printer and collecting staff members’ parents’ addresses, this project did not take as much time as I feared. In fact, my biggest concern was how the teachers and aides plus their family members would react to the principal sending out Christmas cards with photos to them. I did not know who they were, nor did they know me.

The feedback could not have been more positive. During break, I received four emails from staff and one email from a parent of a teacher, all thanking me for taking the time to recognize their efforts. I even had a grandparent of one of my teachers stop me after church, thanking me for sending the photo of their granddaughter to their son.

When I got back to school after the New Year’s, several staff members stopped me in the hallway to thank me personally for the card and photo. One of my teachers has a sister who teaches in the Fox Valley (Wisconsin). She said her sister gave the card and photo to her principal, requesting that he do the same thing next year. I also had two parents of teachers write me a personal thank you card. One parent’s message was especially touching; this teacher’s mother stated she was feeling lonely during the holiday season, until my card showed up in the mail. Seeing her daughter working with students made her day.

I’m glad I stepped out of my comfort zone a little in order to share my appreciation for my staff with the people who care about them the most. My only concern now is: Do I do this every year? Will it become trite or expected? Any comments or questions you may have would be appreciated.

Free iPad Apps for Online Educators

I just received an iCapsule Keyboard and Case for my iPad 1 from my brother. It’s pretty cool. Of course, I want to do something with it, so what better way than to write a blog post!

Recently, a friend of ours received an iPad 2. She teaches medical terminology to undergraduates looking into a career in healthcare. The university bought it for her because she teaches online, and she asked me what are the best free apps out there for this purpose (of course, they didn’t provide her with a budget for apps). Loving everything techie, I was only too happy to oblige.

Below is a list in no order for what free apps I would recommend to online teachers. I myself have not taught a course online yet, but plan to with my teaching staff next semester, all via iPad. If you have an opinion or suggestion about this list, please share it as this may be the blind leading the blind.

Teacher Tools (Free)
Edmodo – Host a class, like Facebook only for teachers and students
Mail – Assign your email to this app to instantly view messages & sync Calendar
Evernote – Take notes and record voice, with ability to share info many ways
Twitter – Connect with other like professionals, host chats and share information
Google + – Hold video conferencing with students
Google Docs – Work on a document with others at the same time or asynchronously
iBooks – Read textbooks as eBooks, highlight and share text, easily search for specific information
Safari – Use the “Reading List” feature to save articles online for later reading and sharing
WordPress – Write and share blog posts, plus track data about how often people read your writing. Can also add comments to people’s posts, nice way to provide feedback for assessment.
Pinterest – Create boards for different areas of professional interest, and allow others to pin like interests to your boards
Dropbox – Sync documents, pictures between iPad and personal computer
neu.Annotate – free PDF reader that allows you to write comments on it and save it as is in Dropbox, or send out to others via email
Flipboard – Subscribe to several news outlets, media and blogs and read information in a magazine-style format
iTunes – Download or subscribe to free podcasts about many things education and learning related
Shutterfly – Take pictures, then post them for others to see on the Share Site
Prezi Viewer – Make a Prezi on a computer then present it on this app
YouTube – Take video, then post it online for others to watch


iPads as Tools for Engaging Students

(This is a summary I shared with a community foundation that funded two iPads in my building, about my observations when using iPads with reluctant readers.)


Howe Elementary School requested and received two iPad 2s. The purpose of these tools for learning is to engage young learners, especially those who struggle in school and need support, or for those who require more enrichment in their education.

Start Date and End Date
I started using the mobile devices as an intervention tool for two upper elementary students in early October. We ended the intervention in late December. The two students and I met for approximately one and a half hours per week (two 45 minute intervention sessions). Both students were put in more intense interventions for reading after the winter break, and I will be picking up two more students who have made strong gains in a more intense intervention. See the attached lesson plan to see one example of an intervention session, which corresponds to the photo submitted.

A diversion from the intent of these devices was to use the iPads for Able Learners, students who were labeled Gifted and Talented in the past. One 1st grade teacher has been allowing her four able learners to use some critical thinking apps such as Casey’s Contraptions and Rocket Math as a way to challenge them. I’ve asked this teacher to reflect on how it was working for her students. We are also now looking at using iPads because the Able Learner program has been cut to only one position for the district. These devices might provide the classroom support needed at a minimal cost.

Parent and Community Partnership
Using these devices to support diverse students’ learning needs has spawned some innovative ideas at Howe Elementary School. Based on the success observed with the two devices you have allowed us to purchase, the following initiatives are planned for the second part of the year:

Three special education teachers will be using district funds to purchase an iPad in order to accommodate students with learning, emotional and language disabilities.

Fourteen teachers will be implementing an iPad in their classroom to a) discover ways to use the device to increase their teaching capacity, and b) provide another tool for differentiating instruction and facilitating interventions in their classroom.

The Parent Partnership Team at Howe will be hosting a series of Technology Nights in the spring once teachers become proficient at using the iPads. Parents and community members will be invited to explore the devices with teachers and students. The objective will be to share how the school is using them to a) support student learning and b) communicate with families more regularly.

Four iPads will be replacing four desktops in a kindergarten room. This pilot will assess whether these mobile devices are better suited for primary students when compared with personal computers.

Book Apps vs. Apps Based on Books

A recent post on Twitter made me aware of Imagination Soup’s Best iPad Book App for Kids:

What I appreciated about this post was the criteria for how they came to their decisions:

“A good book app needs to have:

– an interesting story
– compelling, kid-friendly illustrations
– appropriate text to picture ratio
– easy navigation: pages which are easy to turn, way to return home, way to skip pages
– choices of read to self and read to me
– clickable elements that relate to the story and aren’t just for fluff”

Being a father of a five year old and three year old plus an iPad book app connoisseur myself, I found their choices informative. Taking off my dad hat and putting on my principal hat, are these the same book apps I would want in place in my school’s classrooms? We as a school have rallied hard to persuade parents to turn off the screen and spend more quality time with their children. With the amount of animations, bells and whistles that some of these book apps have, I have legitimate concerns about how much reading is really happening when students interact with them.

If I were to develop criteria for what makes an app truly a book app, it would actually boil down to just one criterion: Does the app benefit the student as a reader? That is, does the book app actually enhance the reading experience when compared to a regular print book? For students who do not struggle in reading, quite frankly there isn’t an app out there that can even closely compare to the reading experience one has when they are totally immersed in the author’s world on the printed page.

However, for struggling readers, I believe book apps can have a purpose in helping them be engaged in the process of reading. Going back to my criterion, here are the apps on my short list.

Top Book Apps

OceanHouse Media books
These applications are the best, bar none. The narration is good, and it works nicely with the background effects. There are very few animations or distractions as the books progress. This helps readers stay focused on the text (the whole point of reading, right?). My favorite aspect about OM books is the highlighting that occurs as the narrator reads the words. Readers may not clamor for these book apps over “Dora” books or “Hildegard Sings”, but the animations in the books just mentioned distract the reader from the text. (BTW – You know your parents are educators when they track your eye movement when reading). I can go on and on about the quality of OM products, such as the “Little Critter” series and books by Dr. Seuss, or how they have nonfiction book apps on high-interest subjects such as dinosaurs. The best part: OM products are some of the most inexpensive book apps in the app store.

Nook Kids Read to Me books
Technically, they are not apps. The Nook Kids app is an eReader. You can purchase these eBooks for kids through Barnes and Noble and read them on a Nook Color or an iPad. What makes this a top choice for struggling readers is that there are zero animations, they provide high quality narration and the books available for purchase are quality text for emergent readers. My favorite is Ray Charles’ rendition of “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom”. The price of these books are a little more expensive than what the App Store offers, but they still have the potential to enhance the reading experience of a struggling reader. iBooks also offers Enhanced Books. I have not tried them but they sound similar to what Barnes and Noble offers.

Specifically, check out the Audiobooks collection for children’s literature. I own over twenty of these recordings myself, ranging from Fancy Nancy to Blueberries for Sal. Jim Trelease, author of The Read Aloud Handbook, would concur with me that hearing the printed word read aloud is a powerful way to get students hooked on reading.

Honorable Mention

– Loud Crow book apps
The animations are more frequent, but the layout and production of these apps, such as “Peter Rabbit” and “The Going-to-Bed Book”, make them difficult to resist.

– Disney Puzzle Books/Toy Story Series
Disney is hard to avoid, especially with little kids. Thankfully, they have produced some book apps that focus more on the written word then on everything else. Their use of highlighting text in the Toy Story books is appreciated.

Apps That are Based on Books
I am not saying these are poor apps by any means. I just feel they are mislabeled; they are more of an app than a book. I know my kids still enjoy them, but I would not necessarily place them on a device in one of my classrooms for the purpose of building stronger readers.

– “Winkin”
– “Finn’s Hat”
– “Hildegard Sings”
– “Morris Lessmore” *(Even though it didn’t make the cut, this app is just too good not to experience; you decide.)
– Angelina Ballerina: New Teacher”
– “Rapunzel”
– “The Monster at the End of this Book” *(Another app based on a book that you just may want to own).
– “Hugless Douglas”

If you have more suggestions for any one of these categories, let me know. Happy reading!