Literacy Leadership: Expecting (and Embracing) Conflict

Our school is currently examining our beliefs about reading instruction. Faculty members respond with either “agree” or “disagree” to over twenty related statements. Examples include: “Leveling books in the classroom library is a good idea,” and “Students need to do lots of independent reading of self-selected texts.”  (These statements come from Regie Routman’s book Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success.)

So far, half the teachers have taken the beliefs survey. Out of the over twenty statements, we are completely in agreement on five statements. My prediction is this number will be reduced after everyone has taken the survey.

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This is not a bad thing.

I’ve come to learn professional conflict can be a source of professional learning. I’m not referring to in-fighting over petty reasons. Instead, I refer to the deeper philosophical debates that should be occurring but are often pushed aside for fear of having a hard yet necessary conversation.

Conflict in the context of our instructional beliefs is the misalignment between our current values and practices and our colleagues’s. This awareness of our current situation is a good thing. Now we have information to act upon, as long as we accept our current reality. To address this misalignment, we need to start engaging in professional conversations around these important topics in safe and productive ways

Take the topic of reading levels, depicted in the previous image. It’s a constant source of disagreement in elementary schools. You see we are pretty divided already on this issue. The first question I might ask to start a conversation around reading levels is, “Why do you think the results are the way they are?” By asking wondering questions, we open up the floor to different possibilities. I am not taking sides on levels. I am curious.

Now imagine what the responses might be.

  • From a teacher who supports levels as a way to assess student reading progress, they can point to the fact that younger readers make so much growth in a short amount of time that teachers need a reliable evaluation tool to inform instruction. Likewise, if students are not making growth at the primary level, we need to be responsive and implement a reading intervention to address any deficits.
  • From a teacher who does not support levels as a way to assess student reading progress, they might point to past experiences in which students were treated as a level, such as organizing the classroom library only within a leveling system. Or, they feel that levels for older students are not as helpful as conferring notes, student self-assessments, and performance tasks such as book trailers.

Who is right, and who is wrong? I believe both perspectives make a strong case. This leads to a potential second question that guides a discussion to consider a third option. As an example, “What if designated reading levels were only helpful at certain grade levels?”, or “Might there be a better way to phrase this statement to both recognize the benefits of this approach and point out its limits?” This line of inquiry may lead to a revision of the statement, such as:

Designated levels can be an accurate way to assess student reading progress at the primary level and inform authentic instruction.

If a faculty can agree on this revision, then we can own it. (By the way, a professional conversation like this can happen during a staff meeting or professional learning communities.) If the revision is not acceptable to all, it can be brought back to an instructional leadership team for further revision.

The benefits of embracing conflict within structured professional dialogue are many. First, we air out our issues in a safe and productive way. Second, we start to develop a common language. For example, maybe some staff members are unfamiliar with benchmark books as an assessment tool. Teachers with this knowledge can explain this concept; unhealthy conflict is often the product of lack of communication and making false assumptions. Third, when we agree upon a belief then we own it. There’s no opting out in the building. The faculty is free to call out each other when these beliefs are not translated to practice. But this doesn’t happen often because we own the belief. Teachers are more empowered to act on it and seek out support if needed. Finally, a school leader has modeled what it means to have a professional conversation that is productive and doesn’t end in hurt feelings.

What are your thoughts on the role of conflict in leading a literacy initiative and/or a school in general? Please share in the comments.

 

Leadership as Process

It is October, which means it is school learning objective time. Principals are diligently crafting statements that are S.M.A.R.T. “By the end of the school year,…” and then we make a prediction about the future. In April, we revisit these statements and see if our crystal balls were correct.

I must admit that my goals are usually not fully met. I aim too high, at least by educator evaluation standards. These systems are set up to shoot for just above the status quo instead of for the stars. Great for reporting out. Yet I don’t want to lower my expectations.

Setting objectives and goals are a good thing. We should have something tangible to strive for and know that we have a target to hit. My challenge with this annual exercise is how heavily we focus on a product while largely ignoring the process to get there.

Left alone, schools can purchase a resource or adopt a commercial curriculum that is aligned to the standards. But are they also aligned with our specific students’ needs? Do the practices and resources we implement engage our population of kids? Maybe we are marching toward a specific destination, but are we taking the best pathway to get there?

Having a plan and implementing a plan are two different things. Like an effective classroom teacher, we have to be responsive to the climate and the culture of a school. That means we should be aware of our environment, accept our current status, and then move forward together.

For example, when I arrived at my current elementary school, there was some interest in going schoolwide with the Lucy Calkins Units of Study for reading and for writing. Professionally, I find a lot of positive qualities about the program. Also in the periphery was a desire to get a more consistent literacy curriculum. Our scores reflected a need for instructional consistency and coherence.

If we have an outcome-focused leadership style, then it makes a lot of sense to purchase a program that promises exactly what is being requested. But that means we are investing in stuff instead of investing in teachers. So we declined. The teacher-leaders and I weren’t saying no to one program or passing the buck on making a hard decision. What we wanted instead was a clear plan to become better as practitioners.

This meant first revisiting our identities as educators. What does it mean as a teacher and a professional if the lessons were scripted for us? Are we not worthy of the trust and responsibility that is essential for the many decisions we make every day? This led to examining our beliefs about the foundation of literacy, the reading-writing connection. We found unanimity on only two specific areas out of 21 statements. Instead of treating this as a failure, we saw these two areas of agreement as a starting point for success. We nurtured this beginning and started growing ourselves to become the faculty we were meant to be for our students. After two years of work, we found nine areas of agreement on these same statements.

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There are no ratings or other evaluation scores attached to these statements. I am not sure how to quantify our growth as a faculty, and I am pretty sure I wouldn’t want to if I knew how. Instead, we changed how we saw ourselves and how we viewed our students as readers, writers, and thinkers. This is not an objective or goal that is suggested by our evaluation program, but maybe it should be.

I get to this point in a post and I feel like we are bragging. We are not. While I believe our teachers are special, there are great educators in every school. The difference, I think, is that we chose to focus more on the process of becoming better and less on the outcomes that were largely out of our hands. This reduced our anxiety with regard to test scores and public perception of our school. Anyone can do this work.

How we stopped using Accelerated Reader

This post describes how our school stopped using Accelerated Reader. This was not something planned; it seemed to happen naturally through our change process, like an animal shedding its skin. The purpose of this post is not to decry Accelerated Reader, although I do know this reading assessment/incentive program is not viewed favorably in some education circles. We ceased using a few other technologies as well, each for different reasons. The following timeline provides a basic outline of our process that led to this outcome.

  1. We developed collective commitments.

The idea of collective commitments comes from the Professional Learning Community literature, specifically Learning by Doing, 3rd edition. Collective commitments are similar to norms you might find on a team. The difference is collective commitments are focused on student learning. We commit to certain statements about our work on behalf of kids. They serve as concrete guidelines, manifested from our school’s mission and vision, as well as from current thinking we find effective for education.

We first started by reading one of four articles relevant to our work. The staff could choose which one to read. After discussing the contents of the articles in small group and then in whole group, we started crafting the statements. This was a smaller team of self-selected faculty. Staff who did not participate knew they may have to live with the outcomes of this work. Through lots of conversation and wordsmithing, we landed on seven statements that we all felt were important to our future work.

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At the next staff meeting, we shared these commitments, answered any questions about their meaning and intent, and then held an anonymous vote via Google Forms. We weren’t looking for unanimity but consensus. In other words, what does the will of the group say? Although there were a few faculty members that could not find a statement or two to be agreeable, the vast majority of teachers were on board. I shared the results while explaining that these statements were what we all will commit to, regardless of how we might feel about them.

  1. We identified a schoolwide literacy focus.

Using multiple assessments in the fall (STAR, Fountas & Pinnell), we found that our students needed more support in reading, specifically fluency. This meant that students needed to be reading and writing a lot more than they were, and to do so independently. Our instructional leadership team, which is a decision-making body and whose members were selected based on in-house interviews, started making plans to provide professional development for all faculty around the reading-writing connection. (For more information on instructional leadership teams and the reading-writing connection, see Regie Routman’s book Read, Write, Lead).

  1. We investigated the effectiveness of our current programming.

Now that we had collective commitments along with a focus on literacy, I think our lens changed a bit. Maybe I can only speak for myself, but we started to take a more critical look at our current work. What was working and what wasn’t?

Around that time, I discovered a summary report from the What Works Clearinghouse, a part of the Institute of Educational Sciences within the Department of Education. This report described all of the different studies on Accelerated Reader. Using only the research that met their criteria for reliability and validity, they found mixed to low results for schools that used Accelerated Reader.

I shared this summary report with our leadership team. We had a thoughtful conversation about the information, looking at both the pros and cons of this technology tool. However, we didn’t make any decisions to stop using it as a school. I also shared the report with Renaissance Learning, the maker of Accelerated Reader. As you might imagine, they had a more slanted view of this information, in spite of the rigorous approach to evaluating their product.

While we didn’t make a decision at that time based on the research, I think the fact that this report was shared with the faculty and discussed planted the seed for future conversations about the use of this product in our classrooms.

  1. We examined our beliefs about literacy.

The professional development program we selected to address our literacy needs, Regie Routman in Residence: The Reading-Writing Connection, asks educators to examine their beliefs regarding reading and writing instruction. Unlike our collective commitments, we all had to be in agreement regarding a literacy statement to own it and expect everyone to apply that practice in classrooms. We agreed upon three.

Beliefs Poster

This happened toward the end of the school year. It was a nice celebration of our initial efforts in improving literacy instruction. We will examine these beliefs again at the end of this school year, with the hope of agreeing upon a few more after completing this PD program. These beliefs served to align our collective philosophy about what our students truly need to become successful readers and writers. Momentum for change was on our side, which didn’t bode well for outdated practices.

  1. We started budgeting for next year.

It came as a surprise, at least to me, that money would be a primary factor in deciding not to continue using Accelerated Reader in our school.

With a finite budget and an infinite number of teacher resources in which we could utilize in the classroom, I started investigating the use of different technologies currently in the building. I found for Accelerated Reader that a small minority of teachers were actually using the product. This usage was broken down by class. We discovered that we were paying around $20 a year per student.

Given our limited school budget, I asked teachers both on our leadership team and the teachers who used it if they felt this was worth the cost. No one thought it was. (To be clear, the teachers who were using Accelerated Reader are good teachers. Just because they had their students taking AR quizzes does not suggest they were ineffective; quite the opposite. I think it is worth pointing this out as I have seen some shaming of teachers who use AR as a way to persuade them to stop using the tool. It’s not effective.)

With this information, we as a leadership team decided to end our subscription to Accelerated Reader. We made this decision within the context of our collective commitments and our literacy beliefs.

Next Steps

This story does not end with our school ceasing to using Accelerated Reader. For example, we realize we now have an assessment gap for our students and their independent reading. Lately, we have been talking about different digital tools such as Kidblog and Biblionasium as platforms for students to write book reviews and share their reading lives with others. We have also discussed different approaches for teachers to assess their readers more authentically, such as through conferring.

While there is a feeling of uncomfortableness right now, I feel a sense of possibility that maybe wasn’t there when Accelerated Reader was present in our building. As Peter Johnston notes from his book Opening Minds, ““Uncertainty is the foundation for inquiry and research.” I look forward to where this new turn in instruction might lead us.

 

Are We Talking About the Same Tree? (the Importance of Clarity)

The following is a crosspost from my school blog. I thought it might be relevant here as well. Have an excellent Labor Day weekend!  – Matt

Two members of the maintenance team stopped me in the high school hallway.

“Are you good with us taking down the cedar tree in the front of your building?”

When asked, I was 98% sure which tree they were referring to. Steve, our building custodian, and I had discussed last year about removing the tree. It had outgrown its space. The branches had now extended above the walls at the second level. It hindered the maintenance crew’s efforts to remove the snow from that upper area.

Still, I wanted to be sure that the tree they were talking about was, in fact, the same tree.

“Let me go back to school, check out that tree, and confirm with Steve.”

Yes, it was that tree.

 

Was it necessary for me to go back and confirm this, even though I was 98% confident? What’s the worst that could have happened? They could have cut down the wrong tree, I guess.

With teaching and leading in a school, it is even more critical that we are all on the same page. Clarity is critical for trust. Without clarity, we make assumptions about people’s beliefs and actions. For example, if we had different understandings of what it means to teach “the whole child”, our school might have different expectations and approaches in our work with kids. Some of us might not value the social and emotional needs of students as much as others. That is how we end up with inequity in our schools. Student placement in classrooms becomes a lottery system in which some kids get a considerably different educational experience than others.

Our faculty is engaged in the journey of knowing which tree we are talking about. Our “tree” is literacy. Specifically, we are focused on the connection between reading and writing. We are meeting monthly during professional learning communities to watch expert instruction together via video, have professional conversations about what we saw, and then try out the instructional strategy in the classroom. Celebrations of our efforts and student learning results happen regularly. Through these activities, we are achieving clarity about promising practices for reading and writing instruction. We are on the same page which helps ensure students are receiving equally effective instruction.

This is not to say that teachers don’t have some latitude in how they facilitate learning in their classrooms. The neat thing about this work is that it can be applied to many different resources and units of instruction. I’ve heard the phrase “This is common sense!” when teachers have engaged in learning about effective literacy instruction. As Regie Routman, the developer of our professional resources, notes, “When has common sense not been acceptable in schools?” As we have found agreement about what is important for all students to experience, we have collected these beliefs as statements and made them visible throughout the school.

 

As a school, we will continue this work of not making assumptions about our teaching and learning philosophies. We will continue to examine our instruction, our students’ results, and our beliefs about literacy. Even when we might be 98% sure about our work, we will strive to be on the same page, 100%.

Examining Our Beliefs About Literacy: Small Steps, Big Wins

During our school’s last professional learning community (PLC) experience, the entire faculty came together to examine our beliefs about literacy. Beliefs about teaching and learning are formed over time, through prior education, collaboration with colleagues, and classroom experience. Through structured conversations in vertical teams and watching professionals in the classroom via video, we found three areas in which we can all agree upon as best practice in literacy:

A child’s written story can be used to teach phonics and skills.

You can assess a child’s phonemic awareness by examining his/her journal writing.

Shared writing is an excellent way to record common experiences and connect to reading.

This may not seem like a big deal, at least at first glance. For example, shared writing, an instructional strategy in which a teacher leads their class to develop a story or report together, makes sense for teaching phonics and grammar in context. Using personal writing as a text for independent reading is authentic, and it honors students as authors. Yet this might seem counter to some of the instruction that pervades schools. Many of our programs and kits silo the various parts of language arts in an effort to ensure standards are being met. 

We sometimes wrap our practices around resources, both digital and print, without first examining our beliefs. As we use these resources “with fidelity”, our beliefs are formed by our practices, which were informed by the resources. (See Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success by Regie Routman for more information.) Our identities as educators are intertwined with our work, which is made public daily in our classrooms. This is what makes it so difficult to change. It is also a reason why companies continue to produce resources that often promote antiquated practices. The bottom line is sales. We buy the resources because we know them. It helps to remember that these companies are not educational organizations; they are businesses. 

The hardest part about change is not the lack of knowing what to do. We have multiple sets of data to support the need for building our collective knowledge regarding how reading supports writing and vice-versa. No one disagrees that this is an area where our school can improve as a faculty. We are not doing poorly; we simply know we can improve. The hardest part about change is in revisiting current beliefs about literacy and adopting new ones as a faculty.

Our school will continue this work in building our collective professional knowledge about effective literacy instruction. The three beliefs we unanimously agreed upon are a big step in the right direction. We will revisit them at this time next year. It should not be understated that we were able to come together as a team and find consensus on key issues in literacy instruction. These beliefs are now expected to be evident in our teaching and learning, regardless of what a program or resource might expect. I am looking forward to observing how our new beliefs will inform our future practices. 

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Beliefs and Values

You’ve probably experienced this before: While checking out at a local store, the clerk asks if you would like to donate $1 to an important cause or organization. With others in line, you feel a sense of urgency along with a bit of guilt while making a decision.

Recently, I have countered this request with a question of my own:

“Does (insert name of franchise) match my donation?” Every time I have asked, I get one of two responses: “No” or a look of confusion. For the latter, more than once the sales representative has commented that if their store does not, maybe they should.

Our beliefs and our values in schools and districts are too often two different things. For example, schools post their mission and vision in the hallway about offering the best education for all students. Yet they fail to adequately support our most marginalized students. Policies and procedures are developed that cluster low SES students in specific areas. Scripted, one-size-fits-all programs are purchased at once instead of investing in ongoing and embedded professional learning. Classroom libraries and school librarians are viewed as ancillary instead of the essential resources that they are.

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Of course, no school or district is going to proclaim that, due to limited funding and support, not all students may have access to the same high-quality education. Yet is that what is truly stopping us? If we are finding distance between our beliefs (what we say we agree upon) and our values (how we live out our beliefs daily), I have found it helpful to have real conversations and ask honest questions about the current reality. If everyone involved is invited to the table and is allowed to speak candidly about the issues, this can only lead to the start of a better learning culture for our students, staff, and families.

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.