Frontloading: The Great Equalizer

For years, one of my favorite subjects to read and study about has been the effect of background knowledge on reading comprehension and student achievement. In one of my graduate level ed psych classes, I did a presentation titled “School is So Boring” about how students come to school with different schema and that, depending on what they know, it does not always line up with the expected or assumed background knowledge they would have to have in order to be successful in school.

I’m now a reading specialist for grades 4-6 in Northeast Philadelphia, where my students and I bring varied background knowledge to the table. I’ve actually been thinking about background knowledge and frontloading a lot lately as I recently administered the last F&P Benchmark Assessments of the year. (My school uses these benchmarks to determine which students receive intervention services, and the levels also go on the report cards, but that’s a blog post for another day).

As I read through the section “Excellence 2 – Expert Teaching Through Frontloading”, I highlighted three phrases that stood out to me.

Make no assumptions

You know the saying “you know what happens when you assume…” and I think that this saying holds true in the classroom. Just through observation, it seems to me as if teachers (including myself) make assumptions about what our students know. “They are in ____ grade, so they should know _____.” When we find out they actually don’t know _____, we wonder “well why don’t they know this, they should??!?” But the truth is, it doesn’t really matter what we think our students should know; rather, it matters what they actually *do* know.

In the book, Regie writes that “make no assumptions” applies to our instruction as well. I agree with her thoughts that we should be constantly assessing our teaching to make sure that our students are getting the most out of our instruction. Just because something worked before with another group of students doesn’t mean that it will work with another group of students, or even with the same group of students on a different day!

Make it smart to ask questions

Through informal talks with my students, I have discovered that many of them are hesitant to ask questions in a large group setting for fear of being embarrassed, or because they feel as if they “should” know certain things that they don’t, for whatever reason (which is irrelevant, in my opinion, because our responsibility is to meet students where they are, not where we think they should be).

Asking questions is so smart! I mean, what do adults do when we don’t know something? We get on our devices and Google it! From correct pronunciation of a word to knowing when to use “i.e. vs e.g.”, information is incredibly easy to access. So why should it be different for students? Why create a stigma around asking questions? Asking relevant questions shows that our students are engaged in the material – they want to know more about what they’re reading. That hunger for learning should be encouraged.

Check to be sure students understand the purpose

Like the previous point, I considered this phrase from an adult perspective. If I am being asked to read something or do a task, I like to know why I’m doing it. Bonus points if the reason benefits me. I think it’s the same for our students. If students can see the value in why they’re doing something (Regie writes “‘…Then I want you to do the same kind of thinking when you read ______, so you can become an expert reader.’”) they take ownership of the task and are seem more likely to put effort into the task. My students love when I call them “good readers”! They know that reading is the key to so many things, so they have that buy-in when I ask them to do a task like read through the whole word or use sticky notes to jot down facts and information from a non-fiction text.

I know that I can be cynical about posting SWBAT, IOT on my board, but since I’ve started rephrasing it for the students (rather than administration), I feel much more focused on actually letting my students know why we are doing something.

So back to frontloading, and why I am so interested in it. The benchmark assessments are limited, in my opinion, because they ask for very specific background knowledge in order to be scored as proficient. There is one passage in particular, about hawks in the city, that my students seem to bomb every benchmarking season, regardless of their reading level. It took a while, but I finally came to the conclusion that my students were bombing it because the entire comprehension section was based on the assumption that students knew hawks typically lived in the country. My urban students have never seen a hawk in their lives, so they don’t know this. When I told them “hawks typically don’t live in the city,” it changed almost their ENTIRE response to the comprehension questions and understanding of the passage.

Interesting.

By simply providing students with this little piece of information, their understanding of the text improved so much! And this took less than one minute to do this simple frontloading. Imagine if I would have spent even more time frontloading! Until textbooks and educational materials become more diverse and representative of all our students, frontloading will be one of the most important ways that we can prepare all of our student for success, regardless of their background or experience.

This post is part of a book study around Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Check out more resources associated with the text at this website (https://sites.stenhouse.com/literacyessentials/), including a free curriculum for teaching an undergraduate course using Literacy Essentials.

Is joy the main event at your school?

When we work in a school, especially at this time of year, we all have much to think about and do. It is easy to get lost in the ‘to-do’ lists and lose track of the ‘why we became educators’ in the first place.

Now is the perfect time to pause.

When we pause to celebrate all that is around us, it refuels our minds, bodies and hearts so that we can walk these final steps with joy. In the final weeks of school it is more important than ever to pick joy back up. We can use joy to energize and focus our final opportunities of this year and guide our planning into next year.

Some of you may be deeply sighing and thinking, yes! While others are thinking joy sounds nice but come on, what does joy in our schools really mean? Thankfully Regie Routman offers some practical actions in her latest book Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence and Equity for All Learners (2018).

Routman remains steadfast in her commitment towards joy in her new book. She reminds us:

“Joy is the main event. In my work in schools, the main reasons the teachers and principals “buy in” is not because test scores go up – and they do – and  not because kids become better readers and writers – which they do. It’s because the work and the learning are so joyful for students, teachers and principals.”

When thinking about creating and maintaining joyful schools, Routman suggests three main leverage points: the physical environment, the social-emotional environment, and the intellectual environment.

 The Physical Environment

 The physical spaces in our schools, or ‘The Third Teacher’, can “add a sense of order, comfort, and calm that can make engagement, productivity and enjoyment more likely” (Routman, 2018, p. 40). What do you see when you intentionally look around and analyze your physical space? How does this change when you invite a new set of eyes to look with you? When we invite students, parents and/or colleagues to walk and talk with us and share their impressions of our learning spaces, we have the opportunity to see our spaces through new eyes.

Start at the front door of your school. Wander through your shared learning spaces and your classrooms asking what beliefs and learning are made visible. What is the culture reflected in your physical environment? How does your physical environment support the beliefs you collectively hold and are working towards?

In my work with teachers I have used this Literacy-Rich Classroom Discussion Guide to analyze school-wide learning spaces and open up dialogue. Teachers feel good about celebrating what is already in place and are usually open to choosing one area to approach with more intention. As educators, we can feel joyful about designing intentional learning spaces that invite students to engage with literacies in new ways.

The Social-Emotional Environment

 Routman’s attention to both students and staffs’ social-emotional learning felt like a warm hug when I read her words. This is a tough time of year for educators and it is important we take care of ourselves as we care for our students. I felt her suggestion to ‘take back time’ was an important one at this time of year. We have precious days left so we need to make sure they count. Take the five minutes you need to recharge – be it through a quick chat with a colleague or a quiet walk outside at lunch. As educators it is important to take care of our own social-emotional state with the same commitment and care we offer each day to our students.

One caution Routman (2018) reminds us is that, “it’s easy to organize our classrooms to fit our own needs and personal styles and to forget what it was like to be a child… “ (p. 52). If you are a leader, take the time to check in with staff and see what they need to finish the year with success. For those who teach in the classroom, consider how you might open up opportunities to check in with your students. Sometimes it’s as simple as standing at the school or classroom door and bookending the day with a smile, the question “How are you?”, and a pause to let them know you really care about their answer.

 The Intellectual Environment

 Sometimes joy and serious learning are mistakenly considered in opposition to each other. An intellectual environment is a key component in joyful literacy environments – “Joy comes from the celebration we do of teachers’ and students’ strengths and efforts” (Routman, 2018). In my work with educators, we have scheduled year-end meetings with celebration as our key focus. Scheduling time to reflect on professional learning and student learning has been a gift. Make time to celebrate with your learning community – trust me, the stories invite laughter, tears of joy and provide the energy to take us through the final steps of this school year. The joyful stories also provide us with tangible first steps when planning for next year’s success.

For students, engagement comes from a culture that “kids can sense is real and true” (Ripley, 2013, cited by Routman, 2018, p. 60). Our final days of learning need to be our most intellectually engaging. Plan lessons that you cannot wait to explore with your students. Fill your shelves and your read aloud times with new books to keep your students reading and talking. Consider your last weeks together as a school version of an advent calendar. Every day can become an exciting opportunity when we decide it will be. This includes time to nurture and follow our students and our own passions, as well as ‘relaxing our grip’ and just enjoying the learning time we have in our final moments of this school year.

I want to end this post with a special thank you to Regie Routman for her continued commitment to joyful literacy and providing practical suggestions for leaders and teachers in her book Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence and Equity for All Learners (2018). Regie continues to be a light that helps me find my footing when I stumble.

Thinking about joyful literacy and your own experiences, what can you add to this post? How do you make sure joy remains the main event at your school?

This post is part of a book study around Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Check out more resources associated with the text at this website (https://sites.stenhouse.com/literacyessentials/), including a free curriculum for teaching an undergraduate course using Literacy Essentials.

Why Celebrating Our Students Is Worth It

I know I am not alone in this, but I absolutely love the idea of intentionally spending time on building community in our classrooms. When we think about engagement, all too often our minds go to students being engaged in a particular subject or activity, when engagement is so much more. In a time where discipline issues, students facing trauma, and larger class sizes seem to be plaguing nearly every educator I know, it is all the more important to be able to celebrate each other.

In Chapter 2 titled Celebrating Learners, Routman describes how essential it is to “notice and celebrate everything the learner has done well” and also points out that teachers who feel as though they are regularly celebrated by their administrator are more likely to remain in a school. Could lack of celebration be a part of why teachers are leaving the profession in droves? Could lack of celebration be why out students are being less and less engaged? My guess is yes!

So, when I read this chapter, I felt a strong nudge, or maybe even a gut punch to celebrate more and worry less, to think more positively, to notice others, and to be better about encouraging others. The “Take Action” steps that Routman outlines will serve me as a checklist when expressing gratitude and appreciation:

  • Do your part to promote a positive and joyful culture
  • Model joyful learning and teaching
  • Take more time to celebrate small victories
  • Plan occasions for the staff to socialize
  • Reevaluate how planning and instructional time is spent
  • Leave school at a reasonable hour
  • Recognize that change takes time

“We all need to become gifted at showing gratitude and make visible for others and ourselves the little and big things we appreciate.”

I couldn’t agree more! Practicing an attitude of gratitude does make us feel better – not only about each other, but about ourselves.

When we challenge ourselves to think of what each of us can bring to the table, not just the adults, but the students as well, we will begin the see the value in each other. There were so many incredible nuggets of information that I took away from this chapter such as finding a learner’s strengths before their needs, and considering a person’s gifts. When we seek to celebrate our students, this is building an unmistakable community in our classrooms, in our schools, and the larger community as well. This chapter has reinvigorated me in an otherwise drained time of the school year. I can’t wait to celebrate with my staff and our students!

This post is part of a book study around Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Check out more resources associated with the text at this website (https://sites.stenhouse.com/literacyessentials/), including a free curriculum for teaching an undergraduate course using Literacy Essentials.

 

Agency in the Classroom

I’m pretty new to this whole blogging world. Honestly, I didn’t start blogging until the spring of 2017 and that was as a requirement for one of my graduate classes. I never turned on the “public” settings, so basically, only my professor and classmates had access to the words I put out there in my first attempts at blogging.  I’m both anxious and excited about blogging in a more public arena.

What exactly is agency anyway?  I found myself asking that question early on in my quest to achieve my 316 certification.  After researching and writing a piece on it, I think the best explanation I can give is that agency refers to the culture and mindset within one’s classroom. The mindset of both the teacher and the students that leads to greater ownership on the part of the students.  Ownership over portions of the learning, both physical and academic where students have a voice and a choice. The simple fact is, when students have more ownership over the how and why, engagement goes up significantly.

I chose to start with the topic of agency because it has personal meaning for me as an educator.  Not all that long ago, I felt as though I was stuffed into a teaching box. As a side effect, I felt my students being placed in boxes as well.  Only able to choose from the book bin that had books on their “level”. No books above, none below. They couldn’t even choose within a grade level band, only the bin that had their perceived “level” based on one piece of evidence.  As a teacher I felt stifled, disheartened, and angry. The experience left me thirsting for the knowledge and expertise derived from decades of research that purports the value of agency. I started reading whatever I could get my hands on that supported my thinking about student agency.  So you can imagine my joy when I opened up Regie’s book to find an entire chapter on engagement!

Engagement is a huge piece of agency.  Regie states, “How can we engage students, spark curiosity, and promote inquiry in a manner that propels a burning desire to read, write, question and learn more?”  She goes on to say, “Without a passion for learning, students don’t remember much of value or consider the time spent on a topic, an assignment, or a study worthwhile. And neither do we.” (81) I have seen this firsthand within myself and with my students. When they have no voice, no choice, in what and how they learn, behaviors increase and engagement drops significantly.

I find that there’s a caveat though…this delicate balance between offering too much agency and not enough agency.  I struggle with it. Every. Single. Year. Partly because, despite having 21 years of teaching under my belt, I seem to have this problem of releasing the students to independence too quickly in the fall.  I want them to be ready, like the students who left me the previous spring, but somehow that doesn’t usually pan out as I envision. The best scenario happens when I have looped students multiple years. Then…yes, they are ready more quickly because they have been in my room, know and understand how things run in my classroom, and can help mold the newbies into students for whom agency early in the school year is successful.  

I love how Regie includes that student engagement is largely a thinking shift. Moving from “How do we get kids to revise and edit? to “How do we engage students’ hearts and minds in a highly relevant, meaningful way?” (83) I believe this shift begins when we truly know our students and value things that are personally meaningful to them. I read a post last fall, although I can’t remember exactly who posted it….about learning ten non-academic things about each child in your class before being ready to teach them.  It’s a challenge I embraced that really made me more mindful of my students when planning reading and writing activities. When we truly know them, it makes finding that engagement piece and being able to offer agency a whole lot easier.

Agency in the classroom is something that I believe all educators, literacy leaders, principals, and parents need to advocate for.  I think Matt said it well in his post titled “How Do We Create a Community of Readers. It’s that “Shared understanding of the WHY, that creates buy-in.”  Allowing students to have some agency…an opportunity to have some ownership over not only their learning, but also the physical arrangement of the room, that creates a different kind of culture of learners.  A culture where kids truly are a part of the decision making that drives the what, where and how of their educational experience.

This post is part of a book study around Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Check out more resources associated with the text at this website, including a free curriculum for teaching an undergraduate course using Literacy Essentials. 

How do we create a community of readers? @StenhousePub #litessentials

I long ago lost count the number of mistakes I have made as a school principal and literacy leader. My errors are often the product of not practicing what I preach as it relates to effective literacy instruction for students.

For example, I created a vision board in our staff lounge and invited faculty to join me in adding to it.

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Can you guess how many contributions staff have made to it? If you said “zero”, you are wiser than I was in the beginning. I even added the title “Vision Board” to the top to be clear about what it was. Similarly, I attempted to host a staff book club using Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s memoir, encouraging teachers to respond in writing to a part of the text. A few teachers wrote pieces at first, but the project faded over the course of the year.

Initially, I felt guilty about the time and resources spent in developing these activities. At one point, I even experienced resentment that the faculty did not respond more positively. When a teacher expressed concern on behalf of colleagues that they didn’t have the time, I was tempted to counter with “Then how can we be okay with expecting our students to read 20 minutes a night, or demanding that students’ parents sign off on their reading logs each evening?”

Of course, if I had expressed these feelings, it would not have ended well. Even if I were right, it wouldn’t have been the right response. Teachers likely would have become upset by my reaction. Negative feelings could have been created around a literacy activity, which was counterintuitive to my purpose of building a community of readers.

What is the goal?

Mistakes can be reframed as opportunities for learning, instead of stewing on them or feeling guilty about initially unsuccessful actions. In the case of the two activities I described here, I learned through reflection that I didn’t involve faculty in the development of them. I was creating something for the staff instead of co-creating the experience with them. This omission resulted in a lack of engagement and ownership in the work, which led to little to no empowerment of faculty to help lead and guide this community-building experience.

So where does this leave us? How can we co-create a community of readers as a faculty with the larger goal of modeling for our students what we want to see in their lives as literate individuals? When I don’t have the answers, I turn to people wiser than me. In this case, Regie Routman offers an entire section of her new book Literacy Essentials on engagement.

Regie defines engagement as “the attention, commitment, and eagerness learners show in inquiring, creating, and responding to a question or a learning opportunity” (6). This understanding is different than how one might initial describe engagement. It’s good to clarify that engagement is not just focusing our mind on the task at hand; it is becoming emotionally and cognitively involved in the process of the learning experience. When I asked our teacher to participate in the community activities, there was no opportunity for them to commit. Additionally, they had little involvement in the creation of the vision board or the book club.

Spring is an opportune time to rethink our upcoming professional learning experiences. Our instructional leadership team and I are discussing next year’s focus on deepening our understanding of effective reading instruction and applying these practices to the classroom. With these teacher leaders, we decided to spend the first three months of the coming fall to do a deep dive into self-selected resources on the topic. We generated a list of books, online resources, and even possible site visits to other schools as options for teachers to take advantage of in the fall. In addition, all faculty will have the option to add resource options to this list. Voice and choice would be paramount in our work.

To emulate a true learning community, we have plans to facilitate a book club-like atmosphere once a month during our weekly PLC time. Time would be provided to read/explore the resources, discuss the information in self-selected groups, and report back to the whole faculty about what was learned. My anticipated role will be to document our increased understanding visibly, such as through a KWL. At the end of this experience, teachers could also be invited (not expected) to provide reviews for the resources they explored and encourage colleagues to continue learning once this deep dive had ended.

The Paradox of School Leadership

As administrators, we feel the pressure to have our students perform at high levels of success. This expectation can lead to principals chasing excellence without first engaging the faculty and students in this collaborative journey. It is the wrong pathway. The paradox of school leadership is that in order to achieve schoolwide student success, we have to give up some level of control over the process. Yet the best results we can hope to attain in our schools is a product of a shared vision and plan we can all celebrate.

Literacy Essentials: A Video Introduction with Regie Routman @StenhousePub #litessentials

We are kicking off our book club with a video from Regie Routman, author of the text we will be reading and responding to together: Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellent, and Equity for All Learners (Stenhouse, 2018).
 

Next are titles for upcoming posts here related to Regie’s excellent resource.

  • How can we create a community of readers?
  • Why celebrating with our students is worth it
  • Agency in the Classroom
  • Inviting students into learning: Literacy-rich learning spaces
  • Expert Teaching through Frontloading
  • How can reading conferences work in math?

This online book study is open to all educators. We encourage readers to respond in the comments to posts and create a conversation around this professional learning.

Recommended Additional Resource: Angela Watson: A Conversation with Regie Routman