Encourage collaboration.

It’s a beautiful thing, the excitement of learning alongside a peer. The trust and community that develops by believing in one another.  True for adults and children, staff and students.

Shared learning experiences build community and relationships.  The beginning of Regie Routman’s Literacy Essentials focuses on developing trust, “Get to know students, and help them get to know each other” (p. 14).  Without prioritizing the establishment of trusting relationships, teaching efforts are likely to fail. Not only on the first day of school, or when welcoming a new student into the room- throughout the year, trust matters.  By creating opportunities for students to work collaboratively together, they will support one another as learners, help one another as friends, and respect one another in the community. There are many names for the topic of this post: Peer learning, collaborative learning, cooperative groups, shared learning, buddies, partner work.  Whatever you call it, I hope it fosters joy, trust, and engagement in your classroom.  Continue reading “Encourage collaboration.”

Embedding Professional Learning

Our journey to excellence in teaching begins with a commitment to professional learning.

-Regie Routman

I am lucky enough to work in a school that believes in this so much that they allocate the money to have me on staff working with teachers in their classrooms every single day. Yes, that’s right. Every. Single. Day. Every Teacher. This beautiful hidden gem of a school only has one teacher per grade level K-4 so I get to be in their classrooms, learning side by side with the teacher and the students in every grade level every single day. My school lives what Regie calls professional learning over professional development and that is not easy to do. Imagine the teachers’ thoughts and feelings in this tiny school when they hired yet another support staff member (cue eye roll) instead of allocating the money towards their budgets or a teacher’s assistant. However, after one year, I think we have all realized now the power of having this kind of consistent learning that is specifically “connected to classroom practice and geared toward fostering collegial collaboration” (Routman, 2018).

This year we all focused on writing with an emphasis on giving kids time to write every single day with purpose and an audience in mind. We worked towards creating a common language across the grade levels along with building writing skills and expectations from grade to grade. This is exactly the kind of collegial collaboration that is talked about in Literacy Essentials as being the kind of long-term growth and sustainability that schools strive for. Teachers are crazy busy and barely have time to go to the bathroom let alone talk to a colleague about best practices. Cue me. Showing up for them and with them every single day. I could tell the first-grade teacher what was happening in kindergarten and second grade. I could make her feel like she was a part of a bigger picture when teachers sometimes feel like they are on an island. I was able to not only ask, “How is it going?” but actually see how it was going. Turns out it was going well, really well.

As educators, we could reflect every single day on what we saw and what we could do next. I brought resources they didn’t have time to track down, I found research supporting their thoughts and beliefs and I cheered them on as they went out of their comfort zones to try new things. We only met as a group when the topic affected the whole group. I didn’t have to call meetings where people felt disrespected for using their precious time for things that don’t pertain to them. Individual issues, questions, and concerns were talked about and worked through each day during their classroom practice. I was able to glean and share our set of shared beliefs around writing and help the busy teachers keep a focus on those beliefs. We made a difference in our community of writers, in their enthusiasm for sharing their words with the world, their ability to grow as writers and it reflected (thank goodness) in their test scores. Teachers are now more confident when they talk to writers and have the common language to help support them.

I know our situation is an enigma, I know that you are probably not in this same situation and can think of a thousand reasons why this wouldn’t work for you, I know how lucky we are. I ask you though to instead focus on what can be done. If you are a coach and can’t physically be in each teacher’s classroom every day, what can you do to help if just in small ways? How can you facilitate communication between the teachers and help build collaboration? If you are a classroom teacher could you use your fellow colleagues as coaches when one person can’t do it all, or share in the responsibility for your learning and reflect on your practice even if someone isn’t there to push you? These are all thoughts Mrs. Routman shares with us in Literacy Essentials.

Professional learning over professional development works. When teachers are the “Lead Learners” in the classroom not only by words but by action, they inspire their student learners each and every day. I have lived it, seen the power of it, and can’t wait to see what next year brings.

Teaching and Scaffolding Student Talk

One of the strongest draws towards reading Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence and Equity for All Learners has been the many research-based practices offered by Routman and the different educators participating in this book study. Every blog post I read takes me back into Routman’s words with new eyes. It is a powerful reminder of how book clubs can support reading as a social practice, leading to deeper thinking and understanding of texts. Looking back over the last two months there are posts and discussions about: readers and writers; choice, agency and engagement; assessment; intervention; professional development; and, relationships and community. If you are just finding out about this book study now, I encourage you to read Routman’s book and the #litessentials posts that continue to provoke much thinking and discussion.

For my post today, I’d like to pick back up the importance of student talk that Routman (2018) addresses in her section on Equity (p. 304 – 309) and that Ryanne touched on in her previous post. Both Ryanne and Routman identify classroom conversations as one way to rebalance the power dynamics in and out of classrooms so that all students are valued and heard. Routman tasks us “to make sure our students, all of them, become master language manipulators in order to communicate in whatever format they are using” (p. 305). In order to help our students become master language manipulators it is first important to understand language registers.

Language registers consider the level of formality – the purpose, audience, topic and location of the communication (Montano-Harmon, , n.d.)

  • Frozen or static register rarely changes and is scripted ex. prayers or laws.
  • Formal register is impersonal and one-way ex. speeches.
  • Consultative register is bound by expectations and includes professional discourse ex. academic talk.
  • Casual/informal register is the type of conversations you have with different social groups you belong to such as friends, teammates and email exchanges.
  • Intimate register is reserved for private communication with close family members.

Our students bring their knowledge of casual and intimate registers with them to school, but for many of our students, they have not yet learned how to engage in more formal registers. To support students to use the more formal consultative register, Routman encourages teachers to incorporate scaffolded conversations (p. 305). In this video with third grader Liam, you can hear Routman’s suggestion to “put the language in his ear”. Scaffolding talk is not providing the student more thinking time or increased opportunities for talk. Scaffolding talk is when the teacher supports the student by offering the vocabulary, syntax and support they need to express their ideas in academic ways.

Routman (2015) provides additional suggestions to teach and provide opportunities to develop and practice academic talk (p. 308), thus developing students’ abilities to fully communicate in a variety of situations:

  • promote avid reading
  • do more partner work, turn and talk, and small group work
  • suggest specific vocabulary to the student

I would add social platforms such as Flipgrid and Padlet to the list above, in order to invite more introverted students into a safe space and to also build a third space between school and home for students to practice more formal registers.

Routman’s suggestion to “help the student recall unique language” (p. 308) is one I feel is especially useful to consider at this time of year. As we begin to think about how we will set up our schools and classrooms for the next school year, how might the walls become scaffolds for academic talk?

Below are two examples from a fifth grade classroom: a conversation anchor chart and an academic word wall (Moench, 2017).

IMG_3183.jpg       IMG_3202.jpg

Typically as teachers we really like to talk and are quite good at it. As we think about how to rebalance the power between teacher and student talk time, and provide equitable talk time for all of our students, we need to make some intentional changes in our practices and our learning environments. In her chapter on Equity, Routman (2018) has provided us with some practical starting points. What suggestions can you add? How have you supported student talk in your space?

How will you teach and support student talk for equity in your classrooms?

Thanks for reading!

Heather

Digging Deeper to Better Inform Your Literacy Instruction @StenhousePub #litessentials

As a reading interventionist, I am required to administer a universal screening tool to kindergarten through second grade students three times per school year.  Screening tools are considered an important part of Response to Intervention (RTI)/Multi-Tier System of Supports (MTSS).  The idea is that when we screen all students we are able to see the impact of our instruction and identify students who are not progressing at the same rate as their on-grade level peers.

Regie Routman, in her book Literacy Essentials:  Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners, writes that information from assessments should “improve the quality of teaching and learning” (p. 312).  Most universal screening tools are not able to give specific diagnostic information that can inform our instruction.  In order to effectively plan for intervention services, we need to use other tools to help us to dig deeper to find out more specific information about the strengths and needs of our struggling readers.

The following are some of the skills frequently tested on screening tools and what I do to gather more information.

Letter Sounds

Rather than relying solely on an assessment that times students as they attempt to quickly make letter sounds, I like to administer a dictated sentence.  A dictated sentence allows me to see how the child works with sounds within a more authentic task.  A dictated sentence also allows me to see what the child understands regarding concepts about print such as writing left to right, top to bottom, putting spaces between words, etc.

Nonsense Words

I am not going to go into the many reasons why assessing students using nonsense words is utter nonsense in this post.  I will say that I want all of the interactions children have with text to be meaningful.  To take a closer look at how students are able to use their letter-sound knowledge and problem solve unknown words, I find that taking a running record while the student reads an authentic text to be very useful.

Timed Reading Passages

Timed reading passages are supposed to be a measure of fluency but let me be clear- they are not.  They measure the speed of the reading and neglect all other areas of fluency.  Some major flaws with timed reading passages are:

  • they do not value meaningful comments made by the child or productive problem-solving, multiple attempts (perseverance)
  • they send the message that reading is about speed not meaning
  • they under-value other important dimensions of fluency such as intonation, reading the punctuation marks, and reading in meaningful phrases
  • they can falsely inflate the number of students in need of support

While listening to a student read I observe and jot down anecdotal notes about how their reading sounds valuing all of the dimensions of fluency.

In regards to standardized testing Regie feels that there are two larger issues at hand:

  • Lack of trust of teachers leading to a need for “accountability”
  • Standardized tests lead to big bucks for companies

I worry that our assessing and focus on isolated skills sends students mixed messages.

“Not to be minimized, an overemphasis on isolated skills, teaching-to-the-test often crowds out teaching for understanding.” 

~ Regie Routman, p. 312

Standardized tests can lead to many problems:

  • Teaching to the test despite knowledge of best practices
  • Unfair distribution of services – services directed to those students who are closest to passing the test, rather than those who need it most
  • “Quick fix” programs that focus on skills, not meaning, to be followed with fidelity

I think that we need to ask ourselves what our priorities are for our students.

Do we want students who might be able to speed read, decode like a pro, but have no true value for reading?

or

Do we want students who love reading and always engage with text in a meaningful way?

Frequent on-going formative assessments that are based on students’ needs and interests can inform daily instruction and improve student learning.  To be effective teachers we need to be observing, questioning, and responding to students’ needs as we teach.

Please re-think practices like teaching to the test!!  I am just astounded by the amount of test prep materials available on websites like Teachers Pay Teachers.  There are actually worksheets available for early readers to practice reading nonsense words and even practice speed reading passages galore.  Our students need us to teach with a sense of urgency and not waste precious time with these purposeless tasks.  I promise you that an increased amount of authentic purposeful reading and writing (along with intentional & thoughtful teaching) will help your students to enjoy reading and writing and be career and college ready.

While universal screening tools are considered an important component of RTI/MTSS,  most commercial screening tools will not go deep enough to inform your instruction.  Our students are counting on us to dig deeper past the numbers and fancy graphs.  Take a moment to consider how you might take a closer look at your students’ reading and writing by providing them with more authentic tasks.  Daily formative assessments will allow us to teach responsively while addressing each of our student’s needs.  When thinking about assessments keep Regie’s words in mind,

“Our assessment mindset needs to be this:  instruction and assessment must go hand in hand, and they must improve the quality of teaching and learning.  Question any assessment that does not ultimately benefit the learner” (p. 312).

 

Why Professional Development is Essential

As professional educators, we are called to embark on a journey of continual self-improvement and lifelong learning. But, what the journey looks like isn’t a one size fits all approach. This should sound similar, right? I mean we don’t approach the students in our classroom as though everyone learns in the same way, so why would we approach our own professional learning as though we need exactly what our teaching partner down the hall needs? Professional learning must be a part of our schoolwide culture, and this is evident in the “Take Action” portion of Embedding Professional Learning – Make Professional Learning a Priority. What a wonderful call to action outlined here:

  • Seek to make professional conversations integral to school life – this includes thoughtful, probing conversations that propel forward.
  • Stay focused on the literacy emphasis – targeted study of fewer, more powerful practices over a longer period of time in order to sustain change and improve results.
  • Establish teams that work well together – forge connections of open communication and clear goals across all grade levels.
  • Take responsibility for your own professional learning – join professional organizations, social media, book studies, conferences and become a part of your school’s professional learning leadership team.
  • Collaborate with colleagues – coach each other, build in time for collaborative conversations where you can push each other to solidify your thinking.
  • Participate in coaching experiences – having a trusting culture allows for a coaching experience to exist and creates the potential to greatly improve teaching through collaborating, planning, and co-teaching.
  • Evaluate the role and influence of any adopted program – figure out how to adapt, modify, or work around the program, as programs serve as resources and frameworks, not total curriculums.
  • Keep a reflection notebook – keep a notebook handy to keep a record of your thinking, insights, and questions.

These steps provide such a wonderful guide to get us thinking about how professional development can serve us. As an instructional coach, my primary role is to facilitate professional learning FOR teachers. I emphasize the FOR because I never want professional learning to be “done to” teachers. Professional learning, when done well, uses a teacher’s strengths and their curiosity to propel student learning forward.

I am a self-proclaimed nerd. I love to read professionally, attend conferences, and join professional organizations. You can find me “relaxing” by reading from one of the stacks of books that I have selected to become extremely excited about. I would consider myself to be a lifelong student, and I truly enjoy what I do. I enjoy being around children students as I do adult students. I love the way this chapter was written because once again, Regie Routman nails it on the head in so many ways with so many wonderful nuggets of learning in this chapter that I may have underlined nearly the whole chapter.

Again and again, I saw the importance of personal reflection in this chapter. The heart of professional learning should be about reflection – reflection of student learning, student and personal needs, philosophy, shared leadership, professional readings, and research. Teachers are powerful human beings by nature and seeking each other out to learn from one another’s expertise should also be a noted valuable tool that is mentioned repeatedly in this chapter. Your professional learning journey will no doubt shape not only your teaching, but it will challenge you to find, mentors that inspire growth and change within yourself. Who knows, you could quite possibly become one of those mentors that we read about someday.

Check out all of the posts from this book study by going to the Literacy Essentials webpage. There, you can select different articles to read and respond to and continue the conversation in the comments. In addition, consider joining our new Google+ Community to extend these discussions and connect with other literacy leaders.

Re-envisioning Roles

It’s easy to get caught up in the quick fix of doing the task, presenting the question that gives one quick response, and providing the immediate answer when a student approaches us. After all, we are under strict time constraints, the tests are always looming, and there’s those dang mandated curriculums to cover.  Come to think of it, that’s not even factoring in the students sitting in front of us, all seeming to need our attention at the same moment. So yeah, I get it, and in the short run, doing the task, asking for one correct response, just giving the answer… all seem feasible and even manageable. However…in the long run, it’s the students who lose out.  We do the exact opposite of what we truly intend, and thus create students who play the “School game.” Students who want to know exactly what they need to do for “said” grade. Kids who are constantly looking for a reward, kids who are trained to be compliant rather than curious. Kids who seemingly give up the moment the going gets a little tough.

In my experience teaching lower elementary, especially when I was first starting out and didn’t know any better, I was guilty of exactly what Regie talks about in the section on Equity-  Unintentionally disadvantaging and disabling my students by doing all the work for them, rather then guiding them towards self sufficiency and self regulation. She says it best, “…we disadvantage and disable kids by thwarting and delaying the development of competencies that lead to growing self-confidence and self-reliance.  Students develop self-regulation and self-sufficiency only when we teach for it and expect it” (p.347). Regie goes on to say that one of the best ways to develop this characteristic of self-determining, self-evaluating learners is through student-directed, small-group work. How does one go about creating this dynamic? It starts on day one.  Coming together as a community of learners. Co-creating the norms and expectations, giving students a voice…when these things are in place, the rest also falls into place.

Many years ago, the 2 Sisters, Gail Boushey and Joan Moser started me on a better path toward creating self-directed, self-evaluating learners. Their book, The Daily 5 was instrumental in helping me renew my teaching practice. It was through them that I first learned about the “Gradual release of responsibility method”.  Reading similar sentiments about how to engage and empower students through Regie’s lens in Literacy Essentials affirms the value of honoring students through voice and choice.  It’s about establishing ground rules through a shared creation of norms with your students. Co-creating anchor charts and classroom expectations, modeling and practicing the right way, wrong way, and the right way yet again. Asking more thought-provoking questions, and putting the thinking where it needs to be- On The Student. Talking less and listening more.

Even kindergarteners are capable of having ownership of the learning and learning environment when we co-create the norms and expectations. I was astounded with how capable they actually were!  Sure, they might not always have the stamina or resilience to make good choices 100% of the time, but most of the time they were much more engaged and self-reliant through this process than when I was the one controlling everything about the learning environment. It’s the same with my first graders. And if we are brutally honest, even adults aren’t on task and making good choices 100% of the time; it’s just part of human nature. Once you make the deliberate move to shift your thinking and teaching toward practices that engage and empower your students, you won’t ever go back.  

A huge part of this shift in our thinking about how we teach involves a focus on the part of talk. When we, as the teacher, are doing most of the talking (lecturing, question asking, answer providing), then we are also consequently doing most of the work.  On p. 338, Regie talks about finding the balance and about embracing conversations in the classroom. Conversations where all voices are heard and valued and there is no threat of a hidden agenda.  Conversations that ignite and drive curiosity. Conversations that involve the teacher as an integral part of the learning, not just dispensing the learning. I love this quote from Regie, “Balancing the power in the room leads to a better power balance outside the room” (p.338).  To me this means, not just balancing the power outside the classroom, but of a balance reaching far further than school walls.

Much to the end that Regie encapsulates with the following quote, “Empowered students come to believe they have agency in their lives, that they have the ability to implement positive changes for themselves and others” (p. 338). This. Isn’t this what we hope for all students?

Check out all of the posts from this book study by going to the Literacy Essentials webpage. There, you can select different articles to read and respond to and continue the conversation in the comments. In addition, consider joining our new Google+ Community to extend these discussions and connect with other literacy leaders.

Choice: A Key Ingredient for Teaching and Learning

As I teacher, I have often worried about the curriculum I am required to teach and how I am going to fit it all in on any given day. It always feels like too much and I constantly feel as though I am telling my students what to write about and how to write it. But I have often wondered what it would be like if my students had choice in what they wrote and how they wrote it.

When I was teaching third grade and determining my dissertation topic, I decided to explore the topic of choice in writing with my students and how that affected their attitudes towards writing and themselves as writers. That year, yes, I taught the required writing curriculum. But, I also made sure to give my students time to write on their topics of choice as well as choice in how they presented their writing. It was amazing to see the results. Students who strongly disliked writing learned to enjoy writing because they were given that choice to follow their passions. Sure, I had to read numerous stories about video games I knew nothing about, but my students were enjoying writing. Choice made a difference.

In her book, Literacy Essentials, Regie Routman states, “we get far greater results–not to mention better engagement, enjoyment, and higher quality of work–when students have some choice in what they do” (p. 90). How true this is. There are so many benefits to choice, as Routman mentions, yet we so often feel restrained by curriculum and standards that we are afraid to offer choice. I love the simple suggestions that Routman suggests for offering choice, not just in writing, but in reading as well: offer choice within a required genre, offer choice in how to complete an activity, offer choices for real-world writing and reading. Could this really be accomplished within any given curriculum? I say yes, with some thoughtful planning.

I challenge you in the upcoming school year to look at your curriculum and standards, searching for where you could offer students just a little choice in their reading and writing. Maybe it is choice in which novel they will be reading or which book their group is reading during guided reading. Maybe it is how to present their research findings in a way other than just a research project. Whatever it may be, don’t be afraid to give it a try. You just might be amazed by the results that offering choice can have for your students and for you as a teacher.

Check out all of the posts from this book study by going to the Literacy Essentials webpage. There, you can select different articles to read and respond to and continue the conversation in the comments. In addition, consider joining our new Google+ Community to extend these discussions and connect with other literacy leaders.