There’s Strength in Being Vulnerable

One of the greatest strengths that literacy leaders can bring to their schools is a willingness and the ability to be vulnerable. We think we need to come into a culture with all of the ideas that will “fix” a situation. Maybe someone gave us this directive. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Being honest about our areas for growth can be a source of strength and can even bring teachers together to become co-leaders of a literacy initiative. This idea of vulnerability arose during a recent house project.

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For two years we have known that our backyard deck, as well built as it might be, did not have an adequate railing. The metal conduit would pop out. A few posts were loose. It got to a point, I think, where we would not spend time in our backyard for the simple fact that it always reminded us of the work that needed to be done.

What was holding us back from fixing it? One word: pride. Specifically, mine. I told myself that I could fix this railing adequately and could avoid hiring a carpenter. Yet after almost two years of no progress, I came to grips with the realization that I needed help. I asked a family friend, an accomplished carpenter, to fix our railing after I had stained some of the boards. In three days, it was done. Since then, we have spent every evening on the back porch with family to enjoy some pre-dinner snacks and drinks.

The point to be made here is, there should be no shame for school leaders in admitting that they may lack knowledge regarding what needs to be known about literacy. Honesty is a great policy. There are several reasons for this.

  • When we admit we don’t know something, we actually increase trust with our faculty. This seems counterintuitive but it is true. When we communicate a gap in our knowledge, we are perceived as more human and fallible. This increases trust. I realize there can be a thin line at times between vulnerability and incompetence, but literacy knowledge is impossible to fake. We either know it or we don’t. Let’s be honest with our faculty as well as with ourselves and start learning.
  • Being honest about our lack of knowledge allows other faculty members to become leaders. If I had been stubbornly prideful to the end, I would not have the nice deck to enjoy today. By being honest about my inexperience and reaching out to more knowledgeable individuals, I gave them a chance to shine and be successful. The same holds true in schools. Principals and other administrators are wise when they lean on their resident experts to guide faculty toward more promising literacy practices.
  • Leaders can position themselves as true learners with faculty when they are vulnerable. In my current school, we recently completed the Regie Routman in Residence: Reading-Writing Connection professional development program. Even though I had already participated in this series at my last elementary school, I was dutiful about rewatching each session with the teachers. I took notes and participated in professional conversations. My modeling of being a lifelong learner is as important as anything I might say during these sessions. Probably more so.

Principals: please don’t leave this post thinking you should air out all of our inadequacies during your first meeting with teachers this fall. That’s not with this is about. Instead, I simply suggest becoming more aware of the areas in which you lack knowledge or experience with regard to excellent literacy instruction. Be honest about this gap. Let others lead when necessary. Be a learner with teachers. After eighteen years as a classroom teacher and administrator, I still come into each September with a feeling of anticipation of what I might discover. Isn’t that the point of education?

What if we are heading in the wrong direction? #litleaders

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

– J.K. Rowling

This question recently cropped up from one of our faculty members. We are deep into exploring the connection between reading and writing, building a foundation for literacy instruction schoolwide. My response was off-the-cuff, sharing some general ideas, but maybe a little too vague and lacking coherence. The source of their concern was likely our high marks on our school report card. Here is what I wanted to say in my preferred mode of communication (writing).

When a school decides to pursue a literacy initiative as a whole faculty, they are already heading in the right direction. Anytime we can get everyone on the same page around reading and writing instruction, we build a common language and understanding for what will occur regularly in each classroom. Actually, the only wrong direction is by making no decision. By allowing everyone to have 100% autonomy in how reading and writing instruction will be delivered in classrooms, we create the conditions for student inequity.

A quality schoolwide literacy initiative should allow for some flexibility with teachers to personalize their approach. There should be enough room for teachers to have voice and choice in how instruction will be delivered. It’s the same thing we want for our students, right? We need to model this belief at every level.

For literacy initiatives that start to feel more closed in the level of autonomy for teachers as time progresses, be sure to check student assessment results. In my previous school, we felt like two years of writing training was possibly too scripted and squeezed some of the voice out of our students’ work. We facilitated a mid-year writing check. Sure enough: lots of structure but little style in students’ writing. As one teacher noted when we debriefed after the assessment, “Our kids will be able to nail a college essay, but do they love writing?” This information guided our decision to come back to a more holistic approach to teaching writing in the classroom.

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Photo by Jamie Templeton on Unsplash

This decision to pursue a more structured writing approach was not wrong; our intentions were good and were based on what we believed our students needed. The only wrong approach would have been to forge ahead with our current efforts, ignoring what our students’ writing was telling us. This is different than what a lot of schools do: jumping from one initiative to the next, year after year. We knew that our students needed consistently strong literacy instruction year after year. Hopping from rock to rock along a stream of new ideas wasn’t going to help our kids become literate individuals, as tempting as it might be.

That’s why decisions for pursuing a schoolwide literacy initiative should be a part of a long-term plan. Three years is probably a minimum. A long-term plan reduces the desire for rock hopping. It’s easier to say “no” to a new and exciting professional learning opportunity when you have a pathway already laid out. Part of this long-term plan should include multiple points of celebration. These opportunities to highlight school success have to be tangible and genuine. In our school, we re-examine our beliefs about literacy, owning new beliefs after a year of schoolwide professional development work. We also set aside the beginning of staff meetings for staff celebrations. Teachers can share quick wins and victories. I also make a point of taking pictures of teachers innovating in their classrooms as they try and apply new strategies. These images are shared and celebrated before we begin learning about a new literacy strategy. All of our celebrations build on where we have been and inspire us to learn more.

That might be the biggest point in a response to this question about heading in the wrong direction: If our intentions are based on students’ needs and teachers’ informed beliefs, and we were are willing to adjust course in light of the evidence, then we cannot make a poor decision. The constant pursuit of becoming better in our practice is always the right choice.

 

 

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%.

Writers Must Read – Wisconsin Writes

This post is to highlight a video series from Marci Glaus for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. The series is titled “Wisconsin Writes“. From the DPI website:

Wisconsin Writes provides a glimpse into example writing processes of Wisconsin writers from a variety of contexts. Each video story featured captures the recursive, complex, often messy process that we call writing from some of the best writers in the state.

In this video, titled “Writers Must Read”, local writers share why it is so important to be a reader if one wants to write well. I thought the video had a great message and unique insights for students and teachers.


I’m currently looking for writers myself: literacy leaders from a variety of positions willing to share their stories and expertise on this blog. If interested or would like more information about participating in this collaborative experience, fill out the form below.

Going Schoolwide with Reading Engagement: How We Got to Now

This is a follow up to a previous post about our school’s collective efforts to increase student engagement in reading, especially in their dispositions around talking about and sharing their reading lives.

“Hey, I have a quote for you.” A second grader had stopped me in the hallway to let me know about his discovery. He comes from the same class in which another student gave me a new metallic marker for our schoolwide reading graffiti board. I asked him to share it with me. We weren’t sure of the source (he discovered it at home among his mother’s collection of clipped quotes), so we searched for it online.

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Oscar Wilde!

As I mentioned in my previous post, it was the students’ turn to have the proverbial pencil in hand. I encouraged him to use second grade handwriting, but his spelling had to be perfect. He didn’t disappoint. Later during morning announcements, I recognized this student for his contribution and encouraged others to participate in this project.

Some Background

I’ve read that the best place to start a story is in the middle. However, our school’s narrative has some background worth sharing. Doesn’t every school?

For the past five years, our K-5 elementary school has focused on the relationship between reading and writing. The first three years we delved into the professional development program Regie Routman in Residence: Reading-Writing Connection. Faculty received learning binders. We watched videos of Regie in action, modeling for students during one of her residencies the process of writing and how what we read influences this craft. Our students’ work, collaboratively assessed through grade level and vertical teams, has shown great gains.

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After finishing the Reading-Writing Connection, faculty wanted to try a different approach to writing. Specifically, they felt that students needed more structure. One teacher had experience with The Write Tools. For two years, we received training in how to teach a variety of text features as readers and writers, such as topic sentences, supporting details, and transitions. The Common Core State Standards were a primary focus.

Structure and Style

Our students’ work followed suit. Kids as young as six years old can now write a fully formed paragraph. Other elementary buildings that visit us (we are a lab school through the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction) comment frequently on the quantity of words per page students produce. Staff members who have spouses teaching in other schools sometimes mention that the student writing produced is comparable with secondary level work. We’ve seen many benefits to this more direct approach to literacy.

But with this structure, we’ve lost some of the style. Kids could clearly write a paragraph, but was the paragraph worth reading? Voice was down while conventions increased. This became clear during our mid-year formative writing assessment check last year, especially during our debriefing about the strengths and weaknesses of our students’ work.

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Even our narrative writing, which should be a strength with our younger students’ vivid imaginations and humor, was suffering from staleness and a lack of personal engagement. One of our teachers summed it up well: “I miss the kids’ stories.”

Multiple Measures

Our debriefing was a powerful wake up call. It wasn’t anything against The Write Tools. Our trainer did a wonderful job. I think it had more to do with our (see: my) approach to benchmarking our students’ writing against the Common Core State Standards. We had standardized our expectations and, subsequently, our instruction. Maybe this works for other disciplines. Reading and writing are not other disciplines. Literacy is as much an affective endeavor as a cognitive one. As Regie Routman has stated in her presentations and writings, “We have to engage our students’ hearts and minds.”

Our collaborative self-assessment led me to investigate other data points. What was discovered corroborated with what we suspected:

  • Engagement in the classroom was scored lower than other areas of instruction within the Danielson Framework for Teaching, our professional evaluation tool. This was found in both teachers’ self-ratings and in my own observations.
  • According to a reading profile survey administered this fall, students had less positive attitudes about talking and sharing about their reading lives in class, compared to the value they place on reading and how they view themselves as readers.
  • In my regular instructional walks, group discussion and higher order questioning (which leads to authentic student conversations) was not observed as frequently as other tenets of literacy engagement, such as choice, authenticity, and feedback.

Triangulating this data with staff, it was apparent that we needed a different approach to professional development for the 2015-2016 school year. This is why we have come back to the Regie Routman in Residence program, this time focused on Writing for Audience and Purpose. We will continue to examine and own those beliefs where we find common ground.

Starting Where We Began

I often hear education described as a pendulum. We go from this end of the initiative spectrum to that one.

This metaphor isn’t working for me. My biggest concern is the connotation that schools are helpless in the face of outside factors. We blame the Common Core, the government, or accountability to the public. But schools can have more control over their destiny than maybe realized.

My preferred metaphor to describe our school’s professional learning community is a journey. We’ve embarked on a path toward a love for learning that is guided by our shared beliefs about literacy. True learning is circuitous and hard to predict where it will lead. Teams’ professional learning journeys were honored this fall, as they illustrated their own pathways toward excellence.

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Our Interventionists’ Journey Toward Excellence

Our organization may venture this way and that, but as long as we keep our focus on our North Star –  authentic and meaningful literacy experiences – our students will become successful readers and writers.

Read to Write, Write to Learn

I want to take a moment to relish in the moment. My first draft for my ASCD Arias book is complete. I realize that it is a school night, and that I have started writing this post at 10:10 P.M., Central Standard Time. The mix of satisfaction and adrenaline will get me through the day tomorrow.

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So why would I want to write, after I just wrote almost 10,000 words for this project? That number is actually relatively small – about 50 pages, as it is a short-form text. I think one factor is I can now write for mostly me, with a little consideration for my audience (see: You). I’ve written over 250 posts here. I love the comments, the shares, and just the simple idea that what I have to say can be available to anyone in the world. That alone is profound.

But to answer that previous question, I want to write because I love writing. And all of this blogging has come to some kind of a product. I have found with writing that at some point, I have to pull together the best of what I have to share in a concise and streamlined format for others. It may be a thesis, an article, an online contribution, or even a book. Although this is my second text I have written, with my digital book published last fall, I still don’t feel like an author. I’ve never taken a course in writing, and I don’t have an English degree.

Nevertheless, my lack of background has not dissuaded me from pursuing what I truly enjoy doing: Writing about what I am passionate about. The learning has largely come from the writing itself. I will post here, infrequently check out the statistics, and analyze why some writing I have published on my blog received more attention than others. Frankly, what I believe is the best of what I have to offer on my blog has not received the greatest amount of attention, and vice versa. While Five Cool Things You Can Do With Your MacBook Air continues to monopolize my views, it is the posts such as Swimming Without Water and Does Intervention Have to Be a Pull-Out? that did not garner a ton of attention but I continue to come back to as a learner and leader.

I think what this shows is that we have to write if we expect to learn, and we have to write what we want to write, or it will become just one more task to complete. Pulling ideas from different sources and experiences into one cogent piece is the best way I know to show understanding. When we allow ourselves the choice in what we want to write about, that motivates us to stay with the process and finish out the piece.

I am not sure what the point of this post might be, other than to document that I finished a project and I am now celebrating, at least internally. Anyone who has published something might laugh, noting that the first draft is only the beginning. I tend to disagree. What I ship off to the editor is as close as I can come to a finished product. My hope is that any suggestions will be minor in nature and easy to revise. If that is not the case, then I probably did not start with a good proposal in the first place.

If you, the reader, are considering a more substantial writing project, such as published work, I cannot recommend enough the importance of writing a lot for yourself online. Blogging is what has helped me more than any other practice, possibly with the exception of reading really good writing. This includes fiction as well as nonfiction. So read and write, and write to learn. Allow yourself to discover where this process might take you.