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.

 

Comics and Graphic Novels: Honoring All Literacies

I was only partially surprised when a librarian mentioned to me that in her school, graphic novels were not seen as quality literature by some of the teachers. This discussion was prompted by a note a former student had written to her recently.

Thank you for letting me read graphic novels. They really hooked me as a reader, and now I am a great reader. I wish more people would have believed that these are the books that I could have.

“The books that I could have.” That statement alone speaks to the empowerment that graphic novels can foster within a reader. We need to move past the misconception that graphic novels and comics are not valuable as literature for students.

My own son is a shining example. He’s read a truckload of comics and graphic novels; he also happens to test very well in literacy (if that type of thing is important to you). This genre is not the only type of text that he reads. I’ll even admit that at times we have had to gently guide him toward other genres when he is in a rut as a reader. But we all get into ruts, such as my predilection for nonfiction at the expense of fiction. Lifelong readers are able to examine their own reading habits and make adjustments.

Understanding our students as readers can help to honor all literacies in school. My son was fortunate to participate in a statewide literacy project that advocates for this type of thinking, called “Wisconsin Writes“. Marci Glaus, an educational consultant with our department of public instruction, spearheads this initiative. The goal is to “provide a glimpse into example writing processes of Wisconsin writers from a variety of contexts”. Below is an interview with my son for this initiative.

The question remains: how do graphic novels and comics lead to empowered readers and writers? There are many possibilities…Regie Routman recently shared out a project from Winnipeg Schools. After a community-wide clean-up of plastic waste, older students created comic book superhero stories for younger students. Their hero’s superpower helped address environmental problems. (Go to 4:30 mark for the comic book project.)

The purpose of reading is to understand. Our understanding is dependent not just on the reader but also on the writer’s ability to communicate. If visuals help in this process, I see little reason why educators should disregard any medium. What are your thoughts about comics and graphic novels in the classroom? Please share in the comments.

 

Why we should focus on our beliefs as well as our practices

I was at the front of the school during dismissal, holding the door open for the students leaving. One 3rd grader stopped, looked at me, and asked, “Did you go to college?” “Yes, I did,” I responded. He thought for a moment, then shared quietly, “I don’t think I will go to college.” I asked him why.

Because no one in my family has gone to college.

Right away, I reassured him that if he wanted to go to college. he would be able to. He then talked about how expensive college was, which led to a conversation about scholarships and grants for students who excel in school. (By the way, this is not a typical conversation I have with a 3rd grader. He is a very thoughtful person.)

We can have the most technically skilled teachers in our school. They can receive the best professional development available and be provided all the time they need to prepare instruction and manage other tasks. But if a teacher does not believe that every student in their classroom can be successful readers, writers, and thinkers, then no amount of qualification or ability will have the necessary impact on our students.

Fortunately, beliefs and practices are intertwined. One influences the other. For example, if we try and apply a new practice and find it successful, our beliefs can shift so that we are discontinuing the less innovative practice. Likewise, when we reconsider our current practices because students are not as successful as they could be, we can become more open to new ideas.

A personal example: when I was teaching 5th and 6th grade in a multi-age environment, I leaned on the reading anthology series during the literacy block. I recall one student who was a “word caller”: they could read any text put in front of them, but they had little to no comprehension about what they just read. Frustrated, I sought out resources. Ideas from books by Cris Tovani and Stephanie Harvey were added to my repertoire. After applying these new practices, the student still wasn’t successful. But at least I had more reliable information when sharing my concerns about a possible learning disability with the parent.

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My beliefs changed because my concern for the student outweighed any pride or insecurity I had in my own abilities. Yet teachers do not have to wait for a challenge like mine to take action. In her book Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success (ASCD, 2014), Regie Routman describes characteristics of highly effective teacher-leaders (Appendix I):

  • Articulates core beliefs about teaching, literacy, and learning.
  • Daily practices match stated beliefs.
  • Reflects on how beliefs drive practices.
  • Seeks to improve and adjust beliefs and practices in light of new information and experiences.
  • Is open to productive change.

I’d like to think that I embodied some of these characteristics with the story about my former student. Yet prior to that case, I plowed through the mandated literacy program without giving much thought to the results. I cannot feel guilty, though. I can only share my own story in the hope that others will learn from my experiences.

As we start gathering assessment results from the fall screeners, I encourage all of us to pause for a moment and ask ourselves a few questions:

  1. When it comes to my literacy instruction, why am I doing what I am doing? (What you list is your beliefs.)
  2. If I didn’t have the current resources in my classroom, what would I use for literacy instruction? (You are examining how your beliefs drive your practices.)
  3. How can I ensure that every student not only is successful but also feels successful in my classroom? (You are becoming open to change.)

We can always do better. Every year we have students who don’t believe they are capable or worthy of success. We know they are, and they don’t have to feel this way. It’s our job to model what it means to have high expectations for ourselves. Be open about our personal challenges and how we are currently addressing them. Students need to see us as learners, not just experts. An open and transparent mind can also help maintain a focus on what our students need instead of what we think we need to teach. They are, after all, the reason schools exist.

 

School Culture: “P” is for Positivity

The more I lead as well as heed the lessons of previous years, the more I believe in the importance of a positive start to a school year. Shaping a school culture, defined by Terrence Deal and Kent Peterson as “the unwritten rules and traditions, customs, and expectations” (7), starts with celebration. Regie Routman asserts that “celebration is at the heart of all effective teaching and leading” (186). If we as school leaders are to expect our students, staff, and community to be successful, framing a positive perspective with our students and colleagues, as well as making the act of celebration a habit, is key.

Next are a few ideas to consider implementing for a positive start as the school year draws closer.

Focus on the Students

This idea seems redundant, yet history tells me it’s worth reviewing. As evidence, I remember a teacher contacting me at a previous school in which I was just hired as principal. They asked me through email if they could have specific dates off during the school year. There was no prelude to this request, such as a sharing of one’s philosophy or conveying enthusiasm for working with students; the focus was on their needs.

I didn’t call this person out; I understood the request and tried not to assume anything. But I also understood that the culture may not be “student first” yet. So we took a lot of time in my first year to develop an understanding of students’ strengths, needs, and interests at each developmental level. For example, we purchased a resource for teachers that informed us about this topic. The information helped us understand why a student might act a certain way while not accepting the behavior.

Demonstrate Gratitude

Do you use a physical planner? If so, I highly recommend the Commit30 product. Each month, you select one goal to focus on for your personal/professional development. September is an excellent month to demonstrate gratitude each and every day. This is a low-to-no cost effort that pays dividends for others and for yourself down the road. Next are a few ideas:

  • Write genuine compliments on professional stationary about faculty and staff. Leave these notes in their mailboxes. I guarantee they will treasure these mini-celebrations more so than any evaluation or walkthrough.
  • When facilitating professional development workshops, don’t skimp on the refreshments and resources. Show staff you value them by offering quality lunches and purchasing excellent learning materials, including children’s literature.
  • Take time for yourself at the end of the day to reflect on what went well. It’s easy to focus on the one negative that might have occurred. Instead, write down a positive event and why you believe it happened. Make positive thinking a habit.

Visuals and Messaging

Today was my first day back after a family acation. When I walked into the staff lounge, I immediately noticed the updated bulletin board.

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I am not sure who created it, but it is perfectly placed. The staff lounge can be perceived as a negative location if we tacitly accept gossip and complaints as the norm. Even if collective commitments have been established as a school, people find places to vent their frustrations in unhealthy ways if we are not observant. Visuals and messaging like the one shared here serve as an antidote to negativity as well as a warning sign to anyone who desires to engage in toxic behaviors.

What do you find effective for promoting positivity at the beginning of the school year? Please share in the comments.

 

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?

Literacy Essentials Wrap-up: Choices, Priorities, and the Power of “What if…”

Literacy EssentialsThank you for joining us as a reader and a learner as we responded to Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). By all measures, this was a successful experience. Special thanks go to Stenhouse Publishers for providing copies of Regie’s book to our contributors. If you haven’t checked out the free curriculum, I recommend it for undergraduate coursework and for professional learning experiences around Literacy Essentials. Also, I believe I speak for all of our contributors in expressing our gratitude to Regie Routman for responding to each post during this book study.

Next are three short reflections after reading everyone’s contributions.

Choices

In her book, Regie presents these ideas as invitations. You decide whether or not to apply this approach to literacy instruction.

IMG_1130I was skeptical when I first encountered her work. Specifically, I did not fully adopt Regie’s approach to classroom walkthroughs, described as “instructional walks” in her previous resource, Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success (ASCD, 2014). In spite of her advice, I decided to add a quantitative component to my unannounced classrooms visits, tallying where instruction was at along the Optimal Learning Model, an iteration of the gradual release of responsibility. This information that I shared with teachers did not improve instruction. More often than I care to note, teachers would debate with me the timing of my visits instead of my observations.

My choice to rely more heavily on quantitative data while minimizing the qualitative notes that describe instruction in action was an ineffective approach to school leadership support. In retrospect, I appreciate Regie’s wisdom in allowing leaders to explore different approaches to literacy leadership in the classroom. If I had not been so stubborn to go my own way in regard to instructional walks, I may not have fully appreciated the wisdom I have gained in knowing that our support as principals is best invested in noticing and naming what’s going well and finding opportunities to offer constructive support only when we are more knowledgeable and teachers are ready.

Priorities

If you knew that your last day at your school was tomorrow, how would you decide to spend your time? For me, I would not be checking email or entering requisitions or signing attendance reports. Instead, you would find me in classrooms and in common areas, connecting with students, staff, and parents.

Why wait until the last day? Why not make our everyday actions reflect our true priorities as literacy leaders? I have come to believe that our schedules communicate our values as educators. That is why I spend at a minimum one hour per day in classrooms. This time does not include formal observations as mandated by our department of education. During instructional walks, I immerse myself in instruction. I see the learning experience more through the lens of a student, noting how students might respond to the guidance from the teacher and within the context of their peers.

As readers during this book study, did you discover at any moment a time when your current thinking was pushed? I hope so. My example was relying too much on numbers. Our beliefs can be a double-edged sword. While they guide our actions toward implementing promising literacy strategies, they can also leave us stuck in outdated strategies if we are not willing to re-examine our current practices. It’s a paradox; we have to hold tight to our beliefs while remaining open to new ideas. If we keep students as our priority, we are better able to separate our egos from our work.

The Power of “What if”

My past habit was to offer advice during classroom visits. Like the tallies, I think I came across at times more as an expert instead of as a partner in a teacher’s professional learning journey.

Why does professional learning take so long? I think a part of the problem is we do not give ourselves the opportunity to reflect upon and question our current practices. In his book, A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, Warren Berger offers a three-question protocol for guiding this process.

  • Why…?
  • What if…?
  • How…?

For considering new options, “what if…” is the key. The question stem encourages divergent thinking and original ways of seeing the status quo from a different perspective. As a teacher, using a protocol such as Berger’s can be a key to working with students we have yet to reach and teach to our potential. Regie, a literacy guru with over 40 years of teaching experience, offers her own struggles with making assumptions in the classroom (134-135).

I have often taken for granted that students have enough background knowledge and experience to know the basic vocabulary needed to understand a read-aloud book, a guided-reading book, or a self-selected book. Then a student will raise his hand and ask, ‘What does [that word] mean?’ Often it is a fundamental word, such as disappointment or energy.”

To close out this study, we have to accept that our work is never done. We need to “make it smart to ask questions” (135) and get consistently curious about the day-to-day work we do in schools. Literacy is an ongoing journey. The destination is today.

How to Plan For Purposeful Conversations In Math

Talk is not cheap.

It may be if it is not purposeful, thoughtful, useful. But it can be powerful, meaningful, and a link to making sense of things… even math.

In Regie Routman’s compelling tome, Literacy Essentials, she wades into Listening, Speaking , and Questioning as a source to “elevate teaching and learning” (149). After seeing how important it is these past few years while teaching high school math to have conversation as part of the instructional equation, I know that I am going to have to do a lot explicit modeling and teaching this next year to help 6th graders have a healthy, usable framework for how to have math discussions.

That will be a lot of work and a lot of fun! I think it will set them up to continue to grow as thinkers and problem solvers. They will have the tools to handle talking about tuned mass dampers and the world’s tallest buildings, about icosahedrons and Fuller projections, and how to solve ratio problems.

On pages 153-154, Routman pegs how to promote and have “significant conversations.”

* Students today need “demonstrations and practice on how and why meaningful conversation is an artful necessity for optimal living and learning” (153).

* This is a “most important skill” (154).

* Our role? “Simulate, clarify and moderate the conversations so students do most of the talking” (154).

* These conversations should “promote debate, curiosity… thoughtful questioning… valuing multiple perspectives” (154).

* Regie again says on 154, “…if we want students to invest in complex thinking and sharing of ideas, they must believe their voices matter.”

Making this happen requires deliberate and intentional planning. Mrs. Routman gives several tools and steps in her “Take Action” section. I want to highlight one of the tools that speaks the loudest to me on this read. She says to “ensure your students and you have the tools to make productive discussions possible” (156) and then cites Talk Moves to Support Classroom Discussion from a book by Elham Kazemi and Allison Hintz. These “moves” are discussion stems for various tasks within thoughtful and purposeful discussion. For example, this stem – “so you’re saying…” – can be used for helping frame and paraphrase what another student has said.

Sure, it seems simple. But for conversations to be civil and thoughtful, these types of discussion prompts have to be rehearsed in context. That may be a little forced at first. Awkward. Maybe even a little uncomfortable. The kids will need to see me model it. They will need prompts in their hands so they can practice. They will most likely need to listen in on each other to offer feedback. It may be emotional.

If they have to disagree or correct some math missteps, it almost certainly will be. Harry O’Malley, in a recent article, suggests that I could even plan for the emotions that I want them to have. What if I introduce, as he suggests, music in the background during a practice conversation – music that was specifically chosen to evoke a more predictable emotion?

Whatever my methods, I once again come away from Mrs. Routman’s excellent book about literacy chock-full of ideas about how to apply some of those core learnings in my 6th-grade math classroom. That’s not only something worth thinking about, it’s something worth talking about.