Examining Our Beliefs About Literacy: Small Steps, Big Wins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reading Spaces by Heather McKay (@HeatherMMcKay)

The other morning my five-year-old opened his eyes and his first words of the day were, “I loved reading books with you and daddy last night mama”. His words filled my parent and teaching heart to the brim. Words fuel me in all forms – long books, short stories, poems that make me gasp or laugh, and blogs that challenge what I thought I knew.  The greatest joy in reading for me is discovering another reader, online or in person, who feels the same way.

When I’m reading I fall into a private space, but when it’s a really good read, I immediately search for a social space where I can talk with someone else about what I’m reading. As a teacher, this lived in my classroom and hallway conversations and now as a literacy specialist, it lives in my work across schools with administrators and teachers. Regie Routman challenges us, “as conscientious educators to instill a love of reading in our students and to do whatever it takes to turn them into readers” (2014, p. 117). For my first post, I wanted to talk about what we do to intentionally create a joyful reading culture.

Through talking about texts that move us, disrupt us, and transform us, we share who we are and lay our reading identities bare. We express our reading identities through what we read, where we read, when we read, and how we talk about reading (Buehl, 2011, p.1). There are friends I can share research articles with, friends who love picture books as much as I do, and friends who mirror back their love of reading with late night texts demanding, “You just HAVE to read this book!”. As I move among schools working with staff in support of literacy, I get the unbelievable opportunity to share and grow reading identities with both students and staff.

I believe administrators and teachers play an important part of a creating a larger reading landscape in students’ lives. In my work developing and supporting our K-12 literacy strategy, I’ve noticed there are some strategic ways administrators and teachers are building a school-wide reading culture. When we intentionally create reading spaces, readers are born and thrive.

The following are three ways to approach building a school-wide culture of reading that caught my attention recently:

Administrators and teachers sharing their own reading lives

It could be a bookshelf that draws your eyes in your Principal’s office, a teacher sharing a professional read or picture book at a staff meeting, or an Assistant Principal popping in for an impromptu read aloud in a classroom. When administrators make time to share their reading joy, others will follow and the joy of reading grows. 

Students inviting others into their reading lives

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It might be a single bookshelf that students adopt for a week in the learning commons or digital book talks accessed through hallway QR codes. When students have the space to talk about their personal reading, they joyfully embrace it. Offering students dedicated ways to share the texts they enjoy builds their autonomy and engagement and acknowledges the social nature of literacy itself.

Administrators, teachers, and students talking together about books

My husband’s school hosts an annual ‘Battle of the Books’ where teams of readers choose a collection to read and battle over. Many teachers in our board used the hype of March Madness to bring a themed ‘Battle of the Books’ to their classrooms. Literacy experiences such as these bring adults and children together into a shared reading space. Apprenticing students into how we read and how we talk about books provides the gradual release and feelings of joy required to become lifelong readers.

We must intentionally design spaces for students to come to know themselves and others as readers and participate in a joyful literacy community. It is not enough to teach students to read, we must open the door to all of the joys and opportunities of citizenship that reading acts as the gateway for.

What would you add? How do you build a reading culture in your life, your classroom, or in and between schools? Let’s share ideas as fellow readers and build spaces for readers to find their books, their community, and themselves.

References

Buehl, D. (2011). Developing Readers in the Academic Disciplines. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Routman, R. (2014). Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough strategies for schoolwide literacy success. Alexandria, VA: ASCD

This is the first of hopefully many posts from another contributor to this collaborative blog. If you have a passion for literacy and leadership and would like to share your thinking within our space and with our audience, click here for information. 

Professional Reading: When do we find the time?

For the first time in a while, I had an open schedule at school. Daily classroom visits were completed. An instructional walk was conducted. Absences and requisitions were approved. When these opportunities occur, I try to read professionally at school.

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When I first started reading professionally at school, I felt guilty. Would others think I was wasting time, believing I should be in classrooms and in the hallways whenever possible? I would close my door to avoid any judgment.

I’ve come to realize that reading professionally should be a top priority for literacy leaders. In order to be seen as credible in the eyes of our faculty, we have to be knowledgeable about teaching and learning. Reading professionally helps ensure that we are aware of new educational research that could positively impact students. Taking the time to learn from others through text models for everyone in the school how we should all spend our time.

Reading professionally doesn’t happen without forethought, communication, and intent. Here are some steps I have taken to make this part of my day a priority.

  • Subscribe to professional journals and magazines.

I use school funds to purchase subscriptions to Educational Leadership and Educational Update (ASCD), The Reading Teacher and Reading Research Quarterly (International Literacy Association), Literacy TodayLanguage Arts and Voices from the Middle (National Council of Teachers of English), Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center), and Principal (National Association of Elementary School Principals).

  • Schedule time for professional reading.

I’ve started putting this time on my calendar when I think of it. If it is written down, I am more likely to do it. That said, scheduling time for professional reading is less about making sure I am reading professionally, and more about communicating to my superintendent and my staff that this is a priority for me.

  • Set a goal and share what was learned.

Regie Routman at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention suggested that school leaders read one article a week and share a brief summary with staff. This can be communicated through a weekly newsletter or even email, with the article attached. By the end of the month, four articles have been shared out. This information can be a way to start a staff meeting, by asking teachers to share their insights from one of the articles.

  • Read professional books related to your goals.

I try to select texts that will have an immediate impact on my current professional goals and objectives. This is in contrast to picking up a book because it just came out and everyone is talking about it. I find that, in my limited time, I have to be selective about longer texts I choose to read. For example, I am halfway through The Together Leader by Maia Heyck-Merlin; my professional goal is to become more organized and efficient.

But how do I find the time?

I’ve been in situations where there is barely any time to go to the bathroom or have lunch, let alone scheduling the time to read professionally.

Not knowing anyone’s context, I have a few general suggestions. First, revisit your daily tasks. What should you be doing and what should you not? For the latter, find ways to reassign those tasks, find more efficient methods, or jettison altogether. Second, set no more than two priorities. I have two priorities this year: build trust and increase literacy knowledge. Anything else that comes my way I do my best to delegate, defer or dismiss. Finally, communicate with your supervisor about taking school time to professionally read. This gives you peace of mind when you open up that journal or book at school.

So what are you reading professionally? How do you find the time? Please share in the comments.

 

Connecting Instructional Walks with Teacher Frameworks

For the last five years as an elementary school principal, I have explored the best approach to providing feedback and supervision for our faculty. I had initially created an instructional walkthrough form that allowed me to provide a narrative-based observation about instruction as well as being able to monitor where instruction was at with regard to the gradual release of responsibility. Click here for that post that describes this process.

I have discovered a better approach to staff supervision and feedback: Instructional Walks, highlighted in Regie Routman’s book Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success. Actually, this approach has been sitting in front of me for four years now. Regie and her team promoted this more authentic practice for principals back in 2012 at her Literacy and Leadership Institute in Madison, WI.

Better late than never! I don’t know why educators like me have to always “make it their own”. Maybe just part of being a professional. I have discovered several advantages to taking a completely narrative-based approach to faculty supervision:

  • The visits are completely unannounced and can happen at any time. I don’t have to ask permission. However, this system was developed with my teachers, with the understanding that I lead like a coach, offering praise and feedback and treating each visit as one small observation among many throughout the school year. Trust and relationships were developed before this process started.
  • The lens in which I view instruction is connected directly to our school’s goals. This year, we are focused on increasing literacy engagement. We developed tenets of engagement by doing an article study early in the year. These attributes become the key words in which I “tag” each walk within a teacher’s digital portfolio via Evernote. They also receive a paper copy of my notes, which I write by hand.
  • For the first time as a principal, I have been able to experience instruction instead of monitoring and scoring it. I feel like I have a much better understanding of each teacher’s instructional approach and how our students are progressing as learners. From what I can gather, teachers also appreciate this different approach. As one teacher told me in the lounge, “I get more out of your one page of observational notes than from our old evaluation system.”

All affirming feedback for this process. However, the one challenge I have found in using instructional walks as the primary form for teacher supervision and evaluation is aligning my observations with the Danielson Framework for Teaching. Using software such as Teachscape allows the principal to tag each artifact by the appropriate component and score it based on the framework with ease. Instructional walks are, like good teaching, a complex activity. This makes the assessment part of teacher supervision complex as well.

To help our faculty categorize my observations and evidence from my instructional walks notes, I created a short screencast that describes how teachers can tag each artifact. I thought you might also find it helpful, especially if you are taking a more authentic and respectful approach to teacher supervision.

Student Engagement and Closing the Opportunity Gap: An Action Plan, Part 2

My previous two posts have described how schools can improve access for students of color and students living in poverty to follow their passions and have more voice in choice in their learning. In the first post, I summarize an Education Week article by Dr. Kimberlee Everson who makes a strong case for schools to pursue these goals. In the second post, I laid out the first part of an action plan that school leaders can follow to address this opportunity gap between affluent, impoverished, and diverse schools. The headings I use to organize my thinking come from Appendix A of Regie Routman’s excellent resource Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success (ASCD, 2014).

You may want to follow the embedded links in the previous paragraph to read this long-form piece of digital writing in a chronological order. Consider yourself warned: This is a longer post. I didn’t feel it necessary to extend this series any longer. I will put this content all together and make it available as a PDF download soon.

So let’s continue…

  • Establish a schoolwide culture that promotes trust and risk taking.

Just as we work harder for those teachers that care about and believe in us, learners will take more risks when the culture promotes it. Promoting risk-taking is beyond a leader simply stating “Try it out” to a teacher curious about exploring a new approach to teaching and learning. They have to know that the leader and their colleagues will be there for them when mistakes are made. And mistakes will be made! We’re not really risking much if challenges do not present themselves along the pathway toward becoming better.

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One decision I made this year to promote more risk taking as a school was replacing my formal observations of staff with informal instructional walks. Instead of scheduling a 1/3 of my staff for announced supervision times, I now pop into any classroom unannounced on a daily basis. We use the instructional walk approach suggested by Regie Routman from her book Read, Write, Lead. It’s a narrative- and strengths-based approach to staff supervision, instead of a check-the-box compliance task to ensure “fidelity” (whatever that is).

In an instructional walk we are looking first for the teacher’s strengths, noticing where support is needed, and also discerning instructional patterns across the school. We are not just quietly observing and writing notes the teacher may or may not see, checking off look-fors, or collecting numerical data through a clicker. It is a process that respects both the teacher and students. (Routman, p. 198)

In order to increase trust in the instructional walk process, I had our faculty participate in an article study in order to develop the tenets of student engagement. Teachers chose one of four articles to closely read from The Reading Teacher, glean specific concepts from the content, and then come together as a whole group to articulate the characteristics of engagement in the classroom. We posted our thinking on a Padlet (www.padlet.com) during the article study.

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These attributes of student engagement became the characteristics I would use as a lens when observing and experiencing classroom instruction. Once a trimester, I would count how I often I was observing each tenet of engagement and let the faculty know these results. If one characteristic was low, such as questioning, we would make a point of encouraging this practice to become more evident within instruction through the sharing of articles and content, and through professional learning activities.

By stripping away formal observations and replacing them with instructional walks, we acknowledged that instruction is not simply a list of indicators to be documented and scored. Rather, teaching is a complex activity that is hard to understand and evaluate without an authentic and comprehensive view of what’s happening in the classroom. Allowing teachers to relax a bit about the evaluation process, they felt more comfortable in taking risks around increasing engagement through providing more access to opportunities. Mistakes were and still are seen as part of the teaching and learning process.

  • Lead the change effort.

Asking for teachers to become better practitioners demands that the leader be a part of the change process. Sometimes this involves becoming a teacher ourselves. For example, I hosted several technology training sessions for teachers to attend during the school year. They could post their questions via a Google Form about a topic or tool. These questions became our agenda for the evening.

I also partnered with a classroom teacher who was exploring how facilitating conversations about reading might increase student engagement. We promoted books we enjoyed, taught students how to recommend titles to their peers, and gave them ample amounts of time to read and discuss their books with peers. I also facilitated some of the data collection by popping in once a month to check in on how students’ reading habits, thinking, and relationships with others might have changed due to becoming more engaged in reading. The results, still being compiled, are very informative.

  • Assess whether we are learning more and getting better.

This might be the most challenging part of engaging in a process of change that will allow students more opportunities to engage in meaningful and self-directed learning. A challenge, but not impossible.

One approach I like and utilize annually is collaboratively assessing student work. We use this process with student writing during our mid-year professional learning day. This is an application of the collaborative learning cycle from the last post. Here’s how it works:

  1. I collect examples of student work, such as performance tasks or their writing.
  2. I create a gallery of their work, stretching across a hallway for example, in developmental order such as by grade level/age.
  3. We briefly describe the purpose for the professional learning and expected outcomes (connect).
  4. Teachers discuss what they anticipate observing as a grade level or department (collaborate).
  5. Teachers reorganize into vertical/cross-departmental teams and do a “walk” together. They are asked to notice strengths and next steps in students’ work age by age and talk about these as a team (calibrate).
  6. Everyone comes back as a grade level or department to co-develop a new understanding about student work and why they believe what they believe now (consensus).
  7. As a whole faculty, teachers share their takeaways during a whole group debriefing (connect).

Here are few pictures of our most recent collaborative assessment, in which teachers were engaged in a gallery walk of student writing:

This is a cyclical process, which is really a nice model for what all learning looks like. Because we have done this yearly, I can share our debriefing notes to show how we have grown as a staff from year to year. Below are our debriefings from the last two years about student writing (last year is on the left, this year on the right). Notice any difference?

We did. More of our students’ personalities were evident in their writing compared to last year. They were sharing about their personal lives in their writing more often, as well as connecting their reading to their writing. That led us to believe that choice and voice were more amply provided. These debriefings, when focused on our strengths first, become a celebration in a sense. We take pride in how our actions have directly contributed to the positive outcomes in our students’ work.

  • Assess whether students are learning more.

Money, staff, and resources might be tight, but one thing schools are not lacking is data. Seasonal screeners and interim reading measures can provide some information about a student’s growth over time. But if this is all that a school uses, we are outsourcing our abilities to accurately assess the learning that occurred within one school year.

This year our school started using a student engagement survey to gain a better understanding of how they feel about learning and school in general. The results from our fall survey were so compelling, we actually changed our school’s goal to focus on specific practices that increase engagement, such as choice and student discussion, instead of curriculum integration.

Another more authentic measure of student learning we have utilized for a couple years now are digital portfolios. Six times a year, teachers and students upload a learning artifact into FreshGrade (www.freshgrade.com). They also enter a reflection that documents what they did well, what they still need to work on, and their goal for the next time they have to upload an artifact to their digital portfolio. As a bonus, families have appreciated knowing how their students are progressing throughout the school year, instead of waiting for report cards and conferences. Students also feel more in control of their learning, as they are being asked to be the “chief assessors” of their work.

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The action plan I have described within the last two posts is one approach to bringing about change in a school with the goal of increasing engagement and providing access for all students to have more control over their learning and follow their interests. It is not to be followed step-by-step. What would be wise is to take what seems useful from our work and apply it as a school leadership team sees fit. I would recommend following the smart steps that Regie Routman lays out in her book, which I used to guide our school’s journey.

As I reflect on the beginnings of this writing, I am a bit surprised to realize that I veered a bit off course in my initial purpose. Readers might be expecting that I would simply advocate for makerspaces and STEM labs as a solution to the lack of access students might experience to unique learning opportunities. Yet here we are, talking about reading and writing and how the connection between the two, when made evident for students, has increased student engagement. Maybe the journey led us to an unexpected destination.

Don’t get me wrong. I like these trending topics. Makerspaces and STEM labs are in part a reaction to the suffocating grasp our policy makers have placed on our schools to meet standards and prescribed expectations in the name of accountability. It is interesting that Dr. Everson does not advocate for any one approach over another in providing access to more engaging and authentic learning experiences for students. Instead, she asks of our nation’s leaders to take a more thoughtful approach about teaching the whole child.

It is my hope that they will advocate for rights of families that extend beyond access to buildings, a uniform curriculum, or high-test-score-producing teachers. It is my hope that they will feel teachers’ desire for freedom to inspire and children’s desire to explore the world with passion.

With that, I hope that school leaders soon find their entry points into discovering what’s possible when we offer students the time, resources, and space to pursue their own interests and develop expertise in that area. This is a necessary part of learning. For us, I am already toying with a schedule that would allocate a 1/2 hour every day next year toward “Project Time”. This would be at the end of the day, where students had even more control over how they spend that time in school. It is not a solution to a problem, but that next step in giving the ownership of learning back to our students.

Student Engagement and Closing the Opportunity Gap: An Action Plan, Part 1

In my previous post, I highlighted an article from Education Week about students being able to pursue their questions and interests in school. The author, Dr. Kimberlee Everson of Western Kentucky University, is suspicious of the use of standards and accountability measures in schools. She believes that if students do not have a voice and choice in their learning, then all of the focus on the core academics will not amount to much.

Education policy should not prescribe children’s access to institutions at the expense of access to personal development, growth, capability, or happiness. All students attending free and high-achieving schools from preschool to college is certainly a beautiful ideal, but if these very institutions quash passion or inhibit relationship-building, then the loss to our nation may be greater than the gain.

e152f6d4What Everson leaves for the reader to figure out is how to develop and implement an action plan that honors all learners’ need for autonomy to follow their passions and become more engaged in school. This is essential for our students of color and students living in poverty. According to Everson, they generally do not have the same level of access to this type of instruction, even though they may be the ones that benefit the most from a more authentic approach.

As a principal in a Title I elementary school, I can attest to the needs of these students. We have implemented a plan that has started to better engage all learners. I am using the headings from Regie Routman’s Change Process Worksheet/Appendix A, from her essential resource Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success, as a guide for organizing and describing our school’s planning process. The next part expands on the first steps in this change process.

  • Prepare people for change process.

Being very upfront with faculty about any upcoming change, such as increasing literacy engagement, is vital. It shows that we are honest and transparent about our intentions. In our school, we facilitate regular instructional leadership team meetings where we discuss the building’s goals and objectives. Meeting agendas and minutes are regularly shared out via Google Docs to ensure everyone is aware of our conversations. This was how our school started as we embarked on a schoolwide goal of increasing literacy engagement this year.

In addition to visibility, I have found it to be helpful to actually teach the staff about the process of change. To start, I share information about how change can have both an emotional and physical effect on a person. This leads into a conversation about why people resist change, and how colleagues can support one another to ferry through the expected challenges. Also necessary is pointing out that any kind of significant change is a gradual process, so it is important that we become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

  • Infuse optimism.

Think about your favorite teachers from your own school experience. Why did you work so hard for them? Likely, it was because they believed in you and what you were capable of as a scholar and as a person. For some students and teachers, this has become a lifelong friendship.

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Infusing optimism as a school begins a journey that moves toward increasing engagement for all students. It is a smart way to start.

I have found that the happiest students learn best in classrooms with the happiest teachers. That means the principal needs to celebrate all that is good in his or her teachers on a daily basis. Celebrations can be as public as a highlight in a weekly staff newsletter via Smore (www.smore.com), or as simple and intimate as a handwritten personal note placed in a teacher’s mailbox that describes what was appreciated about them.

Optimism can also come from the outside. One year, I took my staff to a woodland shelter for a retreat. We brought in facilitators from the Center for Courage & Renewal to guide us toward rediscovering why we went into education in the first place. For some of our staff, I know it was a life-changing experience. We kept this enthusiasm going by constantly coming back to the tenets of our time together, such as showing appreciation for our efforts through nominal gifts and words of praise. This feeling of connectedness along with a sense of optimism for the future is a cornerstone for trying to engage all learners.

  • Build in ongoing support and collaboration.

No amount of optimism will sustain a school culture throughout the year without regular support from a collaborative professional community. There has to be structures and systems in place to ensure that an organization stays focused on their goals (which in this case, is increasing student engagement to close the opportunity gap).

Our school has implemented what I call a collaborative learning cycle. Each part in the cycle represents a weekly meeting. It is a process in which we connect as a whole faculty to set the purpose for the following month of professional learning. This is followed by an opportunity for grade levels or departments to collaborate about the task at hand. The third week, teachers from different areas come together to calibrate their conversations and expectations across grade levels. Finally, grade levels or departments revisit and reach consensus with regard to the better practices to implement within their instruction.

Here is a visual of this process as it looks in our school:

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Source: Renwick, M. Digital Student Portfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment (2014)

We do not engage in this process every month, or even that often. Sometimes, teachers need to be able to choose how they want to spend their time together with their colleagues. That might include exploring a new science kit or taking time to analyze the most recent benchmark and screener data. We use the collaborative learning cycle when we have a specific goal in mind. One example is collaboratively assessing student writing at the beginning, middle, or end of the school year.

In my final post within this three part series about student engagement and the opportunity gap, I will describe the last four steps in the change process a school can take to address this aspect of learning in schools that deserves more attention. Stay tuned!

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.

Version 2
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.