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.

113016b

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.

IMG_0919.jpg

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.

IMG_0847.jpg

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.

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