Thursday, July 27, 2017

Shoot for the Moon, part 5: Aim Higher

This is the time of year when campus and district leaders are gearing up for teachers to come back.  There will be weeks filled with convocations, training, celebrations, and looking at data from the previous year.  At some point, every teacher will be involved in either setting or hearing what new goals have been set for student success this year. I’m willing to bet a large number of those goals will involve increasing scores on a standardized test by some increment.  That’s fine, but I encourage you to aim higher.  I don’t mean aim for a higher score...that’s well and good, but I mean to aim for goals that help students rise and succeed above and beyond a test.  

Last year, I was introduced to the book Rework by  Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.  It is a fast-paced read on how to be successful in business by rethinking some of our commonly held beliefs about work.  One of the tips that I particularly like is “Be at home good.”  The authors talk about the frustration that many of us have felt when we have compared 2 products and finally decided on one but when we get it home, it doesn’t live up to what we were hoping.  It is not “at home good.”  

In education, if we teach our students skills that help them to pass a test but don’t apply in an authentic context, then we are not being “at home good.”  Let’s take vocabulary for example. We know that having a deep vocabulary helps with comprehension and communication.  So, how do we learn new words to build our vocabulary?  This question can be answered in several ways.  Some will be ways that are “on-test good,” and others will be “at home good.”  I could take the approach of giving students a list of words every week, having them look them up, write sentences (that generally don’t make sense), and test them on those words on Friday.  They might do fine on the test, but they will likely never use those words in speaking, reading, or writing.  

Another approach I could take is to teach them to notice and study words. Instead of giving them a list of words, I can have them collect words that they come across when reading...words that are fun, interesting, unfamiliar.  We can study how those words are built (affixes, roots, syllables), how they change in different contexts, and how they are used in the texts where they are found.  I can create language stems using academic vocabulary for students to articulate their learning.  Anytime I ask them to write a response or turn and talk to their neighbor, I can follow the direction with, “...and it should sound like this…”  I can then give them a language stem like “One thing that was emphasized by the author was _________. “ or “On page ____, the author says _____ which indicates _____.”   By becoming aware of words, noticing how they are built, and providing opportunities (and scaffolds) for orally using new vocabulary, we can build skills that will benefit them far beyond a test.  

A good indication of whether what we are teaching is “at home good” is if the students are transferring the skills.  Grammar and conventions are great examples. Hours upon hours upon hours of instructional time is spent having students correct error-riddled sentences only to have those same students turn in writing that is full of the exact mistakes they have spent so much time correcting. If we are aiming for 100s on worksheets...then that approach will do it.  If you are aiming higher- aiming to be “at home good” - then that approach fails miserably.  Instead, we could use mentor texts to help students notice how authors use conventions and WHY they craft sentences in certain ways.  Then imitate those authors.  Look to writers and teachers like Jeff Anderson and Steve Peha for resources and explanations on how to take more authentic approaches to grammar instruction.  

I am a firm believer that there are many ways to get students to pass a test, but not all of them are good for kids.  That’s what I mean when I encourage us all to aim higher.  Don’t settle for teaching in ways that will just get students to pass a test.  As we set goals for the year, look beyond those scores.  Consider how you might phrase these statements:

This year, our students will become readers who _______________________.
This year, we will strive to build writers who ___________________________.
This year, we will support our students as they become communicators who _____________.

Then, will you know if you have reached those goals?  If you say you want your students to become readers who purposefully choose texts and have the needed tools to navigate and learn from what they read, how will you know if they have become that kind of reader?  What would you observe? What would be happening? You won’t be able to tell from just a test.   

How would your students complete these statements?  It might be interesting to ask them. Those students who have struggled for years may have some surprising statements.  It will also give you a way to help them see growth and success beyond a test score.  For some students, becoming a reader who has a favorite author might be a huge accomplishment.  

So, as you reflect on how relevant (or “at home good”) your current literacy instruction is, consider these questions:

  • What are your students' attitudes toward reading and writing?
  • Where outside of the classroom or school setting will students use what they are learning?
  • How do your teachers explain specific content skills?
  • What materials do your teachers use to teach specific content?
  • What do students say is the purpose for reading and writing?

Aim high. Then dare to aim higher.  Your kids deserve it...and society needs it. Shoot for the moon and lead the way.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Shoot for the Moon, part 4: Focus on students-not subjects

When someone asks you what you teach, how do you answer?  Do you say a grade level, a subject?  Most of us do.  We consider ourselves reading teachers or writing teachers or first grade teachers or high school teachers.  The thing is reading, writing, first grade, and high school are things. They don’t need to be taught anything.  ReadERS, writERS, first gradERS, and high schoolERS are people, and they do need to be taught.  Reading and writing are tools that help people to become literate.  Yes, as teachers and administrators, we need to know the tools that are most helpful, but we have to teach those tools with the user in mind.  Even more, we have to help our students develop their own tools, and we can only do that by focusing on them.  So, here are some ways that we can shift our focus:

  1. Prioritize DOES matter...A LOT.   
We hear buzzwords all the time in education. Rigor, engagement, student-centered learning, etc.  We hear them so much that they start to lose their impact. We become desensitized and don’t really think about what it means.  In the past few years, “student voice and choice” has been the phrase that I have heard more than any other.  There’s good reason for that.  It matters!  Motivation is a crucial factor in student learning, and being heard is a fundamental need in humans.  Part of being a reader and writer is making choices about what to read and write. When we limit students to only reading novels or “real books”, we discount the value of magazines, graphic novels, and media.  When we tell students that they can only read books on a certain level, we discount what research has said for years about the impact of interests on reading ability.  In fact, a student who is interested in a particular topic, author, series, can often read more difficult text than what a readability test may show him to be capable of comprehending.  It goes the other way, too.  When we are disinterested or lack of background in a topic, we tend to have more difficulty reading it.   

Our choices reflect our interests, so they essentially reflect us. When students choices in reading are valued, it sends the message that THEY are valued.  The thing is, choosing what interests them may not come naturally to many students. They’ve likely never been given the opportunity.  We have to teach them how to make choices about books.  We have to teach them how to determine if a book might interest them, where to find the types of reading materials that they enjoy, how to build reading interests.  The same goes for writing.  We show students how authors work, then help them to make choices about how to get started, what to consider when making decisions about organization, word choice, etc.  We don’t dictate a process; rather, we show them tools and help them develop their own process through making choices.

  1. Emphasize authentic purposes for reading and writing.

IMG_4483.JPGI once asked a fourth grader that I was tutoring, “Why do we read.”  She said, “to answer questions.”  My heart broke, then I got very angry, then I changed the way I approached teaching. That is NOT why we read.  And we don’t write for a test.  Those are both ways in which we may apply our reading and writing skills, but they are not the REASON(s) we read and write.  As teachers of readers and writers, we have to model for our students what it is to be a reader and writer.  That means...we have to read and write! Seriously.  I’m not saying you have to have a novel on every nightstand or write creative stories every day….I mean we have to be people that can’t do life without reading and writing.  We bring those experiences into our classrooms.  When I am helping students to decide how to make a plan for reading, it is much more impactful when I can bring books from home that I am currently reading (or show my shelfie) and walk them through how I make decisions about when to read, where to read, how much time to give myself, and so on. When I can show students my blog or my notebook where I keep gems that I’ve highlighted from books or articles, it makes a difference. They see that this is not just something that they are learning in class, but that reading and writing are tools for thinking in all aspects of life.  

  1. Shift from teaching to learning.
Years ago, I was watching Dr. Phil, and I remember him saying (imagine his Texas twang here) that every time we do something for a child that they COULD do themselves, we are indirectly telling them that we don’t think they are smart enough or capable of doing it on their own.  At the time, I taught first grade, and I remember making a conscious decision to trust my students and let them learn.  It wasn’t my job to do everything for them.  It was my job to help them become learners.  Far too often, we still do all the heavy lifting for our students. When it is time to read a text, we have already previewed it, picked out words that might be difficult, determined what background knowledge the students may need, and have put together an extensive lesson plan for helping them know the words and build their background.  And we’ve done it all with the best of intentions.  What do they learn from this, though?  We’ve already made all of the planning decisions for them.  What if we shifted from...
  • “This book is about….”  to…..”Let me show you how readers determine what a book is about…”
  • “You need to pick books on ____ level…” to…”Let me show you how readers make decisions about what books to read”
  • “Stop after each paragraph and write a summary…” to “Let me show you how readers decide when to stop and capture their thinking...:”
  • “You need to read ___ number of books”...Let me show you how to think about and set reading goals…”
  • “Write about ______” to “Let’s look at how some writers get ideas”

Do you see the difference?  There is a shift in focus and the change in the role of the teacher in these lessons.  The focus is not on the books or the level or the particular way of annotating. The focus is on the readER and writER and how to help them become independent.  
So, as you reflect on where the focus is in your own classroom or school, here are some questions to consider:
  1. What are students interested in?
  2. When do they choose what they read and write?
  3. What do they say is the reason for reading and writing?
  4. How do your teachers describe their role?
  5. How many questions do students ask?

Thanks again for taking time to stop by and read part 4.  We’ll meet again soon for part 5!

Monday, July 10, 2017

Shoot for the Moon, part 3: Build Your TEACHERS

What has become increasingly clear through research that probes more deeply into the inner workings of effective classrooms is that the teacher is the crucial factor in the classroom.  In fact, study after study points to teacher expertise as the critical variable in effective reading instruction.  

Gambrell, L. B., & Morrow, L. M. (2011). Best practices in literacy instruction. New York: Guilford Press.

Welcome back to part 3 of 5 in this series!  As we continue to look at literacy leadership, I want to focus, this time, on how leaders can help to ensure that every child has a great teacher every year.  Ultimately, that is the crux of it all.  Teachers matter.  A lot.’s not just me saying this. Research, including the quote above from Best Practices in Literacy Instruction, has shown this time and again with studies on how student achievement increases dramatically when they are in classrooms with great teachers. There is, quite frankly, no substitute for a good teacher.  

Recently, I watched the movie Hidden Figures about mathematician Katherine Johnson and the other African-American women who were so critical in helping the American space program succeed.  In the movie, there is a point where John Glenn is about to launch into orbit, but the new IBM computer that NASA purchased was giving numbers that didn’t match what everyone was expecting.  At one point, John Glenn says, “Get the girl to check the numbers.” He also says that it’s hard for him to trust something that he can’t look in the eye.  That is the trust our teachers need to be given, too.

In teaching, there are new computerized assessment programs, scripted instructional programs, and all manner of gadgets that we depend on to give us numbers on students or create profiles of students or to make decisions about students.  The problem with that is that students are PEOPLE.  When there is a people variable involved, then people have to be part of the equation.  I can get a computer printout that shows a student is reading on beginner level and is considered to need tier 3 level of interventions (side note: tiers describe interventions….NOT students...soapbox for another day); however, is the computer able to consider that the student was up all night because his family got evicted from their apartment? No.  A teacher can take that into consideration, though.  

We simply can’t deny, minimize, or try to replace the impact of a teacher who can make good instructional decisions. In order to do that, though, teachers must have the tools, training, and practice in the thinking required for the level of instructional problem-solving that will have a lasting impact on students. So, here are three tips for building teachers capacity and expertise:

  1. Make time for learning.
  2. Lead the way.
  3. Coach them to their best.

Make time for learning.
If you are an educator, you are a learner.  We would never expect a doctor to leave medical school and never learn anything new in the field. They would be irrelevant in months.  The same is true for us.  Learning has to be a priority.  Campus and district leaders have a huge impact on whether learning is valued.  It seems odd to think that learning might not be valued on a campus, but it happens more than we would like to admit.  Numbers are valued, data is valued, growth plans, compliance, and engagement may be valued, but is learning?  For teachers?  

I’m not asking if there is a designated “PLC” time.  More often than not, those are just meetings. Lesson plans are done, data is reviewed, frustrations are vented. That is necessary, I understand, but I’m talking about time dedicated to learning something new.  PLCs are a fantastic vehicle for the kind of learning that I’m proposing IF they are intentionally planned and structured.  I have had great success with PLCs in the past, but it takes a commitment to stay the course and some serious planning upfront.  

Aside from PLCs, though, principals and leaders can use staff meetings, book studies, Google Classroom, school Twitter hashtags, blogs, learning portfolios, article studies, Pinterest, and so many other tools to promote and encourage learning.  Focus on one or two initiatives or let teachers design their own learning networks. Provide designated times for groups to meet and various ways for teachers to share learning. Then, stick with it. Don’t let those learning times be usurped or pushed aside for more “important” things. Follow up on learning.  Expect high levels of learning...students deserve it.

Lead the Way
It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway)...we lead by example, not words.  We can talk about the importance of learning all day, but if I, as a leader, designate a time for PLCs then go to my office to finish work while they are going on….I’m not leading by example.  I know that administrators have insanely stressful and busy jobs.  I don’t want to discount that at all.  Time is precious...and so are students.  

One of the leaders that I most respect in this world and had the opportunity to learn from for many years once said that time is not the constant variable that everything else revolves around.  I remember her talking to a group of district administrators and saying that students are the constant. Everything else must revolve around them...even time.  That stuck with me through the years.  

Time is malleable.  Use it for things that matter.  Be the lead learner.  What are you reading? What are you blogging about? What Twitter chats are you involved in? What new tools have you been playing with?  These are not things to just do on the side or when you have time.  When teachers have administrators who talk about things they are learning, who try out lessons in classrooms, who write as a way to express learning….it makes a difference.  It implies an expectation for learning without having to have a stated learning policy.  It just becomes part of the school culture. If you want your school to be a place of learning, start learning.

Coach them to their best.

Coaching is a realm of professional development that is growing tremendously in education and other arenas. Why? Coaching truly offers the “in the moment”, job-embedded, personalized learning that helps us recognize factors that affect our decisions and helps us to develop tools for making better ones. Watch any NFL game on a Sunday, and you will see coaches for various players and groups of players. You have defensive line coaches, quarterback coaches, receiving coaches.  They work with the players before, during, and after the game.  They show them things to tweak in the moment and help them to reflect and refine their talent at every point along the way.  Educators need the same thing. Our game is constantly changing.

Many schools and districts have instructional coaches, but there are still far too many that don’t.  In those that do, it is often someone who was appointed to the position because he was an exemplary classroom teacher, and it is assumed that he would be a great coach.  That can certainly be true, but coaching requires a completely different skill set.  Being a great classroom teacher does not mean you will be a great coach.  In many cases, these coaches are set up for failure because they receive little training, if any at all, on coaching skills.  The same is true for administrators.  With new appraisal guidelines and the emphasis on growth, it is imperative that administrators are also skilled coaches.  That is not usually emphasized in administrative leadership programs or in subsequent training they receive.  It may be necessary for administrators to get coaching in order to hone their skills, as well.  Imagine the impact that would have on teachers’ willingness to receive feedback!

As you reflect on how you might prioritize learning on your campus or in your district, consider the following questions:

  1. When do teachers learn? How do they share their learning?
  2. What am I reading/studying?
  3. What are the teachers reading/studying? What are you reading/studying?
  4. What topics and types of training have been prioritized?
  5. What do staff meetings/PLCs look like?
  6. Who are the literacy leaders on campus?

I hope this was helpful, and I would love to hear ways that you are seeking to develop your craft or ways that you are encouraging learning on your campus or in your district.  

See you next time for part 4!