Wednesday, August 12, 2015

PLC's: Is The Collaborative Work Much Like the Reflective Work of Individual Master-Teachers?

Good afternoon to you!

Some colleagues and I just spent two days at a Solution Tree staff development conference on 'PLCs At Work.'  During the course of our time there, we watched several videos of Rebecca and Richard DuFour presenting keynote sessions during a larger event held in June in San Antonio.  We also saw Mike Mattos speak and participated in sessions with our site-consultant, Rich Smith.  Many of us have had experience with PLCs in one form or another, and have participated in other training and reading about the strategy.  My school, led by our new principal, is really going to dive in and stick with the process (I know, we are way behind owing to several factors--but, that's another story and I'm sticking to my purpose for writing :)

The following are some of my reflections on what we learned:
I was struck by how the PLC process mirrors the processes reflective, master-teachers go through on their own:
*They reflect on their mission and vision for students
*They make commitments to doing what is necessary to see that the mission and vision is achieved for ALL students regardless of their backgrounds or current 'achievement levels' and skills
*They hold themselves to high professional standards (norms)
*They study the standards and the curriculum closely to pick and choose the most essential skills, knowledge, and dispositions they need to guarantee all students learn
*They expect all students to achieve at high levels (defined as 'grade level or above' by Mattos)
*They have clear goals
*They teach using the best strategies they know, research and read to improve their practice, and collaborate with other teachers to benefit from their expertise while sharing their own
*They constantly monitor student-progress with formative assessments
*They examine the 'data' and go back and reteach students who need more support or practice (and, if they are really struggling to move students forward, they again research, read, reflect and collaborate to find ways of doing so)
*They also differentiate to provide meaningful enrichment for those who already demonstrate particular skills, knowledge and dispositions
*They reassess where students are after continued, targeted work and reflect on next steps
*They begin the process again, focusing on another 'big rock' (Stephen Covey) (or, I would argue, they continue this process as they engage in the work across the curriculum and throughout the year)

Thinking more on this, I realize, we often break the 'big rocks' or essential standards down into smaller pieces so we can functionally use this process.  For most, it takes a great bit of time and practice to truly achieve critical larger outcomes like writing a high-quality argumentative essay or, at the K-2 level, writing opinions about topics and texts and supporting them.  Regardless, master-teachers know what these bigger outcomes are and, most importantly, seek to make the everyday work they do with students meaningful and relevant toward those ends.  

So, as our school embarks on making PLCs a part of our routine practice, I walk forward knowing we're simply asking our teachers to engage in a focused, reflective process many of them already engage in on their own.  Now, though, we're looking to firm things up and ensure all our teachers have the built-in time and opportunity to collaborate and learn together, essentially putting more resources at their fingertips.  We already 'share' our students across the grade level to make the best use of resources and target student needs, though, in some areas we could expand our notions of how to do this to provide even better services to students.  I'll keep you updated on any innovations we come up with.

I am impressed with the tools and strategies the DuFours, Mattos and Smith shared.  I think these resources will make the hard work of PLCs easier and more straight-forward.  We have several new teachers this year, new to our building and newer to the profession, and I firmly believe this work will greatly benefit them and their students.

There was a good amount of talk at the conference about those who may 'resist' or not 'buy in' to the PLC process.  Yep, teachers are busy people who rightly want to know why they're being asked to engage in a time-consuming undertaking.  But, in the end, who can argue with our need to keep the most important learning outcomes at the forefront of our classroom work, stay current on research and strive to improve practice, keep abreast of the level of student-learning at all times and use that information to drive next instructional steps?  Now, we're just putting our heads and hands together to work smarter for the benefit of all our students.  We're also basically committing to support one another in even more significant ways.  Gee, I want to work in a school like that!  Oh, yeah, I already do!

Here's wishing you and yours a wonderful, productive and happy school year!  --Janiel

P.S.  I learned about the 'All Things PLC' website at the conference.  You may wish to check it out.   
P.P.S. Thanks to Davis District for sponsoring my participation at this event (particularly Belinda Kuck and Susan Spehar).

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Reflections on My New Book: The Common Core Companion K-2 Booster Lessons

I just finished writing a book for Corwin Literacy titled, "The Common Core Companion K-2 Booster Lessons:  Elevating Instruction Day by Day."   It’s set to be released in October as a follow-up to Sharon Taberski's Common Core Companion:  The Standards Decoded, Grades K-2.
As I’ve been working on the final reviews of the content I’ve been thinking…What about this new book really matters?  What does it have to offer that isn’t already out there?  Why did I write it?

I’m still pondering, but have come up with a few key ideas:

*Power Through Integration:  Say you are a new teacher thinking about implementing the best possible literacy instruction in your classroom.  Or, say you are an experienced teacher looking for ways to enliven your teaching of the literacy standards.  How would you like to visit an expert teacher’s classroom for a year, work alongside her, watching and participating in the decisions she makes as she crafts meaningful instruction day by day?  This is not a book of endless strategies to meet individual standards or of unique ways to check-off objectives, it’s a book of sustained practices that tie together lesson after lesson, sequence after sequence, to provide seamless instruction that makes sense to and excites children.  The brain works best by making connections.  When our instruction of reading, writing, speaking, listening, foundational and language skills all connect in meaningful contexts, students are apprentices to how we utilize and enjoy our literate lives in the real world. 

My fervent hope is that teachers reading this book will walk away with a new way to conceptualize not only their literacy block, but their whole day, and use the tools provided to make insightful decisions about how to infuse standards into meaningful learning as a way of continually crafting their practice.

*Simplicity:  The ‘Core Practices’ that pervade the book are repeated, repeated, and repeated.  We don’t need to constantly be reinventing the wheel, coming up with ‘all new’ strategies to best help our students succeed.  If our content is engaging and relevant, we hook them—no ‘tricks’ needed.  When we employ the simple, solid practices we know work day after day, we save our own energy and time while getting the most bang for our buck.  We can thus focus on developing meaningful instructional contexts and spend our time studying student work as our guide for what happens next .  You may be wondering, what are these ‘Core Practices?’ Strategies like modeled, shared and interactive writing, targeted craft and skill lessons, interactive read alouds, close reading, using text and visual information to defend one’s thinking, quick bursts of informal writing across the curriculum, independent reading, rereads, collaborative conversations, constant sharing of student work, immediate feedback, oral language practice, differentiated support, gradual release of responsibility, using mentor texts, primary sources and peer models, using student work as formative assessments, and others.  Are these new ideas?  No. They are practices that are backed by decades of research and that, when expertly woven together, gainfully support K-2 students’ literacy development.  The magic is in how these practices are utilized over and over again in expert ways within a joyful, relevant literacy environment.

*The book is brimming with samples of student work, most from my Title I school, demonstrating “Kids Can Do This!” and they love it!  What’s better than seeing the actual work students produce as a result of the instruction they receive and the classroom community in which they thrive?  The treasure-trove of student pieces serve as mentor texts for other classrooms.  Additionally, a theme throughout the book, is, of course, using what it is students do to make instructional decisions about what to do next.  This truly is elevating instruction day by day for every student.

I think this book will make a very useful addition to the professional literature already available and help a lot of teachers.  I’d love to hear your thoughts…

Also, you should know, Leslie Blauman’s 3-5 version of Booster Lessons has just been released.  We caught first glimpse of it this weekend in St. Louis at #ILA15.  Hooray!  And, Lo!  It’s the #1 new release on Amazon in Education Curriculum and Instruction!  


Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Summer Bloggin' + VEGAS SDE National Conferences News

Hi there,
Excited for the National SDE Conferences:  'I Teach K,' 'I Teach 1st,' and 'I Teach 2nd.'  I'm looking forward to my week in Vegas!

If you'll be there, I'd love to hear from you!  More from me later...I'm still finishing my presentations and handouts.  I'm really excited about the big keynote!!!

Would love to see you at the Stella Writes book signings, too!  Yippee!

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Acquiring Books to Give Students for Summer Reading: STOP the Summer Slide!

Books everywhere!  Books spread across tables and in boxes along the floor.  Books that you can choose.  For free.  To keep.  It’s a FREE-CHOICE Book Bonanza!  Happy summer reading!

Here’s the most important way I can end the school year.  I’m a K-6 literacy coach in a Title I school.  A large portion of our students don’t have many books to read in their homes.  For years now, I’ve taken on the challenge of offering free books for summer reading to as many students as I can.  I figure it’s the least I can do considering the research on the summer slide (Allington, R. L., & McGill-Franzen, A. (2013). Summer reading: Closing the rich/poor reading achievement gap. New York: Teachers College Press.)* and the fact we’ve worked so hard all year to build these kids up.  Why let them go out the door and fall back behind?

One of my best ideas for acquiring books for our readers is to do book drives with higher SES schools in our area.  I choose one school each year.  I talk with the principal and compose a letter the school then sends home to their families asking for book donations (used books, in good condition, that their children no longer read, appropriate for grades K-6).  The books are collected in their front office and I pick them up.  As school nears its end, I set up tables in our gym or library to display books--like a book fair.  Our highest needs students are invited in to pick several books first, then we open it up to any student who’d like to come in and indulge!  One year we even had donated book bags for the event.  So many happy readers left absolutely beaming, weighed down by packs full of books and magazines—for themselves, for younger brothers and sisters.  One might think, “Yeah, but do they actually read them?”  Well, chances are they’ll get bored sitting home during the summer.  And, chances are, if there are books lying around, they’ll pick them up.  I like those chances.  According to Allington’s research, if students read just fifteen self-selected books over the summer weeks, they won’t be affected by the summer slide.  Plus, I like to imagine our friends, curled up, reading for fun, not because they’re bored or because they’re worried about losing their skills, but because they really do love to read.  <3

Best to you and your readers!  Happy summer reading to us all!  -Janiel

*One factor Allington found significant was allowing children to PICK the books rather than choosing them for them, trying to match them to their levels, or giving everyone a set that was purchased for that purpose. 

If you enjoyed this bright idea, please consider joining me on Facebook, Teachers Pay Teachers, or my blog "Literacy Matters" for more great ideas.

For more bright ideas from other bloggers, please browse through the link-up below and choose a topic/grade level that interests you. Thanks for visiting!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Oh! These Tests!!?!! One Non-Omniscient Teacher's Perspective

We’ve been in the throes of ‘rigorous’ testing for weeks now.  I’ve watched children try to read passages on numerous topics well-beyond the realm of their possible background knowledge, some with topics that seem to have been unearthed from ‘the most-disengaging-passages-ever’ tombs of old.*  After stumbling through the reading of (some) seemingly endless passages, students are asked questions (again, some) that have adults with master’s degrees scratching their heads.  All along I think, why?  What is this doing to quantify students’ competence as readers, writers, thinkers, speakers and listeners (as if these competencies can ever truly be quantified)?  As the scores roll in, we’re not surprised to see stats like 35% proficient for the third grade.  Not surprised at all.  Yet, we have taught like our "hair’s on fire" this year and, actually, for many years.  The results of these tests don’t scratch the surface in terms of our students’ capabilities or their growth.  It would help if the passages were more engaging and of a reasonable length, and that the questions asked were: a. discernible and b. appropriate for eight year olds and up.  Honestly, looking at some sixth grade questions, I was taken back to the days of my college advanced English classes.  I get ‘rigor,’ but much of this is just stupidity.

It makes me sad to think some of our kids walk away from these tests thinking, “I’m sure not good enough.  I didn’t understand much of that.”  Well, no, actually, kids, “You are good enough.  These tests are not.  And, we don’t understand that.”

In our drive to advance our students’ status across the world, collect data to prove that status, get to the “top of the race,” and involve our children in ‘rigorous education,’ we’ve lost our common-sense.  Yes, we need high standards, but do sixth graders really need to understand omniscient point-of-view and be able to find the exact line(s) from two passages with a total of twenty paragraphs wherein the author shows the reader evidence of this perspective?  (How many texts from the 20th century and beyond are actually written from this perspective, anyway?)  Should third graders be able to dissect and analyze a text to the point of identifying the purpose of paragraph 3 (out of say, 8 paragraphs) and how it contributes to the overall structure of the piece?  Are these items really relevant?

I’m all for looking closely at texts, but looking closely at elements that are appropriate and relevant for the grade level.  I’m more for making sure all our readers are proficient, can engage with text in meaningful ways, love to read, write, speak, listen and think deeply about the meaning of what they’re reading, and who choose to read and write outside of school and for far more than school-ish purposes.

To borrow a line from one of our first grader’s recent opinion pieces, “Who’s with me?” (He’s pictured below.)  Let’s do more reading and writing for real purposes with engaging texts and spend less time preparing for these types of tests.  There’s a lot more at stake here than ‘racing to the top’ of somebody’s educational agenda.  Who do we want our students to be as readers, writers and thinkers?  What do we want them to be able to do as readers, writers and thinkers?  Pick out text evidence for omniscient point-of-view?   

*I’d be happy to share examples, but as you probably know, we are all forbidden to do so.  Or, to talk much of any of it.  In fact, after you read this blog post, you must eat it to dispose of the evidence.

I'm with him!