Is There a Culture of Teacher Growth in Your School?

3.20.15 Irene Fountas Photo

by Irene Fountas, Author and Director of the Lesley University Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

In a culture of teacher growth, the educators in a school value their expertise and seek opportunities to expand it. They value teamwork and how it contributes to the achievement of all the students in the school. Think for a minute about the characteristics of your school culture.
  • What are the professional learning expectations for you in your school?  In other words, what is your understanding of what is expected of you in terms of continuous professional learning and what should you expect of your colleagues?
  • Are the expectations for professional learning by the educators communicated in a written document so everyone who works in the building has the same understandings and expectations of each other?
  • How generous are you in sharing your teaching and supporting your colleagues? How would your colleagues describe you as a team member?
These key questions are at the very foundation of a culture of professionalism in a school. The professional educators seek to continuously improve their expertise and appreciate every opportunity to interact and converse with each other about teaching and learning. The teachers understand that you don’t have to be a bad teacher to get better and they insist upon and value opportunities to grow their craft.
In schools that value collaboration and a growth culture, teachers and administrators see themselves as a team. They strive to get better and are committed to helping their colleagues be as good as they can be. They take collective responsibility for student outcomes and use language that reflects their stance. For example, they talk about “our school” and “our students” and student achievement is a reflection of the team’s efforts.
Every teacher in the school is viewed as a leader who is committed to solving problems together. A positive stance about the team’s ability to create change and improve student learning is the norm of the school. And of course, if you have the privilege of a resident coach for the team, everyone benefits from having a colleague in the role of supporting the continuous reflection and growth of all team members.
These are worthy goals for building the professional capacity of your school, but as we all know, school improvement is a journey that takes time. The key is to be moving in the right direction.
Take stock with your team as to how well you work together and make a plan to take steps that will foster better teamwork and more opportunities for continuous professional learning. Your commitment to your professional learning, to each other’s learning, and to teamwork will surely benefit the students you teach.
If you would like to view our professional development opportunity this summer for administrators that focuses on school culture, our What Every School Leader Needs to Know About Good Literacy Teaching and Effective Literacy Coaching, K-8 seminar runs August 10-13, 2015 at Lesley University: http://www.lesley.edu/center-for-reading-recovery/school-leaders-training/

Resisting the Frenzy: Staying the Course of Common Sense in Literacy Teaching

3.20.15 Irene Fountas Photo

by Irene Fountas, Author, Professor, and Director of the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative at Lesley University

In the past several decades, there have been a variety of movements that have shifted literacy teaching in our schools. Often the newest trend has meant a total mind-shift of instructional practice for teachers. Certainly something important can be learned from the emphases of each movement, but each swing of the pendulum has also left out some important areas of literacy teaching and learning. One cannot simply make the assumption when there is a new movement in the midst that the worthy new areas of emphasis are not already implemented in schools that are implementing a high quality literacy approach.

When we have articulated our values and beliefs about meaningful, authentic literacy learning in our schools, we can examine the contributions of each new movement in the light of well-grounded principles and stay the course of common sense in our responsibilities to our students, instead of shifting to a new bias that may compromise our commitment.

I will address a few of the key areas we have articulated in our work in supporting high quality literacy approaches that we believe have stayed the course of common sense for almost three decades.

First, every student deserves to have a meaningful and interesting reading life and writing life in school.

This means students read and write for real purposes every day in school and have choice in what they read and write. Choice breeds students’ sense of agency and promotes engagement, and furthers the development of one’s tastes in reading and one’s voice in writing. With the appropriate learning environment and scaffolding, students learn that reading and writing are thinking and that they can think about a variety of topics, authors and genres when they read and mentor with the thinking of the best of writers when they write. They experience some teacher-selected high quality literature and nonfiction, but also a good selection of self-selected material that builds their understanding of their selves and their physical and social world. They learn from their teachers how to make the good choices that offer enjoyment and expand their breadth and depth as readers, writers, and global citizens.

Second, students need a variety of structured opportunities to talk throughout the day.

Talk represents thinking. Students need to think and talk in school. This means pair and triad talk, small group talk, and some whole class discussions that have intent, not just talk for talk’s sake. This includes such instructional contexts as reading or writing conferences, literature discussion groups, guided reading groups, and interactive read aloud lessons that include pair or small group talk. Teachers sometimes don’t realize they are dominating the talk and robbing the students of the process of learning through verbalizing their understandings and building on or challenging each other’s ideas. The one who talks is the one who learns. Teachers play a key role in helping students learn how to use language that promotes conversation and the analysis of texts with others to achieve deeper understandings than any one reader could achieve on his own. When students discuss a variety of fiction texts, nonfiction texts, and poetry in a community of readers and writers, they learn how to use the language and vocabulary of literate people. These rich experiences build their background knowledge and academic vocabulary and put each learner in the role of a literate being.

Third, the text base for learning needs to include a variety of high quality fiction and nonfiction texts, primary and secondary sources, as well as poetry. 

The classroom text base needs to provide access to age appropriate, grade appropriate material that is of high interest and value. Sometimes the texts students are asked to read simply aren’t worth reading or don’t engage their intellectual curiosity. The texts need to be meaningful, relevant, developmentally appropriate and made accessible. Alongside this rich base, students need the opportunity to lift their reading powers with the precision teaching made possible with the teacher’s use of carefully leveled, challenging texts at the student’s instructional level. These texts allow for the differentiated, intentional teaching that each student deserves to develop an effective processing system and move forward as a self-regulating, independent reader.  Photo of Girl Reading

Fourth, students deserve to be acknowledged as unique learners.

Every student and every group of students is different. When teachers learn how to systematically observe the strengths and needs of individuals, the assessments can inform instruction and the teaching can be responsive. No assessment is valuable if it doesn’t result in better teaching. Good assessment gives information on how students process texts and what they understand about words, language, and text qualities. High quality literacy opportunities are built on the strength of the teacher’s expertise in assessing the readers and writers he/she is teaching. Some teachers fall into the trap of teaching students as if they are all the same or focus on teaching the book or program, not the diverse group of students in front of them. Effective teachers assess at intervals to document progress and assess by the minute to fine tune their decisions in the act of teaching.

Staying the Course 

These are some of the mainstays of high quality literacy opportunities for every student. Learning to read and write is complex and will require the complexity of teacher decision-making with sound rationales that are rooted in students’ observable reading, writing and language behaviors. Let’s look to the new movements for what they add to our expertise but keep our good sense about what really matters.

For more information about the Lesley University Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative events and trainings, visit our website at www.lesley.edu/crr .

Are You Teaching or Testing Comprehension?

irene_fountas_photoby Irene Fountas, Author and Director of the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative at Lesley University

All too often, successful comprehension has been regarded as a student’s ability to answer a teacher’s questions (which is one way of assessing comprehension), but it does not enhance the reader’s self-regulating power for processing a new text with deep understanding. Think about how your teaching moves may be focused on testing when you continually pose questions, or how you can shift to teaching or helping students learn how to comprehend texts for themselves.

Teaching for comprehending means supporting your students’ ability to construct the meaning of the text in a way that expands their reading ability. You can help them learn what to notice in a text and what is important to think about, how to solve problems when meaning is not clear, and provide scaffolds to develop their in-the-head systems for working through the meaning of the text. These abilities are generative, so students will be able to transfer what they learn how to do as readers before, during, or after reading to a variety of increasingly challenging texts in every genre.

Introduce the text to readers

When you introduce a challenging text to your students, be sure to help them notice how the writer constructed the meaning, organized the text, used language and made decisions about the print features. Help them know how the book works and get them started thinking about the writers’ purpose and message and the characteristics of the genre.

Prompt the readers for constructive activity

As students read orally, interact very briefly at points of difficulty to demonstrate, prompt for, or reinforce effective problem-solving actions that they can try out and make their own. Your facilitative language is a call for the reader to engage in problem-solving that expands their reading strengths.

Teach students how to read closely

Take the readers back into the text after reading to notice the writer’s craft more closely. Select a phrase, sentence or paragraph, or focus on helping them notice how the writer organized the whole text. Revisiting the text calls the reader’s attention to particular features.

Engage students in talk about texts

Talk represents thinking. When students talk about a text, they are processing the vocabulary, language and content aloud. This enables them to articulate their understandings, reactions and wonderings. When they learn to be articulate in their talk, they can then show their ability to communicate their thinking about texts in their writing.

Engage students in writing about texts

Writing about reading is a tool for sharing and thinking about a text. When students articulate their thoughts in writing, they confirm their understandings, reflect on the meaning and explore new understandings.

Testing is a controlled task for measuring what students can do without teacher help. Teaching is the opportunity to make a difference in the self-regulating capacity of the learner. Reflect on your teaching moves and engage in a discussion with your colleagues to shift from testing to teaching. When students focus on meaning-making with every text they read, they will be able to show their competencies on the test.

For more information about the Lesley University Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative’s events and trainings, visit http://www.lesley.edu/crr

Elevating Teacher Expertise: Key to Literacy for All Children

irene_fountas_2012_webby Irene Fountas, Author and Director of the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative at Lesley University

Over the decades, we have witnessed a variety of perspectives on the essentials of high quality literacy opportunities for children. Though we have seen a variety of approaches to instruction and arguments about content, the key role of teacher expertise in schools must be at the forefront of systemic change if we are serious about educating every child.

This means abandoning the notion that adopting a new set of materials, another new program or getting better units will be the most important factor. Of course we want beautiful books and high quality materials that support global learning but we need to reckon with the fact that what teachers know and understand as they make minute-by-minute decisions within the act of teaching is what will make the biggest difference in student learning. This will mean an investment in continuous professional learning with a focus on creating a culture of teacher growth in our schools.

Four key areas of expertise are essential for literacy teachers:

1. Expertise in Systematic Observation and Assessment  

Teachers need to be able to observe carefully what students know and are able to do as readers, writers, listeners, talkers, or viewers and they need to be skilled at using this information to guide teaching. Skilled observers note the precise language and literacy behaviors the child reveals and understand how the behaviors reflect the child’s building of a processing system for literacy. They can use that knowledge to make their next teaching move. Responsive teaching meets the learners where they are and brings them forward with intention and precision.

2. Expertise in Understanding the Reading and Writing Process and How it Changes Over Time  

Teachers need to know what proficient reading and writing looks like and sounds like. Through observing effective processing and how it changes over time, teachers build understandings of how readers and writers build a literacy processing system and can teach towards those competencies. This means teaching forward with a clear view of the competencies and the ability to note changes along the way.

3. Expertise in Understanding the Demands of Texts  

When teachers understand the ten characteristics of texts (Fountas and Pinnell), they can anticipate the demands and scaffold each reader in taking on new ways of processing increasingly complex texts. When teachers are able to analyze mentor texts, they can help writers learn how to write for a variety of purposes and audiences from effective writers of every genre. Knowledge of texts also enables the expert teacher to use different texts for different purposes.

4. Expertise in Core Instructional Procedures  

Teachers need to develop an expertise in a set of highly effective instructional procedures that can be linked to student learning. The procedures need to reflect elements of high impact teaching such as good pacing, intensity, and transfer. This includes knowing when whole group teaching, small group teaching, or individual teaching is appropriate and effective for the students. This also requires knowledge of the texts that provide the appropriate amount of support and challenge to assure new learning.

We have long known that what teachers know and can do is the most important factor in student learning. This means going beyond scripts and one size fits all lessons delivered the same way to students to complex teaching that is grounded in teacher understanding. We argue for the kind of thoughtful teaching that means not just changing what teachers do, but how they think about what they do. This means a school filled with educators who value and actively seek continuous professional learning and administrators who understand the investment in teacher expertise is the soundest long-term investment in student learning.

Our team at the Lesley University Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative provides a high level professional development for teachers and administrators to support these areas of expertise. We hope you will join us for an institute, a seminar series, or a long-term partnership to create the systemic change that assures every child grows up literate in our schools. www.lesley.edu/crr 

So How Are Your Reading Interventions Working?

toni's photo for blogby Toni Czekanski, Assistant Director, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

Schools and school districts spend a lot of money on interventions designed to help students who have difficulty learning to read or write become more proficient in a short amount of time. This is the goal: to close the achievement gap. But how well are you implementing your interventions, and how often are you monitoring data on these students to be sure that what you are doing works for them?

LITERACY COLLABORATIVE

364In Literacy Collaborative we talk about Fidelity of Implementation. Usually it is in terms of your implementation of the LC model: leadership team, effective classroom teaching supported by ongoing professional development and coaching, shared leadership, data monitoring, and then…intervention. On the Fidelity of Implementation document we ask you to consider what you are doing for reading and writing interventions and how those interventions are working. What is the payoff for your students?

READING RECOVERY

Teacher and studentIf you have Reading Recovery in your school as your Tier 3 intervention, there are already built-in processes to help Reading Recovery teachers monitor their work with students. Each day they review what happened in the lesson, take a running record of a book that was introduced the day before, and make plans for where to take the student next. These teachers keep track of each student’s performance on a daily basis, and enter it annually into the national IDEC database. Each year these statistics are reviewed and an annual report is published on the successes and challenges related to Reading Recovery student achievement.

It is incumbent on each school to scrutinize their Reading Recovery teaching and data with the same rigor. In this way, the school is ensuring that students get targeted instruction that conforms to the national standards. That is the only way students who are in the bottom 20-25% of their class can possibly hope to not only catch up to the average students in their grade, but sometimes surpass them…and continue to thrive as they move up through the grades.

LEVELED LITERACY INTERVENTION (LLI)

LLI group photoWhat about Leveled Literacy Intervention? In order to implement this small group intervention with fidelity, lessons should be thirty to forty-five minutes long (depending on the level), and the LLI teacher should meet with students daily. Just as in Reading Recovery, frequent assessment assures that the students are working at their growing edge, and that the time spent on this intensive intervention has pay-offs when students meet or exceed the reading performance of their on-grade-level peers.

Schools that have invested in training LLI teachers and in materials to support the intervention then need to insure that the intervention is administered with fidelity. LLI students have been identified as needing help to succeed with reading and writing. If they do not receive the intervention as designed, then schools are compromising the ability of these students to make the big gains necessary to close the gap between them and their on-grade-level peers. Intervention is about hard, targeted teaching designed to make swift achievement gains. What can your school leadership team do to insure that interventions are administered as designed?

Whatever interventions your school uses, here are some things you might consider:

  • Time: is the time you have allotted for your interventionists to work with students adequate? Can they meet with students five days a week for the prescribed amount of time? Do they have adequate time between lessons to reflect on their teaching and record data? If time is tight, how might you stretch it?
  • Training and Monitoring: Have interventionists received adequate training in how to use materials and monitor data? Do they engage with ongoing professional development to keep their teaching skills sharp? Do they meet with other interventionists in the district to share experiences and problem-solve dilemmas?
  • Data analysis: Do interventionists have time to analyze data and meet with literacy teams to problem-solve when students are not making adequate progress? How frequently does this happen? Reading Recovery and LLI are short-term interventions. If students are not progressing after ten to fifteen lessons, another pair of eyes and ears might help to make shifts in the teaching that will help students be more successful. What procedures are in place to re-evaluate instruction that is not working and support interventionists who might need help in analyzing their work?
  • Team work: Do the administrators, classroom teachers, interventionists, and literacy coaches work as a team to develop intervention plans and monitor them for success? Does the administrator support the interventionists with time, space, materials, and ongoing professional development opportunities? Does the team meet periodically to review the progress of students taking part in interventions to determine whether those interventions are successful? What are the criteria you use to determine success?

These are all hard questions, but they can help you with the bottom line. And that bottom line is working toward student achievement through the diligent planning and implementation of effective interventions. An intervention can only be successful when done with rigor and fidelity, and when it is supported by close examination of assessment data and teaching practices.

Writing Matters- Teaching and Learning from the Heart

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Guest blog post by Peter Catalanotto and JoEllen McCarthy, 2014 Literacy for All Conference Speakers

Unless we reach into our students’ hearts, we have no entry

into their minds.”

-Regie Routman

Getting at the core of what matters most to all readers, writers and thinkers, is the “heart” work of education. As Regie Routman said, we need to reach into their hearts in order to reach their minds.

Children live what they learn. Young writers learn from explicit instruction, modeling and emulating what they see strong writers do. Studying these authors inspires creativity, and supports a vision of what is possible for kids to do.

Books touch the hearts and minds of all readers. Powerful picture books serve as mentor texts to lift the quality of student writing, but more importantly they can also have the “power” to lift students up. Books can connect us as members of a growing community of learners. Books can leave heartprints: they can touch our lives and leave lasting impressions on our hearts. That’s why it isn’t enough to choose the mentor texts for the what, but it is also important to think about the why.

“Mentor texts are more than just craft coaches for writers- they can also offer inspiration and life lessons.”

– Georgia Heard

To teach is to touch a life.

When Peter started school, he wrote backwards and upside down, a condition called dysgraphia. Because he wrote backwards, he never aspired to be a writer. Several teachers had him practice writing. More importantly, his third grade teacher, Miss Dunn, put into practice the belief- allow a child to lead with their strengths.

When she noticed Peter’s struggle with writing, she suggested for a book report that he simply read the book and draw a series of pictures. When she saw his drawings she said it was clear that he read and understood the story. Then she asked if there was a way she could know what the characters in the pictures were feeling and thinking, or what they might do next. Peter looked up at her and said, “I could add words.”

“That’s brilliant!” she exclaimed. “Yes, you can add words to your pictures!”

Powerful words: “Yes you can.”

Yes we can in fact, reach into the hearts and minds of our students. We reflect on the what and why of our students’ needs. Isn’t that what matters most? Now, more than ever, we need to practice kindness, practice patience, and practice love. Because children won’t remember most of what you say and do. But they remember how you made them feel. What matters most in writing, (in reading, in life—) touching the hearts of all learners.

Miss Dunn touched Peter’s heart and mind. Who is your Miss Dunn? More importantly, whose Miss Dunn will you be?

Mentor author/ illustrator Peter Catalanotto and educator, JoEllen McCarthy offer an invitation to connect with them, collaborate, and celebrate what matters most to reach the heart of all learners.

Join the conversation at the Literacy for All conference session LCF-9 Tuesday, November 4th: Writing Matters: Learning From and With Mentor Authors (Grades K-5)

Balancing Opportunities for Children to Think and Talk About Text

Kathleen-FayGuest blog post by Literacy for All Conference featured speaker Kathleen Fay, Primary Literacy Collaborative District Trainer for Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia

When I taught Reading Recovery, I remember being blown away by the question, “What is the child’s theory of reading?” I hadn’t thought about interpreting behaviors to reveal a possible reading theory for each child. One child may enter school with a solid foundation that books make sense, we talk about them, and we have favorites. Another child may think that reading is getting the words right, or remembering the words. School situations, testing situations, home interactions, bedtime stories, listening to a funny story, being asked about ideas… each interaction has the potential to contribute to a child’s theory of reading, positively or not, regardless of intention. As teachers, we only have control over what goes on in our classrooms. As such, what we say to children, how we listen to them, and how we respond to them, can contribute to their identity as a reader (a writer, a learner, a person) and how they perceive what reading can do for them. It is as exciting as it is daunting.

Here’s an exaggeration to illustrate my point. A child reads a text during a guided reading session and is asked a series of questions to follow up: What happened? What happened next? What happened at the end? What was your favorite part? Why do you think the author wrote this story?

Regardless of the intentions behind this interaction, there are possible contributions to the child’s in-the-head theory: Reading is about remembering what I read. I have to prove to them I just read the text.  My responses are either right or wrong. I should like what I read. Once I figure out what my teacher wants me to say, she’ll be happy with me, or she’ll leave me alone.

We want kids to be active and genuine in their thinking. To reveal this thinking, we have to have authentic conversations with them. Yet we have to be careful of our tone and that even open-ended questions don’t feel like a barrage. I have to constantly remind myself to be genuine. Wait. Listen. Talk with. Especially with tentative children, I’ve tried to use statements instead of questions:

  • I wonder what you’re thinking…
  • Let’s pick a part to talk about…Let’s talk about…
  • I wonder why [the character] did that.
  • Wow, I didn’t know that! That makes me think …

Interacting this way, the theory we hope to be building is: Someone cares about what I think. I have something to say. My ideas matter. It’s okay not to know. Sometimes people aren’t sure, but they share what they are thinking anyway. There are books we like and books we don’t like. I can learn something when I read.

It’s not about which prompts or opening moves are right but the importance of balancing opportunities for children to think and talk about text and that the joy and pleasure in books may not be about the author’s message or the main idea of the story. Sometimes it’s just about enjoying a few quiet moments of undivided attention that isn’t scripted or defined by standards. I’m reminded of this when I read with my daughter. For the past few weeks we spend time every night searching for the ten hamster children, noticing another parallel in the illustrations, and playing with different voices in Peggy Rathman’s Ten Minutes Till Bedtime (1998). In these moments, books bring us together. My hope is that our quiet (or very loud) talk, impromptu reactions, and play with texts build her theory that reading is worthwhile and what she contributes is valued and brings meaning to this enjoyable experience.

becoming-one-communityKathleen has more than 20 years of experience working as a classroom teacher, Reading Recovery teacher, and most recently, as a Literacy Collaborative Coach in Title I schools. She is co-author, with Suzanne Whaley, of Becoming One Community: Reading and Writing with English Language Learners (Stenhouse, 2004). She will be presenting at the upcoming Literacy for All conference in Providence, RI. Her sessions on Monday, November 3 and Tuesday, November 4 include: 

LCD-5 — Keeping Meaning at the Forefront of Book Introductions (Grades K–2)

LCF-3 — Keeping Meaning at the Forefront of Book Introductions (Grades K–2) 

LCG-2 — Using Small-Group Read-Alouds to Support Young Readers (Grades K–2)