Learning Places: Shifting from School Change to Fostering a Culture of Growth

By Irene Fountas, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative Director/Author/Professor

As we contemplate the improvement of our craft to benefit the children we teach, it can be useful to reflect on the language we use to describe the journey. Recently, I began to notice how often I read the term or use the term “school change” and began to think about a needed shift in language.

irene_fountas_2In a culture where all professionals are committed to the learning of their students, every teacher uses the knowledge they have to provide the most effective teaching they can. Every teacher is doing what he understands. So I began to think, the goal is not to change, but to grow. Nothing we do as teachers is wrong. Our teaching actions represent our best understandings at a particular point in time. Instead of spending time feeling badly, we need to focus our efforts on growing and supporting the growth of all members of the school community.

In their book Learning Places, Fullan and St. Germain describe schools as “learning places” or places where learning thrives.

  • Educators recognize that school improvement is complex.
  • Teachers are supported to engage in ongoing critical inquiry.
  • Educators have a shared purpose, a common base of knowledge and develop a common language.
  • Working as a team to recognize problems and plan actions, educators engage in a variety of collaborative activities.
  • Educators take shared responsibility for student learning.
  • All members seek to expand their knowledge through professional reading, study groups, conferences, research, affiliation with universities, professional organizations, coaching sessions and professional development sessions.
  • All members of the school community are invited to pool their knowledge and experiences to make informed decisions that best serve the school.

These critical elements should resonate with you as you think about your schools’ journey of growth.  As you think about the culture of your particular school, contemplate the factors that will support a culture of teacher growth – one that honors everyone’s efforts, but also brings energy and passion to the goal of continued learning. In the words of Fullan and St. Germain, think about whether your school is a “learning place.”

Fullan, Michael and St. Germain, Clif. (2006). Learning Places: A Field Guide for Improving the Context of Schooling. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Why Is It So Important to Use Mentor Texts in Conferences?

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by Guest Blogger Carl Anderson– Author and 2016 Lesley University Summer Institute Featured Speaker

The act of raising children involves surrounding them with mentors throughout their childhoods.  Piano and dance teachers, soccer and baseball coaches, and, yes, teachers in schools are all mentors for children who teach them things that their parents do not have the necessary expertise or time to teach themselves.

When we use the term “mentor text,” we are referring to a text that is an example of good writing from which children can learn about the craft of writing.  By studying a mentor text, a young writer can learn about how to write a lead, how to use punctuation to create cadence and rhythm in sentences, how to structure a text, or any one of hundreds if not thousands of ways that writers choose to craft their writing.

In a real sense, it’s the author of the text who is the mentor for the child.  A sixth grader who is studying Brown Girl Dreaming is learning about how to write from Jacqueline Woodson.  Or a first grader who is studying The Snowy Day is learning how to write from Ezra Jack Keats.  Just like Odysseus’s son Telemachus’ son learned from the Odysseus’s friend Mentor when Odysseus was away during his journeys in the ancient Greek poem The Odyssey, by Homer (I found out about the root of the word “mentor” from Georgia Heard in her book, Finding the Heart of Nonfiction!, students learn from the authors of every genre they study in a writing workshop.

Being familiar with mentor texts helps students with two of the key acts in composing a text.  First, when writers are starting to write a text, or a part of a text, they envision how it will go, a term I originally learned from Katie Wood Ray in her book, Wondrous Words (1999).  Writers often envision the overall structure of a text before they start writing it.  Likewise, when they write a section, a paragraph, a sentence, even the individual words that make up a sentence, they envision how these components of the text will go, too.  The root word of envisionment is, of course, vision.  For a writer to be able to “see” in her mind how a text or part of a text will go, she draws upon her knowledge of the kind of text she’s trying to write.  It’s through studying mentor texts that writers enhance their ability to imagine the many ways their own texts could go.

Revision, the part of the writing process that we usually think of as happening after writing a draft, refers to the act of making changes that improve a draft.  These changes might include adding detail to a draft, reworking a section, deleting a section, putting a section in a different place in the draft, or deciding to substitute one word for another.  Just as with the term envisionment, the root of the word revision is “vision.”  How do writers “see” in their minds how a text could be revised?  One important way is by thinking of the texts that they’ve studied, and comparing their drafts to those texts.  Ideas for how to revise a text come from that same pool of knowledge about texts that ideas for envisioning a text come from.

And once again, by studying mentor texts, writers are better able to imagine ways that a text could be revised.

Although I think it’s important to show students mentor texts when we are teaching the class a mini-lesson or a few students in a small group, I find that conferences are the place where mentor texts have the biggest impact on student learning, for several reasons:

  • In conferences, we can match a child up to a text that is at her level as a writer, and which shows the child exactly what it is I want her to learn to do right now. In a mini-lesson or small group, on the other hand, the mentor texts we show may not be exactly on each child’s level as a writer.
  • In conferences, since the mentor text is right in front of the child, he can closely study the text in a way that is harder when the text is projected onto a screen via a document camera, or onto the smart board via a laptop.
  • Conferences are more intimate than mini-lessons or small groups, and give us the chance to engage a child in a discussion about a text and how she can use what she is seeing in the text in her own writing.
  • In conferences, we are able to gauge whether or not a student understands the craft move that we’re studying in a text in a way that isn’t possible in a mini-lesson.

Finally, while we traditionally think of mentor texts as published texts—picture books, op-eds from a newspaper, short stories from a children’s magazine, etc.–they can also be texts that we have composed ourselves, or texts that have been composed by our own students.

Also, I use different kinds of texts as mentors to help students imagine the kinds of work they can do at other parts of the writing process.  For example, to help students envision what goes into keeping a successful writer’s notebook, I show them my own writer’s notebook.  I also show students my revised drafts–both paper and digital–so they can see the kinds of revision work I’ve done, such as information I’ve added in the margins.  I even show students edited drafts, so they can see the kinds of edits I make, and the symbols I use to indicate the kinds of edits I’m making.

You can hear Carl Anderson speak at our 2016 Summer Literacy Institute July 12-15, 2016. Register online at: https://www.regonline.com/Register/Checkin.aspx?EventID=1810005

 

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 .