Breaking the Cycle of Professional Compliance: Teachers as Decision Makers

Guest blog post by Laura Robb and Evan Robb

On 4/23/20, #G2Great invited our chat family to discuss a critical topic, Breaking the Cycle of Professional Compliance: Teachers as Decision-Makers. We are so grateful that our friends Laura Robb and Evan Robb shared their wisdom with us all in this wonderful post.

            Gracie Jordan has been teaching ELA to sixth graders in a small southern town for five years. A fan of workshop, Gracie has 90-minutes a day to teach reading and writing.  Every day she reads aloud to students. Her classroom library has 800 books and her students read self-selected books independently for 15 to 20 minutes a day. For instruction, Gracie organizes literature circles, and students select books to read in small groups—books of the same genre that meet their instructional needs.  Step into Gracie’s classroom and you’ll notice displays of books on windowsills, bookshelves, and underneath the chalkboard. And if you observe a few classes, you would see students creating book displays, negotiating deadlines for completing books, and collaborating to write and perform readers’ theater.  

 Used to making instructional decisions for the benefit of all her students, Gracie confers frequently with each one. Mr. Roberts, the principal, funds annual additions to Gracie’s and other workshop teachers’ collection of books for literature circles as well as their classroom libraries. 

Gracie’s World Turns Upside-Down 

In early June, Gracie and other ELA teachers at her school receive a letter from the new superintendent explaining that the central office with the school board’s approval has adopted a basal reading program for K to 8 students.  ELA teachers are to become familiar with the program’s many components over summer break, attend a workshop in August about the new program, and teach it with fidelity during the upcoming school year. Indeed, moving from reading workshop and using wonderful books to a basal reading program had turned Gracie’s teaching world along with several of her colleagues topsey-turvey!  Two questions continually bombard Gracie’s mind: How will I make time for my students to read books they select?  Will I be able to follow this change in instruction with total fidelity?

What’s Wrong With This Snapshot?

A chief administrator of a school district, the superintendent’s decisions can reveal whether teachers and administrators will be valued as thinkers and decision-makers or as staff who comply and follow top-down decisions. Often, a new superintendent arrives in the district and implements curricular changes that worked in his/her former school district.  The letter to teachers did not explain the rationale for the decision. The problem Gracie and others have is the superintendent imposed a basal reading program on K to 8 teachers and administrators without collaborative discussions, without citing evidence from their test scores for such a dramatic change, and without a knowledge of whether the teaching and learning in their classrooms supports all students. 

            Actually, the new superintendent’s decision reveals a lack of consensus building and appears to be based on a belief that if this reading program worked in his former district, it would work in all districts. However, all districts don’t necessarily benefit from one method of instruction, nor do they have student populations with the same needs. By not canvassing principals and other school leaders to gain insights into students’ reading achievement and determine whether a workshop model and schools filled with books support students’ growth and progress, frustration levels rise. The consensus among teachers is that the new superintendent wants compliance. 

To Comply or Not to Comply

Gracie and other teachers in her building face a major dilemma:  Should they acquiesce to a one-size-fits-all reading program, when they know that all students in their middle school aren’t reading on grade level.  However, a review of annual tests over the past five years indicates that students are making progress and developing reading proficiency. Mr. Roberts, Gracie’s principal, views his teachers as informed decision-makers. He encourages formative assessment as a way to continually evaluate students’ progress and develop targeted interventions and instruction that consider the needs of every reader.

            Moving to a basal program where the “experts” make all the decisions for students they don’t know seems unreasonable to Gracie.  Now, she and others will be required to deliver lessons they didn’t develop and move forward with the program, even if several students require specific support in order to succeed with the next wave of lessons.  Gracie’s heart is heavy with worry for her students, and her mind raises questions again and again: How will I find time for students to read? When will I be able to support students who need extra help? When will I confer with students? What will happen to students who can’t read the program’s stories?

            Gracie is unable to envision herself as anything but a responsible and responsive decision-maker when it comes to her students’ reading instruction.  After reflecting on herself as a teacher and her desire to continue to support each student, she makes a good decision: Gracie sets up a meeting with Mr. Roberts, her principal.  He supports the workshop model, reads aloud to classes, and always shares his enthusiasm for the volume in reading students are doing. Maybe, Gracie thought, she could work out a compromise with him.

Gracie’s Meeting With Mr. Roberts

Mr. Roberts respects Gracie and her colleagues’ ability to use formative assessments in their reading workshop in order to be responsive to students’ learning and progress. He listens carefully to Gracie’s discussion points, nodding in agreement when she points out that students’ progress is steady in her classes and in other classes using reading workshop. She also thanks Mr. Roberts for the annual funds he releases to enlarge classroom libraries and books for instruction. 

            Mr. Roberts explains that he and other principals are also struggling with the superintendent’s decision to purchase a basal reading program, as they weren’t consulted.  In a recent meeting with the superintendent, the district’s principals did negotiate some flexibility. Teachers could start their ELA classes with 15-20 minutes of students reading self-selected books and then implement the basal.

            “What about my students who can’t read the grade level stories in the basal? If I read them out loud, the students aren’t doing the reading. And the directions on the worksheets will pose challenges to this group.”  

            “Find alternate books and stories on the same genre for students who can’t read and comprehend grade-level materials.”   Mr. Roberts understands the value of volume in reading. He also believes that his responsibility is to the students in his building and helping teachers enlarge their reading skill and expertise. 

            “Keep in touch with me,” he tells Gracie. ”Especially if you need specific books to meet every student’s needs.”  Your advanced readers will need more of a challenge than stories in a grade-level basal.”

            Gracie left feeling more positive, especially because Mr. Roberts supports her and knows the research on reading. Her only worry is that Mr. Roberts could be reprimanded for allowing accommodations to the basal program. 

A New Superintendent’s Role

When a superintendent arrives in his or her new school district, it’s important that he/she learn a great deal about the culture of each school as well as students’ strengths and needs.  To accomplish this, it’s crucial that the superintendent meet with principals and other school leaders, groups of teachers, and parents, to understand how the district’s community sees teaching and learning. In addition, before making sweeping change in an academic discipline, it would seem logical that besides discussions with school stakeholders, the superintendent would gather testing data over the past five to ten years to understand the story the data reveals. 

            Evan, a middle school principal, and I believe that a top down decision calling for compliance from school administrators and teachers will foster anxiety and frustration among staff that believe in consensus building. Ultimately, the decision to substitute reading workshop where teachers make informed decisions could result in losing teachers who feel stifled and unappreciated as well as thoughtful principals, such as Mr. Roberts, who believe in teacher agency and empowerment.  

The Principal’s Role in a Compliant Environment

For Evan, a principal’s major responsibility is to his school and its staff, students, and families. So what can a principal do when he or she is also the recipient of a top down decision from a superintendent? It’s time for courageous conversations with the superintendent, even though the principal is risking negative reactions. It’s also time to listen to teachers, empathize with their concerns, and find ways to compromise for students’ benefit. Here are seven suggestions for principals caught in a situation requiring compliance: 

  • Listen carefully to teachers that request meetings, empathize with their feelings, and follow-up once you have more information.
  • Have a conversation with the new superintendent even though this could be risky. Bring long-term data to review as well as explain what teachers are presently doing in ELA and content classes.
  • Invite the superintendent to visit schools and spend time in classrooms to understand instructional methods as well as build relationships with teachers.
  • Discuss compromises and ways teachers can have flexibility with implementing the basal program.
  • Work with other principals to build a trusting relationship with the superintendent so decision-making moves from compliant and top-down to shared decision making that takes into account the culture and population of each school in a district. 
  • Communicate with teachers to acknowledge respect for their knowledge, ability to use formative assessments to inform instruction and interventions, and support them as much as possible.
  • Find ways to retain outstanding teachers and work to move from compliance back to teacher agency–teachers as informed decision-makers.

Building Teacher Agency & Leadership

Instead of a culture of compliance, Evan and I want to see school districts develop teacher agency and leadership. This can happen when trusting relationships between school leaders and the superintendent develop as well as positive relationships between the superintendent and teachers. We believe that the principal can develop teacher agency and leadership by:

  • Collaborating with teachers to explore ongoing building-level professional learning opportunities.
  • Showing the importance and value of ongoing professional learning by attending and participating in these school-based opportunities.
  • Encouraging staff to join Twitter and Facebook and enlarge their knowledge of teaching and learning through by cultivating a broad Personal Learning Network (PLN).
  • Creating time for teams and departments to have conversations about students, teaching practices, interventions, and offer supportive feedback.
  • Encouraging teachers to suggest and plan book and article studies to increase their theory of learning and ultimately have the background knowledge to make informed teaching decisions  
  • Making it possible for teachers to observe colleagues in their building, but also to be able to spend time observing and learning from teachers in other schools.
  • Inviting teachers to make national, educational connections and choose a teacher to Skype with and build their educational knowledge base.
  • Hosting, as principal, conversations with groups of teachers, to share information, brainstorm ideas to improve curriculum and professional learning, and show your trust in their teaching and learning abilities.  

Closing Thoughts

When school leaders require that teachers use a one-size-fits-all program, they discourage teacher agency and ongoing professional learning.  Such compliance assumes that all students in a class are at the same instructional reading levels. Instead of being thoughtful and meeting the diverse needs of students sitting in a class, compliance asks teachers to accept the authors of a program as “the authorities” when none of them know their students. This. Doesn’t. Make. Sense.

            The Gracie described at the beginning of our blog is the kind of teacher who can best serve the needs of a wide range of students, and Mr. Roberts is an informed and knowledgeable principal who respects, trusts, and values his teachers.

When school leaders encourage teacher agency and ongoing professional learning, it’s possible to break the cycle of professional compliance.   Instead of asking teachers to comply, empower them.  Instead of a script, trust skilled teachers’ knowledge. Instead of becoming an implementer, help teachers become thoughtful decision-makers.  When school districts foster collaboration and communication between administrators and staff, they can work together to create a school culture that empowers members to continually learn and grow in order to meet the needs of every student.  

A special thank you to Laura and Evan for this beautiful reflection on such an important topic in education.

Evan Robb’s Blog

Laura Robb’s Blog

Spark Change: Making Your Mark in a Digital World

By Guest Blogger Carol Varsalona

In a new normal world, marked by remote learning and social distancing, student agency and the rise of student voice are essential. Children of 21st Century need access to tech tools to problem solve, collaborate, create, and connect with others. Championing these thoughts and bearing the banner, #KidsCanTeachUs, a young voice has emerged.  Ever since I met Liv VanLedtje several years ago, I knew she was destined to spark change in a global sense. Her enthusiasm for lifelong learning and the inquiry process has led her to make her mark at national and local conferences and on the world of education. With her mother, Cynthia Merrill, guiding her and helping her navigate the landscape of social media, sparks have been ignited to impact “kids” digital future.   

When the #G2Great community approached me to create one of their Literacy Lenses for the April 16, 2020 convo, I enthusiastically agreed. I knew that the book Spark Change was soon to be published, so when Dr. Mary Howard sent me her copy, I dug deep into it. I was struck immediately by the two-voice format, the attention to a digital mindset, connection to the ISTE standards, and the emphasis on student voice and agency. Liv’s quotes sprinkled throughout the book and her lists presented her global-minded approach to connecting learning and impacting the world in a positive way from a student perspective.

In an interview prior to the April chat, the #G2Great team asked Liv and Cynthia the following question about their book, Spark Change. What motivated you to write this book? What impact did you hope that it would have in the professional world? In their two-voice format, they responded. 

(Liv) For the past 4 years, I have been working on a project called LivBits. Each week, I make short videos for kids and teachers called LivBits. I call the videos this because they are a little bit of me, Liv, and a little bit of my thinking, bits. Put that altogether and you have LivBits! In my work, my mum and I noticed how incredible kids were with using tech to share their thinking. We knew putting together tech tools and kid passions created incredible thinking, and we wanted to write a book that would encourage more of this.

(Cynthia) Yes! Liv’s got it right. We really hope to move the needle on the technology conversation with our book and each chapter is framed as such. Given our current experience with COVID-19, we really believe the Spark Change message will resonate even more deeply. We also hope the conversation around equity, activism, and student voice continues when we get on the other side of this pandemic.

Knowing Liv and Cynthia, I have had the pleasure of watching them make national presentations with and without our Wonderopolis team. Liv’s enthusiastic approach to adding sparkle to every encounter has led me to value her message of allowing children to inquire, explore, and discover pathways to learning. Liv is a big believer in the power of wonder and Cynthia is a strong supporter so sparking change has been a developing call to action for them. Their collaborative effort in writing Spark Change is a culmination of their work in the field.

On April 16, 2020, the #G2Great conversation started with Jenn Hayhurst sending out Words of Wisdom images, such as:

Cynthia Merrill’s greetings noted: “No better time than the present to be talking about kids, tech, and change!” Liv shared one of her delightful LivBit videos that spoke about their book, Spark Change. 

In the Spark Change Book Trailer video,  Liv and Cynthia’s spoke of their call to action. This can be accessed at Vimeo here.

Question 1 asked tweeters to “Share some ways you’ve thought about tech access as a digital right for all students?” In her usual positive stance, Liv responded through a global lens.

Kathleen Sokowlski, Long Island educator, responded from her teacher point-of-view.

Dr. Mary Howard replied through a questioning framework.

Liv and I had an exchange online.

Each chat question that followed dealt with a different aspect of Spark Change, making the prompts suitable for a professional book talk, especially now during our COVID19 remote learning time. Topics other than Digital Rights that were explored in the chat were Digital Purpose, Digital Authenticity, Digital Exploration, Digital Creation, Digital Activism, and Digitial Future.

Toward the end of the #G2Great Twitter conversation, Sierra Gilbertson tweeted a thought echoed by Liv and Cynthia in their work.

The chat was filled with many heartbeeps, special moments. 

Prior to the chat the #G2Great team asked Liv and Cynthia two more questions. 

What are your BIG takeaways from your book that you hope teachers will embrace in their teaching practices?

  • Access to technology isn’t a choice; it’s a right.
  • Students can lead the understanding around tech tools and schooling
  • Technology can globalize learning in ways that grow empathy and compassion for the world.

What is a message from the heart you would like for every teacher to keep in mind?

(Liv) I hope teachers read our book and feel heartbeeps for their work with students. I hope they will be the kind of grown up who will stand up for kids and technology. And, most of all, I hope they remember that kids can do important things for the world when we are given a chance. Please help us.

(Cynthia) I really couldn’t have said it better. I am so grateful to our readers for holding both of us in their hearts as they read Spark Change–Liv, as an example of a student or child they love, and me as a parent educator, who is working hard to elevate the narrative around kids, tech, platforms for sharing work, and learning. Thank you so much for taking this journey with us!

Liv and Cynthia have ignited sparks in the educational world. It is up to us educators to create a culture of inquiry and wonder, to build havens of joyful learning. We can be the difference makers in each classroom. We can be the guides offering choice options that lead students to narrate their stories and amplify their voices as digital citizens in a new normal educational environment. All it takes is positivity and determination to explore the world with different lenses, like Liv has done.

Carol Varsalona blogs at “Beyond Literacy Link” and is an ELA consultant, Wonder lead ambassador for Wonderopolis, and moderator of #NYEdChat. Further information is available on her blog here.

Craft and Process Studies: Units That Provide Writers with Choice of Genre

Guest blog by Travis Crowder

This week, we were delighted to welcome Matt Glover back to #G2Great chat to engage in dialogue around his incredible new book, Craft and Process Studies: Units That Provide Writers with Choice of Genre (2020, Heinemann). You can revisit this amazing chat on our Wakelet artifact. We are honored that guest blogger, Travis Crowder, wrote a beautiful reflection on the personal impact Matt’s book has had on his thinking.

Guest Post by Travis Crowder

A fuse of light appeared at the edge of the morning, smearing shades of purple and red across the horizon. I cradled my coffee cup in my hands and stared, mesmerized, at the sky, drinking in the nascent glow. To describe what I saw would be a reach for the ineffable, but I grabbed my notebook and pen and tried to write what I saw. I didn’t take too long because the sun’s ascent is quick. I feared I would miss something. After jotting down the first sentence of this blog post, I laid my notebook aside, and stood with an empty cup, watching as the morning continued to write its story for me. 

For the past month, the world has slowed to a crawl, and time stretches to an interminable distance. The news is unsettling, and more than anything, we crave normalcy— to return to what it was like before. Social distancing, face masks, quarantining, and solitude are our new norms and have gathered into our collective vocabulary. I won’t lie. Such words frighten me. They are etched in ink on the walls of my mind, and the unease they cause continues to distort the world as I know it. Since March, a torrent of uncertainty and fear has swirled beneath the surface of my emotions, but in the midst of what has felt like chaos, this gorgeous morning was soothing. It calmed me. 

If we were still going to school each day, I know what I would do. 

I would take that fragile first sentence and build it, grow it. I’d allow it to lead my thinking. I’d fill a page, or possibly two, in my notebook, and prepare to share that writing with students. 

I would go back to the books that I’ve read across the past few weeks and photocopy the pages and paragraphs from Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table and Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life. I’d gather collections of poetry, such as Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Naomi Shihab Nye’s Tiny Journalist, and Brenda Shaughnessy’s The Octopus Museum. Each author, a master of language, has breathed life into my craft. I’ve marked those passages, and I would want to carry them with me. 

At school, before COVID-19 forced us to teach remotely, we were studying essays, and most students were writing pieces about family members, personal qualities, fears, and memories. We had been studying professional essays and as a class, we were discussing and noting the craft moves the authors used to guide us through their thinking. They were good at noticing, but they were struggling to use those craft moves in their writing. Now, it would be different. I’d know what to do. 

Armed with a stack of texts and my own writing, I’d go into class knowing that I had a better chance of moving their writing lives. I’d put my notebook under the document camera and talk about what I had written. I’d share with students how I took something as exquisite as a morning and, using Ocean Vuong’s poem “Aubade with Burning City” as a mentor text, borrowed his words to elevate my own. I’d also dig through The Cat’s Table until I found Ondaatje’s lyrical use of the word fuse as a description for the light of morning. These, I would say, are just a few examples of how I allow a writer’s work to bleed into my own.

From there, we would read more. 

Looking at the books and poetry I’d gathered, we’d study the moves these authors made. We’d put names on these moves, make an anchor chart or word wall with them, and we’d display sample texts that included them. I’d even invite students to share texts they’ve encountered with these moves. We’d display the texts they share, too.

When students returned to their personal writing, I’d check-in with them and peer into their writing. I’d look and listen for anything that suggested they were using techniques from another author. If I noticed they were struggling, I’d pull up a chair or kneel down beside them, and pull out my writing notebook. I’d show them more of my writing and even carry the texts— books, poems, essays, and so on—that have influenced my craft. I’d show them how I weaved the techniques of a mentor author into sentences of my creation. If necessary, I’d help them with diction, the quantum level of writing, and demonstrate how precise words give shape and contour to our ideas. I might even leave some of my writing with a student for support. 

Unfortunately, I have had to write much of this post in the conditional tense. I do not have the privilege of traveling to school each day, laying my notebook under a document camera, discussing craft moves with students, and making anchor charts as a reminder of our learning. Instead, I am teaching remotely while my school sits like a discarded husk. I ache to return to the classroom because now I believe I could help students overcome the struggle of using craft moves in their work. This confidence is the result of reading Matt Glover’s Craft and Process Studies: Units that Provide Writers with Choice of Genre

Without knowing it, I was taking my students through Matt’s process study, “Reading Like a Writer.” My ignorant interpretation wasn’t that strong, but thankfully most of the pieces were there. “Reading Like a Writer” is one of seventeen different units, all of which are divided into craft and process studies. The book as a whole is divided into two parts. The first part is more of a road map that helps you navigate the units of study. He discusses conferring, what to carry with you, such as sample texts for explicit instruction, and times of year that these units work best. In the second part, he unpacks process and craft studies, and provides the rationales, grade ranges, times of year, unit questions, goals, teaching points, routines, and so on to lift the quality of our writing instruction. Holistically, this book brings together what feels like disparate parts into a comprehensible whole. 

I often worry that I am not giving students what they need as young writers. Matt knows this, though. He understands how difficult it is to teach kids how to write. Sensing that uncertainty, he bathes his readers in strategies and ideas that will influence students’ craft and process knowledge. He understands that choice of genre is paramount in the development of a writing life, and the ease of a master teacher, he assuages any fear of the unknown and, with his gentle voice, explains that with the right tools, teachers can nudge kids forward. He’s even convinced me that I need to spend less time on genre and more time on craft and process. Although I try my best to balance them, a deeper focus on craft and process, I now know, will lift the quality of students’ writing. 

Matt’s book is a gift to all writing teachers. His instructional and philosophical writing carries readers deep into his thinking while sparking within us the confidence we need to reach our kids. Early in the book, there’s a picture of Matt sitting on a chair, holding what appears to be his notebook. His smile, expression, and proximity to his students is all I need to know that rigorous thinking is happening in this classroom. He knows what he’s talking about because he’s done it before. For me, this is one of the markers of a skilled writing teacher— one who participates in the act of writing and limns that experience through beautiful, yet simple language, for both students and teachers. 

Although I do have contact with my students, I do not have the ability to teach them like I want to. I can’t interact with them each day, talk with them, laugh with them, or sit beside them as they grapple with the right wording or structure. But I can grow as a writing teacher. Matt’s book has compelled me. It still does. There’s nothing about this book I don’t like. In fact, it builds like a dramatic movement in a symphony and by its climactic end, we know what to do. I’ll return to this book again and again, and each time, I know I will get better at moving writers. 

One day, and I hope it’s soon, I’ll return to my classroom. I’ll unlock the door, switch on the lights, and stare into the empty shell that has been waiting, silently, for us. I’ll lay my backpack on the floor beside my table and pull out the books and writing I’ve prepared to share with kids. Matt’s book will still be singing in my heart, and I’ll know more of what to do, more of what not to do. Not long after that, I’ll hear the glorious voices of children, far away at first, but as they enter the hallways, their voices will grow, eradicating the silence. This is the sound of triumph, of joy, of the endless possibilities for learning. 

As they come into the classroom, I’ll be so happy to see their smiling faces. And as I watch them take their seats, the words of Walt Whitman will echo in my mind: “…Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged, / Missing me one place, search another, / I stop somewhere, waiting for you.” The world, although stopped for a season, has now continued to move. We’ve been waiting, dear students. 

And here we are. 

We asked Matt Glover to respond to three questions about his book

What motivated you to write this book? What impact did you hope that it would have in the professional world?

 I wrote this book because I care about student engagement in writing.  I’ve become increasingly concerned about schools where all of the units, year after year, are only genre studies. I love genre studies, but they aren’t the only types of units students should encounter.  Schools should also have craft studies and/or process studies each year where children can choose their genre.  If we care about student engagement, we have to consider the role of choice.

What are your BIG takeaways from your book that you hope teachers will embrace in their teaching practices?

I hope this book does 2 things. First, I hope it makes a strong enough case for choice of genre that teachers include some of these units in their year.  Second, my goal is to provide teachers with practical support to make these units successful and positively impact learning.  There are some common issues teachers run into with craft and process studies, primarily because many teachers aren’t accustomed to units other than genre studies   Fortunately, there are some easy solutions.

What is a message from the heart you would like for every teacher to keep in mind?

Engagement is at the heart of learning, and choice plays a key role in engagement.  All children deserve to have opportunities to write in genres of interest, and to have their writing valued by caring adults.  In order to fully understand our students as thinkers and writers, we have to understand and take advantage of the importance of authentic choices students make, including choice of genre.

With deep gratitude to Matt Glover and Travis Crowder

#G2Great: Preparing for the Unexpected

By Fran McVeigh

Wakelet Link

Thursday, April 2, 2020 #G2Great focused on lessons learned on the journey from typical March classroom experiences to environments ranging from “shelter in place” to the distribution of online learning sessions. Each chat participant had their own stories to share. Their own successes. Their own fears. And even their own JOY.

Words matter. Words matter most in times of uncertainty. This is my new favorite word: Ultracrepidarian. An eight syllable word that packs a lot of meaning. According to dictionary.com, it means:

“noting or pertaining to a person who criticizes, judges, or gives advice outside the area of his or her expertise: The play provides a classic, simplistic portrayal of an ultracrepidarian mother-in-law.” (dictionary.com link)

Recently education has been under attack from many groups. Many of them seem to be ultracrepidarians. We won’t know the full extent or REAL impact of Covid-19 school closures for generations because there are just too many “unknowns” at this time. We can speculate that some immediate changes will occur. But will they be lasting changes? Will it depend on the REASONS for the changes? We need to be aware of the voices and words from ultracrepidarians.

Three key ideas that surfaced in our chat were: a focus on students, daily choice reading and writing, and teachers as a collaborative community of problem solvers and leaders.

Focus on Students

In Kylene Beers’s “Office Hours” session earlier in the day, Kelly Gallagher shared with all the attendees that one true abiding belief that sustains him is that students are at the center circle of all we do. That seems fairly common. But let’s follow his thinking as Kelly explained that the second concentric circle is for teachers and then out beyond that is the curriculum, the standards, and the course content. Inherent within that first circle is all the joy, creativity, curiosity, and independence that radiates from students and requires careful nurturing to flourish and grow in times of trouble. When we begin with a focus on students at the center of learning, it seems easier to ensure that instruction is responsive, matches students needs, and continually challenges students to stretch and grow. Marisa Thompson’s tweet matches those beliefs.

Daily Choice REAL Reading and Writing

Stories sustain us in times of trouble. Stories provide an escape from reality and allow us to dig into deeper meaning in our lives. Writing stories also allow us to reveal our thinking, explore ideas, and process the events occurring in our lives. Using “stories” literally does not mean short stories only. It also doesn’t mean books only. Reading and writing need to include short and long term projects and sources to keep volume, interest and engagement high as communication needs shift. Time for REAL choice reading and writing may also mean “going slow to go fast” and/or reducing the number of teacher-directed units. As teachers plan to “finish out the year,” those plans will require flexibility so students have equitable access, opportunities to learn, and the needed structures to ensure motivation and engagement remain high as Julie Wright describes below in her tweet.

Teachers as a Collaborative Community of Problem Solvers and Leaders

Teachers are being challenged to move from 0 to 60 miles per hour immediately to find ways to provide supportive, safe environments for students to flourish. Some had the benefit of time to organize and study together before plans were finalized. Some had the benefit of opportunities to gain input from parents and caregivers before brick and mortar schools closed their doors. Some pressure is self-induced as teachers have high expectations for student learning. But not all expectations are the same and local, state and federal administrators will be wise to ascertain local needs and expectations before mandates become edicts.

Why does it matter? Teachers as the leaders and the decision-makers are entrusted with the care of students’ emotional, social, physical and intellectual growth. That is why teachers begin with students and their needs as the focus. Technology-based learning may be a concern, but it is only ONE way of approaching student learning. If students have no devices, technology is not the answer. If students have no bandwidth, technology is not the answer. If parents/caregivers, and multiple students need to be online learners within the same environment, flexible schedules will be necessary with fewer synchronous learning requirements. All of those components will require teachers to generate thoughtful plans and choices. Similarly a “packet” of papers is not the answer either. Learning expectations need to be purposeful and clearly designed to meet student needs. This is not the time to revert to practices that are not in the best interests of students. A community of teachers collaborating together can problem solve and generate learning ideas to maximize time and space to lead to a higher degree of success. This is after all why so many people are teachers as Kitty Donohoe shares in her tweet and also framed in Justin Reich’s quote shared prior to our chat.

So why does it matter? Everyone is scrambling. Everyone has ideas. Everyone has personal preference. But everyone also has to remember the WHY of instruction that matches their community values. Basic needs have had to be prioritized as folks have lost jobs and endured weeks of lockdown in close proximity of family members who are struggling with the loss of food and fiscal resources, fear of the unknown and the stress of rapid changes. During times of trouble, time becomes an even more precious commodity.

What do you value? How do we know?

The final question, question 8 from our chat, is one you all need to discuss and come to consensus on in your buildings and districts so that your actions will be based on your beliefs.

Link

And here is a quick summary of the eleven items that #G2Great chat members listed more than once when responding to Q8 according to the Wakelet.

  • 2 mentions: See learning differently, Joy, Laugh, Love, Rest, Go Outside
  • 3 mentions: Create, Listen, Talk
  • 4 mentions: Play
  • 6 mentions: Write
  • 8 mentions: Read

In conclusion, there are no WRONG answers in the current uncharted Covid-19 Survival World. There are “better” answers. Slow down and be thoughtful in your responses. Commit to strengthening relationships. Commit to doing the best you can. Commit to being the best you can. Commit to being the kind of person that you will be proud of. Commit to finding a group of folks to bounce ideas off of and to share the load of the work ahead.

And above all, give yourself grace to make mistakes, to make missteps, to ask for help, to grieve, and to take care of yourself, your family AND your school communities! Be safe! Be careful! Use soap and water!

A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Workshop Essentials #G2Great

by, Jenn Hayhurst

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For the past two days, I participated in a car parade through my district to show my students that I care about them, that I miss them, and that I hope to see them soon:

As I write this post to you readers, I am feeling overwhelmed. COVD 19 has instantly made everything I know about the world seem scary and strange. So I try to find my center, I keep returning to the things I know for certain. When it comes to my professional life, I believe that when I teach children how to read, I am teaching them how to better understand the world. When I teach children how to write, I am teaching them how to share their voice within the world.

Now more than ever we need to preserve the integrity of the Writers Workshop. Last week, Katherine Bomer and Corinne Arens joined the #G2Great community to discuss their book, A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Workshop Essentials: Time, Choice, Response (2020, Heinemann). It was an amazing discussion and it left me thinking about their three important facets of writing workshop: time, choice, and response.

Time

I love Katherine and Corinne’s image of a bubble of time when it comes to Writing Workshop. It makes me think of a delicate translucent barrier that preserves thoughtful, intentional work:

Choice

When teachers sit next to students as writers first, they understand how necessary choice is to the writing process. If you are told to write something the process is very different than if you elect to write something. When we are trying to educate our students on the value of writing then we really need to make room for choice. Fortunately, so many members of #G2Great wholeheartedly agreed:

Response

Words connect us all. When young writers understand that they are writing for an audience they truly experience the power of the pen. We can always take pen to paper, or tap the keys against a blank screen to create something that will hold meaning to another. In this way, we are never alone. It is no wonder that when children have skilled teacher-writers to develop their process alongside them, they grow to love writing:

History has come to call on our generation. What will we take with us from this experience? Literacy matters. When the happy day comes that all our students return to school, let’s remember that Writing Workshop will help them make that transition. It will cultivate their sense of self. It will give them permission to explore their thinking. It will be a way to examine their emotions. It will set them free to pursue their passions. We, their teachers, have the power to blow a bubble of safety around that time. We can devote that space for them to choose what they want to write. We can respond to their writing in ways that are both healing and celebratory. Thank you, Katherine and Corinne, for writing this beautiful book and reminding us all:

  • Time is precious
  • Choice is freedom
  • Response is connection