Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Power of Teacher Expertise

I am a literacy teacher educator. I work with preservice, new and practicing teachers to strengthen their understanding of effective literacy instruction and classroom practices. Students deserve teachers who have a clear and solid understanding of how literacy develops and the expertise to differentiate instruction to meet their needs. So, when I hear stories about teachers who are forced to use a scripted curriculum, I cringe. When I hear stories about teachers who do not have the power to create their own lessons or materials, I cringe. When I hear teachers sing the praises of teacher entrepreneurial websites, I cringe too. This past week alone, I heard from three different teachers who were using products from these sites as their “close reading curriculum” and even their literacy intervention.

I imagine these sites were created by well-meaning educators who wanted to harness the power of teachers sharing their ideas with others and provide compensation for those willing to do so. The idea is appealing to many teachers who work incredibly hard in their classrooms and deserve recognition. Even I was hooked into the promise of the site early on as I shared materials that I had created. But as I learned more about the materials that were posted, I was frustrated. They were pretty, yes, but not always based on sound literacy practices and were certainly not tailored to the needs of individual students. I realized that charging other teachers for these kinds of products was not something I could stand behind.

As a literacy teacher educator, I have a responsibility to advocate for teachers and their students. I build teacher expertise as the best form of literacy instruction and intervention and engage teachers in conversations that challenge their use of prepackaged materials for instruction. And I am not alone. Many others have written on this topic and generated lively discussion: Dr. Mary Howard’s Facebook post, Matt Gomez’s blog post, SpinEducation’s post and even cautionary guidance provided by the National Math TeachersCouncil. Inspired by these posts, I want to share how I have challenged teachers’ assumptions about sites such as these.

In the beginning of the semester during my literacy graduate classes, I ask teachers to share their favorite literacy activity with the class. They describe the activity and post a link to it. Inevitably, many of these activities are from paid teacher resource sites. Over the course of the semester, teachers learn about effective literacy instruction, develop their expertise on the sequence of skills development and explore principles of early literacy intervention. At the end of the semester, I ask them to return to their chosen activity and evaluate it based on their new learning. They are typically quite surprised at what they find: the activity typically looks pretty on the outside, but may not be based on best practices, it may teach early literacy skills in a sequence that actually makes it harder for students to learn and the font and embellishments may distract our most vulnerable learners away from the content we are trying to teach, among other revelations. It is typically an eye-opening activity for most. We share our results and conclude together that these activities, and the sites they are posted on, should be evaluated carefully before using them in the classroom, just like any other published curriculum. There may be good resources for teaching shared online, but we should privilege our own expertise and abilities to create instructional opportunities for students.

Rather than using technology to purchased prepackaged curriculum or teaching activities, we must use technology to carefully and thoughtfully grow our own professional learning network and collaborate with like-minded teachers who can fuel our goals and support our work. Let's arm teachers with knowledge of effective literacy instruction and support them as they develop their own expertise to create effective, authentic and responsive instruction for students. Join me on November 14th at the New York State Reading Association's Annual Conference in Saratoga Springs, NY to explore how to use technology to boost your professional learning network and re-imagine literacy and literacy instruction for yourself and for your students.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

You'll Remember This for the Rest of Your Life

This past year, my son’s baseball team made it to the World Series. As you might imagine, we were a proud and excited family very much looking forward to the event. As we shared our news with friends and family, everyone gave my son their own individual pearls of baseball wisdom: stay focused, swing early and hard, don’t let any ball go by you and hustle. Yet, without fail, every single person also shared the same sentiment of savoring the moment and my son consistently heard this phrase over and over again from anyone he told about his upcoming event: You will remember this for the rest of your life.
This was such a monumental occasion and I was also convinced that he would remember it for the rest of his life, but hearing those words said to him over and over again made me pause to consider why. Was it was because it was such a major event? Was it because he had yet to experience anything like it? Was it because it was considered a prestigious opportunities that few children get to experience? As I listened to the well-wishers, I couldn’t help but think of all of the other moments in his baseball life that were worth remembering too: the hundreds of hours of practice batting and fielding, the many wins and losses that brought his team to this moment, the many coaching lessons to perfect his skill and the trials and tribulations that brought these boys together as a team. Weren’t those worth remembering too? Weren’t they just as important? I realized that, all too often, we tend to remember the big, culminating events of our lives, but the smaller everyday moment that have brought us where we are often go unremembered. But they shouldn’t.
As I sat in the stands watching my son play in the World Series, I couldn’t help but remember all of the smaller moments that brought him to this event: the hours together in the front yard playing catch, the conversations in the car as we traveled to yet another tournament and the shenanigans in the hotel pool as we enjoyed some down time together as a family. These are the events that are near and dear to my heart and fill my heart with just as much joy as watching him play at the biggest event of his life did.
This same thinking can be applied to our work in the classroom. We might tend to savor the moments when reading and writing feels big and magical; those large moments of accomplishment when our work as readers and writers paid off.  But we must remember that it was a series of smaller, culminating events that brought our readers and writers to that very point: the hours spent reading and writing, the skilled instruction in small groups, the shared discussions and problem-solving and yes, all of the approximations along the way. We must cherish those everyday, often overlooked moments as it is in those moments that true readers and writers are born, building habits, routines and dispositions that remain long after a momentous occasion. Take the time to celebrate the small routines, habits and accomplishments in your students’ lives and make learning in your classroom an enjoyable journey that is just as worth remembering as their graduation from it. While my son’s team did not win the World Series, I’m proud to say that he walked away knowing he earned his place there because of his hard work leading up to it, a lesson he will remember for the rest of his life.

Friday, July 7, 2017

#cyberPD Begins!

This summer, I am once again thrilled to be a part of #cyberPD’s summer book study. This is my third year participating and I continue to be amazed at how powerful the experience is. This year, we are reading Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading byVicki Vinton. Here is the schedule if you are interested in participating.

The first week of #cyberPD just so happens to be one of the busiest of the summer for me. I am teaching multiple graduate classes in literacy education, finishing my first book with Heinemann Publishers, preparing for #ILA17 and shuttling three children to travel sports competitions. So, as I read this transformative book, I kept thinking about how I could respond to the text #cyberPD style, but still accomplish the other tasks I had set for myself this week. The beauty of #cyberPD is that the experience is personalized for each of us and we all respond in different ways that work best for our own learning. So, this week, I decided to respond to the text by creating an agenda for an upcoming professional development session with elementary teachers based on the content. They have not yet read the book, but I need them to think about the big ideas in the book immediately. So, I created a tentative agenda to share my thinking from the book with them in hopes that it would spark their own inquiry into dynamic teaching for deeper reading. 

Based on the chapters, I planned for activities and discussions that would help teachers reflect on their own reading and classroom practices and grapple with the mismatches that we might discover. While they do not have the book (YET!), they can still think about these important ideas and then continue their learning through Vicki’s helpful videos and blog posts by browsing her blog and the #cyberPD Padlet.

I would love for you to look at the tentative agenda and add in your own thoughts, ideas,questions and comments. How would you share the content of this book with teachers to help transform the reading practices in your school?


Friday, March 17, 2017

Digital Citizenship: Discrete Skills or Global Actions?

I was lucky enough to attend a session on exploring digital citizenship through the Educator Collaborative with Kristin Ziemke and Pernille Ripp. I came to the session expecting a session on how to teach students to be safe and respectful online and leave with concrete suggestions for teaching digital citizenship in the classroom. However, I left with more. Much, much more and my thinking is forever changed. 

How do you define digital citizenship? Common Sense Media (2017) defines digital citizenship as the ability to think critically, behave safely and participate responsibly in the digital world. Essentially, digital citizenship is the idea of using technology in safe, respectful and responsible ways for the global good. When I think about digital citizenship in elementary classrooms, I often see lessons on safe and respectful actions online and lessons focusing on accuracy and credibility. The focus is on the ‘safe, respectful and responsible’ aspect of the definition. While important, we must be sure to attend to the reasoning behind having students engage in digital and multi-modal literacy practices: to partner with others, collaborate to further learning and leave a lasting impact on the world. 

Kristin and Pernille’s session did just that and challenged viewers to rethink their ideas about what digital citizenship is, what we are all capable of accomplishing as teachers and learners and the potential we have to make the world a better place. Pernille and Kristin offered many starting points and shared a curated collection of global projects on their Padlet wall. I highly encourage you to take a look and give something a try. Let’s change the perception of what digital citizenship is to look at the world in a new way and help students leave their mark on it. 

How might you begin?


Monday, February 6, 2017

The Power of a Handwritten Note

Front Side of Note
Sometimes, at it takes is a little unexpected token of appreciation to lift our spirits and brighten our day. I recently found a note from my daughter tucked into a notebook in my work bag. Ever the artist, she drew me a beautiful winter picture and added a brief note on the back: I hope you feel better. Battling the ever-lasting winter cold, she knew that I might need a pick me up as I headed into work. She was right. And it worked. Just a few weeks earlier, I found a sticky note tucked to a cabinet in the kitchen. My son’s heartfelt “Thank you” for our family game night was incredibly touching and drove home the power that such a personal note of appreciation and thanks can hold.
Back Side of Note

What if we made it a habit to leave unexpected notes of appreciation to those that matter most to us? What if we took a few moments to remind them they are valued, are appreciated and that we care about them? While this is certainly essential in our personal life, it has the potential to transform our professional lives as well. Imagine how the teachers we work with would feel if we left them a simple, yet unexpected note of thanks or appreciation? Imagine how they might feel to receive a note ‘just because’? Every time I look I my saved ‘love notes’ from my family, those feelings race back again and are long-lasting. Imagine if we cultivated those same feelings of happiness in the school and classroom? I bet there would be a tangible shift in the energy in the building. 

Here are a few ways to get started:

Leave a card of thanks after working with a teacher. Thank her for her teaching, for her willingness to work with you to elevate instruction and for her dedication to her students. I received this Christmas card filled with appreciation from a literacy coach that I work with and was touched by the personalization of it. It continues to hang on my office wall. 
Create notes of happiness for no reason at all. Simply thank teachers for all they do or write a positive affirmation for teachers to carry with them throughout the day.

Nestle surprises in unexpected places. Sneak a note of appreciation to a magazine in the teachers’ lounge, tape a smiley face to the back of a classroom door or write a backwards message to tape to the bathroom wall across from the mirror for an unexpected surprise. 

For me, the power of the note comes in the handwritten personalization of it. Knowing that someone took the time to personally recognize, thank or appreciate the work that I did is indescribable. I mattered that much to take the time for. These small acts of appreciation appeal to our emotions and create a more connected community. As teachers reap the effects of your actions, they are certain to pay it forward to their students and make their schools a better place to teach and learn together.