This year, as a school we’ve decided to make Balanced Literacy our focus. An outsider might think, “What!! Balanced Literacy has been around forever and you’re just focusing on it now??!! Where have you been?”
Well, we’ve been doing a LOT of great things, including Guided Reading, and many components of balanced literacy. What we realize though, is that we may not be doing it the best that we can. We could look for something new and flashy to focus on, but why not take the things that we know to be good practice, and make sure we are doing them well.
One of the great things is, this is a grass roots endeavour. The teachers recognized that they had been focusing on other things over the last few years and have realized that they need to spend time thinking and talking about what they’re doing in their language arts (and all) classes. Are we using our alloted time the best we can?
As admin we have decided to make the process of gathering data around how this affects student acheivement to be our focus. My Vice-Principal is an ‘expert’ in Balanced Literacy, and is a great resource. I am not an expert, by any means. This means I have to start learning. I attended my first professional development on guided reading yesterday with a number of teachers from across the school division. I was there for a different reason, but I certainly enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about this one component of literacy.
I’m beginning to see this idea cropping up in other places. People are realizing we don’t need something new to revolutionize our world. We need to focus on the things that work, and do them well.
We spent the much of the morning admin council talking about a change in mindset. As leaders in education, what can we do to address our own mindset and the mindset of those we work with? We had a very rich conversation about this topic from many angles. Following are just a few of my own thoughts around this idea.
1. Our idea of leadership has changed a lot over the years. Leadership has moved into the trenches and we are working alongside everyone in the school to improve student learning. Our role has shifted away from manager. We do so much more now, the most important being instructional leader.
2. With that shift we’ve had to change how we do things, and how we think about what we do. With a focus on instructional leadership there have been many conversations around how do we work to improve student learning. We have become very mindful about the need for intentionality in what we do. We are responsible to make sure that each and every student is getting the best they can from their time in our care.
3. Technology has helped in some ways, to move the school experience away from a consumption model, to a more creative place for students to be. With that creative space available it has given opportunity for us to change the way we do things in the classroom and in the school. Changing the way we do things isn’t easy for some. The question is, do we have to change what people believe about how we do things, or do we need to make the change and then wait for the belief to develop. In our discussions, it seems that the approach depends on the person, and their comfort level with change and risk taking.
4. Success and Failure are important concepts to discuss. Do we even frame the things that we try and don’t succeed at as failure? If we learn something from things we try as a failure? This is part of a cultural shift we need to have if we are embracing risk taking and creativity as important?
5. Some people do not like change, but if we build a culture of trust, they will be more willing to try new things. We have to strategically set up conditions to make them feel free to do this. This might be one of the toughest things we do. Leaders have to be great at environmental scans. They need to know the staff, the conditions and the needs of the students and community. From there, they can guide the change in the direction it needs to go. They get to know the environment by getting to know the citizens of that environment. That comes from feet on the ground and listening to the stories of those people in the trenches.
I am excited for what the future brings for our students. With the conversations we have had, and will continue to have, we are helping our own mindset to develop. We are letting the change start with us, and will learn together about how we can make the small changes that will lead to big changes.
Sometimes I get these great ideas! Well, to me they’re great… I’m sure most of them, if not all, have been had by others before. So, I was talking to some other administrators at our latest Admin PD (which was about powerful PLCs). I was sharing some of the things we are doing at Landing Trail School and how PLCs are tied to the Professional Growth Plans, and the PD we engage in is based on the goals in our PGPs. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, the tangible evidence I am looking for in classrooms in relation to the goals the teachers are working on is engagement. My most recent blog detailed some of the learning I have had around student engagement and what I think it should look like.
My main idea around student engagement is that there has to be opportunity for students to really work with the information. That will likely appear as the opportunity to tear the information apart and rebuild or apply it in some manner. After spending the morning discussing PLCs and the role we play in ensuring they are productive and centred around improving student learning, I was struck with my ‘aha moment’. We expect teachers to be learning and moving forward in PLCs the same way we expect students to be doing in the classroom. Why should we not have our minds turned to the idea of teacher engagement in our PLCs as well?
Our PLCs should contain opportunity to really engage with the goals they have set. They need to have the tools and environment to really dig into the learning they are expected to do.
So, my task becomes clearer – I am a coordinator of engagement. One of my main jobs as an instructional leader is to ensure an environment where both students and teachers are engaged in the learning that they are doing. Sound easy?
Uh….. nope! But imagine the great things that can happen when everyone is engaged in the job they have!!
Alberta’s Framework for Education (education.alberta.ca/media/6581166/framework.pdf) outlines a path to take our students on to allow them to become engaged thinkers and ethical citizens with an entrepreneurial spirit. As I am nearing the end of my Professional Growth plan meetings with teachers we have all agreed that student engagement is the observable behaviour I need to be looking for to looking for while I am in classrooms and having conversations with teachers afterwards.
I have spent quite a few hours looking for research on student engagement and what it looks like in lower grade level classrooms. I have come up with a few good ideas, but what I have had clearly reaffirmed to me is that student engagement can look like a lot of different things depending on a number of factors.
I think there is one thing that I have very clearly learned anew, however. Engagement is something that has to be allowed to happen. In many classrooms, the lessons are not set up to allow for engagement. When all activities and responses are dictated, I strongly feel that students won’t be allowed to engage in the learning in a meaningful way. Real engagement can only occur when students can interact with what they are learning on a creative level that gives them opportunity to delve into the information. They have to have opportunity to play with the information much like they would when creating using modelling clay or building blocks.
Engagement won’t look like a group of students all sitting quietly doing the same thing. It will look more like a group of students working at tearing apart and rebuilding information in various ways and on different levels.
I would really appreciate some feedback on these thoughts and what other people are doing as they look for engagement in the classrooms they are responsible for.
On Friday night, I had the great fortune to attend the Wainwright Chamber of Commerce Small Business Awards GALA! I wouldn’t normally attend this, but my daughter, who is in grade 12, was nominated for the “Inspiring Youth of the Year”.
Kristin has been passionate about the work of Operation Christmas Child for a long time, and has coordinated the program at Wainwright High School for many years. She has also applied and been accepted to go to Uruguay in January to help deliver and hand out Christmas boxes to children there. Kristin will also be Skyping into the grade three and four classes at my school to talk to them about the program, offer advice, and talk about her upcoming trip.
It is so rewarding, as a parent, to see your children demonstrating those characteristics we wish for in all the students we work with. She is compassionate, willing to share of her time and talents, passionate about a cause, and globally aware. As a Leader in Me school, we work to have those qualities displayed in our students as leaders.
At the same event, my son in grade seven, of his own volition approached the MLA for Wainwright/Stettler (Doug Griffiths) and engaged him in conversation about some political items and his own plans for his future. Mr. Griffiths was very impressed with Evan and gave him his Mace Pin. One mace pin is given to each MLA every time they are elected to serve in the Legislature. This is Mr. Griffith’s fourth term. He had given one to each of his own children, kept one for himself, and gave one to Evan. He said he was very impressed with Evan and the quality of his conversation and confidence.
In both cases, my children showed initiative and leadership. They are willing to go out of their comfort zone to make things happen. As a parent, we know that we have had a small part in this process, and can be proud of the growth our children show.