Start With Appreciation – Further Thoughts on Language of Leadership

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog about the language we use as leaders, and I had a few more thoughts I wanted to share…

Recently my good friend @AmyIllingworth and I had the opportunity to present a full day workshop to a group of new and aspiring principals on “Monitoring Implementation of the Common Core”. One component of our workshop focuses on the critical responsibility of principals to visit classrooms often and to provide coaching and feedback that motivates and inspires.  As part of our seminar, we shared ideas about what to look for during classroom visits and ways to provide meaningful feedback. We also watched video clips of classroom teachers and their students during lessons and asked the participants to diagnose what they saw in the lesson and practice giving feedback.

As participants started this task, we were a little bit disheartened with some of the comments we heard.  They were judgmental and their was a distinct lack of language that showed appreciation for any aspects of the lesson which ultimately led to uninspiring feedback. None of the lessons we watched was perfect, but what lesson ever is? Each lesson we observed had moments  that might be worthy of discussion on how to strengthen and enhance the experience for the students, but every one of them had moments that deserved appreciation.


If you find yourself in a role where you are fortunate enough to be in classrooms often and provide feedback through coaching, then language of true appreciation is essential.  As an observer of thousands of lessons in my career, I have yet to see a single lesson where there weren’t several things to appreciate. No, they have not all been award-winning lessons, but they have ALL had merit and value that was deserving of kind words and appreciation.

In the first lesson we watched, a middle school social studies teacher was trying the strategy of close reading with a text.  Admittedly, it was not a “perfect” lesson and didn’t go exactly as I’m sure she would have liked, but it was NOT deserving of harsh criticism and negative judgment.  Here are just some of the things Amy and I noticed and appreciated about the teacher and her lesson:

  • We appreciated that the teacher allowed a camera into her room to film her lesson
  • We appreciated she was taking a risk and trying a new strategy
  • We appreciated she was trying to give more ownership of the learning to the students
  • We appreciated she was structuring time for students to talk to each other about a complex text
  • We appreciated she tried to have kids use context clues to figure out word meanings
  • We appreciated that as she was checking in with the groups, she noticed when they were struggling, and when she did, she brought them back together whole group to model her thinking as she read the piece to them
  • We appreciated she identified the major error the kids were making and adjusted her instruction to try to help them through their struggle

And we appreciated a lot more!

Was this the most polished close reading lesson I’ve ever seen? No. Could her lesson have used refinement? Absolutely. My guess is she knew that before anyone else since as educators we are often our own worst critics!

The teaching of new standards, trying new strategies, doing something different, takes practice, reflection, feedback, refinement, more practice, more feedback, more reflection and so on.  If we don’t notice and appreciate the risk-taking, the practices, the approximation, the trying on of new things, and instead we judge best efforts and first attempts as poor or unsatisfactory – many teachers will stop trying and fall back on the things they already know, and we will sit back and wonder why nothing is changing in our classrooms and schools.

If as leaders we want to promote risk-taking and trying new things, then we shouldn’t judge the practices! Appreciate the approximations, and provide coaching, support, and new learning that inspires growth, motivates new thinking, and reminds teachers that they are the magic and they are capable of making miracles happen for kids in their classrooms everyday.


Focus So Students Will Thrive

My colleague (@DirectorAmy) and I have just wrapped up our summer professional learning series we have been providing for teachers over the course of the summer.  The workshops have been well-received and for the most part, I would describe the mood in our District as we move to full implementation of our new CCSS units of study to be one of nervous excitement as we head in to our new school year which begins July 29th!  At the end of my final session last Friday, I found myself engaged in a wonderful conversation with one of our teachers…  while there were many highlights of our conversation, one thing she said continues to rattle around in my head…

To give you some context:  We had spent the day unpacking what we are calling in our district our “embedded standards”, which are essentially six standards from the Common Core which we have defined as critical to the work we do with students all year long.  We took an especially deep look at reading standards 1 and 10 (close reading and text complexity).  So, what she said to me was basically this:  If we could just spend all of our time getting good at this, our students would thrive.  She talked about the journey to getting good as one that would take multiple years, and she talked about the need for administrators to understand that getting good at something takes practice, it involves risk-taking, and it will include some failure, and we need to be prepared for that.  She also talked about our need to be relentless in eliminating distractors that might take time and energy from this important work.

As I have reflected on our conversation, I am reminded of my love of Mike Schmoker’s work and his construct for the work he believes we should do in schools – a relentless focus on “what we teach, how we teach, and authentic literacy”.  I highly recommend his books Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning and his book Results Now:  How we can achieve unprecedented improvements in teaching and learning.  I consider them ‘must reads’ for all educational leaders.

“What we Teach”:  For us, it is now the standards identified in the Common Core, but we need to understand them in context and with the big picture in mind. The critical instructional shifts can help us frame the big picture:  We want students to 1.  build knowledge through content-rich non-fiction and informational text; 2. read, write, and participate in rich conversations grounded in evidence from text; 3. Engage regularly with complex text and its academic vocabulary.  Getting good at this means we have to invest  time to develop collective understanding of what the standards are asking of our students and the implications they have on our instruction.  We need to collaborate with our colleagues to design the curriculum that will best support students in becoming thoughtful and strategic readers, writers, speaker, and thinkers, and we need to sort and sift through the resources available to find the ones that best support our learning targets.  We also need to design the rich and complex student tasks that will provide students with regular practice on the essentials while providing us with valuable information about whether or not they are meeting their learning goals.

“How we Teach”:  As we are getting clear on what we are teaching our students, we also have to invest time in continuously getting better at teaching it.  We know from decades of research that highly effective, strategic, and precise instruction matters.  In fact it is so powerful, that over time it can eliminate achievement gaps.  As a result, we need to be relentless in our pursuit of honing our craft.   When students aren’t learning what we intended for them to learn, we need to ask ourselves questions that cause us to reflect on what we can do differently.  We need to invest time in seeking out the research on effective instruction and apply it in our classrooms. If the evidence we have collected shows us that our English learners didn’t understand the concepts we just taught, then we need to commit to doing some learning together about how we can adjust our instruction to meet their learning needs. We also need to create structures in our classrooms and schools that allow for differentiated time and support based on learner needs.

Authentic Literacy and Intellectual Development:  As we work on what we teach and how we teach, authentic literacy has to be at the core of what we do. Click here for a link to Schmoker’s description of authentic literacy. We need to invest time in learning how to structure our schools, classrooms, instructional units and daily lessons to move well beyond basic literacy.  We need to engage all learners, beginning in kindergarten, in meaningful and rich literacy experiences.  We need to cultivate close, deep and strategic reading, and we need to nurture an environment where students believe in the “miraculous power of writing” and the power of their words.

So…  I have to say, I agree with my teacher colleague who said if we could just spend all of our time getting better at this, our students would thrive!

Becoming Leaders of Readers

My friend and colleague @directoramy and I often discuss the work we are doing to support our district’s literacy initiative and our curriculum alignment to the Common Core.  In fact, it is how we spend most of our time together these days.  Last week, our conversation took an interesting turn, as they often do, and we found ourself discussing children’s literature and wondering how many teachers in our schools are up to date on the recently published titles… we weren’t sure of the answer to that question.  California has traditionally been a very textbook-driven state.  With the added layers of many of our schools participating in the Reading First Initiative and being identified as Program Improvement under NCLB, the textbook-driven focus intensified.  In fact, one of the requirements in the State of California when a school/district is identified as a PI school is to “implement the core (textbooks) with fidelity”.  Teachers have received so many messages that this is what they need to do that it is what we have seen in classrooms for years.  We have done a lot of work in our system recently to focus on engaging students as readers with rich non-fiction text.  As a result, we have seen some highly engaging lessons focused on making meaning and building comprehension of great informational text, but we started to question…What about great literature?  When do our students get to experience that?

MH900401070The conversation left me wondering… how do we turn students on to great literature if we are not familiar with it ourselves?  How do we know what books to recommend to our students that align with their interests if we haven ‘t read widely and engaged with the books that our children might love?  One of the things I love about my daughter’s current 4th grade teacher is how well she can engage with Ashlyn as a reader.  She has been able to recommend so many books to my daughter because she knows who Ashlyn is and what she likes, and Ashlyn is gobbling up the books!  In fact, it is her teacher’s passion for literature and her vast experience with engaging children’s and young adult books that have really turned my daughter on to fiction; until this year she mostly read non-fiction texts.

When I was a middle school English teacher, I read so many pieces of great young adult literature.  When my children were younger, we read wonderful picture books and chapter books together, but as they have become proficient readers themselves, they have gone off on their own reading adventures, and I have left this genre behind.  My kids have actually been trying to convince me for some time to read some of their favorites (I did succumb to the Hunger Games series), but other than that I haven’t made the time.  That changed this weekend!  Amy and I made a commitment to read more children’s and young adult literature after our conversation, and I picked up my first book!

Inspired by my daughter and a fabulous 2nd grade teacher in Canada, @carriegelson, I read the book Out of my Mind  by Sharon Draper.  I loved it!  Even more importantly, I loved the conversations I was able to have with my daughter about the book!  I also know Amy (who is also reading this one) and I will enjoy discussions about this title, and I know it is a book I can discuss and recommend to teachers.  Looking for additional recommendations, I turned to my PLN and have received many wonderful recommendations from two teachers passionate about children’s lit (you seriously need to check out their blogs!) @carriegelsonThere is a Book for That and @jkloczkoRoom 6 Bob Cat Blog .  Next on my list was The One and Only Ivan.  I finished it this morning (a nice thing about children’s books is that I can read them fairly quickly)!  Once again, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and walked away with a great appreciation for the style of writing and the amazing voice the author was able to give to a gorilla! A bonus for me is that I now have a new book that I can recommend to Ashlyn – I KNOW she will love it!  At Carrie and Jennifer’s suggestion, I will tackle The False Prince next.

One of the things I appreciate about the Common Core is that we are asked to balance fiction and non-fiction reading; we are also asked to ensure that students are reading rich and complex texts.  I am certain that the intent is that we actually read great pieces of literature and not the condensed versions that are often watered down in textbooks.  We are asked to have our students think about books, talk about books, and write about books.  With all that is available to us on the internet, we are also so easily able to find other resources that connect to the text.  In a quick search today, I found interviews with the authors, video book trailers, discussion questions, book reviews, blogs and connections to great informational text pieces to support  both of the titles I read – I find this exciting, and I think others in our district will too!   I now want to think of ways that our system can begin to build our collective knowledge of great children’s literature beyond what we have in our textbooks.  I am certain that the excitement a few of us have about renewing our passion for great children’s and young adult books will quickly become contagious… after all, what educator doesn’t LOVE a good book!

If you are looking for a few good recommendations, the following resources are a great place to start (Thanks, Carrie!)

Top Ten Read Alouds for 6-10 year olds

2012 Favorites

My Picture Book 10 for 10 in 2012

Non-fiction Picture Book 10 for 10