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!