After 25 years in the education “business,” I’ve learned that visionaries are rare. I’ve also worked with resume-padders, limelight-grabbers, and narrow-minded ninnies. Some were more concerned about their own personal agenda than about personnel.
When you do find that visionary with whom you connect, it’s best to listen, learn, and trust as you absorb as much of their vision as you can. Visionaries look at the big picture and delegate ideas, suggestions, and concepts to the team. The strength of the vision should be in the trust that the work will be done. That trust becomes contagious as we all work together for the commonality of the vision.
Although we appreciate that our school has come a long way in creating a common belief system, we also realize it is just the beginning of our journey. To become the school we want to be, we need to ask ourselves, “Are we working for the covenant, or are we working for the contract?”
The covenant is the promise we make in our mission/vision statement to our colleagues, our parents, and our students that we will do what we say we are going to do and that we will be held accountable for the sake of the greater good. We will support colleagues so they develop into knowledgeable and compassionate professional educators. We will respect and communicate with parents to form partnerships that are enduring and trustworthy. Finally, we will create authentic opportunities for learning that give our students the hope they deserve and the consideration they need. In short, the covenant keeps all of us working together to cultivate the best educational experience for our peers, our parents, and our students.
When the covenant becomes too demanding or when the vision has not been made clear to all stakeholders, it is inevitable that the contract will become the purpose. If teachers don’t envision themselves growing, if parents don’t value the relationships, and if students become disengaged, our practice suffers, our relationships deteriorate, and our children fail. It is that simple.
Standing up for the covenant begs the question, what do you stand for? When you are able to answer that confidently and with purpose, you are on your way to building a better school. Become a visionary who develops a confident team of teachers, a thankful legion of parents, and a considerate class of students.
Peg Grafwallner is an instructional coach with Milwaukee Public Schools.Learn more about Peg on her website.
I went to a small high school in a really small town. The kind of town with only one traffic light. It blinked yellow, as if there wasn’t enough traffic to warrant a red. “They’ll close the zoo if the duck dies.”
At the beginning of my senior year, I was called to the school counselor’s office because I had indicated on a survey I was going to college. I expected to get a big cheer from the counselor—a pep talk and a list of steps to take in the coming months. I was in the top 10% of my class, enrolled in all the high school courses colleges required, active in school activities, involved in every school play, first chair flute, and a voracious reader.
Instead, he sat at his desk and gave me a sweet but patronizing smile.
“Now, Julianne, are you sure this is the right choice for you? You know, very few girls make it through college.” After a few beats, he asked me if I had a backup plan. Silently, I shook my head. I didn’t. I couldn’t tell you one thing he said after that, but I know the meeting was short.
My mind whirled. Did he know something I didn’t? Why was I not college material? The message I was getting at home was different—I was never asked if I was going to college, but where. I had never once entertained the idea of not going. He made me second-guess my goals, but only for a moment.
Thank goodness I didn’t second-guess for long, as there was a lot to do and no Internet to help.
Supporting my own children through his process recently reminded me of that meeting and how different things are for high school students today. Our kids are surrounded by educational professionals willing to guide and support them, with so much information available it can be overwhelming.
Thirty years ago, there was no Google, and everything was done by mail with paper, envelopes, and stamps. And that was only if you were interested in the school. Can you imagine?
There were no apps or websites for ACT or SAT preparation. We actually had to get practice tests from big, heavy books and then go back and score them on our own and find our own mistakes.
College applications weren’t filled out using online forms; we had to type them. Using a typewriter.
If you weren’t prepared for college, there were no remedial courses to assist you. Intervention energy was concentrated on getting students a diploma, not prepping for college work.
Earning college credit during high school was new, and very few students were able to take advantage of it. High school students had to actually travel to the college or university to attend class.
I now have two children of my own in college. At their high school, no one fought about the best fertilizer for soybeans after school at the flagpole. In our community, we have many stoplights and more than one gas station and, thankfully, their college search was a completely different experience from my own.
When they began to plan for college, they had incredible amounts of information at the click of a mouse—campus choices, programs offered, applications, financial aid, scholarships, all within reach at home or at school. There were programs designed with algorithms to help them find the perfect campus, major, and career goals.
Most important for my children and their classmates, no one ever told them their dreams weren’t possible. They were not asked if they had a back-up plan.
May we never decide for a student he or she isn’t worthy of college—or any career path—because of his or her gender, race, religion, or any other reason. May no student ever lack support in reaching his or her goals.
Julie Scullen is a former member of the ILA Board of Directors and also served as president of the Minnesota Reading Association and Minnesota Secondary Reading Interest Council. She taught most of her career in secondary reading intervention classrooms and now serves as Teaching and Learning Specialist for Secondary Reading in Anoka-Hennepin schools in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She teaches graduate courses at Hamline University in St. Paul in literacy leadership and coaching, disciplinary literacy, critical literacy, and reading assessment and evaluation.
After two years of working as an AmeriCorps volunteer in an adult literacy program in Philadelphia, I continued my work with adults as a newly minted reading specialist. Having initially used a phonics-based reading curriculum, I was highly influenced by my whole language training at University of Pennsylvania and my professor, Morton Botel, a past president of the International Reading Association (now the International Literacy Association; ILA) and creator of the Pennsylvania Comprehensive Reading/Communication Arts Plan, which designated five critical literacy experiences. One and only one of the five critical experiences addressed phonics and structural analysis competence or structured language competence. I was excited to bring more whole language into the adult literacy program. Some students did well with the combination of phonics and whole language, but not all instruction was effective for all students.
In the early 2000s, I had moved to Vermont. The middle school where I was teaching was focusing on metacognition and other comprehension strategies including incorporating “deeper” as opposed to “broader” reading, read-alouds, and using multiple texts on the same subject. What was not occurring at my middle school, however, and what I could not do much about, was offering help to my seventh graders who could not decode or spell outside of this structure.
After a summer of teaching at a reading clinic in Vermont, I took a full-time position there and learned how to teach dyslexic students. I was required to take courses on assessment and instruction in phonemic awareness, speech sounds, articulation, and how multisensory instruction impacts literacy acquisition. I learned the linguistical principles upon which the Orton–Gillingham approach is based. My effectiveness in reaching difficult students began to improve rapidly, and I was having more and more success teaching formerly unsuccessful students. I became equally enthusiastic about teaching to my students because some were now able to read good literature! I recall a middle-school girl who started out as a nonreader, and who, after quite some time with learning structured language skills, read an abridged copy of Little Women. She was overjoyed to discover this story of four sisters and compare their personalities, as she herself was one of four sisters.
ILA leaders challenge us to keep delving, investigating, and advocating for our students. In ILA’s Research Advisory Addendum on Dyslexia, they say “optimal instruction calls for teachers’ professional expertise and responsiveness and for freedom to act on the basis of that responsibility.” Although the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) does not agree with this statement, I think I understand. It implies teachers get too much latitude if they have freedom. At the same time, I believe freedom and responsibility are crucial to reaching all students of all ages, not only those with reading difficulties. I do think IDA would agree that structured language instructors need the freedom to do what the National Reading Panel asserts: The best approach to reading instruction is one that incorporates explicit instruction in phonemic awareness, systematic phonics instruction, methods to improve fluency, and ways to enhance comprehension. Structured language instructors must incorporate these approaches—that is their responsibility. They often have precious few hours a week to do their work, and to deviate from those approaches compromises the purpose, integrity, and the effectiveness of the instruction. They must follow the sequence and design, which is based in neuroscience, to train the brain to process written language. At the same time, it is also true that overall literacy education needs to include a variety of approaches and more or less of the structured piece depending on student needs. I agree, as Mathes et al. state and the ILA addendum quotes, “Schools and teachers can be granted some latitude in choosing an approach to providing supplemental instruction.”
Currently, I am the literacy specialist for the Community High School of Vermont (CHSVT). Our students are in the custody of the Vermont Department of Corrections. We teach adult students in correctional facilities and at probation and parole sites throughout the state. After meeting, assessing, and teaching many CHSVT students, I can see many are not dyslexic as defined by what I learned and observed in students as far back as my time in Philadelphia and, more recently, during my tenure at the reading clinic. But, at the same time, some of them do present as highly challenging cases.
At CHSVT, we are using a variety of assessments to help the literacy needs of our enrollees. I am happy to have latitude and a strong team when developing the best approach(es) for our students. We will continue to proudly follow the research and guidance of our colleagues and mentors from both ILA and IDA.
Jeanne H. Smith is a literacy specialist at Community High School of Vermont and a correctional educator with St. Albans Probation and Parole.
After the U.S. presidential election, many feel unsettled, scared, and divided. According to a survey sponsored by Teaching Tolerance, 90% of U.S. educators reported increased anxiety for minority students and an overall negative school climate. A report conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center indicates that children of color are fearful and anxious as a result of the recent election.
But the United States isn’t the only place around the world where children, and even adults, feel vulnerable. Families and individuals fleeing war-torn countries like Syria and migrating to Europe often feel out of place and less than welcome.
Many of the vulnerable students here in the United States are fearful of being separated from their families. Students have cried and hugged their teachers, asking if they would be sent back to their home countries. Elsewhere, undocumented students or students with undocumented family members did not attend school the day after the election. Others expressed fear of being called a terrorist for wearing a Muslim hijab.
According to the survey conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, over 40% of teachers are hesitant to discuss the election with their students. However, we believe it is our responsibility to support children who are hurt, confused, or scared while helping other children who may not experience these feelings develop empathy for those who are. We urge educators to address students’ concerns while also teaching tolerance, acceptance, and a culture of respect that will transcend the four walls of the classroom.
As educators, we must reassure students that we will keep them safe. We can do this by creating and maintaining a respectful and kind classroom community as a microcosm of larger society. For example, as a fourth-grade teacher, Alyssa created a safe space for students to engage in difficult conversations and explore the common bonds of humanity leading up to the transition of power at The White House.
The election has capitalized on people’s differences, but instead of building people up as individuals, it has divided people and brought bitterness to the forefront. As teachers, we aim to instill students with the idea that they are unique and valued individuals, and highlighting differences in the classroom can develop self-confidence. The day after the election, students were asked to list 10 things that all people have in common—emphasizing similarities instead of differences. Initially, the students were quiet, but with some time, the pencils started moving, the confused looks turned into smiles, and hands went up, eager to share. Students noted everyone has a birthday, a family, goals, and dreams, everyone believes in something, and no one is perfect.
We discussed how elections require us to think about our beliefs and what principles guide our actions daily and make us individuals. This time, students were asked to write belief statements. They shared, “I believe…”:
And when "I believe everyone should be respected for their differences," was shared, the classroom erupted with a resounding "Yes!"
We concluded with a conversation about the difference between agreeing with someone and respecting someone’s ideas. When we agree, we share a belief. When we respect someone, we acknowledge that someone is entitled to his or her own beliefs and we do not have to agree with someone’s belief. We explored ways that we could live out those beliefs every day and respect people's differences. I explained that there are a lot of serious and important topics attached to politics and new presidents. I explained that as 9-year-olds, they cannot vote and they cannot control some things but what we can control is the way that we live, the way we respond, and the way that we respect others’ differences.
This discussion about similarities and beliefs is just the start of building a foundation of compassion and critical thinking that shapes the future. These difficult conversations must occur regularly. As teachers, we have the power to provide our students with a safe space to talk about big issues to help cultivate kind, respectful, and caring young people. By telling the story about this particular class and the teacher's plans for continuing these conversations, we hope to inspire other educators to tackle difficult yet important topics with their own students. Our work as educators to foster solidarity is essential during this time of division and uncertainty.
Katie Stover is an assistant professor of education and coordinator of Masters in Literacy at Furman University in South Carolina. Alyssa Cameron is a fourth-grade teacher at Roebuck Elementary in South Carolina.
Forgive the destructive imagery, but it’s necessary. Tens of thousands of precious learning hours are spent doing well-intentioned but worthless activities with students every day in the name of literacy when, in fact, these activities are glowingly toxic.
I’ve been on all sides of this issue. I’ve used traditional worksheets; I’ve used student writing as personalized writing wallets. The latter works a gazillion times better. As a young teacher myself in the 1970s, I handed out my share of worksheets. In hindsight, I realize that during this decade students may have eagerly grabbed worksheets not because they were a good learning tool but because of that mimeograph chemical high. Do you remember? Worksheets were run on a mimeograph machine and smelled so good that we’d cluster in the copy room and probably get a little happy on the fumes. Teachers who inhaled mimeograph fluid and students who didn’t complain about a test as long as their papers are just a little damp with that same chemical…well, we should have known that wasn’t good.
Writing skill development comes with the teacher’s observation of what’s working for students and what they struggle with as they write. The teacher develops targeted lessons to help students take the next step forward, we don’t simply turn to the Internet for something to download. By the way, I just Googled “writing worksheets” and got 46,900,000 results. Astonishing. Horrifying, too. It’s as though the teaching world has taken a big detour from best practices to easy practices.
Don’t take my word for it. Let your students help you decide the fate of worksheets in your classroom. Look at their work and your teaching for the answers to these four questions so you can form your own opinion:
If the answer is “yes” to all of these questions, then congratulations. You have escaped the allure of worksheets. But if two or three of your answers are “no,” then we need to talk seriously about how to take back your writing classroom so it is a more joyous, productive, and—yes, complicated (but interesting) place.
Step 1: Ditch the worksheets. Do it. The world will not end; the sun will come up in the morning. I promise.
Step 2: Replace those dull-as-a-board worksheets with the students’ own writing that is worked on over and over again as you teach lessons and students apply new skills.
Step 3: Use mentor texts as the models so students learn from and are inspired by writers (not worksheets) about writing. Reading and writing feed on each other. Stephen King reminds us, “You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.”
And please don’t get me started on packets sent home as homework or conveniently assembled to cover a week or two of skills practice all in one place. Or for test prep. I know of one state that gave students “fun packets” at Spring Break that were nothing more than test items to practice before the state assessment scheduled shortly after the holiday. The “fun” part turned out to be coloring the cover. Wow.
Without worksheets and packets, think of the budget monies you’ll save buying black line masters and running them off on ream after ream of paper. Here’s what I discovered: The average school of 100 teachers uses 250,000 sheets of paper annually. This school would spend approximately $7,500 per year on printing, and paper itself costs $25,000. That’s a lot of wasted money. How about asking the building administrator to instead earmark those funds for books? (I think I see you smiling…)
Here’s another benefit of killing the worksheets: No more worksheets to correct. And if your students are writing authentically—choosing their own topics, trying new trait-specific techniques they’ve read in real books, revising with partners to make the writing sharper—you’ll have much more interesting papers to read! As a bonus, you’ll have more time to talk with students about their writing and help them improve each piece, one little nudge at a time. That has to make you happy, too. After all, isn’t the whole purpose of teaching writing to help students become strong, capable, and independent thinkers? Yes, I think it is.
Ruth Culham is a recognized expert in the writing assessment field and is known for conducting lively teacher workshops. Her current book, The Writing Thief, gives insight on how to use reading to practice writing skills.