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    Reaching for Excellence

    By Alina O'Donnell
     | Nov 16, 2017

    Reaching for Excellence2015–2016 was the most challenging year of Julie Stover’s career.

    Pennsylvania had just rolled out the overhauled PA Core Standards and a new, more rigorous Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) that contained critical thinking and open-ended questions as well as more nonfiction reading. PSSA scores weigh heavily on School Performance Profile—the “report card” used to evaluate students, teachers, and students. Low test scores set up schools for possible state intervention.

    “Being teachers, we already pressure ourselves. We hope to have every child reach his or her potential. But we felt a new and different push to raise ‘rigor’ and move full speed ahead. We saw more test practice, data walls, and higher teacher accountability,” says Stover, a reading specialist at East York Elementary.

    When the scores came back, the teachers at East York Elementary breathed a sigh of relief. They hadn’t just done well, they had performed in the top 5% of Title I schools in the state.

    Their celebration was short lived.

    “Some of us gave a weak cheer. Then we began to wonder. We were successful, but at what cost?” says Stover. “How could we justify the cost of the accomplishment when students were excited to stop learning? The children couldn’t wait to get away from books. We wanted them running toward them.”

    Data talk

    On the basis of its test results, East York Elementary was identified as a High Progress School, recognizing its progress in closing achievement gaps in PSSA scores among all students and historically underperforming students. Under this designation, schools are eligible and encouraged to apply for Innovation Grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which must be used to implement new learning structures and processes that support individual needs.

    Stover was responsible for managing the application process, which required her to substantiate PSSA data and to provide a detailed plan of how East York Elementary would use the grant money, if successfully awarded.

    As she scoured the school’s PSSA data, she noticed that the fifth grade had shown the most improvement from the previous year. Aside from their age, the only common denominator among these students was their shared participation in the Notice and Note close-reading strategies. Authored by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst, Notice and Note provides students with six “signposts” that signal readers to pause and reflect at “aha moments,” and other significant moments in the text. The tool kit also includes anchor questions to help facilitate discussion.

    Wendy Ross, a fifth-grade teacher, says she introduced the strategy to give students a stronger sense of ownership over their reading routine.

    “I think I was frustrated; my students didn’t seem to be enjoying reading. I felt like they didn’t have any power, not just in choice but in how they approached the text,” says Ross. “This strategy passed that power back to them—now, they’re in charge of finding meaning in their reading.”

    After observing Ross’s success, Stover and writing teacher Amy Mason helped her deliver the Notice and Note strategies to the rest of the fifth-grade class. They too noticed improvements—not only in the students’ comprehension, but also in their attitude towards reading.

    “It went beyond the quantifiable data. Kids were talking, the depth of their conversations was greater, and their writing was starting to tell more—there was detail and evidence,” says Stover.

    Stover proposed that, if awarded an innovation grant, East York Elementary would use the funds to implement Notice and Note strategies throughout the school. Everyone was on board.

    “We saw this small pocket of success in one classroom. We wanted to spread that success through the rest of the school,” says Denise Fuhrman, principal at East York Elementary.

    Boosting staff morale

    Of the 90 Innovation Grant applications, only 20 were funded. East York Elementary received one of the highest overall ratings and a grant.

    Stover’s first step was to restore staff morale. After a year of rigorous exam preparation, she feared burnout for students and teachers alike.

    Part of the problem, she knew, was the school’s outdated library. The staff sifted through Goodreads recommendations and ILA Choices selections to refresh their selection with a diverse range of titles that were highly engaging but also would enhance the Notice and Note reading routine.

    “It brought the joy of reading back into teaching and revitalized the staff,” says Fuhrman.

    Stover established weekly literacy team meetings where staff held book studies and discussions using the Notice and Note tool kit and designed posters, anchor charts, and bookmarks displaying signpost questions.

    The grant even provided for a training session hosted by authors Beers and Probst. Afterward, the teachers delivered mock lessons for the authors to troubleshoot.

    “This gave them the confidence and the physical support to say ‘We can actually do this,’” says Stover.

    A newfound love of reading

    Though the district has yet to receive its PSSA scores, Stover is confident that they will mirror the performance she sees in the classroom. She says the students have become more incisive thinkers, articulate speakers, and effective writers.

    “It teaches them to respectfully discuss things with one another. They may not agree with each other, but now, they can go back and look at the evidence and prove their point with facts,” says Stover.

    Mason noticed that students are more willing to share their ideas.

    “They have a voice and they feel confident in sharing what they found,” says Mason.

    Above all, the teachers were thrilled to see students’ newfound excitement towards reading. In an end-of-the-year survey, more than 80% of students said they gained a joy of reading.

    “When Common Core first came about, we all felt overwhelmed. We felt like we were plodding along. We’re no longer plodding along—we’re dancing through books,” says Ross.

    Alina O’Donnell is the editor of ILA’s blog, Literacy Daily.

    This piece originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Literacy Today, ILA's member magazine.

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    What’s Missing in MTSS/RTI Implementation?

    By Susan Hall
     | Oct 25, 2017

    MSSI/RTI Implementation Many schools are currently implementing multitier systems of support/response to intervention (MTSS/RTI). So why aren’t there substantial gains in literacy scores? The reason is some of the very components that make MTSS/RTI effective are missing when implemented. Let’s take a look at two critical elements that administrators often overlook when introducing campus reading intervention plans.

    The first is building staff buy-in by focusing on a few key goals. The schools that achieve success have personalized MTSS on their campuses and use data to focus on reading intervention strategies and goals. When MTSS is positioned as something the district expects, teachers are less likely to embrace it. They do respond when the principal says we need to implement RTI because of a specific reason related to our students. An example is when fewer second graders leave the school year at benchmark than entered in the fall. When principals exude their passion that this data is not OK, and together we can change it, more teachers will rally around to help.

    Leaders who get the best staff buy-in work collaboratively with their staff to establish a few key goals to monitor throughout the year. Few is the key word here. The number of goals should be limited and the goals should be meaningful to the school’s situation.

    The second key component is achieving clarity about the school’s assessments and how to use the data collected from them. Too many schools are giving assessments and not really utilizing the data to inform decisions. Schools getting the best results are clear about what each assessment provides. They are aware that they need four kinds of assessments: one early literacy universal screening instrument (like DIBELS, AIMSweb, etc.), two diagnostic assessment tools (one for phonological awareness and one for phonics), the ability to progress monitor after intervention instruction, and one good outcome measure typically designated by the state. Too often there is a lack of understanding that effective universal screeners can’t do the job of a diagnostic assessment and visa-versa. Having too many overlapping assessments is equally unproductive and demotivating to staff.

    Schools achieving the most gains are using MTSS/RTI as a framework to improve literacy outcomes for students. One important yet often overlooked component is articulating a few meaningful goals personalized to the school. A second important component is choosing effective assessment instruments and supporting teachers in learning how to use the data to make decisions for the benefit of students.

    Is your MTSS/RTI implementation missing these key components?

    Susan HallSusan Hall is an ILA member, educational consultant, and founder of 95 Percent Group, Inc. She is the author of multiple books including Jumpstart RTI: Using RTI in Your Elementary School Right Now (Corwin) and Implementing Response to Intervention: A Principal’s Guide (Corwin). Follow her on Twitter.

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    A Different Dimension of Assessment

    By Justin Stygles
     | Oct 04, 2017

    Reading AssessmentFor ILA’s Leadership Educ. & Dev. for Educators in Reading Special Interest Group (ILA’s LEADER SIG) panel at the ILA 2017 Conference & Exhibits, I wanted to tackle, what I felt, is a lightly tread field of reading assessment—affective and strategic knowledge assessments. I sought to unite voices that further discussions about assessment with respect to student voice (affective assessments) and the individual's reading process (strategic knowledge).

    When I first asked members of ILA’s LEADER SIG to participate in the panel, I was quite overwhelmed at the opportunity to connect with leaders in reading assessment. Yet, I will always remember one e-mail, a declined invitation. The gist of the reply could be summarized by the following sentiment: “I think we already have too much assessment.”

    For roughly two weeks, I pondered this sentiment. I wondered if I had chosen the wrong topic amongst a heralded group of literacy experts. After all, I completely agreed with the gist of the email. As a classroom teacher, we have way too much assessment. Over the past few years, I've felt this feeling and echoed this sentiment, when I was required to administer three different “summative” tests over the course of two weeks. Consequently, the students lost two weeks of instruction and practice.

    However, when I think about the nature of assessments I had to administer, not one of them gave credence to the maturing reader's voice or reading (thinking) process. Each assessment focused on cognition and mastery that yielded a score that would be discussed by educational communities outside of the classroom. Many of us recognize the time and effort devoted to summative assessments, which tends to be followed by a lack of immediate relevance in our classrooms. But what about quickly administered, interim assessments, that provide information we can use in one-to-one conferring or for small-group instruction, immediately? 

    Perhaps this is, indeed, more assessment. However, I would also argue that using perception scales and strategic knowledge assessments carry more consequential validity. Therefore, I felt the need to discuss a different dimension of assessment—affective assessments—that didn't require copious amounts of time for administration, but yielded some of the most pertinent information a teacher could use, immediately, that best represented the student as and individual and a maturing reader.

    Switching voices, I would like to offer you this rationale:

    The classroom has become a pressure cooker for data. Repeated and high-stakes assessments have become centerpieces that satiate an external desire for data. Consequential validity is disregarded, which includes the affect of the reader. Assessment can be informative, but limiting as well when the reader's attitude or ability to self-evaluate is marginalized.

    Current practices tend to overlook the reader's self-concept. What about the reader's self perceptions and attitude towards reading? As districts or states adopt policies that emphasize data from a single, high-stakes, assessment, do we have enough information to create an accurate portrayal of our readers?  We assess cognitive skills or access to text and (perceived) mastery, ignoring the student's development of a reading process. Seductively, we are convinced the assessments and data will help us do “what's best for students,” replacing our faith in a child's reading process with a trust in numbers.

    But rarely do we attend to their ability or desire to interact with text, which is highly essential to the reader’s engagement with text and capacity for metacognition. Prevailing practices continue to emphasis the data-addiction associated with statistical analysis which is offered through high-stakes testing and digital-based “interim” assessments, rather than looking an intrinsic reading factors. In a 2016 The Reading Teacher article, “Reading Assessment, Looking Ahead” professor Peter Afflerbach states, “If we do not regularly assess the development of students' motivation and self-efficacy for reading, we cannot make measurement-based inferences about the development of [reading development and achievement].”

    If we look at our assessment practices and consciously include the students by using affective, motivational, and strategic knowledge assessments, we can paint a luminous portrait of readers and provide the instruction that is best for students.

    Justin StyglesJustin Stygles is a fifth-grade teacher in Wiscasset, Maine.  He's taught for fifteen years in various settings.  You can follow him on Twitter at @justinstygles.

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    Disruption in the Classroom

    By Rusul Alrubail
     | Aug 24, 2017

    Rusul AlrubailGoogle defines disruption as a “disturbance or problems that interrupt an event, activity, or process.” However, we need to look at disruption as a concept to use and implement in education not as a problem, but as a strategy to formulate solutions to current problems.

    Like many other trends in education, we also need to avoid viewing the term disruption as a mere buzzword and instead embrace it in a way that moves us toward creating tangible, positive solutions.

    Disruption as a concept seems heavily lofty and often unapproachable. There are many reasons that stop educators from disrupting the status quo in education, which is why we need to look at disruption from an individual’s perspective rather than from a grandeur one.

    What can you do today in the classroom to disrupt the status quo?

    Creating positive change

    In a recent article by Melinda D. Anderson of The Atlantic titled “How Teachers Learn to Discuss Racism,” she covers how recent urban education programs are preparing to have “imperative contemporary conversations with students.”

    What are these conversations like? The article focuses on racism in urban education and what teachers can do in their classroom to address and confront their own biases. Melissa Katz, an urban education student at The College of New Jersey in Ewing quoted in the article, is constantly “unlearning and relearning what it means to be a white teacher in an urban school district.”

    Katz encourages white educators to “think critically about race, justice, and our own privilege, and most importantly—how these play out in the classroom as teachers.” Her advocacy, writing, and her ability to reflect on her own biases and privilege is disrupting the status quo and impacting students, teachers, and their communities.

    For many educators, disruption is a necessary act to move things forward. Jose Vilson, a New York math teacher and EduColor founder, states on his blog that “people need to get more real about the conditions within schools and disrupt for the sake of progress, not for the sake of disruption.”

    In other words, disruption shouldn’t be seen as a trend or a buzzword, but it should be done because it’s what is necessary to create positive change in the classroom.

    Revitalizing teaching and learning

    Jessica Liftshitz, a fifth-grade teacher from the suburbs of Chicago, is slowly shifting and disrupting the status quo with subtle actions that make an immense difference in the lives of her students. She works directly with her students to “better understand where our biases and stereotypes come from in regards to different races, genders, and family structures.”

    Liftshitz is doing this work through analyzing the diversity of their classroom books. In her blog, Crawling Out of the Classroom, she writes about the importance of exposing children to diverse books, stating, “I truly believe that books, of all kind, play a large role in shaping how our students see the world. So often, children have little choice in what kinds of books surround them.”

    And it is with this mind-set that Liftshitz is disrupting the classroom status quo and is truly advocating for change in her world. Believing that students need to have a choice in the books that surround them and, more important, that students need to see themselves, their families, and their culture represented in the diversity of choices of books they read, is truly a shift and a disruption in education, teaching, and learning that we need to see.

    Eric Sheninger, a senior fellow at Rigor Relevance, in an article titled “Education Is Ripe for Disruption,” argues that “disruptive innovation compels educators to go against the flow, challenge the status quo, take on the resistance, and shift our thinking in a more growth-oriented way.” An important aspect of disruption in education is to disrupt traditional ways of thinking and old processes that no longer meet the needs of all students. This does not mean that everything that’s traditional is outdated and can no longer be used. However, it’s vital for educators to look outside of education for new learning processes and paradigms that are relevant and will help to revitalize teaching and learning in the classroom.

    Developing your own framework

    Mustefa Jo’shen is partner and principal at Ci. Strategy+Design, which offers professional development for organizations and workshops for learners to help them understand and adopt an entrepreneurial and design thinker’s mind-set. Students learn about a framework developed through Ci. called “Applied Design Thinking.” Jo’shen explains that “Applied Design Thinking creates a framework for learners to own their own critical approach to create ideas that have impact.”

    New learning processes in education such as Applied Design Thinking work to disrupt education in a way that advances learners’ ability to take control of their own learning. Jo’shen believes that “empowering students to create their own frameworks helps them consciously identify and put to paper the way they think and work.” This gives students a chance to visualize and iterate their thinking processes.

    The education system requires a change for us to enable students to learn to work and work to learn. Disruption is happening right now in the real world and it's happening in our industries, our businesses, our communities, and our governments. It’s time for us to empower students by disrupting education so that they can make a greater impact on the issues that are changing their lives.

    We must also remember that an important aspect of disruption in education is resistance. Educators, parents, administrators, and students must work together to resist the status quo. As disruption doesn’t happen easily, resistance also requires us to work together to identify the problems that are directly impacting our students and to find solutions “by any means necessary.”

    Rusul Alrubail, an ILA member since 2016, is a writer on education, teaching, and learning. Her work focuses on teacher development and training, English learners, and pedagogical practices in and out of the classroom.

    This article originally appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

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    Writing Workshop vs. Writers' Workshop

    by Brian Kissel
     | Aug 22, 2017

    Workshop: A physical place where a craftsperson creates something.

    Writer: A person who informs, entertains, persuades, remembers, reminds, and expresses using a combination of words.

    The Writer's WorkshopWhat’s the difference between a writing workshop and a writers' workshop? Educators tend to use the two terms interchangeably, but I believe there’s a difference. In a writing workshop the focus is on the writing. Teachers hone in on what’s present on the page, what’s missing, and how the writing needs to change to meet a set of standards. In a writers' workshop, the focus is on the writer. Teachers focus on the person crafting the text—helping writers choose topics, purposes, and audiences for their writing and offering suggestions to guide the writer's decision-making process. A writing workshop provides a physical space for writers to work, while a writers' workshop provides both a physical and psychological space for writers to grow. I believe we teachers need to work towards building a writers' workshop within our classrooms.  

    In the past two decades, as laws have ushered in more standardized assessments, our writing classrooms have started to reflect a trend towards sameness. A simple stroll down many school hallways reveals this. Student writing, posted side-by-side, often follows the same five paragraph structure—stories that all begin with dialogue leads, or persuasive pieces that have the same exact transitional words threaded throughout the text. One piece sounds exactly like the next—each one as voiceless as the one before. It seems to me that we have started to embrace compliance rather than honoring the uniqueness of the stories our children might tell.

    I think we’d be wise to consider our reading lives as we determine what’s important when helping writers develop their writing lives. As a reader, I seek texts that are thought-provoking, emotional, meaningful, interesting, unpredictable, moving, honest, funny, and powerful. Over the past two months I’ve read high fantasy (A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin), humor (Best State Ever by Dave Barry), memoir (Just Kids by Patti Smith), historical nonfiction (Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann), and YA fiction (The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas). Each book informed me, made me laugh, provoked thought, appealed to my emotions. And each author kept me turning pages. If we value these qualities above all others as readers, shouldn’t we work to hone these qualities within our young writers?

    As writing teachers, how often do we begin lessons asking:

    • What kind of (story, informational text, persuasive essay, poem, digital text) do you want to explore?
    • What tone (humorous, sad, thought-provoking, ethereal) do you want to convey?
    • How do you want your audience to react?
    • What do you need to know how to do as a writer to achieve those results?

    In a writers' workshop we work to foster the habits young writers need to form so writing is a routine. And through this daily routine, we work to help writers obtain the cumulative knowledge they need to continuously develop and hone their craft. The focus is entirely on the writer. We help writers develop the skills that will sustain them across multiple pieces of writing.

    Here are some of my tips for creating a more writer-focused writers' workshop:

    • Know your students: Spend the first several weeks of school engaging in conversations with students about their lives outside the classroom. Use these conversations to match them to writing topics throughout the year.
    • Delay genre studies: Resist going into genre studies too early in the school year. Give students the first 6–8 weeks to explore genres on their own. As you learn about your students’ lives, you’ll also learn about their preferred genres.
    • Confer: Confer with students for a week before planning an entire genre study. Our mini-lessons should be responsive to what our students create as writers. We don’t know what to teach until we’ve had a chance to study our writers
    • Offer an author’s chair: Give children opportunities to share their writing with the class and ask them to direct feedback from their peers.
    • Leave time for reflection: Ask students to reflect daily on their learning. Reserve some time (2–3 minutes) at the end of your workshop and ask students to name something they learned. Their replies give you a snippet of authentic assessment that you can use when planning lessons.

    I’ve taught writing in some capacity for over 20 years now—from teaching our youngest writers in pre-K to working with adult writers at the college level. When I first started teaching writing, I followed a guide handed to me by the district—I was teaching writing, but I wasn’t teaching writers. Now, I know better. I follow the writer. And my instruction is much more meaningful because I allow them to lead the way.

    Brian Kissel

    Dr. Brian Kissel is an associate professor of literacy at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. A former elementary school teacher and literacy coach, Brian teaches courses, conducts research, and provides professional development in writing instruction. He has a new book, published by Stenhouse, titled When Writers Drive the Workshop: Honoring Young Voices and Bold Choices. You can follow Dr. Kissel on Twitter.

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