Saturday, May 11, 2013

That Four Letter Word

1. Making Prevention Happen

1st grader, who had been struggling to read,
reading to the vice principal.
For the last four months, consultants with my company and I have been working in five inner city schools in Newark, NJ with K-2 staff and administrators.  The goal has been to ensure children learn to read and enjoy reading and teachers learn or refine methods  to occasion both consistently.  We have done this by  modeling, coaching and scaffolding educators' work, and directly teaching students.  We have provided KEEP books for children to take home to read and a few specific practices for teachers to learn and practice. We targeted what was essential to do in this first stage, learned where we were wrong, co-planned and revised as needed. We have measured and actually used what we measured to inform our plans.

1st grader rereading North, a text that had been read aloud.
The projects at each school have been significantly successful even though we began them in January  instead of September as originally planned.  I set the target at 90% of the kindergarten and grade 1 children and 85% of the second grade children would meet all of the district's exiting literacy benchmarks, including continuous text reading for all children who were present 90% of the time, regardless of heritage language, classification, etc. As I review data, it looks like we will meet those targets at most, if not all, of the schools.  Further, as progress is measured carefully now by teachers and attended to with clear responses, the children who are making slower, but nonetheless, progress (often ones who are new to the school or have had significant absences or began the school year well behind) have cogent plans to help them keep making progress.


What becomes clear when we look at data, is that without this prevention project, 40% to 50% of the children at these school sites would not have gained inner control as readers.  As these children entered the next grade, the content might well have been altered as a critical mass would not have had the minimal requisite skills, strategies or experiences to attend to the content.  As such, it is likely that even more children would have 'fallen behind' as primary and intermediate grade teachers would have been unable to teach the required content or in many cases mediate the range of needs. What little gains children might have seen the previous year could well have been eclipsed by lack of meaningful practice or by attending to the wrong content or impractical lessons.

Kindergartners posting mental images
they drew on an anchor chart.
Now add to this the expectation for capable writing and how impossible it is to write well without having secured competent reading skills and the large failure (70%+) on state tests that many of the children at these schools have experienced seems less nebulous.  Children write by encoding sounds as graphic symbol regardless of what fancy unit of study we call it.  They learn about the possibility of writing by hearing stories, drawing and painting, dramatizing and telling stories, observing adults and others read and write, and most of all by reading.  It is these combinations of factors--more so than any specific unit of study that has been taught--that lead to competent writing and equally important the desire to keep doing it.  I was reminded of this last week when I spent the day with a principal and she was reviewing student writing.  She showed me writing done by kindergartners from our project and third graders who are not in our project. The kindergarten children's writing was clearly better than the third graders' writing with regard to clarity, expression, mechanics, and syntax.  She asked me how this could be as we have not focused on writing directly. I didn't know what to say at the moment.  Later, I thought about how great reading instruction that pays attention to meaning, syntax, and grapho-phonemics helps to produce children with competent beginning writing skills. Add to that the emphasis on quality read alouds with comprehension and vocabulary instruction and children become well practiced in having something to say and being able to invent and/or borrow language to say it.


Kindergarten teacher sharing a chart she and her students created
in response to the text, Freedom Summer. K-2 teachers at this site are
exploring the use of African American literature with their
children and are also studying Gloria Ladson-Billing's
Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African-American Children.
 II. About Teachers and School Building Leaders

Next year we will continue our work focusing on composing as teachers, readers, writers, artists, and thinkers.  Prevention of reading and writing difficulties is doable and we do not need to go out and 'find replacement teachers' to do so.  By changing a few practices and supporting teachers by co-teaching when needed, the culture of the schools also change.  We are learners and this subtle shift from being the teacher to being a learner creates possibilities.

For the last two months I have been receiving or have been copied on emails by teachers in the project. This is one   a teacher sent to the principal at her school and it is similar to countless others I've received:


I just wanted to make you aware about how beneficial I have found Blueprints For Learning, this year. Ms. XXXX (consultant) , with the constant support of Ms. XXX (VP), has changed my entire outlook on the guided reading program, and implementing it into the daily lives of my students. Along with [the consultant's] guidance I have totally restructured my classroom and my daily instruction to meet the individualized needs of my emergent readers to advance them to the next level. She has really made an impact on not only my classroom, but my teaching style, as well. She has made herself available by email any day of the week to answer any  questions, and  is always willing to come in and demonstrate a guided reading or writing lesson. My children thoroughly enjoy her presence...It has been such a privilege  to be working with her this year.

1st grade teacher shares a method she is using to keep track of leaners' progress.

Each week I receive an email or am stopped at the school where a teacher, a VP, or principal tells me something similar.  This gives me pause, especially when I hear politicians bemoan the current teaching staff in public schools and talk about how they need to 'find great teachers.' 

Great teachers are not purchased.  They are made alongside other teachers at school.  They do not emerge from the university complete.  Being a teacher is work that is always in a state of becoming. We would be wise to understand that.  The culture of schools and school districts is most responsible for the quality of work that is produced than any greatness gene.  

If we want to improve the work we need to ask:


  • How do the leaders show that they value risk taking, error making at the state, district and school levels?  
  • How do we support innovation--of teachers taking the road less traveled?  
  • If we want children to think, then how do we first ensure that teachers and principals are valued as thinkers?  
  • Whats the tone of the lace? How do teachers speak with children? How do admins speak with teachers?  How does central office speak to and refer to teachers and school level admins?
  • What policies do we endorse, insist upon that create the context and conditions for innovation? 
  • How do we lessen the fear that arises along with new evaluation systems?
  • How do we support the idiosyncratic need that teachers and principals have to create the unexpected? The unplanned? The unclear?  How do teachers do that with children?
  • How is wonder and curiosity among everyone at school privileged?  
  • How do we partner with parents? What does that look and sound like?
  • How do we privilege mistake making in a time of high stakes testing?

Two teachers with Bernadette Kazanjian (seated in the
center, from Blueprints) observing another teacher at work.

III. On Love

At Blueprints and our newest endeavor, Middle Matters [yes, think rhizome] we believe deeply in making mistakes, of reversing plans, of courting the unexpected, of seeing possibilites, of designing futures.  Our work is largely about problem solving with clients and being responsive to emerging situations.  

We work in the middle of things alongside others.  
We practice being (other)wise.

Each consultant we hire is a learner we have known or have gotten to know and all are people we respect and love greatly.  Yes, love, that four letter word.  Our work is as much about love, as it is about technique.  We care for and about each other and the teachers and administrators we work with, as well as the children we co-teach.  I realize that references to love seem to be absent in much of the education 'reform' literature that is popular today.  And more's the pity, I think.

It's love that drives our work--that powers the inventing.

                             

4 comments:

  1. Fabulous! I wish I could bring all my students to Newark

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    1. Wish you could too. Wouldn't that be grand.

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  2. Beautiful reminder for what really matters in schools. Thank you for centering love. Love and happiness are not often part of the discourse on education these days but you've shown the teachers and students you work with that love and outcomes go hand in hand.

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    1. Thanks Katie. This work truly is a labor of love.

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