Saturday, March 4, 2017

Becoming a literacy leader

Jennifer Allen's book, Becoming a Literacy Leader: Supporting Learning and Change, 2nd edition, is a wonderful book about her evolution as a literacy coach and recommendations for others pursuing this path. She talks about her approach as layered coaching. Different activities that all play together in order to reinforce learning in her schools. Her job includes several roles including providing professional development, study groups, individual coaching in classrooms, supporting curriculum and assessments, helping kids on the bubble, creating unity throughout the school, cultivating teacher leaders, and dealing with budgets. In many ways she is very fortunate- her districts recognizes the value of literacy and math coaches, is willing to dedicate both space and financial resources to supporting the coaches and is willing to facilitate experimentation in order to try and meet the needs of the students. While she works in two buildings- a challenge anyone who has been itinerant recognizes- she has space in both. One building has a literacy room and the other involves shared space. As someone who travels, having a space to put your stuff undisturbed is a fabulous commodity others often take for granted.

Her layered approach covers levels I have seen referred to before- full community professional development- at faculty meetings and staff development days, small group attention- study groups, and individual interventions or coaching- she gives advice on implementing them as a new to the school individual and as an in house person. She repeatedly touches on the theme that for adults, professional development needs to come from a level of need of those served. Pushing in and telling people what they must learn and participate in is not a recipe for success. Choice is essential. Teachers need to select if they want to participate in a study group or coaching situation.

She runs about five study groups a year. Teachers elect whether they want to participate or not and provide input about when the group should meet- before school, after school, or during lunch. Each group focuses on a topic usually defined by a book. Unlike most study groups I have been exposed to, however, these do not stop there. Hour long sessions include a discussion and sharing of reflection upon evolving ideas and practice of things they are learning. This is followed by a video clip from either a commercial, on line or in house experience. This showcases an element under discussion. Then there is a reading excerpt in which teachers have an opportunity to reread a short segment that focuses on a critical new element and create meaning as part of a group. Then is a segment she refers to a toolbox time. This is strategy trial. Not role play of a strategy, but use a strategy such as read a poem and try out using two column notes on it. Teachers try to use a strategy they will try to integrate into their practice. Then there is an ideas into practice segment where they share out what they might try in their class and decide on the next reading assignment. Someone is assigned to follow up- remind people about the next meeting, assignments, what to bring and provide additional resources. This format seems a valuable one for PLCs. Each group needs a leader but that leader is not an administrator. I can envision a template that could be used for organizing each session. A teacher leader could be responsible for the organizing and hunting down of materials. Critical components are teacher choice, immediate utility of the learning, and practice within the group of the strategy under motion before being sent off to try it out.

One of the things that fascinated me was the school district's creation of a literacy intervention classroom. It is a classroom staffed with hand picked teachers, with a reduced student load. It has the same diversity as the school as a whole from a gender, socioeconomic and racial composition. Students also have to have good attendance and a history of having stable housing and thus having been in the district for their entire schooling. Students are recommended but parents must consent to placement. Students stay in the program for two years. The class has push in services from both reading and math specialists as well as a Title 1 teacher. Instruction in executive function skills is conducted- organization, time management, and initiation skills. Students are taught to use a small number of graphic organizers in order to complete assignments. Scaffolding of assignments is carefully crafted for these struggling learners. Schedule consistency is seen as critical- lunch and specials (art, music, PE) are at the same time every day. This allows for students on the bubble of success to experience a more intense and more consistent program that will help them to improve their reading, writing and study skills. Interestingly, the author acknowledges that these children may not make the same progress as they average child, but two years of literacy intervention may prevent them from falling further behind. This extra support means they will be in a stronger position when they enter middle school. Interestingly, at no point is the idea of tracking or homogenous grouping addressed. There is a given that grouping these kids in a class where they get extra attention and focus on trouble spots is important for their success.

I purchased this book as an ebook. I have read ebooks for pleasure and novels my high school students are reading, but this is the first professional ebook that I have worked with. Much like my experience with audiobooks, I struggled with the ebook format. I enjoyed taking it with me on my iPad as I traveled from building to building, but I found it easier to look back and annotate on paper. While writing this reflection, it was more challenging to search out information. The book is loaded with an amazing variety of charts as references. For me, finding them is easier in a traditional book. The book also abounds with references to other resources- children's books organized around teaching strategies and professional resources. I would rather have them as a hard copy. Perhaps this preference will change as I increase my exposure to ebooks. I do appreciate the fact that my professional library has not gotten heavier with the addition of another text.

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