Mike Schmoker in his book FOCUS(2011 ASCD) clearly outlines three essentials that would radically improve student learning; 1. What We Teach(coherent curriculum) 2. How We Teach(sound lessons) and 3. Authentic Literacy(purposeful reading and writing). He postures that if we focused on these three essential elements with clarity, purpose and simplicity,” then our schools will achieve what previous generations never thought possible.”
The High Impact Leadership(HIL) project that I am involved with has at its core a focus on literacy and the implementation of the Essential Practices in Early and Elementary Literacy or Essential Instructional Practices. The theory of action as part of the GELN collaboration that ensures the minimum standard of care that “Every child develops strong early literacy knowledge, skill, and dispositions” means that teachers have to implement quality practices in every classroom every day and that their instructional skills have to be developed. The Literacy Essential modules found at www.literacyessentials.org provide research supported instructional practices that should be a focus of professional development and learning..
How does a practicing principal use the Literacy Essential modules to his/her advantage to ensure that teachers receive the knowledge, strategies, and skills they need to implement best practice researched literacy strategies in the classroom? As I was reviewing the modules myself and learning about best practice literacy strategies a couple of ideas came to mind:
- Be a learner yourself In a recent executive summary prepared by three MSU doctoral students after interviewing elementary principals across our state, 84% of respondents stated that they had NO formal training in literacy and 44% had no elementary teaching experience. If we expect our teachers to learn the modules and implement best practice researched strategies then we have to be learners ourselves. How can we provide feedback about learning we have observed if we don’t know what we are looking for?
- Focus on priority growth edges Although some teachers will be completing the modules on their own to receive the SCHECH’s and want to learn, it would be best to determine what the school’s top priority area is and focus on that particular module. Just like in the classroom we don’t want teachers covering material, but ensuring that kids are learning by checking for understanding. Nell Duke at one of the GELN training sessions said it will take 2-3 years of sustained learning, practice, and reflective work to fully implement just one of the literacy essential standards.
- Create Professional Learning Networks Learning is a social opportunity and teachers need thinking partners. Pairing teachers as learning partners and/or in small instructional groups is a much better way to ensure that they are understanding the content, reflecting fully on their own practice and supporting each other through their learning.
- Create a “learning zone” environment Teachers need to feel “safe” to try new strategies and skills they have learned, take risks and learn from each other without fear of being evaluated or rebuked for their efforts. The goal is progress, not perfection.
- Provide opportunities for practice If a skill or strategy is to be learned, then it needs to be replicated and practiced many times. Besides providing opportunities for teachers to visit each other in their classrooms, or have lessons modeled by literacy coaches, professional learning could be focused on lessons that have been videotaped and/or have teachers present learning episodes at staff meetings with other teachers as the students.
- Celebrate small wins Focus on changing behaviors instead of mindsets, shift the conversations away from what went wrong to what went right. In any effort to implement new learning, it is imperative that the principal is providing lots of affirmation, recognition, and appreciation. Kouze and Posner call this “encouraging the heart.”
Keith Ferrazzi reminds us that, “You can’t force people to change-you can only help them want to.” As principals, we have to create the readiness for people to change their behaviors. It is our job to motivate and influence our teachers and stakeholders to replace old habits with new ones that will eventually lead to creating a culture focused on high integrity fidelity implementation of literacy at our schools for our children.