It takes time. This a phrase uttered in multiple educational arenas when talking about student proficiency. It takes time. I have been reminded of this over and over again in my work as a teacher and as an instructional coach. Most recently, I have been reminded of this with three exceptional learning opportunities: 1) Episode #108 of the Melissa & Lori Love Literacy podcast 2) Episode #141 of the Melissa & Lori Love Literacy podcast, and 3) edWebinar, Leading for Reading, a 360-Degree Look at the Science of Reading, hosted by edWeb and Stacey Hurst, Chief Academic Advisor for Reading Horizons & Assistant Professor of Reading. Panelists included Superintendent Kevin Hansford, Laura Beaver, District Title 1 Facilitator, and Pati Montgomery, Founder & President of Learning Cubed.
In December, I wrote about educational leaders that I hold in very high regard when it comes to best practices in literacy instruction (and the dangers of idolizing them). “I believe the intent of such worship is reserved for a higher power, not for human beings. I believe the risk of idolizing human beings is that one might lose sight of reality, putting blinders on and limiting one’s perspective. I want to keep myself in check when assessing the work of the SOR folks. Keeping myself in check means: admire, respect, and revere these people and their work while avoiding tipping the scales toward worshipping them and completely dismissing others.”
Angie Hanlin is one of those people that I admire, respect and revere. One of my favorite things about her? She credits her own heroes in education (Anita Archer and John Hattie) when discussing the successes she has experienced in her career.
Angie Hanlin is currently a superintendent in Thorp, Wisconsin. Before moving to Thorp, she was a principal at Matthews Elementary in New Madrid, Missouri, where literacy proficiency moved from 13% to 100% under her leadership. Angie describes this journey in Episode #108 of Melissa & Lori Love Literacy Podcast. I have listened to this hour-and-fifteen-minute episode twice, and am ready to listen to it a third time. It is an amazing must-listen for all educators!
It’s tough to hone in on all of the golden nuggets that Hanlin shared, so I’ll do my best to stay hyper-focused on a few points.
It Takes Time
The work that was accomplished at Matthews Elementary did not happen overnight. It began with “radical acceptance” of the data and discussing the “How” of moving forward (versus the “Why” the data looks this way). In Fort Madison, our data hovers around 60% proficiency in both math and ELA, according to our FAST screener data. 60% is certainly better than 13%, but it’s not 100%. And it can be. At the very least, according to many literacy leaders, our ELA proficiency can reach 95%.
We all want to expedite the process, but it just simply doesn’t happen overnight. High percentages of proficiency takes years to develop, accomplish, and sustain. It does happen with a focus on several key factors (again, my attempt to summarize all of the amazing key points that Hanlin made – I implore all to listen to the episode and develop your own take-aways):
- A growth mindset for all people involved: leaders, teachers, students, and community
- A focus on data
- Intentional Planning
A Growth Mindset
In the last five years as our district literacy coach, I have learned over and over again that current mindsets need to be honored. As much as we’d like everyone to have that solution-oriented growth mindset, it simply isn’t there for all, yet. So we meet people where they are at. We listen to understand. We relentlessly plant seeds of looking at instructional approaches through a different lens. We ask questions that promote reflection. We avoid “shame and blame.” We build our army of educators , one person or one group at a time. Dr. Ernie Ortiz describes this beautifully in Melissa and Lori Love Literacy Podcast # 141 – another must-listen.
A Focus on Data
We have all heard about the importance of data for years and years in education. In my 27th year, I think I’m finally getting it. When we focus on data, we are removing subjectivity. We are simply looking at numbers. And as Hanlin says, “We’ve got to own the data.”
I have two coaching cycles running right now that are doing just that: focusing on the data. We have narrowed the focus to collecting data around one of our three district instructional expectations (Teacher uses total participation techniques to engage a variety of learners.) In both cycles, we have decided to add an additional data collection around positive versus corrective feedback, recognizing the importance of managing expectations and supporting social emotional learning through specific feedback.
When I go into classrooms for observations, I simply take note of the number of times that Total Participation Techniques are being utilized, summarize the data, share it with teachers at our next meeting, and make a plan to adjust instruction to increase the number of times total participation techniques are being utilized. Our work around this has been bolstered with some learning around the TPT Cognitive Engagement Model, developed by Persida and Bill Himmele, which helps ensure that we focus on higher order thinking when engaging all learners.
None of the above work can be accomplished without intentional planning. This intentional planning begins with leadership. In the case of the Fort Madison Community School District, we have enlisted the help of Solution Tree consultant, Kimberly Cano, in moving forward with achieving higher levels of proficiency. The purposeful and intentional planning to accomplish such proficiency began six years ago when our district made the commitment to send all teachers, administrators, and school board members to Solution Tree’s Professional Learning Communities at Work summits. The commitment is so deep that we continue to send all new-hires to these summits.
We doubled-down on our commitment to ensuring high levels of learning for all last summer when we on-boarded Kimberly Cano to support our work. Under her direction, our district administration team developed district a SMART goal: “By May 2023, FMCSD will improve ELA and Math proficiency by at least 10% as measured by the Iowa Statewide Assessment of Student Progress (ISASP)” with clearly outlined action steps. Each building then developed SMART goals with clearly outlined action steps. Intentional planning.
Underneath FMCSD‘s second action step, “Develop and establish common expectations for instructional staff districtwide,” our administrative team outlined three instructional expectations:
- Teacher uses total participation techniques to engage a variety of learners.
- Students do the majority of thinking or questioning to clarify or build on each others’ thinking.
- Teachers use frequent checks for understanding to assess student learning.
About halfway through our current school year, we recognized that the vast majority of our teaching staff was unaware of the instructional expectations, so we began to intentionally plan building awareness of them. We have provided professional learning sessions to shed light on the expectations. Additionally, our instructional coaching staff has developed lesson planning tools to focus on intentional planning so that every lesson is designed to meet the three expectations. As Angie Hanlin said, “The more time we spend on designing that lesson, the better the delivery.”
This past week, our instructional coaches worked with Kimberly Cano to develop a very explicit walk-through tool aligning the district instructional expectations with the 8 Iowa Teaching Standards. This walk-through tool allows administrators to have specific look-fors when they join classrooms, which in turn allows for clear data collection, which can in turn be shared with staff on two levels: building-level data and classroom-level data.
We will then be able to immediately respond to the data. If the data shows gaps in any of the expectations, instructional coaches and administrators can provide building-wide professional learning around areas needing improvement, and can further assist individual teachers and teacher teams as they work to shift the data. All of this allows for complete transparency: leaders, teachers, coaches, students, and the community know the expectations, know where we are at as a district, and where we are heading.
As we make progress in each area: SMART goals, instructional expectations, and the all-important proficiency data, it is vital that we celebrate all successes, big and small. Every time we celebrate with students, we are strengthening growth mindsets, providing positive feedback, and maintaining a focus on data. Every time we celebrate with staff, we are strengthening growth mindsets, providing positive feedback, and maintaining a focus on data. Every time we celebrate with administration, the school board, and the community, we are strengthening growth mindsets, providing positive feedback, and maintaining a focus on data. Success begets success.