They need teams of committed teachers, coaches, and principals who will advocate relentlessly for the things that really matter. They need people who will lead through their actions. They need people who, will stay the course despite a myriad of outside pressures to do otherwise. They need people who will find the courage to keep asking, “Is this best for our students?”
This kind of leadership, of course, is not easy work. A deep commitment to nurture lifelong readers and writers calls on us to dig in and dig deep. Today I offer five courageous but crucial actions for literacy leaders to consider.
1. Stop apologizing. Let’s start by finding the courage to make literacy the most sacred and laser-like focus of our elementary schools. This will require us to stand tall and proud – owning the importance of this work. It will require us to stop apologizing for the fact that it takes time to help all students become readers and writers. It will require us to stand up to the tiresome argument that time in the elementary school day should be shared equally amongst “the subjects”.
Literacy is not a subject. Becoming literate is a human necessity and the foundation that will support success in nearly every other area of a student’s school day and life. When students become literate, a whole world of choice and opportunity opens to them. When they don’t, struggle follows them, not just in school, but throughout their lifetimes affecting relationships, employment, health, and the pursuit of happiness. We need to stop apologizing for prioritizing literacy in our elementary schools. It simply matters too much.
2. Name what matters and work to make it happen. Let’s name the literacy promises we will make to every student and then commit to making those promises come alive in every single classroom in the school.
- If we value the read aloud, let’s say so. And then let’s make sure that every teacher has the skills to deliver so that every child gets to participate in a high quality interactive read aloud every day.
- If student-directed versus teacher-directed conversation matters, let’s figure out how to make that happen, not just in a few classrooms, but in every classroom in the school.
- If we value small group instruction as the bridge between whole group and independent application, let’s make sure our teachers are equipped to find every student’s strengths and build on them strategically.
- If high-volume independent reading matters, let’s make sure that every classroom finds time for it every day. Let’s define what high-volume means and help teachers learn how to make the most of this time of day. Let’s invest in classroom libraries to support this practice.
- If conferring with individual readers matters, let’s let everyone know that conferences are part of how we do business in this building. Then let’s make sure teachers have the support they need to develop their conferring skills.
Let’s stop accepting pockets of excellence in our schools and start insisting that every single classroom provide students with the experiences we value as mattering the most.
3. Invest in people more than in programs. It’s easy to become enamored with the shiny box of packaged curriculum. The slick alignment, clear scope and sequence, sparkly tools for differentiation and all-in-one-place appeal of it can be so enticing. But the stuff we buy, no matter how wonderful it is, will always be secondary to teacher quality. The best curriculum money can buy in the hands of an unskilled teacher will never translate into high quality instruction. Yet, highly trained teachers will succeed in spite of the shortcomings of any curriculum product. So, let’s start investing more in people and less in programs. Let’s create a culture of adult learning by using tools like
- Professional reading
- Twitter, Google+, Voxer
- Instructional coaching
- Active and responsive PD
What matters more than products is how well prepared teachers are to observe, interpret, and follow the clues provided by readers and writers in their classrooms. Let’s stop blaming teachers for falling short and instead invest in high-quality, ongoing professional development.
4. Quit making excuses. Let’s stop making the easy and overused excuses of “not enough money” and “not enough time”. Quite frankly, these are cop outs. Time and money are in short supply in every school. Yet schools all over this country, in spite of all of the same resource challenges, are figuring out how to get literacy instruction right and you can, too. How we spend our time and money is the only true measure of what we value. When prioritize literacy instruction, we don’t wait to see if there is time or money left after we take care of everything else. We put resources toward our priorities first. We dig deep. We reevaluate our other choices. We get creative. We ask others how they did it. We persist. We find the courage to say no to less urgent matters. We quit making excuses.
5. Surround yourself with literacy warriors and keep moving. When you decide it’s time to make a school wide difference, standing up for what matters most in the literacy classroom, you won’t want to go it alone. You’re going to want to surround yourself with the most passionate literacy leaders you know. I call them warriors. They are the teachers, coaches and staff developers who:
- Have an unwavering conviction for literacy instruction that is student-centered and authentic.
- Understand the importance of empowerment through student choice and student voice.
- Know how to use formative assessment to adjust and differentiate to reach all students.
- Are curious lifelong learners, constantly asking themselves, “What next?”
Leading for student-centered literacy instruction doesn’t require that we know everything about teaching reading or writing. It does, however, require that we keep pushing ourselves as learners and as leaders. We need to ask lots of questions, listen, read, wonder, and collaborate. The literacy warriors in our lives can guide us on this journey. We simply need to identify who they are and invite them into the conversation by asking, “What should we consider doing to help all kids become readers and writers?”
Along the way, remember that this is a journey, NOT a destination. It takes time, patience, and persistence. So, how do you begin? One purposeful step at a time. One crucial, courageous act at time. Over and over and over again. And before you know it, it all starts to add up. Soon everyone – kids and adults alike – will be engaged in meaningful reading, writing, conversation, collaboration, and learning. And all because we keep persistently asking, “What next?”
It’s time. Our kids are waiting. Let’s lead for literacy with courage and conviction.
Simple Starts; Making the Move to a Reader-Centered Classroom (Heinemann 2015) is filled with dozens of possible next steps for your school’s journey toward student-centered instruction. You can do this. I can help.