Congrats to all Education Graduates!!!!! And a few words of advice…

I recently attended the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education 2015 Convocation in support of my talented cousin (who’s actually more like my little sister), Alyssa (Congrats, again, Lyssy!).

My cousin, Alyssa, center at her RU Master of Education Graduation. (That's my mom on the left and me, on the right)
My cousin, Alyssa (center) just before her Rutgers University Graduate School of Education Convocation. (That’s my mom, on the left and me, on the right).

I sat there watching my cousin amongst the other graduates–her classmates, our future colleagues–a sea of mortar-board caps decorated with rulers, apples, primary colors, and the new title they would proudly answer to during the next stage of their lives, “Miss and/or Mr.  So-and-So”.  Their eagerness to enter the world of education apparent in their shining faces.  The promise of what this new cohort of educators stands for moving me to get a bit teary-eyed.  How exciting it is to have your whole career ahead of you! Something that you’ve worked toward for years.

As each graduate marched across the stage and accepted their diploma, I began to create a list in my mind of what I would tell each and every one of them.  They’ve been schooled in the pedagogy, theory, and practice of the education world, but what about things that cannot be taught in a class?  The small, seemingly insignificant things that one can only glean from experience.  The silly things that helped me survive my early years of teaching….

And so, this post was born.

My Unsolicited Advice for all New Education Graduates

Buy a notebook.

Keep track of PLC minutes, staff meeting information, professional development workshop notes, and anything else important.  Date everything!  Keep a record of decisions made and tasks assigned.  You can use your notebook to plan classroom groups, your teaching block, or content pacing.  It’s your thinking on paper and everything is in one place.  You will find that you (and your colleagues for that matter) will constantly refer back to and review this invaluable tool.

Some of my past notebooks, ranging from my first year in the classroom to last year.
Some of my past notebooks, ranging from my first year in the classroom to last year. Notice the telltale signs of how well-used they are: coffee stains, tabs, highlighting, additions and revisions.
Eat lunch in the faculty room.

Some teachers would advise against this, saying that the lunch room gets too gossipy or negative, and at times that may be true.  However, in some cases, you can actually learn A LOT in the faculty room – and that learning is two-fold:

  1. Put a bunch of females into a room and inevitable they will start talking about life, love, and their kids (Males within the education world, I understand this just might be your worst nightmare… but bear with me). As a new teacher, I learned a lot from them.  Whether it be marital advice, when to retire, how to set up a 403(b), the ups and downs of daycare, how to potty train, how to roast a chicken, the list goes on!  It seems like you’ll never need any of it, but I can promise you that time ticks on and you, too, one day will be ready to settle down and start a household–family and all. At least now you’ll have all that knowledge from your colleagues to stand on!
  2. Yes, lunch is a time to take a moment for yourself and decompress from the morning and recharge for the afternoon, and it’s good to take the time to do that.  However, teachers rarely ever stop thinking about their work. And this is where being in the faculty room at lunch time comes in handy. It’s a built-in meeting!  You can run lesson plan ideas or assessments past colleagues and get their feedback.  A teacher may come in to copy something that you realize you could use in your classroom. Ask for a copy!  And listen!  Listening in on other educators in your content area is like free PD.  Pay attention to what they are doing in their rooms, their pacing, their techniques and bring that back into your own room.  By being present and “leaning in” to the conversation as Sheryl Sandberg would encourage,  you can learn SO much.
Find a friend.

I’m not just talking about any old friend.  I’m talking about a trusted and respected colleague, who will challenge you and help you grow as an educator.  This should be someone who has educational goals and beliefs similar to your own.  Someone who you can easily work with and who’s feedback you value.  Mine happened to be my mentor.  Through our relationship, I became a much stronger teacher.  As I grew more confident in the classroom and in my practice, we began to function more as equals. We bounced ideas off each other, shared materials and resources, debated new classroom practices, and supported each other.  You will need this type of person because teaching is not always easy.  It’s hard work! And having someone to support you through challenges, offer advice, and keep you smiling is a necessary part of the job.

Say “Yes.”

As a new teacher, you have to build your reputation among colleagues and parents in your school.  One great way to do this is by volunteering for committees and extra duties.  Be a face that parents see at events outside of school.  Offer to become a member of school committees like the social club or an advisory committee.  Build your reputation as a team player and someone who cares about the positive culture and moral of your school.  A word of caution, however-do not take on so much that you become overwhelmed.  Your commitment, first and foremost, is to the education of your students.  Try not to lose sight of that.

Learn the name of every custodian and secretary.

These are the people who keep the school up and running.  They do a lot of work and are often not recognized for all they do.  Make friends, be kind, say “Good morning”, and thank them for all they do.  Then, hopefully, whenever you need a favor (and I can guarantee that at some point you will), they will be more likely to help you out.

Seasoned Educators, what else would you add to this “unsolicited” advice for our future colleagues??

Let’s keep the conversation going-

Lindsay

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Skills Vs. Strategy

Throughout my teaching career, there was something that I always had trouble wrapping my head around: the difference between a skill and strategy.  Like many educational terms, the definition depends on who you ask, so it was always a bit murky to me.

During my time working on various curriculum writing committees, I started running with my own definition of the terms…

To me,

  • a skill is “content” necessary  for reading understanding
    • narrative elements
    • character traits
    • main idea and supporting details
    • text structures
    • text features
      •  Nonfiction (index, heading, caption, etc)
      • Fiction  (stanza, line, stage direction, cast of characters, etc)
    • Etc.

A reader would have to know that all of these exist and they would have to be able to name them out in any given text.

  • a strategy is, well, a reading strategy.  Based off the work of Ellin Oliver Keene and Susan Zimmermann in their groundbreaking Mosaic of Thought, as well as Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis’ Strategies that Work.
    • monitor comprehension
    • make connections
    • visualize
    • determine importance
    • Etc.

And so, I, Lindsay Pish, classroom teacher also threw my definition out there– adding to the myriad of voices.

However, in my work as a literacy coach I’ve come across some other definitions that have gotten me thinking about how my working definition might fit into the mix. Here are three others that I recently came across:

1. When I took this position as a literacy coach, I gained the responsibility of working with middle school teachers.  Middle school literacy was a new territory for me so I did a lot of professional reading on the subject, including Teaching Reading in Middle School by Laura Robb.

Robb describes strategies as the internal reading processes used to make sense out of print, while skills are isolated and out of context drills.  “Strategic reading means that when the learner practices a strategy, he has a conscious, in-the-head plan for comprehending, whereas skills are used without conscious planning.”  For example, students are told to practice a skill on a worksheet, but decide to use a strategy during their independent reading.  Skills are basic practice and can only be elevated to the level of strategy by linking practice to the student’s personal reading life.  “As students use strategies, they become more and more aware of their reasoning process as they make sense out of print, skills seldom involve this kind of self-awareness.”

This could somewhat fit with my definition of each.  The skills are the isolated parts of reading content, identifying narrative elements or text features, that are used to complete the more complicated strategies, inferring or synthesizing.  So you would have to have knowledge of the skill to consciously use a strategy.

2. While doing research for a new strategy-based resource curriculum that I am writing, a fantastic teacher let me borrow the book, Strategy Instruction for Students with Learning Disabilities by Robert Reid, Torri Ortiz Lienemann, and Jessica L. Hagaman.

In their book, the authors define a strategy as being facilitative, essential, willful, and effortful.  Meaning that strategies facilitate performance or help do a task better–easier, more quickly.  They liken a strategy to a tool.  Tools help us do a task “to a higher standard with much less effort” and strategies do the same.  Strategies are essential in that they are are necessary for success.  The highest achieving students use strategies.  In turn, these students make a conscious effort to use a strategy and commit to its use.

The authors go on to say that a strategy is a “cognitive process that occurs inside our head” and often one strategy is used in combination with another.  The point of strategy use in the classroom, according to this text, is to help structure the effort put into a task and to act as reminder for what the next step in the process is.  The conclusive definition of a strategy in this book then becomes, “a series of ordered steps that help a student perform a task.”

While I agree that strategies are facilitative, essential, willful, and effortful–a process that happens entirely in our head,I am not sure that I agree with strategies acting only as a series of ordered steps, likened to the the use of a mnemonic device to remember the steps in a math computation (“Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally”- parenthesis, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction).  I would feel uneasy boiling down something as complicated as synthesizing two texts, into such a simplified process because I want to make sure that deeper understanding is present.

3. Finally, as a blogger I make sure that I keep up with other literacy-based blogs.  Recently blogger Annemarie, on Teacher2TeacherHelp did a series of posts on teaching strategically.

Annemarie would agree with the definition put forth by the authors of Strategy Instruction for Students with Learning Disabilities.  She describes strategies as a mean to proficiently perform a skill.  Using Jennifer Serravello’s definition (from Teaching Reading Skills in Small Groups: Differentiated Instruction for Building Strategic, Independent Readers) that “strategies are the step-by-step how-tos for internalizing skills,” Annemarie explains that strategies are scaffolds put in place to help with the development of skills, and left in place only long enough for the student to become independent with the skill.

When a student has trouble with a skill, Annemarie describes how she asks herself, “How can I break this down?” and then works to find ways the skill can be broken down into manageable steps.  She reminds teachers to focus on their process for doing things, by listing across their fingers, “First, I…Then…Next, I…” to make internal processes more apparent.

Again, it boils down to the use of a step-by-step process.  However, I feel a bit more comfortable with Annemarie’s explanation, since I can see how it would work with say, determining the main idea.  The student has trouble with this skill and I can break that task down into steps:

  1. First, ask yourself what this passage is all about.
  2. Then, decide what the author is trying to tell you about that topic.
  3. Next, ask yourself if this is something that the entire passage focuses on, or just a small part.
  4. Finally, ask yourself what details you can find to support that idea.

The thinking behind the skill is being broken down, rather than the rote use of something like a mnemonic device.  And through my work with Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, I know that this definition would be their philosophy as well.  Their teaching points follow the form of, “Today I am going to teach you how to (a skill) by using ( a strategy).”  And that makes sense to me.

I also understand that skills can be leveled into a heirarchy, like Bloom’s Taxonomy or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge.  Identifying text features is a low level skill, where as using text features to determine the main idea is a higher leveled skill.

So, where do I go from here? Now that I’ve completely muddled my own thinking…

I think I need to adjust my idea of what a skill is.  What I previously thought of as a skill, may be more of a topic or umbrella term, rather than an actual skill that students must aquire.  For example, one can not “narrative element”, but one can identify narrative elements or summarize using narrative elements.  Those are skills that could be supplemented with strategies in order for students to be successful at them.

This idea does not exactly tie in the comprehension strategies set forth in Mosaic of Thought or Strategies that Work, but maybe that’s okay.  I can accept the two different “types” and move forward.  Maybe like so many of our students, these terms do not have to fit into perfectly labeled categories.

What have you thought about on this topic?  I would love to hear your ideas or musings.

Let’s keep the conversation going-

Lindsay

Is There a Culture of Teacher Growth in Your School?

A great article, by Irene Fountas, related to my last post, “An Invitation to Geek Out”. I am particularly intrigued by the idea of teachers and administrators viewing themselves as a team.

I’ve seen the pay-off of teachers acting as a team first-hand, at one particular school in my coaching travels. The teachers in this school truly work together, using their PLC time to talk out problems and come up with innovative solutions. They are educators that care deeply about their craft and it shows, in the way they are constantly trying to hone their practice. They debate issues, create new lessons and materials, and they SHARE it all! They work to keep each other up with curriculum pacing and they keep the standards in check as they go.

It’s inspiring to see their success and growth as a team of professionals. It’s also a model that others could replicate, by discussing some of the questions Fountas raises in this article.

Keep the conversation going!

– Lindsay

Lesley University Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

3.20.15 Irene Fountas Photo

by Irene Fountas, Author and Director of the Lesley University Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

In a culture of teacher growth, the educators in a school value their expertise and seek opportunities to expand it. They value teamwork and how it contributes to the achievement of all the students in the school. Think for a minute about the characteristics of your school culture.
  • What are the professional learning expectations for you in your school?  In other words, what is your understanding of what is expected of you in terms of continuous professional learning and what should you expect of your colleagues?
  • Are the expectations for professional learning by the educators communicated in a written document so everyone who works in the building has the same understandings and expectations of each other?
  • How generous are you in sharing your teaching and supporting your colleagues? How would your colleagues describe you…

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