4 Ideas to Leverage Learning and Level Up Literacy For All

Educators have been thrust into a world of infinite access to programs, tools, and information telling them what, how, and when to teach kids how to read, write, speak, listen, and think. I often find myself as a recipient of the question, “Lauren, you have been in education for a while… What program do you like? Do you believe in a balanced literacy approach to instruction? How can we embed the Science of Reading approaches into instruction successfully? Can we blend both approaches together? What philosophy has impacted learners the most? Here’s how I feel. I am fortunate to have worked in many places that have had different populations of students, employed different systems, and embraced different perspectives to teaching and learning. I have implemented a variety of programs, have analyzed a plethora of assessments, developed curriculum and approaches to instruction to create intentional, personalized learning experiences for learners. Here’s the thing, initiatives and programs will come and go, but it is the people who implement them who remain the constant. In the educational landscape we live in, it’s inevitable. How many of you have walked into classrooms and have found stacks of literacy and content materials that have accumulated over the course of time? Each book, resource, or learning tool you pick up in that stack is most likely a strong reminder of the leadership team of that time period, their vision, priorities, and perhaps even their mission to make their mark. Do you find that each time the pendulum swings in education, you are desperately holding on to the practices that have worked and were happy to let go of others? That is because there is not one program that works for all. Not one. If there was one way, one program, one approach that worked for all learners, we would all be using it. Great educators will take the best from different approaches to learn about students and then teach them.

Sit in the Driver’s Seat

That said, when educators step into the field of education, they will be introduced and “trained” in various approaches to instruction by their school districts. But we simply cannot rely on our school districts to solely build capacity within the educators they serve. Since there are different kids sitting in front of us every year, they are coming to us with different skills and needs. Therefore, it is an educator’s professional obligation to sit in the driver’s seat of their learning. In the book Innovate Inside the Box, George Couros and Katie Novak share, “If we do not see ourselves in the word “learners” within the realm of education, we will never be able to bring out the best in ourselves or others who are involved in this profession. Learning, at all levels, is paramount to the work we do in education.”

Every Learner Should Get What They Need and Deserve

I am not writing this blog post to get into a debate about which instructional approaches are better than the other. There is enough debate in the universe about that. I am writing because over the course of time, I have come to understand that students may not remember a single lesson their teachers have taught them, but they will remember the teachers who had found a way to leverage learning through an asset based lens in order to level up literacy experiences for all. The great educators I am talking about continuously keep kids at the heart of decision-making. They know that every learner who walks through the doors of a school building should get what they need and deserve. They know that every learner has different backgrounds, learning styles, strengths, and opportunities for growth. They look at the whole learner and will notice and name what they need to create a purposeful plan. When they recognize the plan is not working, they pivot in real-time as students work towards mastery. However, what is important to bring to light, is that educators simply cannot look at the whole learner without recognizing who they are as human beings first. In Katie Martin’s book Evolving Education: Shifting to a Learner-Centered Paradigm, she highlights this idea, “People are more confident, passionate, and motivated to do better work, when you focus on what’s right with them, instead of what’s wrong with them. Creating a learning community that empowers learners to develop the skills and talents to manage themselves and build on their assets, rather than dwell on their deficits, maximizes their motivation, contribution, and impact.”

Level Up Learning For All

As I continue to lead, teach, and embrace a comprehensive approach to learning, here are some ideas that focus on leveraging the human aspect of learning and level up literacy experiences for all:

4 Ideas to Leverage Learning and  Level Up Literacy For All

Click HERE to access the infographic for discussion.

1. Lean into Learners: How will you invest time in getting to know and intentionally connect with your learners? 

Idea 1: Learning Surveys and Community Questions – Learn about who your students are by asking them meaningful questions over the course of the year and utilize their interests/background to embed into instructional planning. HERE are George Couros’ 5 Questions. These open-ended questions have elevated learning experiences across all content areas and have ensured that my instructional approaches are rooted in students’ interests. I have had students, families, and colleagues answer these questions through Google Forms, Flip Video, and in print/digital writing spaces (i.e. notebook or Google Docs). Also, during a recent middle school department meeting I facilitated, I asked the teachers, “What book turned you into a reader?” in a Wakelet collaboration space. Answers were curated in text and picture format. The answers to this question ignited rich discussion about reading identities. HERE is an example. Students can easily participate in this activity. Not only will they continue to develop their reading identities, but they will start recommending books to each other. What better way to cultivate excitement around reading in a more personalized way?

2. Layer Stories into Learning: How can you intentionally create spaces for learners to share how they view the world through stories?

Idea 2: Storytelling – Weaving personal stories and capitalizing on the experiences of students makes learning more meaningful and exciting. HERE is a blog post titled Layering Stories into Learning and a simple and authentic formula to consider following when thinking about how a classroom community can intentionally embed stories into their learning lives: 

  1. Personalize – The teacher links a personal story to learning by saying.
    • I was thinking about…
    • I remember when…
    • Let me tell you a story…
  2. Connect- Learners connect their own stories to a learning experience.
    • This is making me think…
    • I’m realizing that…
  3. Share: Learners share connections with peers to form new ideas.
    • Your story is making me think…
    • Your story is making me wonder…

3. Launch and Leverage Choice How can you empower students to develop agency and take ownership of their learning?

Idea 3: Utilize Choice Boards and Menus – In the Edutopia article, The Importance of Student Choice Across All Grade Levels, Stephan Merrill and Sarah Gonser share, “…by centering choice, educators signal openness to negotiating the middle ground and offer students scaffolded opportunities to practice decision-making, explore their academic identity, and connect their learning to interests and passions.” Providing choice can show students you value how they want to learn, develops agency, and empowers them to explore the learning process through multiple pathways. I have used Literacy Choice Boards and Menus for students to access previously taught skills in order to strengthen their understanding of them. They completed the activities independently, in partnerships, and/or small groups.

Here are some examples of Choice Boards and Menus: Choice Board 1, Choice Board 2, Primary Reading Fiction/Nonfiction Choice Menu 1, Elementary Reading Fiction Choice Menu 2

4. Lift Writing and Link IdeasWhat practice can help you connect with learners and elevate writing across content areas?

Idea 4: Dialogue Journals: Dialogue Journals are low stakes written conversations between two or more people. It is an authentic way to get every learner ‘talking’ regardless of their introverted or extroverted personality types. This experience holds all learners accountable to connect with peers and teachers, promote thinking and discussion about various content and topics. Additionally, learners build writing fluency and stamina by informally writing in note form more often about many topics with a partner or group. This practice supports the development of relationships and builds stronger connections between teachers and peers. Teachers can utilize literature, informational text, video, podcasts, illustrations, photographs, science phenomena and/or free writing prompts to get learners to actively participate in this process. Learners will start with a question, comment, and/or thought about the topic by including content knowledge and content-specific vocabulary. They will respond to one another and should keep the dialogue going. Learn more about dialogue journals in more detail clicking on a previous blog post HERE.

Investing in the Emotional and Instructional Deposit Box

The pendulum in education will continue to swing and as long as we are living in that world, we will continue to watch and feel it. If we want to be mindful about keeping students at the epicenter of the important work we do, we can better identify what students need to grow as human beings and learners. In Julie Schmidt Hasson’s book Safe, Seen, and Stretched, she says, “The seemingly ordinary actions and interactions that occur in classrooms have extraordinary implications.” The ideas shared above can offer opportunities to enhance connections, interactions, and literacy experiences across the disciplines. Educators will always be inundated with programs, district initiatives, and trends. But, if we want to make the most impact on student learning outcomes, creating learning experiences designed to understand the learner is an investment in the emotional and instructional deposit box and time well spent!

Educators Do Great Things

“The influence of our teachers is indelibly woven into the fabric of our lives.” This is the first sentence in chapter 1 of Julie Schmidt Hasson’s book Safe, Seen, and Stretched in the Classroom. Last weekend, as I was packing up my family’s belongings from a weekend trip, I was listening to Sean Gaillard’s #PrincipalLinerNotes podcast where he highlighted Julie’s book and her research around the impact of teachers. That inspiring conversation led me to reading more of Julie’s words where she goes on to ask the question, “Is there a teacher you remember? Not just the teacher’s name, but specific things about him or her?” I paused, and thought deeply after reading those words. It is because my answer is yes, there are many teachers who have left an everlasting impact on my heart and have paved the way for the person I am and the person I am still striving to be. 

Family Roots in Education

I have known for a long time that teaching is an incredibly important job. I have always known this because I come from a family of educators. My grandfather was a law professor at a local college. I can vividly remember him talking about his students with profound pride, reading their writing, and being immersed in providing them with specific feedback that stretched across a span of hours. He did this because he wanted to unlock their potential and push them to be reflective thinkers and develop new ideas that could make a positive impact on the world. His home bookshelves were stacked from floor to ceiling with all of the books he authored and read. He was deeply passionate and committed to his students. My parents were beloved teachers in the community I grew up in; my Dad a retired English teacher and my Mom, a retired special education teacher. From childhood into adulthood, I observed them spending countless hours cultivating connections with students, families, and colleagues, reading papers, providing meaningful feedback, and creating engaging lessons. I can’t remember a day being in public without students rushing towards them to spark conversations that were rooted in stories of gratitude and appreciation for the legacy they left behind. “You were the best teacher I have ever known!” and “You helped me realize who I needed and wanted to be.” or just a simple, “Thank you for everything.” My sister is also an elementary educator. The love she has for teaching and learning, and her students’ unwavering success is palpable. Can you imagine what happens when we are all in the same room together? Yes, we talk about one of our greatest passions, teaching and the influence we hope to have had and have on the field of education.

Keeping Close Proximity

Although I no longer have my own classroom, one of my favorite things to do as an administrator is to walk into classrooms and talk to students about their learning. My friend Meghan Lawson recently wrote a blog post titled, An Underutilized Resource where she shared, “At the end of the day, I know this: my best days are spent listening to the people closest to the work. Our students. Our staff. Proximity matters.” My greatest joy is talking to teachers and students and staying close to that work. That investment in time is important and I wholeheartedly cherish all of those moments. Then, there are days I simply can’t do that as much, and in those moments I wonder about the connections, learning, and joy I may be missing.

Educators Do Great Things

You see, I have been surrounded by great educators since the beginning of time and I’d like to share that even during the most challenging times in education, I am watching and hearing educators doing great things. I am watching great educators remain deeply committed to their work; they are keeping students, colleagues, and community at the heart of all they do. I am watching the joy in students’ faces as they make new connections, ask questions, wonder, think, explore, use accountable talk to grow their thinking, develop perspectives, and navigate the learning process. I am watching educators commit to an infinite learning mindset. They are collaborating, communicating, seeking opportunities for professional growth to build capacity within, and meet the needs of all of their learners. I am watching educators ask for feedback from students and colleagues that enable them to create, innovate, and shift their approaches to instruction. I am watching educators navigate challenges that arise and proactively find solutions. I am watching educators use relationships as a form of intervention. They interact with students in supportive ways while maintaining high expectations that develop the social, emotional, and intellectual growth of all students.

Magical Moments

The other day I was talking to students about the themes in their books. During this time, they were making connections about books they have previously read to the excerpts they were currently analyzing. Their teacher and I were not taking part in the interactions for quite a while; we didn’t have to. The students were joyfully facilitating the conversation, while adding onto each other’s thinking. As I watched an authentic dialogue that was blanketed in critical thinking, responsibility, and respect for one another’s perspectives, I couldn’t help but think about the remarkable ways teachers shape the lives of students. I couldn’t help but think about the conditions the teacher created that opened the door to these magical moments. It is moments like this that will live in the mind memory boxes of students for a lifetime. These are the moments that will be courageously unwrapped in the right time, in the right place, with the right people. 

I’ll Always Be a Teacher

The greatest educators I have ever known invest the time in building classroom community, instilling confidence, and providing the tools and spaces for learners to think, share, speak, listen, and thrive. When I finally got the opportunity to share my heart and some of my own thoughts about the concept of theme with the class, many hands relentlessly started flying into the air with questions for me. It seemed as though these students were curious about my history as a learner and educator. I thought back to Julie Hasson’s words, “The seemingly ordinary actions and interactions that occur in classrooms have extraordinary implications.” Could it be that because the teacher created the conditions that value a learner and curiosity driven environment that I was invited to share my own ideas? One student thoughtfully asked, “Mrs. Kaufman, how do you know so much about books? I didn’t know that you were a teacher too.” After sharing a bit of my background, and thinking about the impact and influence my own teachers made, I smiled and responded, “I’ll always be a teacher.”

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