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!

Harnessing the Minutes

Minutes are Meaningful

The first few months of school are suddenly behind us, but the collection of details from our loaded days are left in mind memory boxes that are waiting to be courageously unwrapped. Sometimes we wonder how time can just pass us by along with the magical moments that transpire in every minute of our days. I have seen educators approach those minutes in the day with courage, conviction, passion, perseverance, pride, and joy for what they were always destined to do. And now that we’ve settled in, the compilation of memories from our first few months is waiting for us to view them through questions of reflection when the timing is right. Sometimes, when we experience the moments in a day in real-time, it is difficult to see the depth of our impact. Sometimes we are not sure if what we are saying and doing matters. As educators, our jobs are to help people see the strength of their influence, the power of their presence, and the significance of the imprints they leave in the hearts and minds of the lives they touch. 

Pause to Reflect

Educators do so much on a daily basis to meet the needs of all of their learners, that it could be challenging to absorb the meaningful moments that manifest over the course of a day. It would be easy to let them just pass you by. Pausing to reflect on the big and small wins can motivate us to share stories and build momentum in others. In the book Innovate Inside the Box by George Couros and Katie Novak, Couros discusses the importance of looking back on your educational journey, “You’ll look back and see how you’ve changed and how your practice has improved. In a profession where learning is the focus of our job, growth is essential and the target is always moving.” How can we create space and time for educators to pause and reflect on their daily interactions with the multitude of people, tasks, and experiences they encounter across the minutes of a day? It doesn’t have to be a formal interaction. Perhaps it’s a hallway conversation, a simple email exchange of ideas, a text, a lunch conversation…  Could those reflections spark new and better ideas for the colleagues, students, and communities we serve?

Some questions I’ve been thinking about:

  1. What are some ways we can leverage relationships to create meaningful opportunities to discuss the moments that matter?
  2. How can we better trust our instincts to “feel” that we are on the right path?
  3. When can we utilize and maximize the expertise of our colleagues to build capacity within?
  4. Can we recognize our cognitive blindspots by inviting people with different perspectives into our conversations?
  5. How can we work to feel more comfortable with acknowledging what we don’t know to personally and professionally grow?

Harnessing the Minutes

George is right, the target IS always moving and we have to be intentional about the way we approach our reflections and practice as educators. My friend Meghan Lawson says that “small moves can have big impact.” I have been sharing this sentiment with colleagues because when we talk about teaching and learning, we don’t always have to make big shifts to see growth.   Our students are the key drivers of our decision-making. They will tell us where we need to go and it’s usually the small moves that catapult them to success. Time moves fast, don’t wait too long to harness the idea of reflection and embrace the meaningful minutes in your days as an investment in yourselves, your colleagues, and the greatest gifts, your learners. What you do matters.