“The traditional school often functions as a collection of independent contractors united by a common parking lot.” ~Robert Eaker~
After a move to a new school in September and, what could only be described as an interesting fall, I’m starting to feel a little more settled with my (not so) new surroundings. Over the past few months I’ve had the chance to focus on getting to know the school community, the students, families and staff and see, more or less, how the school ‘works’.
It is often noted that there is greater consistency in practice across schools than within a given school. During 24 years in public education, working at 10 schools in various capacities; teacher, mentor and administrator I’ve had the opportunity to observe this phenomenon first hand.
The key challenge many schools and school systems face is one of both complexity and diversity. With so many variables and influences to factor; people, context and resources, trying to enact a change initiative is akin to the iconic cat herding commercial from a few years back. Often, we are feel we need to respond to complex problems with complex solutions; but the more I think, read and reflect upon this, the more it occurs to me that these problems actually demand simple solutions and that require a focus on relationships and doing less, more effectively.
David Kirp, an American public policy researcher and author, wrote about this recently in his book Improbable Scholars. One of Kirp’s main assertions is that successful schools and districts avoid trendy, fancy or complex improvement strategies and instead focus on these three key areas:
- rich early learning opportunities for all children;
- a strong focus on language-rich instruction across the grades, and;
- professional learning for teachers using school-based collaborative structures.
Success, it turns out, is a matter investing more in the collaborative capacities of classroom teachers and less on the external factors and tools that we have come to rely upon in many of our schools.
For me the word that best describes a truly effective school is coherent. A coherent school is one where teachers direct their resources and focus towards the development of logical, well-organized, consistent and effective teaching practices across the school. As a school leader my task is to engage the professionals I’m working with to create this coherence. As an example, collaborative assessment of student learning is one area where digital tools can help immensely as we can use media tools to gather and analyse a wide range of authentic student work samples as our teachers make use of tools like Google Classroom and Dreambox to support both their classroom teaching and professional learning.
Though we may use new tools, technologies and strategies to accomplish this, it is not the intention to add ‘more’ to the work we do in schools but rather to reduce the use of ineffective or inefficient practices and establish the structures necessary for teachers to work together to create coherence and communicate in a meaningful manner with their students and families.
“We read to know we are not alone.” ~William Nicholson~
Over the past few weeks I’ve been checking in with our Full Day Kindergarten (FDK) teachers to see how our youngest learners are progressing as readers and writers. Though it may seem from my blog posts that I’m just a ‘math guy’; our staff would tell you I’m just as happy to talk about literacy teaching and learning and the importance it holds in our school.
I mention our FDK team specifically because it is a big part of a shift that has lead me to some deep thinking and reflection. We have a great team of educators on our Park Avenue FDK team; they create learning spaces that are engaging, nurturing and challenging-all in a manner that is developmentally appropriate for our youngest learners. The core goal of our FDK team is developing the early literacy skills and dispositions of all our students. We do so through focused, regular instruction; transitioning from oral language instruction with our JK’s towards early writing and reading during the SK year- we do a great job in this area with almost all our students.
The balanced literacy instruction in our FDK classes is helping nearly all our students become proficient users of language. Our district provides us with guidelines for the expected reading behaviours and text difficulties that we can refer to in order to benchmark the progress of our FDK students- our team assures me that almost all our students have met, or exceeded, this benchmark.
I’ve observed a concerning pattern in the information our teachers have shared with me; the only students that are not progressing as a result of this instruction are those students who have phonological processing issues (commonly referred to as dyslexia and dysgraphia). Ironically, this is partly a result of the overall effectiveness of early reading instruction and emphasis that many parents place upon developing the pre-school language capacities of children; we used to have many more struggling readers in our schools, these days we just don’t. Of course, this makes those who are not progressing in this area stand out even more and that is what has caught my attention.
In conversations with our special education team we’ve recognized that meeting the needs of the students within our school who have phonological processing issues must become a priority and that our current accommodations and interventions (including our Reading Recovery program) are not accomplishing this goal.
Moving forward, our strategy for intervention must account for the challenges that we are actually facing and allow for flexibility to be employed in meeting these challenges; one size fits all interventions can no longer be the norm. Additionally, we must be prepared to invest in developing the capacities of the specialist teachers who work with students in this area; teaching children with phonological processing deficits requires a regimen of focused, precise remediation that is not currently common practice- this will need to change.
This is not a call for mass phonics instruction (please, no return to the reading wars). Reading is code breaking and making meaning. Most of our students leave kindergarten able to do both; some do not and they must be able to break the code in order to make meaning. We know who they are and we know what we can do to help them; as long as we are prepared to rethink our intervention resources and models and act accordingly.