A Great Start to Improving Adolescent Reading Outcomes in the 2018/2019 School Year

This year, our school-wide instructional focus at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School is about increasing students’ reading levels. Our Instructional Leadership Team collaborated on the writing of this statement, an important promise to our students – reading at and above grade level.

Educators in all content areas will use benchmark and formative data to plan and implement instruction that deeply engages students in reading, writing, speaking, listening, and creating, moving toward all students reading at and above grade level.

Yesterday, our Summer Literacy Team met after a summer spent reading – we landed on Moat’s Speech to Print and Roe, Burns, and Wade’s Teaching Reading in Today’s Elementary Schools (9th edition).

These photos capture the sharp thinking of our team of Boston Public Schools’ Educators. I am excited to use writingisthinking.org as a platform to document our work throughout the year.


What Teachers Really Need: More Collaborative Planning Time

While participating in the Literacy Design Collaborative jurying process at the Southern Regional Education Board Conference this past July, I was blown away by all of the thoughtful, creative, standards-based Science & Social Studies learning modules created by fellow teachers from all over the country. These modules were both content-rich and heavily focused on critical literacy. For example, an 11th grade Chemistry module titled “Nuclear Sustainability” asks students students research the chemistry of nuclear power, evaluate its sustainability,  and write either an editorial or public service announcement persuading their audience of their views.  I was elated to read through the overarching goal and daily tasks because it was exactly the sort of student work production the Writing is Thinking team is advocating for.  

After being awe-stricken by the rigor and quality of the modules, I immediately began trying to estimate how much time the modules would take to plan. It was clear that they took hours upon hours upon hours. I know that when I create a unit plan or lesson plans that are intended to be shared with others, it takes me FAR longer than when I simply plan in isolation for just me and my students.  As a teacher, I view planning time as my most precious commodity – and the bottom line is that there is not enough time for me to plan during my work day. I must take time in the early morning, during the evenings, and on weekends to plan. This is unsustainable, and often leads me feeling burned out by around November of the school year. Also, I’m always planning alone. Work products are always better when more than one brain is thinking about it. In order for our public education system to improve, teachers need adequate time embedded in our work day to be able to collaborate and create top-tier, standards-based lesson plans that can be shared with educators all over the country.

It’s been my experience that a school system’s response to meeting the needs for planning is creating central-office positions around curricular design. What I’ve seen come out of these positions is a massive scope & sequence that provides a checklist of the content that must be “covered” throughout the year. I haven’t found these to be very helpful because at its core, teaching is a creative profession. Creating plans and adjusting them based on student needs is the crux of our work. What we need is time. Time to be thoughtful about how to modify and make curriculum accessible for ELLs and Students with Special Needs. Time to work with our colleagues to make our  plans better. Time during our work day to write, edit, and revise our plans collaboratively. Time to ensure that we are incorporating writing across the curriculum (even in math and elective class!). Time to collectively analyze student work and develop hypotheses around why students may or may not have been successful. Time to adjust our practice when student work tells a particular story. We need more time together as adults to create a strong professional learning community.

It turns out there is a wealth of resources to support teacher meetings so that they are fruitful and productive. I had the pleasure of learning about these great tools this summer during a week-long seminar with education consultant Gene Thompson-Grove and the School Reform Initiative, where we were given the tools of protocols to help structure meetings so that they ensure real work gets done. Whether it’s getting feedback on curriculum, analyzing student work, or digging deeper into a dilemma a teacher is facing, there are protocols designed to structure these important conversations.  From this, I learned that authentic teacher-driven professional learning communities are a means for us to really improve adult learning and thus directly improve student learning.

Some people may be asking, but wait – don’t teachers get planning time? As a member of the Boston Teacher’s Union, I am currently allotted 48 minutes per day for planning. I feel lucky to even have it, as I know that many teachers across the nation do not. The reality is, I do not usually spend this time planning. On any given day, you will find me calling parents, making photocopies, catching up on emails, rearranging desks for student groupings for my next class, or attending IEP and other mandated meetings. This amount of time during the day is not enough to be the practitioners our students, families, and communities need us to be. We need more of it, and we need to collaborate during it.

This upcoming year, one of my professional goals is to create a community of adult learners amongst my teaching team. I want us  to spend time during the day, even if just 48 minutes, to have structured planning time so that we may co-create high-quality curriculum, reflect on our practice, and become better teachers together. Hopefully we will be able to collect enough evidence to prove that this time is valuable. I’m hoping to enlist  their help in creating some LDC modules targeted toward our ELL level 1 and 2 students.  I’ll be sure to keep blogging my progress…stay tuned!

Teacher Leadership In Action

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 9.09.01 AMThe Writing Is Thinking team is a group of dedicated teachers who deeply wish to help our students express their incredible ideas, thoughts, and opinions. We want our students to have a voice and to be heard through writing. When our team arrived at the 2015 Teach to Lead Summit at the Wharf Marriot in Boston, we only had a rough question: How can teachers systematically support English Language Learners and students with disabilities to express their understanding by thoughtfully implementing writing across the curriculum?

This question has transformed into an exciting project in which the middle school teachers at two schools in Boston Public Schools, representing multiple contents, are collaborating to design thoughtful Writing Across the Curriculum strategies and artifacts. In this way, we seek to accomplish two main goals: increase teacher capacity to implement WAC and increase the capacity of all students to express their understanding. Despite the fact that we represent different contents, we do share one common belief:

All teachers are writing teachers; all students are writers in all content areas. Writing experiences and opportunities must be deliberately planned in all content classes.

In addition to refining our idea, during the summit I had the opportunity to attend seminars focused on teacher leadership. It was during this time that I had a career changing realization: I need to aspire to be more than a great teacher; I need to aspire to be a great teacher leader. Not because I crave power or want to be in a leadership role. For me, teacher leadership is not done for power but for our students. Our collaboration with colleagues, quest to improve our practice, and influence on educational policy and instructional decisions are done, first and foremost, with our students’ best interests at heart. And who better to know the best interest of our students than us teachers?

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Our project WritingIsThinking.org is ultimately for our students but it is inherently teacher leadership in action. In the September 2007 issue of Educational Leadership: Teachers As Leaders, Cindy Harrison and Joellen Killion list and explain the “Ten Roles for Teacher Leaders.” The ten roles include:

  • Resource provider
  • Instructional specialist
  • Curriculum specialist
  • Classroom supporter
  • Learning facilitator
  • Mentor
  • School leader
  • Data coach
  • Catalyst for change
  • Learner

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 9.06.24 AMWhat I love most about this article is that teachers are providing these resources and services for teachers. These roles can occur organically, through the collaboration of colleagues or they can be formally implemented. We as teachers need to share the things we do and open our classroom doors; we need to make it a point to go into our colleagues’ classrooms, notice what they are doing, and learn something new. This action will help to shape our school and professional culture, it will positively affect student learning, and we will share practices among colleagues. WritingIsThinking.org is inextricably connected to teacher leadership. We are sharing resources with each other, colleagues, and the community by starting a blog. We are affecting instruction and curriculum by planning WAC in our classrooms and sharing our work at conferences. We are learning from each other by meeting once a month at each others houses, reading books together, looking at student work together, and video recording each others’ classes and practices. Most importantly, we are doing this to ignite student learning and expression in classrooms across Boston.