Effective Interventionists

I have met many women and men who wholeheartedly want to be effective literacy teachers.  They want, as much as anyone can, to impact the lives of adolescent readers. In our district, those teachers accept the belief that an excellent education is built on literacy as a civil right.   When I am asked how to get an effective class or program started for struggling adolescent readers, the inquiry is typically about structure, standards, and resources, understandably. I also acknowledge that even the best research-based structure is subordinate to consistent building-wide and district-wide support for fidelity of that structure.  Beyond that need, the greatest factor for success in the individual classroom is an effective literacy educator that believes in all students, responds to the needs of the whole student, remains knowledgeable on effective literacy practice, and builds a classroom structure that facilitates success for all students.

Although this might be a great place to write a literature review citing sources that validate my choice of essential elements, I will instead share my knowledge and beliefs through the lens of my education and my experience with hundreds of real students and dozens of teachers.  Like many reading this, I have spent years, dedicated my life actually, to the work of helping teens read well, both in private and public contexts. I value data and spend a lot of time attempting to make sense of what the data says about what happens in actual classrooms.  I am genuinely saddened that neither my best intentions nor my best efforts have made a significant impact on the system as a whole. I have seen the impact of my work and the work of my fellow literacy educators at the building level, and most certainly at the individual class/teacher level. Students have experienced long-term benefit in these contexts.  However, even as a coach that supports middle and secondary literacy intervention in a large district, with a literacy model I developed and implemented over that past 5 years, I must admit I have yet to see our literacy work impact the system in a sustainable way. Our work is unique, innovative and research-based, but the moving parts are many and difficult to effectively support. Yet we continue to press forward, with our best resource: effective literacy educators.

In spite of my obvious frustration with system change and the state of affairs of literacy in our nation, I must continue to believe in the power of the individual teacher, site-based management, & effective instructional coaching.  I would argue that one of the reasons systems change is so difficult is individual teachers, and frankly, individual students, are undervalued. Again, a blog for another time. With that said, I have bore witness to excellent practice in many classrooms.  I don’t pop in and out, I sit through classes, typically many times with the same teachers, and I notice some commonalities among our most effective literacy interventionists.

Effective literacy teachers believe In all students.  Above all else, effective teachers function from a belief system that accepts that all students can learn and grow as readers, writers, and thinkers.  This is first on my list and of utmost importance. When a teen has spent years battling against reading challenges, he doesn’t believe in himself anymore. These students also don’t believe that anyone can help them change their reading stars. Frankly, many educators have fallen victim to the belief that some students are just not able to read well.  “The good news is that we now have an essential research base demonstrating that virtually every child could be reading grade level by the end of first grade” (Routman, 2014). In a reality where that is not happening, the individual teacher must believe that the potential to achieve and grow still lives within each adolescent.

Effective literacy teachers employ responsive teaching practices.  Of course, this happens as a result of believing in all students.  It also requires a clear understanding of the strengths and challenges of each student.  This is where gaining and maintaining a strong knowledge of literacy development and pedagogy is important.  At the center of all of this is an awareness of the cultural knowledge, experiences, and beliefs students bring to a learning community.  The curriculum and the accepted methodology for instruction are important, however knowledgeable, reflective, relationship-driven educators can be effective with students through nearly any curriculum and any model of instruction. (This is where you may want to refer to my disclaimer for this blog. This is my strongly-held opinion.)

Effective, Consistent, Safe, Fair Classroom Structure.  The reality of teaching adolescent struggling readers is that they are not all that excited to take another spin at becoming a “proficient reader.”  Depending on the district and the structure of the intervention in that district K-12, they may have experienced a great many instructional attempts to fashion them into grade-level readers.  In some cases, those attempts, according to my discussions with students, made them all the more certain that reading is a boring waste of time. More than that, these students have undoubtedly experienced intervention attempts within classroom structures where the teacher’s credibility and clarity were constantly in question (Fisher, Frey, & Hattie, 2016).  The culture of the classroom, dependent on teacher direction and modeling, must acknowledge mistakes and confusion as part of the path to growth. Creating a safe space for students who have not felt safe enough to take risks, may well be the greatest benefit of thoughtful classroom structures. In safe, consistent, responsive environments students begin to absorb the positive culture of the classroom, respect the teacher’s expertise, and believe that maybe, just maybe change is possible.

Are you seeking to develop a curriculum that changes the literacy stars for your students? A solid data-driven, research-based curriculum is essential, but the impact of an effective educator is paramount. Have I missed some fundamental elements of an effective literacy educator? Share your thoughts? Consider your practice and the practice of those effective, impactful teachers in your sphere. Students deserve dedicated, responsive educators that always seek to improve their practice and who care deeply about each individual student. What does student evidence of impactful instruction look like to you? How are we using the evidence of our students’ success or failure to enhance our practice to serve students better?

Motivation Starts Here

In our district, secondary literacy intervention teachers are asked to focus on three elements of development for a productive literacy learning community:  skill, motivation, and self-perception/self-efficacy.   Secondary struggling/striving readers are unspecified-5a complicated lot.  Many factors have contributed to their general lack of success with reading and writing.  Lack of skill and the reasons for that are important.  However, students must feel motivated to give the effort required for growth, and they must believe their effort matters.  That needed motivation is significantly fueled or hindered by a student’s perceptions of who he is as a learner, more specifically, as readers and writers. Students must find what intrinsically motivates them, or we need to help students determine what intrinsically motivates. According to Daniel Pink in his book Drive,  “humans are built to be intrinsically motivated, but have been taught to be extrinsically motivated through years of overt control applied to ‘encourage’ us to work,” or in this case learn.   Do offers of rewards or threats of consequences ever do more than get kids to comply?  The evidence suggests that learning is rarely the outcome of extrinsic motivators. 

Motivating a middle or high school student is no easy process.  Their journey has already been long and arduous.  Along the way students lose track of why reading is matters to anyone, and more personally, why it matters to them. We have to presume that many other capable teachers have attempted to build literacy skills in our students and many have tried to convince students that the extra effort will be beneficial.  More often than not, the students have decided that their ability level is a pre-determined, innate part of them. They are not readers.  They aren’t built to be good writers.  Their future will be built on something that requires some skill they innately possess, and reading or writing isn’t it. Now, after multiple years without proof to the contrary, a secondary literacy teacher is telling them that being a proficient reader is a life skill and that they must possess it to be successful.   Worst of all, it is going to take many challenging hours of practice with skills built around the very things our students have learned to despise: reading and writing and thinking about reading and writing.  

Relationship building is the first step, no matter what the next steps are.  The next steps may be more influenced by the motivation philosophy you accept, but relationships are first.  I’ve yet to see a student authentically motivated without the foundation of a positive relationship.   We’ve all heard that students need to “know that you care, before they care what you know.”  That is never more true than with adolescent students-in-the-gap.  A great deal of what we do and say to convince students that the effort matters to them, must be built on acceptance from the student that the message comes from a credible, fair and consistent source holding high attainable expectations. They must believe the message is built on sincere love and respect for students.  That’s heavy stuff.  Nothing life-changing really happens before that exchange of positive beliefs occurs.  Often, when an adult reflects on the place in their journey when they found focus and direction for life, it was through the relationship with an excellent teacher.  (No pressure, right?) 

Resources for building relationships with resistant, challenging students: 
Classroom Management Strategies for Difficult Students
The Teacher as Warm Demander

So I am on a rabbit hole journey through the concepts of motivation, habit development, and growth mindset.   My hope, over the next few months and through this blog, is to make practical connections between effective classroom instruction and the research on how motivation and growth mindset happen for humans in general. There is a great deal being published about these topics. Theories and research can seem overwhelming and difficult to apply.  However, above all else, teachers seem to want to understand how to motivate students and help them build the skills needed for an information-rich society. Frequently, teachers feel forced to desperately offer extrinsic rewards for short-term gains, but their sincere efforts rarely lead to good habit development, stronger motivation to engage or a change in the students self-efficacy.

Personally, I don’t believe that the universal struggle to motivate our readers-in-need is simple or easily assigned as a characteristic of a generation.  I am driven to help teachers address the causes and effects for our students.  I would appreciate hearing from you about your questions and concerns for your under-motivated students.   I will use the questions you offer up, along with the ones from my colleagues, to guide my posts about this topic over the next few months.

 

Environment Matters

Engaging adolescents in literacy intervention, which is often the hardest kind of work for teenagers, requires something different. Intervention can never be more of the same, especially for students who have been intimately aware of their own actual and perceived deficiencies since early elementary school.  Too often intervention IS just more of the same.  The effort we are making with secondary intervention requires focus on motivation, improved self-efficacy and self-perception in addition to data-driven, differentiated skill development and vocabulary enhancement.  This all requires intentional relationship building in a brain-friendly learning environment.

When students visit our classroom, one I have shared with another literacy teacher,  the first thing they notice is our environment.  We even have students who wander into our room, without true awareness of the metacognitive torture we offer, and ask how they can get into our class.  Although the appreciation is nice, our goal is building a learning environment that makes it clear to students that this class is not just more of the same.  We attempt to build an environment that respects student needs on multiple levels.

I have the privilege of teaching in a summer academy with high school students who are interested in becoming teachers.   We offer students many real-world experiences and lessons about what it takes to be an effective educator.  One of their favorite “ah-ha” lessons is the jigsaw we do with the chapters from a book called Shouting Won’t Grow Dendrites: Twenty Techniques for Managing a Brain-Compatible Classroom by Marcia L. Tate. Our future-teachers make immediate personal connections between enjoyable learning environments and their best learning experiences. As a literacy instructor of students who find reading mostly painful, the environment is an important contribution to encouraging sustained periods of silent reading and enhanced learning through the intentional structure and organization of the classroom.  Since this post comes at the heels of a post on Thomas Armstrong’s book on effective instruction for the adolescent brain, today’s post is focused on the physical environment.  This can not be undervalued. 

Below is a review of some physical elements from Tate’s book (first edition) that are among those my colleagues and I apply to the general environment of our classroom. The pictures are from literacy classrooms all over our district.  

LIGHTING  

Classroom Application:

  • Reduce or reject fluorescent lighting
  • When natural lighting is not available, use lamps or alternative soft lighting
  • Blend options to reduce fluorescent lighting 

Benefits of more natural lighting:

  • Improves learning and cognitive processing
  • Improves behavior by reducing impact on central nervous system
  • Allows for more focus, more relaxation, and improved performance

img_20161017_124434776img_20160503_075430408

SEATING/ROOM ARRANGEMENT 

Classroom Application:

  • Create a structure that promotes easy movement, allows all students to engage with classroom action, and enhances classroom processes and procedures.
  • Provide alternative forms of seating (especially for independent reading)
  • Choose tables and chairs over desks for reciprocal teaching and other collaborative discussions
  • Develop locations where students can stand and work
  • Develop processes for efficient student movement into a variety of grouping structures 
  • Get students moving around to talk, share and present
  • Change groupings and seating locations regularly to build relationships and improve episodic memory

Benefits:img_20161005_101356978_hdr

  • Enhances episodic memory
  • Allows for movement to enhance connections and kinesthetic learning
  • Encourages curiosity, novelty, and anticipation for new learning
  • Facilitates comfortable and efficient transitions
  • Allows easier access to monitor and support student learning

COLOR

Classroom Application:

  • Use high-energy, warm colors for collaborative, engaging activities
  • Use relaxing, cool colors for calming and focus (silent reading, etc)
  • Provide feedback or corrections in cool colors
  • Ask students to add color for annotations and graphic organizers

Benefits with intentional application:

  • img_20161006_080704567_hdrBright colors (bold reds, oranges, & yellows) encourage activity and enthusiasm
  • Cool colors (blues, greens, lavenders) encourage relaxation or calmness.
  • Color assists in semantic memory and visual recognition  
  • Colors improve comprehension and retention

MUSIC

Classroom Application:

  • Develop a collection of music of different genres (catchy & calming)
  • Start your day/class with calming music
  • Use upbeat, catchy tunes for active engagement
  • Identify tunes that fit content or help enhance memory of content

Benefits of effective use of music:  

  • unspecified-21Creates positive emotional impact
  • Enhances personal connections
  • Fills the background space with positive sound
  • Contributes to increased relaxation, stress reduction, and improved memory
  • Awakens the brain for engagement
  • Improves of concentration 

SMELL

Classroom Application:  

  • Encourage alertness with cinnamon, lemon, or peppermint
  • Promote learning and reduce stress with lavender, rose, jasmine, or chamomile  
  • Consider student allergy concerns when using aromas
  • Pair calming aromas with calming music.

Benefits of use of scents:

  • Creates a direct pathway to the brain
  • Affects learning by enhancing mood and mental clarity (proven with lavender and vanilla)
  • Increases concentration and attention (proven with lemon, peppermint)

Of, course the physical environment is only a single piece of a complex practice that must include intentional, thoughtful instruction and consistent classroom processes and procedures for learning (also included in Ms. Tate’s book).  The physical environment should only enhance good teaching practices.  A safe, warm, functional environment promotes learning.   Intentionality and an understanding of the impact all of these elements on the adolescent brain make for an experience that extends beyond your room, beyond a given day, or even beyond a given school year.

Where do you see the benefits of being intentional about environment?  Do you think students value  a classroom that honors their minds?  Which of these elements are you implementing and how is it benefiting your students?

Other resources to enhance the physical learning environment:

3 Quick Tips for a Beautiful, Brain-Friendly Classroom by
5 Research-Based Best Practices for Brain-Friendly Learning Environments
10+ Tips for Using Brain-Based Methods to Redesign Your Classroom  

Continue to Be The Change

As we barrel towards the start of another new school year,  I want to take a moment to share one quote that syncs with my beliefs about the power of teachers to affect change for students in the gap.  Each new school year renews my hope that more lives really will be impacted by the effort of passionate, innovative teachers. 

“Allington and Walmsley (1995) remind us that there is no quick fix for our literacy dilemma, no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all recipe that can guarantee success for all learners.  Contrary to what some people in the field of education might want us to believe, effective literacy programs cannot be bundled into child- and teacher-proof curriculum packets and distributed throughout a building for all to use, one lesson plan at a time.  Rather, meaningful change must come from concerned educators who see a wrong and set about to right it, teachers who are willing to read about, reflect on, discuss, and experiment with innovative ideas in order to make a difference for their students.

“This is not a task to be taken lightly.  Change is difficult.  Change is slow.  Change takes time, effort and unwavering commitment.  It can be frightening, requiring us to take a risk, to leave behind something that we are comfortable with for the threatening shadows of the unknown.  It can be confrontational, as new beliefs and concepts clash with old ones.  It can be frustrating, as fresh ideas don’t pan out and untested methods backfire.  But meaningful change, evolutionary rather than revolutionary, can occur.  It can occur for one struggling reader, one class of lifers, one day, one week, one semester at a time.  And when it does, it surely makes a difference.”

Lifers by Pamela N. Mueller, 2001