Insert Transformative Practices Here.

Consider this a fact-finding mission.

Here’s some context:  I am new to the district I work in, meaning I just started here in July.  I was hired to come in and supervise three departments, three departments that had not been supervised (in the traditional sense–whatever that is–) before.  Curriculum had been looked at, but a group effort to make it flow from K-12 hadn’t been attempted.

In New Jersey, schools are grouped according to something called a District Factor Group, which is a value consisting of wealth components and educational levels of the residents taken from the most recent census data.  The group we belong to is very close to the highest (on and scale that rates them A-J with A being the lowest, we are an “I”).  The top two socio-economic levels usually comprise most of the top performing schools within the state.  Withing that group, we rank near the bottom in most of the measurables society uses to gauge us.

Are the two items related?  I’m sure there is something to the fact that there hasn’t been an earnest evaluation of what we do in quite a while, and going through such a process is often painful the first time, but it must be done.

I’ve talked to the teachers, specifically in the English Department at the high school, and outlined a plan to change the sequence of the courses offered.  None of them liked it, and, in fact, most were opposed.  That plan is now being debated in public.  It’s equal parts structural/course sequence change and curriculum change.

But what I am finding I really need is more input.  Input from the teachers and students.  Input from the network out here.  How do re-arrange situations in which students don’t view their learning in certain “levels” with any seriousness?

I need models.  I need ways to help kids who don’t like to read and engage in “literary things” find value and meaning in what they do in their academic classes.  I need ways to make it come alive for them.

I also need ways to do this so that teaching these kids in this new way does not drive my teachers insane.

There are models I’ve looked at that I love.  I’ve read Readicide and am mining that for ideas and inspiration.  What else should I read?  Who else should I talk to?  What are you doing that is making this type of difference?


5 thoughts on “Insert Transformative Practices Here.

  1. Pat-

    I have been navigating the same problem. I just have the English department to supervise, but many of my teachers have resisted the changes I tried to make right away. The first thing I did was back off, give myself time to observe the curriculum in action, then work on building trust through listening to teachers talk about what they liked and didn’t like about the curriculum (and other things). I have been working on changing what they don’t like to leverage making more widespread changes overall. I also find that the switch to the Common Core is a convenient reason to re-examine “what we’ve always done.”

    I think the resistance is because changing requires re-thinking, stepping out of comfort zones, and re-imagining the methods or content of your teaching. I too am trying to give a “curricular identity” to each year of English and to the program as a whole. I give most of the control to the teachers after getting a few standouts on board. I use PLC time to have my teachers outline the curricula of each year in a UBD format. I also ask them to create lists of best practices for teaching and assessing each essential question/enduring understanding.

    Hope that helps.

    1. Marc,

      Thanks for offering your ideas here. That advice–do a lot of observing–was given to me by some other colleagues over the summer when I was just beginning, and I did heed it to an extent. However, I landed here in an interesting time. The district is in year three of a 5-year plan with UbD as the driving force behind curricular change and learning design. The English department happened to be one of the first groups to latch onto UbD and run with it, so much so that nearly all of their units are in UbD format, and those that are not will be by the end of the year.

      What troubles me most is not the creation of content in the form of traditional curriculum, but rather the way in which our students, most notably our “middle of the road” students, are not engaged in the learning. The changes we proposed initially were met with that across the board from teachers–“it doesn’t serve to help the College Prep student.” And in its structure, I agree. Where the impact on those students will be is in how we re-design the spaces, the materials they use, and how they begin to see literacy, reading, and writing as transformative skills for their future.

      As I write it out like that, I am beginning to see that this is not merely an English issue, but more like a school-wide effort to promote learning. Thinking about this is making me go back to the motto that Tim Tyson used at Mabry Middle School: “Making learning irresistible for the last 25 years.” Yeah, I want that.

  2. Patrick,

    I want to offer two ideas. First a short reading list and then a proposal for a panoramic view.

    Here are a few books which have been useful to me as far as ideas for building a reading community, understanding language arts teaching more deeply and thinking about student learning.

    The Daily 5 by Gail Boushey and Joan Moser
    Reading with Meaning by Debblie Miller
    The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller
    Why Students Don’t Like School by Daniel Willingham
    and the Columbia University Reading and Writing Project

    These texts can provide great insights and offer valuable procedures for creating a successful reading environment in the
    classroom but in my opinion this scope is limited. This is not meant as a criticism of the books or programs mentioned above but a proposal for a more panoramic view.

    In my opinion, as educators we have to expand our view to encompass the community outside the classroom and outside the walls of the school. We need to encourage literacy in all forms. The more literacy that surrounds our students, the more likely they are to become interested in book and the more likely they are to improve in reading and writing.

    Why are there so many Giants and Jets fans in NJ? Because children grow up surrounded by other Giants and Jets fans and they have easy access to those teams. The two important components here: the prevailing culture and access/proximity.

    Here are some ideas:
    Invite authors and story tellers, do a poetry slam, have literacy celebrations, designate a whole school book project in which everyone is reading the same book)parents, teachers, custodians, bus drivers, and students). Offer a movie night. Have a fundraiser at Barnes and Noble. Work with a local tutoring agency such as Literacy Volunteers to offer support for parents who may struggle with literacy or English. Start a “Get Caught Reading” program in which students are recognized publicly in a photo or other media when they are involved in a literacy related activity. Collect donated books so kids can own books.

    Also, make sure the students have annual eye exams. In my experience, struggling or reluctant readers frequently have trouble with their vision.

    I think we have to zoom out of the classroom and consider the panorama of our students’ community and act to encourage literacy in other spaces as well.

    Good luck,

    1. Daniel,

      I can’t thank you enough for those contributions. One or two ideas is all I expected, but you brought a deluge of great ideas to the table. In past districts I’ve worked in, we started a One Book, One Town project whereby the students and teachers picked a book and the community all read it. Businesses were involved, the town library, coffee shops–it really picked up steam. Also, I love the idea about looking outside the walls of the classroom to solve this problem.

      Thanks for the reading list, and for pushing my thinking in some new directions.

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