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School Growth: Small Changes Lead to BIG Impact

“If we create a culture where every teacher believes they need to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better, there is no limit to what we can achieve.” — Dylan Wiliam

NOTE: I am continuing to use my blog as a way to be transparent and share my learning within my professional growth plan. One of my goals is to support staff professional learning and drive learning forward through instructional leadership in the area of literacy. To view my current growth plan goals (still developing), click here

During my years as an administrator, one of the big mistakes I have made is trying to do too much too quickly. This has caused burnout, disengagement, lack of focus… and an overall lack of progress. The staffs I have worked with have been very supportive and patient with me and provided me with regular feedback with how things are going. I remember in my first few years as a principal, our teacher-librarian pulled me aside and said, “Chris, we love the ideas you share… they are exciting and likely great for our school… but we can only do so much in order to do them well. How about we focus on one for a few months and then go from there.”  This feedback changed me as I realized that in order to do something well in a school, there must be focus, depth, collaboration, and commitment. By trying to do too many new things, I was actually moving staff away from the goals and ideas because I was stressing everyone out!

I met Simon Breakspear almost 10 years ago at a BC Principals Conference. I really liked what he had to say about creating change in education. I have continued to follow Simon and we have connected a number of times at various conferences and through various platforms of communication. His thoughts on “radical incrementalism” really resonated with me as a way to make small changes to create big growth. My friends Cale Birk (District Principal in Kamloops) and Neil Stephenson (Director of Instruction in Delta), mentioned the term “Learning Sprints” a number of times and recommended that I attend another session with Simon to check out his work on sprints. Last year, I attended a session with Simon and then I followed up this year at the BC Principals and Vice Principals Association fall conference to dive deeper into Learning Sprints.

From the Learning Sprints website:

Engagement in Learning Sprints supports the adoption of evidence-informed practices and enables educators to collectively plan, act and evaluate their impact. The approach is aligned with the existing research evidence into the features of effective teacher professional learning and the science of behaviour change.

…The process has been designed to be simplerelevant and manageable for already overloaded teachers and their leaders. Most of all, it is designed to be adaptable to your school context and focused on the challenges specific to your classrooms and learners.

(check out the site for free resources, videos, and support)

As I wrote in my last post, I moved to a new school this year and this school has a strong foundation of literacy and self-regulation along with an effective collaborative culture. The idea of Learning Sprints seemed like a good fit to build on the wisdom and strengths of the staff to help drive professional growth and student learning in the school. I also liked how the sprints framework encouraged small changes based on evidence-based practices while also focusing on instruction and involving a reflection and evaluation to see if the strategies were successful. The cycles of trying a new idea were short; if the strategy was not successful, the teachers could try again for another 6 weeks or move on to trying a new strategy. Simon talks about “failing small”; too often, we try a new strategy or idea for a long time (1 or more years) and then look back to see if it worked. The fact is that if the strategy is tried for a long period of time and does not create the intended outcomes, it is failing big because of the time and efforts taken to try something that didn’t work. By running shorter cycles, we can “fail small” and if something does not work well within the context, we can reflect and then either pivot and continue or stop and move on to try something different.  I presented the idea of Learning Sprints to teachers and they seemed to appreciate the autonomy to choose an area of needed growth for their classroom (as long as it worked within our action plan goal of reading) and they liked the idea of working collaboratively with colleagues to possibly learn new teaching strategies. We also discussed the idea of failing small and trying new ideas that involved less risk for students (and higher reward).  The sprints process would build on the expertise within the school, use evidence-informed practices, have a short 6-week cycle focused on clear goals, encourage collaboration, and involve reflection and assessment.

At each staff meeting (we meet every couple of weeks) through the first 2 terms, we spent a chunk of time on our sprints. It is important to follow the phases of PREPARE (Design, Define Assess),  SPRINT (Teach, Monitor, Support), and REVIEW (Analyze, Transfer, Reset). We were able to participate in two sprints this year (some groups chose to pivot slightly and continue on with the first sprint as well). As this was not only about the professional learning within the sprints but also about the sprints process as well, we had the following successes (based on observations and the survey with teachers) :

  • Focused collaborative learning teams.
  • Allowed for deliberate practice with instruction.
  • Didn’t feel like “one more thing” to add as it built on what we were already doing or hoping to do.
  • Created action/change in the classroom.
  • Led to positive results for student achievement
  • Led to more successful strategies learned to be added to the teachers’ toolkits.
  • Was a good reminder of the importance of assessment
  • Allowed for ongoing, collaborative learning and a chance to spiral deeper in an area of professional learning

And the following challenges:

  • Narrowing down the learning outcomes (we improved upon this for the 2nd sprint)
  • Trying to maintain the focus on sprints through report cards, reading assessments, etc
  • Keeping the sprints goals at the forefront of instruction
  • Having clear assessments (at the start) to determine if the strategies were working (this was my error and something that we improved upon for the 2nd sprint).
  • Needed to spend more time in the REVIEW phase
  • We need to find a better way to include non-enrolling teachers and support staff in the process (music, learning commons teachers).
  • We need to use common resources for ideas on evidence-based practices (we will be using research as well as Jan Richardson’s book, “The Next Step Forward in Guided Reading” next year).

The results of the Learning Sprints teacher survey were:

  • 88% of teachers said that “Learning Sprints helped me to focus on a small, manageable idea/strategy with my students.”
  • 81% of teachers said that “The Learning Sprints process helped with collaboration between grade group colleagues.”
  • 81% of teachers said they “saw a positive impact on student learning as a result of our efforts within the Learning Sprints process.
  • 75% of teachers said, “I was able to add a strategy to my teaching practice because of our efforts within the Learning Sprints framework.”

Although this was a learning year for the Sprints process, we have already seen success and it is clear that teachers found the process to be helpful in driving professional growth and student achievement in the school. When we surveyed teachers about the successes and challenges of our school action plan, a number of teachers also shared on their own that learning sprints was a key piece that we need to continue with as we move forward into next year.

Too often in my career, I have seen schools, districts, and provinces make huge changes without really knowing if they will be successful. When we make large changes, we take big risks as these changes require so much capital (funds, time, resources, etc) and if we do not achieve the intended outcomes, it is a big loss for all those involved. Learning Sprints allows us to bring in evidence-based practice for a short cycle to determine if it has a positive impact in our context. If it doesn’t work with our context, it is not a significant loss and we can pivot or reset to take a different path to support teacher growth and student learning. By making these small changes, over time, we begin to see big results… and a significant impact on school growth.

 

 

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Moments Like This…

From a non-reader to a buddy reader

This morning I had one of those moments that make me so proud to be part of Kent School.  I have written about the passion and effort our staff put in to developing confidence and a love of reading in the past but the moment I experienced this morning sums this up perfectly.

Sarah (pseudonym) arrived at our school two years ago as a non-reader.  She lacked both the skills and interest (and support) in reading and was a very upset and emotional child at school.  This morning, I walked into our library during our “Early Morning Readers” time (community volunteers and intermediate buddy readers support children who want to come and read before school) and saw Sarah waiting at a table to read with a child.  Our teacher-librarian helped her to get set up and then it happened… she sat down with a primary child and began reading with him.  This moment is what it is all about – a minor moment overall but a huge moment for her.  Sarah had gone from a non-reader with no confidence or interest in reading to a point in which she was choosing to volunteer her time before school to help a younger child read.

This is what happens when staff and students work so hard to develop a Culture of Reading at a school… you get moments like these.  The irony is that she read with a boy that likely could read at her level or beyond but this did not matter.  Sarah had the skill, confidence, and love of reading to make the choice to be a leader in our school and share her joy of reading with a younger child.

Relationships. Sense of belonging. Confidence. Skill development. Leadership. Love of Reading.  Such an honour to experience and share moments like this…

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Creating the Conditions: A Love of Reading

A gr. 6 student reads aloud to gr. 2 students during lunch.

This is the second part of a series on motivation called “Creating the Conditions”. For part one on student discipline, click here.

No charts. No stickers. No pizza parties. No awards. No certificates…. and LOTS of reading!

Following the post by Joe Bower, “Daddy, I Want a Book Buck!“, Joe and William Chamberlain encouraged me to share the story of how Kent School has created a positive culture of reading without the use of prizes and incentives programs.  It is difficult to sum up in a few paragraphs but I will make my best attempt to remember the MANY things that the staff and community of Kent School have done to create the conditions for students to motivate themselves to learn through an interest in reading.

In the past year there have been many moments that have made me step back and take note. Here are a few:

  • A student running into me as I walked down the hall because he was so into reading the book he just checked out from the library.
  • Our teacher-librarian shouting out to a primary student passing by, “Leila, I found some more books on pixies for you” and the student responding, “Yay, I will come see them in the morning!”.
  • A student, who less than 2 years ago was a non-reader, coming into the library and asking for any more Dav Pilkey books.
  • Seeing and being part of the seemingly endless activities in our “For the Love of Books” month. Please check out our teacher-librarian’s blog posts on “For the Love of Books”.
  • Getting the results back from our student survey that asked: do you like to read? 97% said  YES
  • Seeing a teacher holding up a huge poster board that had all the book and author recommendations from students from the previous year.
  • Seeing EVERY teacher in the school reading aloud to their students on a consistent basis.
  • Being part of numerous author and illustrator visits.
  • Checking out all the teacher “Hot Picks” books on display outside their doors.
  • Hearing teachers ask powerful questions about reading; also observing teachers trying new things (to our school – like the Daily 5/CAFE) to help teach and encourage reading.
  • Have a teacher-librarian working virtually side by side with our community-librarian to promote reading.
  • Seeing a line up of kids so excited to read with our volunteer community readers on Tuesday and Thursday mornings before school.
  • Seeing students so excited to write letters to their favourite authors
  • Observing our grade 6 lunch leaders reading aloud to both groups and individual students.
  • Being part of a school-wide “Read-In” in which all our students packed into the library (in shifts) to read.
  • Watching children aged 4 and under take out books in an area of their interest as part of our Family Library Card program.
  • Walking into a classroom and seeing kids sprawled everywhere – in every corner and even in cupboards – choosing a spot in which they LOVE to read.
  • Discussing the idea of our kindergarten students walking to our senior care facilities to have our elders read to them.
  • Seeing students so excited about our book swap and book shops in our library.
  • Observing our teacher-librarian read to our Strong-Start (birth to age 5) students each Friday afternoon.
  • Hearing our staff state how important the teacher-librarian position is to our school and using their voice to ensure that we maintain this in our budget. (although I need very little nudging to keep this as a key part of our budget ;-)).
  • Having our previous librarian choose to go back to the classroom to share her passion with reading with her students AND state that she felt the position should go to our current teacher-librarian who was completing the TL program and was excited for the opportunity.
  • Seeing our buddy readers march from the intermediate end down to the primary end each Friday.
  • Having a student so excited to say to me, “Mr. Wejr – I finally got a book on girls’ hockey!”
  • Knowing that every teacher is committed to DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) time – and students are not forced to read books in which they have no interest.  Not enjoying the book? Head on down to the library and get a different one.
  • Watching groups of teachers and staff members meet and discuss on their own time how we need to work to create a culture of reading at our school.

I am sure there are so many things and conversations that occur in our classrooms and libararies that I do not see but the items in the list above have significant impact on our kids’ interest in books. The best part of all of this is that I have had very little to do with leading this culture of reading.  Teachers have used their professional autonomy to meet during professional development time (and beyond) to discuss and implement many ideas to help our students become more engaged readers. One group of teachers used Steven Layne’s book, Igniting a Passion For Reading, to fuel professional dialogue around doing just what the title has stated; these conversations have spread to the staff room, staff meetings and into other classrooms.  At our school, I am so proud to share that we have large number of teachers who are truly excited about reading – they model this in how they teach and what they do every day.  We also strongly believe in the role of the teacher-librarian in our school; our library is slowly converting into a learning commons area and is definitely the literacy and learning hub of our school.

Although this post is primarily to share the story of how a staff can create a positive culture of reading without the use of prizes and other extrinsic rewards, there are embedded stories about the importance of professional autonomy, tapping into the strengths of teachers, teacher leadership, student motivation, staff collaboration, and the power of a school library with a passionate teacher-librarian.

I often hear that students with little home support NEED extra incentives to get them to read.  The staff of Kent school have worked hard to prove this theory incorrect. It is not about pizza parties, book bucks, and stickers – it is about creating the conditions for students to develop a love of reading.

Thank you to the students and staff of Kent School for all they have taught me about the power of promoting a real love of books. Images are a powerful way of sharing stories; please check out the video below for images of what we do to encourage reading at our school (I realize here is a spelling mistake as I could not fit the title in :-)).

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Goal One: To Read More Children’s Books

One way we promote a love of reading at Kent School.

In the past year, the staff of Kent School have had some inspiring conversations and professional learning opportunities (stemmed from professional autonomy and inquiry) around helping students to develop a love of reading based on Steven Layne’s book “Igniting a Passion For Reading”.  The book is jam-packed with strategies that are easy to implement as well as thoughts that cause deeper reflection on HOW and WHY we teach reading.

One of the pieces that he discusses is that if we want students to continue to enjoy reading, we have to read the books they enjoy.  Although I do not currently teach in a primary classroom, I feel as a principal, I need to be able to discuss and share some of the books that our students are reading.

This year, one of my goals is to read more children’s books.  We have many teachers who are passionate about reading in our school (and this has a huge impact on the joy of reading in our kids) so I am tapping into their strengths and have asked them to recommend books for me to read.  Our amazing teacher-librarian drops off a new book each week in my “Mr.Wejr’s Hot Pick” cubby (see photo above -many of our teachers have this just outside their classrooms to help promote books) and I read it and share it with students. I am excited to read my first books this year: When You Were Small by Sara O’Leary and The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn (actually recommended by my sister).

Although this is a very simple goal, it is just one way that I can tap into the wonderful work that is being done at Kent School around encouraging a love of reading.  By doing this I can better meet kids where THEY are… and have fun reading the books they love to read.

Thank you to our staff for all the work they have done and continue to do to encourage pure joy in reading!