Friday, September 25, 2015

Lucy Calkins Town-Hall Style Meeting

I was so fortunate to be part of a small group of literacy leaders who gathered at the Contra Costa County Office of Education to hear Lucy Calkins speak about the implementation of the Reading & Writing Project's Units of Study (UoS) for Teaching Reading and Writing. Here are my notes and take-aways:

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Lucy has an incredible "thought per word" ratio!

Lucy opened by gushing about the Pope’s visit - saying his visit makes her feel guilty about being exhausted from her "west coast tour". Back on the East Coast, she provides staff development to one school in her hometown in Connecticut while still maintaining a full course load at Columbia Teacher’s College.

When talking about the publishing of her new grade-specific Units of Study for Reading, Lucy likened the experience to that of sending your child off to kindergarten. Think about what you would say to the teacher, “She is really special...take good care of her.” The units are really special...

Lucy is a Michael Fullan fan, “as any initiative unfolds, be sure that leaders have passion, initiative has purpose, and there is intrinsic motivation in the people - if there is a failure to do so, the initiative is sure to fail”.

Lucy's message today to the group of leaders before her is that the UoS are not just a program for the teaching of writing. The units are meant to rekindle professionalism. They ask principals to demonstrate lessons while teachers watch and this can utterly change the learning culture across a school. The units will lift the level of learning in schools, especially when we are in such a panic due to SBAC accountability. It is so very important that we create safe and joyous learning environments for our kids and staff.

She urged us to build capacity over time. Tony Bryk, from Carnegie, says that when attempting large scale change, think about whether you have the public will and pockets of capacity - if not, you probably need to see reform as a several year plan - inviting early innovators to do the work first.

The goal is full implementation. We are never going to get to CCSS standards if we don’t have an approach in which one grade builds upon the one before. Just think if math had no sequence, if we allowed teachers to have personal choice in the math skills that they taught each year. Some teachers say that they teach writing across curriculum. This is code for: "I don’t teach writing.”

It is time for kids to learn to write. It is exciting that San Diego, Oakland, and Texas are rolling out district-wide implementation of UoS. For success of these large scale implementations you must involve your leaders. Involve principals and invite them to learn along-side teachers. Teachers need to feel safe as learners and the people with the most power in the building - the principals - need to be public learners. In a good school, everyone’s learning curve is sky high, relationships are collaborative, teachers are in and out of each other’s classrooms, students are embraced as “our kids”, and teachers share tools.

Grade level protocol for learning together:  Have a team spend an hour of class time together studying the delivery of a mini-lesson. Here is how it might go: Principal teaches mini-lesson to 
Class A (teachers have prepared lesson), teachers give principal critical feedback, principal embraces feedback. Then team moves to the next class and Teacher B teaches the same lesson, everyone gives feedback. Choose a lens: i.e., watching for engagement - notice how teacher uses: whisper voice - standing up, etc. to engage students. Then Teacher C teaches the same lesson in next class.

Lucy is inspired by Brene Brown's Ted Talk. Brown, author of Daring Greatly, has a philosophy that most of us "armor up" against vulnerability. We think of vulnerability as a weakness. Think about a time when you were learning the most or you were trying something new - when you were being vulnerable. You were out growing yourself. Vulnerability is the cradle of all that we yearn for in life. If you want teachers to be learners, leaders need to learn along-side of them and allow themselves to be vulnerable.

UoS for Writing: A Marriage Between Assessment and Curriculum

Lucy led us through the following interactive example of teaching points from an Informational unit:

Do this in your mind - plan to write/teach something that you know a lot about.Think about if you were going to teach a course about something. What would it be? (Doesn’t have to be educational - - i.e., cooking or hosting a dinner party)

How would your syllabus go? You would probably plan a series of classes. What will be the topic of your first class? What are you going to teach?  Now use your fingers (best graphic organizer) to list the topics of your class.This will become the table of contents in your book. It is important to have a logical structure - sequential or some other logical structure. It could be that part 1 and part 2 of your book use different structures.

The next thing to consider is that you need chapters to be somewhat equal in size. Now imagine you are going to write one of your chapters. In the first chapter you will give a sense of how the book will go. You can’t do this until it is really clear in your mind, so you might not start with the first chapter. Before you write, are you taking a minute to think about how you are going to structure this chapter? You will need to have a logical structure. Structure is huge. The other critical thing is information. You will want lots of thoughts per word. Plan to give quotes, examples, anecdotes, and strategies. Then look at it later, brick it out to be sure you included examples, quotes, information and ideas about the topic. Lucy explained that through this activity she had just summarized the 3rd grade Informational Writing Unit.

She went on to say how important it is for principals to look at student work. Does student work reflect the Teaching Points and anchor charts? Does evidence of teaching come through in the work? Another key point is the importance of teachers giving kids feedback. Through Hattie’s research we have learned more about the incredible value of feedback. People don’t just get better by doing something. Writing, writing, writing - just doing it longer isn't enough. While there is an improvement curve at beginning when you focus on increasing the amount of time spent doing something, teachers need to give really clear and precise feedback. The feedback should be ambitious but still within the reach/grasp of the learner. Then watch to see if the learner improves.

The kids need a horizon and the teacher needs to know what it takes to get to the next level. Look at 4th grade writing checklist. The checklists help teachers give specific, precise feedback. Lucy showed us the Illustrated Writing Grade-Level Checklists (available in on-line resources). Everyone loves the writing checklists. They provide clear goals and one year builds upon the last. When students begin the year, expect them to perform at their prior grade-level or even lower.

Leaders have to find the balance between supporting, mandating, and celebrating because the UoS will only work if the teachers use the curriculum. If the units stay on the shelf, they won’t work so well. Principals could say, "This year, I’m just going to mandate that you teach two units at the same time as your colleagues over 5-6 weeks. I will provide you with support to ensure your success."

Some teachers have tried to cherry pick ideas from the units to include with their other writing resources (Step Up to Writing, Cafe, etc.) Lucy says we would never look at architectural plans for a building and pick and choose the parts to follow. The power of the UoS is actually in the design of the unit. The lessons progress through a teach - build - remind - extend sequence. Teachers should plan to teach a session in a day (there will be a session or two that takes 2 days). For example, over the progression of a 3rd grade unit kids write three books during the 5-6 week unit. If instead, the unit is taught over 15 weeks the amount of student work has been watered down. The kids learn through their work and the volume of their writing. In a 5th grade classroom you would expect to see 2 1/2 pages written per day. Ultimately what matters is the kids' volume of writing.

Pause for Q & A

How can we best use the UoS in a 44 minute block in the middle school schedule?  

Middle school teachers will have to shave the lesson. Look at a mini lesson to see what parts are critical and what parts are optional. Cross out the "connection", do the "teach". Can cut down the practice, move "link" into the "active engagement". Lucy calls these micro lessons.

Do these units meet the standards? 

Lucy wrote Pathways to the Common Core and knows the standards really well. "We have nailed the standards and we know SBAC really well too."

Lucy thinks the Middle School Writing UoS are kind of perfect. Luckily, middle school teachers majored in English and it is a blessing that they are highly literate and are writers. Usually the type of support that middle school teachers need is with methods like small group instruction and conferring. Most middle school teachers aren’t used to doing this type of work with students. Lucy suggests that middle school teachers plan a month on writing and then a month on reading. 

K-5 UoS for Reading

Business as usual isn’t going to work - just look at the SBAC scores. Lucy believes that the CCSS curriculum that many states wrote will drive people away from reading. There is no way the kids are going to do better if they hate reading. Today only half of one percent of adults read the newspaper and only 20% of kids who graduate high school say they will read a book voluntarily.  We haven't done well with bringing up a generation or readers.

It is important for kids of read up a storm. Kids need choice and to read books that they can read. You have money and 40 years of data to show you that core, basal reading programs don’t work - buy books instead! (K-2: Kaeden, Rigby; K-5 Booksource) It is vital to have classroom libraries.

It is also important to have simple, predictable structure in workshop lessons. Each lesson begins with explicit instruction in the skills and strategies students need.

Lucy's comments on specific grade-level units:

3rd Grade Nonfiction Unit: Students read to figure out boxes & bullets. We need to teach students how to find the structure, how the text goes or it becomes just like trivial pursuit. Students need to put their pencils down while reading. Copying notes is not intellectual work - that is Xerox work. We don't want kids recopying nonfiction text. Instead, teach them to read a big chunk and when they get to end of chunk, look back over it, find the main idea and details.

Helping students progress up the ladder to 5th grade text complexity is similar to when you are getting good at video games. You have to go to the harder levels and play the hard parts in order to get strategies for how to deal with the hard parts. It helps to notice how they are hard and get strategies.

Pause for Q & A

What suggestions do you have to help 4th grade teachers in California modify the American Revolution Reading Unit? 

As with any of the units, you can keep the teaching points in place and change the text and articles to reflect a different topic. It will just take time to look for new examples in different text. For example, after a third grade teacher teaches the first unit of study with Stone Fox, the next year she might choose to use Charlotte's Web as the read aloud for that unit. Also, TCRWP is in the process of adding additional text suggestions to the digital resources.

Some teachers are finding the Reading Learning Progressions to be too advanced for many students. Do you have any suggestions?

The reading progressions and grade-level assessments are aligned to CCSS. We don’t give you a bum steer even though I do disagree with some things about CCSS. (ex. Because kids' reading levels were a year behind when graduating from high school wasn't cause to raise the text complexity level so much at the elementary level. We already had 3rd graders failing with our old reading expectations. What will it mean to two-thirds of our nations' 3rd graders to be told that they are a failure?)

With that said, we do think the SBAC is a pretty good test. Connecticut students are doing well on the SBAC and they are teaching the UoS. Although, we do see the need to add a literature essay unit in 5th grade and argument lessons to 4th grade.

The theme learning progression is closely aligned to the SBAC test. The point is with these tools and with this instruction, students will make huge growth. Expect kids to be a grade-level below at the beginning of the year. Don’t make this for assessment only - make it for learning. The learning progression is a tool to accelerate learning. Show students how they can revise their work to make it better.

Lucy ended by acknowledging that the new standards are ambitious goals. As leaders we need to create a safe place for teachers to outgrow themselves, have high levels of expectation, and provide high levels of support in order to create opportunities for this exciting work!

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