Catching Fire #sol19
Yesterday, twelve educators from neighboring districts came to meet with us about adopting the Units of Study in Reading and Writing. I knew they were coming for several weeks. We arranged a short presentation, then longer classrooms tour, ending with a panel question and answer with grade level teachers. I wasn’t sure what grade levels the teacher visitors would teach and I knew their administrators would be coming with them.
I sat down one afternoon and created a list of the important steps we had taken as we began our journey with the units. Thinking about it made me consider missteps as well or perhaps just difficulties along the way that I hadn’t anticipated. I contemplated what I have personally learned; that the units aren’t so much curriculum as a general road map. Head off in that direction. You might try this. Keep an eye on your travel partners. Take supplies! How to articulate something like that? Also, the units are more story than prescription, a let-me tell-you-what-I’ve-learned sort of thing.
I talked to the teachers about what they would be teaching during the visit. No, that’s not right. I asked them what the class would be doing during our visits. Then I went back on Friday to check in again. All of the teachers said, the students will be in independent practice. Is that ok? Of course, let’s just show them the authentic work. What I noticed about the authentic work is how it lined up across the grades. How amazingly you can see in this one slice how each year’s work builds on the next. I took a few minutes to sketch that out on a slide.
I made one more slide to show what here in this place we considered to be essential to the work: accountable talk, collaborative work, small group work, growing independence, shortened teacher instruction time, and integrating reading/writing workshop. So many things went into each of those talking points, months of planning, considering how that would look at each grade, guiding discussions with teachers and students, and reflecting on the work with all of the stakeholders. A long journey, not complete. But oh, to look back and reflect felt like a deep drink of cool water.
I glanced at the list of typed questions that one of the districts had compiled. For a moment my breath caught. I hadn’t considered any of them. I wasn’t planning on speaking to any of these topics they were thinking. I breathed in and out. maybe a few times… Then I thought, what they see will speak to the work and what doesn’t, they will ask. The teachers will have answers and I know as well. I thought I would be nervous, but there with the encouragement of our leadership, it felt natural to share. I thought of all the things Lucy Calkins says in Leading Well. It’s a challenging journey and people will want to turn back. Creating a literacy team strengthens the work. Celebrating wins of any size is important. You have to have unflagging, positive, trusting commitment to the work.
The amazing moments began to unfold as we began to tour the building. We stopped at our learning commons and I explained how our library assistant helps add to the school based collection to reinforce the work that students are doing. She displays books related to the work students are doing. She helps students, teachers, and myself find the books that might be just right to show an author’s craft or teach a student about character or informational topics. I explained how her partnership was so important to the work.
We stopped in the literacy center and I was anxious about its clearly lived in state and the changes I had made over the last year in response to the units. Hours of work to organize the leveled library, the lending bins, the mentor texts, I could see the flaws, the what-elses. Would they? They asked a lot of questions about leveling and organizing. Inside, I could feel myself relaxing in the work and letting myself see it through their eyes.
Then we went to the classrooms! Seeing through their eyes, the children were engaged. The students could explain what they were doing. There were tools for the students to use. The teachers and students seemed relaxed and happy in the work. Kindergarten was reading and preparing for their super power celebration. First grade was working in their book clubs on their semantic maps of animals.
2nd grade was working on their research writing. Students were making posters, brochures, and All About books. Their teacher stopped a minute to talk about anchor charts with our visitors.
Third grade was trying out summarizing practice in response to our professional development on Friday. Their teacher had fresh excerpts for the students to do thwork all tied to their science curriculum.
Fourth grade was deep in revisions. The students explained their work, a new one in revision for them.
We returned after a full trip around the grades to a panel discussion with some grade level teachers. The teachers answered questions from the group about such a big range of topics until one teacher ask them how it was. A teacher took a breath and said, it was difficult at first. We didn’t think the students were going to be able to do the work. There were a lot of weekends taking home the units and reading. Also we noticed that students came in knowing how to independently read and fill out book logs. We saw that they could do the skills. They were enjoying it.
In those moments in those hours, I saw how the units have caught fire. When someone asked me, how can we do this without a literacy coach, I answered that you have the power to do this yourselves. I tell people sometimes that I drank the koolaid, but perhaps what happened is that I helped start a fire.