Fostering Professional Relationships to Facilitate Peer Observations

In the third installment of our series by elementary principal Matt Renwick, he talks about how–and why–he encourages his teachers to observe each other in the classroom.

We know that one of the best ways to improve collective instruction in a school is by watching excellent teaching in action and then applying these strategies to our practice. We know this, yet we often fail to act even though excellence might be a few doors down from our classroom.

What dissuades teachers from watching each other teach? Time, for sure. We also might feel guilty about leaving our own students in order to invest in ourselves through peer observation and peer coaching. “What will our kids do without us?” we might ask.

In my own previous prodding and nudging of teachers to get into other classrooms, often resulting either in failure or compliance, I have discovered there needs to be a safe and innovative school environment for genuine peer-to-peer learning. Teachers need to feel like they can take risks in letting someone come into their classroom, as well as in acknowledging that they may still have something to learn.

A high-quality learning environment has two elements in place: strong levels of trust and clear communication within the building. You can see evidence of this in schools, such as in the informal collegial conversations among faculty and in the high-quality student work posted in the school hallways. The walls do talk.

When trust and communication are high, professional relationships have the potential to be formed. Relationships can be defined as “the way two people are connected”. This connection, even a loose tie, is a prerequisite for effective peer observations to take place.

The rest of this article describes the steps our school took to facilitate peer observations with our kindergarten teachers. The purpose was to discover new ideas for literacy instruction.

Identifying a Need

Our school’s newest hire is one of our kindergarten teachers. Knowing high-quality professional learning includes peer observations and peer coaching (Routman, 2018, pg. 76), I connected with the kindergarten team to consider this possibility. All were open to it.

A Connection to Relationships: It helped that this team has taken the initiative to create a collaborative learning environment not only for their students, but also for themselves. For example, they turned their storage space into a team meeting room. They use this room to meet for PLCs as well as to have lunch together during their noon break.

Scheduling the Visits

One of those challenges with peer observations is finding coverage for the visiting teacher. I offered my time, although I am sometimes called away as the principal to deal with a behavior issue or a pressing matter. Fortunately, our district leadership had the foresight to create an instructional coaching position. This person stepped up and offered to teach kindergarten while one teacher was observing their colleague’s instruction.

A Connection to Relationships: Our instructional coach, new this year, has gone out of her way to foster connections with every faculty member in the building. One way is by stopping into classrooms on a regular basis. “I am simply coming in to get to know you and your students a little better” was her brief explanation at a staff meeting early in the school year. These regular touches, non-threatening and from a point of curiosity, has fostered professional relationships in several classrooms. The results has been multiple teachers volunteering for coaching cycles with this specialist, including this learning experience.

Initiating the Peer Observations

The day had come. Our new teacher was up first, coming into visit a more veteran colleague. The other two observations would commence in the subsequent days. The host teacher shared her intentions for the day’s lesson ahead of time. My role was to provide minimal guidance for our new teacher. I gave them a form I use when conducting my instructional walks as a way to frame the observation.

Student Goals Written by Teacher

Student Goals Written by Teacher

 

A Connection to Relationships: Prior to this learning experience, I had been a frequent visitor to every classroom. Acknowledging the positive aspects of teachers’ literacy instruction has helped create the conditions for this innovative work to occur. They have become comfortable with my presence as a principal because I focused first on strengths. From the teachers’ perspective, I imagine having another teacher in their room might be even less threatening.

Celebrating and Reflecting on the Experience

“I was impressed with how she is already having her students learning sight words.” This comment, shared with me from a veteran teacher, came after she had observed our newest colleague. Soon after, I relayed this information to the first year teacher. “Oh, wow, that’s nice to hear,” she responded.

We could have gone with a structured reflection and debrief led by me. But it didn’t feel right. I wanted to give them ownership in the process and treat them like the professionals that they are. Plus, they had taken time out of their busy days to make this happen. So I provided lunch the next day, along with a thank you for participating in this experience. “If you want to just chat and enjoy yourselves, that would be great. Not necessary to have any formal reflection.”

A Connection to Relationships: Did any debriefing happen? I’d like to think so. Even if not, I felt good about how the peer coaching experience went based on their comments and my observations. Regie shares her own wisdom in building trusting relationships among administrators during a school visit. “I know they were surprised when I said, ‘Let’s not work through lunch. Let’s take a well-deserved break and just enjoy our time together.’ We wound up talking about our families, hobbies, cooking, and favorite things to do and eat. At the end of lunch, I felt closer to each one of them” (pg. 10). The relationships formed today can lead to powerful learning in the future.

Giving teachers time to form relationships, with their students and with each other, is built on the foundation of trust and communication. The experiences we facilitate in our schools, such as peer coaching, can only be successful with these elements in place. While the ultimate goal is literacy engagement, excellence, and equity for all learners, as literacy leaders we have to remember and attend to the means to achieve this end.

Add comment February 26th, 2018

Communication Strategies for Partnering with Parents

In this second in a series of blog posts, elementary principal Matt Renwick shares how his schools uses the strategies found in Regie Routman’s new book Literacy Essentials to form lasting, productive partnerships with parents.

Communication Strategies for Partnering with Parents
Matt Renwick

“When parents are truly viewed as partners and not obstacles, students are more likely to be successful regardless of where they go to school.” – Regie Routman

The people both inside and outside our schools form an opinion of our work with students. This is why we are intentional in our efforts to communicate and partner with parents in our important work. In her new book Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners, Regie highlights important strategies in this area (pgs. 19-23). Our school district in Mineral Point, Wisconsin has been leading the way in leveraging technologies to communicate with families, with a special focus on reading and writing in the classroom. Next is a list of strategies Regie recommends for partnering with parents, along with the digital tools used to help facilitate this essential part of literacy leadership.

  • Invite parents to join us as partners. Families with students enrolled in our schools should be our champions, our biggest advocates in our quest for excellent literacy opportunities for all students. (It may not be a coincidence that “parents” and “partners” are almost anagrams!) Their perceptions about the learning experience in our school are critical for a school’s success. Our district has an active Facebook page that regularly posts pictures, videos, and announcements. Some of these posts encourage families and community members to work with the school in various ways, such as donating books to a classroom library or running for an open school board position.
  • Make contact early in the school year. Several of our teachers gather contact information from parents during Meet and Greet night in the early fall. They set up school messenger accounts through Remind and other applications. Parents receive notifications on their smartphones and computers about what is happening in the classroom, sometimes on a daily basis. Families can comment on these posts and even message their child’s teacher if questions come up. Because this form of communication is online, only information that is positive and informative is shared.
  • Share visual snapshots of life in the classroom. A professional goal of mine is to capture and celebrate learning happening in our classrooms on a regular basis. A preferred mode of mine for public celebration is Twitter. I use this social media because it is open to anyone in the world to view and respond. My posts are pretty simple; a recent tweet highlighted a 4K teacher introducing an author/writer center to her students. Yet from a parent’s point of view, the text and images or video of this experience creates a window into the classroom. With each tweet, I include our self-selected hashtag #pointernation to ensure visibility with parents and the school community.

tweet

  • Create personal, classroom, or school blogs. Using blogs, also known as “web logs”, to communicate the classroom experience with parents can go many ways. Teachers can maintain a personal blog using tools such as Edublogs to document the teaching and learning happening in their classrooms. Also, each student can maintain a personal classroom blog through Kidblog, a safe and secure technology where kids can share their learning artifacts and comment on the work of other students. WordPress is another popular tool that schools can leverage for their websites and parent communications. I have a school-based blog on our WordPress-powered website, where I publish 2-4 posts a month that highlight current school news and learning experiences.
  • Provide easy access to information. Parents and teachers are busy. Educators are wise to communicate about each child’s school experience in smarter ways. Digital portolio tools such as FreshGrade and Seesaw give students the ability to document their learning as it happens. For example, students can video record each other reading aloud a favorite book and then post this artifact of fluency and comprehension into their portfolios. If completed monthly, parents and teacher get a regular update about each student’s reading progress over time. This information can be just as powerful for assessing literacy growth as a benchmark assessment or a screener.

 

reading

 

  • Incorporate weekly newsletters. Our school office assistant utilizes Smore, a web-based newsletter tool that Regie recommends in her book as well. Images, video, and web links can be naturally embedded within important text such as announcements and reminders. We also utilize Smore to celebrate all of the good things happening in our school. For instance, we post scheduled family literacy night dates along with a link to RSVP. After an event, images from the experience are shared in a future newsletter. Examples of literacy events we host include Popcorn, Movie, and a Book (movie based on a book) and Take a Book to the Beach. These weekly communications help build a culture that embraces literacy, community, and celebration.

Certainly, these technologies are nice, sometimes necessary. Yet for all of our efforts in connecting online with families, nothing can replace the in-person communications that we facilitate within our schools. For example, we installed a book shelf and a nice bench in the front lobby of our building. Parents use this space to read aloud to a younger sibling while they wait for an older brother or sister to be dismissed at the end of the day.

bench

Technology is a means for our communication efforts. The ends are the goals of our school: to build essential literacy skills for a lifetime and ensure engagement, excellence, and equity for all learners.

Add comment January 29th, 2018

Getting Started with Action Research

We are excited to have Matt Renwick back on our blog today with a guest post. He has written before about his school’s efforts to develop lifelong readers. This time he is back with some pointers on getting started with action research for both teachers and administrators.

Getting Started with Action Research
Matt Renwick

We recently facilitated action research for twenty of our district teachers. They came from all areas in grades K–12. The course was led by Dr. Beth Giles and Dr. Mark Dziedzic from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Teachers met one evening a month to explore their driving questions, set up action plans, collect and organize data, and prepare their work for an inquiry showcase this spring. Here are some of the questions that were specific to literacy, and what we learned.

What happens when we provide choice in reading and learning?

Three teachers investigated this tenet of engagement. A second-grade teacher conducted Genius Hour at the end of the day, a time in which students could tinker and make things of their choosing. A third-grade teacher allowed her students to decide how their classroom should look and feel regarding furniture and resources. A reading interventionist embedded choice within her instruction, including letting the students select one book a month to keep.

What they found out was that choice affected each student in different ways. For example, the reading interventionist discovered that if a student’s basic needs were not being met, he or she had a hard time progressing. She countered this reality by bringing families into school to engage in literacy activities, such as building bookshelves. The third-grade teacher realized that some students liked working with peers regularly, whereas others needed quiet time to read and write. The second-grade teacher found that, for one student in particular, a half hour of tinkering every day led to a reduction in office referrals by 70 percent from fall to spring. Providing choice in school helped teachers better understand their students and adjust their instruction.

What happens when students are taught to ask questions and reflect about their reading?

A fourth- and fifth-grade teacher working with multiple curriculums in a split classroom realized that addressing the needs of a wide variety of learners was a tall order. Therefore, she wanted to find out if teaching her students to ask their own questions of the books they read and to reflect on their thinking in authentic ways through reading journals would lead to more independence.

She modeled these skills and strategies with her own reading. Gradually, she released the responsibility of questioning and reflecting to the students. Data she gathered were anecdotal and powerful. Students not only kept reflections of their own reading, they also noted what their peers were reading. Recommendations for what to read next led to students creating “Want to Read” lists in their journals. Also, students emulated how their teacher talked in their book discussions. This teacher later noted that she was looking forward to working with next year’s fifth graders in the fall.

What happens when teachers reveal themselves as learners?

A secondary reading interventionist was frustrated with her past students’ inability to exit her program in a timely manner. She decided to focus on how her language might promote a growth mind-set in her most reluctant readers and writers. First, she wrote in front of her students about the struggles she was having as a teacher and as a parent. These were day-to-day ordeals—ordinary issues she was sharing publicly. Students were also asked to write about their struggles. Few initially took her up on it. But as the teacher continued to model a growth mind-set, more students followed her lead.

Because the teacher was so open about her own learning, students felt safe in her classroom to take risks. They started to shed their rough exteriors, revealing frustrations about classes and their home lives. This led to exploring literature that students could personally relate to, populated with characters and settings in which they could reside. Pretty soon, her students were coming to her with improved progress reports to share and celebrate. A few kids exited her reading intervention earlier than anticipated but didn’t want to leave. This teacher eventually published her action research in the Wisconsin State Reading Association journal.

What happens when we let kids read?

A fifth-grade teacher and I teamed up to provide her students with a lot of texts to read, and we decreased the reading requirements placed upon them. I would come in once a month with a box full of high-interest books and do a quick blurb about each one. The teacher also used her allocated funds to enhance the classroom library. She taught the students how to have a conversation with peers and frequently conferred with students about their reading and goals. Her work derived from the research by Gay Ivey and Peter Johnston, highlighted in a Stenhouse blog post four years ago.

My role as coresearcher was to survey the students once a month using a tool developed by Ivey and Johnston. What we learned was that every student was different. Their reading lives varied from month to month. One student who proclaimed “I hate reading!” in February was excited about a new series he discovered in March. Other students also became more honest about reading in school. “I am SO glad to be done with my reading contract, so I can read whatever I want.” This type of data was more powerful than any screener or test score. Reading lives look more like a heartbeat than a straight line. Readers—kids and adults—have their ups and downs.

In observing these teachers’ journeys, I have discovered new truths about principalship. Just as students need to be engaged in their learning, teachers have to be engaged in their work. Not merely busy or working collegially with staff, but really engaged. We need to trust in their professionalism. We need to provide teachers the room to ask questions and grow. We need to honor the process as much as the outcomes. We need to celebrate both their mistakes and their successes, always striving to become better every day as professionals. Letting go of some control as a school leader is hard. Yet when we do, teachers are able to be the leaders of their own learning.

Tips for Getting Started in Action Research
If you are a teacher…

  • Ask yourself, “Why do I want to engage in action research?” If you can identify the purpose for this work in your professional life, it will motivate you to get started.
  • Do your homework on action research to build a knowledge base about the topic. Excellent resources include Living the Questions by Ruth Shagoury and Brenda Power (Stenhouse, 2012) and The Reflective Educator’s Guide to Classroom Research by Nancy Fichtman Dana and Diane Yendol-Hoppey (Corwin, 2014).
  • Develop a community of professionals who also want to engage in action research. You can leverage the power of the group to persuade your principal to support this initiative as part of the professional development plan. If you cannot collaborate in person, check out online communities related to classroom research, such as The Teachers Guild.
  • Find a question that you want to explore and that is embedded within your current practice. This wondering should relate to your professional learning goals and offer artifacts that can serve as evidence for your evaluation system.
  • Include your students in your action research as much as possible. They will become a great source of information as you study the impact of your work on their learning. They will also come to see you as a learner, which enhances the entire classroom community.

If you are an administrator…

  • Be deliberate when considering action research as a possible professional learning experience. The phrase action research can scare off some teachers who might otherwise be interested in this approach. Start small, maybe offering it as a voluntary course beyond the school day for graduate credit or pay.
  • Connect with outside organizations that can facilitate a course instead of trying to host it yourself. There is vulnerability involved in action research. The more we can have others lead the initiative, the more likely teachers will be willing to open up and take risks in their pursuits of becoming better practitioners.
  • Conduct action research yourself. I did this, using the resource The Action Research Guidebook by Richard Sagor (Corwin, 2012). The author offers several examples of a principal engaging in professional inquiry at a schoolwide level. I would share my findings and reflections in staff newsletters and at meetings. The message you send is the same one teacher-researchers convey to their students: We are all learners here.
  • Prepare a multiyear plan for facilitating action research in your school or district. Teacher questions seemed to lead to more questions during the school year. At the inquiry showcase, teachers were already asking if they could conduct action research again. “I feel like I just discovered my question,” noted one teacher.

 

Matt Renwick is a 15-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th grade teacher in a country school outside of Wisconsin Rapids, WI. After seven years of teaching, he served as a junior high dean of students, assistant principal and athletic director before becoming an elementary school leader in Wisconsin Rapids. Matt blogs at Reading by Example, tweets @ReadByExample. His book Digital Student Porfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Improvement will be published by Powerful Learning Press.

Add comment September 12th, 2016


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