In our new series on effective PD initiatives Stenhouse editor (and longtime education journalist) Holly Holland interviews staff developers and administrators about how a Stenhouse book or video changed practice in schools. We continue this series with a look at schools in the Mamaroneck School District. Teachers there embraced Peter Johnston’s work to empower their students through language and to make them resilient, self-confident learners.
Last year, when educators in Mamaroneck, New York, began reviewing a new state-approved rubric to guide teacher evaluations, many wondered about the criteria that teachers demonstrate a “growth mind-set.”
Assistant superintendent Annie Ward knew just where to turn for information.
Years before, while working in New York City, Ward had become a fan of Choice Words (Stenhouse, 2004), Peter Johnston’s book about how the language that teachers use shapes students’ perceptions of themselves as learners. Through classroom discourse, Johnston asserts, teachers can encourage students to become strategic, dynamic thinkers or reinforce the belief that intelligence is fixed. A teacher with a growth mind-set might display student work that demonstrates progress, important insights, and the capacity for learning. A teacher with a fixed mind-set might display only papers on which students had received A’s.
As soon as Ward discovered that Johnston had written a follow-up book, Opening Minds (Stenhouse, 2012), she knew that the resource would play a pivotal role in the district’s professional development plans.
“It just seemed like the perfect text at the perfect time,” Ward says. She likens Johnston’s writing to “a single malt scotch in that you have to really savor it and read and reread it. There’s just so much there.”
Starting with a professional book study for district instructional coaches, expanding to summer training for all new teachers, continuing with ongoing faculty studies at school sites, and including a personal visit by Johnston this spring, the Mamaroneck School District has embraced the author’s work and used it as the centerpiece of a broader focus on providing effective formative feedback. As Ward explains, “How do we give it, how do we receive it, and ultimately what impact does it have when administrators give it to teachers and when teachers give it to students?”
Using Language to Change Lives
Mamaroneck, which serves about 5,000 students, is a largely suburban school district about twenty-five miles from New York City. Educators there acknowledge that they have only started to explore the richness of Johnston’s reflections about how “words change the life of the classroom” and the risks that students and teachers must be willing to take to learn, not just get the right answer. “Children must experience many things as at least potentially changeable, not just aspects of the world outside them, but also aspects of themselves—their learning, their identities, their intellect, their personal attributes, and their ways of relating to others,” Johnston writes. “In the talk of the classroom, we want to hear the threads of a dynamic view of intellect—indeed, of self. We want to inoculate the children against infection by fixed theories; we want them to say ‘I’m not good at this yet’ and to take steps to change that. Indeed, yet is a key word that we should regularly encourage children to add to their narratives” (2012, 27).
At Chatsworth Avenue School, principal Gail Boyle and assistant principal Katie Andersen led faculty study sessions of Opening Minds andalso began observing classrooms to search for evidence of growth mind-set in practice. The following are just a few of the examples they captured in the elementary classrooms:
A child freely acknowledging “I don’t get it” and asking for and receiving help from a peer
A team of teachers who asked each other to return with ideas about how to collectively support a struggling student instead of just judging his deficiencies
Teachers carrying “cheat sheets” to remind them to use empowering terms when conferring with students
In the upcoming school year, Andersen plans to set up a lab site where teachers can model lessons using what Johnston calls a “dynamic-learning frame,” such as emphasizing that the goal is to learn as much as you can, versus a “fixed-performance frame” in which the goal is to look as smart as you can.
Andersen and Boyle also have tried to model the instructive feedback they expect teachers to give to students through their own interactions with the faculty.
“I do believe that people will grow, and we communicate that to teachers,” Boyle says. “We acknowledge the hard work they are putting in but we also communicate that we believe they can do better and therefore the children will do better.”
Adds Andersen, “If you talk with kids in the classroom, most can articulate back to you what they need to work on. I believe that’s because the teachers have given them specific and direct feedback in terms of where they need to grow as a learner.”
If people question whether young children are capable of thinking meta-cognitively about their learning, Kelly Brennan would beg to disagree. A second-grade teacher at Mamaroneck Avenue School, Brennan strives to create what Johnston refers to as a “dialogic classroom,” one in which “there are lots of open questions and extended exchanges among students. These are not classrooms based on the delivery of facts. They are classrooms in which there are multiple interpretations and perspectives—classrooms in which facts are considered in different contexts and in which people challenge each other’s views and conclusions” (2012, 52).
Providing feedback to show students that learning is a process of improvement is one of the ways Brennan puts this theory into action. During a lesson focusing on poetry and reading fluency, for example, she modeled how to read a poem and then asked for volunteers to follow her lead. At first, when classmates offered constructive comments about their delivery, the students felt dejected. But when Brennan stressed the value of the feedback from their peers and asked the students to try reading again, they not only improved their fluency but also asked to try more difficult poems to stretch their range.
“It’s fun to watch it happen,” Brennan says, when kids realize that getting better is “really the best learning instead of only being right.”
Brennan says she used to have dialogic conversations when she taught fourth grade, but reading Johnston’s book reminded her of the importance of establishing expectations for divergent learning in the primary grades too.
“I think sometimes in your career there’s just a book that comes along and it’s what you need to hear again,” she says. “This was a way to remind us to take a step back and figure out, ‘How do we find time to have these conversations with our kids?’”
The Capacity for Learning
After taking time off to raise her children, Kim Armogida returned to teach reading at Hommocks Middle School in time to participate in the faculty book study of Opening Minds. She took to heart the message that teacher feedback is a critical part of shaping students’ resilience.
“It was my nature to rush in to praise them to build up their self-esteem, but I wasn’t having great results,” she says. “So I went back to the book. I did a second read about halfway through the year and realized I wasn’t giving them enough time to struggle through it.”
She started writing sticky notes to remind herself not to jump in at the first sign of student hesitation. This was particularly challenging with a group of eighth graders who had never been successful with reading. Armogida concentrated on turning around their negativity by valuing their contributions and relying on their expertise to interpret literature and share strategies for finding meaning.
“I used Johnston to figure it out,” she says. “If you act as an expert, it cuts off their ability to figure it out together. I shifted the power back to the kids.”
When students looked to her for answers, she shifted the responsibility. Over time, both Armogida and her students learned to become comfortable with uncertainty and have rich conversations about racism, social justice, peer pressure, and other topics that gave their texts relevance.
“As Johnston says, we want to read for meaningful action,” she shares. “We want them to take it out into the world with them. I think the kids have been amazing, but they have to have the opportunity to think and the time to do so.”
Katie Nagrotsky, a sixth-grade English teacher at Hommocks, says she also had to learn how to stop rushing in to provide answers to her students so they would develop intellectual independence. She has pushed them to share the steps of their writing processes and to invite feedback from their peers, just as medical or law students might analyze cases from their own fields. At first, students typically offered soft commentary to curry favor rather than to coach improvement, but as Nagrotsky asked for more precision, they eventually sharpened their language to talk about maintaining voice, choosing quotes with impact, using complex sentences, and other important literary devices.
Assistant principal Nora Mazzone, recalling research that most of the feedback kids get every day comes from their peers, says teachers like Katie Nagrotsky provide value-added instruction. “If we model for kids how to give feedback, we’re helping our own work as teachers. We are guiding learning in a way that’s far more powerful than we can ever do by being one in a group of many. Katie’s work really exemplifies that, teaching them to teach each other in how they give feedback.”
Math teacher Paul Swiatocha says he initially struggled with how to adapt those principles in his classroom, believing that ambiguity has more in common with literary or historical analysis than computation or algebraic thinking. But, encouraged by teachers on his sixth-grade team, he began asking students to show their problem-solving strategies in addition to finding the right answer. Responding to students’ familiarity with the shorthand of Twitter, Swiatocha and Nagrotsky put the message #SWYK on their classroom whiteboards: hashtag, Show What You Know.
“That’s really what popped for them and got them to show the process,” he says, particularly as they prepared for the state testing period. “We looked at a lot of complicated problems and kids would say, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ I would say, ‘What’s the problem about? It’s about area. Okay, what do you know about area? Write down everything you know about area.’
“On the state tests on open-ended questions, they get partial credit for showing substantial thinking about the content.”
Building on those practices, Swiatocha also encouraged students to put collective intelligence to the challenge of analyzing problems. The more he stepped out of the way, the more students stepped up, and in the process they learned to respect each other’s contributions.
“If a child gets 85 percent of the way to solve the problem, we’ll look at that solution in class,” he explains. “Somebody will be able to follow the thinking and fill in that last piece, and then the class has the right answer. You’re not chastising them for not getting 100 percent of the way. You’re celebrating, ‘Wow, you didn’t know how to solve it, but because you showed your work so beautifully the rest of the class was able to say, ‘This is the last piece we need to solve it.’”
Teachers and administrators plan to continue cultivating a growth mind-set this next school year. Reading teacher Nancy Capparelli says she wants to display classroom anchor charts of prompts so students can use them to initiate academic conversations, explain their learning strategies, and provide feedback to peers. Nagrotsky says she plans to emphasize the value of struggling, beginning with the first days of school, so students will understand that the most important work in class “is the thinking, the process.” And Mazzone says she will encourage colleagues to keep opening minds.
“It’s riveting enough to us that it’s a topic that’s going to stay on the table,” Mazzone says. “I think everyone feels this has been valuable.”
Acknowledging that much work still needs to be done, such as reflecting the growth mind-set on students’ report cards, Annie Ward says she’s nevertheless delighted by what’s happening in Mamaroneck.
“It’s been very exciting and energizing to see teachers and administrators at all stages of our careers respond and participate in professional dialogue and make change,” Ward says. “It’s attributable to Opening Minds and to our work on leadership and providing constructive and timely feedback at all levels of our organization. . . . We think this work is enhancing the professional culture of the district.”
In the midst of our Blogstitute I am going to take a moment to quickly check in with Matt Renwick, an elementary school principal in Wisconsin who first posted on the Stenhouse blog in January about his school’s efforts to revamp its reading intervention program. “Readers are created over time and do not adhere to deadlines. Where learners are heading is as important as where they have been,” Matt concludes.
Summer has arrived: Lockers have been cleared out, desks are empty, and report cards were sent home. While another school year comes to a close, ten reluctant readers are only continuing their learning.
Last fall, my school revamped our after school reading intervention program. Illustrated in our previous post, my staff and I designed a book club based on the tenets of Peter Johnston’s reflections from last summer, Reducing Instruction, Increasing Engagement. We transitioned from a computer-based reading program to an intervention that relied more on students’ interests than on their Lexiles.
Everything started strong. Kids came to book club eager to check out the new titles, selected just for them. The majority of the time was allocated to allowing students to read books, to talk about books, and to share what they read. The facilitator’s job was simply to spark their interest and gently guide.
For a while we had them – They were reading! However, interest gradually dissipated. Some students got off task. Others stopped showing up regularly. The perception was that this “book club” was just an extension of the school day. We had to rethink our approach.
We knew students were engaged by technology. But would purchasing tablets to promote reading provide too much of a distraction? We found our middle ground and purchased ten simple eReaders. These devices were unable to house games and other forms of digital media. Just books. While we waited for the eReaders to show up, students came down to my office in groups of twos and threes to request their favorite titles and authors. Once students had signed a contract and the books were loaded on the devices. we sent them on their way to read.
We quickly realized the benefits of offering eReaders to students:
They were more willing to pick books they could decode and understand. On one occasion, a 4th grade boy rattled off some grade level titles, then looked around and whispered, “Could I also get some Flat Stanley chapter books?” I replied, “Sure” without missing a beat. Unless his books could be hidden within an eReader, it was unlikely he would have been caught by his peers reading Flat Stanley and related titles.
The technology itself seemed to engage the students. I have never, as a teacher or as a principal, had students seek me out (repeatedly) to see if their new books were available and ready to read. Having kids peek their heads out of classrooms when they heard me walking the hall to ask when their books would be downloaded was a visible example of their engagement with reading.
The buy in from parents was impressive. One parent made a special trip to school to pick up her son’s eReader. A father, whose son was home sick on the last day and came to pick up his report card, made a point to share with me that “he has been reading on that thing every day”.
When we looked at our year-end assessments, the results were a mixed bag. Analyzing computer-based screener scores, on average our ten students’ overall literacy skills stayed the same. However, looking at district-developed assessments, the majority of the students (70%) met their grade level benchmark, and the other three students were very close. In addition, their average fluency rate increased by 27% (92 Words Correct Per Minute (WCPM) in the fall; 117 WCPM in the spring).
Beyond this promising quantitative data, did our students develop an affection toward reading? Do they better value the impact a narrative can have on a person’s life? We attempted to measure engagement with a survey given to the students themselves. They were asked specific questions about their reading dispositions and habits; you can view the results here. Here are the most revealing conclusions:
Students in book club read a lot more now than they did before joining book club.
The eReaders encouraged the students to read more.
Students understood what they read, whether in print or digital text format.
They often reread their favorite books.
These statements read like they belong in a resource titled “The Seven Habits of Highly Engaged Readers”. We hope these practices continue, as we sent them home with both print and digital texts to peruse over the summer months.
My teachers often state that teaching reading is not like baking a cake. Students aren’t “done” after a certain amount of time and attention. Maybe we should compare educators to gardeners instead of bakers; they plant the seeds for literacy engagement, to grow and eventually blossom. Readers are created over time and do not adhere to deadlines. Where learners are heading is as important as where they have been.
Special thanks to Heddi Craft and Lauren Kelley Parren for their feedback on this post.
In our new series on effective PD initiatives Stenhouse editor (and longtime education journalist) Holly Holland interviews staff developers and administrators about how a Stenhouse book or video changed practice in schools. In the first installment of the series, Holly wrote about how the staff of the Owen J. Roberts Middle School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania restructured their thinking about assessment and grading. In this next installment, Holly writes about how teachers at Bailey’s Elementary School in Fairfax, Virginia, implemented strategies from Tess Pardini and Emelie Parker’s book, “The Words Came Down!” so that non-ESOL teachers can also provide support to the school’s large non-native English speaking student community.
Because her student teaching experience emphasized direct instruction and worksheet practice, Cassie Jones says she felt underprepared for the creative and active learning at Bailey’s Elementary School in Fairfax County, Virginia. Now in her third year teaching kindergarten at Bailey’s, Jones enthusiastically supports letting students read, write, and talk across the curriculum using play, oral language, and the workshop structure to anchor learning. But it took a recent faculty book study of “The Words Came Down!” (Stenhouse, 2006) to help her understand how to weave those methods into all aspects of primary grades learning.
“I think it’s interesting to see how things they talk about in the book—the play, the way that parents come in during the morning to learn with their children—are so influential to the kids and their progress in school,” Jones says. “Reading ‘The Words Came Down!’ has really opened my eyes to a lot of concepts that I’ve thought about but have not implemented in my own classroom as much as the teachers in this book do.”
Written by Emelie Parker and Tess Pardini, “The Words Came Down!” shows teachers how to help English language learners thrive in rigorous, joyful classroom communities. At the time they wrote the book, Parker and Pardini had spent more than thirty-five years at Bailey’s, including teaching kindergarten, first grade, and second grade, and serving as writing resource teachers. Parker has since retired from Bailey’s, but Pardini still works there as a Reading Recovery specialist. The book takes readers into their classrooms as well as those of their colleagues. Bailey’s serves a predominately immigrant population from high-poverty homes. It is one of the largest elementary schools in Virginia, with more than 1,300 students in pre-K through fifth grade.
During the 2012–2013 school year, six teachers from Bailey’s English for students of other languages (ESOL) department, along with the school’s thirteen kindergarten teachers, decided to read and discuss “The Words Came Down!” during monthly meetings. Because the school is so large, Bailey’s ESOL teachers aren’t able to visit kindergarten classes every day, so they wanted to find other ways to assist their colleagues. Framing professional development around a book written by some of the school’s own faculty members seemed a perfect solution.
“This was an amazing resource to help us start a conversation,” says ESOL teacher Allyn Kurin. “We thought that by reading this book we are reaching teachers and therefore reaching more students because we know that every time we have a dialogue, it’s positive for the students and ourselves.”
One of the first things the kindergarten teachers discovered is how appropriate the book’s recommended strategies are for all students, not just second-language learners. The authors suggest creating a safe and supportive community for sharing, asking questions that encourage conversation, and integrating language and subject matter. Kindergarten teacher Jennifer Tustin, who is in her first year at Bailey’s, says the book showed her how to focus on oral language development, which led to immediate gains in her students’ literacy skills.
“As a teacher you know you talk about things in the classroom, but this is really about getting kids to share what they are thinking, not just on an assessment, but can they really explain what they’re doing and thinking,” Tustin says. She realized her students could enrich their expressive language “through turn and talks, retelling familiar read-aloud books, and in a sense reading the books even though they are not yet reading. In math, they can recount the problems or even come up with their own story problems.”
Focusing on one or two chapters a month, the teachers began each book study session with four questions that ESOL teacher Marilyn Rossen used to build a discussion protocol:
What strikes you as you are reading?
What ways will it affect your instruction?
What ways will it affect the way you will set up your classroom?
What ways can you change ESOL instruction and oral language?
After gathering together initially, the teachers broke up into small groups to discuss the questions and then returned to the larger group to share key insights. In this way they paralleled the instructional process of using a whole-group gathering to set the stage for a lesson and small groups to differentiate activities to address students’ needs and interests.
Pardini attended most of the book study sessions and shared additional resources with her colleagues. She says she was delighted to know that the book was still relevant.
Rossen says that reading the book encouraged the ESOL and kindergarten teachers to jointly emphasize oral language development. While visiting kindergarten classrooms, she now makes it a point to ask students to explain what they are doing, whether in math, social studies, or reading. During one of their science units, the students got to write their own books and make scientific illustrations. To develop the students’ oral language, the kindergarten teacher asked them to share their books with their classmates, their teachers, and then with another class.
“That was good to see how they were first rehearsing reading with their peers and then they went on to share with another class,” Rossen says.
Jones says another insight from the book study was the importance of involving parents, particularly those who may not have strong literacy skills themselves, in the life of the classroom. Every kindergarten teacher was inspired to expand communication with students’ families during the first semester. Jones says she and three of her colleagues hosted an after-school picnic where families could meet each other.
“It was fantastic,” she says. “It wasn’t even about us talking to the parents but the parents talking to each other and the kids interacting with each other. I think the impact is that the parents felt welcome and they felt involved and that we wanted them to be part of their kids’ education.”
For veteran kindergarten teacher Mary Anne Buckley, the book study served a different purpose. Although its themes weren’t new to her—her classroom was featured in some sections—rereading the book reminded herto encourage more peer-to-peer dialogue instead of having students primarily respond to the teacher’s questions.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’ve got to get out of the way more,’” she says. “The book helps me remember that it’s not about giving information as much as setting up the situation where all the content is floating around them and they have to use it. The more authentic you make their need to express themselves and be understood, the better they learn. If they can be successful orally then it makes it easier when they’re writing and trying to read and understand the meaning.”
Membersof Bailey’s book study group say they would encourage other faculties to try to structure this type of professional development during the summer instead of during the school year. That way, teachers could put the recommended practices into place at the start of the term rather than intermittently. No matter when it’s done, they believe a book study is a great way for teachers to hold each other accountable for learning along with their students.
As Cassie Jones says, “When you talk about it with your colleagues and you hear what they’re doing in the classroom and what knowledge they have gained from the book, it sparks ideas of what I can be doing in my own classroom. It’s a way for us to think about our own teaching and grow from it. I wish I had read this book my first year.”