'Read, Write, Lead': An Interview With Regie Routman
This summer, I'll be alternating between publishing thematic collections of past posts (ones on Student Motivation, Implementing The Common Core, Teaching Reading & Writing, Parent Involvement, Teaching Social Studies, Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year and Teaching English Language Learners have already been published) and sharing interviews with authors of recent books I consider important and useful for us educators (Meenoo Rami was the first, co-authors Carmen Fariña & Laura Kotch were the second, Warren Berger was the third, Annette Breaux and Todd Whitaker were the fourth, David Berliner and Gene Glass were the fifth, and Eric Sheninger was the sixth).
For today's author interview, Regie Routman has offered to answer a few questions about her book, Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies For Schoolwide Literacy Success.
LF: You begin your book by emphasizing the importance of leadership -- both from principals and from teachers. "Leadership" is a word used to describe many different things by many different people. How would you define its essential qualities?
First and foremost, successful leaders are able to establish and promote trusting and respectful relationships between and among staff members, students, families, and community members. Without that culture of trust and absence of fear, not much in the way of high engagement and achievement across a whole school is possible or sustainable. These leaders create a daily culture of inquiry and professional learning and keep testing and test preparation in perspective, all of which helps to promote deep learning, engagement, and enjoyment.
Additionally, such leaders communicate clearly, celebrate all teachers' and students' strengths, listen without judgment, are knowledgeable about literacy, and have the courage and audacity to make the tough decisions to move learning forward after careful consideration of many crucial factors. Very important and often undervalued is that fact that leaders have to be very knowledgeable about reading and writing to positively impact student learning across a whole school. Knowledgeable literacy leaders know what look for in the classroom and what feedback to give to students and teachers to move learning forward. Such leaders also know how to effectively coach teachers so their instructional and assessment practices improve in a way that positively impacts student learning.
LF: You also highlight the importance of "professional trust." However, many of the policies being implemented in the name of "school reform" and "accountability" can send a message of distrust to teachers. What are ways that trust can be developed in this kind of climate?
Professional trust means that teachers and leaders at a school can depend on each other, that everyone on staff is fully committed to all students, and that ongoing, high quality professional learning ensures that all teachers do an effective job. Professional trust only exists where teachers and leaders are highly knowledgeable about all aspects of literacy and learning and where the staff has developed shared beliefs that align across grade levels with best practices and current research. In my experience, a trusting and knowledgeable culture does not develop without ongoing, relevant Professional Literacy Communities (PLCs) where teachers and leaders study and collaborate to improve teaching and learning across a whole school. Only then, can teachers effectively advocate for proven and sane policies and ably work within cumbersome mandates.
LF: Could you give a short summary of the elements of what you call the Optimal Learning Model (OLM) and why you think it's so important?
I often call the Optimal Learning Model the "I do it," "We do it", "We do it," "You do it" model. That is, the OLM is a learning model where we seek to engage the learner in an authentic, problem solving and high-level learning process where the end result is a self-determining learner who is able to self-monitor and self-direct his/her learning. Importantly, the model assumes that the content, texts, and goals are worthwhile and that we are not overly focused on procedures and low-level tasks. The OLM provides expert and sufficient frontloading--the preparation, resources, explicit modeling, shared experiences, and practice-- which in time makes it possible for learners to become self-directed and self-teaching as literacy learners. That is, as teachers and leaders, we provide just enough expert support and scaffolding so when learners go to "try it out" on their own, they can be reasonably successful. It is a cyclical model that includes--as needed through ongoing assessment, most of it informal-- demonstration, shared experiences, guided practice, independent practice, and celebration.
As we go through the grades, typically teachers provide less shared learning--the "we do It" where the teacher or expert is still in charge but invites participation from students in a safe risk-taking environment. In shared learning, students are encouraged to share their thinking as teachers validate their thoughts while also helping to respectfully validate and shape their language and thinking. Finally, none of the above information and frontloading matter much if students don't spend most of their time in sustained, worthwhile practice where we have handed over to our well-prepared students the primary responsibility for their learning and problem solving. One persistent misconception about who is in charge of learning is often apparent in guided reading or revision in classrooms where the teacher is still doing most of the work, which leaves insufficient time for sustained reading and writing which is where students actually become more self-sufficient as learners. Application of the Optimal Learning Model (OLM) is as important at the middle and secondary levels as it is at elementary school.
LF: I was struck by a quote you included that came from a principal:
We check the CCSS [Common Core Standards] to be sure we're not missing anything, but the CCSS do not drive our teaching.
That seems like a pretty healthy perspective. How common do you think that is among school leaders, and what do you think teachers can do to make it more prevalent?
That statement was made by a savvy and successful principal who is highly knowledgeable about literacy and instruction and who knows the CCSS through reading, study, analysis, and discussion with her staff. What she meant in her quote was that the CCSS serve as a framework and guide for what to teach but not as a directive. Because she and her staff are involved in whole school, ongoing professional learning where they view, analyze, discuss and apply highly effective literacy practices to their classrooms, they teach beyond the CCSS. Their knowledge and instructional expertise gives them confidence to know that if they teach well and deeply--keeping the CCSS in mind--the students will achieve and do fine on the tests, even high stakes ones. In my experience, such principals and schools where the staff is cohesive, engaged in rich and relevant professional learning, and is highly knowledgeable are rare. More commonly, because implementation of the CCSS typically causes so much anxiety and the stakes are so high, schools reach for the latest "Common Core aligned" program. We need more leaders and teachers who believe and act as that principal and teachers do.
LF: Teaching literacy is obviously central to your book, and I know it's not realistic to cover all of the relevant points you make in just a paragraph or two. But what would you say are the three or four most important practices that educators can implement to most effectively teach reading and writing?
Actually, that's a great question as I focus on the need for simplicity in Read, Write, Lead. That is, implementation of excellent practices is not about making things simple but about getting to the essence of what's most important. I would cite four practices that I describe in detail in Read, Write, Lead as crucial to the highly effective teaching of reading and writing. These practices, taken together, lead to highly effective and thoughtful readers, writers, and thinkers who become self-directed learners. All four practices respect each learner's strengths, interests, needs, and culture, which make it more likely that students--as well as teachers-- will willingly engage in "the work." Implemented well and jointly, these practices can greatly reduce the need for intervention, which is the focus of one of the book's chapters. Also, very important, integral to each of the following four practices is the opportunity to participate in deep conversations with peers, not just the teacher.
- Teach writing and reading for authentic audiences and purposes. The more real-world and relevant the lesson, activity, and/or resource, the more likely students are to engage and be willing to seek to comprehend on a deep level in reading and to invest their energies in revision and editing in writing.
- Provide some choice within structure. In requiring specific writing or reading in language arts or any content area, after establishing the parameters and guidelines as well as applying the Optimal Learning Model to ensure student success, allow students some choice within the required topic. Choice is often a game changer for both high and low achieving students in terms of motivation, positive attitude, and willingness to take risks.
- Offer feedback that propels the learner forward. Here we are talking about the specific language of honest, respectful, and useful feedback that raises expectations for what's possible, celebrates the learners' attempts and successes, makes it more likely the learner will put full energies into "the work," and creates an "I can do it!" spirit in the learner. Useful feedback depends on ongoing assessment, and most of that assessment is formative, that is, informal evaluation done in the act of teaching that causes us to re-examine, refine, adjust, and often re-direct instruction and learning.
- Establish a joyful school and classroom culture that assures equal opportunity to learn for all. Learners include teachers and leaders as well as students. A trusting and literacy-focused school and district culture requires a solid and safe physical and emotional infrastructure, ongoing professional learning in what I call Professional Literacy Communities, daily collaboration, asking of deep and thoughtful questions, and a highly knowledgeable staff who hold high expectations for all students and are committed to all students learning at high levels.
LF: Is there anything you'd like to share that I haven't asked you about?
"Read, Write, Lead" is a highly practical, thoroughly researched, and easy-to-read book that is intended for two distinct but interconnected audiences--teachers and leaders. That is because my biggest learning lesson for sustaining worthwhile change is this one: teachers have to be leaders and principals have to know literacy. The stories, practices, actions, and voices of educators in Read, Write, Lead show the what, why, and how of worthwhile literacy change and how change is possible, sustainable, and joyful--even in our lowest performing schools. I wrote the book after 45 years of teaching, coaching, and leading in mostly high challenge schools with large populations of students of color, second language learners, and families with low incomes. These are schools where adult expectations for students are dismally low, where teachers and principals over rely on programs and standards, and where not much of significance changes for students from year to year.
To change that lackluster literacy outcome for students, I created and implemented a residency model where I apply the Optimal Learning Model to reading and/or writing, on site for a whole week in two different classrooms with all teachers at the school released to observe and encouraged to try out and apply in their own classrooms what they have been observing and talking about in professional conversations throughout the day. The residency model also includes spending the entire afternoon coaching the principal in instructional walks for the purpose of noticing teacher and schoolwide strengths and needs, celebrating teachers in their classrooms, and applying the language and actions of useful feedback to move instruction and learning forward. Connected to the residency model, detailed guidelines and procedures for how to organize, run, and sustain a school's Leadership Team and Professional Literacy Community are a major focus of the book. In Read, Write, Lead, I and other educators coach the reader to apply the lessons learned from many years of weeklong residencies to their own instructional settings.
"Read, Write, Lead" details the challenges and successes of schools and districts where implementing ongoing Professional Literacy Communities to promote and ensure high-level, well planned professional learning resulted in high student achievement and a joyful school culture. The spirit and content of the book for both educators and students is "You can do it!" too. Guidelines, tips, strategies, "Quick Wins," relevant research, and explicit actions and guidelines give the reader the content and confidence to make worthwhile literacy change possible.
LF: Thanks, Regie!