Learning with Your Mind on Fire

Over the past few years at Garnet Valley, we have really made professional learning a priority (see Designing Teacher Centered Prof Learning 1 & 2). This past few months have really ramped up for our Elementary and Middle School English Language Arts departments.  As an extension of our ongoing PA Core Implementation Plan to establish and/or shift our ELA curriculum to a consistent, skills based framework, we have decided to bring in some outside experts in the field of Balanced Literacy to work with our staff (both administrators and teachers).

We have been fortunate enough to have had Ellen Ellis coming in to work with our Elementary teachers and administrators, and Maggie Roberts in to work with our Middle School teachers. *Full Disclosure: the title of this post was adapted from a line that Maggie used with our teachers and students in terms of ‘Reading with your minds on fire’ during Reading Workshop. It was a powerful image that I truly believe encapsulates the learning that she and Ellen brought to our district!

Push and Support for our Elementary Group

Ellen Ellis working w/our Elementary Teachers #GarnetValleyLearns

As part of this work, our Elementary teachers, who, for over 12 years have been working with Patricia Cunningham’s 4 Blocks model for Balanced Literacy, are now making the shift to a Reading Workshop model.  While the knowledge and expertise of teaching Balanced Literacy and teaching students to read was already a foundation in our elementary classrooms, moving to a Reading Workshop structure and looking to integrate and Balance with Writing Workshop has brought some changes in most every area…from philosophical for some, to programmatic (including curriculum & assessment practices), to the day to day instructional for others.

As is the norm, our teachers have taken on this shift with a focus, energy, work ethic and passion that have allowed us to see HUGE gains in their expertise and in our students learning in just a short time (6 months).  While our teachers are moving at their own pace in terms of taking in the learning, we have seen a huge uptick in collaboration across grades and buildings, and the questions and ‘challenges’ that are being brought up clearly show that teachers are elbow deep in the work.

As an admin team, if we are going to ask teachers to shift, change and take risks, if we are going to push them outside of their comfort zones to learn and grow, we have to provide the support for that to happen.  The team that has been working on setting up our short and long term plan for this implementation includes our Curriculum Office, Elementary Principals and Assistant Principals, and our Reading Department. *the importance of this team approach cannot be understated (see the ‘Lessons Being Learned’ section of this post for more).

Ellen’s work, which is still happening grade by grade over the next few months, has brought both a reassurance of what has been happening for some time, as well as a clarity of where we are looking to go over the next few years. She has reconnected with many of our teachers and administrators with whom she had some some writing work with a few years back, and she is building new relationships with those she is meeting for the first time.  Ellen is supporting us on a number of levels, including continuing and deepening the conversation around the philosophical why Balanced Literacy and Reading Workshop for all stakeholders, as well as the practical, nuts and bolts of the how in the classroom, for our teachers (regular and special education) and reading specialists, and the short and long term planning for our administrative group.

The work being done has been awesome and the feedback we are getting is positive, as well as informative to where we need to go next.

Push and Support for our Middle School Group

In a continued effort for alignment and consistency, Maggie Roberts joined our Middle School ELA teachers on the next phases of their work in shifting our ELA program to a Balanced Literacy model.  Specifically, Maggie worked with our teachers on refining our mini-lesson to be more efficient and targeted to specific strategies that support the Skills Based Curriculum in UbD2.0 we created over the past 3 years, and also introduced the idea of small group conferencing to our teachers.  Maggie’s energy, time, expertise and student centered approach captured the hearts and minds of both our teachers and our students.  

This came at a good time for our MS teachers.  In January of 2014, as part of our PA Core Implementation Plan we began this shift with: conversation around why the move to Reading Workshop, book studies around Nancy Atwell’s The Reading Zone, Penny Kittle’s, Book Love (see the the Book Love Foundation for more info: http://booklovefoundation.org/) and Stephen Krashen’s The Power of Reading, visits to local PA schools already running workshop, professional development workshops with Chris Lehman and Penny Kittle, and work sessions in our own district on planning out the steps needed and ways to organize and support this shift so it would run smoothly. See the September 2014 edition of The Pennsylvania Administrator publication for more details on the initial stages of that shift.

While we had gone heavy on professional learning in the first 2 years of the shift, with all the other changes happening in the district and demands of today’s educational environment, last school year we took a ‘break’ from formal, outside PD on Workshop (internally we had our staff running sessions and collaboration/sharing sessions with each other).  At the insistence of our MS ELA Liaisons, Literacy Coach and Reading department, we needed to work to follow up to go next level with Reading Workshop.  The feedback from the work with Maggie has also been very positive, has inspired and reinvigorated our teachers commitment to Reading Workshop, and has sparked some ideas for how to continue to move this forward and not lose momentum as we plan on shift gears a bit to revisit Writing Workshop and how the two fit together.

Maggie Roberts working w/our Middle School Teachers & Students #GarnetValleyLearns

Lessons Being Learned & Planning for the Future

From my past experiences as a teacher and staff developer, consistency and follow up in the different professional learning initiatives I was involved in was always a challenge.  I can remember each year I taught/coached it seemed like we jumped from initiative to initiative, and without consistent follow up on certain topics…we ended up with one of two outcomes: either a small group of folks passionate about the new learning kept it going in a few classrooms, OR it just disappeared all together and became the running joke/topic in the faculty lunch room.  

Now in my fourth year as a Supervisor and being part of the team responsible for planning out short and long term professional learning for the different initiatives we have going on, I realize how hard this consistency and follow up actually is to execute.

A couple of recommendations that are helping us  make sure that we don’t fall into this trap:

  • Plan Short and Long Term: each of the initiatives mentioned above are not going to happen overnight, and they also coincide and overlap with a few other major shifts happening right now…the Curriculum shifts blend into the Instructional and Programmatic shifts which are impacted by our Technology shifts…just to name a few.  Really thinking through all of the aspects, steps, and areas of impact that could be affected has helped us identify Long Term where we want to end up, Currently where are are, and Short Term what can we build off of that we already have in place and what do we need to put into place to get there.
  • Get All Stakeholders Involved & Know When to Reach Out: I mentioned our team earlier.  What we have going on right now literally would not be happening if we weren’t working together as team.  Taking the time to sit down get input from all areas (admin, specialists, teachers, outside experts) and define roles and ways everyone can contribute and support each other is paramount. This brings together a wide variety of points of view- the outside perspective, the big picture perspective, the building perspective and the classroom perspective. All of these have value and can inform one another as to how to best move forward.  Also, regularly checking in as a team and making adjustments as necessary has to be part of this process.  Personally, for the Middle School group especially, having our Literacy Coach, Liaisons and Reading department hammering me about the need for more follow up three years in was great and much needed.  It is easy in a district position in which we are balancing multiple initiatives across multiple departments and across the K-12 landscape to have stuff slip by the wayside.  Having that continues loop of communication between and among building admin, teachers, specialists and district admin has kept this on my radar so I don’t miss it.


  • Remembering It’s a Learning and Growth Process: I happen to be a very, this has to get done yesterday, type of person… however I have been learning to try to meet people where they are…which includes slowing down when necessary, speeding up when necessary, and taking the time to understand where I am in all of it as well (including admitting mistakes when they happen, reaching out when I need it, and making adjustments based on feedback).  The perfect example of this is how we have not been able to effectively support our High School teachers in this shift.  The initial focus on the Middle School came out of an immediate need to revamp how we did independent reading, yet the Elementary and High School shifts came more out of the Curriculum shifts we were experiencing.  Working with the HS ELA Coordinators, we were able to include the HS teachers in the Chris Lehman and Penny Kittle work year(s) prior, and we had our MS teachers run some introductory sessions on Reading Workshop at one of our inservices.  While we have had some pockets of teachers pick this up, dive in and run with it, we have not yet been able to establish a clear, consistent and systematic plan for supporting all our teachers with Reading Workshop at the High School.  This is an area that we need to begin working on now to move forward in the near future.

As always, thanks for reading!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *