Let’s Have Classrooms Full of Books!

Photo Credit: Raphael de Kadt Flickr via Compfight cc

Creative, inquisitive classrooms are wonderful. But no matter how great the classroom looks, or how many provocations are employed, a classroom must have books.

I love to read. I’ve talked about it in this space before here.  Frederick Douglass said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”  It’s the freedom to go anywhere and to learn anything.

When I visits schools and classrooms (hands down, one of the best parts of the job) I see lots of wonderful practice, tested and true and innovative. I love seeing cozy nooks and corners where students of all ages can curl up, lie down or relax and…read. And listen, they don’t have to all be paper books, because ebooks and blogs work too. But we need books!

Pernille Ripp blogs at Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension and her posts are full of literacy: reading, writing, listening and speaking. But not only that, wondering, thinking and creating too. Some of my favourite Ripp posts are the lists of books: picture books, fiction, non fiction poetry. Every day, she encourages her students to read and read and read, and they do, even the reluctant ones.

Every teacher, every educational assitant, every principal, every educator needs to make a literacy rich environment a priority in our classrooms and schools. Reading is for everyone. How can you help make this a reality?

A Simple and Powerful Leadership Truth

We love to ask grand questions. What was your best day ever? What was the worst part of your vacation? What is your favourite book of all time? These kinds of questions can be great conversation starters, but I always have trouble answering them. How can I choose one book of the hundreds I’ve read?

Then last December, Will Gourley posed a big question through a #tweetthehalls hashtag. (It’s a fun idea that promotes lots of interaction on Twitter.) Day 2 was to share your best new learning so far this school year. I jumped right in! Here’s my tweet:

Since then, I’ve also come to realize that making assumptions about anything is a pitfall. You might ask why it’s taken me so long to come to this. After all, that old chestnut says, “Don’t assume, because you make an ass…”, you know the rest. I think agreeing with a statement and understanding the impact of that behaviour are two different things.

An example might illustrate this better:  this year, I’m involved in a Pupil Accommodation Review, a government process initiated by trustees that takes a close look at a group of schools to decide what is needed in that area of city – consolidation, renewal etc. It’s where trustees can decide to build or close schools in the city. I’m facilitating this technical yet highly emotional process with a group of parents, staff and community members to provide advice to trustees before they make their final decision. And I can’t make any assumptions.

I’m immersed in the daily business of education at central office as well as the work of the Board of Trustees. I know the policies, background to decisions, staffing, and pretty much the inner workings of how it all happens. That informs my reactions and decisions. But of course, the committee mostly has none of that. So I can’t assume that they understand how decisions are made or how schools really work.  And why would they? They are immersed in their own contexts, whether at work or at home. So I have to explain clearly and make sure they have the information they need.

The need for setting context, checking in and explaining can be linked to the difficulty of communication. We’ve all experienced how hard it can be to truly make yourself understood. Because we cannot truly know what others are thinking and feeling, unless they tell us, we are often guessing how our messages are received – guessing through facial expression, body language, and words we hear. And all that is filtered through our own experiences and bias.

I’ve read many leadership articles and books that urge over communication and understood that on an intellectual level – sure, sounds great! Good idea. But now I’m getting it in a deeper, more visceral way. I’m paying more attention and seeing this powerful leadership truth. We all need repetition and explanation. All the time.

Two Essential Questions for Reflection

The end of a school year always prompts reflection. After collapsing exhausted on Canada Day to recover from the whirlwind of June, educators take a few deep breaths and think about their year. That reflection takes different forms. It can be mulling over how your class did as you sip a morning coffee on the balcony, or wondering what you could improve in your approach to inquiry as you walk the 17th fairway, or seeing your teaching approaches through a new lens by reading that educational title that was on your nightstand for ages.

Photo Credit: Flооd via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Flооd via Compfight cc

My reflection is focussed on two questions:

Am I getting better?

How do I know?

Steven Katz, psychologist, teacher and researcher, uses these questions as a basis to measure all improvement, whether as a whole school or as individual leaders and educators. They are simple yet powerful. Where can you look to know if you are really getting better?

This year, I focussed on two areas for my own growth and improvement as a leader. It almost goes without saying that I have many more areas to improve, but I kept in mind that we can only do a couple of things well.

First, I wanted to create a space in principal learning teams and school visits where there could be open and trusting dialogue about school improvement. I also wanted to work on my listening to understand people’s perspectives and experiences (in the interest of full disclosure, this is something I feel like I always need to improve).

These are some pretty nice goals, don’t you think? And that’s really where it stops, unless I have some way of knowing if I’m getting better. One component is my own observations. I see some progress in learning teams with principals and vice principals as they lay out what they are struggling with and hoping to learn about. I watch as some principals ask questions during school visits or push back. I try to be honest and transparent, but I’m not really sure if I’m perceived that way. But these impressions aren’t enough.

Shakil Choudhury has shared that the most important leadership quality is self awareness. We get there through brutal self-honesty and feedback from others. I’ll start by gathering feedback from those I work with through a series of questions:

What does open and trusting dialogue mean to you?

Do you feel the principal learning team time and the structure of the school visit is useful for creating that dialogue?

What can I do to improve the conditions for this dialogue to exist?

What are my strengths as a listener?

What do I need to improve as a listener?

I’ll be back with an update. Here I go!