In spring, I facilitate a number of parent tours of the school. These building tours are for incoming students who are either new to the district because of open enrollment or are moving into the area. I have found that these families come in with a positive lens. Specifically, they comment about our literacy work and our commitment to every student becoming a reader and a writer.
These tours are affirming. As a principal, I see things from the inside out and cannot always appreciate our successes like someone from the outside might. Certainly there are many things to be proud of, yet my mind also goes toward where we need to grow next. It’s almost like seeing two schools: what we are and what we might become.
Maintaining this integrated perspective is essential for understanding a school as a literacy culture. Because we are working with complex and unique individuals, we have to expect both success and failure. One doesn’t exist without the other. That is why, at times, I do an environmental walk of the school. With a pad of paper and a pen in hand, I first write down all the positives I notice in classrooms and hallways. Sometimes I also take pictures with my phone. I observe through a positive lens because it can be too easy to dwell on what needs work.
Here are some of my notes from one of these walks:
- Fifth graders argued over who got to read a specific classroom library book next. The teacher reminded the students what their routine was when they were checking out a library book (“put a hold on it”). Students also used sticky notes to post titles of “Books we’d love to have” on the side of a bookshelf.
- Fourth graders engaged in listening to a read aloud, Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein. The teacher paused only when necessary—for example, when there was a puzzle visual to be solved. She shared the puzzle on the Smartboard via the document camera, and the class discussed possible solutions. The teacher looked at me and said, “The kids will barely let me put this book down.”
- During an IEP review meeting for a third grader, the classroom teacher shared with the speech teacher and parent that she reminds the student to practice the speaking skills he’s working on before he presents a research report he wrote to his peers. “Maybe I should remind him to prepare before book clubs too,” she allowed.
- Second graders were using a graphic organizer to write facts they had gathered from nonfiction texts. Later they would write research reports about a famous person from history and read the reports aloud to the families for a “wax museum” presentation. One student, wanting to work on his report at home via Book Creator, asked to take home a Chromebook.
- First graders came to the carpet for direction from their teacher. “Today we are going to build on our knowledge about genres and learn about the different types of fiction and nonfiction texts,” the teacher said. Learning strategies for reading and writing were visually depicted on anchor charts. Later that day, the students would reorganize their classroom libraries.
- Kindergarten students’ writing was on display at the classroom door. Students were sharing books they had created on the topics of their choice. After partner reading, the teacher facilitated a public conference with one student, noting and naming the strengths and craft of the student’s writing. These books were shelved next to formally published titles by well-known authors.
This paints a pretty desirable description of an elementary school, doesn’t it? However, I should note that I did not include in my description the classroom that was watching a Disney Pixar movie at the end of the day. Nor did I describe the grammar worksheets that older students were completing at their tables.
Maybe I should have. To understand a literacy culture is to accept and even appreciate the complexity of our work. How would we know where to improve without our visible errors? It is also worth noting all of the nonliteracy duties that educators encounter and that are just as important at the time, like the student who is brought into the office by his teacher because of a possible case of pink eye. And I just remembered another student who was throwing up in a garbage can in the hallway (yes, I put down my paper and pen and offered to help). This reality helps give me pause when I notice practices that aren’t aligned with our beliefs and values.
If we can get a comprehensive understanding of our schools through environmental walks and other honest observations, we can develop both the compassion for the present and a clearer pathway toward what’s possible.