An interesting question to pose is: Do beliefs change behavior or does behavior change beliefs? Many people think the former: that beliefs change behavior, which is why so many new initiatives start with the “why” or the philosophy behind a change. Yet those same new initiatives fail if behavior is not adequately addressed. Because in classrooms, true lasting change comes from changing behaviors that in turn affect attitudes and beliefs.
We’ve walked with Pam through many shifts in this grouping series. In fact, one might say she’s transformed her reading program entirely. We’ve talked about basic grouping principles, structure, and content.
There were many different approaches I could have taken. To start off, I could have sent Pam Richard Allington’s great article on reading in Education Week. Then I could have made sure she had a copy of her reading power standards. I could have met with her during many planning periods to tell her why and how she needed to shift away from mostly whole-group reading instruction to smaller groups with differentiated instruction. And when I walked away, everything could have stayed the same. Why am I able to predict this? Because I’ve seen it happen.
Instead, we started with where she was at: concerned about trying something new and feeling pressured by her principal to change. I know what that feels like, so we assessed her kids quickly and together. Once we had that student data, we looked for trends to group students. When she suggested a trend, I validated her thinking. I waited for her to ask, “So what are we going to teach these kids once we have them in groups?” We brainstormed things that we saw readers needed. Then she wanted to know, “How do we structure the conference?” While she led our discussions after instruction, I was anticipating what might come next and had materials at the ready. The final question “How do we know it’s working?” would lead Pam to decide if she would group like this again — that is, did changing her instructional behavior change some of her beliefs about teaching reading?
As part of the new teacher evaluation program our district is piloting as well as my own personal interest in evidence to support coaching, I’ve collected data this year to show the effect of coaching on student learning in individual classrooms. When Pam told me she wanted to increase the independence of her readers and make sure they were reading “just-right” books, I worked on a short survey for her fifth graders. They took it before I was even introduced to them.
These were the questions:
Do you like to read independently at school?
No __ Yes__
How long can you read independently before you want to do something else? ____ minutes.
What is the title/author of a current book you are reading that is “just right” for you?
What questions do you ask yourself when you determine if a book is “just right”?
When Pam and I looked at these surveys, almost half of her fifth graders didn’t like to read independently and indicated stamina of less than 10 minutes. These same students chose books by how many points they’d get, or picked a book that was easy to read. They didn’t recognize that they asked themselves any questions.
Eight weeks later when we gave this same survey, the shift was obvious. Kids were expressing more enjoyment of independent reading, more minutes, reading more exciting titles, and included responses like:
I ask my friends what is good to read.
I find out if movies have books that were written first (like The Hunger Games)
I look for other books by authors I know. Like Jon Sheska (Scieskza)
I sit down to reflect on the question, “Did my coaching impact student learning?” My data — the words from students themselves — says yes. My next questions are: Is my coaching sustainable? Will Pam continue to teach in this manner?
“What are you taking away from our coaching cycle?” I asked Pam in our final meeting.
“Well, small groups aren’t as scary or complicated as I originally thought. Though it takes a lot of time and thinking, I’d thought kids weren’t going to want to come to groups — you know, that they’d groan when they were singled out. Exactly the opposite is happening. They are asking when they get to meet with me. There are individual readers that are totally different readers now.”
“What do you mean by totally different readers?” I asked.
She said, “Look at the running records just with Chase alone.” Flipping her binder to Chase’s tab, she showed a running record indicating a fluent read and her handwritten notes: understood why Lina thought the people would approve, but because she didn’t know their ways. This record was compared to his first running record that showed more errors and limited comprehension of what he was reading: said it was confusing, unclear why character lied.
“And there are others like Chase?” I asked.
She nodded, and proceeded to show me five of the students that we had targeted in the beginning of our work. During their reading inventories with Pam the second time around, they’d excitedly told her about what they were reading and why they chose it. Their running records showed waves of checks at close to 98% accuracy. As she asked them questions about their books, they were able to explain and elaborate to show their comprehension.
“Now not all kids have such compelling results, but at least I know what I’m going to do with them next. Mostly I’m going to give them more time to develop in the areas we are working on.”
I couldn’t help it — I smiled. “More time” is a crucial and viable intervention for kids who are engaged, reading appropriate texts, and learning new strategies. It doesn’t have an acronym, flashy cover or come in a box, but it works.
“So you have changed your mind somewhat about small groups. You said they aren’t as scary or complicated as you anticipated. How has your instruction changed when you think about how you taught reading last year?” I asked.
“I’m using different information. I’m not trying to rely on those one-minute fluency scores to tell me what readers need. I’m actually talking to the kids about what they are reading and assessing them with running records and a quick comprehension check on the independent books they are choosing. The content of my small groups isn’t based on the leveled books I used in the past. Instead it’s about strategies.”
“Let’s say next year you work at a different school with no principal pressuring you to transition from whole group to more differentiated instruction. Will you continue this work or use the approach from last year?”
“It would be hard to go back to doing it the other way now that I see how the students respond to it. And now that they are loving reading time, they are more successful. This shows that!”
By changing the type of assessment Pam used to form groups, it changed her behavior. Now she was doing the assessing, instead of using the data from instructional aides. When she changed her behavior, she changed her belief that she was getting better, more useful data when she collected it herself. By changing the focus of her small-group work, it also changed her behavior. Instead of planning with the leveled reading curriculum guide, she planned her work around strategies that good readers use. When she changed her practice, she saw that kids were excited to talk and think about their own books and her belief about reading work shifted to include their independent choice books.
Even though Pam and I are done working together this year, there are many more opportunities to collaborate. In time, she’ll want more strategies and she’ll need to problem-solve about new readers in the fall. Perhaps she’ll be ready to consider changing her room design to lend itself better to small-group work, or building up her nonfiction collection in the class library. For now though her readers have books they enjoy, can read, understand and invite discussions with Pam and other fifth-grade peers. Oh, and I sent her a link to Allington’s article and she said she loved it. Now there was openness and schema where there wasn’t before. As Chase would probably say, “That rocks.”