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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Curriculum Opinion

Author Interview With Regie Routman: ‘Literacy Essentials’

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 14, 2018 13 min read
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Regie Routman agreed to answer a few questions about her new book, Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity For All Learners.

Regie Routman has more than forty-five years of experience working in diverse, underperforming schools and districts across the U.S. and Canada as a literacy leader, mentor teacher, and coach for teachers and principals. For full information on Regie’s publications, PD offerings, and blogs, see www.regieroutman.org as well as @regieroutman on Twitter and Facebook.

LF: What are two-or-three important things you feel you learned in the process of writing this book?

Regie Routman:

First of all, I re-learned and confirmed how hard it is to write. Despite the fact I’ve now written at least a dozen books, the process has not gotten easier. Beginning is still the hardest part; the research takes a long time; getting the outline and organizational framework “right” is arduous; revising is continuous. Keeping my readers in mind at all times remains crucial for working out what’s most important to include and what I can leave out. Writing is a humbling process, and I’m reminded, once again, we must be writers ourselves to teach students-as-writers.

In particular, for this book I felt the need to design a unique organization system, layout and format in an effort to make the book beautiful, welcoming, easy on the eye, and easy to access with flexible entry points. The enhanced Table of Contents, which uses “sections” and sub-sections instead of chapters; personal and professional Stories; numerous and practical Take Action sections; References and Notes placed at the end (to keep the text unencumbered) are all designed and organized to make it easy for the reader to engage in what’s s/he finds interesting. All of the aforementioned made me realize I haven’t given enough attention to having students think about organization, format, design, graphics, and final form before students write, which is vital for readers’ total engagement and sustained interest. As well, achieving a satisfactory design element in Literacy Essentials depended on the flexibility and support of a willing and talented collaborator, in this case my publisher. In the classroom, that support would most likely be us teachers along with, perhaps, ideas and support from other students.

The Equity section, which is probably the most important part of the book to me, was the one I initially knew least about. I learned that having unrelenting passion for specific knowledge--and recognizing where my knowledge was limited--propelled me to avidly read, research, and reflect deeply on a wide range of equity issues. Because of that, the Equity section might be the strongest section. It’s definitely the section I take the most pride in, partly because I haven’t seen a book on teaching reading and writing give equity equal emphasis to literacy. Being driven by my own passion and curiosity made me realize that we must support all students’ passions and interests with first-rate resources, give students sustained time to research and explore chosen topics, and provide encouragement along with useful, actionable feedback. Then, even our students who typically struggle can flourish and achieve more than we previously thought possible.

LF: I was struck by this point you made:

“Make sure students are engaged, not just on-task”

Can you share more about what you mean, and what that might look like in the classroom?

Regie Routman:

Sure. Too often we mistake compliance for engagement. That is, the kids are quiet, and they are dutifully doing what’s been assigned regardless of whether the work is relevant. “By engagement we mean the attention, commitment, and eagerness learners show in inquiring, creating, and responding to a question or learning opportunity.” (p. 6.) Engagement occurs when kids are curious and passionate about a topic; they want to learn because they find the subject matter fascinating; they have some choice in decision-making. In any thriving, high achieving school culture the principal, teachers, and students are deeply engaged in interesting work and conversations that are culturally and personally meaningful. That means teachers are actively listening and providing many opportunities for small group work, student-led conversations, and ensuring everyone’s voice is heard and valued.

Engagement takes up the whole first section of Literacy Essentials as it is the foundation for expert, equitable teaching and learning. I talk about and demonstrate key conditions and qualities that have to be in place for engagement to take hold. First among these is developing trusting relationships between and among colleagues, students, families, administrators, and members of the community. Without that trust, whole school achievement is not possible or sustainable. Secondly, I discuss the importance of celebrating learners, which includes us teachers as well as students. That is, we develop a positive and loving mindset towards the learner and notice and comment on strengths before needs. This kind of engagement is not easy to do, but it’s a necessity for all students to succeed. Thirdly, engagement means our physical, social-emotional, and intellectual environments are designed to maximize authentic, effective, joyful teaching and learning.

Finally, if students are to be fully engaged we must infuse purpose and authenticity into all we do. That is, content study is connected to literacy and real-world issues; writers write for readers, not just the teacher or bulletin board; students are given sustained time daily for reading, writing, speaking, and learning that includes lots of choice within structure. Everything you see and hear in such classrooms and schools reflects that authentic engagement. What’s on the walls is by and for students and readers and is connected to learning-in-process; rich and diverse classroom libraries with easy access for all students have been organized with students; resources used for research and literacy exploration are of highest quality; students are largely and joyfully self-directing their own learning. That is, through what I call responsive teaching-in-action (which I prefer to “differentiated instruction”) and applying an Optimal Learning Model--where we provide the demonstrations, shared and scaffolded experiences, and sustained time for guided and deliberate practice--students come to self-correct, reread and revise, set their own worthy goals and high standards, and pursue their passions as self-directed learners. Enter such a classroom and students barely look up. They are involved in deep and meaningful exploration, conversations, and learning.

LF: In the book, you encourage teachers to “take time to reflect.” I know that it’s not easy for me to make that a priority in the midst of everything else that has to be done. How would you suggest that educators make that a reality?

Regie Routman:

None of us ever has enough time to do all that’s required and requested, so reflecting on our teaching has to become a priority. For that to happen, we have to see the value of daily reflection. I carry a notebook with me at all times. When something happens that seems interesting or unexpected, has caught me off guard, or makes me question my lesson, I write down what occurred. Then later, that day or days or even weeks later, I reread what I wrote, underline parts, and make observations or suggestions to myself in the margins, question my actions. What actually happened here? What was I thinking? What changes might I make? What could I have done differently? What does this mean for my teaching? Students know I keep a notebook to help make me a more effective teacher, so with the usual fast pace of the classroom I say something like the following to them: “Turn and talk to your partner about what just happened or what you just learned. I need to write down my thoughts so I don’t lose them.”

An example of reflection that had a profound effect on about thirty observing teachers and administrators was when I abandoned a lesson-in-process. I was attempting to get students engaged in a shared writing lesson around our content area study on our endangered environment, and the kids were just not invested. They were fidgety, impatient, and not forthcoming in sharing ideas for writing. At the time, I didn’t know why the lesson was floundering, but as I am constantly doing internal reflection as I teach, on-the-spot I said to the students: “This isn’t working very well, so we’re going to stop what we’re doing and regroup.”

I teach with a sense of urgency, and it was clear that the shared writing, as planned, was a waste of everyone’s time. It was only later in the day, when I’d had a chance to reflect--by talking with the classroom teacher and reviewing what had happened--that we figured out that the students had written about something similar fairly recently, and they were no longer invested in that topic. Reflecting on the lesson, the greatest learning for me was that I should have asked for input from the students before we began the lesson. Then I would have quickly known we needed to write on a related but different topic. The biggest learning for the observing teachers was that you “could” change your plan in the midst of teaching and acknowledge when a lesson isn’t going well. Almost all said they would have continued on with the lesson plan. Reading the teacher evaluations at the end of the residency week, the greatest takeaway for most teachers was “giving yourself permission to change a plan that’s not working.” Important to include here, I wrote the short Study Guide that is free on the book’s accompanying website to encourage personal and collaborative reflection.

LF: You talk about the importance of formative assessment, which can mean different things to different people. What role does it play in classroom practice? What does it look like, and what does it not look like?

Regie Routman:

Formative assessment is integral to responsive teaching-in-action, which depends on carefully observing, listening, and supporting students so that students remain engaged, inquisitive, and learn more. That is, in the act of teaching, based on our observations and students’ responses and actions--and in our reflections before and after--we modify, adjust, and revise our teaching to better meet students’ strengths, interests, and needs. Successfully integrating formative assessments into meaningful instruction is often what separates a teacher who struggles from one who can aptly handle any situation.

Formative assessment can take the role of thoughtful questioning, oral and written responses, and anything that gives us useful feedback that we then use--often immediately--to guide and enhance our responsive teaching-in-action. The previously described attempt at a shared writing is one example of applying formative assessment to redeem a lesson gone awry. To be clear, formative assessment is not moving through levels, assessing skills-in-isolation, or over attending to formal test data. What makes expert, formative assessment so challenging is that its successful use depends on a highly knowledgeable, flexible teacher--one who is seamlessly and expertly refining instruction in the midst of teaching and taking the lead for next steps from students’ responses and actions. Also, to be clear, we are talking about instruction that is authentic, purposeful, and worth students’ time and efforts. A major section of Literacy Essentials, “Applying Responsible Assessment” provides practical and research-based actions we can responsibly take.

LF: You have a large section in the book titled “Equity.” This is another word/concept that can carry many meanings. What do you think it means in the classroom? What does it look like - practically speaking?

Regie Routman:

I favor the commonly accepted definition of equity from the National Equity Project: “Educational equity means that each child receives what he or she needs to develop to his or her full academic and social potential.” Expanding on that definition, equity also means that we first “see” and value the humanity and potential in every student and that we respect and honor each student’s diversity, culture, interests and learning differences. True equity in the classroom means we act on high expectations we hold for all students; know students’ stories behind any numerical data, levels or labels; and work to ensure that instructional and assessment decisions are equitable, rational, and fair to all students. Large portions of the book deal with actions and strategies to support English language learners and learners who struggle and how to make our classrooms and schools more inclusive for all.

When we teach equitably, we are ensuring that whatever actions we take are helpful, not harmful, to students’ physical, social-emotional, and intellectual wellbeing. In the classroom and school, we “see” equity when, for example:

  • Students are defined by the totality of their strengths, interests, and needs and not by deficits and labels
  • Books and texts in a diverse, accessible classroom library are organized with students by topics, genres, and authors and not by levels
  • All students’ voices are encouraged and heard
  • Grouping is truly flexible and not fixed; most grouping is heterogeneous
  • Students have choices in reading, writing and speaking that allow for their strengths to shine
  • Every member of the school community is respected, acknowledged, and valued
  • Excellent literature and first rate resources are available to all students
  • Teachers and the principal are collaborating and supporting each other through ongoing professional learning, mentoring, and coaching.
  • Knowledgeable teachers and leaders, not commercial programs, determine what gets taught and how it’s taught. (Programs are a resource not a cure-all to be followed with fidelity.)

Advocating for students is a big part of the Equity section as well as helping all students become self-determining learners and informed citizens who have agency in their lives.

LF: Is there anything that I haven’t asked that you’d like to share?

Regie Routman:

Literacy Essentials is a comprehensive text that emphasizes Engagement, Excellence, and Equity because implementing the principles and practices of those interconnected areas is a necessity for ensuring all students achieve at high levels. So little has changed in the forty-five years I’ve been an educator; so many students are still disenfranchised and underachieving, and that is a national tragedy. So that while the content in the text is extensive, it’s easy to read and you can use the expanded Table of Contents to choose where to begin and what you want to read. About half the book encompasses “Take Action” sections--practical suggestions, guidelines, and strategies for daily teaching and learning. My goal for you as a reader and educator is that you come away with an “I can do this!” mindset.

Also, here and in my previous books, I write about living a full life as being essential to teaching and learning. I firmly believe we must be more than educators, that is, we must seek to lead meaningful lives and have interesting stories to tell our students, and we must also seek and value our students’ stories. Personal and professional Stories are an important feature of Literacy Essentials, to make that point. I talk about bonding with my teenage granddaughters, cooking and baking, gardening, reading for pleasure, playing tennis, my own professional learning journey, and much more. Bringing stories into the classroom through daily reading aloud of terrific literature, giving students sustained time to read and write stories--their own and others--and ensuring that numerous, excellent nonfiction stories and texts are available to all students are necessities.

Finally, and this is crucial, the book is about how and why we must develop shared literacy beliefs that transfer to research-based practices that encompass a whole-part-whole teaching philosophy, not a skills-in-isolation mindset. That is, “the work” we do with students must involve whole, meaningful texts and concepts; engage and challenge students’ thinking and curiosity; and embrace real-world issues and experiences. With such work, taught and guided by expert teachers and leaders, celebration and joy in learning become part of an optimal learning culture. Literacy Essentials is a call to action for each of us to ensure every student receives an excellent, equitable, and joyful education.

LF: Thanks, Regie!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.