Crafting a Learning Culture: Literacy Leadership

By Dr. Krista Morrison, Director of Literacy and Learning 

The International Literacy Association (ILA) just released a Literacy Leadership Brief titled, Principals as Literacy Leaders (2019). Sterling Literacy wants to share this resource with all principals to help stimulate conversations and actions that help create equitable instructional environments for students—environments that develop students’ literacy skills, which in turn grows students’ content knowledge and skills. ILA explains that…

If we truly believe every child has a basic human right to read, principals have a moral imperative to monitor and ensure equitable practices that nurture students’ self-efficacy and lead to comparable academic outcomes. This vision can be accomplished when principals enlist the cooperation of others and model and reinforce practices that advance learning and literacy. (p. 2)

ILA puts forth some key recommendations for principals to become literacy leaders. The first section of the brief focuses on the learning culture: “Craft a Learning Culture: Principals as Lead Learners.” Based on our work with our school/district partners, and our vast educational experiences, we at Sterling Literacy Consulting have witnessed first-hand the power that a culture of learning can have on improving instructional practices across classrooms. When administrators and teachers learn together, they are more likely to create instructional environments that supports literacy growth and achievement. We would like to share three professional learning structures that can help principals create a learning culture for educators: 1) Literacy Leadership Teams, 2) Classroom Learning Walks, and 3) Instructional Learning Labs.

Literacy Leadership Teams

By establishing literacy leadership teams (LLTs), principals can help develop a collaborative learning and decision-making culture. LLTs are comprised of at least one administrator and educators from across grade levels, disciplines, and instructional support areas. Overall, the LLT works to 1) review data on student academic performance, 2) identify school and district priorities, 3) set clear performance goals, 4) work collaboratively to study best practices and implement them in classrooms, 5) make decisions and develop structures to guide classroom instruction and instructional systems, 6) maximize resources to support school goals, 7) design implementation strategies, 8) assess school and district progress toward goals, and 9) implement context-specific professional development based on school and district needs. LLTs help create a shared responsibility for students’ literacy achievement. LLTs play an important role in developing a collaborative, learning system that helps craft a clear vision for literacy instruction in a school or across a district.

Classroom Learning Walks

Classroom learning walks are a structured professional learning experience that engages instructional leaders and teachers in instructional conversations, focused on the school’s current initiatives. Learning walks are used as both windows and mirrors for participants. Learning walks are a window that allow teachers to peak into their colleagues’ classrooms and learn about a variety of instructional practices. They are also used as a mirror that helps observers reflect on their own instruction. 

Classroom learning walks make teaching and learning public. Learning walks provide a robust professional learning experience for teachers that is collaborative and fosters reflection and instructional action. Learning walks can be used to collect data on current instruction, look for evidence of the implementation of effective practices, and gain insights into next steps. Learning walks help increase teachers’ instructional alignment to the school’s vision for instruction by targeting specific instructional practices. The walkers learn by talking about instruction with their colleagues. In addition to being a learning experience for walkers, these walks provide feedback for the teacher based on the school’s instructional foci.

It is important that all teachers understand the non-evaluative role of learning walks and how these walks support the schools’ learning culture. Many schools have a ‘closed-door’ environment. Teachers may not be comfortable having peers observe their instruction. Before implementing classroom learning walks, principals need to provide clear and continuous communication about the purpose and practice of learning walks. Quality conversations about instruction become the catalyst for improved instructional practice. Teachers develop stronger relationships with their colleagues’ and value each other’s strengths. They begin to have a “we are in this together” philosophy. Because there is always a feeling of risk when teachers open up their classrooms, it is essential that principals use a trained facilitator to engage teachers in learning walks—a person who knows how to foster non-judgmental conversations, train observers how to take descriptive notes, and work with walkers to provide feedback for teachers. Most often, well-trained literacy or instructional coaches are the best candidates to facilitate learning walks.

Instructional Learning Labs

Instructional learning labs are collaborative learning experiences for educators and administrators. They foster meaningful instructional conversations by focusing on a specific lesson and instructional goals. Learning labs help educators study, discuss, and implement quality instructional practices and/or curriculum. During a learning lab, a host teacher volunteers to open up her classroom for colleagues to observe. Lessons implemented during the observations are either 1) developed based on instructional practices teachers have been learning about and working to refine or 2) come from a curriculum the department is implementing. Up to six observing teachers engage in the learning lab. Each learning lab includes 1) a pre-brief, which outlines the objectives and content of the lesson; 2) an observation of a full lesson, 3) and a debrief. The host teacher is available during the pre-brief and the debrief to help answer any questions and discuss implementation. Instructional learning labs are an excellent format for testing out and reflecting on the implementation of instructional practices or curricula. Learning labs provide teachers with a method for seeing instruction in action, refining their practice, reflecting on their own instruction, and planning for continued improvement.

Like classroom learning walks, it is important that principals use a strong facilitator for the instructional learning lab protocol. Effective facilitators help create a safe space for learning labs by…

1)    working with the host teacher prior to the observation;

2)    training observers how to take descriptive, non-evaluative notes;

3)    training observers to stay non-judgmental during conversations; and

4)    providing structures and protocols for meaningful discussion and reflection.

Collaboration is Key

 ILA asserts that principals can support literacy achievement for all students by creating a collaborative learning culture and by being the lead learner in their schools, and we agree.

When principals foster community and equity among staff members, increased commitment toward initiatives occurs. Initiatives are more successful when people feel connected and contribute toward an identified outcome. Principals who establish learning-centered climates model curiosity and vulnerability, signaling to others that they do not have all of the answers but are eager to learn. By inviting people to conversations, instead of allowing people to sit in the back, principals are rewarded by dynamic teams who learn together and create better ideas and efforts than no one individual could produce alone.  (ILA, 2019, p. 3)

Literacy leadership teams, classroom learning walks, and instructional learning labs can be powerful structures for developing a collaborative learning environment in schools.

Stay tuned for the next blog in this series that addresses the importance role of “challenge” in classrooms:

Keeping an eye on students’ cognitive engagement is crucial to learning such that students are appropriately challenged. Learning is supposed to be challenging. When teachers do not plan instruction with appropriate rigor and interactive tasks, students may disengage or act out. Students neither have the stamina for, nor are they interested in, lessons that are lecture oriented or involve a series of initiate-respond-evaluate questions that are posed and answered by the teacher. Rather, students respond to instruction that is in the “Goldilocks” range: not too difficult and not too easy.  (ILA, 2019, p. 4-5)

In the next blog, we will be addressing the importance of ensuring that students experience cognitively demanding tasks linked to complex texts to support students’ literacy growth.