S3 E1 - Getting Clear About What is Important in 2024

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Welcome back.
Welcome. Welcome. A thousand welcomes to the first podcast episode of the Structured Literacy Podcast for 2024. Today, we are kicking off our second year of the podcast recorded here in Tasmania, the home of the Palawa people.

Today's Topic - Getting Clear and Setting Goals.
I'd like to start us off for the year with an episode all about goals. Now, don't worry. We aren't going to run through a process of making our goals SMART as in specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-sensitive. Although that is a valuable framework to work with. Instead, we're going to talk about getting clear on some things that are important. There are so many things that we all get hung up about and overcomplicate in our quest to ensure that every child learns to read and write that it's easy to lose sight of some of the basic things that will really make a difference to student outcomes. Some of the things that will be helpful for us to get clear about are: what we teach and how we teach. Matters relating to how we teach are applicable right across the curriculum, not just as we deal with literacy.

Myth No.1  - Programs give us everything we need.
So, let's start by talking about what we teach. The first item on my list today is about programs. Now, many schools will begin this year implementing a new program, and that might even be something from us. This can be exciting and scary in equal measure. Exciting because it's so hopeful to introduce something new and think about the possibilities of improved outcomes that could happen. It's also scary because we're trying to support our teams to start strong and stay strong. What if it doesn't work? What if we've made a mistake? Starting something new can feel really risky. When it comes to programs, I encourage you to think about the language that you use in relation to them, even if you're using our work. You are not a Reading Success school, a Spelling Success school, a Sounds-Write school, a MultiLit school, a Read Write Inc. school, or a Little Learners school. You are your own school, and you teach children to read and write in a structured, explicit way. The program you choose to use as you do this is merely a tool, and an imperfect one at that. Every program or resource has its strengths and limitations, and we need to know what those are so that we can respond accordingly. There is not one single thing that's going to give us everything we need.

The Three Types of Knowledge
When it comes to learning, there are three types of knowledge we very often talk about. Declarative knowledge that's the stuff we know; procedural knowledge is what we know how to do, and conditional knowledge is the ability to know when to do what. When people develop teaching resources, they use their declarative knowledge to design sequences of instruction that they think might make sense in a general education setting. They test it out in classrooms, see how it goes and make adjustments based on feedback. That's really sensible and useful. They determine effectiveness and know what learning will look like if their resource is used the way that they set it out. But here's the thing. They don't have a crystal ball to know exactly how every student is going to respond to instruction. They can't possibly know what YOUR students need in any given moment, and that's where you, the teacher, come in. As someone who writes programs and creates resources, I know why every element is important, and I know what the impact will probably be if they aren't used. It's why I encourage people to use our stuff in the way that they're written and not deviate too far from how things are presented. But I can't know how many repetitions your students will need to learn content, how many words you should include in the review, at what point your students will have mastered each concept and therefore, how fast you should move on in the sequence of learning. That particular information comes from you conducting some formative assessment and continually monitoring student progress to evaluate the impact of instruction. That's where you need to develop declarative knowledge about the elements of instruction that reflect research and what progress should be. If you use the resources and training available to you and practise lessons to the point where teaching becomes fluent, you'll be able to turn your attention to responding to student need. Your conditional knowledge comes about when you can put your students at the centre of your focus and answer the question, "What does this student, or these students in front of me, need from me today to get great learning outcomes?" And this is where value-adding comes in. While I and other resource developers will ask that core lessons are delivered pretty much as written, that doesn't mean that you shouldn't value add with additional tasks, practice opportunities, and lessons that deepen learning and help students apply concepts in context. This is particularly important for our students who struggle and need something extra. We don't usually need a separate program to help them. We need to provide more intensive, extra doses of instruction in a way that meets them where they're up to. So the programs are great. They lighten our cognitive load and save us a bunch of planning and prep time. But using them doesn't mean that we shouldn't also use our judgment about how we meet student needs. We also don't need to go and get a new program or tool just because we've recognized that there are some areas of instruction that could benefit from some supplementary tools and tasks.

Myth No.2 - There is a Perfect Instructional Method.
The second thing I'd like us to get clear about is that there is no one perfect method of instruction or tool that's going to work in every circumstance, for every child. There are also very few tools or tasks that are always 100 per cent bad. I think that we need to stop putting programs or methods on pedestals and, at the other end, stop demonizing them. Looking for programs or resources that embody instructional perfection only leaves us disappointed and never ever satisfied. Chasing the unattainable sets us up for failure because educational Nirvana just doesn't exist. We will never reach the point of perfection in our teaching where we have every duck in a row. There are never no problems to solve. Sure, we reach a point where we climb out of the learning pit, and things become easier and more predictable. We learn about what we need to do and know how to solve problems more easily. But being part of a profession that is becoming more and more committed to following evidence means that change is inevitable that's a good thing because growth keeps us fresh and engaged. We're looking for low variance, not no variance, over the years. And when it comes to demonizing practices and resources, that's often equally as unhelpful. There are times when levelled texts are okay. That is, when students know the code and can read them. There are times when you're going to ask students to use the pictures in the book. That is when we're making meaning, not lifting words from the page. There are times when grouping for instruction makes sense, and that is when there is an enormous range in students' points of learning in the code, and some kids simply can't access the main lesson because they are so far behind everyone else. There are times when we can ask students to collaboratively explore patterns in words and discuss them. That is, after we've taught them about the pattern and students understand about what they're looking at. It's not that some practices are always perfect or some practices are always bad. It's that we need to become expert teachers of literacy so that we know when and how to do what. And while we build the knowledge and skill we need, our programs and tools can help guide us.

Myth No.3 - Classroom Behaviour is a Separate Issue.
Now, let's move away from literacy instruction practices for a second and talk about the general classroom environment. Let's get clear on that. And yes, I'm talking about student behaviour. You might think that a discussion of student behaviour is a departure from the usual content of this podcast, but if learning is going to be strong,  behaviour must be a consideration. Students can either be paying attention to learning or not. They can be learning, or they can be mucking up. They can't do both of these things at the same time. The key to on-track behaviour in the classroom is an increased focus on learning. We aren't asking students to stay focused and do what we ask so that they get a sticker. That stuff rarely works. In my own teaching, the children who got the stickers for doing the right thing were going to do the right thing anyway, and the students who I really was trying to influence, well, they did what I asked to get the sticker and then went straight back to doing what they weren't supposed to be doing, namely, that was being off task and distracting each other. When things really started to shift for me here was when I made my behaviour expectations about learning, not compliance. The first thing to know about behaviour is that there is no group of unmanageable kids. Before you start saying, "But Jocelyn, have you met our kids?" Well, yes. Yes, I have. I lived and worked in remote places in the Northern Territory for almost 10 years. And I may not have met your particular students, but I've met and taught students like them, I'm sure, and in all the students I've taught, either in my own time working for schools or now when I work with schools, I've never met a kid who didn't want to feel successful. It's creating opportunities for success. It's stacking the deck for achievement that leads to engagement. Instead of thinking about behaviour problems, what about if we talked about engagement? When we shift focus from reducing problem behaviours to increasing positive engagement, the whole tone of our thoughts changes. Instead of judging kids, (and let's be honest, we've all done it at times) we're searching for solutions that are actually in our control. We can't control what goes on in the heads of our students, but we can control the conditions we create for them to learn in.

Tops Tips For Increasing Positive Student Engagement
Some of my top tips for increasing student engagement in learning and therefore reducing disruptive behaviours are:

Number one: Say what you mean and mean what you say, and that particular phrase comes from my mother-in-law; thanks, Kim. If you want students to be silent, say silent. Don't say quiet. Saying, "Please work quietly." leaves way too much wriggle room for students to chat really, really softly. So their whispering is quiet, but it's not what you meant. Then what happens is, you find yourself in the position of growling at students for doing exactly what you told them to do. So the key here is direct speech. The other thing that goes with this is reducing the number of words you use and the items you include when you give kids instructions. Instead of saying, "I'd like to get your pencil and ruler. Then come to the mat, making sure that you remember to steer clear of the Lego constructions on the left-hand side of the room. When you come to the mat, don't sit with your usual partner. Please sit with your new spelling partner. Oh, and bring your clipboards." You could say, "Listen to my instruction," and then you wait till there's silence and everyone's looking at you. "You will need your pencil, ruler, and clipboard", and as you say this, you hold up three fingers and count those items off. Imagine me holding up one finger at a time. "You will need your pencil, ruler, clipboard." Then get the students to repeat the three items they need to bring to the mat a couple of times. Then you will say, "Please get those items. Pencil, ruler, clipboard." Wait for the children to get what they need, and then you signal for them to be silent. Then you say,  "You will be working with your new spelling partner. Please point to your spelling partner." Then you help the students who can't remember who their new spelling partner is. Then say, "When you come to the mat, please remember to walk on the window side of the classroom away from the Lego construction. Please point to where you'll be walking. Very good. Go." The first example is guaranteed to result in chaos to some degree, and we've all been there. The second is much less likely to do so. In the first scenario, you'll need to spend five minutes when the kids get to the mat dealing with those who've left things at their desks, aren't sitting with their correct partner, or have chatted their way to the mat and now need time to get themselves focused again. In the second scenario, where your speech is much more direct and controlled, students are way more likely to be focused, have all of the right equipment and be ready to engage. I'm not about to guarantee you anything here, but the chances of success increase when we simplify and are more direct. So speak directly and say exactly what you mean.

Number two: The next point about behaviour is to teach your instructional routines as rigorously as you teach academic content. We assume that because we have an image in our head of what we want to happen, that students understand what we want. So we'll say things like, "Please line up nicely." What does that mean? The children could be thinking, "Well, I'm not throwing anything or yelling, so I'm lining up nicely." But in your head, you're visualizing two rows of children where everybody's facing the front, their lips are zipped, and they're just waiting patiently. Everything in your classroom that you want children to do, from how you want the whiteboards handled to where the students will move from the desk to the floor and how they do that. You need to tell them what to do, show them what to do and give them feedback. And will it feel like boot camp? You bet! But it is well worth taking the time in the first couple of weeks of the year, or the term, to explicitly teach instructional routines and behaviour norms for learning. When I was a new teacher, nobody really told me this stuff, and I wish they had. But even now, as an experienced teacher, there are times when a reminder doesn't hurt.

Number three: Following on from this, there are three little words that I learned from a colleague. Thanks, Kaz. And they are 'persistent', 'consistent', and 'insistent'. When you are establishing instructional and behavioral expectations, we need to persist in our expectations of what students are going to do. Don't give up. Don't try it once or twice and then say, "Oh, well, that didn't work." We need to insist that they do what we ask. If we ask for whiteboard marker lids to be on, then we should insist that it happens. None of this business where kids hover the lid near the marker while you're watching them and then proceed to draw pictures on their board while you're explaining a concept. We have to insist, and you have a right to insist that behaviour is followed up on in the way that you ask, as long as we're being reasonable. We also need to be consistent about creating a predictable environment where students know what to expect. So we can't have expectations on Monday, but not on Tuesday. Kids don't know what you want from them if that's the case. And leaders, this goes for staff as well. If you want everyone to be off their phones in the playground, well, they have to be off their phones on playground duty. And if you walk past them three days in a row and don't say anything, don't be surprised if when you say something on the fourth day, they're cross with you. This consistent business works for grownups and children alike.

Myth No.4 - Checking Student Progress Should Be Done Each Term 
The fourth area I'd like to discuss today is what happens after you've made strong decisions about what to teach. You've established strong behavioural expectations, and you want to get into instruction. That is, we need to notice how well students have responded to our teaching. This is at the heart of responsive teaching and enables us to evaluate our practice and make the changes needed to support every student. So today, because we don't have nine hours to discuss all of this, I'm going to talk specifically about phonics instruction. And while phonics is not nearly the end of the story when it comes to literacy, if you don't have that explicit conscious knowledge of how the code works, you don't have much of anything going on. One of the practices that has been really impactful for schools I work with is to do a weekly check-in. This involves creating a simple grid with student's names down the side and the graphemes that you're teaching them across the top. Then, once per week, you show the graphemes. It could just be on a card, be on a whiteboard or a piece of paper. Show them the graphemes that you have been teaching and ask them to tell you what sound they spell or whatever language you happen to use in your school. If students are automatic, they get a tick, and if they're not, you leave it blank. So if they hunt around in their mind for three seconds, they don't have it. If they give you four sounds other than the one you're looking for, they don't have it. So you have to be automatic and fluent, and sure in order to get a tick. Then the blank boxes are focused individualized practice. That practice can look like a bunch of stuff. One of the things that you can do is to have a phonics folder. It's just a manila folder that has some things on the inside of it that is an indication to any person who's supporting that child that these are the things that that child is specifically working on. In that way, you provide a targeted range of content to focus on ensuring that that child, (who in all likelihood probably has some wobbly memory stuff going on) they are actually getting the number of repetitions that they need. In this way, you are stacking the deck to increase the chances that that child can keep up with their peers instead of having to catch up later. This check in and practice thing is so simple and so effective. It responds to student need in real time and enables you to get feedback on your instruction straight away. It also allows you to evaluate the effectiveness of any changes you make really quickly. No changing something up and then waiting for a whole term to see if it's worked because that's when we do our official monitoring assessment. Finally, this practice can help inform what goes into your daily review the following week. Yep, you can gather feedback whole-class to an extent, but there's nothing quite as informative as a quick check in. And if you don't have time to make this happen for everyone, please make it happen for those students who you know either through data or diagnosis or just your teacher's spidey senses, those students who you know who need something extra. Because for them, this is critical. You can't let it go and be loosey-goosey on this. If you're going to keep everyone together, keep everyone caught up and keeping up, then paying very close attention and closely monitoring is really important. It doesn't have to be the classroom teacher who does this check-in. It can be a learning support assistant or an EA, but if that's the case, please just make sure that you're all aware of what you're looking for in terms of student response. And remember, you're not checking in on everything. You're just checking in on the things that you've been teaching and the things that the students were previously wobbly on. Not reviewing and checking in on the whole code, just the little bits that you want feedback on now.

In Conclusion.
So many of us are working so very hard to improve student outcomes through a structured, explicit approach to teaching. And as we approach a new school year, you could be having feelings of excitement, you could be having feelings of nervousness. Whatever feeling you happen to be having is okay. Many of us are getting good results through what we're already doing. But the schools and individual teachers who are making the biggest impact and seeing the greatest gains are those who aren't prepared to rest at good. They are committed to great. The shift from a bit dodgy to good is huge, but actually not that hard to make happen. The shift from good to great isn't that far, but it is actually harder to achieve. It's not hard to have a short-term impact and see results when things haven't been particularly strong previously. But it's quite difficult to take the important step to really refine and build your craft because you have to be really tight and targeted, and intentional. Our students deserve to have each of us be an expert teacher of reading. How do we know that we're one of those? When someone can come in and steal all your teaching resources in the night and break the internet, and we can still deliver a great lesson the next day, that's when we know that we're an expert teacher of reading. When we're relying on our knowledge and experience, not what someone else tells us about our students. That is when we can call ourselves an expert teacher of reading. But it is only through getting clear about what's important that we can get our students where we want them to go, where they deserve for us to be. That is, knowledgeable about research and theory, knowledgeable about how to conduct really strong lessons, and knowing when to do what.

Three things that we can get clear about is the role of programs and building our own capacity. Programs are great. But our school's approach to instruction must rest on more than a single tool. We have to equip our teachers with the knowledge and skill to meet students where they're up to. The second thing we can get clear on is the importance of an orderly and focused learning environment. And finally, knowing what we expect in student learning and closely monitoring student response to our instruction is vital if we are to become the responsive teachers we need to be. Wherever you are in the world right now, I wish you an absolutely marvellous 2024. I firmly believe that together we can get clear on the things that are important for outcomes and each do our bit to shape the sort of learning environment that both students and teachers deserve. Because, after all, every student has the right to be taught with evidence-informed instruction, and every teacher has the right to be supported to make that happen. 2024 is the year to get clear, so let's get on with it. 

See you next time. Bye.


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