Patience, Professional Development and Teamwork Key to Implementation of Small-Group, Skills-Based Instruction for Literacy, Sioux City Principals Say

Denney and Henderson Q&A
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Posted on: January 17, 2017

Director's Note: Since last July, I have had the honor of working with the Sioux City Community School District on its efforts to implement new literacy initiatives in kindergarten through fifth grade. Sioux City Community School District Associate Superintendent Dr. Kim Buryanek serves as the chair of the Iowa Reading Research Center Advisory Council and is a passionate advocate for improving students’ literacy outcomes. She currently oversees implementation of new curriculum and a new approach to implementing that curriculum, small-group skills-based instruction, in five of the district’s elementary schools. She does so with an amazing leadership team that includes Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment April Tidwell and Director of Elementary Education Brian Burnright.

However, what happens at the building level is critical to the success of any effort. While meeting with the building principals and consulting teachers, I have been amazed at how well orchestrated their systems are. There are clear models of using teacher data to plan appropriate support and using student data to refine instructional delivery. What is happening in Sioux City is too good to keep a secret. Therefore, I asked two of the building principals, Amy Denney of Perry Creek Elementary School and Stacie Henderson of Liberty Elementary, to share some information that might benefit other schools as well. This and our next blog will feature their responses to questions we posed. I must admit that it was hard to pick only two leaders from Sioux City for these posts, but I think you will agree that they represent their colleagues well.

Deborah K. Reed, Ph.D.
Director, Iowa Reading Research Center

Q: How have your previous experiences as teachers influenced the literacy leadership you provide in your schools today?

Amy Denney (AD): I was fortunate to teach first grade at a school that participated in strong professional development through Reading Excellence, Every Child Reads, and Reading First. The school was considered at-risk and it felt as if we were continually learning, growing, reflecting, and collecting data along the way. We participated in countless studies of implementation of literacy instruction and specific strategies in teaching phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and the literacy block. We spent an entire year focused on just one component at a time and deeply studied our effectiveness in teaching and monitoring student achievement in that area. I did so much learning and growing as a teacher because of those experiences.

I remember looking at my students’ data one spring in one of my earlier years and having such a wakeup call when all of my students weren’t making as much growth in their reading and writing as I had expected. I asked for support from our Title I teachers and other first grade teachers. Through this and further examination of the data, I found that almost all of them were struggling in digraphs because I had not taught them effectively. I became much more aware of the components of literacy instruction, strategies, and skills that students need to be successful. I participated in all of the professional development opportunities I could and stepped up to be on the school’s leadership team because I wanted to be a great teacher. I became confident in reading strategies, instruction, assessment, and meeting the needs of all students because of these experiences.

Stacie Henderson (SH): Early in my career, I took advantage of the literacy coaches early and often, which helped me develop a good frame of reference for what literacy structures and strategies should look like to have maximum impact. Consistent use of student achievement data, both summative and formative, were expectations at our school, which drove everything we did with students in our literacy efforts as a building. Our weekly professional development coupled with on-site, job-embedded support kept me in a state of constant learning as a new teacher that I have carried with me throughout my different roles in the district. I was also fortunate to work with excellent colleagues who valued collaboration. We worked together to develop lessons, peer coached and observed one another, and processed theory provided during professional development.

One of the best learning opportunities I have brought with me into my role as a building principal was the time I spent in various classrooms observing, co-teaching, planning and coaching. Observing expert teachers delivering quality instruction in addition to the quality training provided during my early years as a teacher has helped me to support teachers across the building I currently serve.

Q: Why did you feel it was important for your school to transition to small-group, skills-based instruction within the 90-minute literacy block?

AD: We have had a dedicated 90-minute literacy block for quite a few years, yet our data suggested that more and more of our students were requiring intervention in reading. As we looked more deeply into the data, we saw that students needed instruction in decoding, fluency, comprehension, and in other areas. It felt like we were working as hard as we could, yet we were not getting the results we expected. What we found was that we had only a small amount of the literacy block being spent on teaching foundational skills and more time spent on whole-group instruction with a basal. This was contributing to increased numbers of students who required interventions. It was a wakeup call that we were not going to be able to provide enough intervention to help our students succeed in reading. Our Associate Superintendent Dr. Kim Buryanek recognized that we had school leaders with knowledge in literacy and she, too, saw a need for: increasing teacher confidence; improved instruction that would meet the needs of our students; and ongoing professional development with a more defined literacy block.

Our core instruction must include opportunities for whole-group and small-group instruction. Each classroom is filled with students who possess and demonstrate different skills and strategies at a variety of levels. Whole-group instruction is necessary to teach essential literacy skills and strategies that are expected of all students in a grade level. With small-group, skills-based instruction, students receive explicit instruction and guided practice in specific skills they need to develop to advance their reading and writing. The teacher is able to differentiate learning for each child and provide students with the instruction that will allow them to grow.

SH: In our building, we have veteran teachers with many years of experience, teachers in the middle of their careers, and teachers new to the profession. Although they range in the level of expertise they bring to the classroom, they share a drive to make a difference for our students. They are hard-working and dedicated, and yet they have not been getting the desired results in student achievement. We had around 50% of students performing on grade level across the building, which is simply not where we need to be. Our staff had implemented an intervention and enrichment block for all students with minimal success. We noticed large gaps in our students’ skills and found that we were not going to be able to intervene our way to proficiency with such a large number of students not meeting benchmark. This was enough to create the demand for a change in our approach. Our core instruction needed to be examined and refined to help our teachers work smarter and deliver more powerful instruction, addressing the skill gaps we were seeing. We were set to implement new reading materials this year, so it was a perfect time to revamp our literacy instruction. We are focusing on combining strong core instruction with differentiated skills-based instruction delivered to small groups of students.

Q: What were the key steps you took at the start of the transition that you think helped ensure your teachers could be successful with the new approaches?

AD: It has been a challenging but worthwhile transition to small-group, skills-based instruction, which we are still navigating. We had many hurdles in opening a new school that combined three smaller schools, receiving new reading resources, learning about new literacy block structures, and adjusting to a new and larger student population. More than anything, I wanted the teachers to know that we were going to get there together, and I didn’t expect them to make sense of everything overnight. We focused on the journey and have made adjustments along the way. We utilized a 21-day phase-in model to introduce and teach stations, routines, and expectations. Teachers met in professional learning communities (PLCs) to collaborate on the must-dos and may-dos, names of stations, structure and rotation of groups, whole-group lessons, and skills-based lessons for small groups that Deborah Reed of the Iowa Reading Research Center presented during our professional development. Students’ FAST and aReading data were collected, organized, and analyzed to assist in forming groups of students who needed to work on specific skills. I supported teachers in trying different routines until they found something that worked for them and allowed them to meet the needs of students. Each student never went longer than 30 minutes without contact, feedback, or instruction from an adult. We are now focusing on learning more about each component of literacy and what explicit instruction during a small-group, skills-based lesson looks like. We are improving our instruction of skills to positively impact student learning.

SH: We began by discussing our data with staff and creating the demand for change. The implementation of our new curriculum materials was welcomed as there were many gaps in our previous materials. The blending of the implementation of the materials with the 21-day phase-in plan for small-group instruction has been complex because these two pieces were both new to teachers. In the first couple of weeks of school, all teachers were provided with professional development (from Deborah Reed of the Iowa Reading Research Center and our own consulting teachers and grade-level representatives) in launching stations, setting expectations for the literacy block, and developing routines. There have been some growing pains associated with this structure as many different frameworks were in place. Teachers had to make sense of what this would truly look like in their classroom. The administration and consulting teachers worked with the staff to assure them that we are all learning together and that this transition would not happen overnight. Our consulting teachers scheduled time in classrooms and supported teachers in PLCs to make sure they had their questions answered.

Although we allowed teachers to start at their own pace, we placed a sunset on when they would have to have things in place in order to ensure implementation in all classrooms. Classrooms with strong implementation were videotaped to be shown as examples at professional development sessions, allowing teachers a window into other classrooms. We then began to work together in PLCs to examine student FAST data and formative assessment data to plan for small-group instruction. Our PLCs meet weekly as a grade level to plan for instruction and refine practices within the 90-minute block. Title I, English language learner, and special education teachers are also members of those PLCs.

We have found that, due to the varying levels of knowledge on our staff, it is important that we differentiate professional development for teachers just as we are asking them to do for students in their classroom. It also helps to provide choice, so that the staff members can select what meets their needs at the moment.

Check back to the blog on Jan. 31 for the second installment of this Q&A.


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