Other

Engaging Teachers with a Teacher Leadership Book Study

This post is co-written with Amy Illingworth, and cross-posted to Amy’s blog!

One thing we (Amy Illingworth & Mari Venturino) have in common is our love of books! We both read a good mix of education, fiction, young adult, and nonfiction books. What better way to bring together teachers than with a Teacher Leadership Book Study? Our district did just that! Read on, for how we did it and what we learned, from the perspective of a teacher participant and an administrator facilitator.

Where the idea came from

Amy:

Our large, urban school district has a committee of teachers, site leaders, and district leaders, who come together to discuss how we can use our Title II funds to improve teaching and learning across the district. In the spring of 2017, as the committee reviewed the federal guidelines for Title II funds, we kept coming back to a big idea – leadership. We wanted to find ways to support teacher leadership.

Our district has a number of leadership support structures in place, creating a pathway from teacher to administrator roles, if one chooses to go in that direction. However, we have many dedicated teachers who want to take on leadership roles without stepping out of their classrooms. With those specific teachers in mind, our committee came up with two ideas: A Teacher Leadership Academy and Teacher Leadership Book Studies. The Academy was designed to follow a small cohort of teachers through a year-long learning opportunity. For the book studies, we agreed that we would offer a few throughout the year, and that any teacher in the district could join any single book study anytime. We used our Title II funds to pay any participating teacher to attend the two hour book study discussion meetings and to purchase the book for any interested teacher.

Mari:

A few years back, I started a book club at my school. We alternated YA novels and an education-related books each month, but it fizzed out before the end of the school year. I was craving more formalized book chatter, but couldn’t keep up the interest and commitment from my very busy colleagues.

I received a whole-district email from Amy at the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year with information about a district-hosted Teacher Leadership Book Study. Although one of my goals this year is to be careful about what I commit to, this was an easy and enthusiastic “yes!” I love chatting about books with colleagues and friends, and thought it would be a great way to have conversations with teachers across the district.

Implementation

Amy:

Trying to plan a book study that would be open to 2,000+ teachers is not easy! In September I sent out an email to all teachers in our district explaining what the Teacher Leadership Book Study would be. There was a website available for more detailed information, explaining that we would read a few books throughout the year and that any teacher was welcome to participate. I advertised our first book selection, The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros, with an RSVP linked to a Google Form. When I hit send on that first email, I didn’t know if I would have more than one teacher sign up to join me on this new adventure.

Small group discussions with teachers across the district.

I had 50 people sign up to read the first book! I ordered a copy of the book for every teacher who signed up. Teachers had about a month to read the book, and then they attended one book study discussion meeting (which I offered on two consecutive nights to break up the large group and for flexibility with busy schedules).

When teachers walked into our Professional Development Center for the first discussion meeting, they were immediately surprised because I had all of the chairs arranged in a large circle. I asked everyone to make a name tag so that we could get to know each other and refer to new colleagues by name throughout our discussion. We sat in the circle and I facilitated a discussion about the book. I would share a quote or a prompt from the book, and then open it up for discussion by anyone. We let the conversation go wherever it was going and had fun getting to know each other in this new setting. At some point, I had participants get up and form a pair with someone from across the circle, to encourage more dialogue and to give all participants an opportunity to speak, since some seemed intimidated trying to speak in the large circle.

Small group discussions about Shift This

At the end of the first book study, I asked for recommendations for future books and used teacher feedback to select the rest of the books for the year. With each new book, we had more teachers participate, reaching 90 for our last book! As the meeting groups grew, I had to change the structure. Instead of one large circle discussion, I had teachers sit in small table groups and facilitate their own discussion, with prompts provided by me. To get everyone up and moving after a long talk period, I had the entire room stand up and form a line based on how many years of teaching experience they had. We folded the line in half so that the newest teacher in the room was talking face-to-face with the most veteran teacher in the room. We did a few minutes of this “speed dating” style partner talk, with each teacher having the opportunity to meet a few more colleagues for a 1:1 conversation.

Mari:

I participated in all four of the book studies: Innovator’s Mindset (George Couros), Shift This (Joy Kirr), Overcoming the Achievement Gap Trap (Anthony Muhammad), and Lead Like a Pirate (Shelley Burgess and Beth Houf). I thoroughly enjoyed the book discussions. There were a few people from my school who also signed up, and I saw a few friends from across the district. However, I loved meeting so many new people from my district during the discussions!

Teachers participating in the “speed dating” sharing activity.

During the conversations, Amy would put up a series of discussion questions, and we would choose the direction of our conversation. My favorite part was hearing from teachers at different schools, including middle school, high school, alternative education, and adult education–the variety of voices and experiences helped me to deeply reflect on how I am best meeting my students’ needs.

One particular activity I loved was “speed dating” from Lead Like a Pirate. Amy facilitated it with a group of about 30 teachers. We first lined up by number of years taught, then folded the line in half. Amy gave us a couple minutes to answer a question together. Then we waved goodbye to our partner, one line rotated 3 spots down, and we repeated the process.

Perspective from Amy, district leader

It’s always scary to try to implement something new. This was especially true for me, as I was still relatively new to my position and new to this large district. You never know what the turn out will be or how the initiative will be received. I was especially aware of the fact that I was an administrator attempting to lead conversations with large groups of teachers. While I always consider myself a teacher first, then a coach, and finally a leader, it has still been many years since I was last in my own classroom, doing the hard work of teaching every day.

My biggest takeaway from this experience was how open and excited teachers were to have the opportunity to talk to peers from across the district about their reading and professional experiences. In the final survey I sent out to get feedback on the book studies, I read a version of this quote over and over again when I asked what teachers most appreciated, “Being able to openly discuss ideas and concerns about our classrooms and teaching methods with others who read the book.”

Perspective from Mari, teacher

My biggest takeaway from the Teacher Leadership Book Studies was being given the time and space to talk with teachers from our district. Being in a very large district with 1500+ teachers, sometimes I feel like other schools are lightyears away. The Teacher Leadership Book Study made me feel closer to my colleagues at other schools. I appreciated the opportunity to learn together, meet new friends, and continue these connections on Twitter. I realized it didn’t matter how much I liked the book, but rather the little nuggets I gained from our conversations together.

Lead Like a Pirate

We are lucky to have Amy as a leader in our district! While she may be at the administrator level, she is approachable and frequently at schools and in classrooms. Amy’s facilitation style is respectful, she is a patient listener, and her presence allows us to have honest conversations without fear of repercussions.

The books were the vehicle, Amy was our Google Maps, and we were the adventurers.

Here is just a sampling of some of the feedback from our many participants:

  • “I appreciated the theories about mindset and being a teacher that can propel change.”
  • “I really appreciate everyone’s genuineness. Every individual shared some really valuable insight, opinions, etc. and it was so helpful to hear other reactions to the ideas in the books.”
  • “I enjoyed it a lot. It helped inspire and motivate me during the year when I was starting to drag or feel overwhelmed by the job. Thank you!”

 

Books

What I read in 2017

2017 was a good year for books. I finished a total of 55 books! Here’s the breakdown: 26 audiobooks, 29 books (8 books, 21 ebooks). The two major categories I read this year were YA (21) and Nonfiction (20). Surprisingly, I only read 3 edu-books this year.

This year I kept a bit more data than I have in the past. Previously, I just listed the books I read. Now, I’m keeping track of completion date, number of pages or hours (although I usually listen to audiobooks on 2x speed, which I take into account in my data), format, and genre. My favorite part of all this data is the graphs I create to go along with it. I like the visual trends for genre and books completed each month. Click here to make a copy of my book tracking spreadsheet for your own use.

Here are some of my favorite books I read this year: (they’re in chronological order

1. Heartless (Marissa Meyer)

I love love love the Lunar Chronicles, and Heartless was just as awesome. This one is based on Alice in Wonderland, which brought in some of my childhood magic. I’m a bit sad it’s not part of a series, because I’ve loved everything she’s written!

2. Caraval (Stephanie Garber)

For my Breakout EDU fans, this book will be a hit! It has the magic of a full-scale Breakout EDU game, as the main character is trying to find her sister before Caraval is over.

3. My Not So Perfect Life (Sophie Kinsella)

I keep coming back to this book all year, thinking about how we portray ourselves online versus the reality around us. The reality is all too real!

4. Yes, And (Kelly Leonard & Tom Yorton)

This was recommended by my dear friend Jess Loucks, and her keynote is based on improv. This isn’t an improv how-to book, but rather the ideas behind improv and how they can make us better creators and collaborators.

5. The Inexplicable Logic of my Life (Benjamin Alire Sáenz)

This story is fantastic, complex, and heartwarming. It addresses the real issues around us, including life, love, and loss. He also wrote Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, which I read in 2015 — bonus for my Hamilton Nerds, the Aristotle & Dante audiobook is read by Lin-Manuel Miranda!!

6. Fueled by Coffee and Love (Mari Venturino)

I can’t blog about 2017 books without talking about this, I’m still so proud of myself for pulling together Fueled by Coffee and Love. It’s a collection of teacher stories written by teachers all around the world! Please pick up a copy for yourself and a teacher you adore–all proceeds go to classrooms!

7. The Hate U Give (Angie Thomas)

This book hit the world by storm when it was published in February 2017. I finally got a copy over summer, and binge read the entire thing in just a few days! It’s heartbreaking and eye-opening at the same time. It really framed police violence and BLM in a way that is accessible to a wider population. I highly recommend this book!

8. Hidden Figures (Margot Lee Shetterly)

I listened to the audiobook, then watched the movie (*gasp* I watched a movie!). So good! I’ve always been a huge space fan, and in middle school I wanted to be an aerospace engineer; however, why am I just now hearing about Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson et al now?! They were left out of history, and I didn’t even know to look for them.

9. Classroom of One (Doug Robertson)

Another gem by my friend Doug Robertson. One of the three edu-books I read this year, and it was by far the best! It prepared me for my first guide teacher experience, and helped me become a stronger and more reflective teacher overall. I highly recommend this to anyone in education!

10. Turtles All the Way Down (John Green)

This is my second favorite John Green book (first favorite is Will Grayson, Will Grayson). This new one definitely didn’t disappoint. I appreciate how much it dove into anxiety and how it affects Aza’s life–but, it’s not forced or overdone.

I’d love some recommendations on books you think I’d like. Please leave me a comment below!

Books, Classroom Strategies

Read alouds aren’t only for English class!

Why does reading a novel have to be compartmentalized to English class?
There’s such a huge push for reading and annotating text in all content areas, and most of these are informational texts. While helpful, I can’t say my students are super excited by reading tasks (although the content might be interesting), and it definitely doesn’t foster a love of reading.
My students were shocked when I told them we would be doing a read aloud in 7th grade science. “Why are we reading a book in science?!” they immediately asked.

We Are All Made of Molecules
The book I chose was We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen. I preordered it back in the spring, and when it arrived, I binge read it. It was that good.

The story comes down to Stewart and Ashley, two complete opposites who are thrown together when their parents move in together. It deals with social status and social perceptions, bullying, LGBT prejudice and unhealthy relationships.

If you’re planning to use this book (or any others) with your students, make sure you pre-read it, and decide if it’s appropriate for your students. There are some intense parts relating to Ashley and her boyfriend, which can be shocking or upsetting to some students. However, it all fit in perfectly for my class.

As part of our health unit, we have to incorporate information about LGBT identities, as well as healthy versus unhealthy relationships and dating violence. Even with my passion for teaching help, I was unsure how to approach these topics. The conversations that followed our reading were deep and emotional, and way more meaningful than any Slides presentation.

The Read Aloud
At first, I had no idea how to structure the read aloud. I tried reading at the very end of class, but I kept running out of time. My good friend, Doug Robertson, suggested that I start class by reading. I switched it up, and reading became a habit. It was really nice for students to decompress before moving in to science content.

Each day, my students begged for another chapter! Mind you, many of my students are highly reading-averse…sometimes I indulged their request, sometimes I would quietly close the book while they protested. It took us about 4 months to read the book, although it wasn’t until the last 2 that we actually read steadily.

After the Read Aloud
We finished the book with a huge round of applause. I created a Form for them to share their thoughts on the books, and ask questions to the author. As a class, we narrowed down the questions, and we posted them on our classroom Twitter account (I/we haven’t done much with it as of now, but I’m hoping to add more pretty soon).  Then, we waited patiently for our responses.

Here are a few of the tweets and responses:
Reflections on the Process
I am just in love with the read aloud. First of all, it was such a relaxing way to start class with my squirrely 7th graders. They were super engaged in the reading, and I rarely had anyone being a distraction. This could be a much more ELA-heavy activity, with reading and writing prompts: I opted not to, so my students didn’t feel like we were actually working. Instead, we had partner and class discussions after each chapter.

I’m also so extremely thankful for Susin Nielsen and all her support throughout this process. I reached out to her on Twitter when we first started our read aloud, and kept her updated on our progress. She has an excellent website with educator resources for her books! Thanks for letting us celebrate you!

What’s Next?
Now I’m deciding which book to read next…we’re going to be learning about ecology and the Earth. Considering Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen.  Suggestions welcome!
 
Books

What I Read in 2016

My goal for 2016 was to read/listen to at least 100 books, reading at least 52. I ended up reading 49 and listening to 17, for a grand total of 66 books. Normally I’d be disappointed about not meeting my goal, but I’m thrilled I read as much as I did! This year, I have the same goal. We’ll see if I can pick up the pace a bit.
For the last several years, my dad and I have done a book bingo together. We create 24 categories + 1 free space at the beginning of the year, then try to read a book from each category. These range from silly (book with an orange cover) to diverse (book that is a translation) to old (published before 1000AD). Last year, he finished his whole bingo–must be nice to be retired! I finished about ⅔. We have a new bingo game for this year, so I better get reading. I also created a bingo card to share. Happy reading 🙂
I check out the majority of my ebooks and audiobooks from the public library via Overdrive. I’m usually good about managing the number of books I have and the number of books I have on hold. Pro tip: add books to your holds, then suspend the hold. You’ll move up in position, but the book won’t be checked out to you until you unsuspend the hold or your suspension time is up.
Here are my categories from 2016. As you can see, I mainly read education, young adult, and fiction books. Naturally, Harry Potter gets it’s own category. I used inspiration rather than self-help because it drops the negative connotation.
My book genre breakdown for 2016
 I kicked off 2016 by reading Ditch that Textbook by Matt Miller. It was an inspiring edu-read, and I enjoyed occasionally participating in the #ditchbook twitter chat on Thursday nights. I love anything published by Dave Burgess Consulting, and I think I own about 75% of the collection. Thanks Dave & Shelley for letting me spin the Burgess stop and giving me some wonderful books!
Here are some of my favorite books I read/listened to in 2016*:
Creating Classroom Magic by Shauna Pollock (book) – I love Disneyland and Disney, and I was completely inspired to add in a little more magic into my classroom. Shauna is filled with great ideas and stories.
Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ by Giulia Enders (ebook) – My science nerd self was fascinated to learn so much about the human digestive system. This book is written to be accessible by all, and there is a lot of practical knowledge for the why’s and how’s.
How Google Works by Eric Schmidt & Jonathan Rosenberg (ebook) – So fascinating to hear more about the Google backstory, their vision and growth process, and their philosophy behind how they treat their employees. Reading this inspired me to dream bigger (10x, not 10%).
We are all Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen (book) – A friend recommended this to me, and I preordered it on Amazon. When it arrived, I had forgotten I had ordered it. It was a quick read, but absolutely heart-wrenching and sweet. I loved it so much that I am using it for a read aloud in my 7th grade science class. It’s not about molecules, and technically it’s a fairly weak science content tie; however, the ideas and themes in this book fit the personal development of my 7th graders, and tie into a few topics we cover (molecules, health, bullying, healthy relationships).
Harry Potter books 1-6 by JK Rowling (audiobook) – I’ve read them multiple times, and friends kept telling me how amazing the audiobooks are. Truth. Jim Dale is incredible. He has a different voice for each character. Plus, it was nice hanging out with my old friends. I was 10 when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone came out, and just graduated high school when the Deathly Hallows was released. I’m most of the way through the Deathly Hallows audiobook, but it expired before I finished it so I’m waiting to get it again.
So off we go in 2017. I’m excited to read more books, listen to more audiobooks, and go on new adventures. You can follow my book journey on my book blog (books.mariventurino.com). I’ll cross-post some of my favorite books to my main blog.
What books did you love in 2016? And what are you excited to read in 2017?
*I categorize books & ebooks (on my Kindle) separately, but count them together as physical books in my data.