Interview for Education News: Helping Teachers Through In-Services and Workshops

This interview was conducted by Michael F. Shaughnessy for Education News.  The original article can be found at http://ow.ly/cts8i

1) Jill, first of all, tell us a bit about your workshops and in-services and what you try to accomplish.

We help struggling districts, schools and teachers improve their reading scores and skills of their students. Our goal is to go into a school and get our hands dirty and look at the data, look at the practices and connect with the teachers – we do this by modeling, demonstrating and coaching in real-life classrooms – we call it “getting in the trenches” with what’s REALLY happening in schools! The words that we live by are: it all comes down to the quality of the teaching. So, we work throughout a school to improve the overall quality of the teaching because we know that the student scores will follow.

2) Now, I can think of no time in the last, well 40 years, when teachers have been under such stress. What are your current impressions?

I think teachers are very stressed – but I think they’re stressed about the wrong things! On Twitter and Facebook and social media, I have lots of folks reach out and lash out about how standardized tests aren’t fair and how dare we look at students performance as a measure of the teacher and how learning is more than a test.

The way I see it, all of the time we spend fighting ‘the system’ is less time we’re spending stressing (or really putting our heads down and working really hard) about the preparation and care that it takes to design and deliver lessons that take students from Point A to Point B – and, most importantly, to long term reading skill mastery. I think that we’re doing a lot of fussing and fighting on the backs of the kids and I just can’t accept that.

3) Some teachers seem to just go about their business teaching kids, and don’t worry much about IEP’s AYP, NCLB and 504′s. Am I off on this?

You’re absolutely right…and that’s good and bad at the same time. Here’s the deal: in my experience, successful teachers are looking at their student data as a way to measure their success. These folks are putting in the real work on what matters in the end – quality teaching and all that goes into it. They aren’t worrying too much about the proverbial pendulum swinging or the latest crazy education scandal on CNN, they’re worrying about and fussing over and crunching the numbers and measuring success in THEIR classroom – because that’s their reality!

Successful teachers know that the IEPs, AYP, NCLB and 504s are a part of the work, and if they are providing daily successful teaching to kids in a highly managed classroom with lots of positive, academic based feedback the IEPs will show growth and their classroom will contribute to the school making AYP and such. I haven’t seen a highly skilled teacher who absolutely brings his best and most on-fire teaching to the classroom each day, NOT get results.

And, trust me, they are working against some pretty serious odds in the schools that we support!

The flip side of that are those educators who say that “the test isn’t valid” or that their students are successful but “the tests don’t show it”. In this case, they’re ignoring the measurements like AYP, IEPs and such in favor of gut checks and potentially random style-driven criteria in their head – obviously I think this is a dangerous practice.

4) The teachers I talk to pretty much say the same thing- they need more administrative support, do you address these issues?

Absolutely. Our goal is to not just have our clients show classroom success, but have that classroom success show across the school – and that requires serious commitment, protection of time and every day presence from the leadership. I can tell how successful a school is based upon the principal’s calendar. Really!

It’s like the more time I spend in the gym, the healthier I’ll be? Well, the same is true of principals: the more time they spend in the classrooms, the healthier the teaching system in that school is. It NEVER fails.

Whenever we visit schools or districts, we start the leadership system – we look at scheduling, non-negotiables, setting up the leadership team’s functions to look at reading practices in the school and guide the support and professional development.

One of the most powerful things we do (that initially many of our leaders are resistant to!) is practicing observations and debriefings with teachers. We work with leadership on what kind of data to gather when they’re watching teaching and then how to turn their notes into a very direct and very simple, but action-based, debriefing – the goal is to talk to teachers one-on-one and have them either stop a practice, continue a practice or adjust a practice. All designed to getting bigger impact in the classroom.

5) I have to tell you, that I observe teens and tweens and they seem to be gobbling up Harry Potter and have been hungry for these Hungry Games books. BUT, how do we get them reading other fiction, non fiction, biographies etc ?

Well – if I could fully answer that, I would retire on my private island in the Bahamas! What I see that ultimately captures kids’ attention EVEN WHEN THEY DON’T LIKE SOMETHING is the teacher’s enthusiasm. I think it’s highly underrated and undervalued!

I wrote an article recently about a Civics teacher I had in high school – I wasn’t what you would call a scholar – far from it! And I certainly wasn’t into Civics like I should have been. BUT the teacher was so enthusiastic about teaching Civics and used some fun (and embarrassing!) techniques along the way that helped my peers and me – GASP! – actually like Civics!

I find that some educators have the idea that the kids should come to class already motivated – I see that as the teacher’s job. It’s funny – I can follow a student around school all day and see her engaged in Period 1, totally disengaged in Period 2, kind of engaged in Period 3 and totally on-fire engaged in Period 4. The only thing that changes? The teacher! I have seen tons of examples where teachers have taken “boring” content and made it interesting and others have taken exciting content and made it sleep-inducing.

Also, we have to give students the skills to tackle that kind of text – oftentimes they gravitate to novels because they have the most practice in successfully reading and gaining meaning from them! We help our clients create continuity in doing this – making sure that the skills that we use to tackle expository text in science are similar to the skills we apply to the P.E. manual. I don’t ever underestimate continuity of practice across classrooms! It’s such a powerful teaching tool!

6) What is the most requested topic you get asked to talk about?

Using reading program successfully. I often say our most powerful work comes after the publisher leaves and the boxes are opened and everyone looks around and goes, “NOW what?!?!?!?” We get lots of calls from superintendents and curriculum directors who say, “You know, we were told that if we bought these materials that our kids would learn to read and learn to read better. It’s not happening and we’re in program improvement…help!”

We help folks get super focused and super organized. We help them build confidence…one purposeful step at a time. In fact much of our time is spent telling them, “No. Not now,” because they’re trying to do too many things and they’re driving themselves absolutely crazy.

7) Tell us about a few of your most successful workshops- and feedback from teachers.

We just finished up Year I with a large school K-12 school district outside of Salt Lake City and the data is looking really good – we can actually measure the success of the staff by the increase in the student scores…that’s heaven for us! We get giddy when we can see the effect of the teacher work in the student outcomes – that’s what we’re always looking for.

Two of our clients just received National Title I Awards – and a bunch have made AYP for the first time ever! We have schools who have made serious, exponential growth in reading on their state tests with sub-populations that have historically been very low performing…so we are very proud and excited for the folks we partner with – – they are walking the walk.

As far as feedback? We get lots of feedback every week complimenting us on getting in the trenches with the teachers and not just being “talking heads” – we are real. We also get lots of feedback that starts with “At first I didn’t like that you were telling me to….but I appreciate you sticking in there with me.” That’s very rewarding.

8) Are there ways for folks to connect with you online?

Yes! We just launches our “Free Resources” tab on our website (www.jackson-consulting.com) – there you’ll find tons of free video, audio and downloadables that we’d like everyone to take and use. We even have a 7-day free video series that you can sign up for there…no strings attached! There you’ll also find the links to Twitter and Facebook where I’m interacting daily with educators about the good, the bad and the ugly in education – it’s really fun to be about to connect that way and it’s bringing about some very interesting conversations and big a-has for all of us.

Most of all, while we are tough cookies when we come and work with folks, I want those who work with us online and in-person to know that we value teachers who are serious about doing the work of teaching. We don’t always have to agree, but if the bottom line for all of us bringing the highest quality of instruction that has the biggest impact on the students every day into the classroom, then we’re going to be alright!



Question…what do YOU think?  Leave a comment below…am I off track? 

On the right track?  Lost my mind????

School Improvement Plans: Leveraging the RIGHT stuff for REAL Results


You know all of those school improvement plans that you have to fill out and turn in on time and make fit in the allotted number of pages…you know those ones you hurry to finish and rarely look at again until you make revisions and go through the whole rigamarole again?

Yeah, those plans.

Well, they’re WORTHLESS.

Yep, total junk – not even worth the paper they’re printed on.

And here’s why…

Because we don’t take them seriously enough to make smart decisions on HOW we’re going to use the information contained in the plans to leverage for real results.

What are real results? 

  • They’re outcome driven (meaning kids are showing that they know how to do things on the test)
  • They’re built on actual numbers – not gut reactions or stories that make us feel better when a student doesn’t perform like they should be
  • They stick – they’re not built on a perfect circumstance or a certain test administrator and they certainly don’t change over the weekend!
  • They have partners – they’re not alone – the results make sense in light of other assessment results

I know you want REAL RESULTS, dontcha?

So, how do we get real results AND have our school improvement plans accepted by the powers that be at the same time?

  1. We leverage school improvement plans by focusing on the instructional core: Put into action things that bring up the overall level of instructional quality throughout the block
  2. We leverage school improvement plans by kicking out proven-to-NOT-work actions and activities from the past – if you gave it a good try and it didn’t work, then dump the practice and move on
  3. We leverage school improvement plans by choosing simple-to-regularly-implement-tasks – – – avoid activities that are too convoluted or hard to follow
  4. We leverage school improvement plans by building in review – focusing on something once or for one year doesn’t mean that we’ll remember it!  So, build in review and cycle-back to re-commit to the practices from your plan that you’ve already taken care of!
  5. We leverage school improvement plans by taking them seriously – don’t slough it off as “another plan” – see it as an opportunity to refine, redefine and reflect on practice – these are VERY important in the life of an organization!

 So where should you start?  Start by pulling out your old school improvement plans, dust ’em off and start looking at what you’ve done, what you haven’t and what you don’t remember.  Start there.  And go slowly.  And think smartly.  And focus on the return on the school improvement plan investment.


What is the #1, Can’t-Live-Without Reading Strategy?

So, here you have it folks – after all this time, all this reading, all this study, all this data, all this research, I’m here to tell you what you’ve all been waiting for: the silver bullet, the answer of all answers!

What is the #1, Can’t-Live-Without Reading Strategy?  Stamina.

Huh?  That’s all you got for us, Jackson?  I can hear you saying that already!

Let me explain.

There are a lot of experts, programs and studies that will tell you that particular strategies trump all others and that if you would only teach this particular strategy, you’ll solve the world’s problems…or at least your students’ problems.

What I know after reading all those studies and working in thousands of classrooms in hundreds of schools is that the students who perform well on each and every task that calls them to comprehend text are those students who have the ability to ‘hang in there’ during reading.  Even when it’s difficult. 


So……..I bet you’re thinking…….how do I build stamina in my readers?  What reading strategy do I teach?  What reading strategies will get the best results?

I have 3 Easy-To-Implement Techniques for YOU

Technique #1:  Give kids lots of difficult text to work through

Students will learn to do difficult things by doing difficult things.  The cool by-product of doing difficult things?  Confidence! 

What does this look like in the classroom?  Lots of varied text – beef up your informational/expository text and daily teach and practice how to navigate the features of that informational text. It’s pretty common that kids get lots of practice with narrative text, so they tend to be better at navigating it.  So get them caught up by doubling up on text that informs and is factual. 

Don’t shy away from challenging your students with above grade level material.  Tell them, “This is going to be a challenge for us, but we are going to work through it together and the more we practice, the better we’ll get!”  Then do just that!

Technique #2:  Make sure you pre-talk the reading to give students ideas as to how to manage the text

Prior to reading through any text, walk-through with the students how you, as a reader, manage that text.  You might say things like, “Hmm…right here is where I KNOW I’ll have to reread because I see lots of bigger words that I’m unfamiliar with” or “Guys right away I know that I’m going to have to take notes through this part of the text because there’s lots going on and I don’t want to get confused, so I’ll set up my reading journal right now”. 

We empower kids by not teaching them a million strategies for reading, but teaching them a few powerful techniques that will span content areas and grade levels. 

SHOW THEM how you hang in there when you’re really confused in a piece of text – make it informal so that they can relate…don’t be robotic here!

Technique #3:  Reread text to find different information

This is a widely under-modeled reading strategy in the classrooms that I visit.  Think about how automatic it is for you to read something once and think to yourself, “Um, I have no idea what I just read!” or “Geesh, I need to read that paragraph, I was really distracted.”  We so automatically and unashamedly go back and reread and reread and reread until we better understand. 

The cool thing about rereading is that it also builds fluency!  So, we’re getting better at decoding swiftly while we’re actually becoming better comprehenders.  That’s so cool!

The bottom line?  Stamina (or the ability to hang in there when the going gets rough) is a skill that should be taught and PRACTICED, PRACTICED, PRACTICED.

My question to you is, are you shying away from difficult text or text that requires high comprehension because you don’t want your students to struggle too much?  Do you get frustrated when they struggle a bit through text, so you change the task or text for them?

If so, consider at least 1 time per week that you will present some tricky reading or a challenging passage to your kids and then HELP THEM THROUGH IT.

Not only will the stamina be solidified, but you’ll have a bunch of confident readers on your hands.

And that’s an awesome thing in a reading strategy!

Differentiating Instruction for ALL Kids in the Core

A really common question I get is, “What is the easiest way to differentiate in reading?”

My typical answer is, “Well, we’re not going for ‘easy’ as much as ‘simple and effective'” – somehow the wording makes me feel better!  (Probably because if “easy” is what we’re going for, we can oftentimes compromise powerful instructional moves)

So, when I saw this cool pic of the red jelly bean in a sea of yellow ones I got to thinking… (BTW, I’m much more partial to a red jelly bean, whether it be cherry or cinnamon…I mean, yellow?  Ugh!)

Who are the kids in your classroom that are screaming out for help…because they’re different?

Different in that they are struggling with the grade level content. 

Different because the content is just right and they need more “just rightness” of the grade level content. 

Different in that they are bored stiff because they need a bigger challenge.  Not more work. Bigger challenge, I said!

My starting point with our clients is typically START WITH WHAT YOU HAVE AND COMMIT TO USING IT LIKE YOU HAVE NEVER BEFORE.  I’m not a big fan of buying a bunch of stuff that will “solve” the problem – just like when I cook from what I have in my fridge, I just might have everything I need right before me!

So here’s what you do, look at your core reading program or intervention and try some of these techniques to enhance your differentiation techniques WITHIN the core so that you can be more focused OUTSIDE of the core!

For your Advanced/Always Benchmark Kids who are always on benchmark

  • Look at standards from grade level above and incorporate the language and skills into current grade level work
  • Focus on extended responses both verbally and in written form
  • Choose alternative text
  • Move swiftly through the lesson
  • Pre-teach vocabulary and pair students with struggling students during lesson
  • Use “Above Level” links during instruction and in targeted small group teaching
  • Build in more independence during block

For your mostly Benchmark Kids who sometimes slip below benchmark on vocabulary and comprehension tasks

  • Pre-teach the important comp-related parts of the lesson the day prior
  • Pre-read text for next week rehearse vocabulary
  • Follow “On Level” links
  • Scaffold text when teaching strategies
  • Increase written responses
  • Encourage re-reading of text

For your Strategic/Intensive Kids who struggling with grade-level tasks

  • Pre-read text for next week
  • Practice passages with high comprehension points
  • Re-release key strategy-related comprehension questions to students and rehearse thinking and responding
  • Pull to small group during core to manage text
  • Use anthology passages for fluency
  • Preview high-impact vocabulary words

So your job?  Look at your instruction right now and see where you can incorporate TWO of these strategies into your planning…and report back on how they worked!  www.facebook.com/jacksonconsulting

Observing the Domino Effect

In my work with principals and coaches I have found one area that is the most common struggle: teacher observations.

It’s the most important part of our instructional leadership job and we struggle the most with it! I’ve worked to deconstruct the myth of “having to know everything before you can give a teacher feedback” – that myth has held many a coach and principal back from the classrooms.

Here is the
very essence of observing in a classroom: To recognize a cause-and-effect relationship between what we observe teachers and students doing and what students actually know and are able to do as a consequence.

Basically, the role of the observer is to:

  • Search for the cause-and-effect relationship and if it’s there
  • Point it out to the teacher and give encouragement for the teacher to do it again or if it’s not there
  • Coach the teacher to prepare and plan to make it happen in future lessons.

So a conversation with a teacher might sound something like this:
“Tori, when I was in your classroom this morning to watch your math lesson, I noticed that you were very clear in your model of the step to solve the equation. I recognize that you’ve been working very hard to include as many models as possible and this was a great improvement – nice job!

One concern I have is that when you asked the students to work to solve the #3 and #4 following your model, I noticed that Thomas, Jenny, Heather and Thad struggled to complete the problem and you did not monitor their work, therefore they received no feedback. Essentially, the effect of your model on the students was nil.

I would like you to make sure that you monitor targeted kids who struggle even more than the others so that you make sure that the students are truly benefiting from the excellent modeling that you were doing.”

In the above conversation with Tori, I drew a very straight line from what she was doing and what the students, in turn, were able to do – this is how we have a “cause and effect” conversation.

When we are clear about what we are looking for and that what we are looking for is attainable by all staff members, then we take most of the mystery of observations away!

Observations are about what the teacher did and what the students are able to do because of the teacher’s teaching. In fact, that pretty much sums up the whole goal of our profession!