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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
September 1, 2003
Vol. 61
No. 1

Special Topic / Letters to Angel

To truly become a curriculum and instructional leader, sometimes the principal must return to teaching.

Special Topic / Letters to Angel - thumbnail
Dear Angel,I bet you think that because I am your principal I don't have to go to class to learn new things. Well, you are mistaken. I have been sitting at a cramped table for two hours, trying to learn about reading instruction, but I am not doing a good job of listening because I feel overwhelmed. To at least look like I am taking notes, I thought I would write you a letter, even though I won't give it to you because you can't read yet.Your teacher brought you to my office yesterday. I hope the photograph my secretary took of us this morning turns out well. I intend to put it on my desk so I can see your happy face all the time. I am looking forward to being your reading teacher, although I skipped three meetings to be here, my superintendent is irritated with me, and it is hard to concentrate. But I'm here and I'm trying to figure out what a sight word is . . . .”
So began the first of many letters scribbled in my daily journal to Angel—a 1st grader at Squaw Peak School in Phoenix, Arizona, where I served as principal. She had been evaluated by our reading specialist, Barbara Folb, as one of the school's struggling readers. Barb selected her to be my reading student because she thought we would work well together. The purpose of my scribbles was to give myself time to shift from a problem-solving administrator to a teacher being trained in an intensive literacy instruction program.

Collaborative Literacy Intervention Project

The Collaborative Literacy Intervention Project, a professional development program based on the Reading Recovery model and the work of Marie Clay, aims to promote literacy for at-risk readers in grades 1–3. The program trains teachers to provide special daily lessons in reading acceleration to those students, helping them develop reading and writing strategies based on their own strengths.
Several school districts and schools in the Phoenix area regularly invest the tuition monies to allow their teachers to learn about collaborative literacy intervention because they know that a cadre of trained teachers can make a difference in a school's entire learning culture.
Although few principals in our district have been trained in the Collaborative Literacy Intervention Project, Barb argued that by training the principal, the school would gain a curriculum leader who could understand literacy instruction. The idea appealed to me because, like most principals, I did not understand the range and depth of skills that reading teachers possess. Although I was trying to make literacy a core cultural value at our school, I was frustrated. I could script and analyze a literacy lesson, but I did not understand why teachers chose one activity over another. By enrolling in the training program, I hoped to better understand and support our school's reading instruction program.
With a doctorate in education and classroom experience as a high school biology teacher, I felt confident that I could master the training. Surely the worst part would be figuring out how to fit in to my schedule the weekly three-hour class meeting and the daily 30-minute session with Angel. My trepidation increased, however, when the Collaborative Literacy Intervention Project trainer, Miriam Libman, showed us the classroom with a two-way mirror.
Dear Angel,I have just seen the classroom where I am going to give you a reading lesson later this semester. For you that will be fun, I hope. It will not be fun for me. You see, the room has a two-way mirror and hidden microphones. While I am trying to figure out how to prompt you, reinforce your good choices, and concentrate on getting you through a reading lesson, the rest of my class is going to be staring at us from behind the mirror. You won't know this, of course. The public evaluation of my abilities to do this collaborative literacy intervention stuff scares me to death.
As an administrator as well as a strategist, I selected my behind-the-glass date as close to the end of the fall semester as possible. I put my performance anxiety out of my head and concentrated on learning the Collaborative Literacy Intervention Project techniques. I quickly discovered that my diplomas and training meant nothing as far as reading was concerned. Unlike my classmates who had trained to be elementary school teachers, I had a new set of vocabulary words to learn: phonemes, contextual cues, diphthongs, and idioms were all new to me. To catch up on my learning curve, I scheduled blocks of time when I could observe 6- and 7-year-olds during reading instruction and then debrief with the teachers.

Lessons with Angel

Dear Angel,What will it take for you to understand that you need to keep your feet on the floor when you are sitting in a chair? I spent my day listening to people yell at me. As a principal, part of my job is to listen to people who are upset about circumstances that are often beyond my control. I am trying not to be cranky and to remember that you are 7 years old. But I am hungry, my head is splitting, and you won't sit still and write a sentence. How can I help you focus?
Angel quickly learned how to make me laugh and get off task during our lessons. She figured out how to charm me out of holding her accountable for reading. I didn't even realize what was happening until Miriam came to observe me giving Angel a lesson.
Miriam gently said, “Autumn, you and Angel have a nice rapport, but you need to push her a little bit. Let's rethink how you selected this level of book. You might want to go to a higher level.”
“Miriam, if I pick a higher-level book, I am afraid she won't understand.”
“The point of the higher level is to challenge her. She can do it; you need to prompt her more.”
Miriam continued saying the things that you are supposed to say to a teacher in a post-observation conference. I knew exactly what was happening. I had just finished a teacher's conference an hour ago and had used the same strategy: Say something good, say what the problems are, then say something to make sure the teacher leaves on a good note. I felt discouraged. Principals are supposed to be the curriculum leaders of a school. How could I lead others when I could not teach one child to read?
Dear Angel,We have to figure out how to work smarter. I am not doing a good job of planning for your lessons. I know that turning in the plans helps keep me accountable and ensures that I am following the program—but it is a pain. It is embarrassing when I make mistakes. I am finding that I have to be thorough—a half-baked attempt doesn't work.It is more difficult to find time to see you every day now that the year is under way. When we start our lesson, the phone inevitably rings. And I can tell when you don't feel like working. You stare into space or you want to tell me a story and I get frustrated. We are always taking more than the 30 minutes allotted for the lesson.
As my planning skills improved, Angel became more focused. Although sometimes my transitions, cues, and reinforcements were not strong enough to keep her on task, I began to learn from my mistakes.
Dear Angel,Today you were amazing! We read The Boogly (2000, Rigby Publishers). For the first time you used the unknown word strategy, methodically figuring out tricky words all by yourself. I am so proud of you. I asked you, “What can you do if you can read?” And you said, “I can do anything!”
Miriam's post-lesson conferences slowly became less threatening. I was able to recognize my problems and Angel's problems.
My letters to Angel became less frequent during class breaks because I was involved in discussions about the structure of lessons. My classmates and I shared the same questions: How do you stay within the 30-minute time limit? What do you do when your student can't think of a sentence? If the sentence has two mistakes, how do you pick which one to work on? And how do you assign a reading level to a book if the publisher didn't assign one? Each time a colleague went behind the glass in the observation classroom, we felt his or her frustration if the student did not respond. We cheered when a teacher and student had a successful lesson.

Principal as Leader and Teacher

As I shared my experiences with other principals in my district, I realized that principals can't have deep knowledge in all areas. Principals might be able to explore one or two areas in depth because of a district mandate or their own personal interest. A principal might eschew one curriculum area in favor of looking at another program, such as community building.
Principals don't like to admit when they have a shallow contextual framework in a particular area of instruction. We are afraid that by admitting it, we relinquish our power and authority. According to Greene and Elffers (1998),Power is in many ways a game of appearances, and when you say less than necessary, you inevitably appear greater and more powerful than you are. (p. 34)
This technique is not purposely deceptive on the part of the school leader; it is simply part of leadership training. School administrators learn early on that the school community expects principals to be omniscient and versatile enough to address topics ranging from school violence to low reading scores.
Principals soon find that they sometimes have to be the leader first and the expert second. But sometimes you just have to be the expert, period. How do you effectively evaluate a reading teacher if you have not focused on the nuts and bolts of reading instruction? This conundrum motivated me to keep working with Angel and to attend my training classes every Wednesday.

Behind the Glass

Soon it was our turn to work on a lesson in the special classroom with the two-way mirror. Angel's mother, fellow classmates, my boss, and Barb would attend. I wanted to show them that I understood what a precious thing it is to teach a child how to read. Rubin (1986) once said that literacyis a way of coming in contact with the world. Some people engage in literate behavior with greater frequency and with greater intensity than others. Some people use literate behavior to expand their worlds across time and space. Some people read traffic signs and cereal boxes. (p. 90)
I wanted Angel to read more than cereal boxes. She deserved to be able to carve a successful future for herself, and I knew that literacy was vital to this goal. I also wanted her to always remember that she could do anything she set her mind to.
When the time for our lesson came, Angel and I settled into the special observation classroom. Behind the mirror 30 people were watching our efforts.
“What book would you like to start with today?” I asked Angel. I had given her a choice of three familiar texts. She began with our favorite, The Boogly. Angel read with perfect fluency in all three books. We transitioned smoothly to the running record section of the lesson, which recorded Angel's reading behavior. Angel was focused and read with confidence.
“Angel, what do you want to write a sentence about today?” She thought for a minute and said, “That mirror sure is big.”
“Yes, it is. Would you like to write a sentence about that?”
“Huh?” Angel proceeded to make faces at herself in the two-way mirror. “I know you see your pretty face over there, Angel, but I need you to think about what sentence. . . .” Angel was looking harder into the mirror. “That mirror is sooooo big it looks like one at Disneyland. One time, I went to Disneyland. . . .”
“OK, but now I'd like you to think of a sentence and keep your feet on the floor and stay in your seat.”
“OK. How about, ‘The mirror is big’?”
“Yes, Angel, that would be fine. Write that down and I'll get ready for the next part of the lesson.”
Angel finished and I began introducing a new book. “What do you think this book is about?”
“I think it is about Disneyland and my mom and her boyfriend and my sister and the time I threw up all over the parking lot.”
Great. I was losing her. To restore her concentration, I resorted to the evil eye. “Angel, look at me. What do you see on the cover of this book?” Angel sheepishly replied, “A boat and two boys. This book is about boys and a boat.”
Whew, I had her back on track. We completed the introduction to a new book just as our session ended.
Angel grabbed my hand as we walked out of the room. She babbled about Disneyland, the vomit, and her hair. We walked into the project classroom to applause. Everyone told Angel what a great job she had done and people patted me on the back. Angel's mother told me that she had no idea her daughter could do so much work in her lessons. My boss patted my shoulder and said something about Disneyland and kids being kids. We talked about the lesson: the cues I used, the text selection, and how wonderful it was to see Angel excited about reading. Somewhere in that moment I remembered that before I was a principal, I was a teacher.

Lessons Learned

My experience with Angel left me with more than an appreciation of a reading teacher's professional toolbox. The skills that I developed in the training program focused on teaching one child to read. It is mind-boggling to consider that reading teachers and specialists confront entire populations of struggling readers each day. The meaning of Angel's reading lessons rests not only in the appreciation of the complexity of literacy instruction but also in the unanswered questions that challenge principals.
Christensen (1991) describes teaching and learning as “inseparable, parts of a single continuum—more Möbius strip than circle—of reciprocal giving and receiving” (p. 99). Angel taught me that Christensen's metaphor should be extended to the role of school principal. Leadership can be further defined as the ability to travel along the Möbius strip of teaching and learning. To lead means that one must model a willingness to shift from teacher to learner, and to openly reflect on what each experience means.
That being said, we must examine what school administrators and teachers really talk about concerning literacy instruction: What does the principal know about reading instruction? What happens when the principal has the interest in supporting literacy, but no time to invest in learning the instructional nuts and bolts? What can teachers do to help the principal expand his or her perspective? Can the principal identify the most valuable pieces of the school's reading program? When is the last time the principal observed a reading lesson? Do teachers and the principal talk about literacy articles or journals? How is the community involved in reading instruction?
The greatest lesson in literacy instruction for me was that honest conversations with my reading specialist helped me to better understand how to support our reading program and honor our teachers.
Dear Angel,I am looking at our photograph and wondering about you. I heard that you are now a feisty 8-year-old who reads very well. I am now a college professor in a town far away from your school. Instead of teaching students how to read, I teach students how to be school principals. I want you to know that I worked harder as your reading teacher and learned more from you than I ever thought possible.Thank you.

Christensen, R. (1991). Education for judgment. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Greene, R., & Elffers, J. (1998). The 48 laws of power. New York: The Penguin Group.

Rubin, D. L. (1986). Achieving literacy: An essay review of two national reports on reading. Metropolitan Education, 21, 85–96.

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