One School’s Journey Towards a Balanced Literacy Model – Coalhurst Elementary School

Edmonton-20130211-00403For my first session at the 2013 AISI Conference, I had the pleasure of learning from Dawn and Jason, administrators at Coalhurst Elementary School, focusing on their learning related to Balanced Literacy.  Here’s an overview of my learning:

Seek first to understand:

Administrators took the time to get to know the staff of their school building, through lots of observation, dialogue and reflection.  Focus was placed on the strengths of the individuals and their overall contribution to the team

Planting the seeds:

Utilized a number of tools and processes for learning about the school, such as focus groups, surveys, etc. Asking stakeholders for “2 Stars and a Wish” to help identify gaps and areas to address.

Tending to the Weeds:

Seeing the direction and then having the difficult conversations that may need to happen to get everyone “on the bus””

Change of Grade Configuration:

Rather than a 1-2, 3-4, 5-6 grade configuration, moved to a Grade 1, 2-3, 4-5 and grade 6 configuration.  Response to collective insights and administrative recognition of configurations needed to best meet the needs of students.

Making the Goal Visible:

“Success for every child” became visible in the school, through a renewed school logo and an engaging mural that welcomes everyone as they entered the school.  Established a collaboration/resource room for professional learning in the school – reinforced the need for staff to work together and the organization of literacy resources for teachers.

Beginning to Grow:

Through observation and dialogue, became apparent that daily reading and writing needed to be happening systematically.  Honored staff expertise and knowledge but made daily reading and writing non-negotiable across the school.  Focus on quality resources, Fountas/Pinnell assessment resources.  Didn’t say what it MUST look like in a classroom – let teachers be the professionals that drove learning in the classroom.

Power of a Retreat:

As a staff, utilized a bonding retreat to break down barriers and reinforce the power of the team.  Create and sustain change – planned a literacy block for each grade level.  Became the turning point for the school as a team.  A source of regeneration for the staff J

Professional Development Planning:

Focus on one school goal, related to literacy. Utilized visiting experts, site-based professional development, and division wide professional development.  Everything worked together for staff learning.

Instructional Supervision:

Focused on classroom literacy instruction, which developed over time.  Demonstrated an administrative priority to improved literacy practices, through support and coaching connections.

Literacy in the Community:

Members of the community became engaged through partnering with community for reading partners, sessions for parents, one school/one book (Mouse and the Motorcycle in 2012), and other innovative projects in the school to involve the community.

Key Learnings:

  • Make connections explicit between teacher practice that is happening and effective literacy practices from research
  • Building a common language for literacy instruction in the school
  • Involve the whole staff (not just teachers, but support staff involved in student learning as well)
  • Support for teachers essential, focusing on flexible support (as long as they are “on the train”, let the train move at a comfortable speed)
  • Change is never perfect

Thank you to the administrators at Coalhurst Elementary School for sharing their journey!  Learn more about Coalhurst Elementary School at


About kurtishewson

I currently work with Jigsaw Learning, committed to supporting schools in creating collaborative structures for learning. Previously a principal, vice-principal and teacher in Alberta schools, as well as teaching at the post-secondary level.
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