Two years ago, a group of principals from across the country convened in Reston, VA, to form a Professional Learning Community (PLC) for NASSP, the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), and The Wallace Foundation.

Our work on the PLC began with learning around The Wallace Foundation’s five key practices. Grounded in sound research, these practices have been identified as pivotal to effective school leadership. Our group worked specifically on key practice No. 4—instruction—creating several goals:

  • To focus our learning to refine our knowledge and skills for leading change in schools
  • To share feedback on the Principal Pipeline Initiative (PPI) within and across school districts
  • To create solutions by principals for principals for real problems of practice
  • To bring solutions and principals’ voices to the national level

As a PLC, we reviewed the functions and responsibilities of each individual’s role, and we also examined the PLC process for tool and product development. We were reminded that the end product was to be a tool that principals and administrators in any school district could use to continually improve student achievement and school success.

Design thinking methodology proved to be a vital instrument for our team. We met on the first day of the convening to utilize the first concept in this methodology—empathize. This step reminded us to get feedback from the stakeholders we represent. As principals, we reached out to other principals and administrators to determine what kind of tool would be beneficial for most schools and districts. Our second task required us to define the problem statement that was needed to focus our work: How might we develop a common understanding of how literacy develops across content areas? Not unique to a grade level or subject area, literacy is a critical skill for any student. Many educators wonder why all of their students are not meeting national literacy standards on state assessments, despite the many research-based programs in which they have invested. Teachers have also expressed challenges with embedding literacy strategies within their content subject area.

We knew that a tool to help improve literacy instruction was needed, but we had varying opinions about what the tool should be. This led us to the third stage of design thinking—ideate. The principals in our PLC had many conversations and brainstormed many ideas about what type of tool would be most effective and efficient. We displayed a statement that we used to redirect our conversations when we drifted from our goal: “Design a tool for promoting deep understanding of literacy acquisition and development across content areas.”

After many attempts and possible instruments, we narrowed our thinking to developing an online tool called the Professional Literacy Integration Tool—ProLit. Then came the requirement to develop a prototype so we could share with others. Our team gathered our research into an electronic portfolio that could simulate our vision of the online version. The final step in the process was to gather feedback from colleagues. We shared the prototype in a variety of settings and with a range of district representatives in order to test it. We used feedback from these sessions to determine items to be added to the tool and to highlight areas we needed to change.

Testing the Tool

We tested and refined ProLit as a way to help educators across the nation improve student achievement. Our group learned that teachers need training in literacy strategies but, more important, principals need to know how to help teachers as they work with those students who struggle with content-specific text and writing in a clear and concise manner.

Some educational experts have identified the solution as teaching literacy across content areas. We know that this work is not easy; principals and teachers are busy people, so having something that is user friendly was critical to the design. ProLit is intended to serve as a one-stop shop for resources and materials that will help principals and teachers to implement literacy instruction in all content areas. The ultimate vision is to house already proven, research-based strategies and practices in an app that could be downloaded on any electronic device.

While not in app form yet, ProLit as it stands now is still a useful tool. It can be formatted to contain information for each grade level—throughout elementary, middle, and high school—and within each level, the tool can be organized by subject area. Ideally, each subject area would have space for educators to upload videos of practical literacy integration accompanied by the corresponding lesson plans for the benefit of other teachers, with the goal to increase overall student performance.

Knowing what good literacy instruction is gets you only so far. We found that being able to see what good literacy instruction looks like is as important (if not more so) than reading about what is effective. We know that teaching literacy is hard work. Having the opportunity to see it in action is an important step in encouraging people to try new and different techniques or methods. As Jamie Brooks, principal at Community House Middle School in Charlotte, NC, says, “Learning to teach literacy can be messy, and sometimes you just have to take risks and try new things before you get it right.”

Appreciative Inquiry

Allowing teachers to experiment and take risks requires a different kind of principal behavior. Principals have to create the conditions where teachers feel comfortable taking those risks and trying new things. They have to have sound parameters for how to talk about literacy and the challenges they encounter as they progress in this work. Besides the content-specific parts of ProLit, an equally critical part that the group investigated involved the process of appreciative inquiry.

Having the format and space for educators to watch and even upload videos of good teaching opens the door for the conversation about using best practices to gain the momentum needed to improve literacy instruction. With appreciative inquiry, the basic tenet is that an organization will grow in whichever direction the people in the organization focus their attention. If all the attention is focused on problems and dealing with them, then this is what the organization will do best. If the attention is focused on strengths, however, the identifying of strengths and building on those strengths is what the organization will do best.

Focusing on teachers who exemplify good literacy instruction can create the critical mass a principal needs to make literacy instruction successful in his or her building. Appreciative inquiry begins by assuming best intentions, opening a conversation with a positive question (rather than one that may put a teacher on the defensive). In this section of ProLit, you’ll find further explanation of appreciative inquiry and tools that use appreciative inquiry, such as a literacy walk-through, an evidence collection sheet, and other resources that can be used by anyone interested in this approach.

Who Can Use This Tool?

While ProLit is still in the prototype phase, it is a viable resource even now. The PLC group decided to build out the literacy in the math section of ProLit, in addition to the section on appreciative inquiry. Videos of literacy instruction accompanied by lesson plans are included. These videos are significant because they are actual glimpses of teachers in their schools doing what the principals have identified as exemplary practice. They can be used by principals to calibrate against an existing rubric, or they can be used by teachers to garner ideas about new or different teaching practices. Jermaine Fleming, former principal of Nova Middle School in Davie, FL, can envision the uses for this tool. As a middle-level director, he helped the group understand how ProLit could be used in exploring ways to have those with whom he works upload videos and lesson plans. By using the appreciative inquiry approach, Fleming notes, you begin to move literacy instruction to the next level.

To take a closer look at ProLit, visit

Donna Regina-Bishop is principal at WJ Cooper Elementary School in GA; Jeff Lee is principal at Chattahoochee Elementary School in GA; Anthony Jones is principal at Walker Middle Magnet School in FL; Jermaine Fleming is director, Office of School Performance and Accountability in the Broward County Public Schools in FL; Gordon Libby is principal at Green Valley Academy in MD; and Tracie Miller-Malone is principal at Gwynn Park High School in MD.