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Changing School Culture Through Literacy and Literature

By Shawna Erps
 | Aug 17, 2016

LT341_Key1The Carlton Innovation School in Salem, MA, has been on quite a journey. For many years, we were an under-performing school. This year, however, we were recognized with the Massachusetts Reading Association’s Exemplary Reading Program Award and were designated a Level One school by the Massachusetts Department of Education.

Our journey hasn’t been an easy one, but it is one rooted in our desire to help students become readers and writers who think deeply, love books, and have high expectations for themselves.

A culture of reading

One of the first things people notice when they enter our school is that we have books everywhere. There are book racks tucked into hallway corners, art books outside of the art room, and new favorites outside of the library.

We also have three large bookcarts on each floor in the hallway. They are stocked with leveled texts in a range of genres and interests. Students can stop by as often as needed to pick “just right” books to read during independent reading time each day and at home each night. The carts guarantee that our students have books of their choosing in their homes.

Kiara Eveleth, a fifth-grade student at Carlton, feels the books in the carts are a major contributing factor to her love of reading. “I think it’s great that we choose our own books,” she says. “It gives us choices about what we read instead of everyone reading the same book. I get to have a book that I’m really into that makes me want to read more and more.”

Students can often be heard at the carts talking about books and suggesting titles to peers. Teachers also stop and talk with students about their choices and make recommendations. The culture extends beyond students and teachers as well, as parent volunteers work in the library most mornings to help students make their selections.

A yearlong celebration

Our students and staff work hard every day, but we also celebrate reading in fun ways throughout the year. Every winter, for example, we have a reading Snowball Slam. Students earn paper snowballs by reading and recording books on logs, and then they “slam” their snowballs on classroom doors in a schoolwide competition to have the most snowballs. We announce weekly totals for how much each class is reading and which class is leading the slam. This past winter, our students read more than 39,000 books or chapters.

One unique event is our annual Vocabulary Parade, used as a kickoff to winter break. Students and staff dress up to illustrate vocabulary words in interesting ways (think a roving cardboard rowboat full of sailors for the word nautical) and we walk the runway to themed music while the audience attempts to guess our words.

Even our monthly assemblies are rich with literacy. Our principal reads a book that is projected on a large screen to the entire school. Students stop and talk with partners at various points. Sometimes, they discuss the author’s craft or what they think the theme is, or they debate various sides of an argument.

At Carlton, we even reward students with language. If students are noticed exhibiting one of our school values, they wear a sticker prompting others to ask them how they earned it. All day, teachers and staff engage with that student and talk about how they exhibited the core value.

How we got here

Everything we do fosters language and literacy development. Our teachers work hard throughout the day to ensure students have opportunities to read, write, speak, and listen every 20 minutes.
Our school has turned around in student achievement and culture over the past five years. One major change was that we began using a balanced literacy approach within a diagnostic teaching model. We determine what each student needs to grow as a reader and a writer through formal and informal ongoing assessment, and then we design small group instruction to move students, ensuring everyone is making progress.

We use the workshop model to structure the different kinds of instruction our students need each day. Classrooms have at least 2 hours and 15 minutes of literacy workshop every day. We use the Lucy Calkins Units of Study for our focus lessons in both reading and writing workshop and explicitly tie the required standards to these lessons. The workshop involves a brief focus lesson, guided practice, and independent practice with conferring, strategy groups, and guided reading instruction, and ends with a group share.

This structure allows teachers to strategically plan whole-class focus lessons that are based on the standards with guidance from the Lucy Calkins Units of Study, while providing diagnostic instruction on students’ development as readers with increasingly complex texts to foster deep thinking and comprehension.

I would love to say that what we do is easy, but we know that teaching students to read in balanced, authentic, and meaningful ways is not an easy task. At various points along this journey, easier alternatives were suggested. Each time, however, we took the hard road because, in the words of our principal, Jean-Marie Kahn, the students in front of us are “inconveniently human.” They do not fit into one-size-fits-all programs—nor should they.

They come to us unique with different backgrounds and experiences. Meeting them where they are and taking the hard road to promise that they leave us better than they came to us—with self-confidence, a love for reading, and a desire to work hard that will stay with them long after they pass through our book-filled halls—is our job.

Shawna Erps, an ILA member since 2015, is a literacy coach in Salem, MA. Her background is in early childhood education and literacy. She played an integral role in the turnaround initiative at the Carlton Innovation School.


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