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    My Annual ILA Pilgrimage

    By Marian Payne
     | Jun 14, 2016

    ThinkstockPhotos-BU011643_x300I remember when my journey began—when I started to fully understand the importance of literacy.

    I am from the twin-island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, and I attended an educational fair put on by our teachers union. There were many booths belonging to various educational organizations—one of which was the local reading association. I was given literature about the association, began attending meetings, and was encouraged to join. That was the start.

    A part of these meetings is a short workshop on a literacy topic or skill. When members return from a conference, they share what workshops they attended and are always so enthusiastic. So I decided I should attend one.

    Attending my first International Literacy Association (ILA) conference in 2009 in Minneapolis, MN, was like being in a place with everything one could wish for educationally, such as the General Session and Featured Speakers, the various workshops and sessions, and of course the Preconference Institutes. The Preconference Institutes, to me, set the tone for the whole conference.

    When you make a decision to attend a particular institute, you consequently seek out other workshops to enhance and clarify what you learned there.

    Attending the conference gives me an opportunity to acquire new methods, texts, and strategies for the teaching of literacy. The conference provides me with the tools and materials needed to motivate both struggling and strong readers. There are a wide variety of books and also a wide range of other technological tools you can use in the classroom from the simple to the more sophisticated.

    That first year, I attended an institute on graphic novels. I had no idea of the approach the presenters would take and was completely surprised and energized to return home and incorporate graphic novels in my classroom. Every year there are new twists to genres, like Greek mythology, informational texts, and graphic novels.

    The ILA conference is so full of important, motivating ideas that aid in improving the planning of my lessons. Today’s student is easily bored and distracted, and with the ideas, lesson plans, and suggested tools displayed, the teacher who attends the conference will always have interesting and motivating classes.

    I am also exposed to the best names in literacy from all over the world, like Laura Robb and Patricia Edwards. I can buy books from literacy experts and hear speakers who have actually worked in the field of literacy. You are introduced to the many ways technology can be used in literacy and how to integrate the various subjects in literacy by using informational texts as reading material and by using students’ cultural backgrounds to encourage them to actively participate in the class. Using ideas obtained from the conference makes my classes more enthusiastic, and students are not shy to express themselves.

    You attend one conference and, because of the enthusiasm shown by the various speakers, you want to try their ideas and return to share your success. The conference is interactive: You gain information; improve your skills, methods, and strategies; and, above all, you improve as a teacher. It gives you an opportunity to meet other teachers, share what works and what may not, and discuss differences and similarities.

    This is what keeps me coming back to the conference every year.

    The ILA 2016 Conference & Exhibits will be July 9–11 in Boston, MA, with more than 6,000 attendees eager to cultivate new teaching practices. With over 300 sessions, including several new additions to the schedule, and the popular Preconference Institutes on July 8, the weekend is sure to be a memorable one. Learn more about what’s coming up at this summer’s conference at ilaconference.org.

    Marian A. Payne, an ILA member since 2003, teaches at Russell Latapy Secondary School. She is the treasurer of the Trinidad and Tobago Reading Association.

     
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    Personalized Professional Development: At the Center of Your Own Learning

    by Jennifer Williams
     | Jun 01, 2016

    shutterstock_35709505_x300With an energized focus on empowering the voices of educators through connection and sharing, the participatory learning movement has brought personalization to the forefront of professional development in education. Today, educators with a desire to develop their practice are taking charge of their own professional growth by designing customized anytime, anywhere experiences. Focused on optimizing learning and growing as professionals, teachers and literacy leaders are finding great value in peer-to-peer sharing as part of professional learning networks, or PLNs. Together with emphasis on both voice and choice, these inspired groups are reinventing traditional models of professional development, allowing teachers to explore, collaborate, and continuously reflect in meaningful and transformational ways.

    Exploration of practice

    In the spirit of anytime, anywhere learning, educators have found communities of connected educators through participation in social media networks, including Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and Instagram. Through a process of following and connecting with like-minded educators, teachers can personalize their online PLNs and take ownership of their own professional growth. One of the most popular ways educators use social media for peer-to-peer sharing is by participating in weekly educational chats. For Twitter chats, teachers come together at a predetermined time to thoughtfully and purposefully explore topics that are significant in their classrooms. In connected conversations of tweets, educators meet via hashtags to share experiences and examine concepts with educators of the world. Popular chats for literacy include #ILAchat, #Read4Fun, #engchat, #edchat, and #edtechchat. Days, times, and weekly chat topics can be found at Education Chats Listing and Participate Learning.

    As partners in the process of professional development, teachers are seeking out peer-to-peer learning opportunities that allow for exploration of thought and practice. Edcamps, open to all educators, have quickly become the “PD of choice” for many educators that are seeking relevant and actionable conversations to improve practice. In these free, daylong “un-conference” events, teachers come together to share and learn through a collaborative exchange of ideas about topics that matter most in their lives and in their schools. Learning at an Edcamp is completely customized and sharing is always participant driven. Sessions are viewed as facilitated discussions as opposed to formal presentations, and topics are meant to encourage inquiry, offer direction, and shape practice.

    Collaboration to grow and refine

    Both within the school communities and in online networks, educators are creating opportunities for sharing and professional growth through collaboration. Each day, learning teams within schools are powerfully leveraging technology and digital spaces for cooperative sharing and discussion. Teachers who love using Pinterest as a visual bookmarking tool have started recognizing the value in social spaces that allow for open sharing of resources and shared thought. Padlet is one such tool that allows for planning and sharing by providing a corkboard-wall for teams to pin ideas and information, including website links, PDFs, photos, and images. Learning teams can also collaborate and share ideas for professional growth and discovery with online communication tools like Slack. Slack allows teams to seamlessly work together online in real time with use of “channels” for sharing and indexing of information and files. With tools such as Padlet and Slack, workflow and organization of thought can be streamlined and extended for collaborative professional growth and connection.

    In addition to integrated communication solutions, teachers are finding ways to create and share databases of resources and collections with learning teams. With the online platform Participate Learning, educators can share and curate high-quality resources in “Collections.” The site also allows teachers to browse collections by grade level, content area category, and Common Core standards. Working with peers in collaborative platforms like Participate Learning, professional learning and growth can become personal, customized, and in the hands of the educator.

    Reflection leads to transformation

    Opportunities for exploration and collaboration are great entry points for educators seeking ways to customize their own professional growth; however, as with any new learning, time for reflection is extremely valuable when aiming to put ideas into practice. Charged with making a difference in the lives of their students, educators are finding ways to carve out time to reflect and examine practice with colleagues in thoughtful ways. As a communication tool for groups, Voxer, a walkie-talkie–style app, is a simple way for teams to share throughout the day on common topics. Through reflective discussion, educators can deepen conversations to allow for impactful change and growth for practice and outcomes. Blogging and podcasts further allow educators to synthesize and reflect on ideas and professional practice. These forms of sharing allows for ideas to extend to a global audience, therefore flattening school walls to create a world of opportunity and connections.

    As the movement to personalize professional development through participatory peer-to-peer sharing spreads through educational communities and schools, educators are continuing to find new and innovative ways to design their own learning and professional growth. With anytime, anywhere opportunities available for all, teachers can continue to engage in connected communities to bring together content, resources, and experience to shift practice—placing teachers at the center of their own professional learning and growth.

    Jennifer Williams is a literacy specialist and recently elected member of the Board of Directors for International Literacy Association. She is the cofounder of Edcamp Tampa Bay and serves on the coordinating teams for Edcamp Literacy and Edcamp Global. She believes in the power of shared stories, and she champions teachers to direct their own professional growth through participatory learning opportunities. Connect with Jennifer on Twitter.

    In addition to Friday’s sold-out EdCamp, Williams will present “Connected Educators: Designing Your Professional Learning Network” Saturday, July 9, 11:00 AM–12:00 PM at the ILA 2016 Conference & Exhibits in Boston. Visit ilaconference.org for more information or to register.

     
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    The Writing Thief Goes on a Reading (and Rereading) Rampage

    By Ruth Culham
     | May 24, 2016

    Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.
    ―Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

    ThinkstockPhotos-BU011643_x300Teachers must be readers.

    “I don’t have time to read” is like saying, “I don’t have time to breathe” if you are a writing teacher. Making time for reading is crucial. Pick books that you can visit again and again and again to mine for all the art and writing techniques you notice so you can share them with your writers.

    What message could be more powerful to your students than to explain that if you seem tired it’s because you stayed up too late reading? Or, how great would it be if you know books well enough to suggest good ones for every single reader in your class—regardless of his or her interests and past reading experiences? And then over time, because you and your students have become avid readers and rereaders, you can help them read with a writer’s eye, to understand what works about a piece of writing and find craft moves they want to try on their own.

    Imagine the power you’d have as a writing teacher if you were a reading addict.

    Every year in August, I read To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a habit I adopted about 20 years ago and a tradition I look forward to eagerly, like a cool lemonade on those thirsty summer days in Macomb, GA.

    I learn from this masterful text every time I read. By rereading, I’m held captive in Harper Lee’s writing web, which is spun with now-familiar images and events that range from ordinary to heartbreaking. This book is a mentor text for me—each reading makes me a better writer. Each reading makes me a better person.

    The first time I read TKAM, however, I didn’t appreciate its depth the way I do now. It took three, four, five readings—and working with the text with students—to ferret out its writing riches. Sure, I understood the story and the central messages right away, but to get inside the text, to deconstruct it as a piece of writing and understand why it is so powerful, took many passes. With each subsequent reading, I appreciate the book more. It has many lessons to teach about life¾but just as many about writing. Make no mistake about it, the two go together.

    So I keep reading, keep exploring new texts, keep imagining their impact on the student writers in our classrooms. I just can’t wait to share some of the books I read. Recently I read The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin, for instance, a magnificent chapter book that I devoured from cover to cover and then went back and read again. I’m now reading Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones. I am sure I’ll read it more than once; it’s that good.

    On my “recent” shelf, Robo-Sauce by Adam Rubin and Daniel Salmieri, The Whisperer by Pamela Zagarenski, and Perfect by Nicola Davies are a few of my favorites. I’m reading Enchanted Air and The Lightning Dreamer by Margarita Engle each for about the fourth time. Maybe Something Beautiful by F. Isabel Campoy, Funny Bones by Duncan Tonatiuh, and Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales make my heart sing again and again. If you haven’t read these gems yet, run—don’t walk—to your library or local bookstore and find them.

    My reading obsession led to Dream Wakers: Mentor Texts That Celebrate Latino Culture.

    It's been said that good writers borrow but great writers steal. Writing thieves read widely, dive deeply into texts, and steal bits and pieces from great texts as models for their own writing. I’ve stolen from all these books and many more. I’m a committed reader¾and rereader. You should be, too.

    Ruth Culham is a recognized expert in the writing assessment field and is known for conducting lively teacher workshops. Her current book, The Writing Thief, gives insight on how to use reading to practice writing skills. 

    Culham will present “The Writing Thief Goes on a Reading Rampage” Monday, July 11, 8:30 AM–9:30 AM, and “Writing Is the New Black” Saturday, July 9, 4:00 PM–5:00 PM at the ILA 2016 Conference & Exhibits in Boston. She will also copresent at “Using Culturally Texts for Reading and Writing Well” Sunday, July 10, 10:00 AM–12:00 PM. Visit ilaconference.org for more information or to register.

     
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    Why Aren’t Literacy Skills Enough?

    By Nick Murja
     | May 11, 2016

    shutterstock_113229730_x300I could not have been more excited on the last day of my first year teaching. The stress of slow progress and frustration melted into my badge of honor—I had survived unscathed. But had my students gotten my absolute best, especially as it applied to literacy? Despite my efforts, some students refused to buy in to the importance of reading. But, as a single father, I would get to spend the summer experimenting on my kids, with any luck; I’d have the “perfect formula” ready by next August. Unfortunately, my “summer students” revolted, and after three days I tossed out my lesson plans. I’d experienced the same problem at home and in school—despite skill level, reading was a nuisance. What was I missing?

    The home literacy environment

    While stationed in Paso Robles, CA, my daughter was blessed with the most dynamic kindergarten teacher. Budget cuts increased the maximum number of students per class from 23 kids with an aide to 33 without. The parents united and took turns helping each day. I was immediately hooked: the songs, the fun, the reading, and the hugs! By Christmas, the class knew the alphabet, sight words, and blends. Each week after, students were sent home with a book-themed bag of activities that focused on emergent literacy skills. I was immediately won over by creativity that bloomed in our home, inspiring our family to encourage literacy.

    At the heart, this is a home literacy environment (HLE)—the resources, feelings, and actions in the home that support or inhibit literacy. Sadly, there was a time when I believed school success was solely the result of genes. Smart kids, with smart parents, became successful adults. I was mistaken. My beliefs regarding early literacy success were transformed with what Dolores Durkin described as “The Summertime Gap.” My kids began school with basic emergent literacy skills because we had books, went to the library, talked about stories, and promoted a culture that emphatically states, “Reading is important!” However, some kids don’t have books to read or parents who enjoy reading, which creates an academic gap between student levels on the first day of kindergarten. Teachers go to battle each year but ultimately lose to the summer months when some kids continue learning, whereas others forget what was learned. Parents must lead the battle as primary literacy educators, and teachers have done an incredible job empowering them to do just that. With that said, as a high school remedial reading teacher and literacy researcher, I believe we’ve missed a very effective opponent to long-term literacy success. 

    Why isn’t literacy skills instruction effective?

    Having experienced the new wave of literacy education, promoted by parents and enforced by teachers, I expected my high school students would, at the very least, want to read. I could not have been more wrong. Some struggle to read age-appropriate texts, and their avoidance is essentially self-preservation. However, some students can read but choose instead to fail, because they despise reading, a condition I’ve learned to label “aliteracy.” As my summer lesson plans indicate, the condition isn’t isolated to high school. Students of all ages, sexes, and ethnicities regard reading as no different from Ebola—a plague to avoid! I follow the rules, so why have my kids become alliterate? Is there an element that can be added to HLE empowerment that will prevent students from choosing failure over reading?

    There are two immortal opponents to literacy: not all reading is enjoyable and, at some point, kids must choose to read on their own. Literacy skill instruction is not enough to overcome these factors.

    The importance of household order

    My oldest son is convinced he’s read Harry Potter. His excitement for the story has caused him to flip through pages and find words he can pronounce. Witnessing a child learning to read is exhilarating. The books immediately become games, which move into pictures, costumes, and sometimes a themed life. But a time comes when every child must begin reading-to-learn without the amusing implications. Readers sometimes have to buckle down and read a boring text or investigate vocabulary because it is essential. This self-discipline is likely to be enforced at school, but if household order is not an element of the HLE, students are unlikely to adopt the priority. 

    My little boys came home for Christmas break playing “Polar Express.” Because they love me, I was given a golden ticket and allowed to come. Of course, I could have chosen to stay home, but the trip seemed too magical to resist. Reading is much the same when you consider the element of choice. There comes a point when kids are no longer so eager to please that their decisions reflect preference more than obedience. There is a bibliophile in every class, but most kids must discover their own reading style, and if never given the chance, they will never make the choice to read.  

    I’ve redefined our HLE after I failed miserably that summer. We work on the activities teachers send home, but I’ve attempted to construct an environment that promotes self-discipline and discovery. As an unorganized person, I force myself to adamantly stick to a set of rules and schedule. My kids were not fans, but they learned objections don’t affect the outcome. Slowly, they garnered the self-control to do homework, go to bed, and clean despite their objectionable feelings. Some tasks require sheer will to complete and, to our dismay, reading is sometimes that way; therefore, self-discipline is required to endure.

    I also began an “alone time” ritual. On holidays and during the summer, we separate for 30 minutes of alone time. Everyone goes to a different room and can do anything aside from play with electronics. No pressure from me, no pressure from siblings, pure unadulterated autonomy. Their rooms are filled with toys, drawing material, and books they’ve chosen. I am assured that each will choose a plastic superhero or some engineering project 90% of the time. But I’m confident that eventually each will choose to read a book, and this is the time they will have the chance to fall in love with words, forever thwarting the aliteracy plague.

    Where do we go from here?

    I’m not as creative as some, but experience has taught me both the value and the inadequacy of empowering the HLE solely with emergent literacy skills. For early literacy success, we need to introduce parents to the importance of self-discipline and discovery through household order.

    nick murja headshotNick Murja teaches remedial reading and writing at Palo Duro High School in Amarillo, TX. He is working on a PhD in Literacy, Language, and Diversity at Texas Tech University.

     
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    Don’t Phone It In

    By Peg Grafwallner
     | Apr 13, 2016

    ThinkstockPhotos-83065945_x300Recently, I was “invited” to attend a meeting to introduce the latest district initiative. The two district presenters rolled out the plan, which focused on writing across all content areas. As a former English teacher, now an instructional coach/reading specialist, I applaud this effort. Although writing has always been considered an English department “thing,” content area writing lessons will be required of all teachers. The focus on writing is a welcome opportunity to connect the reading standards that have permeated everything we’ve done. By including writing, we are stressing the significance of a comprehensive literacy program. In this way, students will (hopefully) understand the value of writing in all content areas and realize that good writing is necessary to learn, to inquire and, ultimately, to succeed.

    As I was listening to the directives, the presenters explained I was chosen because I am one of the “change agents” in the district. I secretly commended myself for this compliment and silently agreed to help spearhead the effort in my building. But then, I realized maybe I’m not that important after all. As a matter of fact, maybe the entire audience really isn’t that valuable.

    As praise was being heaped upon me, one of our presenters pulled out his phone. I’m assuming he was checking e-mails or texts and not the time, because there was a clock in the room. I grew more uncomfortable the longer he was checking his phone. At one point, he turned his back to the audience and began talking to someone. His counterpart continued the presentation.
    I began to be more interested in the presenter’s phone than in the presentation. I was captivated by the demeanor in which he attended to his phone.

    I wondered, what could be so important that this presentation, with principals, assistant principals, literacy coaches, and classroom teachers, was interrupted to check one’s phone? Do we really believe people in front of us need to wait while we check our phones for other, more pressing matters?

    Then, we were shown a video that was meant to assist us in understanding and implementing this new initiative. As I was watching the video, I noticed both gentlemen were on their phones, again checking whatever needed to be checked. Although I’m sure they both had seen the video multiple times, I wanted them to watch it again. I wanted them to show me that the video and, ultimately, their presentation was so crucial to the betterment of the district that they had to watch it again. I wanted them to show me that they believed in it. But that didn’t happen. I watched the video, and they focused on their phones.

    Here’s my problem: You’ve “asked” me to buy into this opportunity. I get it. I think it’s worthwhile. I believe in what you’re selling. But, as you sell it, you are showing me there are other things more important than this meeting, this initiative. As a matter of fact, this program that you explained is so vital that its success rests on my shoulders is actually so unimportant, that you have to check in with other, more important people and opportunities. You’ve shown me it really doesn’t matter.

    As a seasoned national presenter, I have never checked my phone during a presentation. Never. I use my phone for the stopwatch feature and to keep me on track. That’s it. And that’s what I expect from other presenters.

    Then I equated this to our students. Although I hope teachers don’t take out their phones while teaching, do we give students our whole self in the classroom? Do we put distractions aside so we can concentrate on the whole person? Do we believe in what we’re “selling”? Maybe we need to “disconnect” more from outside distractions, too.

    I left the meeting knowing that I will do what is asked of me because I believe in it. However, there’s a lesson to be learned here: Please know everyone is watching you as you’re on your phone. You are supposed to be modeling to your audience the value of your product. Don’t minimize it by sharing your time with something or someone else. If your project is so important that you called a two-hour meeting after school, be present—totally present—in what you believe in. Otherwise, don’t bother.

    peg grafwallner headshotPeg Grafwallner is an instructional coach with Milwaukee Public Schools.

     
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