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    For This Award-Winning Educator, Reimagining Literacy Means Showing Students the Power Writing Has to Redirect Their Lives

    By Colleen Patrice Clark
     | Apr 18, 2017
    IOW_2017-04-18_w220

    Room 404 at Miami Norland Senior High School in Florida is a second home for Precious Symonette’s creative writing students. The love and acceptance they feel upon entering is something they treasure and hold onto long after graduation.

    Symonette is a Freedom Writer teacher. She teaches students, many of whom are inner-city teens from troubled backgrounds, that no matter what challenges they face, they can find success in the classroom and beyond. By embracing writing as a tool to discover their identity, Symonette is literally transforming their lives through literacy.

    She founded Miami Norland’s Viking Freedom Writers Club and annual Writing Gala, she regularly has her students compete in spoken word competitions and, most recently, she created the Florida Freedom Writers Foundation with her students to encourage others to use writing as a means to explore some of today’s most important topics such as racism, diversity, and empathy.

    “I actively create lessons that reinforce the idea that there is strength in diversity,” Symonette writes on the national Freedom Writers Foundation website. “I force my students to learn about themselves so that they can learn to love themselves.”

    It was no surprise to Symonette’s students when she was named Miami-Dade’s 2017 Teacher of the Year, as well as a 2016 National Education Association Superhero Educator. Her Freedom Writers all use similar words and phrases to describe her: more than a teacher; a mother; someone with the ability to help students discover who they are, the ability to help redirect their path toward a more positive future.

    Her class pledge says it all: “I am not everyone, but I am someone. I cannot write everything, but I can write something! What I can write, by the grace of the universe, I will freely write as a means to become the best person that can be for me, my household, my community, and the world. I have something to say because I am somebody. I am freely writing myself into existence. I am a Florida Freedom Writer.”

    To better understand the impact of this award-winning educator, we knew we only needed to turn to her Freedom Writers to discover that she truly is a teacher who comes along once in a lifetime.

    Read their words here in the open access March/April issue of Literacy Today, and hear her message about the power of writing during Opening General Session at the ILA 2017 Conference & Exhibits.

    Precious Symonette will speak during the Opening General Session of the ILA 2017 Conference & Exhibits on Saturday, July 15. She will also take part in the ILA Meet & Eat Networking Lunch that day at noon, which is a ticketed event, and a workshop session on the iWrite My Story Movement on Sunday, July 16. For more information, visit ilaconference.org.

    colleen patrice clarkColleen Patrice Clark is the managing editor of Literacy Today.


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    Literacy and 21st-Century School Leadership

    By Ryan B. Jackson
     | Apr 13, 2017

    IOW-04-13-2017_w300As a former English and journalism teacher, I entered education with a bolstered bravado that I would teach America’s youth to become great writers. Naturally, the correlation between great writers and avid readers is significant, so my mission as a first-year teacher was to inspire my students to develop an indelible passion for reading and writing.

    Along the way, I founded Maplewood High School’s first-ever AP language and composition program, resurrected a dead journalism program, and advised the student-centered, student-run school news magazine. It is worth noting that Maplewood High School is an inner-city, high-poverty school in an area with all the familiar trappings: high-crime rate, high unemployment, food desert, gang violence, et cetera, et cetera. When our student news magazine began gaining notoriety and competing at the top-level of the Tennessee High School Press Association—and when one of my AP students went on to pass the AP exam and graduate as salutatorian with full-ride scholarship offers to more than 40 universities, I knew I had truly found my calling.

    Flash-forward 10 years: I am now the executive principal of the Mount Pleasant Arts Innovation Zone, the first pre-K–12 STEAM campus in the United States. My role in education has significantly changed, yet my unbridled passion and love for reading and writing has not wavered.

    I am often asked, “Just what is a STEAM school?” and my response echoes with each inquiry: STEAM is as much a mindset as it is a curriculum. Through a holistic learning model, we are synergizing content and curriculum with concentrated efforts to inspire a new generation of creators, not merely consumers. The bedrock of the STEAM mindset and curriculum, however, is literacy. Through literacy, students develop sought-after communication skills, which translates to effective writing, persuasive speaking, and ultimately coveted problem-solving.

    Thus, after all of the bells-and-whistles of the STEAM education zeitgeist, literacy remains at the heart of the school paradigm. Even with our school’s new 1:1 initiative, through which every student will have a mobile device and untethered access to a digital world of resources, the written word still stands true. How we prepare students to read and write is certainly changing—as it should be in the 17th year of the 21st century. Yet, let us not panic as digital platforms usurp traditional books or throw in the towel as text speak and 140-character tweets attempt to supplant proper grammar and well-written prose.

    Now more than ever educators are needed to connect students with their passions, using literacy as the thread. When educators serve as the conduit between student and student interest, the learning platforms become secondary to a greater, more sustainable purpose: creativity. The universal truth surrounding creativity is its relationship with literacy. Our STEAM campus is charged with inspiring a new generation of thinkers, problem-solvers, and creators, absolutely none of which is possible without literacy, writing across the curriculum, or effective public speaking.

    Has the how changed in our approach to teaching literacy? It has. But, the why remains.

    ryan-jackson_w80Ryan B. Jackson is the executive principal of the Mt. Pleasant Arts Innovation Zone in Tennessee. He is a former film producer and English teacher whose TEDx Talk details the significance of securing student belonging in the classroom. As an English teacher, Jackson also taught AP language and composition and journalism, and he believes literacy is the bedrock of education.


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    An Open Letter to My Students at Report Card Time

    By Heidi Ames
     | Apr 06, 2017

    IOW_04-05-2017_w300It’s report card time, and I despise it.  I know I’m probably not supposed to say that, but it’s true, and I need to tell you why: I will spend hours sitting in front of the computer, choosing just the right 250 characters to type for each subject. First I will type a blurb about the general concepts we’ve focused on and then, perhaps, a comment specific to your abilities.

    I will undoubtedly spend more time trying to shorten my well-chosen words because I don’t have enough space to write all I need to say. I will agonize over whether you are a 1, 2, 3, or 4 in achievement and have exhibited superior, consistent, inconsistent, or minimal effort.

    But let’s get real. Never, not ever, can you be reduced in my mind to a number and a letter; not in math, ELA, social studies, science, or more importantly, MOST importantly, as a human being.

    Nevertheless, it is a job requirement to evaluate your academic performance, so I do what is required. And I know you think it matters because I watch you count how many 3’s and S’s and C’s you got. I watch your face light up proudly, and I watch you cry. I listen when you tell me you are nervous to go home with a low-scored assignment because you don’t want to get in trouble.

    So here’s what I’d put on your report card if it were up to me. I would tell you that you matter simply because you are a member of our class family. You are a genius at something, and the world needs to know what that is. Maybe you need to know and you don’t yet...and that’s okay. You have time to figure it out.

    I care about you and your hopes, your fears, and what makes you deliriously happy and raving mad.

    I care about whether you have access to books that will take you places you’ve only imagined—or never yet imagined! If you read as much as possible, maybe you’ll want to be a writer, too.

    I care about what you have to say and every story you want to share, even if I sometimes can’t listen at the moment you need to tell it. It’s never because I don’t care.

    I care whether you believe in yourself as much as I believe in you. Do you believe you can do anything, be anyone you want to be? You can. Don’t let anyone tell you different. Especially, don’t let this report card tell you differently. You are so much more than numbers and letters on a piece of paper.

    The paper does not tell me what is in your heart. I see that every day, and it is such a privilege. I love when you come in each morning ready to learn, and I love when you ask questions or for extra help because that means you care. I love the small acts of kindness you perform, not because you’ll get something in return but because you are a caring person.

    Nothing I write on your report card will let you know these things—250 characters is simply not enough.

    Heidi Ames is a veteran 4th grade teacher at the Wixon Innovation School in Dennis, MA. She has been a teacher leader for several years and currently serves as co-vice president for Grades 4–7 in the Dennis-Yarmouth Educators Association. She is passionate about creating community and sharing her love of poetry writing with her students.

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    Increase Access to Books and Content, and We’ll Engage the Mind and the Heart

    By Flora Majdalawi
     | Apr 04, 2017

    IOW-04042017_w300I come from a region where literacy indicators among school-age children are consistently among the world’s lowest. In many countries in the Middle East, public libraries are not particularly prevalent, active, or well supplied, and can certainly benefit from the support of professional librarians. Access to literature and e-books is limited to the affluent few.

    This is one of the markets where the need is great and the supply is mediocre. A vast majority of schools still use basal reading programs to teach reading and writing skills, which are mostly based on factual essays and short excerpts of classic literature work. The vast majority of children are growing up never having the chance to hold or read a book outside the mandated school textbooks and are missing out on enjoying complete works of literature.

    Unfortunately, the strong bond between literacy and literature is underestimated. Literacy statistics, specifically fluency and comprehension, are not readily available to the public in countries such as mine. Related research studies are scarce. In an unusually bold step, it was officially announced recently in Jordan, my native country, that 80% of second and third graders read below their national grade-level expectations. If we couple this with the fact that about 80% of the schools in Jordan belong to the public sector, the implications are alarming.

    Although many can blame inadequate financial resources, I believe it is mainly due to a lack of awareness of the underlying power of children’s literature.

    As an author and publisher who strongly believes in the concept of “literacy through literature,” I find myself, on many occasions, in the unenviable and often frustrating position where I still have to discuss the importance and the need to incorporate children’s literature among learning resources. Although this is slowly changing as we are witnessing a few initiatives incorporating children’s literature in education, these remain baby steps when quantum leaps are needed.

    The eloquent and beautiful words of the great children’s literature advocate Charlotte Huck are pertinent in these situations: “Literature is a kind of golden string that can place us in contact with the best minds in every period of history, the wisest, the tenderest, the bravest of all who have ever lived. And it can do this for children, if only we can help them to grasp hold of it.”

    Marginalizing literature means marginalizing feelings and emotions, which suggests not only missing out on great opportunities to develop more humane individuals but also failing to grasp a golden chance to create lifelong readers.

    Here the words of the great cognitive linguistic psychologist Frank Smith come to mind: “The emotional response to reading is the primary reason most readers read, and probably the prime reason most non-readers do not read.”

    Although facts and information are important to educate the mind, there should always be ample space to educate the heart. And, with such low literacy indicators to grapple with, the need is more urgent than ever to engage the mind and the heart of every single student and to challenge the status quo.

    Flora Majdalawi is an Arabic children’s author and publisher from Jordan who focuses on producing fiction and nonfiction literacy resources for primary students. She has authored over 20 titles in the differentiated graded Arabic reading series Discover the Fun of Reading. She is also the author of the tweens’ realistic fiction series Hind and Saif.

    This article originally appeared in the January/February issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

     
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    Reading Aloud Connects Us All

    By Pam Allyn
     | Feb 13, 2017

    shutterstock_221294557_x300The act of reading is, in some ways, the most invisible of arts. We can’t see others’ minds at work; their engagement with words can be mysterious to the outside eye. But when we read aloud to one another, we bring the joy and connection of reading to the surface; we illuminate its power.

    Reading aloud is my favorite way to create community and joy. A profound, magical connection forms between reader, text, and listener. Through the books we choose and the people we read with, we deepen relationships and create memories that will last a lifetime.

    In 2007, my colleagues and I created World Read Aloud Day (WRAD) through LitWorld in response to one little boy in a classroom who yearned for more time for his teacher to read aloud. This year WRAD falls on February 16.

    WRAD is a soaring global, grassroots movement that shares the power of words and stories and has created a connected community of caring people who come together as a positive force for love and learning and celebrate something beautiful and good.

    I had the honor of participating in a podcast (which will go live on WRAD) with our partner Scholastic on the profound resonance of the read-aloud—and the connections that are made—along with actor, comedian, and author Nick Cannon; renowned author and editor Andrea Pinkney; and esteemed researcher, author, professor, and literacy expert Ernest Morrell. Hear Scholastic’s full podcast on February 16, including an excerpt from Cannon’s new book of poetry, Neon Aliens Ate My Homework: And Other Poems.

    I loved listening to Cannon talk about his favorite memories of reading growing up and how the sound of language changed him—how authors such as Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss “had a cadence or a rhyme.” He said he loved to share, read, and perform those words aloud. Now, as a father, he passes along the power of the read-aloud to his children, which included The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, a book that celebrated the tender moments of a small child experiencing the joy of a winter day.

    Pinkney read aloud to us from her new book, A Poem for Peter, about the author of The Snowy Day, Ezra Jack Keats. I love how the link between Nick and Andrea was completely coincidental: Nick’s revering this classics book and Andrea’s writing the story of Peter, the boy in the book. Each one’s “lineage” of reading intersected in that moment of honoring the power of children’s books to change lives.

    Ernest and I talked about the formative impact reading aloud has had on our own lives and with our families, and Ernest pointed out that the research shows how important the read aloud is to the learning life of every child.

    I invite you to make your own connections to favorite books, both old and new, on this World Read Aloud Day. Bring your professional community together for dinner and read to each other. Read poems, jokes, news stories, magical fiction, and love stories. Find a a community center that really needs the care that the read-aloud brings and take time to share that on this day.

    Join WRAD for 24 joy-filled hours! Visit us at litworld.org/wrad to find resources and on our Facebook page to see (and post!) photos from all over the world in the days and weeks that follow. Remember to use the tag #WRAD17 to share your experiences with everyone!

    pamallynheadshotPam Allyn is the founding director of LitWorld, a global literacy initiative serving children across the United States and in more than 60 countries, and LitLife, a cutting-edge consulting group working with schools to enrich best practice teaching methods and building curriculum for reading and writing.

     

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