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Literacy Now

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    Creating Opportunities for Family Literacy, Part 1: A Foundation

    By Jeanne Smith
     | Oct 31, 2018
    Family Literacy Activities

    This is the first installment of a two-part series about creating opportunities in adult education to address family literacy.

    Read Part 2 here.

    As a teacher and specialist in adult literacy education, I believe our greatest allies and partners in creating family literacy programs are adult students who are parents themselves. These adults are already experts on their own children’s development, and for many, the desire to help their children is the reason they enter basic literacy, adult basic education, or high school diploma programs.

    Although they may desire to do otherwise, we often see adult students leave the entire responsibility for teaching their children to daycare workers, preschool teachers, librarians, and kindergarten and elementary school teachers. These parents may lack confidence about what they already know and may not have the right tools to help their children get started learning at home. By the time a child reaches third or fourth grade, his or her parents may have missed opportunities for creating a solid foundation for further education, such as being a role model for reading and learning, building a home library, and providing the bonding experiences created by family read-alouds.

    Family literacy, particularly for those adults who are still working to build their own basic skills, is more than reading to children. It calls for books and other materials that are not only age appropriate but targeted for various sets of skills where the parent can lead the child. It calls for opportunities to expose parents to research which affirms and expands upon what they already observe and know about their own children, and provides tools, support, and feedback.

    Quality family literacy work aims to engage parents in understanding the layout, sequence, and overall content of children’s books. Beginning with board books, for example, parents can be introduced to comprehension activities, such as acting out the story line and making meaningful connections to their own lives. Next, parents can learn how to introduce reading skills to their children in a way that parallels their own instruction. Parents need to go home with books and materials they learn with during their own instruction, use them with their children, and report back about their parent–child literacy experiences.

    Family literacy also requires time, which is usually in short supply. Adults rush in and out of their classes while juggling jobs, day care schedules, and appointments. Therefore, adult literacy teachers who are parents of young children should consider providing family literacy work as a significant portion of time during a regularly scheduled lesson or class.

    A workshop or series of workshops about family literacy practice where child care is provided and where other family members can attend might also be considered as long as feedback and follow-up support are a part of the workshop. Whatever format works to include family literacy, sharing research about language and literacy development always sparks interest and questions.

    Jeanne H. Smith is a literacy specialist at the Community High School of Vermont and a member of the Special Services Support team. CHSVT serves students 18 years of age and older.

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    Marking Text With Special Education Students: Ditch the Tech

    By Jonathan Pickles
     | Oct 30, 2018

    Marking TextLet me begin by saying that I embrace technology in my sixth-grade language arts classroom, but there are times when tried-and-true methods, however archaic or old school they may seem, are the best tools for the task at hand.

    It’s easy to feel pressured by the technology tide that is rolling through the academic world; I have many colleagues who feel guilty when they assign a worksheet or ask their students to complete a workbook activity. Truth be told, in the spirit of differentiating instruction for all students, there are situations where that mimeographed exercise from 1979 is the best tool for a particular student at a particular time.

    I encourage you to ditch the tech and try a timeless technique that has endured since the first word was printed on a page: marking text. I’m referring to annotation, or writing in the margins of books.

    Readers across time and across the world have read with a pen or pencil in hand, ready to mark an important paragraph or scribble their innermost thoughts in response to a relevant passage.

    Low-skilled readers often have difficulty in establishing a purpose for reading. If they are compliant, they may want to please the teacher and search through literary or informational text to find an “answer.” If this is the case, they can’t see the forest for the trees. Conversely, if they are prompted to find the “big idea” or “message,” they won’t see the trees for the forest.

    This is especially true of my special education students, who, although willing to please and work hard for the most part, often miss out on the journey and the simple joys of reading. This leads to frustration and confusion, which quenches their spirits and quashes any chance of developing a growth mind-set. As such, they have had limited success in building their language arts skills.

    Low-skilled readers need to know that their reading reactions may matter more than finding the answer or message in a text. Students can begin annotating right away. Try this: Ask your students to help you make a list of possible emotional reactions a reader might have while reading. A reader might be amused or angry. Perhaps they agree or disagree strongly with a passage. Maybe they despise or love a certain character in a story or are surprised by the thrust of a news article.

    After you and your students have a list of reactions, assign a simple icon to each. For example, to mark agreement, use a check mark. To note disagreement, make an X. Use emojis where possible, as your students are most definitely familiar with them. A happy face can note amusement.

    If the students own the books or texts that they are reading, they can annotate directly—mark a passage, draw the icon or emoji, and write a few words about why they had a particular reaction. If they do not own the texts, simply do this on a sticky note and affix it to the relevant passage.

    Students can share their reactions with seat partners. They can use their annotations in literature circles or reading groups. Probe the readers as to why they reacted a certain way and celebrate differences. Draw their attention to the reading journey itself.

    Your students will have had a positive reading experience, which is a success in and of itself. This will boost engagement immediately and reap rewards beyond what you might have expected. And the only technology you will have used is the printed page.

    Jonathan Pickles has taught language arts at the middle and secondary levels for more than 20 years. He has worked in both public and private schools in California, Connecticut, and New York. Jonathan currently resides in Dutchess County’s gorgeous Hudson Valley with his wife, daughters, cats, dogs, and one very lucky goldfish. For more, visit www.picklesandbooks.com.

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    When Collaborative Professional Learning Influences Curriculum, Part 2: The Process of Curricular Improvement

    By Christina Dobbs and Jacy Ippolito
     | Oct 23, 2018

    Collaborative PLThis is the second installment of a two-part blog series about a standout school teacher collaboration around disciplinary literacy and citizenship, as an instructional focus. Read Part 1, A Case of Disciplinary Literacy Professional Learning and Instruction, here.

    The Baker team began by identifying a time of year when they could potentially pilot a bounded, interdisciplinary project. In this way, the team created a pilot space in which they could rapidly shape and redesign curriculum, without having to necessarily disturb entire curricula across multiple content areas. The team identified a week between other units of instruction and considered learning goals that seemed to cut across disciplines. This process led to rich conversations about the discipline-specific and interdisciplinary skills they would like to see students build more fully and that they’d like to provide more instruction around.

    Choose shared literacy skills that are important across the curriculum

    Next, the Baker team deeply considered their students’ reading and writing engagement as an area they’d like to improve. One key goal they set was to provide highly engaging experiences that were interdisciplinary so that students could feel a sense of authentic reasons for learning and connectedness to their own literacy skills. They also wanted students to do more “response writing” to capture their experiences. Finally, they wished to include the notion of multiple texts, which we had learned about in workshops together, to help students achieve some of these goals. Then, the team identified a central “habit of mind” that might help students focus and deepen their learning. The team identified citizenship as a key focus area, a unifying concept that linked multiple disciplinary skills and disparate content and experiences. By choosing a bounded space and timeframe and an interdisciplinary focus with these practices, the team created a clear experimental space within which to try out newly adapted and adopted disciplinary literacy instructional practices.

    Plan instruction for the bounded space

    The team at Baker created a set of multimodal texts designed to emphasize national and local ideas of citizenship, including reflective writing tasks to accompany the texts and experiences. The team elected to do a few small readings on the topic, to take students to participate in a local mock Senate experience, to view the film Hidden Figures, and to volunteer at a local charity. They conceived of these tasks because they emphasized various content disciplines and related skills within those disciplines. The governance skills in the mock Senate experience related to the habits of mind promoted in the social studies curriculum, the Hidden Figures film furthered math and science habits of mind, and so on. Ultimately, the team considered how to connect teachers’ and students’ experiences across these tasks to really deepen students’ collective understanding of citizenship and to see what would happen to students’ reading and writing engagement as a result.

    Collect information about what happens in the pilot space

    The team was then able, within this bounded and shared pilot space, to consider how students reacted to these practices and whether reading and writing engagement seemed to improve and whether multiple texts seemed to help hone student learning. They carefully observed students in the variety of spaces they had created during their week, and they collected work products from the week to determine what students had learned. Of course, the team found some positive results of their approach and some areas they would like to improve. For instance, they found high levels of engagement with many of the ideas presented in the multimodal text set. As a result of working with the text set, the team felt that students really learned and deepened their idea of what citizenship means. They also found some lovely facets of the reflective writing they had asked students to do, as students found space to discuss their feelings about their learning. However, they also felt that adding more structure and guidelines to the writing process might improve the experience in the future.

    Plan for the future and for curricula in the disciplines

    The team then took what they had learned in their pilot space to plan for subsequent learning. The team first elected that they’d like to continue Citizenship Week as a tradition because of its many opportunities to work in interdisciplinary ways, to pilot new practices, and to provide meaningful connections between disciplines for students. More broadly speaking, though, the team’s discussion had bigger implications for curricula improvement. They began to identify pilot practices from their Citizenship Week that they wished to implement in individual disciplines and across them. Multiple texts and text sets were a structure that they felt had promise for various disciplinary classes for eighth graders, and they immediately began planning to implement new text sets in their individual curricula.

    Collect and reflect on the instruction outside the pilot space and make recommendations about what is working

    Finally, the team tried out the practices in their own curricular spaces (and sometimes across them) to keep considering how students literacy skills might be improved. These practices are now becoming more widely spread across grades and are a topic of conversation for adoption schoolwide.

    Reflecting on this pilot space process for curricular improvement

    As outside consultants to this project, we were excited by this approach and by the teachers’ confidence in and agreement about the practices they wanted to pilot in their various disciplinary curricula. They didn’t all implement the same practices in exactly the same ways, but they had a plan in place about who would do what and a theory of change about what they’d like to improve.

    In our experience, interdisciplinary teams can struggle to reach this point—the point where team members are teaching their own curricula but still have a cohesive vision for improvement around literacy instruction across and within individual disciplines. We truly feel it was the pilot space that allowed this theory of action around improvement to be formed. Because the team carved out a space to experience the practices together, they were able to have a real shared curricular knowledge base to draw from as they considered potential changes.

    One clear advantage of interdisciplinary teams who share students is an ability to delve deeply into students’ individual needs and to consider serving them well. But these configurations can create curricular challenges as teams consist of teams that don’t tend to share curricula. This can make curricular improvement challenging as teachers can face demands for improvement without any collaborators specific to their own disciplines and particular curricula.

    Some schools and districts have approached this by connecting math teachers, for example, across the building or across schools. But this team’s inquiry learning together presents an interesting model for curricular improvement on a true interdisciplinary team that can lead to curricula improvement and interdisciplinary synergy.

    The teachers at the heart of this story are Jacqueline Hallo, Christina Collins, Sheila Jaung, Pamela Penwarden, John Padula, and Marisa Ricci, who are all educators at the Edith C. Baker School in Brookline, Massachusetts.

    Christina L. Dobbs is program director and assistant professor of English education at Boston University. 

    Jacy Ippolito is an associate professor and department chair of the Secondary and Higher Education Department for the School of Education at Salem State University in Massachusetts.

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    Resources for World Teachers' Day

    By Alina O'Donnell
     | Oct 04, 2018

    World Teacher's DayCelebrated annually on October 5, World Teachers' Day marks not only a time to celebrate the contributions of teachers on a global scale, but also to recognize and mobilize around the challenges facing them every day.

    This year’s theme, which highlights the invaluable role of teachers in fulfilling the fundamental right to education, reminds us that we cannot realize our goal of literacy for all without teachers who come through high-quality preparation programs and are given meaningful professional learning opportunities and experiences on an ongoing basis.

    Here are five key resources for developing prepared and motivated teachers:

    • Standards for the Preparation of Literacy Professionals 2017 are the first-ever set of national standards guiding the preparation of literacy professionals. Drafted by a team of 28 literacy experts from across the United States, the updated standards describe the characteristics of effective literacy professional preparation programs, integrating research-based promising practices, professional wisdom, and feedback from expert stakeholders during public comment periods.
    • In addition to setting the standards, ILA, convened a task force charged to review and analyze the research on teacher preparation for literacy instruction. This joint effort with along with the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), produced a research advisory, that discusses common features of successful teacher prep programs.
    • Democratizing Professional Growth With Teachers: From Development to Learning reimagines a more “democratic” model of professional learning that allows educators to participate in its planning and implementation.  
    • Personalized Professional Development: At the Center of Your Own Learning,” a Literacy Daily blog post, discusses the value and practical applications of professional learning networks.
    • Teaching Tolerance provides a range of instruction, teacher leadership, school climate, and other resources that help educators shape their schools into strong, equitable communities.

    Alina O’Donnell is the communications strategist at ILA and the editor of Literacy Daily.

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    Pushing vs. Pulling Adolescent Readers Toward Comprehension

    By Colette Coleman
     | Sep 26, 2018

    Pulling Instructional ModelAs learning standards have evolved over the past decade, so too have expectations for adolescents’ reading levels and abilities. To keep up, teachers have adopted new strategies and curricula to try to meet these demands, but given the challenges that they face, student reading success has remained elusive for most. Confirming this, 2017 reading scores released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that only 36% of eighth graders can read at or above a Proficient level, meaning most wouldn’t be able to comprehend this post.

    Why is it that most adolescents are struggling with reading proficiency? There are countless reasons why a student would struggle with reading, but often at the core of literacy stagnation and reading reluctance is the pull reading method. In this instructional model, the teacher starts with her or his own comprehension of a text and works toward the goal of pulling students to this understanding. Although the mind-set behind this approach is well-intentioned, I believe it’s detrimental to students’ reading confidence and engagement for a few important reasons.

    First, as Edmund Wilson, the great literary journalist proclaimed, “No two persons ever read the same book.” Although there are many indisputable facts in books, the meaning that lies beneath the surface may differ from reader to reader. If a teacher pulls students toward only her or his reading, students may miss out on the chance to develop their own interpretations as they read through the lens of their own life experiences. Moreover, when a teacher conveys that students can get to an author’s meaning only through her or his hints and leading questions, the underlying message is that students can’t navigate the text on their own. Here applies the Chinese proverb “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

    The next logical question is, How does an educator teach a student to fish or, rather, close read, without pulling students toward her or his understanding of a text? The answer is the push method. This instructional strategy, recently introduced to me in an intimate literacy professional development program, the Zinc Reading Circle (ZRC), has changed the way I think about developing adolescents’ reading skills. The ZRC, led by literacy expert and veteran educator Matt Bardin, pushed me far out of my comfort zone so that I can now push my students outside of theirs toward the joy, fulfillment, and power of advanced literacy.

    In the ZRC training, I worked with just three other teachers, sharing my beliefs about reading instruction and practices, and recorded one-on-one lessons with select struggling readers. Once I overcame my discomfort of my literacy instruction being analyzed and dissected, frame by frame, I was able to reap the benefits of constructive criticism. As Atul Gawande wrote in The New Yorker on the power of coaching across sectors, from sports fields to operating rooms, the focused attention upped my reading game.

    I had it all wrong. I thought that instructing students on what I considered obvious close reading skills would be condescending but, in fact, it was the opposite. By not equipping students with the skills they need to grapple with tough texts on their own, I was sending the message that they can’t comprehend such writing without my support. Education researcher Louisa Moats’s words, “Speaking is natural; Reading and writing are not,” echoed in my head.

    To get students working toward self-sufficient comprehension, the push method demands explicit reading instruction, a strategy affirmed by countless research studies, including one notable guide, Improving Adolescent Literacy: Effective Classroom and Intervention Practices, published by the Institute of Education Sciences. There are several close reading strategies to teach, but the most crucial is visualizing. This act comes naturally to strong readers (probably you if you’re reading this) but is anything but obvious to most. While reading, it’s crucial to imagine what the author’s describing, evoking, and asking you to infer as you go. These visual representations act as hand holds for your brain to scale the mountain of challenging texts. When I taught primary school, I often asked students to close their eyes and imagine the scenes as I read aloud. This strategy worked well with my fourth graders to understand books such as The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, but to my amazement, the same principle and strategy, taught differently (no longer with read-alouds and eyes closed), is just as important for understanding texts at middle and high school levels.

    Since I’ve started to push my students more toward mastery of this skill and others, there’s no longer a need for me to pull them to comprehension. They’re leading the way to their own understanding, and to my great delight, I’m even learning new interpretations from them.

    Colette Coleman is a part-time educator and full-time educational equity advocate. A former classroom teacher, she is now focused on EdTech, writing as a contributor to EdTech news site EdSurge and working with Zinc Reading Labs.

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