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The Gift of Literacy: The Road to Becoming a Reading Teacher

By Alethea E. Sumbry-Cetnarowski
 | Jan 09, 2024
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The COVID environment that began in March 2020 had a drastic impact on the way schools functioned in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Daily instruction promptly moved from in-person to online learning. Technology was the new vehicle to ensure that learning could continue. Schools in my district, Milwaukee Public Schools, maintained online learning from March 2020 until April 2021. During this time, I continued my role as the School Support Teacher/Interventionist, delivering 15-minute, online sessions to a second grader in our virtual learning space. I also began a journey of personal and professional growth.

The Journey Begins

In that spring of 2020, the entire landscape of education was forever changed. So was I. In early June 2020, the end of the school year had finally arrived, and I found myself sitting on my couch wondering if I had done enough to help the second grader reach her potential in reading. The answer was “yes” and “no.” Yes, I had followed the necessary procedures to work with her each day for 15 minutes, to check her progress at the end of each week, and to document appropriate data. To supplement her online learning, I had created and mailed work bundles to her home each week. These bundles included alphabet recognition tasks, decodable readers, handwriting practice, word-family matching games, and more. I helped her obtain a much needed and highly anticipated special education diagnosis and additional support in reading. But my answer was also—No. I sensed I hadn’t exhausted all the strategies and resources to prepare her for third grade work. When her diagnosis was determined, a fellow educator told me that even though I followed procedures, my student was going to be a person who never could or would read. I was in utter shock and awe. I logged off the online meeting and cried. After much thought and a few additional online workshops during the summer of being “safer at home,” I began my quest to become a licensed reading teacher.

How could I improve a future outcome for students like the one I had just encountered to ensure that they had the necessary tools to succeed in reading? I researched coursework offerings and the timeline that was necessary to complete the work. The reading teacher licensure program offered at Mount Mary University was the perfect fit for me for several reasons. Mount Mary was close to home and school; it was affordable; and I knew the school and professors from my previous studies as an undergraduate and graduate student there years earlier. The university has an excellent reputation, and I have found much success in my career as a result of my own education at Mount Mary. The reading teacher certification would afford me the ability to better identify, understand, and provide quality instruction to struggling readers in hopes of helping them close their achievement gaps. With my husband’s blessing and support, I purchased materials and was again a registered graduate student.

Portfolio as Evidence

After four consecutive semesters of hard work, I realized I learned a great deal about myself and what it means to be literate in this world. As I recently completed the final phase of my graduate work, I had time to review and reflect upon my final portfolio. The process of developing that portfolio was priceless. In the beginning, I didn’t believe that I would or could finish what I had started. The few years leading up to this final semester were some of the toughest in my 25 years as a veteran teacher. When I looked at the final collection of standards I had to meet, proving evidence of my accomplishment seemed impossible. My greatest fear was that I didn’t have the necessary artifacts to show that I knew what I was doing. After all the work, time, and energy, would I let myself down?

After a meeting with my professor, I had the clarity that I needed about what components to include in my portfolio, and one Saturday afternoon in mid-February 2023, I was ready. To get comfortable, I brewed a cup of coffee, opened my online files, and began analyzing and selecting my evidence.

As the self-proclaimed pack rat that I am, I found that what I needed was there. I had saved years of my work. I was thrilled to see a wide variety of documents, lesson plans, recordings, spreadsheets, slideshows, essays, projects, and summaries that were worthy of uploading into my final portfolio. This realization helped me regain my confidence and affirm that I could indeed demonstrate my achievements. I worked hard that entire day.

First, I created seven electronic folders, one for each of the seven standards as determined by the International Literacy Association:

  • Standard #1: Foundational Knowledge
  • Standard #2: Curriculum and Instruction
  • Standard #3: Assessment and Evaluation
  • Standard #4: Diversity
  • Standard #5: Literate Environment
  • Standard #6: Professional Learning and Leadership
  • Standard #7: Practicum/Clinical Experiences. (2023)

Next, I created cover sheets for each folder. The most challenging part of the process was remembering how I had named my pieces in my online files. To make my search easier, I decided to go back to my original time of inspiration, June 2020. From there, I looked at each item that had anything to do with reading. As I analyzed each piece, I compared what I had to what the standard specified. If it qualified, I listed the name of the artifact on my standards table. Next, I made a copy of the online artifact and moved it into my electronic folder. My artifacts were lining up with the standards, and many pieces overlapped to meet the goals of more than one standard.

I repeated this process in one 8-hour sitting, only stopping to refuel and push on. I reviewed all items that I had created from June 2020 until February 2023. I then proceeded to color code each of my online folders and to label them in this manner: my full name, Alethea Ellen Sumbry-Cetnarowski; project name; International Literacy Association standard number; standard goal and description; and the date. I went back and double checked that each artifact was in the right place, and I ensured that my professor had access to my work.

My final portfolio contained 52 artifacts that showcased my knowledge and understanding of literacy. I included examples of lessons to support phoneme and grapheme correspondence, syllabication, and identification of initial, medial, and final phonemes in words. I also included self-created video tutorials to support my colleagues as they navigated technological resources to support virtual learning. In addition, I included my qualitative research project that analyzed a variety of formative, diagnostic assessments to determine a reader’s word count per minute, vocabulary acquisition, fluency, reading comprehension, prosody, and instructional reading level. Last, my portfolio included certificates I had earned from four educational platforms that demonstrated my proficiency in the ability to assess and instruct students, including English Language Learners, using digital tools approved at the district and state levels. I am so incredibly proud of this accomplishment. 

Reflections as a Result of Portfolio Development

As I came to achieve my goal, I asked myself three questions: First, what did it take to help a student become a proficient reader? Second, what was the difference between a student who struggled to read and a student with a reading disability? Finally, did I have what it took to know the difference and lay the foundation for my students that would give them the ability to be proficient readers? As I reflected upon my journey to obtain this license, I found the answers to these three questions.

First, to help a student become a proficient reader, I knew that it took a high level of dedication to provide explicit, systematic instruction on a regular basis. I had the intrinsic motivation and skill to make this happen. Second, through careful study and direct work, I understood and could identify the differences between a student who struggled in reading and a student with a reading disability. For the past 3 years, I was able to work with students in that regard.

With impactful planning, delivery of interventions, and collection of data, I was able to prove or disprove the need for individualized reading plans for more than 20 students in Grades 1–5. Finally, I was fully confident and had proven myself capable of recognizing and pinpointing student strengths and areas of need in reading.

Conclusion

The greatest gift that anyone can receive from compulsory education—in the public or private sector— is the gift of literacy. I am hopeful that all children can receive this gift before graduating from high school. Such literacy is the hallmark of education and the key to a productive and successful future as a global citizen. As I make my mark as a reading teacher, I look forward to making this dream come true for my future students for many years to come.

Ultimately, my story is one of professional and personal growth, supported by my husband Dwayne and my children, Andrew, Myles, and Nic, who inspire me to be the best educator I can be. Thanks for support also go to my parents, Linda and Jim, who filled our home with numerous books and magazines and took me on countless trips to the local bookstores and libraries. My quest for growth was also supported by many professors; my principal, Sarah; colleagues Kathy and Chris; and DKG Milwaukee chapter members who offered continued encouragement. Standing on the shoulders of these individuals and of my ancestors (many of whom were once denied the right to learn to read), I am eager to work to provide support to children as they strive for the gift of literacy.

Alethea Ellen Sumbry-Cetnarowski, a member of Delta Chapter in Wisconsin State Organization, is in her 26th year as an educator for Milwaukee Public Schools, where she is currently the School Support Teacher/interventionist for students in grades K4–5. Having previously earned a BA and MA in Education from Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, she recently completed reading teacher licensure from her alma mater. sumbryae@milwaukee.k12.wi.us

“The Gift of Literacy: The Road to Becoming a Reading Teacher,” by A. E. Sumbry-Cetnarowski, 2023, The Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin: Collegial Exchange, 90(2), p. 23–25. Copyright 2023 by The Delta Kappa Gamma Society International. Reprinted/shared with permission.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed in blog posts on this website are those of the individual writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of ILA. We have taken reasonable steps to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in blog posts but do not warrant the accuracy or completeness of such information.

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