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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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