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What We Learned at ILA’s First Local Literacy Thought-Exchange

By Alina O'Donnell
 | Aug 08, 2017

ILA Live Event The event was supposed to end at 11:30 a.m., but nearly an hour later, participants were still standing outside of the conference room, talking excitedly, sharing photos of their classrooms, and exchanging phone numbers.

Last month, the International Literacy Association (ILA) convened a group of local teachers, school administrators, reading specialists, instructional coaches, teacher educators, and other literacy professionals at our headquarters in Delaware to talk about what keeps them up at night.   

 “We’re really taking on the mantle of raising a local conversation and dialogue of what’s happening, and allowing an exchange of comments and ideas,” says ILA Executive Director Marcie Craig Post. “What’s the part that [ILA] can play at a national or even international level to really impact some of the challenges and the issues that you are facing?”

Balancing exam preparation and authentic learning

For Jennifer Woods, an instructional coach at Christina School District in Delaware, it’s the difficult balancing act of fostering a love of reading while also striving to improve low standardized testing scores.

“The kids love reading. We can’t keep enough books in the building for them. But then the test scores come and you’re like, ‘How could this be?’” says Woods. “Students are more than test scores.”

It was a sentiment echoed by nearly all in attendance: Standardized test scores often don’t reflect what the children are able to do in the classroom.  

“Growth ends up being measured by some basic standard or average rather than the growth of an individual child,” says Post. “How can we, as a national organization with the ability to impact and inform policy, begin to address this critical issue?”

Among the participants, other leading concerns were insufficient funding, staff, and other resources, as well as barriers to reaching students who have been affected by trauma such as such as crime, family violence, incarceration, chronic illness, or the death of a family member. 

Post guided the conversation with a series of open-ended questions about how the participants are working to overcome these challenges and create an all-encompassing culture of literacy in their schools and districts.

Lorraine Bell, a third-grade teacher, and Lisa Lowe, an elementary school principal, at Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) in Maryland, say the district has seen promising results since implementing Bookworms, a literacy curriculum developed by the University of Delaware School of Education that incorporates shared reading, read-alouds and discussion, and small-group instruction in 45-minute segments.

“I’ve never seen my personal classroom library be emptied out. They used to just ask for picture books and now they’re asking for authors, reading chapter books, and sneaking books under their desk to read them. They just want more and more,” says Bell.

Lowe says the school has seen a 30% rise in test scores across grade levels since implementing the program. Starting next year, CCPS will incorporate this literacy curriculum across all content areas.

David Wilkie, principal at McVey Elementary School in Delaware, has partnered with ILA for the past two years to enhance his school’s culture of literacy. He says the most effective initiative has been allotting time for students to engage in independent reading with a book of choice.

“Giving them that time has really motivated students to read and to want to read,” he says. “The students are now carrying books in the hallways and reading them at lunchtime.”

The need for continuing professional development

ILA Live Event Wilkie also stresses the importance of sustained professional development experiences versus one-and-done training.

“We took eight teachers and instructional coaches to the [ILA [2016] Conference in Boston, and that alone changed the whole culture,” he says. “Eight staff members changed the whole culture of our building. Because this time, it wasn’t me going out and coming back and saying, ‘This is great stuff.’ It was them coming back and saying ‘We’ve got to change.’”

This year, 23 staff members attended conference.

This supports Wilkie’s belief that in order for professional development to be effective, the entire staff must be invested in a shared vision and set of goals. 

“Once they saw that long-term goal, there was so much more buy-in, so much more willingness to change,” he says. “Everything is planned so that we make sure it isn’t being dropped, that we follow up, we come back to it, we readdress it, we build upon it. That builds momentum.”

Family engagement matters

According to Post, family engagement is another cornerstone of lifelong literacy.

“If we’re going to have a culture of literacy, it has to go beyond school walls, says Post.

Participants discussed what they are doing to strengthen home–school partnerships, such as hosting parent cafés and Title I reading nights, providing transportation to school events, starting laundromat literacy programs and Little Free Libraries in low-income areas, sending book kits home with students, teaching parents how to perform interactive read-alouds, and organizing donation drives.

Post summed up the discussion by asking the participants to create a “wish list” for their schools or districts and to think about the issues they would like to focus on moving forward. Answers included more funding increases, stronger parent involvement, better technology training, opportunities for exchanges between educators and administrators, and “life skills courses,” to increase students’ ability in skills necessary for everyday living. 

Post hopes to continue this conversation and to use ILA’s platform to spotlight their concerns.

“We can help to bring a local perspective to a national level,” says Post. “Part of our role is to truly be an advocate for literacy education and for those leaders that are making it happen.”

Alina O'Donnell is the editor of Literacy Daily.

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