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Celebrating Literacy Leadership: David Wilkie

By Alina O'Donnell
 | Oct 19, 2017

dave-wilkieWilkie, principal at McVey Elementary in Newark, DE, is the first recipient of ILA’s inaugural Corwin Literacy Leader Award, which honors a district or school administrative literacy leader who has worked to increase student literacy achievement by advancing professional development, instructional resources support, and the development of literacy programs. To learn about 2018 award and grant opportunities, visit our Awards & Grants page.

At McVey Elementary School, books are everywhere. They are hidden under desks as students read surreptitiously during class, displayed on decorative bulletin boards in the hallways, tumbling out of lockers, and even strewn throughout the cafeteria, having strayed from the “borrow and return” pile.

But it hasn’t always been this way.

“We knew that we had to change what literacy looked like at McVey. Our students did not show a love of reading and writing—they saw it more as a chore. A lot of reading instruction was being done in the classroom, but there wasn’t a lot of reading being done by the students,” says principal David Wilkie.

McVey’s literacy transformation began in April 2016 when ILA received a grant from an anonymous donor as part of the Delaware Community Foundation’s Fund for Children’s Literacy. The grant was to be used at a public elementary school in Delaware to build a culture of literacy through professional learning opportunities for staff, schoolwide reading programs, and family engagement.

ILA chose to use the funds at McVey on the basis of the school’s history of high staff retention and strong leadership. In its first year, ILA decided to focus on professional development; the grant covered the cost of Wilkie and seven other staff members and teachers to attend the ILA 2016 Conference & Exhibits in Boston, MA.

“Most of us had never attended an ILA conference before. We didn’t really know what we were walking into,” says Wilkie. “We were reenergized; we came with so many ideas. We met as a team every night at dinner. Our dinners were about two to three hours long because we were sharing information and talking about what we could do at McVey.”

At one of their dinners, the group decided that the theme of the school’s literacy makeover would be “wonder.”

“We felt that our students had lost that sense of wonder at an early age,” says Wilkie. “They were all about asking questions in the early years, but by third grade, they start losing that.”

The once-plain walls at McVey are now vibrant “wonder walls,” covered in questions—some content related, some general—written by students. Every “Wonder Wednesday,” the questions are read aloud and answered by teachers, students, or Wilkie himself during morning announcements. Wilkie says plans for “wonder centers” and “wonder windows” are in the works.

Over the past year, ILA and McVey have collaborated on a series of initiatives to help build a culture of literacy at the school. The grant also covered support from Carrice Cummins, professor at Louisiana Tech University, who is working with Wilkie to identify the school’s main challenges and to establish a long-term plan. With her assistance, McVey has set up four professional development experiences related to interactive read-aloud training.

Wilkie believes that everyone at McVey—from the cafeteria servers to the P.E. teachers—needs to be involved in the project, excited by the mission, and committed to a set of shared goals.

“A big part of this is shifting the mind-sets of teachers from teaching stories to teaching a love of reading and the importance of reading,” he says.

Cummins helped to implement interactive read-aloud, independent reading time, and schoolwide and gradewide author and book studies. Last year, all the fifth graders read Bridge to Terabithia (HarperCollins), which culminated in a Skype session with author Katherine Paterson.

Wilkie says his approach to literacy education is grounded in choice; he wants the students to feel a sense of ownership over their reading habits.

“One class took a survey about what they enjoyed this year that they hadn’t in the past, and the majority made comments like ‘Thank you for giving us more time to read books and to choose books we like to read,’” he says.

This year, 23 teachers and staff members attended the ILA 2017 Conference & Exhibits in Orlando, FL.

When asked about next steps, Wilkie says they are looking to get parents and the community more involved. Since starting the project, he says several parents have noticed a shift in their child’s attitude toward reading. One even said it’s a challenge to get her child to stop reading long enough to hold a conversation over dinner.  

 “He was always a reader but he wasn’t always this passionate about reading,” says Wilkie. “But now, he can’t put the books down.”

Alina O'Donnell is the editor of Literacy Daily.

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