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    How One ILA Chapter Used Community Partnerships to Create Powerful STEAM Events

    By Lorie Johnson
     | Oct 24, 2018
    STEAMAlabama is known for its historical landmarks, and arguably nowhere in the state
    will you find more than in the small town of Tuscumbia, tucked snugly into the
    northwest corner of the Heart of Dixie.

    The hometown of Helen Keller, our most famous resident, Tuscumbia also
    boasts a rich Native American heritage and was the first frontier railroad town
    west of the Alleghenies. The Trail of Tears passed through a young Tuscumbia,
    and the residents at the time, aghast by the horrors of the Indian Removal,
    were the only ones on record to petition the federal government to allow the
    Native Americans to stay and live among them rather than continue west onto
    reservations. The Alabama Music Hall of Fame, a tribute to the famous Muscle
    Shoals sound of the area, is in Tuscumbia, just a few minutes away from Ivy Green,
    Helen Keller's world-renowned birthplace.

    The Northwest Alabama Reading Council, the local affiliate of the Alabama
    Literacy Association and the International Literacy Association, capitalized on these rich community assets to organize a series of STEAM events for local teachers and students, presenting ideas for using and integrating these assets across the curriculum in local elementary classrooms.

    The STEM framework includes science, technology, engineering, and math. The Rhode Island School of Design championed the addition of art to this concept, creating the STEAM initiative. Our version of STEAM includes the social sciences and the arts, incorporating history, geography, storytelling, visual arts, photography, painting, and writing into the more traditional STEM framework. Adding the arts to STEM activities offers students invaluable opportunities to express their creativity, imagination, and innovation as they explore, create, and problem solve within science and math endeavors.

    Three of our most successful STEAM events were STEAM Night at the Tennessee Valley Art Museum, a workshop for elementary teachers; STEAMing Into History at the Tuscumbia Depot, a field trip for elementary students; and Putting the ART in Language Arts, presenting ideas for integrating photography and theater into STEAM lessons.

    STEAM Night

    Our chapter's STEAM Night at the Tennessee Valley Art Museum hosted approximately 50 local teachers who enjoyed dinner in the museum, a guided exhibit tour, and STEAM sessions facilitated by the University of North Alabama's (UNA) departments of Elementary Education and Geography and the Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative (AMSTI).

    The museum exhibit at the time was "Oklahoma Skies" by Veda Reed. Capitalizing on this theme, the STEAM sessions focused on sky-related activities. Teachers downloaded apps on their phones to examine the stars, wrote Twitter poems about the art as they perused the exhibit, then doffed their shoes and engaged in lively
    geography lessons on a giant floor map of Alabama.

    These giant floor maps, which include state, national, and world maps, are available to be checked out for classroom use through our state's Alabama Geographic Alliance. To find out if your state offers similar resources, visit the National Geographic Network of Alliances for Geographic Education at

    STEAMing Into History

    STEAMing Into History at the Tuscumbia Depot was the result of a collaboration among the Tuscumbia Parks and Recreation Department, our chapter, AMSTI, and UNA's departments of Elementary Education and Geography. Third through fifth graders were given a train ticket for their journey, which was punched by a conductor at each stop, or station, as they STEAMed through history. 

    Students toured the Railroad Depot, built in 1888 and now a museum, led by storytellers portraying characters from the 19th century. Reenactors were provided by the local Colbert County Historical Landmarks Foundation and included a portrayal of Captain Keller, Helen Keller's father, arriving at the Depot to bring home a young teacher named Annie Sullivan. Keller's original carriage is on display at the Depot.

    Students then walked next door to an event center called The Round House, where they engaged in hands-on sessions that included computer coding to make an Ozobot travel along a map of Tuscumbia, the giant floor map of Alabama on which they played a geographic version of Alabama Twister, and a challenging session putting together tabletop maps of Alabama. They also watched a steam engine create steam and learned how steam propelled early train engines. Finally, they toured an elaborate model train exhibit created by the local Shoals Model Train Club.

    Putting the ART in Language Arts

    Held in a beautiful boutique bar called The Creative Grape, teachers who attended our Putting the ART in Language Arts event enjoyed a rich discussion about the arts led by famed photographer Abraham Rowe and author/director Darren Butler.

    Rowe and Butler shared creative ideas for incorporating photography and theater into elementary language arts instruction. Rowe encouraged teachers to allow children to use their devices to take photographs throughout the day and to use those photos to inspire science or history research, write poetry, examine math concepts, or practice writing descriptively. Butler offered ideas for incorporating theater into the classroom to empower literacy instruction by having students act out scenes from a novel or create their own scripts during writing workshop.

    STEAMing into your community

    Each STEAM event, whether designed for teachers or students, was wildly successful and filled to capacity. Through community partnerships with the Tennessee Valley Art Museum, the University of North Alabama, and the Tuscumbia Parks and Recreation Department, our chapter designed powerful opportunities for professional growth and student engagement.

    To create strategic partnerships in your own communities, consider contacting your local tourism office for ideas, connections, and resources. Find a local community landmark, invite others to join you, and build your own STEAM event to create a fun and meaningful learning experience for all.

    Lorie Johnson, an ILA member since 2007, is the ILA state coordinator for the Alabama Literacy Association.

    This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

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    ILA Presents Updated Literacy Professional Preparation Standards to State ELA Consultants

    By Alina O'Donnell
     | Oct 19, 2018
    SCASS Presentation

    Representatives of ILA addressed education agency consultants Wednesday at the State Collaborative on Assessment and Student Standards (SCASS) Fall Meeting in Boston about improving and increasing the effectiveness of state literacy programs.

    Rita M. Bean, University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, and Diane E. Kern, University of Rhode Island, were invited by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) to brief Collaborative members from across the country about ILA’s Standards for the Preparation of Literacy Professionals 2017 (Standards 2017). Their message? The standards, although written for educator preparation programs, can—and should—be used to navigate decisions about curriculum and instruction.

    Kern, who along with Bean served as co-chair of the committee charged with updating ILA’s standards, says the presentation offered a platform for this broader application. They also shared how ILA can support states in the ongoing development and assessment of existing literacy programs.

    As Kern and Bean shared with attendees, Standards 2017 provides “a framework for thinking about their own initiatives and challenges, including the development of their state comprehensive literacy plans.”

    The presentation included an activity during which attendees divided into seven groups to analyze the content of and research behind a standard. The groups then shared their findings across the English Language Arts collaborative, a subgroup of the SCASS.

    Participants demonstrated interest in how ILA’s standards could inform schools’ disciplinary literacy and digital literacy practices and their professional learning initiatives.

    “We asked them to think about how [the standards] could offer solutions to their challenges,” says Bean. “[Attendees] were saying the standards would be a powerful and valuable tool for evaluating where they are and where they’re going.”

    Learn more about ILA’s Standards 2017 here.

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

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    How Our Teaching Can, and Must, Honor Our Students' Rights to Read

    By Jennifer Serravallo
     | Oct 17, 2018
    Honoring Students' Rights to Read

    ILA’s Children’s Rights to Read gives me teacher goosebumps. And this is why:

    Children walk into our classrooms with all of themselves. They are the sum of their experiences and their expectations. We cannot ask them to leave any part of themselves at the door when the bell rings. Rather, we must embrace their entirety.

    So, how can we do this as reading teachers?

    We can carve out time every day for them to read (Right 1). And not just time, but a high volume of uninterrupted time (Right 7). We can curate a classroom library from which they are free to browse and select titles (Right 2).

    We can reveal to them what to watch for in the books they choose so they can deepen their comprehension, better understand the content, and have their own thoughts and interpretations about what they read. Comprehension helps make the reading experience enjoyable and fully realized (Right 5).

    As reading teachers, we know how important it is to do more than focus on the book; we have to focus on our readers. We talk to our students, we seek to understand them and their interests, passions, and reading histories. We make sure our classroom and school libraries are not only a mirror of their lives and identities, but also a window into parts of the world they have not yet ventured (Rights 3 and 4).

    Reading is social and thus we must give students the chance to recommend titles, react to their reading by talking with friends, and talk about how they’re living differently because of the things they have read (Right 8).

    When students talk to us, they should know that we are helping them read any book better, not just the one book they have in their hands in the moment we confer with them (Right 6). Speaking of conferring, we must give students our individual time and attention as we guide them toward stronger reading habits and skills.

    And what is the point of reading anyway, unless it’s enjoyable? Reading helps us learn about our world so we can cultivate new thinking and share our ideas and opinions with others (Right 9). When we invest in developing our own knowledge around texts and engage as regular readers of children’s literature, we are better able to teach in a way that is generalizable book to book (Right 10).

    When our teaching is specific, clear, and transferrable, we can ensure that we are supporting our students’ reading lives well beyond the precious days we work with them in our classrooms. When we honor our students’ reading lives and tailor our instruction to meet them where they are, we are preserving not only their rights to read but also their right to lay claim to the world around them.

    The Children’s Rights to Read initiative, launched by ILA to ensure every child has access to the education, opportunities and resources needed to read, focuses on 10 rights essential for individuals to reach full personal, social and educational potential. The global campaign asserts and affirms ILA’s commitment to its mission of literacy for all and offers a framework for partnerships and action. To learn more and sign the pledge to support the Rights, visit

    Jennifer Serravallo is a literacy consultant, speaker, and the author of several popular titles including The New York Times bestselling The Reading Strategies Book: Your Everything Guide to Developing Skilled Readers (Heinemann) and The Writing Strategies Book: Your Everything Guide to Developing Skilled Writers (Heinemann). Her latest publication, Understanding Texts & Readers: Responsive Comprehension Instruction with Leveled Texts (Heinemann), connects comprehension goals to text levels and readers responses. Upcoming publications include A Teacher's Guide to Reading Conferences(early 2019) and Complete Comprehension, which is a revised and reimagined whole book assessment and teaching resource based on the award-winning Independent Reading Assessment (due in spring 2019). She was a senior staff developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and taught in Title I schools in New York City. Tweet her @jserravallo.

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    ILA Advocates for Student-Centered Model of Data Collection and Interpretation

    By Alina O'Donnell
     | Oct 16, 2018
    Beyond the Numbers

    Rather than being shaped by accountability policies and requirements, student learning goals and needs should be the driving force behind what data are collected and how they are used.

    When centered on students’ unique needs, data can serve as a portrait, a highlighter, and a springboard to enhance student learning and inform instructional decision making, according to ILA’s latest brief, Beyond the Numbers: Using Data for Instructional Decision Making.

    Educators should view students as key sources of their own learning data, asserts ILA.

    “We’re moving away from the idea that data equal obligatory test scores and percentages,” says ILA Executive Director Marcie Craig Post. “The most powerful sources of data are the unique experiences students have in the classroom.”

    Snapshot data, such as test scores, are often used incorrectly to categorize or label students by their abilities, according to ILA. Data should include a wide range of information, such as formative assessments, student engagement observations, student oral responses, and knowledge of students’ backgrounds, to provide a fuller portrait of students’ strengths and needed areas of support.

    Examining discrepancies and patterns across multiple forms of data can illuminate equity concerns and allow for a more truthful picture of student learning. When analysis leads to uncertainty about next steps or solutions, data act as a springboard, prompting further inquiry and investigation.

    The brief concludes with five actionable steps for using data to support instructional improvements.

    Access the full brief here.

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

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    Key Ingredients for a Successful ILA 2019 Conference Proposal

    By Alina O'Donnell
     | Sep 24, 2018

    Conference Proposal GuideILA’s annual conference is a great forum to share your research and findings, network with prominent individuals in your field, and put your finger on the pulse of what’s happening in literacy education. Because of this, our proposal submission is a highly competitive process, with only an estimated 30% of submissions accepted each year.

    That kind of competition puts means that those looking to get on the peer-reviewed program have to step up their proposal game. After all, the proposal is the one shot you have to “sell” your idea and secure your place in the ILA 2019 Conference program.

    Here are some tips for putting your best proposal forward:

    Educate yourself on what reviewers are looking for. Carefully review the submission guidelines and five-point scoring rubric and be aware of expectations.

    Ground your proposal in research. Reviewers are looking for proof that your proposal is powered by research and evidence-based practice. Include references and citations where needed.

    Show the applicability. Don’t just summarize your research; emphasize its larger significance. What are the implications of your findings? How might this be implemented into practice? What will attendees know by the end of the session?  Clearly state the takeaways.

    Be fresh but relevant. While you want to contribute to what’s trending, you also want to offer fresh perspective and insights. Choose a topic that’s timely, relevant, and important to the field, but still brings a unique angle to the conversation. This will help your proposal stand out.

    Punch up your title. Your title is often the first (and sometimes only) thing attendees will look for when choosing sessions. Give your session a provocative title that piques the reader’s interest while accurately describing the session. For example, “‘That Never Happens at Home!’ Cultivating Collaboration Between Educators and Families of Students With Special Needs” accomplishes both objectives.

    Don’t bury the lead. A well-written session description has two goals: entice the reviewers into accepting your submission and get attendees into the seats. A person should be able to skim the description and feel confident about what will be covered. The fundamental “why” should be clearly articulated.   

    Pitch yourself. Generally speaking, proposals that make reviewers want to attend the session are scored more favorably. Imagine your session is on the schedule, but the presenter is someone else. You’ve decided to go, and you really want your colleagues to join. How would you convince them to go?  

    Set the tone. Delivery matters. Couch your content in a way that conveys your enthusiasm for the topic without compromising formality. Avoid specialized jargon and make sure your prose is clear, straightforward, and engaging.

    Choose your format carefully.  As an educator, you’re accustomed to offering students differentiated learning opportunities. Submissions must be made in one of five session types: preconference institute, hands-on workshop, session, panel, and poster presentation. Take a thoughtful look at the format descriptions and think about how your topic and findings might most effectively be shared with your audience. This also applies to picking a category, strand, and target audience for your session.

    Be concise. A successful proposal will clearly and succinctly answer the basic questions of Who? What? Where? Why? How? Active words are key.

    Proofread, edit, and double-check. Mechanical errors can be distracting and may lead reviewers to question your commitment or competence. The presenter and all copresenters should take time to screen the proposal for spelling, grammar, or punctuation errors. Afterward, ask colleagues to proofread, not only for errors but also for confusing statements. Give them enough background about the conference, the expected audience, and your topic, so that they can deliver actionable feedback.

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

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