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    Launchpads to Literacy

    By Diana Sharp and Megan Diaz
     | Mar 15, 2019
    launchpads-literacyWhen you think of community organizations that support literacy, what comes to mind? The library, certainly. But what about zoos and aquariums? Or science museums and performing arts centers? Or the city parks department? These organizations and more have been key partners for Explorers Club, a community-wide summer program for preschoolers and their families operating in Tampa, FL's lowest income neighborhood since 2014.

    Through this program, children and their families are not only given free access to these area cultural venues during the summer, but also are engaged in meaningful literacy activities to bring them together as a family, connect them with local resources, and help ensure they are ready for kindergarten.

    How we began

    In 2012, the YMCA and Champions for Children, a nonprofit provider of family education and child abuse prevention programs in the Tampa Bay region, opened a community learning center called Layla's House in the heart of the Sulphur Springs neighborhood. Approximately 40% of Sulphur Springs residents live below the poverty line, close to double the overall poverty rate of Tampa. Layla's House wanted to offer something special in the summer for families of children ages 0- 5.

    At the same time, literacy researchers at RMC Research Corporation were looking for a partner interested in creating a program for supporting the oral language and vocabulary growth of preschool children from economically disadvantaged homes. When the two organizations came together, the adventures began.

    Together, we approached the educational directors at different cultural venues in Tampa. We explained how "school readiness" meant more than knowing numbers and letters. We described research about how oral language and vocabulary need to be strengthened early, and how these skills are key to literacy success in kindergarten and beyond. We also described the important role of building children's knowledge and interests around rich topics such as zoo animals, sea creatures, outer space, and even children's own neighborhoods, so that families could have extended conversations and read more about whatever their children found most fascinating.

    We called the approach Fascinate Forward: looking for things that fascinate a child, then using that fascination to move learning forward. The cultural organizations responded generously and enthusiastically, and Explorers Club was born.

    Visits to the cultural venues are the highlights of Explorers Club activities, but the real power comes from wrapping each visit with layers of fun, intentional learning support. Families meet at Layla's House two mornings a week for activities themed to the places they will visit. Each learning theme takes place over two weeks. The activities at the community center include music and dance, storytimes, crafts, and learning centers, with a heavy emphasis on helping families talk with their children in ways that will support children's learning about each theme before, during, and after the venue visits.

    For most of the venue trips, families have complete flexibility regarding when they will visit. The family members are the primary learning facilitators during the trips, using what they learned at Layla's House to engage their children in conversations about what they see. The partnership with the venues has grown over the years. In addition to providing free tickets, venue staff come to Layla's House, bringing interactive presentations and intriguing items-including live animals.

    This past year, venue staff began lending Layla's House sets of items for a Curiosity Table that was added to the learning centers. For example, the zoo and aquarium lent us real and replica samples of hair, bones, teeth, eggs, feathers-even a tarantula exoskeleton. At the Curiosity Table, children and their families can see, touch, and learn about the items, guided by a university student volunteer.

    Diana Sharp, an ILA member since 1993, is a cognitive psychologist and literacy activist in the Tampa Bay area. working as a senior research associate at RMC Research Corporation.

    Megan Diaz is an undergraduate at the University of South Florida and will be pursuing a masters in speech language pathology.

    This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

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    Unlocking Our Potential: Our Journey to Being Named Literacy School of the Year

    By Jacqueline McBurnie
     | Feb 26, 2019

    I think it would be fair to say that education is one of those news items that is often reported on negatively. So, at a time of teacher shortages, workload concerns, and a recruitment crisis, it was wonderful to be able to share the good news that our school, St. Anthony’s Primary in Johnstone, Renfrewshire, Scotland, was named the 2018 United Kingdom Literacy School of the Year.

    This is a fantastic achievement in itself, but even more so when you consider that St. Anthony’s is the first Scottish school to win the award from the United Kingdom Literacy Association (UKLA).

    Before I go into the hard work that led to this, allow me to outline the background and starting point of our literacy journey.

    Examining current practices

    In 2015, the Renfrewshire Literacy Approach was launched, involving a collaboration between the University of Strathclyde, led by professor Sue Ellis, and the Renfrewshire Council. The initiative required the head teacher and one classroom teacher from each primary school in the region to take part in a professional development program to improve the teaching of reading.

    For us, this led to comprehensive discussions on our current literacy practices. The renewed focus gave our staff the confidence to appraise and critique how we were teaching literacy, and our findings highlighted a focus on phonics, word banks, and reading schemes. It had been some time since we considered what it is that makes children want to read.

    Our starting point was simple: Revamp unappealing libraries and rejuvenate classroom library corners into places central to children’s learning.

    Reading areas were designed with comfortable seating. Fairy lights and brightly colored throws created an alluring atmosphere. Books were displayed with their full covers to entice readers.

    Staff agreed that they had to be honest in their attitudes and use of the classroom or school library. The library too often had been regarded as an add-on as opposed to an intrinsic part of learning. Our evaluations helped reinforce the conclusion that, subconsciously, the staff were putting little value on reading. Something had to change.

    The solution lay in two words, which continually arose during our discussions: reading culture.

    Our understanding of the importance of the ways in which to teach reading had slid into a set of mundane practices that enthused neither students nor staff to read. If we were serious about turning our students into readers, then we had to make it exciting. We had to change our reading culture.

    Our school’s transformation

    We realized that to help create readers in every student, we needed to create readers in every teacher. The staff drive that followed to embrace a revived interest in children’s literature helped bolster the foundations of the plan. We now read enthusiastically every day to our students, and we studied a master’s degree module on children’s literature and theory with University of Strathclyde led by Vivienne Smith.

    We attended meetings with the university twice a month for a full year. We were judges for the UKLA Book of the Year Award. We even started a book club for the teachers of all 49 schools in the literacy initiative.

    We read and read some more. We read authors and books we had never heard of. With increased knowledge, we became more informed in our book selection and we became better at choosing what we should read to our students. Our recommendations for the individual child improved and general reading skills across all levels improved.

    We no longer accepted being dictated to by reading schemes. Traditional book reviews were scrapped. Instead, children shared books with theirs peers over biscuits and juice during reading cafés. Supporting all of this are simple systems that promote self-recommendation of books for the children, by the children, and among the children.

    More recently, students have adopted Quick Response (QR) codes inside books. When the next reader scans these codes, he or she is linked to feedback on the book, such as a piece of writing, a photograph, or a video clip. Staff consider not only the cognitive knowledge, skills, and engagement but also children’s cultural capital and their own funds of knowledge and how they were positioned as a literacy learner by themselves or by others. We also use Aidan Chambers’s “The Three Sharings” as an oral scaffold for comprehension and response.

    We plan to open our school library to our community. St. Anthony’s serves an underresourced area, where around one third of our children is entitled to free meals and where the nearest library is a bus ride away. We believe having a library that the children can use with their families will enhance the reading opportunities available to them.

    A lesson worth teaching

    A few months after receiving the UKLA award, the achievement was further recognized when the school received a positive HMIE (Her Majesty’s Inspection of Education) report, which noted “the work of the school in improving approaches to literacy and English language and the shared and consistent approach to reading and writing which is creating for children a literacy rich environment.”

    There is little doubt that our journey has been challenging. However, acknowledging the staff commitment as well as the focused determination has been emphatic.

    So where do we go from here?

    We recognize there is still work to be done. We will continue with our book club, we will continue to recommend books to each other, and we will continue to work toward encouraging and supporting our community of readers.

    To recognize words as they are written on a page is one thing. However, to teach children that we can transcend to exotic lands, to times past, present, or future, or to be any character of our desire within the pages of a book is truly a lesson worth teaching and worth learning.

    Jacqueline McBurnie, an educator for 30 years, is the head teacher at St. Anthony’s Primary in Johnstone, Renfrewshire, Scotland.

    This article originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

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    Young Authors' Studio: Writing and Learning Together in Arizona

    By Wendy R. Williams and Stephanie F. Reid
     | Feb 05, 2019

    Picture this: a Saturday morning, the room buzzing with conversation and movement. The youth writers sitting at the Comics/Graphic Novels table laugh and nudge each other, pointing out details in their images and words. The university student who has organized this breakout session sits nearby, guiding and encouraging them.

    Assorted graphic novels and comics, how-to books, art supplies, and templates are within easy reach. Amid the hum, one writer’s attention is fastened on a How to Draw Superheroes book. He turns some pages quickly and pauses on others. When he is ready to stop reading, he claims a big box of crayons and begins his own Superman and Doctor Octopus story.

    At a time when we are seeing cuts to creative writing and arts education in schools, having spaces such as this one where young people can pursue their love of writing and explore different ways to write is crucial.

    This has been the philosophy behind our Young Authors’ Studio (YAS) initiative, a free writing workshop at Arizona State University (ASU) for students in grades 5–12. During the seven-week program, these elementary through high school students write and learn alongside ASU students, who guide them through a range of high-interest activities they design.

    The structure of Young Authors’ Studio

    YAS is held at ASU’s Polytechnic campus. Upper-division ASU students from Wendy Williams’s project-based English course, Mentoring Youth Writers, earn internship credit as they plan, promote, and run the program.

    Williams created YAS in fall 2017 to reach students who like to write in forms that are not always taught in school (e.g., spoken word poetry or songwriting). Her student mentors spent five, four-hour sessions designing the program, which then evolved into a seven-week writing series running from October to December for approximately 18 students. The series, held again in 2018 with 31 students, consisted of six themed workshops and a public performance and writing gallery.

    The mentors also hosted an information session for families. The YAS writing workshops took place from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on Saturdays, and mentors were on campus from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. to plan, run YAS, and debrief.

    Mentors typically began each workshop by inviting everyone to write in their journals. Afterward, the youth writers attended their choice of two small-group breakout sessions (each mentor offered a different breakout each day). Then the writers met in teams, small communities where they shared and reflected on their writing each week with an assigned mentor.

    This program aims to show young people how fun and varied writing can be. For example, themed workshops have included narrative writing, music and poetry, art and writing, drama, genres, and revision and rehearsal. Small-group breakout sessions have explored novel outlining, songwriting, comics, tableaux, character creation, and many other topics. Breakout sessions encourage youth writers to focus on writing elements and experiment with different types of writing.

    Celebrating youth writing

    The program culminated in a public performance and writing gallery for families and friends. Mentors helped set up the gallery with the writers’ name cards and samples of their work. Sticky notes and pens were available so guests, youth writers, and mentors could leave comments. Then everyone headed into the performance space, where the writers shared pieces they composed.

    This showcase highlighted one of the primary missions of YAS: celebrating youth voices.

    Just as it benefits the student writers, it also benefits the student mentors. Our mentors cultivated a range of real-world skills. They problem-solved with each other, developed and led writing activities, worked with youth, and communicated with parents. Mentors designed marketing materials, promoted the program, and ran the YAS email account and social media. The 2017 cohort also presented their curriculum to English teachers at a local conference.

    Inspiring the next generation

    Adding another layer of purpose to the initiative, YAS is set up as a writing lab that allows researchers to learn more about mentoring and youth authorship. ASU graduate students are encouraged to study an aspect of the program and write for publication. As a bonus to us, study findings will help shape future iterations of our program.

    Moving forward, we expect to watch our YAS initiative continue to grow, and we look forward to bringing more creative writing opportunities to our area students to help shape the next generation of authors and creative thinkers.

    Wendy R. Williams, an ILA member since 2011, is an assistant professor at Arizona State University and the director of Young Authors’ Studio. She recently published Listen to the Poet: Writing, Performance, and Community in Youth Spoken Word Poetry (University of Massachusetts Press).

    Stephanie F. Reid, an ILA member since 2016, is a doctoral student in the Learning, Literacies, and Technologies program at Arizona State University.

    This article originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

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    ILA Announces 2018 Board Election Results

    By Wesley Ford
     | May 16, 2018
    The results are confirmed, and we are pleased to announce the International Literacy Association's (ILA) elected Board members, including our new Vice President:

    VP Headley HeadshotKathy N. Headley, Professor of Literacy & Senior Associate Dean, Clemson University, South Carolina

    Three new Board members-at-large were also elected:

    Benjamin headshotJuli-Anne Benjamin, Veteran English Educator in NYCDOE; currently Instructional Coach, Leadership Mentor, Newark, New Jersey

    Carss HeadshotWendy Carss,
    Lecturer in Literacy Education, University of Waikato, New Zealand

    Kunz headshotKenneth Kunz, Ed.D.,
    K-12 Supervisor of Curriculum & Instruction, Middlesex, NJ Public Schools; President, New Jersey Literacy Association

    Their terms will run from 2018–2021.

    The entire ILA community extends its best wishes to the newly elected Vice President and Board members.

    Wesley Ford is the social media strategist for ILA.
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    Thousands of Caribbean Students Are (Still) Out of School

    By Alina O'Donnell
     | Nov 01, 2017

    Nearly six weeks have passedElmore Stoutt High School since Hurricane Maria struck, just two weeks behind Irma, and, for several Caribbean islands, recovery is still in its infancy. In the wake of the storms, national media coverage has focused on the destruction in Puerto Rico—leaving other neighboring islands in the dark. The lack of media coverage, compounded by poor internet and cell phone service, means fewer donations and a longer recovery.  

    Several islands are still largely without power, food, and drinkable water. Most schools are still too damaged to reopen—worse, some are permanently shuttered.

    “Our school is basically gone. We have several buildings still standing but they’re in no condition to be used,” said Kirima S. Forbes, president of the British Virgin Islands Reading Council. “Right now we are housed in a warehouse. “We’re working on a shift schedule. Grades 7–9 go to school in the morning, in the afternoon it’s 10–12.”

    Studies show that in the aftermath of a natural disaster, schools and libraries offer respite from chaos, providing security, social-emotional support, and stability as well as connections to important community resources.

    “School needs to be open so that the kids can get back to normalcy,” said Forbes.

    As these communities crawl toward recovery, we can all do our part to help. Here’s how:

    Support for schools and libraries: 

    • DonorsChoose launched a Hurricane Irma Recovery Fund to help teachers at damaged schools rebuild their classrooms.
    • Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. is partnering with All Hands Volunteers to rebuild schools in communities devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Under the Hope Starts Here hurricane relief program, the company will match individual donations dollar for dollar, up to $1.25 million.
    • Dorina Sackman, the 2014 Florida Teacher of the Year, launched an initiative called "Materials for Maestros," which allows U.S. schools to adopt schools in Puerto Rico. The first to request supplies is the Thomas Alva Edison School. Read more here.
    • The National Parent Teacher Association’s Disaster Relief Fund was established to support school communities in their efforts to rebuild and recover.
    • This year, The Laura Bush Foundation for American Libraries is devoting its resources to helping disaster-affected schools rebuild their book collections.
    • The American Library Association is accepting donations to support library relief efforts in the Caribbean.

    Local rebuilding efforts

    • Funds raised for the BVI Recovery Fund will go toward rebuilding the territory, and to helping families and individuals who lost homes.
    • The St. John Community Foundation is using donations to “reach out to more people in need, assist more service providers, and direct more funds to specific priorities.” 
    • The government of Dominica is collecting donations through JustGiving, a crowdfunding website, to provide residents with basic materials such as temporary roofing, blankets, and non-perishable food.
    • 100% of donations made to the Fund for the Virgin Islands will support long-term community renewal efforts.
    • Unidos Por Puerto Rico, created by Beatriz Rosselló, the first lady of Puerto Rico, enlists the private sector help in providing aid to those affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
    • The Puerto Rico Community Foundation established the Puerto Rico Recovery Fund, which provide grants to affected communities through community-based organizations who are already active and working with the most vulnerable populations.

    National/global rebuilding efforts:

    • Among other actions, UNICEF is helping rebuild damaged schools and supplying educational materials to students and teachers, deliver emergency hygiene kits and drinking water in areas affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
    • GlobalGiving established a Hurricane Irma Relief Fund and a Puerto Rico & Caribbean Hurricane Relief Fund, which support vetted local organizations.
    • Convoy of Hope continues to send food and relief supplies to the Caribbean region
    • Catholic Relief Services is accepting donations for families in the Caribbean Islands, Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic shelter, water, tarps, tents, kitchen kits, and more.
    • The Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) is a regional, inter-governmental agency for disaster management in the Caribbean. Donations made to the CDEMA’s Relief Fund will be used to purchase relief supplies and support early recovery and rebuilding efforts. 
    • The Red Cross is distributing relief items, providing health services, meals, and snacks, and operate emergency shelters.

    Alina O’Donnell is the editor of Literacy Daily.

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