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    One More Round With Hamish Brewer

    By Colleen Clark
     | Aug 08, 2019
    LT371_Brewer1_ldHamish Brewer just doesn’t know when to quit. When it seemed like the world was against him growing up—a broken home, an environment impacted by drugs and alcohol, a shortage of teachers who believed in him—he ignored the naysayers.

    Despite being told repeatedly that he wasn’t smart enough or academic enough, he went on to be the first of his family to go to college—followed by a master’s degree and a soon-to-be doctorate.

    In 2011, the New Zealand native took on the role of principal at Occoquan Elementary School—an underperforming Title I school in the state of Virginia. Within just four years, however, that changed, with the school going from underperforming to receiving the honor of National Title I Distinguished School—facts that helped lead to Brewer being named a Nationally Distinguished Principal in 2017.

    Much of it is thanks to Brewer and his staff being relentless. That word is the root of his philosophy. Relentless spirit. Relentless optimism. Relentless love.

    That love is now the basis for his turnaround efforts at Fred Lynn Middle School, a school within the same district as Occoquan, which was also an underperforming school. Brewer was named principal at Fred Lynn in 2017, where he faced several challenges including disengaged students, low morale, and test scores so low that it had been a number of years since the school was accredited.

    The question now: Can he lead them to the same distinguished title?

    Clearly, he’s no stranger to challenges. (In fact, he once broke his back in a fire truck accident. The former volunteer firefighter has six pins in his back to prove it.) And he’s no stranger to overcoming them.

    It’s not simply about getting students to perform better, he says. It’s getting them to believe in themselves and see the possibilities in their future. It’s about showing them love. It’s about showing them opportunity. And the same goes for the teachers: It’s about bringing their passion back to the surface and reigniting a culture of relentless optimism. And, critically, it’s about proving others wrong.

    Because he doesn’t know when to quit, and he doesn’t want you to either.

    “It’s not about struggles,” Brewer can’t stress enough. “It’s about providing hope.”

    “There’s no greater fight”

    School turnaround looks different each time it occurs. At Occoquan, Brewer says it was about growing instructional practices, establishing a culture of risktaking, being creative, and embracing what he calls “educational senses”— look, feel, touch.

    They went deskless. They introduced collaborative tables and authentic, hands-on experiences. They focused on basic acquisition of skills and a strong literacy program.

    At Fred Lynn, the turnaround can already be seen in the numbers. The school has overcome a number of challenges by improving schoolwide discipline, student, teacher, and parent engagement, and test scores. The school has grown from just over 1,000 students to a nearly 1,350-member student body in two years that includes over 40% English learners and more than 85% from economically disadvantaged families.

    The school also was not accredited when Brewer came on board. Just one year under Brewer, however, and they became fully accredited by reaching their benchmarks in English language arts, math, and science instruction. Now he’s got his eyes on the National Title I Distinguished School honor again, which he refers to with students and staff as “the national championship.”

    Language like that helps get buy-in and build excitement. The academic culture of the school is now something the students want to be part of.

    Brewer describes it as a “relentless, gang, all-in mentality.” Everyone wants in on this impenetrable force that can’t be disrupted. “We support each other, lift each other up, and have each other’s back,” Brewer says. “With this idea, we are ready to answer the call. You take on one of us, you take on all of us.”

    That may sound brutish or crass, especially when you combine it with Brewer’s tattooed appearance—and did we mention he rides the hallways on a skateboard? You might even say it sounds like a gimmick. But he’s quick with the reminder that kids are skilled at seeing through fake façades.

    “There are no games behind this. You’re either going to put the work in or you’re not,” Brewer says. “You can’t pretend. You get found out real quick if you’re fake.”

    This relentless “all-in” spirit is one students, staff, and families feel connected to and they become active stakeholders in the turnaround mission. “The No. 1 thing we talk about here is family,” Brewer says. “When you fight for family, there’s no greater fight.”

    “Let’s prove the whole world wrong”

    The first changes at Fred Lynn were all about visibility. They changed lightbulbs to reduce the yellow and introduce a more natural feel. They brightened up hallways with beautiful murals painted by Brewer and staff, complete with inspirational quotes and leaders to look up to: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malala Yousafzai, among others.

    And being visible himself is another key. Brewer moved the principal’s office from the typical location—an exterior space by the entrance/exit— and repurposed a meeting room in the middle of the school so students would have to walk past his office repeatedly every day.

    Not that he’s typically there. He’s more often seen rolling around the halls, if not on his skateboard then with his mobile desk.

    And his voice is heard every single day, starting with the morning announcements when he’s giving students his daily reminders. Chief among them: “If no one told you today that they love you, Mr. Brewer is telling you today that he loves you.”

    Introducing the character traits of love and kindness came first. Then came the academic shifts.

    There has been “a massive focus” on engagement, literacy, and ownership. And it’s not just ownership of their work, but of their whole school. “We talk about leaving our school better than when we found it,” Brewer says. “We share that their successes can be life successes. This is bigger than just now. It’s setting them up for next year, for high school, and for life.”

    In addition, there is much less emphasis on exams than there used to be. “We don’t talk about exams,” Brewer says. “We talk about amazing instruction each and every day. When you focus on that, the exams take care of themselves.”

    You have to believe 100% in students for them to succeed, Brewer stresses, and they have to see it. When you believe in students, everybody buys in and trusts each other.

    “We make it bigger than just school,” Brewer says. “We tell the kids, ‘Let’s prove the whole world wrong.’”

    “It’s an opportunity”

    When Brewer made the move from Occoquan to Fred Lynn, students followed him because the school is in the same district and is a feeder school to Fred Lynn. Some teachers, however, made the move too because they wanted to follow his leadership and energy.

    Brewer says that, just as students can see through a phony, so too can teachers.

    “I created ownership with my teachers,” Brewer says. “You can’t lead from the back office. You have to trust your teachers to make decisions, to be the professionals they signed up to be.”

    He always tells them: When we look in the mirror, can we say we were better for our kids today? He also works to ensure teachers share his mentality: Teaching is not an obligation. It’s an opportunity.

    As a result, there’s a renewed confidence among teachers at Fred Lynn and there are no longer siloes of instruction. Everyone shares a common mission and understands that they can only be better, together.

    “You’ve seen this movement from delivering content to teaching content,” Brewer says. “They’re evolving their practices. We went from whole-group teaching to small-group differentiated instruction in a two-year span with a focus on planning. My teachers are fired up to plan.”

    “Teachers are amazing,” Brewer adds. “They rise to the occasion.”

    “One more round”

    Among the murals painted along the hallways at Fred Lynn is a large boxing ring. It’s hard to walk past it and not feel more mentally prepared to tackle whatever is in front of you. Spray-painted above it are the words One More Round.

    “It’s this whole metaphor for not quitting,” Brewer says. “Life doesn’t give you a handout. There’s going to be obstacles in life, and what you do about those obstacles and how you respond to those obstacles and how you respond to adversity really defines your character and who you are.”

    The metaphor plays a big role in the culture at Fred Lynn. Brewer even recently brought in UFC mixed martial artist Paul Felder to give a fight demonstration and talk to the kids about grit, determination, and never giving up.

    That’s part of the legacy Brewer wants to leave behind—someone who won’t give up. “We won’t quit on ourselves, each other, or our school,” he says. “We’ll get back up again and again.”

    And that’s very much part of the message he’ll be bringing to ILA 2019.

    “Don’t ever quit on a kid,” Brewer says. “Give them the opportunity to read. Give them the opportunity to write. Give them the opportunity to change the world.”

    Fight for that, he says.

    Be someone who just doesn’t know when to quit.

    Colleen Patrice Clark is the managing editor of Literacy Today.

    This article originally appeared in the open access July/August issue of 
    Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.
    Don’t miss Hamish Brewer during General Session on Friday, Oct. 11. For more information, visit
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    Fortified Through Words: A Lesson in Owning Our Stories

    By Renée Watson
     | Aug 01, 2019
    LT371_watson_ldMy mother taught me that words are meant to be spoken.

    Once, after my siblings and I had been put to bed and the noise of the house had hushed to a loud stillness, I could hear her in her bedroom whispering something. I tiptoed to her bedroom and stood at the door, which was cracked open just enough for me to see her at her desk, lamp on, glasses on, Bible in her hand. She wasn’t talking to anyone. She was reading. I didn’t understand why she was reading scriptures out loud to an empty room. Up until then, I thought reading out loud was for story time in the classroom or at bedtime just before saying good night.

    Because my mother was the eyes behind-her-head kind of mother—a woman with supersonic hearing who knew if I was sneaking to talk on the phone to a crush or my best friend—she heard me. Without turning, she said, “Renée, do you need something?”

    I asked her why she was reading out loud. She answered, “Spoken words are powerful words.” Even now, my mother hangs inspiration on the walls in her bedroom—scriptures on loving your neighbor as yourself, quotes, song lyrics, poetry. She knows most of them by heart, she recites them in times of hardship. “Words fortify,” she says.

    I inherited my mother’s love of words. When I was a girl, I loved walking to the North Portland Library. I remember browsing the aisles for the next book in the Ramona series (HarperCollins) and picking up Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (Atheneum) for a second, third, and fourth time. I related to Ramona and Margaret, often feeling like the not-good-enough, not-smart enough younger sister and obsessing with my girlfriends over who was ready to wear a training bra and who had started her period.

    Reading these novels made me feel less alone and let me know that other girls my age had the same questions and fears, the same desires. But I was also different from these characters. I was black. I was fat. I didn’t see these identities represented in the novels my library had, so I turned to poetry.

    In middle school, I started reading the poetry of Maya Angelou, Lucille Clifton, and Nikki Giovanni. Nikki’s poems “Knoxville, Tennessee” and “The Reason I Like Chocolate” taught me that even the small things could be celebrated, that the ordinary could be worthy of a poem. Maya and Lucille wrote about their bodies in a way I had never seen. I cherished “Phenomenal Woman” and “Homage to My Hips.” A new confidence was birthed in me. In their poems, I saw the everydayness of black women right alongside our resilience and strength.

    Their poems inspired me not only to keep reading but also to tell my own stories. As a young black girl, I knew there were assumptions and stereotypes about me. Adults were often speaking for me or about me. Statistics of what would happen to girls like me, who grew up in neighborhoods like mine, felt like a prophecy I had to prove wrong. I wanted control of my own narrative. My journal became a storehouse of words.

    Reading poetry taught me how to write. Not just the rules of writing, but how to put emotion on the page. How to use the pages as a container for all my questions and fears. I wrote poems about my parents divorcing, about my grandmother and how sad I was that she died before I got to say goodbye. I wrote odes to my dark skin and my thick hair. I wrote about the rose bush that grew in our front yard. How barren it would be in one season but then bloom fire red, teaching me about patience. I wrote about the sweet taste of marionberry pie, the sourness of huckleberries. Somewhere in those pages between poems about first loves and heartbreaks were poems about Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian man murdered by skinheads in my community.

    I wrote and wrote and wrote. But I never read these poems out loud.

    “You’re going to fail the final,” my English teacher told me one day when I refused to read my poems to the class. The oral presentation was a significant portion of the grade. I was terrified. I didn’t mind writing poetry. I didn’t even mind people reading my poems. But I had never considered reciting my words. Sure, I had read aloud in class before and I loved reading picture books to my younger cousins. I had even performed in plays and recited Easter speeches in front of the congregation at my church.

    But this was different. This was reading my own words, my own story. My desire to get a good grade outweighed my fear, so I stood up, walked to the front of the class, and opened my mouth. It was just a whisper. That’s all I could muster. I didn’t make eye contact with anyone and I held the paper too close to my face. My teacher stopped me. “You chose these words for a reason. Say them with some meaning,” he said. “You never know, someone else might need to hear what you’ve got to say.”

    I tried again. I managed to hold the paper down so I could at least make eye contact with the audience. By the end of the presentation, my voice was owning the words. I was louder, stronger.

    I don’t know if my teacher intentionally planned to teach me a lesson about the power of my voice. I don’t know if he knew of someone in the class who could really benefit from hearing my words. It could be that it really was about the grade. Maybe it was about teaching public speaking skills.

    But nothing is ever just one thing.

    I learned so much about storytelling that day. Speaking my story made me feel powerful and the poem took on meaning in a different way once it leapt off the page. Hopefully, my classmates got something out of it. But even if they didn’t, I did. I was fortified.

    I believe there are many ways to speak. We all have a choice to use or not use our voices. To engage or to keep to ourselves. When I teach writing workshops with young people, we talk about our artistic voices. We talk about how what we create is a way of speaking up for what we believe. We talk about our everyday voices, how we can be kind with our words, how we can use our words to bring comfort to someone. I push my students to read widely, to take in stories they relate to and don’t relate to. I encourage my students to write their world. As it is, as it can be. I invite students to speak their truths.

    Together, we explore the relationship between reading, writing, and speaking. Together we hold space for each other—we fortify each other, and ourselves.

    Renée Watson is a New York Times best-selling, Newbery Honor,
    and Corett a Scott King Award–winning author. Her most recent books include

    Watch Us Rise, coauthored with Ellen Hagan, and Some Places More Than Others
    (Bloomsbury), due in September.
    This article originally appeared in the open access July/August issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

    Renée Watson will take the stage during the ILA General Session on Friday, Oct. 11.
    For more information, visit
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    Chelsea Clinton: In Her Own Words

    By Lara Deloza
     | Jul 25, 2019
    LT371_clinton_ldThe United States may have met Chelsea Clinton when she was a seventh grader in 1992, but now she’s a New York Times best-selling author, a literacy advocate and, as of the summer of 2019, a mother of two with a third child on the way. She spends her time empowering young readers—and older readers, too—and she doesn’t think twice about taking on bullies both on and off social media.

    Her books speak to the issues she feels most passionately about—female empowerment, kindness, equality, global health, the environment, and endangered species. She hopes her newest book, Don’t Let Them Disappear (Penguin), will show kids the difference they can make in the world no matter how young they are. She has been traveling the country talking to kids about how they can be changemakers and turn their passions into action.

    All those reasons (and more) are why we’re so thrilled to have Chelsea Clinton speak at the International Literacy Association (ILA) 2019 Conference. Her inspirational work not only speaks to creating a culture of literacy, but also helps drive the change needed to get there on a global level. But don’t just take our word for it—take hers.

    On her connection to NOLA

    “Last summer, I had the opportunity to visit New Orleans, where we launched a new partnership between Children’s Hospital New Orleans and the Clinton Foundation’s Too Small to Fail initiative to engage pediatricians, physicians, and medical staff to help raise awareness among parents, grandparents, and caregivers about the importance of early learning and brain development.

    “Through this work, every baby born at Touro and West Jefferson Family Birth Place, LCMC Health partners, now leaves with a children’s board book, a onesie with bright graphics, and a booklet reminding parents of how important their role is in their baby’s brain development when they talk, read, and sing with them from birth.”

    On a child’s first teachers

    “Reading and talking to kids shouldn’t be a luxury. We need to support all parents so they have time to invest in their kids and access to books to read together.”

    On starting off strong

    “Research shows that almost 60% of children come to kindergarten unprepared, lagging behind in early language and literacy skills. They are then more likely to fall further behind in school every year after that, less likely to go to college, and less likely to get the job of their dreams or earn an income that their work ultimately deserves.

    “I’m so passionate about this work because I fundamentally believe that every child deserves the best start in life. Not being prepared for kindergarten is a lifelong tax that no child should bear, and it certainly isn’t a kid’s fault or their parent’s fault.”

    On the importance of access

    “The first five years are critical to a child’s brain development, which is why Too Small to Fail works to support parents and caregivers with tools to talk, read, and sing with their babies from birth.

    “To do that, we work with local communities including librarians, pediatricians, faith leaders, and national partners like Univision, Scholastic, and Spotify to surround families with language everywhere they spend time—at home, on playgrounds, in laundromats, grocery stores, and even bus stops. We try to go wherever families spend time [and provide] resources and tools to support parents and other caregivers to be kids’ first teachers.”

    On her newest book

    “The biggest inspiration for Don’t Let Them Disappear came from all the kids I’ve spoken with—in my own life, in research for previous books, on book tours—who passionately shared their love and concern for animals, especially endangered species. All animals play a crucial part in the health of our planet, and it’s devastating to think that even one species, like African elephants or rhinos, could be extinct in our or our children’s lifetimes.

    “I decided to write this book about just a few of more than 16,000 endangered plant and animal species that are deserving of our attention, respect, and protection, and to hopefully inspire and equip young people to do something to save the animals they care about that are also so vital to our planet.

    “It’s the book I wish I had as a kid, and I’m so excited to be able to share it with young readers today.”

    On empowering the next generation

    “I’ve been privileged to meet a lot of young people who are doing incredible things in areas they’re passionate about, and I’ve been able to see the impact they have when they are empowered by the adults around them. We’ve also seen this throughout history. For example, in [the United States] during the 1970s, young people played a
    critical role in saving the bald eagle.

    “Stories have an amazing ability to spark the imaginations and dreams of readers of any age. I hope through sharing stories of women who persisted throughout history, or what we can do to save endangered species, that young people are inspired to make the positive difference they want to see in our world. Then I think it’s important that, as adults, we listen and help inform and empower them to take action.”

    On the impact of motherhood

    “My kids are my biggest inspiration. Thinking about the type of world I want them to grow up in drives everything I do—through my writing, teaching, and work with the Clinton Foundation— and I want to ensure that I’ve done everything possible in my small way to make the world a healthier, safer, and more equitable place for them and their generation.”

    On tackling Twitter trolls

    “I think everyone has an obligation to stand up [against] what we see as wrong and unacceptable—in person and online. I think that is particularly true for anyone who has a platform, whether in our schools, our workplaces, or publicly.

    “I also recognize that social media is a tool—one that can be used in the best sense to help inspire positive action—and I use it as an opportunity to shine a light on the issues, people, and causes that are close to me and I feel are deserving of our attention.

    “It is also important to take breaks from social media and our phones. We use both sparingly on the weekends and try to never use either around our kids.”

    On the power of readalouds

    “Reading in our family is hugely important, and Marc and I read to our kids every night and often in the mornings, too—and a lot on the weekends. We love seeing their excitement and listening to (and trying to answer) all their questions about what we’re reading together. I know that reading and talking are good for their brain development, [but] it is also an experience we treasure.”

    On her new podcast

    “Why Am I Telling You This? will feature conversations with a few of the people we find so inspiring—some already well known and others who you may not have heard of—to hear about their experiences, their work, and explore some of the big issues that are facing our world today.

    “We have the honor of working with remarkable individuals who are doing incredible things—helping LGBTQ asylum seekers in the U.S., reducing the stigma around menstruation for women in the slums of Mumbai, combatting the opioid epidemic by expanding access to the lifesaving reversal drug Naloxone, just to name a few.”

    On speaking at ILA 2019

    “I’m honored to be included in this year’s program and excited to share Don’t Let Them Disappear with the educators in the audience. My hope is that it can spark and suppot conversations in classrooms and elsewhere about these endangered animals and others, and what kids can do to help!”

    Lara Deloza is the director of brand content and communications at ILA. 

    This article originally appeared in the open access July/August issue of
    Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

    Hear more from Chelsea Clinton when she speaks during General Session on Friday,
    Oct. 11. For more information, visit
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    ILA Launches National Recognition Initiative

    By Alina O'Donnell
     | Jul 19, 2019
    The International Literacy Association (ILA) announced today the launch of the ILA National Recognition for the Preparation of Literacy Professionals, an initiative that recognizes outstanding licensure, certificate, and endorsement programs that prepare reading/literacy specialists in the United States—the only one of its kind. 

    ILA National Recognition evaluates education preparation providers (EPPs) who seek the organization’s stamp of approval and award the designation on the basis of adherence to ILA’s Standards for the Preparation of Literacy Professionals 2017 (Standards 2017). Standards 2017 addresses the demands of 21st-century literacy instruction through rigorous field work, digital learning, and equity-building practices. 

    Programs scored highly during the ILA National Recognition process may be referred to the second phase of the process, putting them on the path to earning ILA National Recognition with Distinction—the highest honor ILA awards literacy professional preparatory programs.

    Two EPPs, The University of Texas San Antonio and West Virginia University, helped pilot the program and have been awarded ILA National Recognition with Distinction. 

    "This initiative underscores ILA’s commitment to preparing high-caliber literacy professionals,” said ILA Executive Director Marcie Craig Post. “Programs that have earned National Recognition or National Recognition with Distinction are equipping the next generation of literacy professionals with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they need to meet the challenges of today's classrooms.”

    Currently, ILA National Recognition and ILA National Recognition with Distinction focus on programs that prepare reading/literacy specialists. Expansion to other literacy professional roles is planned, with a target release of summer 2020.  

    For more information, visit
    Alina O'Donnell is the communications strategist at ILA and the editor of Literacy Daily.
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    ILA Discontinues Membership in CAEP

    By Lara Deloza
     | Jul 18, 2019
    ila-logoEffective August 1, the International Literacy Association (ILA) will discontinue its membership in the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), an accreditation body of education preparation providers (EPPs) that offer licensure, certificate, and endorsement programs in the United States and/or internationally.

    The relationship between the organizations spans nearly 40 years and two name changes. ILA first became a constituent member of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) in 1980, as the International Reading Association (IRA); NCATE merged with the Teacher Education Accreditation Council (TEAC) to become CAEP in 2013.

    Members of ILA's CAEP Committee acted as advisors on the partnership and, along with other ILA literacy professionals, served as program reviewers to strengthen reading/literacy specialist education programs across the United States. EPPs were evaluated based on their alignment with ILA’s Standards for the Preparation of Literacy Professionals 2017 and, prior to that, IRA’s Standards 2010. 

    ILA remains committed to strengthening pre-K–12 student learning and will continue to recognize exemplary literacy professional preparation programs through its own independent initiative. 

    For questions, please contact

    Lara Deloza
    is the Director of Brand Content and Communications at the International Literacy Association. 
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