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    When We Teach Programming Languages as Literacy

    By Ziva R. Hassenfeld and Marina Umaschi Bers
     | May 16, 2019
    kibo-1

    Sarah sits with a small class of 4- and 5-year-old students. She is teaching students to use a KIBO robotics kit, which uses a tangible programming language for children made of wooden blocks. At the heart of her lesson is a maze task. There is a start spot and end spot demarcated on the carpet. First, to get comfortable with the idea of commands, the students play a game called “Program the Teacher.” Sarah invites students to get her through the maze using the KIBO language. KIBO can step forward and backward, turn, shake, spin, beep, and sing (KIBO plays a short melody). The students jump right in:

    “Sing!”
    “Beep!”
    “Shake!”
    “Spin!”

    Reluctantly, Sarah obliges, but probes the students: “Is this going to get me where we want me to go?”

    “No,” they reply, “but it’s fun.” The students are clearly excited by the KIBO programming language, they just don’t care that much about the maze.

    “OK. straight,” they oblige.

     Sarah immediately shows excitement. “How many steps?” she asks.

    “Three,” they answer. “OK, now sing again!”

    The activity continues until, through a series of probes and pushes, Sarah gets the students to tell her to walk straight and then turn so that she can get through the maze.

    kibo-2Next, they try to get an actual KIBO through the maze. It doesn’t go much better. They want KIBO to sing and beep and shake and spin. Sarah gently asks them whether their program will get KIBO from the start spot to the end spot. But they’re too busy experimenting with KIBO, the performer, to worry about the task Sarah has assigned them. At one point, they make KIBO lurch around the room spinning and they run in circles squealing, “It’s eating my feet! It’s eating my feet!” Sarah tries one more time: “But, tell me, how can I get KIBO to the end spot?” With utter sincerity, one student answers, “You could pick him up and move him.” Sarah calls a snack break.

    There was no problem with KIBO. In fact, the students loved playing with KIBO. They quickly mastered the idea of using commands to make KIBO follow their instructions. They just didn’t care about the maze task.

    Literacy educators have long known that students are far more likely to take on a cognitive challenge when they care about the task assigned. The anecdote above sheds light on what kinds of activities teachers should design to teach young children programming languages.

    Learning programming languages is like learning to read and write a new language. Experts in literacy stress that students can only learn to read and write when teachers give them activities that leave room for their own self-expression. In a 2007 Research in the Teaching of English article, literacy scholar Maren Aukerman explains, “When reading instruction principally focuses on a teacher’s interpretation and interpretive techniques, we misrepresent to children what reading actually is.” When literacy instruction focuses solely on phonics, or the transmission of authoritative interpretations, reading in schools becomes cut off from the reading children do outside of school. Outside of school, children (and adults) read and interpret as part of the natural activity of sense-making. Inside of school, it’s easy to lose this most basic purpose for reading and writing. At the heart of the balanced literacy approach is the understanding that students learn literacy better when it’s taught through tasks that matter to them (i.e., tasks that make room for their self-expression and sense-making).

    The students in this anecdote were not interested in the maze task their teacher assigned. As such, they could not get into the cognitive work it required. The task wasn’t guided by their own questions or curiosities. I can’t help but wonder how the outcomes would have differed had they been allowed to explore KIBO’s performance capabilities. Imagine if they had gone through the process of developing a performance for KIBO, writing the program for that performance, and reflecting on how their written program did and did not realize their vision. Instead, their interests were continually thwarted in service of the task at hand—a task that didn’t hold the students’ engagement.

    In the November/December 2018 issue of Literacy Today, educator Chris Panell wrote, “Those who are digitally literate in the future will be those who can read not only the surface of the text, but also the programming that makes it appear as it does.” Panell is correct in connecting the two. We would go one step further and connect how we teach students to read both “the surface of the text” and “the programming that makes it appear.” Educators must think about the teaching of programming languages like we think about the teaching of literacy and natural language, emphasizing student meaning-making, imagination, and creativity.

    It’s much easier to ask students to write a program that moves a robot from a start spot to an end spot than it is to allow them open exploration of this block programming language. However, the nascent field of early childhood programming education need not repeat the mistakes of the past. It must take as its starting place the hard-learned lessons from literacy education: Students learn more when the task matters to them.

    Ziva R. Hassenfeld, an ILA member since 2016, earned her doctorate in curriculum and teacher education from Stanford University in 2016. She is currently a middle school teacher in the Boston area and a post-doctoral fellow at the Dev Tech Research Group of Tufts University and at Brandeis University. Her research focuses on the tools and reading strategies young children employ when reading texts, as well as the pedagogies teachers use to support student textual interpretation, fluency, and comprehension.

    Marina Umaschi Bers 
    is professor and chair at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development and an adjunct professor in the Computer Science Department at Tufts University. She heads the interdisciplinary Developmental Technologies research group. Her research involves the design and study of innovative learning technologies to promote children’s positive development. She also developed and serves as director of the graduate certificate program on Early Childhood Technology at Tufts University.

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    Promoting Access to Books Year-Round Through Summer Reading Initiatives

    By Margaret Mary Policastro, Diane Mazeski, and Debra Fisher
     | Apr 30, 2019

    summer-reading-initiativesTo ensure the well-being of every child, access to books over the summer is critical. We believe that creating lifelong readers starts with ensuring there is opportunity to promote the love and joy of reading year-round. During the summer months, when most children are out of school, access to books becomes even more important. Many children do not have access to books at home, which means they don’t read over those three months.

    To keep the joy and love of reading moving forward, schools need to take a vital role in planning and executing summer reading initiatives.

    We have spent the past eight years with grant-funded projects working to create balanced literacy schools, with a focus on creating year-round access to books. We developed summer reading initiatives with partner schools. These initiatives, which are unique within each school setting, were also drawn from our over three decades of working in our Summer Reading Clinic at the university.

    We have learned both in our work within partner schools and our university Summer Reading Clinic that families want their children exposed to print-rich activities over the summer months. Often, families do not know how to help their children and do not have access to the resources needed to do so. However, with some guidance, these obstacles can be overcome, and students can continue to thrive and grow in their love and joy of literacy over these crucial summer months.

    Following are some of the initiatives we employed at our partner schools.

    A read-aloud picnic

    Summer is the perfect time to enjoy outdoor spaces for reading. One teacher came up with the idea to hold a read-aloud picnic. Families were invited to bring a picnic snack and blanket to a cozy space on the school grounds. They sat and discussed the read-aloud topic and then enjoyed the interactive read-aloud. Adults were just as engaged as the children, asking questions and participating.

    Summer book clubs

    Children love to talk about books they have read. Book clubs, held at the school or a public library, are a wonderful venue to keep these conversations going over the summer. Schools can determine what book club selections will work for which grades. One school held a book club lunch, where students discussed their selection over their packed lunches. We have had good luck recommending the latest award-winning books from both the John Newbery Medal and Honor Book winners and Jane Addams Children's Book Award lists.

    Partner with the public library

    Partnering with the public library can have many benefits. Some public libraries have “pop-up libraries” that travel throughout the community to bring books to children and adults. These innovative libraries serve many goals, including bringing books and librarians to people who may not otherwise go to a library, showcasing the library’s many resources and activities, and allowing readers to connect. Librarians should ensure they provide a wide variety of subjects and genres that reflects the reading interests of all students. This has been most successful initiative in our summer clinic; the local public library comes every other week, rain or shine. The children are thrilled to have this opportunity to spend time selecting books, talking, and sharing their reading with others.

    Reading incentive programs

    One school partnered up with a local yogurt shop for an incentive program. Children who read a specified number of books, documented in their summer reading log, were given a voucher to get a free yogurt. This worked especially well with the younger children. Searching for community partners and what they can offer will depend on the community. In our summer clinic, children get a “free” book for every five they read. Getting to select a book to keep is a big incentive, and children often take their time making their selection, being very deliberate in their decision-making process.

    School’s open for books

    One of our initiatives was to open the school a few days over summer for students to come and select reading materials. Carts filled with inviting books were rolled out into the hall outside the principal’s office. Days and hours were flexible and generous. The principal, school secretary, and participating teachers stood by to greet the students and offer book suggestions. Family members who accompanied younger students were delighted by the availability of books.

    Margaret Mary Policastro is a professor of language and literacy at Roosevelt University (RU) where she directs both the language and literacy program and is the Summer Reading Clinic director. The summer reading initiatives evolved out of the work in the RU Summer Reading Clinic. She currently is directing the RU IL-EMPOWER partnership with the Illinois State Board of Education working to improve underperforming schools.

    Diane Mazeski retired after a rewarding career as a teacher and reading specialist in Mt. Prospect and Winnetka, Illinois. She is currently the associate director of the Summer Reading Clinic. Diane served as the literacy coach at Our Lady of the Wayside School and helped to implement the summer reading initiatives.

    Debra Fisher is a first-grade teacher at Our Lady of the Wayside School in Arlington Heights, Illinois. While partnering with RU, she served on the literacy team helping to transform her school into a balanced literacy school. Debra was also instrumental in creating and supporting the school’s summer reading initiatives.

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    What’s in a Name

    By Justin Stygles
     | Apr 24, 2019
    pulling-instructional-model

    My students are not a fan of my name. Throughout the year, I find a number of variations to my last name in writing and speech. I own it. Stygles, as in /Sty/ /guls/, is not an easy name to say or read. Ask Alexa. She’ll get my name wrong too! I have one of those great names that has a single vowel. Even then, the /e/ is relatively silent and the “y” functions as an /i/.

    Nonetheless, I expect my students to learn my name in spelling and pronunciation. Maybe I seem “mean” because I won’t let kids call me Mr. S., but I believe teachers who abbreviate their names by reducing long names or complicated pronunciations to the initial consonant or initial vowel sound are denying students exposure to unique oral language. We are a country constructed with Spanish, Arabic, Pacific Islander, Polish, and Russian surnames, among hundreds of others. Learning the sounds of these unique surnames provides decoding insight into the English language and many others we can experience or learn.

    Students who are raised in culturally homogenous communities tend have limited exposure to first and last names from various origins. Growing up in a military family provided me the opportunity to learn correct pronunciation of African American and Latinx names, much of which has carried over into my career as a teacher in terms of oral readings, pronouncing names, and helping students clarify the names of characters from various cultural backgrounds.

    While teaching in rural, relatively isolated schools, I’ve realized exposure to and interaction with diverse languages, other than localized lexicons, is limited. Students in these districts have fewer opportunities to practice phonetics such as letter sounds and spelling patterns.

    For example, having known an Eoin, I understood how to pronounce the Irish name, “Owen.” I have seen students and teachers trip over this name in reading. I happened to “know” the pronunciation from my interest in horse racing. Otherwise, I’m sure I would have pronounced Eoin incorrectly. Likewise, learning -guez or -eaux, of Spanish and French origin, through experiences in foreign language acquisition, and the racetrack, supported my ability to read and say people’s names correctly, thus respectfully. Had somebody allowed me, or a student of mine, to say, “Mr. D.” instead of Dominguez, a learning experience would be lost.

    As school districts become increasingly diverse, I think we have a responsibility as teachers to learn and impart the proper pronunciation of names, even if we must ask the student—an opportunity to foster the student’s sense of belonging and show you value his or her culture and identity. Furthermore, if we intend to teach our students appropriate letter–sound correspondence, syllables, and morphemes, we can start by modeling how to correctly pronounce names, or, again, the courage to ask when uniqueness appears. In doing so, you demonstrate that you too are a lifelong learner who is not afraid to admit a mistake.

    Although my name isn’t pleasant, there are some pronunciation rules that can be transferred to other words. There as so many other names out there that create special learning circumstances. So why abbreviate a 13-letter or a four-syllable last name to a single consonant sound? Children who are learning to pronounce sounds will benefit from practice and error more than denying an experience entirely. I feel teaching students to say the full name of their classmates and teachers is a critical exercise in language development.

    Justin Stygles is a fifth-grade teacher in Wiscasset, Maine. He's taught for 15 years in various settings. You can follow him on Twitter at @justinstygles.

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    Resources for Celebrating National Poetry Month

    By Bailee Formon
     | Apr 17, 2019

    honoring-students-rights-to-readApril is National Poetry Month, which provides an opportunity for teachers and educators to bring poetry into the classroom and inspire students to read and experience works of poetry on their own. Since 1996, the national holiday has celebrated the contributions of poets while recognizing poetry's vital place in our culture and everyday lives. Following are resources and activities to help students get excited about poetry.

    • ILA’s Choices Reading Lists includes works of poetry chosen for children, by children.
    • This Writer’s Digest post, “The 20 Best Poems for Kids,” outlines three categories of poems (short poems, funny poems, and rhyming poems), lists popular examples of each type, and explains why they succeed with children.
    • Scholastic offers poetry-related articles, lesson plans, and blog posts that are applicable to educators of various grade levels.
    • Goodreads lists titles of popular works of poetry geared toward children. From Shel Silverstein to Dr. Seuss and Robert Louis Stevenson, the poems on this list will engage students and help them find their favorite authors. 
    • ReadWriteThink includes poetry resources in addition to lesson plans and classroom activities—organized according to grade level—that can help to get students excited about poetry.
    • Ahead of last week’s #ILAchat, Poetry, Rap, and Hip-Hop: Connecting With Students Through Rhythm and Rhyme, the ILA team rounded up a list of resources—recommended by our guest experts—for teachers to use and learn from.
    • Reading Rockets shares video interviews with renown poets as well as a collection of classroom resources, including poetry booklists, activities, and lesson plans.
    • ILA’s Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG) regularly reviews works of poetry for educators in search of inspiration.
    • Edutopia’s compilation post includes resources from the web, Edutopia's most popular poetry-themed blogs, and other quick reads.

    Bailee Formon is an intern at the International Literacy Association.  

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    Choosing Care When Choosing Books

    By Diana Wandix-White
     | Mar 28, 2019

    the-greatest-giftA caring and inclusive classroom environment can have a significant impact on student outcomes, and one way teachers can demonstrate caring is through the books they choose for student learning. By carefully selecting the literature used in our classrooms, we aid our own growth and development as culturally responsive teachers while cultivating our students’ literacy development, capacity for compassion, and acceptance of themselves and others.

    Teachers practice culturally sustaining pedagogy when they choose literature that acknowledges and respects the gamut of students’ backgrounds and experiences. This practice shows students they are cared for and valued and creates a classroom culture of care that encourages students to respect and understand diversity.

    Culturally sustaining pedagogies and diversity in literature

    Django Paris, professor of multicultural education at the University of Washington, theorized that culturally sustaining pedagogy “seeks to perpetuate and foster—to sustain—linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism as part of the democratic project of schooling.” To practice culturally sustaining pedagogy, teachers must recognize that they have a leading role in initiating and encouraging discussion and dialogue about the meanings students draw from the texts they read.

    Lauren Leigh Kelly, professor of urban education at Rutgers University, comments that by acknowledging the cultural identities of students, “educators can simultaneously engage students in critical literary and social dialogues while also sending a clear message that students’ lives and communities are present and relevant to classroom learning and culture.” By providing students with literacy-rich environments that promote critical thinking, we can help them to better understand the wider world and their own role as a global citizen.

    Diversity in literature promotes student voice

    Perhaps more than any other academic activity, reading has the potential to facilitate identity development and give voice to marginalized students. As Paris states, there can be no “democratic project of schooling” if students don’t feel confident and secure enough to contribute to the democratic process.

    Scholars agree that providing diverse texts in literacy development helps students connect to or challenge the various representations of “truth” presented to them through their assigned readings. The voice students gain from finding themselves in literature creates an opportunity for classrooms to come alive with multiple perspectives and divergent thinking.

    Diversity in literature provides access to other worlds

    As part of the goal of culturally sustaining pedagogy is to foster respect and appreciation for linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism, recognizing that literature—especially children’s literature—is a powerful medium for entering other worlds is important. Exposing students at a young age to other worlds through children’s books creates multiple safe opportunities to recognize and explore human variations. Conceivably, this early access to diverse realities could positively influence a child’s present and future humanity toward others. These mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors, a phrase coined by children’s literature scholar Rudine Sims Bishop, help students to better understand themselves and the world around them.

    Some studies suggest that books may even provide children who are otherwise socially isolated by mind-set, geographic location, or life circumstances, with a vehicle to meet people unlike themselves and gain a broader acceptance and appreciation of individual likenesses and differences. To extend cultural pluralism as part of the democratic project of schooling, teachers must ensure all students have an opportunity to hear the stories that tell their own narrative and those of others. 

    Diversity in literature fosters social justice

    When individuals have access to other people, other cultures, other lifestyles, and other worlds, they tend to recognize systemic inequities and their own personal biases and predispositions that threaten peaceful coexistence. By analyzing beliefs and values of characters in a book, teachers and students can realize and then challenge long-held biases that negatively affect human interaction.

    Ultimately, teachers pave the road toward authentic, caring relationships when they choose books that demonstrate interest and respect for the variety of cultural, social, spiritual, and socioeconomic variances represented by their students. Teachers assign value to books simply by choosing to place them on the class bookshelf or include them on the course syllabus, and the message teachers promote through the literature they choose should convey respect and acknowledgment of diverse cultures.

    Diana Wandix-White, an ILA member since 2016, is a doctoral candidate and graduate research assistant at Texas A&M University, College Station. After teaching English/language arts for over 20 years, she decided to pursue her PhD, researching urban education and the culture of care in K–12 public schools. Additionally, her teaching experience, along with her master’s degree in reading education, continues to draw her to issues of literacy. Combining her research interests leads her to the study of issues at the intersection of literacy, cultural diversity, and the importance of care as demonstrated through teachers’ selections of culturally relevant texts.  

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