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    Celebrate Thanksgiving with These Literacy Activities

    By Samantha Stinchcomb
     | Nov 21, 2017

    Turkey ReadingAs U.S. schools prepare to go on Thanksgiving break this week, it can be difficult to keep students engaged and learning amidst the excitement. The days leading up to break present a perfect opportunity to think about values such as gratitude, charity, friendship, and community. Below are a few ways to celebrate the holiday while improving literacy skills!

    • Have students make an “I Am Thankful for…” book, where they write and illustrate what they are most thankful for. This encourages students to demonstrate gratitude while also strengthening their reading and writing skills. 
    • Create your own Feed the Turkey game to help tone reading skills. Using an interactive game keeps students interested and constantly learning throughout.
    • Construct felt depictions of traditional Thanksgiving characters, such as turkeys and vegetables. These can be used to retell fun Thanksgiving stories or to invent your own!
    • See how many different words your child can build by rearranging the letters in Thanksgiving-themed words, such as “thankful,” “turkey,” and “pilgrim.”
    • Play the Gobble Gobble Game. This is a fun, competitive way to practice the alphabet.
    • Help students create Thanksgiving dinner menus. This will give them a chance to show off their writing skills to dinner guests!
    • Challenge students to The New York TimesThanksgiving-themed crossword puzzle.
    • Learn about the language and culture of the Wampanoag tribe.

    For more ideas, check out our previous Thanksgiving-themed blog posts.

    Samantha Stinchcomb is an intern at the International Literacy Association.           

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    Reaching for Excellence

    By Alina O'Donnell
     | Nov 16, 2017

    Reaching for Excellence2015–2016 was the most challenging year of Julie Stover’s career.

    Pennsylvania had just rolled out the overhauled PA Core Standards and a new, more rigorous Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) that contained critical thinking and open-ended questions as well as more nonfiction reading. PSSA scores weigh heavily on School Performance Profile—the “report card” used to evaluate students, teachers, and students. Low test scores set up schools for possible state intervention.

    “Being teachers, we already pressure ourselves. We hope to have every child reach his or her potential. But we felt a new and different push to raise ‘rigor’ and move full speed ahead. We saw more test practice, data walls, and higher teacher accountability,” says Stover, a reading specialist at East York Elementary.

    When the scores came back, the teachers at East York Elementary breathed a sigh of relief. They hadn’t just done well, they had performed in the top 5% of Title I schools in the state.

    Their celebration was short lived.

    “Some of us gave a weak cheer. Then we began to wonder. We were successful, but at what cost?” says Stover. “How could we justify the cost of the accomplishment when students were excited to stop learning? The children couldn’t wait to get away from books. We wanted them running toward them.”

    Data talk

    On the basis of its test results, East York Elementary was identified as a High Progress School, recognizing its progress in closing achievement gaps in PSSA scores among all students and historically underperforming students. Under this designation, schools are eligible and encouraged to apply for Innovation Grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which must be used to implement new learning structures and processes that support individual needs.

    Stover was responsible for managing the application process, which required her to substantiate PSSA data and to provide a detailed plan of how East York Elementary would use the grant money, if successfully awarded.

    As she scoured the school’s PSSA data, she noticed that the fifth grade had shown the most improvement from the previous year. Aside from their age, the only common denominator among these students was their shared participation in the Notice and Note close-reading strategies. Authored by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst, Notice and Note provides students with six “signposts” that signal readers to pause and reflect at “aha moments,” and other significant moments in the text. The tool kit also includes anchor questions to help facilitate discussion.

    Wendy Ross, a fifth-grade teacher, says she introduced the strategy to give students a stronger sense of ownership over their reading routine.

    “I think I was frustrated; my students didn’t seem to be enjoying reading. I felt like they didn’t have any power, not just in choice but in how they approached the text,” says Ross. “This strategy passed that power back to them—now, they’re in charge of finding meaning in their reading.”

    After observing Ross’s success, Stover and writing teacher Amy Mason helped her deliver the Notice and Note strategies to the rest of the fifth-grade class. They too noticed improvements—not only in the students’ comprehension, but also in their attitude towards reading.

    “It went beyond the quantifiable data. Kids were talking, the depth of their conversations was greater, and their writing was starting to tell more—there was detail and evidence,” says Stover.

    Stover proposed that, if awarded an innovation grant, East York Elementary would use the funds to implement Notice and Note strategies throughout the school. Everyone was on board.

    “We saw this small pocket of success in one classroom. We wanted to spread that success through the rest of the school,” says Denise Fuhrman, principal at East York Elementary.

    Boosting staff morale

    Of the 90 Innovation Grant applications, only 20 were funded. East York Elementary received one of the highest overall ratings and a grant.

    Stover’s first step was to restore staff morale. After a year of rigorous exam preparation, she feared burnout for students and teachers alike.

    Part of the problem, she knew, was the school’s outdated library. The staff sifted through Goodreads recommendations and ILA Choices selections to refresh their selection with a diverse range of titles that were highly engaging but also would enhance the Notice and Note reading routine.

    “It brought the joy of reading back into teaching and revitalized the staff,” says Fuhrman.

    Stover established weekly literacy team meetings where staff held book studies and discussions using the Notice and Note tool kit and designed posters, anchor charts, and bookmarks displaying signpost questions.

    The grant even provided for a training session hosted by authors Beers and Probst. Afterward, the teachers delivered mock lessons for the authors to troubleshoot.

    “This gave them the confidence and the physical support to say ‘We can actually do this,’” says Stover.

    A newfound love of reading

    Though the district has yet to receive its PSSA scores, Stover is confident that they will mirror the performance she sees in the classroom. She says the students have become more incisive thinkers, articulate speakers, and effective writers.

    “It teaches them to respectfully discuss things with one another. They may not agree with each other, but now, they can go back and look at the evidence and prove their point with facts,” says Stover.

    Mason noticed that students are more willing to share their ideas.

    “They have a voice and they feel confident in sharing what they found,” says Mason.

    Above all, the teachers were thrilled to see students’ newfound excitement towards reading. In an end-of-the-year survey, more than 80% of students said they gained a joy of reading.

    “When Common Core first came about, we all felt overwhelmed. We felt like we were plodding along. We’re no longer plodding along—we’re dancing through books,” says Ross.

    Alina O’Donnell is the editor of ILA’s blog, Literacy Daily.

    This piece originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Literacy Today, ILA's member magazine.

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    Helping Teaching Teams Find Commonality

    By Jeanne Smith
     | Nov 09, 2017

    reading-disabilitiesWe find struggling readers everywhere. We see them in all class sizes, subjects, and grade levels. They work with classroom teachers, literacy coaches, and one-on-one interventionists. They attend colleges, trade schools, and adult education classes. Despite their different backgrounds, many struggling readers have the same identifiable skills deficits. Classroom teachers, special educators, and other interventionists may work with the same students, depending on the setting.

    Struggling readers and writers will gain the most from their learning program if all literacy professionals on their team work together. Communication, reinforcement, and affirmation are important behaviors that can make small steps more meaningful to everyone invested in students’ success. What follows is a list of some important items to be aware of, regardless of where a student is placed in his or her educational setting.

    Guidelines for effective interventions

    • Language is complex. Reading and spelling disorders can take a long time to overcome and must be addressed through strong teaching, practice, and reinforcement. It is most advantageous to teach decoding and encoding skills concurrently.
    • When different programs, books, or software are used in different settings by different teachers, with no connection made to each other’s instruction, students will have trouble processing the material.
    • Too much emphasis on sight reading, without practice in syllable types, blending sounds, and multisensory learning for multisyllabic words, may lead students to rely on memory rather than develop the skills needed to progress.
    • Memorizing spelling rather than learning to spell by sound and syllable type can also be counterproductive—students may commit too much to memory and be left without the foundational skills to advance. When introducing spelling rule exceptions, struggling readers need a slow, systematic introduction.

    Reminders for teaching reading and decoding, spelling, and encoding

    • Letters have both names and sounds; during the early stages of literacy, students need a solid foundation on sounds.
    • If students have difficulty decoding or sounding out at the earliest level, they may need more practice in blending sounds or identifying syllable types.
    • If students have trouble sounding out words to spell, they may need more instruction in segmenting sounds and working with syllable types.

    Considerations for comprehension

    Strategies such as visualization and metacognitive awareness are very helpful and commonly used in classrooms. However, it is important that comprehension skills be taught not only through strengthening/accommodating students’ listening skills and having them demonstrate comprehension mastery through other modalities but also by incorporating comprehension skills, with decodable text based on their progression. Doing so will help get students with reading disabilities back on the page and build their relationship with print. 

    jeanne smith headshot2Jeanne H. Smith is a literacy specialist at Community High School of Vermont and a correctional educator with St. Albans Probation and Parole.


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    Family Friday

    By Staci Kaplan
     | Nov 08, 2017
    Family FridayI teach in a school system that’s home to a wide socioeconomic disparity. The median household income is $145,083, and approximately 20% of the township’s more than 22,000 residents work in finance and real estate. However, those numbers hide the 6.5% of the population who lives below the poverty line—a significant minority of working-class immigrants for whom English is not their first language.

    This disparity is evident at our school’s annual Halloween assembly, where parents are invited to attend grade-level skit performances, followed by a classroom party. One year, I saw five parents working hard in my classroom to create a festive party, yet outside the classroom door lingered four more immigrant parents who were reluctant to enter. I wanted all my families to feel welcomed and connected, but I didn’t know how.

    A solution crystallized when I heard professor David Schwarzer of Montclair State University speak on culture, language, and curricular choices at the ILA 2015 Conference & Exhibits, in St. Louis, MO. I left with a plan to make all families feel welcomed.

    Introducing Family Friday

    Each year, as students step into a new grade and classroom, teachers should ask, “What stories do our students carry? How can we evoke them?”

    In my third-grade classroom, these questions led to the creation of Family Friday.

    It can feel overwhelming for teachers to add anything new to the schedule. In my classroom, however, a feasible solution was to reserve just 15 minutes each week to open our doors to honor our students’ families, creating the opportunity for personal storytelling and conversation. Through our new Family Friday tradition, students explore cultural experiences perhaps vastly different from their own.

    Family Friday comes from the belief that all students should be given the opportunity to share their own experiences and listen to those of others. The goal in our classroom is to involve families and help students learn about other cultures, traditions, and global experiences. There is no specific format; family members can partner with their children, bring a translator, or ask the teacher to arrange for a translator. They can share photographs, slides, or video of a special place or festival; present cultural symbols and artifacts; read a bilingual book; or tell a story.

    Encouraging participation 

    I teamed up with our school’s bilingual parent liaison to reach out to and encourage our families to participate in Family Friday. Our liaison was extremely successful by following these simple steps:

    • Make personal contact with each family
    • Provide each family with suggestions on what to bring
    • Work alongside each family, as needed, to translate any aspect of the presentation
    • Offer encouragement and emotional support
    • Translate all letters sent home

    Every family she contacted visited our classroom. The best part was watching my students’ faces light up when their parents and siblings were the teachers and storytellers.

    Having meaningful conversations

    Students were delighted to see their classmate’s father translate their names into Mandarin and hear an explanation of their names’ meanings. They heard the story of a student’s family’s struggle to escape from war-torn Honduras, watched a video of a classmate splashing in his favorite watering hole when visiting his grandparents in Mexico, and laughed at the concept of Armenian egg jousting.

    During each Family Friday gathering, we broke into small groups to allow students to ask questions and share ideas. Some jotted ideas into their notebooks while others asked thoughtful questions about the immigrant experience, such as “What was it like to come to a new and strange country? How did you adapt?” 

    Building a community

    Through Family Friday, we are building a culture of kindness, empathy, and respect. As students share their treasured stories to a respectful audience, they feel valued.

    At the end of year, we gathered highlights from each family’s presentation. As a class project, students in the classroom or at home created three slides to represent their family’s contribution. We combined them into a single slideshow with a student-composed soundtrack made with GarageBand.

    We held a celebration where we invited all our families to celebrate “Who We Are.” I looked around my room to see people from Armenia, Bangladesh, Belize, Brazil, Costa Rica, Honduras, Ireland, Israel, Mexico, Romania, and the United States. Each student’s story represented a patch on a quilt, stitched together by our classroom community.

    staci kaplan headshotStaci Kaplan, an ILA member since 2014, is a literacy coach for Summit Public Schools in New Jersey.


    This piece originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Literacy Today, ILA's member magazine.

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    Inspiring a New Generation of Readers

    By Julie Scullen
     | Nov 03, 2017

    ThinkstockPhotos-166669107_x300In an effort to find out firsthand what kinds of books today’s teens and tweens are reading, I went to the experts. I asked teachers to give me some quality time with their most voracious readers.

    It was quite an education. I was reminded that today’s middle grade and young adult readers are savvier, more worldly, and more informed than those of my own generation. These remarkable readers let me know with certainty we need to catch up with their reading needs and interests, or at least get out of their way.

    Keep in mind, I’m a child of the 1970s and 1980s. I came of age in a conservative school district in the era of Blubber, Ramona the Pest, A Summer to Die, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.  In my high school, “diversity” was about what kind of fertilizer your dad spread on his fields last season. Girl protagonists in our libraries were worried about whether they would get their period before their friends did, and if they would ever be kissed. Relationships with schoolmates created the most significant conflicts, siblings and parents were a close second. Adults were always there to save the day.

    Reading, even at its most controversial, was pretty tame. In today’s world, lame.

    I sat down with ten groups of seventh- and eighth-grade students to talk about trends in middle grade and young adult literature, and their thoughts were insightful, honest, and telling. I asked them what kinds of books we need more of in our libraries.

    I learned that today, book characters are still worried their siblings or parents might embarrass them, and that stories are still set at school or home. But we no longer live in the world of passive girls waiting for things to happen to them, or brave boys surviving in the woods, and our book recommendations need to reflect this new reality.

    What I heard loud and clear is that our teens are irritated by books that imply that this is all there is.

    Our students shared with me that while these topics, characters and settings are still prevalent, they are interlaced with issues of race, LGBTQ, violence, and mental illness: all deeper, controversial issues schools are often afraid to put on the shelves.

    “We need more mature books. Those that are up to date, that are popular. Not just books that were popular ‘back then,’” Greg, a seventh grader, said with a smile. He referred, of course, to the books we often recommend to students that were our favorites when we were in middle school.

    “Back then?” I asked.

    Eighth grader Sarah explained, “You know, back then. Most of the books [in our library] are from the 1900s.”

    In fact, kids are savvier than we think. Brandon, an eighth grader who admitted he only reads in school, said this about books being written for middle graders: “It’s some 60-year-old person, you know? It’s a middle-aged man trying to write as a high schooler.” Nods all around. His classmate Ariella added, “Yeah, like they write about these high school stereotypes, and everything, and it’s not even true.”

    As a group, they said they are tired of the stereotypical characters they see portrayed in middle grade novels: the ditzy girl, the brain who fails embarrassingly at romantic relationships, the bully, the jock.

    Sam, a self-proclaimed voracious reader, said, “So, I usually read fantasy books, and inevitably [the main characters] are boys, and they are either really weird and different and want to be normal, or really really ordinary and dull and want to be special, and…. then they get magical powers.” The room erupted in laughter and knowing smiles.

    Seventh grader Natalie admitted she reads more than an hour each day. Her response was that we need “more books that don’t try to baby us.” She added, “schools put books on the shelves that aren’t going to offend people. None of these books have any bad words or any REAL things that are actually happening.”

    Elena, another student from her class added, “yes, we need mature books. Right now [authors] put a lot more modern issues in their new books. Issues like race, gender, sexuality, those kinds of things. More than just the basics. We need more of those in our library.”

    This response prompted me to ask if they felt represented in the books they were reading now. Do you see characters that look like you? Think like you? Act like you?

    Brandon is a seventh-grade student of color. “Am I represented? Not the [books] I’ve been reading. I read books my teachers recommended…and the one character closest to me is a cat from the Warriors series.” His peers laughed and nodded.

    Another avid reader and student of color, Fatima, was thoughtful in her response. “Yes and no, because I read a lot of books with male leads and female leads, and they won’t look like me, not particularly…they are a different race. Books aren’t that diverse, and [characters] won’t look like me.”

    Alexa pointed out that diversity is needed. “Sometimes it’s nice when they [characters] are different from you so that you get to see a new perspective.” She added, “there are sometimes books with characters that have kind of the same personality [as you], but like if it’s not, it’s still good to read them, because it helps to grow YOUR personality.”

    My favorite response about characters came from Harry, an eighth grader with very strong opinions about young adult literature. He said, “Whenever there is a character that is really weird, but also a genius, that’s me.”

    These students have provided me with amazing insights into what I as a literacy leader will recommend to students, teachers, and media specialists.

    If we’re going to inspire a new generation of readers, we need to listen to these insightful and remarkable teens. If we want to convince them to get off their devices and into books, we need to find characters and plots they can relate to.

    Julie ScullenJulie Scullen is a former member of the ILA Board of Directors and also served as president of the Minnesota Reading Association and Minnesota Secondary Reading Interest Council. She taught most of her career in secondary reading intervention classrooms and now serves as Teaching and Learning Specialist for Secondary Reading in Anoka-Hennepin schools in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She teaches graduate courses at Hamline University in St. Paul in literacy leadership and coaching, disciplinary literacy, critical literacy, and reading assessment and evaluation.

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