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    Invisibility: The Superpower of Literacy Leaders

    By Julie Scullen
     | May 22, 2018
    Pushing Glaciers

    For a very brief, shining moment recently I thought someone understood how difficult it is to be a literacy leader.

    One of the teachers I work with smiled at me and remarked, “Gosh, your job must be really stressful.” My heart leapt with appreciation.

    But before I could thank her for her thoughtful and generous insight, she added, “I mean, you have to keep finding all these different projects and things to do so they don’t send you back to the classroom.”

    She gave me a sympathetic head tilt, patted my shoulder, and walked away. I was having an out of body experience, but I’m fairly sure I just stared at her as she walked away, mouth gaping.

    Now, with the benefit of hindsight, this is what I wish I had said:

    Yes, as literacy leaders, we do often have to “find” things to do.

    We “find” SMART goals representative of the needs of thousands of students considered acceptable to teachers, administrators, and our community. We also “find” the data on which to base these goals, then analyze and track that data over years and months.

    We “find” professional development opportunities that meet the needs of hundreds of teachers—both new and seasoned professionals with a variety of training and experiences—and provide these opportunities within the scope of the mere three half-day sessions provided each year.

    We “find” ways to navigate, address, and communicate the conflicting philosophies of literacy instruction to ensure that thousands of students have their needs met and aren’t caught in the philosophical crossfire.

    We “find” ways to help teams of teachers write curriculum documents reflective of an overwhelming number of standards in ways that keep students in mind but don’t force teachers to skip through curriculum to guarantee coverage.

    We “find” ways to ensure that our students have authentic reasons to read and write in all disciplines.

    We “find” ways to carefully guide new teachers who don’t yet understand why they shouldn’t ask, “What happens if I don’t teach the curriculum?” Then we “find” ways to mentor these teachers to ensure they have a positive powerful teaching experience and decide stay with the profession beyond their first few years.

    We “find” and carefully read pages and pages of literacy research to ensure that our teachers and students have the most relevant and beneficial instructional resources boosting their learning.

    I wish I had that moment with that teacher again. Without meaning to, she made my work clearer than ever.

    Literacy leadership is hard work, but if it’s done right, it’s almost invisible. If it’s working, no one sees the magic happen.

    Julie Scullen, an ILA member since 2005, is a teaching and learning specialist for secondary reading in Anoka-Hennepin School District 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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    Literacy Lessons From the Track

    By Justin Stygles
     | May 09, 2018
    racing

    Does reading ability determine our future success? And if so, by whose standard? 

    Days after the Kentucky Derby, I think back to my experience working as a groom at various harness (horse) race tracks and as an aspiring driver at Morrisville State College in New York. My day at the track typically started at 6:00 a.m. (many others arrived before 5:00 a.m.). Before noon, my three to five horses would be fed, harnessed, jogged, bathed, and wrapped. And I would be exhausted. Depending on the race day, we might have a few hours in the afternoon to relax, if we didn't ship to another track or race a matinee card. Usually, the afternoon carried another set of responsibilities, leaving little time to read.

    When I did read, I would peruse weekly racing recap magazines, such as Times in Harness or The Horseman at the tack shop, but nothing that substantiated sustained reading. Did I squander an opportunity? I had the ability to read. I could read fluently, comprehend, and interpret. Yet I abstained, whether by choice or circumstance. Did I choose not to read, with what little spare time I had?

    Many backstretch workers I spent time with didn’t have that luxury. Such souls, some of the kindest and craftiest people I’ve ever met, faced the stark reality of illiteracy, where career mobility didn’t exist. For those men and women, working with horses provided security in a world where no security could be found without the ability to read.

    One elderly man I worked with had a magnificent touch with horses. He could calm a horse and tend to each one like his own child. He could also fix every part of my Plymouth Reliant. But he could never train a horse. Like several others we worked with, he couldn’t read the regulations for licensure, condition sheets, or stall applications, let alone a newspaper. They survived on hands-on knowledge and intellect.

    The gentleman made enough money to scrape by, just like the rest of us (In 1996, that was $250 a week, with housing provided). When we had time, sitting on track trunks along the shedrow, he'd express why we needed to go back and finish college. He regretted his inability to read.

    Years ago, I worked with a young teenager who loved harness racing. As I watched him move through the grades, I noticed that he struggled to acquire reading skills, whether in class or specialized interventions. But he loved his race horses. He could tell you every detail on every horse and he could critique a horse’s performance on par with a professional handicapper or horseman.

    Eventually, he faced a challenge. He could only work at the track if he improved his grades. By the time he was old enough to drive, he had enough literacy capacity—gained primarily through the language of the track and the pressure to pass his classes—to be successful and to earn a living at the track. However, the idea of reading a book for pleasure was a foreign concept. He became what I call a "functional reader": one who reads to survive or succeed in a career field, but not by choice or for pleasure.

    Consider our schools and classrooms, our pressures and expectations. Do students really only need to achieve reading competency during school, or is recreational reading essential to one’s overall quality of life?

    Reading is not a possession or an affirmation, but a gift that each of us must extend to our peers—young or old, rich or poor. We need to extend our purpose, not just to make functional readers, but to encourage reading that inspires, empowers, and connects. After all, literacy is empathy.

    Every summer I spend six weekends at Saratoga Race Course. Sitting in the clocker’s booth alongside the Oklahoma Training Track, I wonder, how often do grooms read? If so, can they read in English? Are they bound to the track because they do not have the basic literacy skills needed to “make it” outside of the horse world? This always causes me to pause. Then, I realize, I don't teach for competency via a state test, grade, or reading level. I teach students to own reading as a part of their lives, so that they never have to wonder what could have been.

    If I am lucky enough, I will return the track and teach those who want a second chance at literacy.

    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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    Releasing the Mind of Childhood Trauma Through Writing

    By Tiana Silvas
     | May 01, 2018

    Society is experiencing overwhelming incidents of violence and oppression. These incidents impact everyone, but they have a heightened consequential impact on children. In an unsettling report from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the 2010 BRFSS Adverse Childhood Experiences module indicated that almost two-thirds of adults have reported at least one childhood experience, ranging from living with a substance abuser to neglect. This report only includes reported numbers. What about the uncollected statistics? This means millions of students directly or indirectly experience adversity or trauma.

    As teachers, we are likely to be the first people at school who have contact with a student who has experienced trauma or adversity. Some students immediately share their experience, while other students display behaviors related to it. I have witnessed students display aggression, a lack of focus, isolation, and regression. Sometimes, students who exhibit these behaviors are misdiagnosed with ADD, ADHD, or learning disabilities.

    I will never forget an incident that happened when I taught in the South Bronx. One of our students was caught in gang crossfire and his mother was killed trying to shield him. The next day, students looked stunned and asked me many questions. I knew that this was not my students’ first experience with adversity, nor their last. Students that day said, “This happens. It’s sad, but it happens.” Trauma and adversity do not discriminate and have no boundaries; it can happen to anyone at any time.

    As adults, we might have a set of coping strategies when faced with adversity, but what strategies do children have? Are children dealing with emotional situations by thinking those traumatic situations are normal? Are children putting on a brave front to survive? Are children coping with adversity and trauma in ways that others do not understand? Yes. Children are trying to reclaim their childhood.

    What can classroom teachers do? In many schools, counselors are in high demand. This shortage extends the emotional responsibility to teachers. As the students’ experiences begin to unfold as they mature, we need to revise our practices to become more responsive and supportive to students who face trauma and adversity. One way I have supported students is by developing a sensitive and supportive writing workshop in which students can utilize writing as a coping tool.

    Here are some ways to start creating a sensitive and supportive writing workshop for all students:

    Class declaration of trust

    Creating a shared understanding about trust in the classroom is key. This declaration of trust goes far beyond trusting students to be responsible. This kind of trust is angled toward the entire community understanding that individuals need to feel emotionally and physically sound. These points might look different for each individual. Some students might feel triggered and respond physically. When this occurs, it is critical that we stay calm and make sure that those students understand that they are not being judged.

    Each year I make sure students have plenty of space to share aspects of their lives so they have opportunities to get to know each other on multiple levels. With this practice, we create listening routines that are inviting, and students begin to move from listening to actually hearing one another. As a teacher, I share parts of my life and at times show vulnerability. This openness brings humanization to our practice. Once students have created a trusting environment, they then can define their needs for emotional and physical well-being as they begin to take risks. This is the foundation of my writing workshop.

    Choice

    Choice is one way to return power to the student. Students who are experiencing trauma and adversity need to have a sense of control over some aspect of their lives. As teachers, we cannot control what happens outside of school, but we can empower students by providing choice. To do this, I consider students’ unique ways of expressing themselves and how they construct meaning.

    If we want students to write and to feel that writing is a way to work through life, then we must employ multiple areas of choice throughout their writing experiences. Their choices can range from the type of notebook to topic selection. The most important aspect of choice is to make sure that students feel like they can write about any topic throughout the year. Genres are flexible; therefore, student topics can be nurtured across genres. For instance, I had a student write throughout the year about domestic violence in multiple ways though memoir writing, journalism, and essays.

    As we nurture freedom of choice, we must keep in mind that what works for one student might not work for another.

    Privacy and safety

    As a sensitive and supportive writing workshop develops, students might disclose personal information. As a teacher, I feel that it is a positive step when students trust the classroom environment enough to share their stories. However, we must proceed with caution.

    First, students should never be pushed to write about their trauma. To honor privacy and trust, the student must initiate this step. At times, a student’s writing has caught me off guard and triggered an emotional response. As we read their writing, we must remain open and grounded. If students decide to share a traumatic or adverse experience, they are showing trust, and we must continue to develop that trust. There will be times their writing will remain private. On the other hand, students’ safety and well-being are the top priorities. Teachers have a responsibility to take action and follow reporting protocols if students reveal something that puts their safety in jeopardy.

    There is an emerging need to develop coping strategies for our students facing trauma and adversity. Our practice is calling for the development of a sensitive and supportive writing workshop that provides students with avenues to explore their own topics while allowing them to develop within their writing journey of trust. These values are important to the whole child. As such, I keep these at the forefront of my teaching.

    Silvas wrote about the topic of reading in the wake of violence and trauma and how students can find comfort in books in the May/June issue issue of Literacy TodayILA's bimonthly member magazine.

    Tiana Silvas is an educator, researcher, and advocate. She is currently a fifth-grade public school teacher in New York City and a Heinemann Fellow.

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    Celebrating Open Education

    By Todd Bryant
     | Mar 29, 2018

    Open EducationEarlier this month, educators, technologists, and learners across the world celebrated Open Education Week, a global event that seeks to reduce barriers, increase access, and drive improvements in education through open sharing and digital formats. 

    Organized by the Open Education Consortium, the event showcases open projects, resources, and ideas and encourages the further creation and dissemination of educational resources. While OEW may have passed, advocates can continue to celebrate and advance open education all year long. Here’s the why and how:

    What is open education?

    The open education movement started in response to two critical issues facing educators and students. Most are aware of the rising costs of learning materials; a study published by U.S. Department of Labor found that the cost of textbooks increased by 88% from 2006–2016. Eliminating these costs can significantly reduce financial barriers for our most disadvantaged students.

    Furthermore, open resources have the additional advantage of being published under a Creative Commons license. This means teachers can take portions of open texts or digital materials, add their own material or include them within a lesson, and share with other teachers. One example of this is the Mixxer Language Exchange site hosted by Dickinson College, which connects language learners with native speakers as part of a mutual language exchange. Users can practice via Skype or submit a short writing piece and ask for corrections. The site also provides “lessons” that integrate materials from the Center for Open Educational Resources and Language Learning (COERLL) to support and guide exchanges.

    Next steps

    We believe that education should be open and free, and there are several resources to help teachers interested in collaborative learning. Those just getting started may want to check out  MERLOT, an open educational resource project from the California State University. Anyone can contribute or use materials from the repository, which includes whole courses, open textbooks, small instructional modules, and more. Those looking for open textbooks should browse California’s Cool4Ed library, Minnesota’s Open Textbook Library, OpenStax from Rice University, and aggregators of these resources, such as OER Commons’ hub.

    Finally, institutions and governments are becoming proponents of openness in education. The Cool4Ed library was established by California legislation that called for the establishment of an open educational resources council and a digital open source library. Community colleges have started an OER Degree Initiative to create entire degree programs that exclusively use open textbooks and online resources. The open education movement has also for the first time succeeded in allotting federal funds for the creation of open and free textbooks. Open education still has a long way to go, but it’s slowly becoming a reality.

    Todd Bryant is a language technology specialist at Dickinson College.

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    Literacy at the Barre: A Focus on Differentiation

    By Kathryn Caprino
     | Mar 22, 2018

    Literacy at the BarreBarre is my new go-to fitness class.

    When I signed up for my first class, I thought barre would allow me to escape briefly my world as a literacy teacher educator. And then I had this amazing teacher, who just happened to be a former English teacher. The way differentiation played out so organically in the class was something I wanted my students to see.  

    In this blog post I share what I have learned about differentiation from the excellent barre teachers I have had and ask questions to help pre-K12 literacy teachers consider how we create spaces for and engage in differentiation.

    • Effective teachers create a positive environment that encourages risk-taking. The best studios always make me feel calm when I arrive and energized when I leave. How can we do this in our literacy classrooms? Can we design our classrooms like barre studios, adding soft lighting and incense? Maybe not all of us. How can we create environments that put students at ease so that they feel comfortable enough to take risks?   
    • Effective teachers encourage students to make decisions. At various times during my barre journey, including when I was expecting my first child and when I returned to the studio after having my little boy, I had to make adaptations that were appropriate for my fitness and ability levels. Sometimes these levels changed from class to class and even during class. Instructors’ comments, such as, “You make the choice” and “Whatever you need today” gave me the autonomy to decide what I wanted to work on or not work on in class. For example, during one of my most recent classes, I went up to relevé to challenge myself but also did modified push-ups when I was not sure if my arms could support me. How do we encourage our students to engage in this type of on-the-spot individual choice?
    • Effective teachers do not make students feel ostracized for needing modifications. I used to motivate myself during fitness classes by trying to outdo my classmates. I wanted to lift more weights or to hold my balance just a little longer. This changed when I attended a barre class 37 weeks into my pregnancy. There were things I just could not do. I had to learn—with my instructor's support, of course—the appropriate modifications. At first, I did not like doing arm circles with no weights while the woman next to me was using three-pound weights. But eventually, I learned to be confident in who I was and to not rely on social comparison. I also learned that a group of people can share a similar goal (e.g., to have a good barre workout) but reach that goal in myriad ways. How can we create this reality in our classrooms?
    • Effective teachers encourage students to push themselves. As educators, sometimes we wonder if we should offer students choices. What if they always select what is easy? From personal experience, I know this is not the way it goes. I have heard my barre instructors use phrases such as, “Whatever you are doing is awesome,” but then come back with, “You’re stronger than you think you are.” In these moments, I hold my weights up just a little bit higher or hold on for one more rep. The instructor’s praise does not fall on deaf ears. Like many of the pre-K–12 students with whom I have worked, we appreciate when our teachers notice we have done something well. How can we apply this in our literacy classrooms?
    • Effective teachers help students understand that barre is really hard. There are certain times—during plank especially—when I just want to stop. And sometimes I actually do have to stop (so that my arm does not fall off). But pushing through challenges is an important part of learning to read and write—or learning to teach reading and writing, for that matter. How do we encourage our students to push themselves as readers and writers and to strive to reach new levels?
    • Effective teachers celebrate strengths and accomplishments. One of the reasons I can push myself during barre classes is because my instructors are quick to celebrate my strengths as well as those of my classmates. When someone does something well, she is praised immediately. There are no gradebooks, no formal assessments—just simple praise for a job well done. Someone might have challenged herself to hold a move for just a bit longer. The person beside her might have stopped a few seconds before. Yet, they both did their best. How can we recognize each student’s personal growth and success?

    I just scheduled my next barre class, and I am excited. I am equally excited for the work to come in our literacy classrooms.

    Maybe we should all take some lessons from the barre. As we imagine our classrooms as studios, what are some steps we can take to foster differentiation in our literacy classrooms? I would love to hear your ideas!

    Kathryn Caprino is an assistant professor of pre-K–12 new literacies at Elizabethtown College and a book blogger for teachers and parents at katiereviewsbooks.wordpress.com.

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