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    • The Engaging Classroom

    Keys to a Culture of Literacy: Equity, Access, Relevance, and Joyful Interaction

    By Julie Scullen
     | Sep 12, 2019

    Keys_to_culture_680wEducators are often asked, “How do we build a strong culture of literacy?” Within a secondary setting, this question is particularly complicated to answer. Middle and high school students are bombarded daily with a myriad of entertainment options, literally right in the palm of their hand. Literacy leaders and teachers often face disinterested, distracted, and dormant readers.

    By the time students get to secondary school, the focus has shifted. Our culture is vastly and necessarily different from that of elementary schools, and we must build a culture of literacy differently—with an eye toward adult literacy demands. We know this: Secondary school administrators rarely spend hours on a roof in the cold waving to gleeful high school students or reluctantly kiss a pig because their middle-level students reach a reading goal.

    A lasting culture of literacy isn’t created with contests and rewards and it isn’t measured in test scores. It’s about equity, access, relevance, and joyful interaction. It’s about an enthusiasm and a commitment by all staff—not just the English language arts (ELA) teachers—to ensure that all students have a text in their hands they are excited to read. Staff must embrace and value student choice as well as believe in the power of reading beyond the traditional, one-size-fits-all definition.

    A culture of literacy means students see themselves as readers, which means students must do the following:

    See themselves in texts

    Culturally relevant and inclusive texts are essential—or nothing else matters. Students need to see themselves, and their own culture, reflected in the texts they are assigned across the curriculum. Time and space must be dedicated to students thinking of themselves as readers and writers of social studies, mathematics, science, health, and world languages. Students should have frequent opportunities to experience other perspectives, and they should be encouraged to build bridges between worlds. They should have a say in what has relevance in their classrooms.

    See relevance and authenticity

    When embracing and celebrating a culture of literacy, students read and write these relevant texts for authentic reasons. Students witness literacy as necessary and valuable in the lives of adults. Staff must embrace and value student choice as well as believe in the transformative power of reading.

    In a school with a strong commitment to literacy, teachers rarely spend time telling students the key points in a text through a lecture. Instead, students read the text themselves, perhaps multiple times. Excerpts of crucial passages are analyzed and discussed across every discipline, and teachers use strategies and effective practices appropriate for their content. When a culture of literacy within a school is strong, students’ responses to text are deep and thoughtful. Their answers aren’t forced, and students don’t furtively look around for possible answers from which to choose. Teachers in every classroom ensure students engage meaningfully with text every day.

    See joy in literacy

    When a school system is committed to literacy, it is clear as early as within the hiring process. Potential staff members are asked, “What are you reading?” and “What would you recommend to our students?” Everyone is a reader. Administrators, custodians, cooks, the school nurse—they are all able to talk about and celebrate something they read lately. Staff members model what active literacy looks like in the adult world, from mundane to practical to joyous escape. Teachers themselves read with the hope of connecting a book to a student. Students need to see all staff members as readers, not just the ELA teachers. A real culture of literacy requires a commitment by a group of passionate people whose reach extends far beyond the library.

    How do you know if your building has a culture of literacy? If you have to ask, there’s work to be done—but there’s a plethora of personal and professional resources to help you get there.

    Julie Scullen, an ILA member since 1990, 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.

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

    Julie Scullen, Cornelius Minor, Donalyn Miller, Carol Jago, Julia Torres, Minjung Pai, and Terry McHugh will lead one of the 10 institute sessions on Institute Day at ILA 2019 on Thursday, Oct. 10: Spark a Culture of Literacy: Build Positive Adolescent Reading Identities Through Relevance, Equity and Access. For more information, visit
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    Elevating Engagement: Bringing Literacy Alive With Robotics

    By Lauren Eutsler
     | Aug 28, 2019

    kid-using-ipadIn today’s K–12 classrooms, students are learning to code using a variety of apps, software, and technologies. My 4-year-old daughter even has her own robot, which she codes by selecting emojis on the Coji app to control the robot’s movement. As a teacher educator, I believe it is my responsibility to provide future educators with hands-on technology and literacy experiences to prepare them to teach tomorrow’s students.

    Because of this stance, I designed and implemented an activity that integrates robotics into literature circles. My fourth graders would have been overjoyed to complete this activity, and my current students (future educators) agree that this activity should be included in their future classrooms.

    Capturing interest begins with book choice

    For valid pedagogical reasons, we often waver between forming heterogeneous or homogeneous student groups in the classroom. I implement literature circles with the goal of creating enjoyable reading experiences. One way I do this is by allowing students to choose their own books, within mature and sensible guidelines (e.g., recommended reading and maturity levels).

    My students express gratitude for this strategy because “by being able to choose our own book, we were more interested and more excited to participate in this project.” Most confess this is the only time in their college career when they are encouraged to read a book of their choice. By allowing my students to choose their own reading material, my hope is that they will model a positive attitude toward reading for their future students.

    A classroom example

    After my students spend about three weeks reading and discussing their literature circle books, the excitement builds as they construct a 3-D diorama to represent their favorite scene from the book. During construction, students carefully consider which parts they want to make move or illuminate. We use everyday materials such as cardboard, paper, paint, scissors, tape, markers, and string.

    Once the dioramas are complete, the next step is to prepare your classroom to teach coding. For the initial setup, I recommend getting support from your librarian or technology specialist. You will need a laptop, power cord, and robotics kit. We used Hummingbird Robotics because the kits are affordable and the compatible coding software is free and user friendly.

    With the software installed, you are ready to teach students how to code. An important step is to distribute the robotics kits so you can pause and answer students’ questions while allowing them to explore the technology. There are many tutorials available, but I recommend identifying one that aligns to your compatible robotics kit. For this reason, I guide my students with the Hummingbird Robotics and Scratch 2.0 tutorial, available here. During this lesson, allow your students to explore how they can use the laptop to drag, drop, and create a coding sequence. Options include the ability to guide directional movement (e.g., turn 360 degrees), adjust speed, play audio features (e.g., a cat’s meow), and activate LED lights of varying brightness.

    Now that students have learned the basics of coding, they are ready to connect the robotics kit to their dioramas. Refer to the video tutorial to remind students how to connect their laptops to their bit controller (i.e., circuit board) and have students attach the servos and/or LED lights to their dioramas. This reminder will help students bring their dioramas to life as they connect the motors and LED lights to their 3-D model according to the code they generated.

    Once connected, students might see a hand waving 90 degrees on repeat, a character spinning in a circle, or an object moving back and forth. You will know the exact moment the dioramas come to life when you hear students shouting in awe at their designs (refer to our robotics diorama example videos and images).  

    Robotics diorama examples

    Following are the dioramas students created:

    Envisioning literacy and robotics in your classroom

    Although nearly all my students had no prior experience coding with robotics, they admit this process “is not too complex” and “gives students the opportunity to explore different career fields as well as encourages hands-on learning.”

    After students have some experience coding with robotics, you might consider how this technology can advance other aspects of literacy within your classroom. You can browse available lesson plans at here. Additional lesson ideas might include researching countries and creating related dioramas or having students create digital stories using scratch coding. The most exciting aspect about using robotics within literacy is the ability for students to expand their imagination—how will your students use coding and robotics to bring literacy alive?

    Lauren Eutsler, an ILA member since 2010, was an elementary teacher in Arizona and Florida for six years before her current role as an assistant professor of literacy and technology in the department of teacher education and administration at the University of North Texas.

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    What Do Mechanics, Detectives, and Activists Have in Common? Digital Safety!

    By Aimee Morewood and Elizabeth Huff
     | Jul 24, 2019

    Last fall, Liz, a preservice teacher, approached me about possibly working together to complete some of the required contract hours at her professional development school (PDS). Contract hours consisted of developing a unique plan of learning opportunities that also benefited the PDS where she spent three consecutive years.

    Of course, when she came and asked me to be a part of this project I was more than happy to oblige—now we just needed to figure out the project! 

    After a few conversations we started to consider how ILA’s
    Standards for the Preparation of Literacy Professionals 2017, specifically Standards 2 and 5—Curriculum and Instruction and Learners and the Literacy Environment, respectively—would impact our work. This focus stemmed from past conversations between us about effective elementary literacy practices. For Liz to better understand the standards, she first reviewed the standards for pre-K and primary-level classroom teachers. Then, she explored this work at her PDS to learn how practicing teachers were enacting these standards.

    Liz spoke with individual teachers and grade-level teams to gain a better sense of what these two standards looked like in the classrooms of a rural elementary school. While she found a variety of examples for the two standards, Standard 5 kept rising to the top of the conversations. More specifically, Liz found herself talking about and looking for evidence of Component 3: “Candidates incorporate safe, appropriate, and effective ways to use digital technologies in literacy and language learning experiences.”

    As Liz spoke with teachers about the digital technologies and the literacy learning practices they used in their schools, teachers began to discuss the need for incorporating basic technology skills into their daily instruction. For example, the media specialist discussed how she noticed that students were unaware of simple computer skills, such as restarting a computer to update the applications. She discussed with Liz how she now has students practice turning their computers off at the end of each class so that they get into the habit of doing this with the technology they use independently. There are many technological maintenance methods that we do on a normal basis and may spend little time thinking about, therefore, we may forget to explicitly direct students on how to complete these tasks. In fact, we might be missing out on teaching some of the most basic technology information because we make assumptions that students know what to do and why.

    As Liz thought more about basic digital skills, she considered what else might be assumed by teachers about students’ understanding of safe digital literacy practices. She recognized that students need opportunities to engage with digital tools to better understand how these tools function. After speaking with practicing teachers and thinking through these assumptions, Liz articulated three ways to include safe digital practices in elementary classrooms and schools.

    • Computer mechanics: This activity allows early-grade students to sleuth through basic tools and functions of a computer. Students are given the opportunity to learn about the tools of a computer and how to properly maintain technology through a scavenger hunt approach. For example, they can be asked to copy, cut, and paste part of a document as part of the technology scavenger hunt.
    • Cyber detectives: As we all know, we must move students beyond the “Sign here for safety” contract/ideas of cyber safety and toward a deeper understanding of safe digital practices. Students in the upper elementary grades can participate in Cybersmart Detectives, a teacher-led interactive class activity that reinforces messages about personal safety and protective measures for dealing with strangers online.
    • Real-world activists: Teachers can use real-world scenarios that involve different types of technology and social media to discuss online safety. Student debates can be structured to position students to take on and defend different perspectives within these real situations so that they can then better understand the variables at play and how to avoid undesirable situations online. Students can then organize a schoolwide event to advocate for safe digital practices across the school community.

    As you can see, our intention is to provide ways to teach students about safe digital practices from early elementary school through high school. These suggestions align well with Standard 5, Component 3. Of course, these skills and activities should be implemented using a developmentally appropriate lens to ensure relevance and understanding. This will support student learning and will help to keep our students safe as they engage with different technology and platforms both in and out of school.

    Aimee Morewood is an associate professor at West Virginia University. She is the outreach coordinator for the fully online Master of Arts Literacy Education/Reading Specialist Certification program. 

    Liz Huff is a recent graduate of West Virginia University's Five-Year Teacher Education program. She is currently a third-grade teacher in Virginia. 

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    Pay It Back

    By Pamela J. Farris
     | Jun 18, 2019
    LT366_reflections_ldReading and writing are critical, and making opportunities for children to read and write has been a calling throughout my life. I came from an impoverished community. Through reading and writing, I was able to gain scholarships and loans to attend college. Since then, I’ve always made it a point to pay it back. From donating to the Little Free Library at Lot 12 of a trailer park in rural Illinois to working with inner-city students on writing skills, I’ve seen the advances children make once provided opportunities to engage in literacy. Along the way, I’ve seen various methods of making literacy happen for students.

    “Pay it forward” is a popular slogan. I believe providing opportunities for our future leaders is also critical. After retiring from Northern Illinois University as a distinguished teaching professor of literacy education, a fund was set up in my honor that provides $500 scholarships to student teachers to purchase children’s literature to build a teaching library for instructional purposes.

    “Pay it back so kids can move forward” is my personal motto. Each year, I donate a $500 Pamela J. Farris Rural Classroom Library to a teacher who is a member of the Illinois Reading Council and who teaches in a community of 8,000 or fewer. Some years, I’ve donated five such libraries as the need is great. Often there are no public libraries in the community. Funding for rural schools is minimal as there is little or no industry and often high levels of poverty.

    This summer, my husband, Richard Fluck, a retired school superintendent, and I decided it was time to take it further. We donated $15,000 worth of new books, featuring noted authors and illustrators across a variety of genres, to Central and Fillmore elementary schools in Indiana, which is where I began my teaching career. The books are in bins that move each quarter from classroom to classroom to enhance each teacher’s personal library. Research demonstrates that students read more when they have ready access to books

    The kids and their teachers were excited when, on a hot August day, I drove up in a pickup truck filled with new children’s and young adult books. The students beamed as they carried books into their school. They chattered about the authors they already knew and titles they selected to read. That made it all worthwhile.

    These are difficult times for schools. I believe we have an obligation as teachers to “pay it back so kids can move forward.” Whether it is sponsoring a child to get a new book each month, donating for preservice education scholarships, helping the schools we’ve taught in develop classroom libraries, volunteering in a school library that just lost its librarian because of budget cuts, or helping with other literacy projects, our donations make an important difference in the lives of teachers and students.

    Pamela J. Farris, an ILA member since 1975, is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus with the Department of Literacy and Elementary Education at Northern Illinois University. She is a former team leader for the ILA Teachers’ Choices and Children’s Choices reading list projects.

    This article originally appeared in the May/June issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.
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    A Fresh Take on Book Clubs Promotes Early Literacy Development

    By Maria Dismondy
     | Jun 13, 2019

    fresh-take-book-clubsDid you know when parents and caregivers are involved in their children’s reading habits, the children are more likely to be frequent readers later in life? When I found this out, a light bulb went off and the Family Book Study was born. I like to think of it as a movement that bridges literacy and family togetherness. Thinking back to my own childhood, I remember reading picture books with my grandma and chapter books with my sister. Through these experiences, I saw firsthand how books can enhance family time.

    To get this educational family reading event off the ground, I first reached out to my daughter’s school and got the staff on board. It took shape as an evening of togetherness that meets twice a year at the school.

    The books for each grade level are chosen and shared with the school families. We don’t limit this to parents and children, either. We have a diverse culture of families and do not want to exclude anyone.

    As the coordinator of this event, I search online lists of books that received positive reviews by families and educators on Goodreads, Amazon and Common Sense Media. I provide three to four titles to the school administrator who then asks the school staff to vote on which book will be assigned to each grade-level group. Having the teachers involved makes a difference as many of them offer to facilitate a discussion group the night of the event.

    Participants are then encouraged to read to, with, or alongside their children for the Family Book Study. We ensure families know how to get their hands on the chosen titles, many of which are free.

    On the evening of the event, the media center at my daughter’s school is buzzing with families excitedly discussing their books. As an author and literacy advocate, it doesn’t get much better than this.

    We start the evening with a book-themed icebreaker and then we’re off and running. To help the evening run smoothly, I provide discussion questions for each title and choose one adult facilitator for each group to help lead the discussions. Occasionally, I’ll even prep an activity for the younger children. For example, after reading the book, The Wonky Donkey by Craig Smith and Katz Cowley (Scholastic), students and family members worked together to create silly donkey puppets using markers and paper lunch bags. They were encouraged to recite the repetitive phrase from the book using their homemade puppet. Next, they were asked to come up with their own rhymes to be recited by their donkey puppet.

    The benefits of Family Book Study go beyond literacy development. It has helped strengthen family bonds and allowed parents to be intentional about reading quality literature with their children at home. One particular comment stands out after hosting several of these book nights. A grandmother told me how much she looks forward to this special night with her grandson. They read the book independently, then go out to dinner to discuss the book before the school event. We have had several of our English language learner families attend the event, which has provided them with a platform to make connections and build community.

    Ready to start your own Family Book Study? Download your how-to guide here

    Happy reading!

    Maria Dismondy is a former educator with over a decade of classroom experience. She graduated from Michigan State University with a BS and MA in education and child development. For the past 10 years, Maria has been writing children’s picture books, speaking at schools across the United States, and raising her own three little readers. She is passionate about literacy, character education, and promoting positive family engagement. Find out more at or

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