This feature story is part of a series focused exclusively on literacy. To view other posts in the series, check out the spotlight page.
At Victor H. Hexter Elementary School in Dallas, TX, “we put all of our money into technology and the classroom libraries,” said Principal Jennifer Jackson, who focuses heavily on literacy throughout the school’s curriculum.
And classroom libraries are robust. Each collection could rival a small media center’s at another school, and topics and reading levels vary greatly. Couches and bean bags and floor pillows provide different environments for students to settle down with a book of their choosing, and desks are configured to promote small group cooperation in each classroom.
“We want students to be able to analyze texts on various levels,” she said. “Not only are they decoding the text to analyze the text, but decoding the author’s craft,” looking at author bias and intent. “By second grade, we really want them to be able to analyze in that way. For me, that’s where critical thinking starts."
Using an approach that is “very scaffolded [and] teacher guided,” Jackson said teachers and staff at Hexter are “exposing [students] to rich text as early as possible.”
Through guided reading and reading aloud in small groups, students are allowed to read books of their choosing that fit with their interests and take charge of their own learning. Students as early as second grade are expected to be able to annotate the text on their own. The keys, she said, are “having them read as much and as widely as possible,” and having a significant amount of time spent with teachers reading to students to help model fluency.
For the younger students, particularly those who may be struggling, they are paired with reading partners from a local high school to provide additional one-on-one instruction, which helps not only the younger students, but the high school-aged mentors as well.
“I think it’s just important to get them reading early and get them reading a lot,” said Jackson. It really feeds into everything else.
Bringing technology into the fold
In Milwaukee, a collaboration between the public school districts and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America has helped to boost reading scores across the area. Working with the local recreation clubs has allowed students to spend more time on the material and extended the resources of an overtaxed district.
“One of the things that teachers see is that we are trying to help them … the teachers have responded to it in such a positive manner, because they realize that we really do care if our kids are making academic gains,” said Melinda Wyatt Jansen, chief academic officer at the Boys and Girls Club of Milwaukee.
Using a program called Edgenuity Odyssey, students are able to select lessons that mirror their interests and “lays down a learning path for each child that is individual to them,” Jansen said.
“Let’s say we have a group of 5th graders in a learning lab. Of those 5th graders, we know that 85% of them are not proficient. ... So in order to address those needs, you have to give them what they need,” said Jansen. The personalized approach through technology “does that without the embarrassment.”
“It give the kids an equitable process for obtaining and being successful with the materials that they need. Everyone looks successful, they’re all on a computer, and they’re all getting different instruction, they’re all getting what they need for learning,” she said.
Embedding the program into the Boys and Girls Club also helps solve some of the issues around access to technology, Jansen said.
“One of the things that has changed in the last few years, I was a school counselor in MPS for 15 years, and I saw over time where most of the students didn’t have technology at home, they didn’t have WiFi access, our parents didn’t know how to navigate the school system, maybe they didn’t have a good experience with school, but they want their kids to” excel, she said. In some cases, parents were illiterate, and in many cases, English was not a first language. A very high percentage of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, an indicator of poverty.
With any technology implementation effort, “Access and equity are the two things that you really have to think about. So helping our parents by taking some of that responsibility, and saying ‘we’re going to work with your child after school while you’re working’...just gives them more opportunities that they might not have otherwise,” said Jansen. “We’re meeting them where they are, and I think that’s the most important thing for any child who’s coming from a background of poverty or lack of opportunity.”
It doesn’t hurt that Jansen and her staff use extrinsic motivators to help push students to want to achieve higher reading scores.
“We’re giving away Chromebooks and LeapPads and we have a big traveling trophy that we send around to all of our clubs when they’re meeting objectives,” she said. “It gives the kids that motivation to just keep going and push through and use grit to really get through a challenge, but the upside of that is they learn and they’re like ‘Ah, this feels good.’”
Technology: A ‘blessing and a curse’
Ronald Clark teaches 11th graders at Gompers Preparatory Academy in San Diego, CA. He says the internet has been a blessing and curse for educating students when it comes to literacy, noting that he has experienced students literally copying and pasting their work from online sources. But even when students are on the up-and-up, he also has to help guide them through and decipher valid and inaccurate sources.
“Our job as educators is to equip our kids with the ability to differentiate between what’s good and bad and what’s right and what’s wrong. And it’s hard to do, because there are so many opportunities for them to get wrong information,” Clark said.
“We have to really be the gatekeepers between the falsehoods of the internet and the blessings of the internet. “
Using the internet and technology is emerging as one of the top trends in literacy instruction, particularly because of its ability to blend environments and allow a more personalized approach to learning.
Clark has used tools such as Kahoot, a site that that allows teachers to create quiz questions online, to help his students prepare for a vocabulary assignment and was pleased with the results. He also said online discussion boards are a way to get students involved who might not be as inclined to participate otherwise.
“It’s a great way of getting your kids who are quiet or who don’t participate as often to participate because now they aren’t talking out loud, they’re talking in the chat room. So it opens them up a little bit,” Clark said.
Formative assessments support learning and inform instruction
Nichole Gangitano has been involved in literary education for over fifteen years, first as a teacher and most recently as executive director of the San Francisco-based Reading Partners organization.
Gangitano says Reading Partners has tried to evaluate student assessments to make sure they are actually heading toward outcomes, not just recording more data.
“We’ve always used both formal and informal assessment tools to ensure that we really understand student growth. Our practice that we use in the organization is to focus on the inquiry and data cycle for students,” she said. “How does data really influence instruction? What are we learning about student growth and then how do we differentiate our curriculum, our resources and our tools to really meet the needs of our students one-on-one?“
From her own personal experience, Gangitano says that trends in the literacy world can come and go quite quickly.
“Trends in literacy kind of run on a pendulum,” she said. “You can go kind of one way for a while, and then you can say ‘this didn’t really work as well, let’s go back to another approach.”
Gangitano says what keeps her going in the field the fact that there is a lot more work to do to support the broad spectrum of needs of students, including English learners.
“We need to continue to move towards a place where students are able to not just read on their own, but can really read to learn.”
In the end, making a connection that sticks and expands appears to be the goal, according to Clark.
“All of it comes back to meeting the kids where they are,” he said.