There’s this widgetsmith on the opening screen of my iPhone that reads, “As long as we’re creating it’s not too late to change our story.”
People’s stories motivate and inspire but they also connect us, help us grow. Throughout my years of being an educator, tucking in beside my fellow professionals, really hearing their journey, it has been transforming. Listening, truly listening, opens my mind and eyes to perspectives, broadening a reality that I was otherwise unaware. Stories also shape and expand our teaching blueprint.
Growing up a small town girl in the northern United States gave me loads of opportunity to get lost in stories. From listening to my grandparents share stories to being mesmerized by great readings at the local library, life opened up for me.
Given my best friend’s father was the town’s librarian, many evenings and weekends were spent lounged across soft rugs with giant pillows traveling to far away places through the pages of a book. As I breezed through the letters on the page that made words into sentences and sentences into adventures that fed my imagination, I was quite aware that the very experiences I found solace within offered great pain and sometimes discomfort for my friend. Needless to say, I did a lot of reading aloud.
My friend loved to hear stories and it was an incredible treat when getting to view stories playing out live on a stage. You see, the process of reading caused her great angst. She is dyslexic. Take it to the classroom and the print on the page represented very different things for the two of us.
What I noticed as a young child was that just because our brains worked differently, a common experience such as reading text had contrasting outcomes for each of us. Someone very dear to me once shared, “Teachers can change the way they teach but dyslexics cannot change the way they learn.” What this evolves into for an instructional design perspective on the diverse needs of learners: the secret strength I found in teaching through a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) lens. In the case of how I learned reading and how my friend learned reading: presentation of materials, or provisions of multiple means of representation as well as action and expression, were key but equally important was engagement.
Let’s take my friend for example. Given learning derived from her mainly through auditory (hearing) or tactile (touching), she learned by hearing or touching and then that information would process through her auditory or tactile memories. When you compare that to my approach to learning being mainly visual (through my eyes), I could comprehend problems, solve them and commit the solution to my visual memory. For me, everything I would ‘read’, both real and symbolic, would link to my perception center. Recognizing a word and processing the word to meaning didn’t require actually hearing the word. For my friend, visual symbols were compromised causing her to compensate by relying on what she heard in her head to associate meaning.
Ready to leverage my childhood story to expand your teacher blueprint to be more inclusive? The following visual provides some examples of building provisions within your teaching and learning to offer students with dyslexia agency in learning. Oh, and don’t overlook this included audio file reading the visual, it’s called inclusive design.
There is a lot to learn from stories. But just like my childhood story, there are often missed opportunities of great significance in the unheard. Stories change our perspective, open our minds and eyes, broaden our reality and shape and expand our teaching blueprint. Learning to truly listen in on the narratives of our profession has proven to be my greatest teacher and perhaps it can do the same for you, too.
Are you looking for an effective way to teach writing for students in kindergarten through graduate school using an easy 5-step process? Look no further! This recorded webinar, How to Teach Writing by Dr. Andy Johnson, can show you how easy writing can be when you follow the 5-step process.
The Kids Read Now 2021 summer reading program was our best reading program to date! We mailed over 690,000 books to over 77,000 students all over the country. That’s pretty awesome, right? Here are the top 10 books requested this year.
#10 – Stone Fox
By: John Reynolds Gardiner
Illustrated by Marcia Sewell
Little Willie and his grandfather live on a farm. Grandfather owes back taxes, and becomes ill. Willie is determined to save the farm. Can Willie and his dog, Searchlight, do it?
#9 – Super Narwhal and Jelly Jolt (A Narwhal and Jelly Book #2)
By: Ben Clanton
Illustrated by Ben Clanton
Narwhal and Jelly want to become superheroes. Find out what their super powers are.
#8 – Flying High
By: Nick Eliopulos
Illustrated by DC
Something strange is happening. The birds are going crazy! Who can help?
#7 – Big Shark, Little Shark
By: Anna Membrino
Illustrated by Tim Budgen
Are you afraid of sharks? No need to be afraid of these two! They will have you laughing! And smiling. And splashing about!
#6 – DK Readers: Amazing Dogs
By: Laura Buller
Meet the many types of dogs that use their super senses, strength, and friendship to help people!
#5 – The Bravest Dog Ever: The True Story of Balto
By: Natalie Standiford
Illustrated by Donald Cook
The children of Nome, Alaska are very sick. They need medicine. Balto, and the sled dog team, are their only hope. But will they get there in time?
#4 – National Geographic Kids: Storms
By: Miriam Busch Goin
Thunder and lightning! Monsoons! Hurricanes! Tornadoes! The facts and photos in this book will blow you away!
#3 – National Geographic Kids: Dive Dolphin
By: Shira Evans
Dolphins live in oceans and rivers around the world. Learn more about these fantastic animals.
#2 – National Geographic Kids: Hop, Bunny!
By: Susan B. Neuman
What do bunnies do all day? Where do they go? What do they see? This book will tell you.
#1 – National Geographic Kids: Go, Cub!
By: Susan B. Neuman
Baby cubs like to cuddle and sleep. What do they learn to do? Read this and find out!
A literacy environment should be cultivated by its curriculum. Learning how to read and develop literacy skills is a process that will benefit a child their entire life. It is the foundation for other subjects, and a manner in which students learn to communicate and learn about their world, near and far.
The process to teach the required skills necessary is complex, and varies depending on the needs of each learner. In my experience, literacy teaching and learning should be a “dream”. A dream in the sense of literacy learning being a priceless gift—and a dream in the sense of having curriculum and teaching practices which address Diversity, Relevance, Engagement, Access, Motivation (D.R.E.A.M.).
D.R.E.A.M. Literacy focuses on practices being implemented into instruction by educators, as well as encourages at-home support and partnerships in using diverse texts, popular culture and technology, and multimodal resources. D.R.E.A.M. represents several pieces necessary to address and provide quality and equitable literacy instruction for all. When planning literacy lessons, assignments, and making curriculum decisions educators and parents should consider the following elements:
Diversity brings about a wide spectrum of issues that educators can be faced with. Willingness to learn, accept, and apply the culture (VERY IMPORTANT: Culture does not just mean ethnicity or race) of students to instructional practices is key. Here are some ways to address diversity in literacy:
Inclusion and representation of various backgrounds (An array of genres, using texts and curriculum by authors of color)
Diversity of resources (types of texts, authentic sources)
Use of books and resources that have a balance of representation in protagonists
Students need to know how to apply the knowledge being taught, and how it applies to them. Students want to feel like they are included and are represented in a learning environment. Students want to know why it’s important, and how it is useful. Students need to know why they are developing literacy skills and where they will encounter them in their future. Making content relevant includes:
Connecting books to the interests of students
Fostering a culture of literacy being all around/environmental print (various types of text on signs, products, television, digital literacies)
Letting students explore non-fiction texts (real-world relevant texts, local and regional texts, etc.)
Exploring cross-curricular connections (Math, Science, History, Fine Arts)
Engagement starts with learning the interests of the students, merged with the academic knowledge needed. Engagement also involves educators utilizing multimodal approaches in their lessons and work with students. Some great multimodal literacy strategies include:
Interviewing or conferencing with students about what they read or write
Acting out texts
Creating visuals or artwork to accompany work
Ease of access to resources and empowering parents/guardians to help build literacy skills at home is necessary for growth. Not all students have the opportunity to have access to books in their home. If books and reading are left out of the home environment, is it really that important for a child and their family? Insight on how to continue a child’s learning outside of the classroom doors is crucial. The following ideas are recommended:
Collect donated books (bookstores, sales, retiring teachers, etc.) and hold regular “book swap” events with students and parents/guardians
Provide regularly updated virtual lists of digital literacy resources (games, apps, videos, activities, etc.)
As far as motivation, our role is to grow our students’ skills and learn what makes them excited to learn—this is very important with students who have so many unique needs that are changing as society changes daily. The main ingredient for motivation in a literacy classroom is choice.
In closing, a literacy environment should thrive on partnership between the internal and external learning communities. Parents and educators are the essential component that provides students the opportunity to see literacy as a tool of advancement and an escape— teamwork makes the “dream” work.
Most students either really love to read and find joy in growing and sharpening their literacy skills, or they feel the opposite. Their experience depends on two things- the instructional decisions made and the environment in which they learn. Educators are often told to create a “literacy rich” or “print rich” classroom setting, but what does that really mean? R.I.C.H. should address four different aspects: Relevancy, Inclusiveness, Creativity, and Hands-On approaches.
Students, younger and older are often disconnected from the literacy skills and expectations that are required in standards-based instruction and assessment. This is because they don’t see the “bigger picture” of learning the skills and strategies that are often taught in isolation. The foundational stages of literacy involve building word sense, concepts of print, and lots of repetition and practice—but educators shouldn’t stop there. The students who often struggle lack the connectedness and relevancy of the materials shared. To gain sense of relevancy and what resonates with students, conversations, bookstack cultivation, and surveys should take place.
Relevancy and inclusiveness go hand in hand. Whether planning the instruction or the “look” of a space, students need to see themselves in the materials presented. Not only do students need to see themselves, but they need to see others who are not like them as well.
When thinking about inclusivity and literacy, one might think of diversity, and the representation of various racial and ethnic backgrounds and perspectives. This is crucial, but just a starting point. Representation can be present in literacy settings, and students still not understand the importance or value of a concept or idea. Therefore, it is important to know that in addition to representation, students need to be exposed to an environment that allows them to feel safe (with learning new skills and contributing), and take risks (with new strategies, with new resources), and be inclusive of families (inside and outside of the classroom).
Literacy learning is often repetitive and can be boring for some. The more creativity that is sparked within lessons—the better. Creative ideas for literacy learning involve using traditional skills and practical, everyday materials and happenings to get students to understand.
Example: Connecting technological and popular culture terms with academic literacy terms
We want students to read, but don’t give them enough opportunity to write (or see the correlation between the two). We ask students about other writers and authors’ ideas, but don’t challenge them to see themselves as authors. Writing centers, blogging opportunities, and spaces where students can critique and explore all facets of literacy (listening, speaking, reading, writing) is a climate that would provide hands-on learning in a “R.I.C.H.” classroom.
The literacy environment has evolved, just as education has changed. Teachers often create themes at the beginning of a school year, and it is to get students excited about being in their class. The literacy environment needs a R.I.C.H. environment that is tailored to the needs of the students who are being served, and the learning community as a whole.
When was the last time you wrote or received a handwritten letter? For thousands of years, handwritten letters have played a critical part in our lives. In this age of digital communication, handwritten letters are becoming a lost art. Emails and text messages can be sent instantly; however, the impact of a good old-fashioned handwritten letter can bring a lifetime of benefits and memories.
Encouraging children to write and read letters will improve their literacy and communication skills, as well as their social and emotional development. Writing can reduce anxiety and stress, as well as decrease depression. It’s especially important during this time of virtual learning and social distancing to provide opportunities for handwritten letters. Let’s explore the academic and mental benefits of being PenPals!
Handwritten letters improve writing skills. We know that reading and writing go hand in hand… but did you know that writing by hand is just as important as reading? By definition, literacy is one’s ability to read and write. Research confirms that integrating reading and writing automatizes those skills. From kindergarten standards of using a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose informative/explanatory texts to twelve grade standards of producing clear and coherent writing, all learners must be able to write to communicate ideas.
Handwritten letters improve reading skills. Research confirms that writing by hand activates reading circuits in the brain that promote literacy. Additionally, research by McGinley and Tierney in 1989 confirmed that integrating reading and writing instruction leads to a higher level of thinking than when either process is taught alone. Providing opportunities to read a letter from a teacher or loved one will lead to improved reading achievement, better writing performance, and increased awareness of self, others, and the community.
Handwritten letters improve communication skills. It’s an old saying, but it’s true: Practice makes perfect. By habit, we mimic the voices around us – which is sometimes not the best grammar. Our speech is a direct reflection of our writing. Writing forces thought and articulation of main ideas while exploring main feelings. Letter writing provides an opportunity to improve vocabulary, knowledge, and sentence structure; and better writing creates a better speaker. What better way to practice and improve communication skills through writing than writing to someone you trust?
Handwritten letters improve self-awareness. Mental health and well-being are the core of who you are. Writing helps to clear the mind, recover memories and organization of thought, and refine ideas. Research confirms that a person can better understand his/her feelings more clearly when it’s written. Writing is a creative way to improve mental recall and well-being.
Handwritten letters improve relationships. In times like these, opportunities to connect with teachers and loved ones are important. Handwritten letters confirm the importance of relationships between educators and families with children. Daily writing opportunities provide deep connections while addressing reading, writing, and social development skills. Addressing the whole child is vital.
Use a dated notebook, versus loose paper, to keep track of how the conversation evolves. This notebook can serve as a journal, mental wellness check-in, calendar, planner, and keepsake for life (or not).
Do not edit children’s’ writings in the journal; however, provide additional opportunities to teach correct sentence structure, etc.
Always begin and end with something positive.
So go ahead, grab a pen and notebook, and begin creating memories while positively impacting literacy, communication, social, and emotional development, simultaneously.
It’s all about the hook. Find what is inspiring to the youth and you find the hook into reading. Take baby steps even if needed. Not interested in reading a book? Start with a graphic novel. Even the old school Baby Sitters Club books are coming back with a vengeance in graphic novel form! Boys! Who doesn’t love adventures about a dog!? Try Dog Man! The goal isn’t to read MacBeth in first grade. The goal is to simply love reading.
Why? Well, let’s start with imagination. We tend to quickly lose the essence of imagination as we grow older. Those dreams you used to have as a kid, gone. Now you dream you are at work, even when you aren’t at work!
Second, you gather information. Yes, you in fact can learn from reading. Try the Who was/Who is/Where is collection. Going out of town? Find out if an inventor came from the area you are traveling. Going to the Grand Canyon? Yes, there is a great Where is the Grand Canyon book full of facts geared towards kids, but in fact, adults can learn a great deal too!
Third, reading is an escape from the real world. I don’t know about you, but TV shows just aren’t the same these days. However, Wild Kratts is pretty phenomenal. Books can take us on some pretty outstanding adventures.
What’s next for you? Maybe take your book to the park, sit on a swinging bench and enjoy nature at its finest. Have a hammock? What better way to spend the afternoon far off in your imagination swaying away in your backyard.
Try it sometime. Your kids might even want to join in on the fun when they notice your joy!
August and September traditionally serve as the months for Meet the Teacher nights. Families file into school buildings to check out classrooms, admire bulletin boards, and inquire about policies and procedures. I am suggesting that parents make a detour on their way to classrooms this school year. Visit the school library. Yes, it’s true. School libraries often don’t receive many visitors on Meet the Teacher nights, and they need our support more than ever in 2021. Here are three ways that we can show our appreciation for school libraries and school librarians this upcoming school year.
Many school libraries operate with a certified professional and without a dedicated assistant or with an assistant and without a certified professional. Either way, those books don’t shelve themselves! An indicator of a healthy, happy library is high circulation numbers. Checking in books and getting them back on shelves can feel like an endless task, and most libraries welcome volunteers to assist with this work. Volunteering to shelve books is a great opportunity to see what kids are reading, interact with young readers, and unplug for an hour or two.
Since school libraries don’t have supply lists, they often run low on tissues, table wipes, and pencils. Ask what they need. Maybe the librarian organizes Birthday Books or Friends of the Library fundraising programs. With a cash donation, kids can select a book to insert a bookplate with their name. As a former school librarian, I can verify the joy kids experience when opening the inside front cover of a book to spy a friend’s name. It’s also likely that at some point your kids’ school will host a book fair. Some libraries rely entirely on book fair profits to acquire new materials. Debating whether to add the light-up pen or an eraser shaped like a smartphone to your stack? Go for it! Your shopping very likely helps fund new books for the library.
Despite the compelling evidence pointing to the correlation between strong school library programs and student achievement, we still see school library budgets and school librarian positions being cut nationwide. Is this happening in your community? Write an email or a letter to the School Board and Superintendent voicing your concerns. They need to hear from families about the positive outcomes associated with thriving school libraries. A school library can and should be the heart of the school. That’s not possible without the support of all stakeholders, including families.
Many parents won’t be able to volunteer time or donate resources, and that’s fine. Next time you’re in the building for a Meet the Teacher Night or another event, pop in the library. Meet the school librarian. A warm hello that says “I see you” is often more than enough.
Something that I’ve learned in my time as an educator is the power in providing students with choice. Choice to explore their learning, choice to figure things out on their own, choice to learn new things in a variety of ways. Literacy skills are the foundation of learning, and something that educators should get excited about, because there are so many ways to create and mold literacy instruction in the classroom.
The formative years for a child, let’s say ages 2-6, are critical for literacy development. Reading, rhyming, talking and singing are all ways in which children interact with both written and spoken language. When they are provided with experiences in literacy during those formative years, they are developing the foundation for their relationship with reading and writing that will continue throughout their lives. Healthy development of the brain requires children to have these experiences.
So, how do we give children in the classroom these rich, meaningful experiences that will shape their relationship with literacy?
Research and studies have shown time and time again that children learn best through exploration and problem solving, opportunities to work things out in a way that makes sense to them. So, what does this look like and how can educators incorporate choice into their literacy programs? One way to do this is designing structured, engaging centers that provide students with multimodal learning opportunities. While students may have specific “work with teacher” time, other time can be spent exploring other centers. One center could focus on consonants, having students use a stamp, sticker or other tool to indicate which consonant letter a picture starts with. Another center might have students create a pretend grocery list and find items that start with certain letters. A third center might be a letter-sounds listening game, where students listen to a word, and decide which sound they hear at the beginning of the word. Another center might be working with syllable cards, where the students look at a picture (ex. dog, banana, etc.) and match it to the number of dots – or syllables – on a card (ex. 1 dot for dog, 3 dots for banana). A final center could be a simple picture rhyming match.
That’s 5 interactive, differentiated center ideas! The point? Choice. Allow students to choose which center interests them. Create structured, timed rounds for students to explore each center, before going to a new center. Giving students the power of choice and the opportunity to explore a variety of ways to learn a concept is key to building a child’s relationship with literacy and promoting lifelong learning.
How do you get kids excited about books? Over my 25 years of teaching, I’ve discovered many ways to spark excitement. Here are 10 to get you started:
Start an After-School Book Club
Invite a guest reader from the community to kick off the meetings. After the read-aloud, the kids spread out to read independently or with a friend. You can also invite a high school sport team or club to buddy read with the kids.
Be a “Book Fairy”
Use your points from Scholastic book clubs or grants to gift books to kids. Try to give every student a book by the end of the year. Kids love the surprise and owning their own book is more special than borrowing, so they treasure it.
Invite Guest Leaders as Readers
Leaders in schools and the community love to be a part of this and your students will be inspired to see what some of their role models read. Invite the football coach, the mayor, chief of police, a local veterinarian, and others to share a favorite book.
Encourage Kid-Created Contagious Book Reviews
When a student reads a book they love, have them create a book review to share with the class. You can do these live, or have kids create a video. You can even take the videos, create a QR code for them, and adhere the QR code inside the cover of the books!
Hold a Reading Marathon
The day of the “marathon,” have kids wear running gear, create paper running bibs, allow healthy snacks and water bottles, and read all day! Have kids read independently, in pairs, Zoom in guest readers and authors, and YOU should read aloud to them too.
Kick off the Year with a Book Tasting Event
Use tablecloths and place settings and serve a pile of books on plates. Provide wish lists for your students to jot down the books they are interested in reading that year. This is a great way to get kids familiar with your classroom library and excited about what they get to read! (Use their lists to get ideas for book fairy visits too!)
Host Book-Bartering Days
Kids bring in a book that they’re willing to part with in exchange for another book from someone in the classroom. Students give a 30 second pitch on what they loved about the book they’re offering. Arrange the books on tables and allow students to make their selections.
Get Your Own Little Free Library
As a class, write a grant for a Little Free Library for your school. Your class will love this service project and visit it often! To fill the library, send home a request for gently used books as a donation to the Little Free Library. You will be surprised at how many books come in!
Host Chat and Chews
Choose a book you have multiple copies of. You can make book marks with the dates for each meeting and what chapters need to be read each time. On assigned dates, enjoy your lunch and discuss the chapters of the book together!
Have an Author Visit!
I may be biased, since I’m a children’s book author who LOVES to do author visits, but I truly believe in their power. Kids love to meet authors in person and have a renewed passion for reading and writing afterward. From hearing the story behind the stories, or special secrets the author shares, it is a memorable experience.
When kids see you make reading a priority and a treat to be enjoyed, they are on their way to becoming life-long readers.